Thursday, December 22, 2016

Journeys to the Himalayas - On the way to Leh, Ladakh edition

I've always been a hill climber. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted rugged wildernesses and the quiet of the nether lands that mountains often are. Not everyone wants to trudge miles just to enjoy the quiet, the clean air and the stars. Hills are for people who can live with not asking "Where's the toilet?" when looking rocks in the eye. My incredible partner-in-crime, who'd rather enjoy a beer at a beach shack instead, has faithfully tagged along on these pursuits of nowhere. Sometimes I think it's just to see me exult. 

So every year, we take a trek to the Himalayas. We've discovered glaciers, emptiness, wealth, sand, snow, clear blue, green and brown water, in the Himalayas. We've realized how small the world is and  that each piece, every sliver of the world lives in the belief that it is unique unto itself. 

This year, soon after the momentous occasion that was our wedding, we set off to the Himalayas. This time, we were bound for Ladakh, the part of India that is synonymous with yaks, pashmina goats, smiling lamas with their crinkled faces and now Rancho (aka Phunsuk Wangdu). This is the story of how we discovered how much more Ladakh is. 

First, some context: Leh is the capital city of Ladakh. There are three ways to get to Leh - fly from Srinagar or Delhi; drive from Srinagar to Leh via Kargil; or drive from Manali to Leh. The flights from Srinagar/Delhi to Leh operate on set days every week. These are recommended if you're really pressed for time or long journeys aren't your thing. The drives offer unparalleled views and time to acclimate to the high altitude. For various reasons, we chose the Srinagar-Leh drive. 

We arrived in Srinagar the day before we were to depart for Leh. Allow yourself plenty of rest and hydration before you commence the drive for Leh. It's a long drive and you will appreciate being  refreshed and awake for it. Also, this affords you the luxury of enjoying the famous Kashmiri kahwa tea with some nadru (lotus stem) chips, and some rich Kashmiri cuisine. Prepare to indulge your senses in the rich aromas and layered flavours that Kashmiri food introduces your palate to. Order like a local and ask to sample some rista, gushtaba, yakhni, tabak manz, if you enjoy non-vegetarian food. For vegetarians, try the rajma, suk wangan, dum aloo, nadr yakhan, and saag. Kashmiri food is rich and can make you feel like you ate too much. Just the start you need to a memorable vacation, the extreme cold and long hikes you can expect to take over the next few days! As far as accommodation is concerned, the Taj Vivanta Srinagar and the Lalit offer luxury accommodations. The Lalit is a heritage property with all the trappings of royalty and kashmiriyat one can expect. However, we chose the Almond Villa, an elegant bed and breakfast nestled in a little tucked away part of the valley on the banks of the Dal lake. Almond Villa is managed and run, as we found retrospectively, by Dr Karan Singh's daughter, Jyoti. She's a keen art aficionado, and clearly in love with her homeland. A sentiment that's easy to understand. Almond Villa is a haven in the midst of what's clearly a city recouping from the scars of militancy. At Almond Villa, you forget you're in a city. You're surrounded by tall trees, nurtured by years of Himalayan winds and rain, flowers of all hues and shades, a woody aroma, and hand-cured wooden walls. The house itself has history and that rare patina that comes with having seen things you cannot imagine. In the twilight, you can hear the shikara men sing songs in the distance, as they huddle close to a meagre fire. It's an easy way to be transported to a different age. As I sat on the lawn outside, perched next to flowers in bloom, breathing in the crisp evening summer air, I knew I must've done something good to be here in this place. To live that moment.

The next morning, we had an early start. The Srinagar-Leh route is along the National Highway 1D (NH 1D) An important tip for the drive to Leh, is to find a Ladakhi driver, with experience of driving along that route. They have a code amongst themselves and navigating the treacherous roads is an acquired talent. Plan for an early morning start, latest by 8am. The route from Srinagar to Leh goes via Sonamarg-Baltal-Zoji La(Zero Point)-Dras-Kargil-Lamayuru-Alchi-Nimmoo-Leh. 

Sonamarg is the first pitstop along the route. It's a bizarre place, breathtaking but clearly frozen in 1980. The JKTDC is constructing a guest house there. They have the only decent amenities in that part of the world, effectively your last chance to relieve yourself in somewhat modern surroundings. The tap water is fresh but FREEZING. Don't be surprised if you have to order a cup of tea after. In fact, that might be a part of the business model. The aloo parathas are great and highly recommended at the JKTDC restaurant. Don't buy anything in Sonamarg. The small shops there are filled with confidence tricksters and overcharging tourists is common. 

Shortly after Sonamarg, you'll come upon the gorgeous Zoji La (Zoji Pass). If you have never been to a high-altitude pass, this will take your breath away. The snow piled high on the sides of the road is so much taller than you are. Fresh snow is almost constantly coming down. Take your time to pull over and feel the soft flakes on your face. Plod around like a child in the soft piles of snow around you. This snow is safe as it is fresh and not an icy week-old deposit that you could fall and hurt yourself on. If you'd like to go sledding, you can try the 20-minute well-orchestrated rides offered there. There's also Maggi and very sweet tea available in little shacks by the side of the road. All of these are overpriced. Not being ones for the touristy stuff, we pulled over past Zero Point and made snow angels at 11,575ft. The sights and sounds of being in the lap of nature at the mercy of its raw power is enough to make the hardest hearts submit. Zoji La was the sight of a daring battle during the Indo-Pak war of 1947. The war led Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, to sign the Treaty of Accession to India, in return for military assistance. This led me to reflect on the fact that I don't need a visa to see these incredible places and I owe it to the Indian Army. The fact that my husband is an Indian citizen (of Kashmiri origin), is because of the fact that the Indian Army is giving up their own to safeguard our nation. 

No place makes this more apparent than the Kargil War Memorial, shortly after Dras. The memorial has montages dedicated to the major battles and heroes of the Kargil War. Just behind the Amar Jyoti monument is a wall filled with the names of officers and jawans, who gave their life to the cause of defending the nation during the Kargil war. This wall is juxtaposed against two magnificent hills with the words TOLOLING and VIJAY DIWAS engraved into them. Even if you're not a realist who admires and looks up to the reality of the life of a soldier, this place will ensure you leave with a renewed sense of what it's like to be a soldier here, in this inhospitable environ. Please purchase a little souvenir from the store at the Memorial. The proceeds go towards the welfare of soldiers and their family. Please leave your skepticism outside the store. There are Indian Army regulars posted here. Take a look at their weathered faces and look into their eyes, that haven't met the eyes of their loved ones for months. When you leave, perhaps you'll take with you a sense of context and feeling of national duty, not rights. 

Up next on the route is Kargil. This is the closest you'll be to the Pakistan border. Kargil is a one-horse town. Given its sensitive location, you'll sense the frustration among people of having their lives disrupted by war-mongering and politics. The simple mountain people have for decades endured the mishaps of geography that seem to happen to them. They have evacuated their homes multiple times, taking only bare necessities with them. And yet, they live with resilience. You'll have an overnight stop in Kargil. There are no quality hotels in Kargil. The decent options are Zoji La Residency and Jan Palace hotels. They are clean and warm, not luxurious. Take a moment to walk on the streets of Kargil and experience the full extent of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). I'm not debating the merits or demerits of the AFSPA but living with the equivalent of martial law is a stifling experience. Kargil has a well-known art museum, Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts. Kargil was an important trading post on the 19th century Silk Route and is a veritable melting pot of treasures from across Central Asia, Baltistan (the original district it belongs to), Ladakh and Tibet. Baltistan was partitioned by the Line of Control that came into existence at the end of the 1947 Indo-Pak War because of the Simla Agreement. The Kargil-Skardu road, an important road connecting important cities in the then Baltistan district of Ladakh was closed after Skardu fell on the Pakistani side of the LoC and Kargil on the Indian side. In this part of the world, it's just another story of a people with fractured families, broken lives, and endless curfews. The thing that's poignantly missing is hope.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Age

I know you. 
We've met before. 
You're an old friend 
from days almost forgotten. 
Memory is a fickle friend. 
Now fading, now making an appearance. 
Weaving through reality and illusion, 
I see this fleeting thought and think, 
'I know you. We've met before.' 
Is it me, is it you? 
Should I reward my mind for not forgetting 
or punish it for remembering? 
The silhouette of your handsome face, taunting me 
to acknowledge my limitations. 
As I struggle, I hear the enemy laugh 
at my confusion. 
Do I know you? 
Have we met before? 
When all along the winds and the dreams and the earthly symbols of time 
have been ticking to warn us of the impending end of all as we know it
Here comes that soft, fleeting memory
Do I know you?

Have we met before?

Fallacies of the rich-poor argument in the context of modern day life

So I've seen this photo floating around the Internet a lot and it was thought-provoking. It's just that, the thoughts that sprang in my mind were a bit different.

I've always believed that while life gives you many opportunities to learn many new things from people around you, whether they are actively a part of your life or not, you learn only as much as you choose to learn. And while even if you assumed that people work towards your success or development, it's a stretch of the imagination to assume that if you hadn't done the things that need to get done, you'd never get anywhere. This post confuses being grateful to your mentors with believing that man does not journey alone. Because in fact, man does journey all alone. He steers his own ship and makes his own choices. Sure others may factor into those choices but rarely can two people achieve the same outcome with the same set of people guiding them.

To trivialise the lack of money or poverty by saying the rich man is stereotypically unhappy or has unfulfilled emotional needs just because of his ability to buy more expensive services is churlish and shallow. Similarly no amount of drinking tapri chai is going to bring joy to someone who is oppressed by poverty. How antithetical it is then that one of the richest men in the country uses his platform to express ill-formed thoughts as advice to impressionable youth. I'm not aware of the veracity of the attribution to Ratan Tata and I haven't done any fact-checking and it may well be that an Internet troll has put out this wrongful attribution.

It may seem that my response is to the semantics of the text but to convey such an important message in such a casual manner that leaves the essence open to interpretation is irresponsible.

Journey

Were it summer, I wouldn’t have heard him come in
Not the crunch of leaves to herald his arrival
No
He came to tell me his stories
Those of mysterious lands from afar
Such as I wouldn’t have seen from my hearth
The pot I was stirring boiled dry 
Until an acrid, unfamiliar smoke filled my throat
But the agony of seeing such wonder through his eyes alone
Numbed me to the small loss of my small home
I listened as he regaled me
Speaking slowly and clearly, as though deliberate
Driving home my ignorance
The lack of romance in my life
I watched him become animated 
And thought I saw a glimmer of mockery 
As he watched me closely
Peering in the darkness of my stone kitchen
At my concealed excitement
When he was finally gone
As suddenly as he came
I took a pen upon paper
And signed on it my name
I told Mama and Papa that I would be gone for a while
I knew in my heart though
They wouldn’t see me until the end of time
Yes, for those far-flung lands that day I set off
One day, my stories would light the fire under someone’s pot
Not a woman, not a man, not a being I was to be
An example, a story, an idea for someone else
That would be me
The capes and the silk stockings, the hard labour of scrubbing the deck
I took hell fire, but I didn’t turn back
Across mountains and seas, I took the roads I came upon
A rolling stone too, I was called by some
The stories I’d heard, they were not all true
But at least I knew, that now I knew
I walked until I tired, and I lay myself down
Under a magnificent oak tree, under a sky with no cloud
I closed my eyes and heard the brook babble
I was home, more than I ever was, in my mansion
Then suddenly, I felt my spirit rise and leave me

Saying goodbye to my shell, continuing its journey…

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ilm nahi raha is duniya ko humaare dard ka
Waqt zulm pe zulm karta gaya
Aur mohabbat ke naam pe hum us zulm ko wafaa samajh ke sehte gaye
Yeh maan liye ke khaakh mein ek din sabhi ko milna hai
Toh aaj pyaar ki khatir jal jaate hain
Sukhe pattey jaise gir kar kho jaate hain
Waise be-ilm woh wajuhaat humein peeche chhod gaye
Hum raakh ban ke mitti mein jad gaye
Wafaadari ke naam ka sajda karte karte

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Jhoothi sarhadein

Mere dil ke ek kone mein
Ab bhi bandha ek vishwas
Ke insaan toh insaan hota hai
Siyasat ki hawas use jaahil bana deti hai

Kis mulk ka tu aur kis mulk ki main
Sach hoti yeh kahani agar yeh na sochna hota
Kain hisson mein kaat diya mere zehen ko is sarhad ne
Thoda riyasati murakhon ne, thoda meri apni tasub ne

Khadi ho jaati ek Amrita ya ek Ismat
Kehte agar ke na manzoor hai yeh batwaara
Na khoon behta pushtaini na rakh hoti mitti

Lekin shayar sirf lafzon ko modh sakta hai
Aur aashiq jaisa bebas duniya mein nahi
Yugon ka rukh toh shaitanon ke haath hai
Aur zaminon ke dalaali sirf nakara khoon ke keemat par hoti hai

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pritiche dohe

Hya ushna vaaryat tujhya priticha aasamanth darvalala aahe
Asa vaatla janu raatriche kaahi taare urun raahtil majhyapashi
Pan dole na mit-ta hi, he drushya diwaswapna zhaale
Tu tujhyasarkhach hotas
Kahi na bolta, vilakshan manacha dwandwa kelas
Hirvya paanavarti dav themb sarke tasaa nighun gelas eka pahate
Ushna vaaryat, hya aasamanthamadhye, paan halu halu shwaas sodun deyi

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ishq-aashiqui

Tu apne guroor ko gawaah maan chala,
Main apne ishq ko.
Tujhe aashiqui ki kasam di thi,
Khud ko apne zameer ki.
Tujh mein aur mujh mein antar tha itna.
Is muqaam se mitti mein mil jaane tak;
Ek khwab ban ke is aaj par shaq hone tak;
Ek saaya jab tak yeh pal ban nahi jaata;
Iske guzar jaane ki khabar jab tak puraani nahi ho jaati;
Har lafz jo tune kaha woh zehen mein bas nahi jaata.
Tab tak hai kasam tujhe is aashiqui ki,
Tab tak hai kasam mujhe mere zehen ki,
Yeh khuda gawaah hoga us pal ka,
Mera ishq kya sabut dega zinda hone ka?
Yeh khatm hi na ho payega us pal tak.
Tujh mein aur mujh mein antar hai itna.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Children

In so many ways we remain young, 
Mere children at heart before those who have borne us 
Nay not just borne but raised us 
Those who found us in the ashes 
Dusted our tail feathers 
Those who dressed our bruises 
Those who opened old, festering wounds to dress them and heal them 
Those who taught us the sound of our own voice 
Those who found in us the spark of a raging fire 
Those who brought us out of the reverie of misery 
Those who tried us by fire and made jewels from rocks 
Those who cut away at our conscience 
Chipped little piece by piece of grime off 
Those who taught sincerity by practice 
Those who taught how many kinds of love there are 
Those who fathered the fatherless, mothered the motherless 
Those who breathed mercy into cold, hardened hearts. 
Humility is the only gift worthy enough to be given to them 
A life of being that person they made you the only ode worthy to be given to them 
Times come and times go 
But in so many ways we remain young 
Our heads bowed 
Not before those who have borne us 
But before those by whom we were raised