Monday, July 16, 2012

To be or not to be in the mighty Himalayas

Eight of us stood in the midst of the Himalayas in Sikkim, Northeast India, looking uncertainly at the landslide before us. The storm had moved great chunks of mud and rock downwards, birthing a gushing waterfall that blocked the road and surged down the mountain with a resounding roar. The travel agency had told us there would be a jeep waiting for us on the other side. If we get to the other side at all, I thought to myself, looking at the steep drop. Army men had gathered at the site to help travellers across. 

A loud bang suddenly shook all of us, and instinctively, we ducked behind the jeeps. ‘Terrorists!’ screamed my mother. Slightly amused by this dramatic outburst, the army guys explained to us that an alternative way was being built and that was the sound of the dynamite. We stood a few feet away from the waterfall, the spray already starting to wet our clothes. Our cook, a tall, burly man, who was accompanying us on our journey from Gangtok to Lachung, went first. He accidentally knocked his bottle of kerosene against a rock and the lid disappeared, demonstrating to us a possible fate. My brother, adventure-hungry as always, started heroically wading across the water. I, mumbling prayers to myself, gingerly stepped forward on a mossy rock. I slipped, and of that one second, I only remember the noise and the horror of finding nothing to hold on to. But almost immediately, I felt myself being hauled up quickly by a pair of strong arms and I found (to the delight of my 13-year old mind) myself looking into the eyes of an army jawan. There was no time for a fairytale romance, though--I was deftly carried across and deposited on the other side--he got back to business. By then, my brother had managed to get my parents, my aunt and uncle across. Our guide, a Gorkha man, lightly skipped across the slippery rocks like it was child's play. 

Once on the other side, we spent some time grinning stupidly at each other, triumph and relief reflected on all our faces. We swapped stories and pleasantries with other travellers. While we waited for our pick-ups, we took in the scene once again, slowly and in awe. Rugged mountains surrounded us, with white streams of water surging through them. Snow-capped peaks lay in the distance and there was an ominous stillness in the air. We sat by the side of the road on our suitcases, and watched the crowd disappear in lots into their vehicles. An hour passed and there was no sign of our jeep. We were the only ones left. My dad and uncle walked down the road but didn't come across any signs of civilization. Our unspoken fears manifested themselves in irate exchanges. ‘The kerosene smells,’ said my dad crossly. ‘The lid fell off,’ I informed him. ‘It smells terrible,’ he complained, ‘Close it.’ ‘We're going to get eaten up by wild animals,’ whispered my mother. ‘You never know what's gonna come out of the trees.’ I hoped for a yeti. The clouds darkened and hung above us threateningly. It was still early evening, but we were enveloped in the thickest of greys. Strange unfamiliar sounds penetrated the air--birds, animals and insects--adding to our nervousness. ‘There may be tigers around,’ my mother said. ‘No tigers here,' our guide supplied helpfully. 'Only bears.' 

We huddled together miserably, lost in reveries of our sane, safe lives at home. A couple of hours later, we heard a dull drone in the distance. It grew louder and an army jeep appeared. We flagged it down frantically and explained our situation to the driver. He was on duty and was going downhill. Looking at our desperate faces, he offered to hitch us a ride, provided we didn't reveal ourselves at the check-points. We all crammed into the backseat, the giant of a cook stepping on my little toe. All through the journey, I scowled at him. He, in turn, held the kerosene bottle close to dad’s nose and our Gorkha man hummed Nepali songs cheerfully. A good five hours later, we reached Lachung, a sleeping village that welcomed us into an idyllic cottage with the river Teesta rippling through the frontyard. Our cook, forgetting his sullenness, beamed at all of us and went on to prepare a delightful, warm and well-deserved dinner.

Friday, July 13, 2012

bittersweet

It's been three years since  I left Chennai, a city that has meant various things to me at various points in time. From family weddings, nadaswarams and crowded marriage halls, it suddenly transformed itself into a hub for gigs, hordes of friends and house parties. It also meant different people at different points in time. I've always been attached to places I've lived in but Chennai had a different kind of power - it was a place which could make me ecstatic, afraid, content and lonely. Very unlike the standard happy high Bangalore offers.

It used to be Madras for the longest time. A Madras of endless tongue-twister names of neighbourhoods. Of having to wear mallipoo at weddings. Of cousins and well, lots of cousins. Of a favourite uncle and Marina beach. And then it was about hurried, calculated train rides. To eat pizza. It became Chennai of - Chennai train eppo? - at the Katpadi station. Short trips were followed by longer visits for Saarang, JRO, Festember and the other inter-college fests. We all did the same things, I think. Many of us girls bought silver rings at Spencers. We all went to Sparky's. We all went to Landmark. We all went to Fruit Shop on  Greams Road everywhere but on Greams Road. Some made their presence felt in the party scene. Those of us who didn't listened to fascinating stories of R's beach house and the events that took place there. Gradually, the city grew important to me because of less than a handful of people,  2 or 3 regular eating joints, one street, one bookshop and about two familiar routes.

Loyola brought all kinds of change. There was joy in meeting new people, whole sets of new friends - and then there was the confusion and the angst of a twenty something. There were fun train rides and there were sleepless nights. There was the grand thrill which the Loyola air offered - a grand big college sitting among grand tall trees - with all sorts of grand activities taking place inside as well as outside the gates of the campus. There was the excitement of the new, but the apprehensions as well. My whole life revolved in and around Nungambakkam - and it took me around in circles with its maddening one-ways.  Endless walks in the area usually ended in mallu food at Crescent, a peep into Just Casuals or a stop to buy groceries - usually a comforting packet of curds. There was chaos.

Chennai forced separate worlds to converge and clash -- my memories alternate between dreamlike and nightmarish. Every day saw an emotional graph akin to the temple border of a silk saree.There were happy times, like those on the beach, with water swirling around my feet, cleansing and therapeutic. But the aftermath remained - the nagging, uncomfortable feeling of sand adamantly sticking in between my toes. When I left, I left with the feeling of not having made peace with the city. I haven't gone back since and I am yet to find out what now might be like.

I seem to have a love-hate relationship with Chennai. And revisiting that place would mean another layer formed over pre-existing lasagna-like layers. Despite what the new brings,  I hope not to forget -- even a little -- the ones buried beneath.

But that's inevitable.