Kathmandu: Thamel, Jamel and the local

Rising Mall, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Rising Mall, Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Among the capitals of the world Kathmandu perhaps has nothing noteworthy than its location on the road to Himalayas.The famous ones make it to the lists – “best cities to…” (travel, live, work etc). Whereas, Kathmandu makes it to none. This capital is on the itinerary than being on the bests list. It already does well by being on a traveler’s itinerary, not as a pit stop but as a reprieve and that too for several days, for weary travelers who have known the press, push, shove and breathlessness of global capitals with people fitting in as much as they can in their list of to-dos. In Thamel one only tries to fit in as much food and as much leisure as one can before the plane flies out of the valley.

Of course, this is one version of Kathmandu. The one shaped by a traveler taking timed immersions in it. One where he lives in Thamel, wakes up to a continental or English breakfast or to a bowl of hummus. He encounters the city through what is seen and presented to him in the clutch of lanes around this tourist ghetto.

This morning, I took table which faced the door at the Chikusa Coffee Shop. For most part wanted to have some coffee and look out to the street which set itself up habitually every morning in this tourist hub of Thamel. I noticed a couple of Nepalese men reading newspapers in the cafe. The Republica is a new one, which is printed here in collaboration with NYT and also circulates a copy of international edition of NYT along, every day. Quite a long distance this little capital has come in just over a decade that I have seen it for. In one of them there is a drug addiction report, new PM’s unhappiness with an investigation agency of the government, a festival which is marked with a dip in a river in the city and bits about high mountain regions with their problems this season. Usual in several sense. Just that these reports being read widely is somewhat new. Nepal has seen an increase in newspapers published here particularly in English.

Overheard a traveler describing how people he saw over the past days “did everything” – washing, bathing, cremating the dead and much more on the line along the river. The man wasn’t born when England and riverside cities of West did the same. And sure he hasn’t read about it either in all these years of his existence. Not being mean here, after eavesdropping on the conversation… but it strikes remarkable how visitors process the visual encounters they have in countries they travel to.

After the breakfast,  I joined sunbathers by the red wall of the Moroccan Consulate on Tridev marg. The map seller dusted the shelves and went about tucking the trail maps on the shelves by the pavement. In another hotel’s foyer a couple loaded several hundred kilos of kit bags on a pickup, leaving for a distant trail.

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Another Kathmandu wakes up in Sanepa and Jamsikhel where the typical cafes seen in upscale areas of cities like Mumbai, Bangalore etc serve the typical breakfast menu of English, Continental, American and an odd insert of Nepali chia and poori-tarkari. Sanepa is, in a local newspaper’s words, ‘an NGO town’. One can find the major INGOs operating in Nepal and UN agencies offices along its clutch of lanes. The road from Sanepa leads up to Jamsikhel where housing market serves the expats. A walk around these two areas can be a good start for a newcomer into the aid world of Nepal. A local says, “we now call Jamsikhel as Jamel” implying the transformation of a once Nepali area into a tourist or expat dominated locality like Thamel (which has been legendary for the presence of tourists at all times of the year). The traditional area of Patan has as though disowned Jamsikhel and rolled back itself a bit.

The hangouts for the locals, as I understand, aren’t any of these but Kathmandu’s new malls. Durbar square still packs a throng of locals of all ages at all hours of the day. The inner lanes around the expanding ring road is where one finds the local version. The ring road now seems to be forever covered in dust and traffic snarls, yet there is a buzz – that typical Asian energy and activity fills the streets. Scores of workers finishing their day and milling around the corner spaces that serve tea.

It is interesting to see how the aid agencies and the whole support industry around it has created urban spaces where it appears as though the locals have vacated those spaces, given them up and retreated. To this it might also be good to add effects of tourism on urban spaces, although this is being widely studied. People from Barcelona, Paris, Goa or perhaps Kochi can testify for the effects that growing tourism in their cities have had on their lives. However, this might not yet be the situation with what a thriving aid industry does to the local lifestyle in a city. The spaces are not contested yet. I’d be interested in exploring statistics on employment of Nepalese in aid sector and employment in other sectors. Being a low income country, it has been developing its infrastructure through various loans and grants (example, the B P Highway completed with aid from JICA), as have other countries around the world. But, the business of aid has also brought along urban dynamics which includes and excludes people in ways that should be concerning.

These are at best impressionistic observations from knowing this country for a couple of years. It might however fall into some kind of pattern if one begins a comparative study of countries that receive substantial amount of aid, its effect on urban spaces (at least in their capital cities) and what the implications of this urban impact might be on the cities’ governance, civic upkeep and local culture.

Travel and meaning-making

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The following lines were written in July, 2016 as I took the road from India into Nepal’s capital. They remained frozen in their state of incompleteness for months until this morning when I find myself taking the same direction, if not the road. Meaning making from travels has always taken this disorderly fashion – lines retrieved from the past and recast with a new experience in another time.

July 13, 2016

The rains have set in. On the road from Narayangad where I first cross Gandaki river, to northern hills beyond which lies Kathmandu, the traffic is too heavy for the double carriageway. Long queues of trucks lie ahead for over 200 kilometers. To those interested in knowing what cross border trade looks like, need only to get on this road from India to Nepal. Almost all necessary goods – cement, steel, fertilizer, heavy machinery, sugar, LPG, petroleum etc, are hauled up these hills into Kathmandu and beyond. 8 on 10 vehicles on this highway are trucks. I have crossed overland from India through the Sunauli border.

This morning I am headed to Kathmandu again. In transit, it felt appropriate to dig out that abandoned note from last monsoon. Appropriate, because there does seem to be a sense of continuity. The city in the mind’s eye will resume from where I left it last June. Thamel has always looked as though someone pressed the play button after a pause – always in motion, stopping only if you blink. It has felt this way in every visit since the first. The unique play of events, experiences and memories is why I travel. To live this! This process in its iterations makes for an enriching way of life.

In a travel anthology, the publisher’s preface said – ‘I hope some of them, and their stories come to haunt you, just as do some people whom you meet on the road, even briefly, and who then go on to become the shades of your “memory palace”‘. I find myself walking this memory palace every time I have left home for a place unknown or known. Here is an instance where a little incident from Nepal gets stuck in the head, to replay in a completely unexpected and unrelated place.

October 19, 2016, Oslo : 

On a cold October morning even as the bag got identified, searched and the unopened El Dorado sauce bottle retrieved – to be taken away and dumped into a bin which probably the airport security guys return to during their snack time, I knew that the woman from the train to Gorakhpur will come back to us. She had lodged in the memory in ways I couldn’t tell its future appearance. She sold gooseberries – soaked in brine, in the train and as she approached us, asked if we had some pickle to share with her. Never had a stranger ever walk up and ask for pickle in a whisper. It was unusual. We laughed but shared much of what we had left from our two days of journey to Kathmandu. And all along this woman was remembered for her peculiar need for pickle for her lunch and for her manner of asking in a hushed voice. We joked that it is probably our turn to ask people for pickle now with our large bottle of sauce was confiscated. 

I figure that these are the experiences I travel for. To gather them and let the mind curate them in its sometimes conscious and other times unconscious ways. Pico Iyer in his piece Why We Travel opens with this elegant burst of a sentiment as though overcome and brimming with the urge to make meaning out of the extensive journeys he has made until that point in time –

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

This morning as I prepare to arrive in Kathmandu I am reminiscing about the journeys taken and I find myself compellingly in line with the idea of ‘learning more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate’. The abandoned notes on Nepal will be completed not in retrospective but with the experiences of the re-visit. And meaning-making continues this way.

Learning with Tanzanite Group

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Today, we close our sociology classes for the academic year. The group of kids (13-14 year old) with whom I have shared classroom time over the year were introduced to ideas of society, groups, norms and rules, sociological perspectives and institutions in a society. This was meant to be an introductory course. In two sessions with one scheduled this afternoon, the students share their experience (or speak of any topic of their interest) with rest of the school during assembly hour at the end of the day. Two groups presented about their topics of interest last week – one spoke of “crime” in society and how might one understand crime. They ended with some statistics on rate of different types of crime. The other group presented their ideas on “media” – its purpose, types and an example of how opinions presented in the media are shaped.

The idea of a review and sharing session during assembly developed when the principal suggested that we might want to have a review on how a year of sociology curriculum was received by the students. I proposed that instead of a conventional writing based or test-based assessment it might be good to involve the whole school as well as let the students themselves have some reprieve from the test-based methods. Understandably, when I proposed this to students, they were enthusiastic about it. They formed groups on their own, selected topics, went ahead with research on the topic and developed their content for presentation. When I saw them present, I was thrilled with the speed at which they executed this. In the entire year, this was perhaps the most swift and complete participation shown by the group of nine students in the class.

This brings me to the first lesson from the year – work with what interests the students, at all times. And if required, wait, till the students show visible interest in the subject. In other words, coercion does not work if the intent is to drive learning. Simple as it sounds, it took me three years to understand this. The outcome of coercion-free learning is marvelous, if I can use that word. At times the enthusiasm of students has been so infectious that I have stayed high with it for days. This year, with Tanzanite group (Poorna has names for groups not numbers) I have had my dead-poets-society moments. I didn’t want to ride back home after school but get on the bus with them and continue living that teen environment. for the sheer freshness of what I heard from them – no stereotypes, every observation, every question so elemental in its form.

An academic year is such a short time when one is tuned-in so closely with the students. The second lesson has been about the extreme importance of introducing social science with an equal emphasis and rigor as other subjects in the middle school. I say extreme because of the shape in which our contemporary world is in. It is no longer easy to parse through facts, truths, values and opinions that each one of us comes across in our daily lives. Most often, the kids project what they have heard their parents discuss at home or what either of their parent seems to hold true and has at some point shared it with the child. I saw this happening when the class discussed food habits (vegetarian/non-vegetarian), when they investigated the effects of demonetisation in India through interviews and wrote about it and several such discussions. A favorite was discussing sociological perspectives with them and watch them try to get a grip of the idea. In the following weeks, I was told several of them were using perspective as a way of reasoning in their conversations in and outside the school. This was intriguing as well as scary. Intriguing – for the speed at which the understanding was mobilized outside classroom and scary because it becomes crucial that one who is introducing these ideas in classroom does a good job at it. One’s own biases can cause a serious damage to the understanding of young, impressionistic minds. And I grew very conscious of it. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. In their minds it was about violence as a method to bring change. I had to make significant effort in busting that impression that revolution always means violence. I used ideas of Gandhi and Mandela to talk of how revolutionary changes were brought about without violence.

Third lesson was about the use of school as a space to shape and mend things that the collective conscience of the society has felt wrong or problematic. For instance, themes like intolerance, respecting alternative views and reasoning one’s choices. All these played out as we discussed themes from the curriculum. I noticed how kids brought their observations from their daily lives into the class and used it as their views. Sometimes, to make sense of their own experiences we read travelogues – Khushwant Singh’s writing on Delhi, we read ethnographies – Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and we tried discussing these first hand encounters to understand how one can go about making sense of daily experiences that stand out for an individual.

On this last day of the academic year, I think with a comfortable degree of confidence, I can say that the group I spent time with is a bit further up in their understanding of people’s lives and society, know how to be empathetic and are empathetic, and finally are able to think consciously (within their current cognitive abilities) of the choices they make at this stage in their lives.

I can’t thank these kids enough for helping me learn even as they trusted me with their learning. A satisfying year at school. I hope the kids also feel the same.

Some trails

​Bangalore Mountain Festival

29/1/2017

This was a short ride and a short run combo. Rode out this morning for a trail  run outside the city. Early hours, the yellow of the city roads and the engine’s rhythm worked up nostalgia of a dozen road trips.

Reached the venue after overshooting some 20  km in the pre-dawn darkness. Losing way is a smooth experience these days. That may be age’s doing. Rolled into the venue and changed. Paced around a bit and got on to the starting line. After Mumbai, this was to be a recovery run. So didnt bother tracking time or pace.

A sweet and simple start and we were off into the many spaces between the ranges around Nandi hill. The peak was still covered in fog but the many couples and groups of people were already flocking it like maggots. Hated the number of cars and rash riders all around. Feels sorry for the villages around. 

Two laps of 10 km were to be done and the bunch of Kenyans and Ethioians were already pounding it. They are the new variety of money chasers. likeable sorts though. Run races to win the prize money and repeat this all year. Such a livelihood doesnt quite come with a retirement plan. I was bombing down all the dowhills and loving it. Pissed too on the trail.There was one toilet at the start and ladies were already chatting for long in the long queue. So kept it for the trail.

Kept a good clip all the way and enjoyed the sight of hills around. One uphill stretch got me pushing myself but the downhill was like catching a flight for the next 2 km. A curious guy on one of the farms wanted to know the distance the runners do in an hour. 

By the second lap sun worked up the temperature. But Bangalore sun is no match to Chennai’s. Kept on. Bach’s symphony played on the phone. The last 4 kms were sure a symphony – a beautiful trail, good physical form, a decent pace and the morning. 

Through the last stretch of casurina plantation, emerged on to the timing mat at the finish line wishing for another lap. Some runs perk up the spirit like that of a lark’s – excited to fly, wanting not to perch! 

I’d recommend Bangalore Mountain Festival’s trail. Tasks the runner just a little beyond the usual endurance required for a half marathon.

Mumbai in 42 kilometers

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CST, Mumbai (Image: Eraserheaded)

Last week at SCMM, I figured that a 42 kilometer loop around a city is quite an unusual way of experiencing it. May be that explains increasing popularity of running tours in Europe. A run around the city is much like our old town halwai offering generous bits of the assortment of sweets on display before one buys any.

With Mumbai, it was also a re-look at the city. It has showed up annually in my life ever since I stepped out of school. I have taken bits of of it on every visit and looked forward to the next visit without making an effort to know when. This year’s Mumbai was different. I was going past the same places that I have gone past earlier. The difference this time was running through these spaces, floating along with a stream of runners. The rhythm of a run, places gliding by, changing soundscapes, changing landscapes… all of these together have a rather unique effect on the visitor. It isn’t quite an immersion into a single site. Rather, it is a swim through the landscape. The effect is that of a visitor experiencing a closeness that develops spontaneously with someone, in first meet.

I’ve stood by CST, starting point of the marathon, several other times as a just arrived traveler, as a purposeful visitor, as an idler… but never under a pre-dawn darkness which is about to turn deep blue of the morning with an intent to just run around. The monument in those hours, void of its daily throng of people, was much like an artist in a completely different role than what the audience has seen her in, all these years. I couldn’t have imagined the magnificent CST building without people milling all over and this not because the city has shut down due to a terror threat, but for a different reason – when the city lets a whole lot of people see it, up close, and let them experience it on foot.

A runner in this country is somewhat privileged to be able to travel to different cities only to run and pay registration fee. If one is able to afford it, it offers a completely different and unique peep into the city. This isn’t a call for any sort of consciousness or action but a plain observation that it was upsetting to see children with huge sacks going after every single plastic bottle thrown by runners on the roads. There were easily a hundred of them who, oblivious to the event and people around them, kept their eyes on these plastic bottles and were out to collect as many as they could manage. That would be the day’s haul and perhaps a decent amount of money than other days when sold. At the same time another group of children were experiencing it differently – The Scindia School Band played from a stand. That was a lovely sight! The children showing up and playing for the runners.  The realities are stark – of the runners and of these children and of the worlds that the several pickets of policemen there on duty inhabit. Each of these overlap with the other’s only by virtue of their need or call of duty. Nothing else. I am not sure how these city marathons go in developed countries of the world. But in a place like India with its very wide spectrum of social and economic status of people, it can be a bit unsettling. Perhaps, this comes out best to a visitor when she comes attends an event like this.

At the same time there are several appealing aspects about it. SCMM is a huge fund raising event for social causes of a wide variety. The energy and enthusiasm among the people makes one feel quite good about being in the city and about the collective spirit of oneness. Even the diversity of people and groups seen on and off the course is remarkable.

My favorite part was to run on the Worli Sea link. There was something surreal about being on it and watch the steel ropes glide, one by one,  a little above the eye level. Modern structures as these are seldom seen on foot and at such pace. It isn’t a commonplace experience in India to be able to run right in the middle lane of a vast mega structure as this and take plentiful looks at the city’s skyline on both sides. It is as though this was an opportunity to come up close and know the spaces taking all the time that one wants. This aspect is quite distinct in urban runs and even more in large metropolises as Mumbai.

Amidst all this, I realized I was also doing a faster pace than my last run. I wanted to shave off some time from the Iceland run. Until halfway point, I was sure doing better and confident about finishing it well. It was a little surprising how I registered everything happening around and be mindful of the pace too. I can usually do either of the two -run or look around. Look around as I run, was new!

A couple of known faces passed by. Some were sure on their way to achieve a personal best timing. Meanwhile, I was bonking out. I hit the wall by 33rd km. Pace slowed. Shoulders drooped. The ones I tailed took off and were speeding to the finish line. And I was experiencing Marine Drive at a much slower pace than what I started with. There were kids reaching out for the strewn plastic bottles. There were policemen trying to mind them. The runners were all pushing themselves to the finish line. Meanwhile, there was an anticipation in the crowds which waited for the elite runners to run past, much like my brother and I used to wait by the small railway station in our town to watch a superfast train run through our little town leaving us in a storm of catering litter. Anytime now, the air suggested! There was this stepping in and out of the door that connected the chambers of past and present, which happens with me in almost every run. This was similar.

Running the 42 at SCMM wasn’t difficult. Keeping a faster pace, was. At the sight of the clock hung at the finish line, I started racing the seconds. Even before stepping on it, I was checking how much better than the last. The idiot inside overpowers ofern! SCMM course took 3 hrs 43, 15 mins less than Iceland’s. But a wholly different trip looking at Mumbai all over again while I was about to hit a personal best timing.

A day before the run, at Kitabkhaana, I searched for authors from the city writing about the city. Feels good to have come across an endearing volume of writing by Adil Jussawalla, edited by Jerry Pinto – Maps for a Mortal Moon. I knew that Jussawalla was a good friend of A K Mehrotra.  So this was also about discovering friends of a writer I admired. This morning’s reading from the book was a trigger to recollect my connection with Mumbai during the SCMM trip. The city lives in the heart of those who spent a lifetime here or have come to form an undying bond with the city because they came of age here, or found a career, or love or self or whatever. It is hard not to admire the city and its several cultural creeks as much as the geographical ones. Jussawalla writes about two writers who are pining for their Bombay in their time, which I think I am not quite capable of feeling about a city but several cities. Until next time, I too remain homesick and eager.

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“Six Authors in Search of a Reader”, Adil Jussawalla

 

 

Indian sociology, if there is one

Last week was spent in listening to some of the best Indian minds in sociology during NIAS’s annual seminar on nation, community and citizenship in contemporary India. It was also a fitting tribute to M N Srinivas in whose honour a panel discussion was organized. The discussions seemed in-line with his own way – stress-testing concepts and original. There were differing opinions on the relevance of concepts, ethnographic method etc. One of Srinivas’ contemporaries present at the occasion was Prof. N. Jayram who had known M N Srinivas for a substantial part of his later academic career.

I have been interested in Srinivas’ work and the development of sociology in India for a while now. The seminar at NIAS brought together a rather large section of Indian sociologists who, undoubtedly, have driven teaching and research in sociology in Indian universities. Over the last three years, I have used excerpts of Srinivas’ The Remembered Village as an preliminary exposure to sociology for students of O and A level studies. I find it a useful sample of classical sociological writing which comes up as a result of long term observations driven by a structured inquiry. I have been interested in knowing what has been the legacy of Srinivas’ work in India and how has it changed the study of Indian society. While I did manage to have some insights into it at the seminar, the more interesting part was Prof. Jayram’s reminiscence of Srinivas. A rich description of sociology in early years of independent India can be found in Srinivas’ interview with Chris Fuller here.

Jayram suggests that there are two things worth noting when we discuss Srinivas today – that he came in at a time when social philosophy transitioned to sociology and that his career spanned colonialism, Indian independence, Nehruvian socialism and nationalism (he passed away in 1999). In terms of the discipline, he  privileged field view and participants , which methodologically many know as participant observation. His approach was of being in the field and getting us “earthworm perspective “(for Jayram the importance of this approach kicked in during his work in diaspora studies in Trinidad). The terms he coined – dominant caste, vertical and horizontal solidarity etc are widely used in analysis of Indian society now. Srinivas emphasized on caste as interest group over caste as a system. This analytical lens becomes immediately useful when one finds that systemic analysis of caste not being helpful in offering any logical analysis of caste dynamics.
Jayram added that Srinivas was strongly influenced by structural functionalism. It was his eclecticism that made his sociology more appealing. When one thinks of it, it is hard to list names of eminently readable sociologists in India. The likes of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ashish Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan etc who appear often in the newspaper columns can hardly be understood by common people (and require re-readings for social science graduates themselves). One could argue that these are not sociologists, but the larger point remains – that Indian academicians don’t quite have the ability to write in an engaging manner. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is Andre Beteille. Whereas, Srinivas did not restrain from communicating his ideas to a general audience. Jayram remarks that Srinivas’ language carried both – the novelist’s imagination and sociologist’s thinking. That is a enviable ability to write! It is said that Srinivas was also influenced by Graham Greene’s prose style.

Another sociologist on the panel and whose papers I have read through MA was Surinder Jodhka. His remarkably sharp, analytical mind is rather unusual in the discipline. Jodhka’s criticism on “Rampura” (village where Srinivas does his field work) as a problem – that it is the idea of a Hinduised India, is reverent yet sharp in pointing out the contention. Jodhka says, the village of Srinivas’ imagination isn’t quite a village reflecting the realities of a village in contemporary India. Jodhka urges that rural is not just one – there are many rurals. Rural India encompases a whole range of possiblities and configurations which get flattened out in the dichotomous references of rural and urban. A more reasonable category, Jodhka insists would be settlement. The last bit of Jodhka’s critique was about the conceptin of an ideal society which in some sense has been about a casteless society. He asserts that  a casteless society is not an answer – a democratic society is! In a way, it is futile to imagine that caste would cease to matter in the future. Evidence suggests that irrespective of material status, caste consciousness has deepened in India. If anything, it matters all the more. Caste based coalitions are now a major determinant of political outcomes as well as in businesses. In such a scenario, imagining a casteless society is delusional. The task of sociology is to acknowledge the realities of the society and then offer a way forward, not by negating them.

In most MA programs, courses in sociology are dominated by published papers from British and US institutions. Most students are at  a loss to even recall two Indian sociologists and their works. Indian sociology with its own approaches and unique knowledge production could certainly be identified in the 1970s and perhaps until late 1990s. After this, I do not quite find works as situated – in method and content, in India, as earlier. This can be a hasty remark, until I find published works on Indian society, which deviate from the methodological and conceptual traditions of the British and US institutions.

 

 

Roundup 2016

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At the end of 2015, I wrote about the unusual solitude I experienced that year. The Walden Pond spirit of that year dissipated in the activity of work, school, university and travel with 2016’s – the year soon filled with people, places and activities. It feels remarkable how one set of days can be very different from another even though not much might have changed in the immediate environment that one lives in. Obvious though, to some. But this obviousness isn’t quite the same to those arriving at it via a process of gradual discovery propelled by the course of life. The change it appears lay in mind and spirit helped a little with a good spell at work which pushes the worries of making a living off the table.

It has certainly been the best for running – finished four marathons and managed to complete my first 50 km ultra run. I hope to do at least one 100 kilometer ultra this year. Pushing it towards La Ultra 111 would be easier later. Cycling suffered tremendously, though. The only continuous bout of 40-45 kilometers cycling every evening was during the few weeks in Oslo. Back in Bangalore, I was clocking double this distance everyday on motorbike. The year almost had an even tenor with days spent equally at school, university and at work. And then the remaining outdoors which included over four weeks of time in Nepal. This year I also read more than the previous. If there was any semblance of balance (a balance that I’d like) in daily living, 2016 was it.

It has been an immensely instructive year. Of these, I think the following are to stay as a pursuit hereon,

  1. Being with people unlike myself: The trouble with earlier years has been that I spent time hanging out, meeting and working with people who were a lot like me. This grouping of likes happens in a natural way I suppose. I learnt to be conscious of it and move out of such groups which sometimes tend to become echo chambers. I am enriched a lot more from knowing people with different vocations and interests than mine. Associating with diverse range of people has helped immensely in my learning and outlook. Related to this is an insightful book that I read in December was Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. He lived an extraordinary life as a roadie, one time record holder in weightlifting, a neurologist by profession and an amazingly prolific writer.
  2. Realization that mental health is an extremely important aspect of life: State of mind has a tremendous bearing on day to day activities as well as one’s zeal for life. I wouldn’t have known this. It came to me in course of last year when I saw my own spirit fluctuating through weeks and later with a couple of individuals at Poorna. It was immensely revealing. A completely able body can be rendered useless with a mind that isn’t up to it. This year and further, it is a resolve to pay much greater attention to mental health of others (if I can help it) and to keep a good, vigorous and healthy state of mind myself. This reminds me of one of the most interesting books that I read last year – “Mind Readings” – a collection of essays about writers’ journeys through mental states. This realization was particularly stronger with a kid in school whom I taught for two years (and with whom I failed in my feeble abilities as a teacher) and couldn’t help with how he felt in school every day that he was being forced through the educational system and exams. And then watching Lars and the Real Girlan outstanding film on human condition and the lives that some live.
  3. Keep pushing myself: I feel more convinced about it than ever before. I reached the physical edge of it during CTM’s last eight kilometers of the fifty that I was running on that hot morning in Chennai. Never felt so exhausted yet not wanting to give it up. That experience has been subtly shaping me since then, I realized.

The thing with lists is that they develop fast and turn banal soon after the third point. Most of the other takeaways from the previous year are likely to fall in one of three above. So, I’d rather keep it at this.

The post is four days late. I had been in the practice of writing this on new year’s eve. But this is another break this year – impulsiveness over predictability. Took an impulsive bike ride to Madurai to visit friends from APU days and spend time chaffing around. As years get added to life I hope this impulsiveness maintains itself. Thurber wrote, “He (E B White) has steadfastly refused to learn to play bridge or take out life insurance.” I wish that such a spirit of adventurism and refusal to seek insurance against what life throws on the way stays with me too.

Bonne année everyone!

 

 

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Iceland: Driving, Running & Northern Lights

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland in October, 2016

Downtown Reykjavik on an October morning

This place is completely twisted (in an endearing way though). Everything that a traveler sees is almost guaranteed to end with I-have-never-seen-this-before. Its people (Viking idiosyncrasies, music videos, sense of humour), food (Hakarl?), landscapes (any given sight on the island except the airport and the supermarkets) and above all unbelievably difficult to pronounce names, of places mostly. But these are mostly post-trip thoughts. Something completely different got me there – a movie watched on a mid-week afternoon in Bangalore. We were binge-watching, helped by cheap 100 rupee tickets on weekdays at PVR.

Iceland is as close to the Arctic circle as I could get this year.  The island was not on the travel list until Secret Life of Walter Mitty released. Watching Mitty take that downhill on a skateboard, across a stunningly beautiful landscape on a big screen was magical. The landscape looked extraordinary to a mind familiar only with tropical imagery. In retrospect, it feels that I was also in awe of this adaptation of Thurber’s short story into a film and Ben Stiller playing Mitty. The conversion of landscapes from screen to real had to wait two years from that afternoon at the cinema. In October, 2016 my friend and I found ourselves heading to Scandinavia and were to spend several weeks in Oslo. This was Iceland’s call via Scandinavia for us. Thurber was right, beautiful things don’t ask for attention. They just remain lodged in the subconscious space, until one gets to live that beauty and finds oneself right there, witnessing it. We were fanboys traveling to Iceland. Reykjavik’s Oddsson hostel had a few more – a South Korean college kid who got on the plane after watching Mitty. And then a whole pack of instagram-led young travelers who wanted their own instagram album set in Icelandic locales. That the common kitchen overflowed with people and conversations was a sign of backpackers making use of the crashed Icelandic Kroner and easy connectivity from Europe. Those from  US however, were on travel offers from Icelandic air which has been pitching Iceland as the most suitable en-route destination for travelers from US to Europe. And this was working!

Reykjavik harbor area

Reykjavik harbor area

On the eastern highway to Vik

On the eastern highway to Vik

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri (Image: My friend Eraserheaded )

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Driving

Over the four days in Iceland, we took the highway to Vik, a pretty little town past the beach with black sands, on the eastern highway. We didn’t have a plan for the place. The thrill and anticipation of Iceland week was so much that neither of us knew the lay of the place, places to see or cared about changing money, checking public services etc. The only thing we had booked more than a month in advance – a car to drive around and live our time there at our pace. A motorbike would have been better, but Iceland demands extensive preparation (riding gear, GPS, good bike, breakdown backup etc) before one can take on its weather and the roads. We set out to see the legendary Eyjafjallajökull volcano, not because it brought Europe to a standstill with its eruption in 2010, but that Mitty runs for his next clue on the island even as Eyjafjallajökull  is erupting and the people have vacated the town. Another weather twist – the volcano is covered with an ice cap! It was unlike a volcano. It appeared as a flat hill range with a pretty set of houses nestled by the base. I wondered if this is how Icelandics play dare, by settling down by the base of an active volcano and then drive away as fast as they can in their SUVs when the fireworks begin. The tranquil and country idyll was perfect with baled harvest waiting on the farm, horses grazing in the distance, near empty highway passing by the settlement and the scene rendered even more unbelievable with a waterfall from a hill not too far from the settlement left alone. The sight is hopelessly appealing only to the traveler who can’t believe that the people have all of this for themselves everyday of the year. And a handful of them at that!

A day later we took the highway heading north of Iceland, via western rim of the island, towards Akureyri. However, the weather and time allowed us time to reach up to the peninsula region of Borgarnes about a hundred kilometers from Reykjavik, a busy little town with a population of under 1200. The drive in this direction was as stunning. But this was the arterial highway to northern Iceland and so visibly more traffic than the eastern highway. There was heavy cargo movement on this route and the large trucks had a sense of urgency which felt unusual for Iceland. Were these the Poles driving trucks for Icelandic companies? Probably! One of them almost ate our little red Corolla, showing up on the rear view mirror and staying behind menacingly or may be in his view, patiently. The sun shone bright on the highway after a rainy morning. Spiked tyres that most vehicles here have made a roaring sound on the road. This stayed as the road’s music in my head long after that.

The sense of open space, complete absence of human activity except the presence of the road and the unique combination of weather and geography, struck me the most about Iceland. Snow covered hills, lava plateaus, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands, sea, active volcanoes, hot springs, rain, strong winds and sunshine and the clear blue skies at times… it all comes together as though nature pitches to a weather symphony and it chose Iceland for its performance.

Running

I ran the Reykjavik Autumn Marathon on October 15th. I trained for the cold weather run by training in Oslo (which had a similar early morning temperature as Iceland) in the preceding two weeks. The week leading up to the marathon went without practice due to work in Budapest. I was unsure about the run and about my performance. And this was also to be my first international run. The participants were mainly from Europe, a few from US and quite a few from running clubs in Iceland. No one from India in the full or the half category, although I did hear about a small Indian community in Iceland.

Arriving in Reykjavik after midnight, on the day before the run was the first mistake in a series of mistakes that I was about to launch myself on! The second – picking up the self-drive car on the airport, soon upon arrival. It escaped me that I would have no clue about the roads and orientation of the place. And making to the guesthouse by driving on my own was as stupid as I got in the last season. Third – figuring out the ways and systems of a completely new country in the darkness of night, with rain and cold which wasn’t quite factored in.This found us trying to drive out from the airport with a left hand drive car, re-fueling it at a gas station by swiping cards and filling in from an assortment of variously rated octane fuel (unlike petrol/diesel and premium grade labels of India). With a good load of fuel on my jacket sleeve because I couldn’t work the nozzle control to flow smooth, we got out in the rain to look for our guesthouse. The next mistake – to save on rental, I had not rented navigation for the car. I had prints to work our way through, on an Icelandic night. Everything was a first! Truly, out of the comfort zone where nothing was familiar – neither the roads, nor the names or sounds or machines.

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

The run started at 8 in the morning. We checked in at the guesthouse at 2 am and needed some sleep after 6 hours of flying and even more tedious drive from airport. I had no clue that I’d be hopelessly lost in the morning, looking for the race venue! This was perhaps the most terrible case of being lost (for what was at stake – a run that I had dreamed of all the way from India) after losing my way on the under-constrution outer ring road in Hyderabad, years ago. Starting at 6 in the morning, we drove all over Reykjavik, out and in and out again only to get back in and pull over at a filling station, despondent, looking for directions. There is just no one walking about by the road side in this country! Stop but ask whom? The Indian in me kept looking 360 degrees in disbelief. The filling station guy heard the mention of a marathon and that’s when the lights came up in my miserable morning – he had seen a lot of cars and runners next to the stream a kilometer down from where we were. Drove the car as though I was flying the jet out of an air base and made it to the starting point, with a minute to go for the gun shot! The kind lady pinned up the bib, as I put on the timing chip and the nice folks by the starting line shouted back by saying they’ll wait for me.

I do not know what was happening, any longer. It was a time warp – it continued from the time I sat by the plane window looking at Norwegian coastline that we were flying past the previous evening until now. There was a sense of disjunction – the body got into the act of running. Mind was trying to come to grips with the immediate environment, people and what was happening. I switched on the GPS and got running. It was dark at 8 am, drizzling and windy. I followed the footsteps ahead of me. A light chatter in the air. I kept going until the deep blue of early morning melted and light up the landscape. By that time I saw the runners ahead taking a turn towards what looked like a waterfront. The cold got the skin this time, with the wind pushing it in. I ran without music. By the time I was along the waterfront the day light broke in and as though I was out of the cave-like time warp which held me since last evening. It was now that I registered where I was running and what was happening around me. We were about 12 kilometers into the circuit. The wind grew stronger. I figured that we’d be doing two loops of this and that made me think about the next loop when I’d be running against this windy waterfront with a depleted energy stock. I had my first swig of gatorade at 12th kilometer aid station. Along the water front section I saw a tall guy running at almost the same clip as mine. As I neared, I ran along for a while, but he felt a bit slower than my pace at that time, which made me move ahead. Over the next 2-3 kilometers we kept at each others heel. Soon enough we ran shoulder to shoulder until the next aid station. We got out together again. This was an unsaid chemistry. We were running together, each saying “I need to run along to keep the pace”. We didn’t speak at all, until somewhere in 30th kilometer, the man went on to say “I can’t run fast, I’d like to keep the slow pace. Please go on my friend.” I realized he was a man in his 50s. He was a strong runner and it was me who was finding it a push to keep the pace. I wanted to tell him that. I hadn’t looked at the watch until then. The half guys were soon on the trail. We both realized that we were doing a decent pace.

The were more people on the trail by now. The solemn, cathedral like early morning mood was gone. It was a chatty, race scene now with runners, onlookers and people passing by. The people here didn’t cheer with words. They preferred ringing bells vigorously. The runners didn’t talk much to each other too. Neither they would return a gesture if someone made any. It was a bit unlike the festive mood at most Indian marathons. I was missing the groundnut-jaggery chikkis on the aid station. It was only gatorade and liquids. Many preferred a few swigs of coke instead. Strange I thought. The Hungarian partner I was running with preferred coke too. He said his wife was running the half. When they crossed, he gave a big bear hug and wished each other luck. I was observing the people around.

It felt like a very fast race. I saw no one walk any part of the trail. I was surprised that I had not taken a break even at the aid stations. The Hungarian guy and I were to run together till the finish line. We broke little, spoke little and fought the cold all through. The rain had picked up again. It barely registered on my numb skin that the tights I wore were soaked. I couldn’t feel the cold. The last four kilometers increasingly felt tough. After the daylight broke, the morning fell into a state of constancy. There was a gushing stream near by, autumn colours through the treeline and dampness of a rainy morning. Cold had slowed down the ache in the legs. It felt as though I have been running from the previous evening.

With the 42nd kilometer, we both gained pace and maintained it till the finish line. The man’s face turned into a relief as he neared. I was searching for the only face I knew on the other side of the finish line. Everything else was a sea. We stepped on the finish line and I looked up at the timer on the line. I couldn’t believe that I was finishing in less than 4 hours. I was least expecting this. And even if I were to target sub-4 hr finish, Iceland’s trail would sure not be the one where I would hope to. The morning temperature was between 3 or 4 degrees C. My friend reached out to me. Someone took off the timing chip and to escape the wind we went into the tents put up by the organizers. It was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t feel my lower body and felt that I had no control on my legs.

I sat for a while and wanted to eat. The last mistake was to show up here – there was nothing vegetarian to eat. The sandwiches had meat and eggs. Except for coke and bananas, I figured I could eat nothing else. In desperation, I pulled the salami slices and eggs out of the sandwich and ate it with lettuce and cucumber. I should have carried some food with me. But, that is how it was supposed to be! And now the cold kicked in as the body cooled down from the run. I was shivering from the cold. We made to the car and switched on the heating. It took a while before I could begin to drive and get back to the guesthouse.

This is how I finished the Iceland run – in a bluff, making mistakes all the way! And hit a personal best run time with it.

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Northern Lights

The next three days we soaked up Iceland like tourists. Shopped for supplies, cooked in the hostel, packed lunches for long drives and long walks after returning. The hostel air was abuzz with talks of northern lights and there were midnight tours to spot action in the sky. The harbour front had companies offering attractive prices for midnight tours. We were on a budget. The Icelandic Meteorological Forecast indicated strong chances all through the week. Meanwhile, I read Scandinavian folktales on aurora borealis – one spoke of how fortunate the child conceived under such lights in the sky, is. Another of how, these lights are the dead virgin women dancing in the skies teasing men who couldn’t make love to them.

And then the roof of the hostel went riotous early evening on the day before we were to leave. Everyone around would want us to “check it out” – the lights in the sky. I looked up for the best places in town to watch northern lights. A little before midnight my friend and I made way to the lighthouse. The whole town appeared to have fallen down to this little strip of land, possessed by the pull of the flickering green lights in the sky, the dead virgins.

There, ahead in the horizon, we spotted the dancing lights. The phenomenon is absolutely spell bounding to say the least. There is nothing comparable to this marvelous show of lights in the sky on a cold, dark night high in the latitudes of earth. There was a feeling of being fortunate that we could stand there and witness this. Far from anything else, it was just too fascinating. The fact that there are so many of these extraordinary geographical, climatic and meteorological occurrences unfolding in the world that are far removed from the daily lives that we live. The world in that moment felt an extraordinary place with us being alive and being able to stand witness these. I shall never forget the swirls of green in the sky, which I watched transfixed from the windscreen of the car, as I sat inside trying to take the moment in. There is a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Mitty meets the Life Magazine photographer whom he has been chasing through the film. It is played by Sean O’Connell. The photographer is shown high up in Himalayas, perched at a post, trying to photograph the reclusive snow leopard. When the leopard does appear in the viewfinder they both look at it transfixed. After taking a good look, Mitty asks if he took the shot, to which the photographer replies –  “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

Returning Indians

Both, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf insisted that one ought not to judge. Describe, not opine, they suggest. I try. Then, sometimes a surge of thoughts make things go haywire. An instance – the range of views that Indians returning to India dole out as they make their way back. Lately, I have come across quite a few emotive, reflective and often times critical responses written by young men and women returning to India from universities in Europe and US who are generally unhappy with this reverse-gear travel. And I felt that most of these responses are rather unfair and mean to the country that they return to. The scope of being empathetic to their situation is also lost for me, when they tend to cast India in the light of all that they have seen with their blinkered experience in the “developed” countries where they attended universities.

About time that we have a new literary genre of angst ridden, fuming, hyper-critical social and philosophical writings from returning Indian youngsters who are given the boot from “the West” after their student visas expire.

With their dreams rear-ended by the immigration laws of the desired world they train their guns on and pump their frustration down to India and its people. Its narrow-minded, crude, uncultured, illiterate people with its men who exist only to grope the returning woman. Profound soul-searching literature that emerges as they make their reluctant way back to India; resume lives in the neighbourhoods which they thought they left for good; searching jobs shunting recruiter to recruiter not willing to accept the cheap INR remuneration! Life was lived in Euros and Dollars until now! Oh and let us not even get started about its corruption. This is the only country in the world,  you know, with life reeking of corruption from moral to economic! Of course, no where else in the world (that they escaped to), such shameful corruption exists.

As weeks turn into months and months bloom into years they take to writing and seek affirmation and glory on Facebook and twitter and blogs, hoping someday that they’d again escape the “unsafe” streets and wretched public spaces of the nation whose nationality is so regrettable!

May be I should stop reading such posts. I sure should. But sometimes it feels that this has a more ruining effect on others who live and work here and contribute to make this country a better place. No place or society is as flawless as the imagination of the returning Indians paints. They just choose to ignore the flaws of their adopted countries in their enamored lives abroad and in pursuit of keeping that dear opportunity (of living there) intact!

Understanding Children & Feeling Naked

drawing_poornakid

After a session on rights of children the teacher asked her group (10-11 year old) to draw what might be their idea of rights of children. This was one of the rights that a kid thought of and illustrated.

Last week in school, two incidents forced me to think about what does one really know about a child’s mind. A better question would be to ask what do we know about a child through his years of growing up, until an acceptable, complying adult is formed out of her by years of joint work by school, family and the society.

Then, I felt, that the best of insights into a child’s mind has been those of authors of children’s books – Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and lately Oliver Jeffers. Some object to the idea of “children’s books” vehemently. Sendak is even better on this – “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.” I have to admit that I had never tried reading books meant for young readers after my early years of schooling and ever since I stepped into university. I started reading them after I joined Poorna as a teacher. The library was teeming with eye-catching, hilarious and endearing books which were also very well illustrated. I was hooked. Also, I’d find the kids of younger age groups highly engaged in their weekly reading sessions. Three years since my first encounter with this amazing world of literature for young readers, I am inclined to look into these books to find life lessons.

This morning, I woke up and read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the places you’ll go. Someone on twitter had mentioned it, after I had already forgotten it from Poorna’s annual day theater performance which was based on another of Dr. Seuss’ work.

Going back to the two incidents last week in school – a six or seven year old girl (from a group I do not teach but hang out with them during breaks) in a nonchalance that only children are capable of, tells me, “you talk to boys only”. I was standing with a group of boys of her age in the foyer. This felt like a remarkable observation coming from a six year old. She and I have seen each other in school for two years and she probably has also seen me speak and play more with the boys than her or her friends. It made me think about my unconscious bias and tendency to play with boys only. In the end, I felt she is right on this. While I stood gaping at that observation and my own inability to see this pattern in my interaction, I was also amazed at the range and variety of information that children tend to pick up. I think adults seldom have any idea about it.

Dr. Seuss or Mr. Giesel, to use his real name, once said that when he writes he does not think of moral of a story in the beginning. On the idea of a moral in a story, he says, “kids can see a moral coming a mile off”. This I would completely agree with, after last week’s incident. And I’ll also add that they can beat adults hands down in their insights on daily living.

The other incident speaks of the degree of carelessness that I tend to have with words and being conscious of what I speak. A kid in sociology class had not done her assignment which was due that morning. No, she mentioned that she forgot her notebook at home and that she has completed her assignment. We were only beginning the class and kids were just settling in. I remarked that she needn’t attend the class since she doesn’t have her work with her. And in the next moment my attention shifted to another kid’s notebook. I didn’t realize that the first kid had actually left the class and stood in the corridor overlooking the playground. When I was about to begin the day’s discussion, I noticed the vacant chair and still couldn’t recall that I had been careless enough to ask her not to attend. I looked out into the corridor, called her out by name and asked if she would not want to attend the class. That is when the kid responds by saying, “you had asked me not to attend.” It hit me then about how attentive I am to my own words, while I ask the students to pay attention to the discussions in the room, all these years. To say it was a humbling moment is being incomplete. It was more than that. I used that do-not-attend-the-class often as a threat and never meant to exclude anyone. Turns out that threat and even to consider exclusion as an idea, is so misplaced as an approach.

Both these incidents happened on the same day. The day felt like a waterloo of sorts! I am convinced that if one wants to know where the society is headed in its consciousness and what is to become of it, the world of children is the space to begin looking into. As I write this, I am reminded of several such incidents which offer a telling picture of the contemporary world. The drawing image in this post being one of them.