Archive | May 2016

How I was Leh’d -Part 1

(This is a story of  a group of young officers just out of the academy post training and their adventures in Leh. The post was made some years back on another blog and it is being reposted here)
I’ve been waiting for some one else to do this post. Technically speaking Rjmpb ( given his credentials as group leader) or A ( given his credentials as hard core musketeer) ought to have narrated this story . But Rjmpb is smarting under the rude shock of his first , newly launched blog having gone un-noticed, un-sung, un-commented on, un- complimented and practically un(in) -visible. So I doubt he’s going to comply .
Which leaves me- the other valiant survivor of the Nubra valley mishap to tell the tale. Before I launch into the details of the entire escapade let me brief you on some of the vital protagonists of this particular story. You can of course find a “brief -note”( sigh: sarkari lingo, it enters your system and then destroys whatever else you ever learnt in life) here. But then since I believe that this little piece is a little ‘coloured’, I’d like to make my own introductions.
The group that went to Leh comprised 12 able bodied ( alright- given Ron’s and Abhishek’s legs and Gokul’s intestines we’ll make that 9 and a quarter able bodied) , mentally resilient( error- again we need to subtract Rjmpb from the list of mentally fit given his unfortunate mental afflictions) and adventure hungry ( again subtract Gokul-the”guide” and yours truly-“the paranoid” from the list) administrators and their spouses.
Fresh out of the second phase of training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, this motley group had weathered all odds to be on this trip. Adventure, a desire to connect with nature, a desire to stay away from the cadre and extended leave were just some of the reasons why we were all on the trip. Leh was a delight. None of us had been here before and the knowledge that coming back would not be possible too soon meant that we were taking in all the mountains had to offer.
Two days at Leh and I had quite a list of accomplishments to my credit. I had not developed Acute Mountain Syndrome as expected by my paranoid mother, I had survived Khardungla and managed to breathe at an altitude of 15,000 feet , sung at Diskit without engineering a seismic shock, nearly murdered Rjmpb twice ( for the record once at Khardungla and another time at the Panamik sulphur springs), tasted freshly plucked leh berry, dragged the entire group to an open air restaurant in the night in the freezing cold( and survived the consequent onslaught), watched my systolic and diastolic pressure oscillate across various new heights, chased after bactrian camels , eaten copious amounts of Maggi and driven the entire ( well- almost) cantonment at Leh nuts with my demand for a sim card ( regular BSNL sim cards do not work in Leh and the army is kind to its own.)
All in all I was scaling new heights ( metaphorically and literally) and the general spirit of adventure got into me with an added vigour while at the sulphur springs at Panamik . Normally I am the kind who treads very carefully and the entire exercise of waiting for the much talked about AMS to hit me at Leh had catapulted my Blood pressure to astronomical levels. So I am not sure how I agreed to ride that bike. Maybe it had something to do with the sight of my normally quiet roomie riding with aplomb, or maybe it was the fact that the other ladies were being a little more adventurous than me. Maybe it was the mountains. Maybe it was a heady cocktail of the rarefied atmosphere, the smell of sulphur at Panamik, , the sight and smell of double humped Bactrian camels the evening before at Hunder. Maybe it was Rjmpb’s assinine actions with my bag at Panamik.Whatever mental and olfactory cause it was- I agreed to pillion ride on the pulsar ( rented in Leh and driven all across Khardungla to Nubra and Panamik) with the hard core musketeer- A
Now that I survived and have lived to tell the tale I can be all objective about the decision. All said and done on the face of it, pillion riding is a simple art form…all it requires is a little bit of balance and an ability to mount and dismount from a bike. When one looks at the surging populace and the general sale of motor bikes in India, one is faced with the bare fact that riding or pillion riding a bike is a rather simple act and hundreds of people across the world do it every minute.
But then this was not an ordinary person who had agreed to pillion ride. This was me. And as all those who know me will vouch- I am Murphy’s favourite child. And where I am- Murphy must follow. Of course, shielded in the Greater Himalayas amidst the smell of sulphur and bactrian camel I did feel I had left all family ( Murphy included ) at lower altitude and less rarefied air.
A of course was blissfully unaware of my family history at that time. Considering he had driven the bike through the highest pass in the world , Khardungla, a short ride on a straight road could not have been simpler. A’s spirit of adventure was infectious. I had watched him ride across Khardungla on a bike , drive the SUV over some of the roughest terrain, sit on the window of a moving SUV and click snaps, surmount asthma and Deputy Directors of the academy with equal ease. The man was a born conqueror. I would be safe on the bike with him. Besides, we were being escorted by two SUVs which had the other members of the group driving along. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Except that it did.
We finished an insipid , inedible ,uninteresting breakfast of what was supposed to be noodles and chai and I volunteered to get on the bike. Here again I would like to notify the readers that when it comes to objects that move I generally prefer the four wheeler closed variety. I have inherent reservations regarding those with two wheels which one sits ‘across’ rather than ‘in’. The fear is not an outcome of a mere difference of preposition used but the entire process of how the two different vehicles move is ….a little ….scary. But then I guess when in Leh, I was out to vanquish all my fears……. And so it all began……
A struggled with the helmet and jerked it down in place on my head. I jerked up the zipper of my jacket and I was ready to ride. Passers by may have mistaken me as the creature ISRO was sending to the moon on the Chandrayaan, but A’s enthusiasm and my new found zeal forced me to discard any misgivings or doubts I may have regarding my shape and general look. With the earnestness of one on a mission ,I mounted the throbbing machine. After a brief confused tumble, I remounted, this time landing where I was meant to- on the seat. A methodically informed me where to fix my legs and behind and I dutifully obliged thinking that I had been made to sit on bikes.
My beloved roomie patted me on the back before getting into the SUV. Her last words to me were,”You’ll be fine. Enjoy the ride.”
A stepped on the accelerator and the roar of the bike grew louder. He turned back almost knocking my helmet off with his and asked if I was ready to ride. Hardly recognising the affirmative squeal that emerged from my throat I nodded a yes. The over sized helmet wobbled on my head and the bike surged ahead. After a short discussion with A regarding the positioning of my hands and another discussion to ensure that the helmets quit crashing into each other I allowed myself to take in the landscape around.

The Great Himalayan range towered on either side of the straight road that led to Diskit. Their peaks poked into a bright blue sky peppered with wispy clouds. Along the road a few brambly bushes stood out from the sand. The cold wind blew into face and I felt my hands grow cold. Sunshine poured down on us as we raced across the landscape of the cold desert. Grey and blue shadows danced on the mountains creating hues of unimaginable colours. I began to thank myself for having ventured onto this trip and more importantly the ride. Ahead of us the white innova carrying my roomie and other friends along the road sprinted into the horizon powered by the sound of Himmessh Resshamiya crooning from the dashboard. The hood of my jacket fluttered in the wind flapping against the helmet . This was heavenly. The red Scorpio with the remaining team followed us in close pursuit with the driver and the occupants waving occasionally . Not a soul was visible along the road for miles. This truly was a cold , desolate desert.
A narrated tales of his adventures while bike riding across Tamil Nadu and I chatted occasionally taking care to avoid the helmets from crashing . While cruising along , A generally asked me if I wanted a leisurely slow paced ride or a stomach crunching wild ride. Being the terrified one that I am, I asked him to start slow and then push up the bar. Random thoughts about biking and Leh crossed my mind….the whole atmosphere was exhilarating. I began to think that two wheeled objects weren’t so bad after all. Maybe I could ride across Khardungla this way. Maybe all the way to Leh….heck maybe all the way home.

Suddenly as if tired of the slow , languid cruising that the bike was on, the Scorpio driver stepped up his vehicle and drove ahead of us. In response, A retorted by loudly telling me, ” sit back for now you shall have the ride of your life.

Famous last words…..actually second last words, because as he concluded the sentence with a hastily muttered , “Oh s*@%t!”. The bike wobbled a bit and A leaned across full and peered at the road over the handlebars. Suddenly left without support and completely clueless about what had caused this little halt I waited jerking my hands into my jacket pockets not knowing if I ought to inhale or sit still. The second stretched into nothingness as A refused to rise from the position he was in….continuing to lean across the handle bars muttering some cuss words that I pretended not to hear. I waited for the bike to restart so I could continue on the ride of my life.
From his doubled over state I heard A mutter…. “we have a flat!”
I stared at the red dot racing into the horizon as it grew fainter and the Scorpio vanished into the distance……( to be continued)

How I was Leh’d -Part 2

(this is a two part post of a trip made years ago( in 2008 to be precise) ;and narrated on another forum;but the story needs to be retold hence the blog post again

A dragged the wobbly pulsar to the side of the road while I surveyed the surroundings. We were in the middle of the long deserted road that led to Nubra and eventually on to Khardungla and the Leh valley beyond. The eyes searched the horizon for a sign of human or yak life…but there was none. I flipped out my phone and examined it, pressed a couple of keys in the hope of finding the desired response. But no luck- this was one place where no network followed.In the meantime A was examining his bike from all sides, crouching near it. From his position on the road he valiantly announced that we would have to stay put there until someone came to rescue us. The admission was terrifying. What if the rest of the group didn’t notice our absence until they reached Leh which would be late in the evening ? What if no one came along? What if it was not possible for the group to come back when they noticed we were missing? What if they did not notice at all……

It was around 12 in the afternoon. A rough calculation led me to believe that they would reach Khardungla in about 2 hours. At that time if they waited, it might be late evening by the time they got back. The thought was disconcerting. Would I ever reach Leh?

A was calm…and very reassuring. He’d get me back, he said I was not to worry. That was easier said than done. Adventures like this were necessary , he added. And to validate his point, he pulled out his Nikon and began clicking the mountains in the distance. So we could tell the tale. If we survived to tell the tale I thought to myself.

“How much money do you have on you?” , A asked cheerfully from his place crouched on the road.

I glared at him , not too happy to report that I had none. I had left my bag in the Scorpio. A didn’t seem too troubled as he fished for his wallet. After much fidgeting and examining he reported that he had Rs 102. Princely sum in these parts! But then A being A and never fazed in circumstances had a solution. He yanked out a gold chain around his neck from inside his tee shirt and ran an index finger over it proudly displaying it to me. He had this. And he had a watch which he dangled in front of me. Did I have a watch and a gold chain. i clutched my darling watch and gold chain in dismay . Would it come to that now?

The Ladakhi sun rays grew warmer and suddenly I began to regret having the monstrous jacket on me. A recalled having spotted a house in the distance in the direction we had come from.This seemed like the best admission ever. A dragged the bike this time to trudge back and I hopefully followed, clutching on to two jackets and two helmets( the sun got to A as well), praying that the inhabitants would be kind enough to drive us at least to Nubra.

Surrounded by a brambly bush that had been chopped at one corner to make way for a gate, the house looked rather deserted. But the more encouraging thing was that there was what looked like a pick up truck parked in the compound. A girl emerged from within and A tried to politely explain to her the cause of our appearance. If she was surprised by the arrival of these two helmet clad specimens , she didn’t show it. Her father was busy, he was having lunch and thereafter he would take a nap.If we wanted to wait , he would speak with us post his nap.

A valuable lesson learnt. When in Ladhak, never interfere with a Ladhakhi’s nap!

We trudged out of the house and looked valiantly at the road which didn’t seem to be too promising. A few more glares at the phone and anguish at the network suppliers followed. A was busy with the camera. I was busy wondering how my systolic-diastolic levels were fluctuating.

Suddenly in the distance we saw or rather heard the sound of a vehicle chugging along. And as if in answer to my prayers , there appeared an Olive green gypsy.It had a certain pre-historic feel and look to it, but then who was going to be particular. A and I peered into the gypsy hoping that the friendly army officer and his team would drive us back to safety .At least to Khardungla.Two anguished voices tried to explain to the bewildered officer the cause of our misery. But then , not all prayers are answered at one go. The friendly officer was from the BSF and not the army. They were going in the opposite direction, not towards Khardungla but towards Panamik. But we could hop in at the back and take a lift up to the nearest village to get a mechanic who’d come back with us to fix the bike. Seemed like a long winded solution…but then who had choices.

We hurried to the rear of the gypsy and A shoved two jackets, two helmets, his camera and me( in that order) into the gypsy and clambered in himself. Interestingly there were 4 men at the back already with sleeping bags , weapons and luggage. I felt something poke at me from various sides.But then again….this thing had a driver, an engine, fuel and better still it moved. So what if we were moving in the opposite direction. The long wait in the middle of no where taught me not to complain.

A little over 20 minutes later after having been poked and having had my feet and elbows crushed and several apologies hurled my way we reached the nearest village of Sumur. We were at the market square, which was a small intersection of roads surrounded by 5 shops including one restaurant and a tumble down bus stop. The only sign of human life was at the bus stop where a man lay across in the sun catching up on his afternoon nap.Naps are rather important in the place.

There had to be a place which would fix flat tyres here. At least, someone at some time must have possessed a motor bike which would have had a tyre which needed fixing. We were optimistic, but the optimism was just a front. The cheerful BSF officer sped away after we thanked him for the ride.

A went to try and wake the lone occupant of the bus stop up and got a grumpy glare in return. Another attempt at explaining our predicament began. Almost out of no where a group of persons appeared. Good, this was good. Human beings meant help. We would soon have a ride back . We weren’t in such a spot after all.

Except that adventures don’t get over quite so soon. The crowd proudly informed us that the lone puncture fixing shop was 30 kms away. And , yes, it was the only one in the area.Otherwise we would just have to head back to Leh.

I must state here that A’s optimism never gave in. So what if the shop was 30 kms away. He would go back 15 odd kms, bring the motorbike and then take it to get fixed and drive back to Leh. What was there to it? All he needed was a pick up truck to ferry the bike 45 kms. And what was more, he would pay. Any amount that was demanded. The numbers 102 danced across my eyes as they do in Tom and Jerry animation series. Inadvertently , I found my right palm clutching the watch on my left wrist and holding it tight. Did A even know what he was announcing in his Tamil accented, broken Hindi?

The crowd , all of which had been dragged out of their afternoon siesta did not sound quite impressed. There was no pick up truck available. For a fleeting moment I thought A had finally conceded defeat. But then again, an officer of the Administrative Service, fresh out of the LBS Academy and en route to Chattisgarh, never gives in. And A pulled out his trump card. Was there a govt office in the vicinity, he enquired boldly.

Yes, apparently there was and a series of heads bobbed and nodded in unison. The Tehsildar’s office was a stone throw away.

Never have words regarding the revenue administration been as encouraging for me as in that moment. Those who have walked the portals of the LBS Academy will agree that when in doubt, no one like the Tehsildar. The one stop solution for all problems from land revenue to domestic issues. The tehsildar is an amazing creation. He has been programmed over generations to be the point man in any crisis big , small not withstanding. Finally, a solution was in sight. We were in luck.

We walked to the place indicated.This was supposed to be the tehsil . A year after training in Rajasthan, I had imagined all tehsils to look quite the same. Crowded, paan stained, dusty, smelly and with a score of people rushing around. This however , was a wee bit different. For one it took us a while to find it. The place had a fence and we couldn’t find an entrance. Then a little child came along and pointed to us a slight gap in the fence where a wooden plank had been removed. Tehsil? A looked at me enquiringly.

Then in a fit of bravery he advised me to wait outside with the jackets and helmets while he would go in and find out.

Armed with the stuff I waited ever so conscious of the stares I got from the house opposite and the dryness settling in my mouth. There was more movement in the village now. Apparently, nap time was over. Every now and then a girl would bob up to me and cry out ” julley” . Maybe she thought I was from outer space. At least with the motley collection of jackets and helmets strung from my arms, I didn’t quite feel very earth-like myself.

A did not return and panic began to creep into my head. Bravely, I decided to squeeze in through the gap in the fence. Thus armed with helmet and camera I walked along the back of the building wondering if any place anywhere had a tehsil that looked like this. Maybe this was an abandoned tehsil. To put rest to my doubts suddenly two familiar sounds were heard. The former, A in his Tamil accented Hindi trying hard to explain the scenario ( an exercise he had near perfected by now) and the latter the tapping of a typewriter. This was indeed the tehsil office. After a slight round around the building I discovered that there was a door that led into what seemed to be a room full of files. Yes, this was the tehsil office. Praise the lord we were safe.

A was sitting on a wobbly looking chair in front of a glass topped table waving is hands frantically as he spoke. On the other side of the table on a high , swivel chair that looked like it had stopped swivelling some decades back. A bright orange towel shone from behind the head that was nodding as frantically as A spoke. On the table on a little triangular bit of brown wood were bright white letters that spelt ‘TEHSILDAR’.

Behind the nodding head confirmed the identity. A stopped as he saw me enter and waved his hands in my direction ‘Madam D, IAS , Rajasthan cadre”

Tehsildar Noddy head turned to look at me…nearly opened his mouth and then shut it again before any words could emerge. I strode in trying to live up to the general dramatic royale image that the “IAS, Rajasthan cadre” built. But then again, I had two helmets swinging from either arm, a white jacket nearly slipping out of my right hand and a black jacket thrown across the shoulder ,its arm length nearly tripping my toes. Increasingly conscious of the hair on my face and the sweat drops dripping from my forhead I tried to shove my hand onto my head and nearly succeeded in knocking one helmet into A’s Nikon camera which hung around my neck.

Regaining composure and trying very hard to look like Ms D , IAS ,Rajasthan cadre I nodded politely at Tehsildar Noddy. A carried on with his explanation. Could we please have a pick up truck to get the bike to the bike fixing shop? Tehsildar Noddy looked like he would burst. I wondered if it was a consequence of the image Madam IAS was presenting. But the nodding got furious as the tehsildar explained that he did not think he could arrange that. A and I stared at him disbelievingly, a Tehsildar saying that he “could not arrange”. Almost sounded like an oxymoron!

A tried to reason in another way. Could we have the Tehsildar’s vehicle instead. More vigrous nodding followed and the Tehsildar reported that he did not have a driver. A’s hand waves got more vigrous and I almost felt him choke as he asked if he could take the vehicle and drive it up himself.

A deep sigh emerged from the Tehsildar,his vehicle had not moved for the past 8 months. It lay behind the tehsil incase Sahib wanted to take a look.Alright, enough was enough. It was time to step up the heat here. I spoke up. Could we please call the district collector? He would send help. The nodding head turned to look at me. The phone had stopped working the last time it snowed. Which was last winter. It had not been fixed since.

A and I looked at each other. A looked like he was finally going to concede defeat.

We were doomed. We had a motor bike parked somewhere along the road to Khardungla, friends driving up in scorpios somewhere along the road to Khardungla and here we were alone ,hungry , confused , dazed with a Noddy Tehsildar and no phone.

For a moment I thought A would give up. But he started again. Could anything that moved be arranged. This time the determination in his voice was apparent.And generations of Tehsildars across the country recognise that tone of determination.Sumur was not that different after all. Tehsildar pressed a bell the lay on the table. A man at the second table stood up. A few words in the local dialect were exchanged.

Suddenly things began to move. A peon rushed in and rushed out. Two glasses of hot chai arrived( atleast some things are constant across Tehsils) A vehicle had been arranged , the driver was taking a nap but upon summons from the Tehsildar, he would be with us in a while.

A began to brighten up post the tea. Soon the driver had arrived. We sat in the vehicle got in two men from the Tehsil to assist us and headed towards the point where the bike was parked.

Once we arrived there many permutations and combinations were discussed by the men on how the bike was to be loaded into the back. Meanwhile I continued to do a rough calculation of time something I had been doing since 12. How would we ever get back?

A had other problems. He wanted photographs. And in my preoccupied state I had forgotten to click. So would I please get out of my reverie and click. He ordered the men to halt in their exercise while I fumbled for the camera that still hung around my neck.

Around 20 minutes later pictures clicked, bike safely secured, we were ready to take our fourth ride on the road to Sumur.

The driver drove a little ahead in order to turn back. From a slight bend in the road I saw a dot of white coming towards us and a sound I never thought I would be so delighted to hear. It was them. They had returned…to rescue us.

The driver jammed the brakes and suddenly a flurry of voices were heard. Familiar voices and faces that I had missed in the last few hours. From behind the wheel Rjmpb squinted at us. I tumbled out from my seat and felt my roomie S fling herself at me and give me the biggest hug ever. Suddenly it was all alright.

We were all going to Sumur now. Back to the Tehsil with a plank for a gate and Noddy for a Tehsildar. A and Ron would go ahead to get the bike fixed while the rest of us, six of us would stay back at the Tehsil. Finally things were back to normal.

Upon arriving at the Tehsil, Rjmpb went to meet the Tehsildar while the rest of the gang stayed back in the car. Since I was the only one who had spoken with the Tehsildar , I took it upon myself to introduce Rjmpb to the man. A and Ron moved on ahead and we went through the planky fence into the Tehsil

( Side note : Rjmpb while on vacation, tends to forget all issues that deal with hygeine and personal grooming. As a consequence, he had dispensed with the need to use a razor or for that matter a shampoo for the past couple of days.)

Noddy Tehsildar looked up as the two of us walked in. I was this time, free of all encumberances save my cadre mate of course. I announced our arrival with my deepest voice ,”Mr G, IAS, Rajasthan Cadre”

(Side note 2: Rjmpb is referred to as Mr G in company and he happens to be a cadre-mate)

Tehsildar Noddy got up from his swivel chair and moved forward jerking his head vigrously.I took a look at the picture “Mr G, IAS, Rajasthan cadre ” presented. Unshaved, matted hair and jeans that were torn at the knees.

Mr G however was living the IAS bit to the hilt. After the intital introductions were over, he even began to discuss the revenue working of the district. Tehsildar Noddy and his staff answered and more tea was ordered for.

Fifteen minutes later another occupant of the SUV, who got bored of the whole process of sitting outside decided to come in and make acquaintance.

(Side note 3: While at the sulphur springs at Panamik, the group had pushed R down a wet patch, and he was carrying memories and remanants of the sulphur springs and a lot of clay on his track pants.)

R walked in looking very interested in the Tehsil. This time round Rjmpb decided to do the introductions. ” Mr R, IAS , Karnataka cadre”

Tehsildar Noddy stared at R’s tracks and almost stopped with the nodding. Now that some time had elapsed the clay had dried and caked into brown splotches along the length.

We all sat around drinking tea and asking wise questions dealing with adminstration. Tehsildar Noddy looked hard at each one of us answering politely.

In between he would speak up checking” are you ALL in the IAS?”

And grimly we would all reply “Yes”

Two more rounds of tea were ordered , this time with freshly plucked apples. The Tehsildar sipped his tea and stared at R’s tracks. No one from our village ever made it to the IAS. We nodded politely and Rjmpb offered useful advice as well.

A couple of hours later A and Ron came back with a functioning bike. We thanked the Tehsildar and his staff profusely and said good bye to Sumur.

(Side Note 4: The story doesn’t quite end here. On our way back, the SUV had a flat at Khardungla. Yes at the highest motorable point in the world. It was late in the evening , 18000ft high and bitterly cold. But we survived that and lived to tell yet another tale. A brought back a few snaps of the lone motorcycle fixing shop on the other side of Khardungla and I leave you here with a few images)

Laxmi’s Story

I was just settling in for the night on the large Circuit House room bed when the phone rang out over the television news anchor. Not another fire I hoped as I saw the number of the local News correspondent flashing. Phone calls at 10.30 pm can never be good…at least in an administrator’s life. Bracing myself for the worst, I picked up the remote with one hand to put the TV onto mute and the phone with the other. The voice at the other end was confident and urgent as the polite apology was belted out. “Am sorry to disturb you at this hour,but I can’t think of what else to do. I hope you were not sleeping”

Even if I was, would I tell you, I thought to myself, wondering what crisis was to befall the district now…hopefully, we could stop it from making breaking news or stall the damage.

“No not at all, tell me…” I replied unaware of the impact this one phone call was to have in my life.

He began to tell me a gut wrenching tale of a little girl  around five or six years of age in the  government hospital. Her mother had been brought to the hospital by the 108 ambulance in a semi comatose state. This little girl was hanging onto her mother’s near lifeless hands as she was wheeled into the ward for treatment. During the course of treatment, the mother had died and the little girl now alone and in tears was running up and down hysterically in the corridors of the hospital. It was late ,he said and some people in the hospital not knowing what to do with the girl had called him up wondering if by flashing the news on the television news network the girl could be helped. “Can something be done for the girl, ma’am ? I don’t quite know who to turn to , so I thought I would call you.  Could you please help”

I had just moved to the district of Bikaner as the District Collector  around 10 days back. As official transfers are a sudden disruptive process my predecessor was yet to vacate the official residence and I was staying in the Circuit House. Not only was I new to the district , I was also clueless about the various officials in the departments, not having met everyone as yet. We are trained to deal with late night calls involving accidents, fires, riots but a five year old girl alone in the hospital. This was a first and I was not prepared to handle this. Still, a few phone calls later we had found the little  wailing girl. She was taken to the government run Sishu Grih, a home for the abandoned babies and children for the night. Laxmi the tiny little girl as she told us her name was unable to tell the officials where she was from. Hungry, hysterical ,tearful and in a deep shock and confused state she allowed herself to be taken away by the ladies from the social welfare department who carried her out from the hospital where she had just lost her mother.

The next morning the officials of the Social Welfare Department set out upon the task of trying to trace the little girl’s family. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts of the police and the administrative machinery, we were unable to find out where she was from. Even Laxmi was unable to clearly spell out where her home was .No one reported a missing child or a lady matching the description of her mother. The police made enquiries even around in the neighbouring districts and in all the police thanas but all in vain. No one came to claim her even after a newspaper notice was put out.

A few days later on a visit to the Sishu Grih I met Laxmi, a tiny little mite, chirpy and chubby. As happens with little children, the shadow of the tragedy that had befallen her had left her face as she played with the six other little girls in the Sishu Grih. Laxmi was like a typical child of her age, boisterous and giggly with the other children and shy and quiet every time an adult tried to speak to her.

Sishu Grih‘s are run across the state of Rajasthan in the seven Divisional Headquarters. Officials from the Social Welfare Department manage these institutions which house orphaned and abandoned little girls below the age of eight according to the norms laid down by the department. Bikaner’s Sishu Grih was housed in a campus with other institutions run by the Social  Welfare Department , the Naari Niketan (a home for destitute women), a home for children with mental disabilities (run by an NGO) and a Balika Grih ( an institution for older girls comprising mostly girls who had run away from home). As with most government departments the place was grossly understaffed and a single lady warden juggled her time between the institutions. Budget and maintenance issues were the foremost on any inspection of these institutions. Peeling plaster, old furniture and a strange dank smell that penetrated the walls of each of the rooms. A large ,overcrowded room with beds laid down in rows was where the girls spent their waking and  sleep hours. Meal times were equally cheerless, watery ,flavourless curries and thick undercooked chappatis signified lunch time and breakast a hurried affair with tea and biscuits. Government guidelines lay down that the girls are enrolled at the neighbourhood govt school and the same was followed for L and her new friends.

Two months later, as Bikaner celebrated the Camel Festival, a two day tourist extravaganza with cultural programmes and camel races and shows especially for tourists I met Laxmi again. As  District Collector, I thought it would be an interesting change for the children in the govt Sishu Grih to visit the festival. So the girls were piled into a bus and brought to the sand dunes where camels were being exhibited amongst cheering tourists and locals. It was around two months since I had met Laxmi, and  between all the  noise and chaos of the festival I was struck by her appearance. She had lost weight, a much thinner version stood before me instead of the chubby cheerful kid she had been,the colour had gone from her cheeks which were pale and her eyes quiet. Two months at the government institution had transformed the little  chirpy girl into an entirely new person and the transformation was not very positive.

A few days of thinking about what happened made me decide that a change was in order as far as  Laxmi was concerned. I placed a call to the Principal of Sophia School Bikaner,a  nun with a reputation for being stern and a disciplinarian. Sophia School is the lone convent for girls in Bikaner. After quickly narrating Laxmi’s story, I made a request, would it be possible for the school to take on the onus of Laxmi’s education. It would be a difficult no doubt, since the school had a completely english medium mode of instruction but this was a chance we were willing to take. A shot at studying  at this school would give Laxmi a better future,atleast I hoped so. In any case,Sophia was the best school in town. Along with Laxmi, I requested the principal to please admit one other girl, so that two of them could be together. She was positive, said she would be happy to help, in fact her response was most unexpected. I had thought I would have to spend a while trying to convince her, maybe pay her a visit or two. But she agreed at once, adding that they would keep the girls till the twelfth standard free of cost and bear the cost of tuition and books.

I put the phone down in my office feeling a warm feeling take over me at the thought of the alacrity with which she had agreed.  Laxmi was going to go to the best school in  Bikaner. The feeling was exhilarating, and the sense of accomplishment equivalent to pulling off a big infrastructure project.There was goodness in the world. Now as I recall those days of trying to get things organised for Laxmi’s first day at school, it’s almost unbelievable how everything fell into place;like a miracle of sorts. Now it became imperative to ensure that Laxmi had all that she needed to join one of the biggest schools of the city where children from the city’s economically well off families studied.Children can be quite cruel at times and I did not want Laxmi to feel inferior and inadequate infront of the other kids.

My next phone call was  to the same journalist who had found Laxmi in the hospital some months back. As I shared my joy with him I could barely contain my own excitement,”Laxmi has been admitted into Sophia School” I nearly yelled into the phone.

A brief silence followed and then,”Laxmi? Who ma’am?”

My excitement turned to exasperation,”Laxmi, the girl you found in the hospital in October,have you forgotten ? ” I nearly snapped with impatience.

As realisation hit him he apologised and told me that this was great. I hurriedly told him why I had called him. I need someone in the city to take charge of all the things she will need for her school. The commitment should be long term, someone who is from Bikaner and will take responsibility for her till she completes her entire schooling, even after I have been transferred out. Could he find someone.

The “someone” was in my office ten minutes later and Laxmi had her mentor. A week later Laxmi and Kajal armed with their brand new school bags and water bottles marched into their new school in their spanking new shiny shoes. With the help of other mentors we managed to get all the eight other girls in the Sishu Grih admitted into the cities bigger schools. Next up, a renovation of the building and new furniture for a newly created study-cum-playroom and some cheerful wall paintings on the walls to give it a new look. Swings and slides were set up in the newly landscaped garden and the girls had a brand new place to run and play in. A generous mentor arrived one day with new cycles for the girls. Each of the girls had a new mentor who promised to be responsible for them till they turned eighteen. Birthday parties began to be organised for each girl, an opportunity for celebration and the creation of a happpier atmosphere in the institution for them.

As we went along help and ideas kept pouring in.Life was changing for these baby girls and suddenly a number of people in the city had taken up responsibility for their future. Laxmi’s smiles had returned.  She had endured a tragedy at a very young age but she became the instrument for change for all the other girls in the institution.

In Service of the Nation

For the last few weeks the newspapers have been filled with paeans written on those who cracked the Civil Services Exam this year.Their struggles, hard-work and triumph have found their way to interviews, motivational articles and congratulatory messages from friends and family. Needless to say, the Civil Services  still remains one of the most sought after careers and success in this exam,enough to make heroes out of the most unknown students. Amongst the services, the IAS still remains the first choice of hundreds of applicants who apply for this exam. As the electronic media beams down success stories and documents stories of their perseverance and determination you can almost see the stars in their eyes as they elaborate the trials they faced while preparing for the exam and the joy felt in finally making it into the hallowed portals of what is known as the premier service of India. What makes it one of the most sought after careers? The power as most would like to believe? The surety of a stable career( mostly) as those who decry the service often point out? Or is it something else? Something deeper?

Ten years ago when as starry-eyed new recruits into the service we walked in through the imposing gates of the  Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie most of us did not know what being a part of the service meant and what lay before us. Amidst the mist covered mountains and the towering pine trees we set out on this new journey being trained by some wonderful senior officers. During the course of this training we were fortunate to meet and interact with some of the finest officers of the country and listen to their stories about making a difference. Their was a lot of idealism in the batch;90 young men and women waiting for a chance to go out into the world and live thier dreams of being part of the system.

Through the classes and the lectures, the horse riding and the long runs, friendships were forged and the interactions served as an insight into what can be called some of the brightest young minds in the country. The zeal and enthusiasm in the batch was infectious, each one of us was eager to get into the “field” and get into full time administration. I believe that the enthusiasm has remained the same year after year and I am sure that the batch that joins this year will feel the same thrill and excitement that was a part of us during our days in Mussoorie.

The Indian Administrative Service to my mind presents the broadest canvas to any young officer. The opportunities to make a difference are tremendous. While the debates on the merits of generalists and specialists  and technocrats and bureaucrats rage in the country, in remote corners of India, in villages and small towns, young ,dynamic officers are dealing with complex issues and providing solutions for development  in sectors like health, education, water supply , irrigation, micro credit . The cynics may point out aberrations and try and paint the government system as lethargic and inefficient but there are several unsung officers working tirelessly, implementing plans and projects, delivering and providing help and succour in extremely harsh and difficult circumstances. There are very few jobs that provide the kind of diverse opportunities as are available to an IAS officer in a district; the ability to reach out to people across sectors and provide relief and make a life changing difference is unique probably to the IAS. The experience is enriching and rewarding both professionally and personally.

Sure the negative news stories paint a dismal picture of a corrupt system populated by suppliant ,pliable officers. Probably, very few stories of upright, sincere and hardworking officers do not make the headlines the way the negative ones do. That’s not to say the latter do not exist. Anonymity was an attribute of a officer in the colonial bureaucratic system and officers are not meant to be in the front lines. But an active media and the social media has ensured that more recently some stories of tireless striving and passion do make it to the mainstream.

Over generations there have been officers who have in the most trying circumstances worked for improving the system where ever they have been posted. I hope as the new batch walks into the hallowed portals of the LBSNAA this year, they too keep their dreams and beliefs alive and strive to make a difference in whichever sector they are posted.There is a blank canvas before them,it is now upto them to paint it in the colours that benefit the nation.

Happy Birthday Mr Bond

Ruskin Bond, author of several books and the person who made me love the mountains through his words turns 82. For generations, Ruskin Bond has entertained children and adults with his own expressive brand of writing. My childhood in particular was filled with thoughts of Shyamli, Landour, Dehra and  Mussoorie. Through his words I discovered and visited these places and unravelled the stories of graveyards, mountains, deodar trees and relived the lives of Rusty and Binya.

His heart-warming stories about love, nature, trees, friendship, affection, travel, innocence packed my childhood with lots of happy moments. Even before I visited Landour, I seemed to know every bend in the hills and every shop in Char Dukan because I had seen it through his eyes. His characters have a certain endearing quality to them, making them real and almost a part of you. What I personally love about his writings are his descriptions of nature. Through his words you can almost feel the chill of the mist, the sharpness of a mountain breeze, hear the gurgling of a stream and relive the life he describes in small town India.

When I first saw him on a visit to our school, I was quite overwhelmed. Here was the man who had made me fall in love with his books, I had spent many an afternoon curled up with his books, cut off from the world, and now face to face with him, I had nothing to say to him!

In a world where blogging and tweeting have taken over and the shelves of crossword lined with newer authors every month, Ruskin Bond  has remained a favourite of many with his wit and way with words.

Happy Birthday Sir, may your words and images continue to captivate the minds and imaginations of your readers forever.

 

 

 

White Beauty

Last night while driving back from a meeting in Jaipur , I was suddenly reminded of a post that I read somewhere about the cenotaphs near the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. Popularly known as the Jaswant Thada, this is a memorial to the erstwhile Maharajas of Jodhpur. Although exploring places in Rajasthan is an activity best suited to winters, the lure of the place could not hold me back despite the scorching sun and the earlier part of the Sunday was dedicated to discovering this magnificent piece of Rajput architecture.

Located close to the Mehrangarh fort overlooking a lake this quiet memorial built in white marble was built by Maharaja  Sardar Singh in memory of his father Maharaja Jaswant Singh in 1899.Rocky hills surround the mausoleum with its finally carved  walls, chattris and jaalis. Laburnums were in full bloom adding to the already gleaming marble in the early morning summer sunshine. There was a film crew at work on the route to Jaswant Thada. They looked like they were from Korea , they had hired a vintage car for the scene they were filming and the whole “set” appeared to be quite chaotic as we drove in.

In the garden surrounding the main building there was silence broken occasionally by the sound of pigeons flying off the domes and then settling down again. The good thing about going in summer was that we had the entire place to ourselves to take in the stillness, the pristine white walls and the air of mysticism inside.

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Jaswant Thada

There is a brilliant view of the  majestic Mehrangarh fort from the courtyard here and I found myself marvelling at the sheer architectural brilliance of those who executed it in this hot , dusty and rocky terrain. The multilevel garden was green and well maintained even in the hot summer.Soft strains of local folk songs on a sarangi could be heard in the distance. Adding to the mystic feel about the place were the portraits of the maharajas inside.An old man in a turban oblivious to our presence stood sweeping the already clean floor. Incense sticks burnt inside among the portraits as the rays of the sun poured inside from among the jaalis inside the windows.Near a prayer platform on a rope were tied strings of different colours and bangles as well. Local people pray here and the strings are tied when they make a wish waiting for it to come true.

Almost the entire expanse of the city can be seen from here. In the distance the Umaid Bhawan palace seems to rise out of a cloud of dust and the city of Jodhpur sits peacefully being watched by the Mehrangarh Fort.

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The glowing marble gives the place an almost Taj Mahal-ish feel. My toes did get burnt though as you are required to remove your shoes while in this place and marble does get heated up in these months!

Before me the city stretched out and from this vantage point the sheer area of the city seemed to extend for miles into the horizon. Jaswant Thada stood silently, serene and calm , the spirit of the ancestors looking on at the  city they had helped create

Tales of Summer

Temperatures in Jodhpur are very high, its a scorching summer even for Rajasthan and May. There seems no relief in sight and the few wispy clouds that come in with the promise of rain in the morning seem to be driven away by the raging heat by the evening. The plants are beginning to wilt , the leaves looking  frayed and pale almost gasping for rain and water. Since when did summers get so unbearable.

May was always about the summer holidays, May meant summer holidays. Freedom from school for 2 whole months and no school bags right until the rains started. Before we moved to Dehradun, summer meant train trips to the grandparents in Dehradun. My grandparents lived in an old house with high ceilings, brick floored verandahs , huge windows and old furniture.Summers were a time when all the grandchildren came over. It meant hours of play with new dolls newly gifted by the generous massie who came down from Canada with large suitcases which were packed with hand-me-downs and goodies. My grandparents had four children. My mother is the eldest , followed by two sisters and a brother. I was the youngest of all the grandchildren until my mother’s younger brother got married and had two of his own (which was a big event for me as I abdicated the throne of the youngest grandchild with much pleasure). Since almost all the grandchildren were born in about one or two years of each other, a lot of clothes were passed down as the older ones grew older, taller and broader. Summer came to mean new clothes, not exactly new but passed down a notch. We all wore what the older cousins had worn at various times. No body fussed, no body seemed to mind much. Not just clothes, as a baby I recall having a pram that had been used by atleast four children before me. It was just an acceptable thing and the mothers would quietly co-ordinate on that.

My grandparents house was surrounded by litchi trees. May and June were months when Dehradun was crammed with litchis. Most old Dehradun houses were in five bigha plots of land , the house in the  centre surrounded by litchi trees. These trees grew tall with their dark green shining leaves and thick brown tree trunks reaching out into various shapes. Any child growing up in Dehradun knows how to climb trees and has at some point of time, fallen off one as well. There was  an old canal that surrounded these orchards known as the East Canal. It had been built primarily to irrigate the orchards.

The orchards were leased out to “baghwallas” , groups of men wearing dhotis and caps who came from Saharanpur with their cots and pots and pans just as the trees were breaking into blossom. They would spend their days lazing under the trees during the day, cooking, eating ,sleeping and inspecting the trees.Entire orchards would be given out to protect ,harvest and sell the fruit. Litchi trees have very insignificant pale yellow flowers. In fact the flowers almost blend into the leaves and we would barely notice their presence. It was only the arrival of the “baghwallahs” that would herald the litchi season. It was their job to look after the trees and the litchi crop right until it was harvested. As soon as they would arrive and set up their cots under the trees we knew it was litchi season.

Their main job was to protect the fruit from birds , bats and brats(us). For the first two they would set up scarecrows, ugly human looking shapes , with sticks for arms and a rag draped across which would be stuck among the trees and old metal tins would beaten in the night to scare away the bats. For us they employed more frightening tactics.As the litchi would ripen turning from green thin tiny bits into bright red luscious bunches of fruit temptation would get the better of us. Obviously we were not to be blamed. We would sit on the large window sills in my grandmother’s living room our bare legs dangling outwards gazing wistfully at the ripe bunches hanging down from the trees no less than a few inches away. Any attempt at reaching out for the fruit spelt danger though. The “baghwallahs” had a particular roar just meant for the children. It was enough to send tremors down anyone’s spine leave alone children. What was possibly even more terrifying was the thought of what would happen if one of the mothers found out. My mother in particular had a very strict code for what was right and acceptable behaviour and any deviation from it meant a good dressing down. In the night I would lie awake listening to the banging of old tins by the baghwallahs petrified that they might come to get me , listening for sounds and then falling asleep till the sun rose.

As soon as the litchis would be harvested and cratefuls would begin to arrive home. Bright red fruit waiting to be peeled and bitten into. We would eat by the dozens , spitting out the seeds trying to see where they would land,  sticky juice running down our our fingers and hands .Sometimes the pile would attract black ants intoxicated by the sweet smell. We would then have to look harder, plucking the fattest litchis out of the pile of leaves taking care to shake off the ants and then biting into the fruit. The experience  of eating freshly broken litchis is like no other. In fact nowadays so far from home when I see a tiny pile of brown, dessicated ,drying litchis in the supermarket I almost feel a pang of despair and pain.

Litchi orchards in Dehradun have been cut down now, making way for flats and commercial complexes. My parents house has two, a more hybrid variety that bore fruit when it was still quite short. No one needs baghwallahs any more now that the baghs don’t exisit any more.The East Canal now lies buried under a layer of coal tar where a road was widened over it, its memory only visible in signboards along the road named East Canal Road. Litchis still arrive in summer, but they don’t taste quite the same as they did sitting in my grandmother’s verandah pulling them out of wooden crates, having the juice pour down your hand and legs and experiencing the sheer delight of summer.