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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)
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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)

Pining for Pines

My grandmother’s home had a shelf in the living room with a tray of pine cones. Grandchildren or visitors who had trekked or gone for a walk in the hills would get back a cone or two and they would be placed in the tray standing upright – like a trophy or artefact from someone’s travels. An aunt of mine once  painted on them, giving them a glazed golden glow which soon wore off but for most part my memory of the pile of cones  is a brown,rough , chipped at the edges collection.

Summer holidays that were spent walking in the hills under a dense collection of pines were mostly about looking for the perfect pine cone, good enough to carry home. That meant picking out a specimen from where it lay hidden under a pile of leaves and pine needles, examining it from all angles and then probably discarding it later upon the discovery of a better , larger cone. All the while we would walk among the fallen pine needles,our chatter punctuated by the whispering of the breeze in the trees and the crunch of leaves under our summer sandals. Above us the pines stood tall and resplendent stretching away into the light blue skies and wispy clouds. PicsArt_05-05-07.13.35

There was a collection of pine trees a stone’s throw from our home in Dehradun. More popularly known as ” chir bagh” it lay at the edge of the cantonment a collection of pine trees on a hill, thick and tall. In the evenings the silhouettes of the pines against the Mussoorie hills were visible from the terrace of my home. My mind would conjure up many tales about creatures imagined that probably lived in that thick woods. It stood constant and a bunch of us had spent some days exploring the area, slipping on the pine needles, laughing at the strange messages that had been scraped onto the barks “Pinky loves Rahul” and the misshapen hearts that had been carved into the wood. It was a good summer and our fingers bore the evidence of sticky gum from the tree trunks. I am told that recently some wise official has converted the chir bagh into a park,complete with a concrete walking track and signboards to educate the public as they take their morning walks here and do their breathing exercises everyday belching and clearing their gut. There are no pine needles to slip on, the undergrowth is religiously swept everyday to carry away the leaves and zarda packets left behind by  visitors.

My mother had a huge fascination for pine trees. During holidays and visits to Poonch and other places in Kashmir she would pointedly ask my father to ensure that all the photographs being clicked had the pines behind her in focus. Not being one to disobey his wife’s directions (and being the family photographer in the pre-digital camera era) my father would keep the pines in focus. As a result we now have a collection of photographs in the family album that just have my mother’s head and lush green pines towering behind her. Thankfully my mother is rather tall.

I have always had an attachment for trees wherever I have lived, but pines, pines are special. They remind me of my childhood and of stability and of being able to stand tall in all adversity. The pines are all about home, the pines-they know me.

Fire on the Mountain

For the last few days visuals on the television news and in the newspapers have been painful to say the least. Image upon image of the mountains of Uttrakhand going up in smoke, tall once beautiful pines in the middle of a smoky blaze as the incessant fire rages on around have been belted out and experts on the environment pointing out the dangers of the fragile eco-system and its tenacious relationship with humankind.

I have always believed I have been a mountain girl having spent of my childhood in the midst of a valley at the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. The mountains were always a constant in my mind. Steady, solid, verdant green and silent. They stood tall no matter which part of town you looked at them from, changing colour with the changing seasons , snow capped white peaks glowing in the winter sun, a deep green in the rains and a lighter shade in the summer. For us growing up mountains indicated many things, a rainy day promised if the peaks were under a cloud , a hot summer if the snow didn’t last too long. As children we used to sit out in the evenings looking at the blinking lights up on the mountains where little villages stood out. From where I lived it was easy to see the twinkling lights of Mussoorie as the town almost blended in with the night sky and the stars in the sky.

Some summer  nights would be spent  on the terrace to try and beat the heat in the room during a power outage.At times, we would spot a small forest fire up in the hills and my mother would bemoan the destruction of some trees. Forest fires in the mountains were a regularity in the summer though the expanse would be small. We always wondered who was responsible. Sitting out under the stars in the gentle night breeze watching the raging glow on the mountain ahead of us we often blamed the man-enviornment conflict. The fires would disappear with the onset of the monsoon only to emerge on another mountain the next summer.

Visuals in the media look much more disturbing now. Probably the extent of the fires can be gathered in the press handouts from the government machinery. Over 6000 personnel pressed into action to put out the fire which extend across several districts in the Kumaon Himalayas. MI helicopters pressed into service to spray water over the raging fires, a reminder of the large strides we have made in development.

But as one watches the flames wrap themselves across the pines and leap from bush to bush as government personnel try to douse them out by slapping leafy branches on them, one cannot but help mourn the loss of an extremely fragile eco-system. The reasons for the fire are many,and the experts will have much to say on what caused the fires. There were lesser rains this winter, there is a mafia at work, El Nino, the list could go on. But in the debates that will rage on in television studios much after the trees have burnt themselves out, I wonder who will mourn the mountains. The steady, silent rock solid mountains are being burnt down. Hundreds of species that lived in these mountains, now threatened for their very existence. An existence that no MI helicopter can restore.

For years humankind and forest have lived in a happy co-existence in the forests of Uttrakhand. Even as civilization progressed this co-dependence was institutionalised through a system of van panchayats where families lived in sync with the mountains, collecting the produce of the forest for their livelihood and protecting them from damage. Uttrakahand is the state where the people realised the importance of the trees generations ago when the women hugged the trees to prevent them from being cut down in what came to be known as the Chipko Movement. It is indeed  tragic that the state that gave the country one of the finest examples of environmental conservation today finds itself at this point.

Whether man-made or natural this disaster in Uttrakhand will leave us teary eyed much after the fires have died out and the smoke dissipated. Let us hope it isn’t too late.