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Serenity and Happiness – The View from Dalai Hills

News reports and weather apps reported a monstrous summer below in the plains. Daunting prospects as we prepared to rejoin duties in sweltering climes after a brief memorable hiatus in the form of the Mid Career Training at the Academy in Mussoorie. April had been a pleasurable month both in terms of the inputs for Mid- Career correction offered by the course as well as the attempts at mid-riff correction attempted by the over-zealous ( and over flabby) amongst us who conscientiously puffed and panted down to the Happy Valley grounds at dawn earnestly beseeching the layers of adipose secretly hoping for a meltdown. After 10 years on the job the four week stint at the academy had been a refreshing change.

One morning as I wheezed my way for the customary run( walk?trot? crawl?) to the PT grounds ( innocuously called Happy Valley Grounds and as every probationer who has developed sprains and strains on each shrill call of the drill instructors whistle will tell you Happy is not an emotion associated with the said grounds) R and S were beaming with an idea. ” Let’s walk down to the Dalai Hills.”

Interestingly having spent around a year plus at the academy during the initial training days and having explored around it, I had never ventured towards the Dalai Hills. During the day one could see prayer flags fluttering in the distance and signboards pointed towards the Tibetan school but we had never really been there. In 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa he found asylum in Mussoorie right here in the Happy Valley and a Tibetan school, temple and settlement came up here. Later His Holiness moved to Dharamshala but the monastery and some Tibetans made this their permanent home. The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration overlooks the Happy Valley.

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The Academy in the distance

We walked past the new gymnasium, few shops and houses our pace quick enjoying the sharp chill of the  omnipresent mountain breeze as it fanned our faces.  Enroute a sleepy brown haired mountain dog raised an eyelid as it looked at us -undisturbed. We walked past prayer flags and down a winding concrete path under a gate that read Shedup Choepelling Temple. The temple offered a breathtaking view of the valley below- lush and vibrant after the rains the previous day. An old monk walked slowly in the courtyard in front of the temple , his wrinkled fingers wrapped around brown beads that hung from his hand, his lips murmuring gentle prayers as he shuffled. Tall deodar trees flanked the monastery standing guard to the ornate prayer wheels that creaked slowly. We entered the temple charmed by the vivid murals and colourful paintings on the wall. An instant calm and sense of tranquillity hits you inside the temple. Red cushions lay spread out in front of red wooden benches that were lined with books of prayer and incantation- signs of an early morning prayer that had probably just finished. In front of us a was huge statue of the Buddha surrounded by flickering lamps. The statue exuded peace and all four of us stood spell-bound.

As we stepped out we were greeted by the chatter of cherubic little kids in navy sweaters walking hand in hand around the temple being ably guided by a young boy and girl possibly their teachers. A few minutes of coaxing and the lure of S’s selfie stick and they were soon posing for pictures -coy smiles from the girls and mischievous victory signs from the boys as they huddled to get into the frame.

Merry giggles rose into the raw morning as S showed them the results of the photographs clicked. The simplicity and contentment of their lives was visible in their eyes and the sheer thrill they found in peering into the phone screen of a stranger’s phone. We waved our good-byes and headed westward beginning our ascent to the Dalai Hill top. The meandering path took us past the settlement ,a tiny tea shop, a few more sleepy mountain pariah dogs and a young girl wearing a bright sweatshirt deep in prayer that she was reading out from her mobile phone.

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The path up to the statue

As I panted up the steep climb I found myself being engulfed by the slow rhythm of the place. Prayer flags lined the path and the valley below. Each little curve offered new vistas- an unhindered view of the Hathipaon mountains on one side and the Kempty valley on the other. Prayer flags fluttered and whispered strains into the wind as the sun grew warmer forming a bright orange ball breaking out of the clouds as we climbed.

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The sun breaking out of the clouds

Daisies and wildflowers grew alongside the path sheltered from the winds by rocks and bushes. A shiny ,bronze Buddha stared down at us peeping through the maze of prayer flags as we faltered and panted up the hill.

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We entered through a revolving gate one at a time finally up the craggy spine of the Dalai hill. An air of calm exuded from the Buddha statue as it sat there on the platform overlooking the valley below. A few sparrows pecked on the ground unperturbed by our presence even as a Mynah and whistling thrush laughed and rent the air with their sonorous songs. It was almost like time had stopped still here- creating a Zen like atmosphere- unfettered, undisturbed.

A monkey made its way up the railing along the path paying scant attention to the four girls who stood there. As if by magic an emaciated cat appeared from behind the platform, making its way towards the new entrant. They cast steely glances at each other neither too keen to make the first move. Then slowly an uncanny friendship developed- maybe the serenity imbued in this place had its effect on all creatures- great and small.

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An odd friendship

Some how up there in the quiet, tranquillity the multiple divergent threads of my life gave way to the tempered calm of a Zen monk. Grudgingly we began our walk back – classes, routine and the rest of the day beckoned. She was still there, reciting her prayers , the young girl we saw as we made our way up. This time she looked up and smiled at us and even helped us past one of the mountain dogs which had now woken up and looked rather intrigued by our presence! A few boys from the Tibetan settlement met us on our way down smiling and waving at us as we laboured down the narrow path. It seemed that the Happy Valley is aptly named- most people here radiate happiness- despite their circumstances.

As I walked into class for the penultimate day of the course I wondered what it was about prayer flags and Buddha statues that constantly drew me to them. The chant Om Ma Ni Pe Me Hung reverberated in my head through the day. I had read the lines by the Carribean poet Amie d Cesaore sometime back.

Hurray for those who never invented anything
Hurray for those who never explored anything
Hurray for those who never conquered anything
But who, in awe , give themselves up to the essence of things
Ignorant of the shell , but seized by the rhythm of things
Not intent on conquest ,but playing the play of the world

It seemed to me that day it would be wonderful if we could just give ourselves up to the essence of things- seized by the rhythm of things, not intent on conquest.

A day later the course was wrapped up and I rejoined work in the sweltering plains, but that moment of serenity , the cool breeze and the smiles of the Tibetan children stayed with me long after.

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Grey, Sepia and Solitude

I have an inexplicable fascination for sepia- for the old  and worn out , faded photographs, for stories that permeate into the grain of discoloured paper. As the SUV halted outside the gate of the antiquated stone fort on a bright summer afternoon  I glanced up and knew- this was my sepia moment in the mountains.  A kaleidoscope of colour all around – crisp ,bright blue skies with fluffy white clouds the reminder of rain the previous afternoon, a landscape dotted with  enchanting shades of hazy purple –blue jacaranda flowers on the banks of the Banganga , crystal clear waters gurgling across smooth grey and white rock, vibrant green pine and deodar on the  hill side , the mighty snow clad Dhauladhar peaks in the distance and   the  steely grey solidity of a  stone fort that overlooked the colour and the buzz all around with a stately demeanour –after all it  had withstood generations of conquerors and the ravage of time.

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The sun was harsh and afternoons in hill stations are not meant for trudging up slopes of cobbled stone and breathing in stories of antiquity. But the minute I stepped out of the SUV and stood outside the Kangra fort gate, I knew this was my moment of complete bliss. Above me the fort stood damaged by the earthquake in 1905, invaders and time yet holding its own blissfully aware of the epithet attached to it-“whoever conquers the fort will rule the hills”.

Pariah kites flew in lazy abandon encircling the fort, surveying the ruins that lay below. Splotches of colour here and there dotting the quiet imposing sedate grey – an information board here, a newly planted bougenvellia bush in rampant bloom there.

I stood there atop the fort, trying to catch my breath post the climb and trying to take in the mystique of the structure timeless and eternal. Grey-brown stone columns standing tall , the remains of a temple,  carvings on the wall, ghostly silhouette of a peepal tree that knew more stories than the historical narrative could retell. It stood there wise and majestic its leaves gently whispering in the breeze casting patterns on the stones.

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Forts and ruins have their own stories ones that I prefer to breathe in on my own, with no guide or informer.  The Kangra Fort is not just one of the oldest forts packed with history , mythology and stories. Standing there looking through the ramparts nearly swallowing a heartbeat and soaking in the history  I was mesmerised nearly willing time to stand still ,not wanting to go back to buzz and rush of the city and work back home. The fort overlooks the confluence of the Banganga and the Majhi rivers and the windows present a visual delight of the rivers and the valley carved through. I have a penchant for clinging to old stories and each of the walls , corners and doors seemed to have a repertoire of endless stories of mystic and lore imprinted on them.

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Silence permeated the broken bits of architecture yet the stone walls wove their magic over me. Perhaps it was the solitude, the exhilaration of having explored something so mesmerising all by myself. Perhaps it was the dull thought in my head that maybe some of my ancestors walked these cobbled stones before me. The fort held a quiet, un-settling ,elusive  quality that I could not put my finger on.

 

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Maybe some magic still lives in these walls.

The Miracle of Faith

I watched the patch of moisture on the glass window of the SUV reach outward as I exhaled onto it, my nose pressed against the window, eyes firmly set on the icy, razor back peak beyond. We were at Khardung La, 18,370 feet above sea level, the highest motorable
(if it can be called that!) road in the world. Bone chilling winds penetrated into the jacket I huddled into as we stepped out into the rarefied air taking in the view around. Clear blue skies above, barren brown snow capped  ranges glistening in the morning sun and the road lined with loose rock and melted snow. After an arduous drive from Leh at 11,000 feet the cup of steaming hot lemon tea and bowl of watery maggi was welcome. A bright yellow board swathed in colourful prayer flags welcomed us to the highest point in the world along with a warning, not to stay beyond thirty minutes. Rows and rows of faded colourful prayer flags fluttered against miles of stark white snow. Nature in all her fury and beauty both apparent here and the faith of the Ladhakis in a higher omnipresent power apparent in the infinite number of prayer flags strung between peaks and all around this little pass which is also an army outpost.

Between sips of reinvigorating lemon tea I stared at the prayer flags, arranged from left to right blue, white, red, green, and yellow representing the five elements. Horizontal prayer flags (Lung Ta) connected along their top edges to a long string hung from high to low between rocks were visible all across. Tibetans believe that prayer flags spread goodness, prayer, mantras and blessings to all as the wind that passes over them spreads it into the universe. To me as I struggled to keep out the cold winds from entering my bones and the nausea that was inevitable at that height, the prayer flags symbolized an uncanny faith of the people in a higher power even in this perilous terrain.

Memories of the trip across Khardung La’s treacherous slopes and the fluttering prayer flags resurfaced while driving along miles of common grassland in Bikaner. This grassland- gochar or grazing lands belongs to the famous Karni Mata Temple Deshnok. Dotted with scrub vegetation, ber and khejri trees the grasslands extend for miles into the horizon, blurring the distance between heaven and earth. During the months of October and November, devotees who throng the renowned temple perform a parikrama here where in they offer their prayers and tie red cloth onto the ber and khejri trees. Red chunaris, scarves even bangles dot the barren landscape tied onto a tree ,a prayer on the lips of the devotees mostly women who walk for miles from their villages across Rajasthan to get here, their resilient faith enabling them to undertake this strenuous walk.

Legends and myths abound across the sands of the Thar and those surrounding the Karni Temple have remained popular in local folklore as well. What sets this temple apart from others in the country is the fact that thousands of rats live and are worshipped here. That alone makes it a fascinating place for tourists both Indian and International to visit. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Karni, who is regarded as a reincarnation of  Durga, the Goddess of power and victory. Legend has it that the descendants of Karni Mata are reincarnated as rats more popularly known as kabbas. Karni Mata is believed to have lived here and performed several miracles during her time in the 14th century.

The temple was created after her mysterious disappearance from Deshnok and completed in the Mughal style in the 20th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh ji of Bikaner. White marble walls with fine engravings make up the temple fascade. Two massive exquisitely carved silver doors were donated by a devotee and at the entrance a carved marble lion sculpture sits and looks on at the temple as it bustles with activity all the year through. But it is not for its architecture that this temple has attained so much fame but for the abundance of rats. At first sight it can be overwhelming for someone who comes here for the first time to see the thousands of rats scampering about the temple premises. Most of the rats are black, and the few white ones are considered Holy. Spotting a white one is deemed good luck and if you were to visit the temple and see a group of people crowding in a corner chattering excitedly rest assured a white kabba has been located.

Rituals begin at 4 AM every morning and are performed by a selected group of priests from the Charan community who make up the majority of the population of this small town of Deshnok.  Murky incense spreads through the air as prayers are offered in the main shrine. Kabas wander about undisturbed by the presence of devotees and priests and are venerated and fed by the devotees. As dusk arrives and the evening prayers begin you can spot men and women sitting cross legged on the floor, chanting their prayers, oblivious to the scurrying rats, enlivened with the hope that their prayer to the Goddess will be heard.

On my first visit to the temple, like most people I too could not keep my eyes off the rats as they oscillated between definitive states of action and lifeless inertia in the temple complex. The initial unease at this unique sight is of an ephemeral nature. Over the years the people of Bikaner and across India have developed an unfettered faith in the temple and the Goddess who presides over it. From the historic Maharajas of Bikaner and Jodhpur who worshipped the Goddess to the present day population, this temple presents a unique tapestry of infinite magnificence and incomprehensible trust that the people have for the deity.

Bikaner in all respects is a small town at heart , it’s people are good-natured with infectious warmth draped in absolute conservativeness. For the city, its surrounding villages and the areas around the temple, Karni Mandir is not just a temple that stands out because of the distinctive presence of rats. For them, this temple has been celebrated in timelessness and has been a protector and guardian over generations.

One of the first stories that was narrated to me when I reached Bikaner was one from the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Being cheek and jowl with the Pakistan border, Bikaner was at risk from the constant cross border shelling and air attacks. But the city and district remained safe during the war, a miracle that the people attribute to the beneficence and miraculous power of Karni Mata.

Since this story sounded much like the one surrounding the Tanot Mata temple in Jaisalmer, I was inclined not to pay too much heed to it when I first got posted as District Collector Bikaner.  One night only a few weeks after I had joined the district, a firecracker godown in the heart of the city caught fire.  As I paced up and down the Circuit House corridors that night, uneasy and concerned, alternating between phone calls and instructions hoping against hope that the inevitable casualties could be avoided, a concerned staff member of the Circuit House tried to placate me by narrating an event from 2002.

Army trucks loaded with ammunition for Operation Parakram had caught fire one January afternoon in the cantonment only about half a kilometer from the city. Around 1,000 tonnes of ammunition was reduced to ashes and the sound of explosions had shaken the city with several people still recounting having seen missiles that had fallen around the city. He recalled the panic that had ensued on that day but gently added, “Karni Mata protected the city,like she always does- the damage could have been huge, there were only two casualties. Don’t worry madam- this fire will be put out as well”

That night his narrative for me was like an attempt to offer chamomile tea to a raging bull – I was too perturbed to take heed of what he was saying. But as the fire tenders and officials labored interminably at the site of the firecracker godown, and the fire was put out with no casualties, I found myself marveling at the miraculous escape we had just had. Could his story have been true? Did Karni Mata really protect the city?

That night as I slept my mind was in a kerfuffle -grappling with the overwhelming need to stick to my rational notions and avoid getting into the ocean of inexplicable eccentricities that I thought this small town held. One thing was for sure, faith did over-ride rationality sometimes and possibly this was one more incident.

In May 2014 around 300 labourers in an industrial area in Bikaner, fell ill after consuming contaiminated water. Doctors suspected a cholera outbreak. Around 80 persons were admitted in hospital and more kept pouring in. We set up a temporary clinic in the industrial area and camped there along with other officials and doctors for a few days. We found several dehydrated labourers and the count was going up steadily. Teams worked round the clock ,frenzied activity all around, administering medication, intravenous fluids and checking factories and water samples. The situation was overwhelming to say the least. As dawn broke on the fifth day, a peon in the office, offered solicitous advice, “they will all recover, Karni Mata will take care.” For the second time round I was disinclined to believe what he said, the people lying all around me debilitated by severe dehydration hardly looked like they were on their way to recovery. As far as I was concerned, mostly the peon seemed to have tableaux of anecdotes to narrate, this was more serious stuff. Much to my disbelief and relief, the 300 persons who had taken severely ill began to recover; the unabated efforts of the untiring doctors and medical staff seemed to have paid off. Could it possibly have been a premonition coming true?

Mark Twain defined faith, “as believing what you know ain’t so”. Normally faith and rationality appear to be in conflict divided by some unbridgeable chasm. In Bikaner, however, the Karni Mandir of Deshnok evokes a faith where reason and faith work together seamlessly. Thinkers and philosophers the world over have written reams on the domains governed by faith and reason. For a cynic faith could seem like an occasion to suspend one’s critical faculties, but for the unseen Ladhakis who strung prayer flags across the treacherous Khardung La Pass probably faith gave them the capacity to deal with the exigencies of a hostile environment. For the thousands who throng the Karni Mata temple, faith in its miraculous powers is an orchestration of collective human optimism. For me the implicit faith of the people in the temple is humbling and probably a bedrock for a faith in humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long and Short of It

(At the outset let me confess that I am not just a dog lover. I am fanatically in love with my dogs.To the extent that I treat them as people. Sometimes better than I treat people.Or family. As a disclaimer,may I add that I am a nice,humane,gentle person to be with…just that the “nice-ness”,”humane-ness” and “genteel-ness” goes up a notch or two when it comes to the four-legged creatures. In my defence, being an only child who was raised in a house over-run with dogs has probably led to this peculiar phenomenon.)

All my plans to begin the weekend by sleeping in late today were laid to (un)rest by hysterical whining,scrabbling and scratching. “Twiddler,let it be” I muttered with my eyes closed trying to block out the sound knowing deep within that Twiddler never lets-things-be. With sleep heavy eyelids that refused to open more than a crack I tried peering into the pre-dawn darkness to catch a blurred glimpse of the black shadow at the bedroom door, persistently attacking it and pawing the edge while letting out tiny yelps and whines. A cold wet feeling swept over my toes sticking out of the covers. No I was not coming in for a paralytic stroke. I tried drawing  my feet back inward, with as much energy as a sleep deprived half awake person could, but the wet feeling followed. Tudloo , the younger dachshund was also awake and though not entirely involved with the other dachshund trying to crawl out from under the bedroom door, had also been woken up enough to proceed with his “good morning” act, sniffing and drooling over my toes.

As a long time owner of two dachshunds ( also known as the wiener dog), I have learnt that words like “no” and “stop” are not processed by the wiener brain. Don’t get me wrong, dachshunds are smart,intelligent,sassy, brave creatures. Twiddler for one has a hugely diverse vocabulary with a fair understanding of words like “walk”,”let’s go”,”khana” and most importantly unsaid words and sounds from a biscuit packet being opened. A mere whisper or rustle of these sounds are heard from a mile and he rushes to you with eyes wide open and expectant.

A lizard, a baby one at that was responsible for the early morning scrabbling.It isn’t  Twiddler’s fault really. Dachshund’s were bred and trained historically  in Germany to hunt and flush out badgers and rabbits from under ground with their long snout and short legs. Twiddler is a miniature dachshund, who may not hunt badgers and rabbits but the legacy he has inherited from his German ancestors means that no lizard is safe from his twitching nose. I hauled myself out of bed bleary eyed aware that either I needed to shoo away the lizard myself or risk Twiddler scratching the fragile government house door down. Obviously the lizard had long vanished and Twiddler continued to twiddle his long tail and paw the door hoping it would come back.  Tudloo the second dachshund had joined in. My morning had been effectively ruined.

I proceeded to step out into the garden , the super excited Dachshunds close at my heels. Once out I nearly put my foot into a hole right in the middle of the lawn. Tudloo’s attempt at destroying the lawn last evening apparently. “Tudlooooo” I yelled, startling a few early morning birds out of their perch on the trees. I didn’t need to. Oblivious to my obvious consternation,  Tudloo, had found his happiness dose for the day. Snout safely buried in the hole and paws digging up the loose earth his tail was wagging in gay abandon as mud flew in all directions. The weekend was well and truly under way I thought to myself as I sunk into one of the garden chairs trying to position myself away from the missiles of mud flying in all directions. Tudloo is a regular dachshund who loves to burrow as deep as he can. A few minutes later he came running and flopped at my feet panting, paws, nose, snout and ears caked with mud. The gardener had his task cut out for the day with filling the giant pit in the lawn.

Tudloo and the gardener have a unique love-hate relationship. Tudloo loves the gardener and all the work he does and the gardener hates Tudloo and all the work he does! Summers are not so bad . A few holes in the lawn every now and then.  It’s winters when all the baghwan bhayia’s detest for Tudloo peaks. Winter is about a packed kitchen garden.And radishes. And ecstasy for Tudloo. Tudloo loves radishes.And some unique dachshund instinct enables him to sniff out  in the radish bed, the largest ripest radish, scrabble it out, yank it by the leaves, and then bite into the white, ripe root till nothing is left but a pile of green leaves and a day (and night) of endless cursing by the baghwan bhayia not to mention a host of  groaning and rumbling sounds from Tudloo’s tummy .

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Tudloo post vandalising the radish bed

In my entire lifetime of growing up with dogs I have not known of dogs to hunt out and swallow pungent ,acrid radishes. But like human-beings I believe each dog is born with their own unique kinks and weaknesses and so it is with Tudloo.

In the meantime Twiddler is off on his own hunting expedition. I yell out his name in vain ,he is stone deaf when busy in the bushes. If you have a dachshund in your family, you will know that there is no human or animal more stubborn than a dachshund who has made up his mind to do  something( or more importantly avoid doing it). Twiddler came back a little later with a largely satisfied expression on his face. “BOTH of you are mean waking me up this early ” I grumbled as  Twiddler proceeded to launch into a stretching routine sticking his legs outward. His normally twiddling pointy tail was still pointing straight upward. A concerned innocent stare met my stern gaze as Twiddler rolled his eyeballs upwards showing the whites of his eyes.

Twiddler has a repertoire of facial expressions to match the tone and tenor of my voice. Stern admonishing is met with the rolling of eyes and a “I-didn’t-do-it” look.  Biscuit packets and papaya slices  or any form of food really, usually get firm-unto-death stares where the  dark-brown eyeballs stare at you fixated hypnotically until a biscuit/papaya slice slides down from your fingers onto the waiting pink tongue. Then there is the all innocent look especially reserved for moments when you are trying to  get  the canine off a bed or a sofa. I have so many years later realised that this is a waste of time. Dachshunds will find the softest cushion or pillow in the room and stretch out on it and there is nothing you can do about it.

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Tudloo and Twiddler taking a nap

I wish my parents would realise that. Particularly my father. The battle of man and dachshie was won by the dachshie eons ago,and the cushion was the trophy reserved for the dachshie. My dad however believes otherwise. Pointlessly so I may add. Dachshunds know cushions belong to them and will go to any extent to brainwash humans into believing that as well.

A little later I snoozed off in the garden itself with the dogs at my feet and the refreshing morning breeze. Woke up about twenty minutes later when the dogs started to bark in unison at the newspaper delivery boy. Between the two of them the barking was enough to wake up the entire lane. Ordinarily Twiddler is quite welcoming of guests. In fact when friends come over he put his head on to their knees, begs to get petted and then proceeds to take everyone on a conducted tour of the house-room by room. Which does not bode well for the safety and security of the house- isn’t that why people keep dogs?! But thankfully there is Tumble my brave Pinscher who was brought home as a dachshund puppy but grew into a tall ,lanky strong pinscher in a very ugly- duckling-who-was-not-aware-he-was-a-swan-esque way but that is another story for another blog post.

 

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)

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.