Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Driving blindfolded

Bhadrachalam Road…

The name on the building sounded strange, at least to me, if not to others!

Obviously, because Bhadrachalam Road was not the name of any street but it is a railway station in Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana). From here, we had to travel by road to Malkangiri district in the State of Odisha. The strange name was a hint that the journey would be an interesting one.

Malkangiri had no railway links.

Only in February 2018, a 130-km railway project has been approved by the Union Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (Government of India). So, the only way to reach the place was by road.

Thankfully, the driver (sent by the host) was waiting for outside the station, with a Mahindra Scorpio SUV (the only vehicle one can find on that road which passes through rough and tough terrains of the forest area.

We packed ourselves for the next 6-7 odd hours of the road trip through the rugged roads.

The fun (pun intended) began the moment we were out of the station. It was the middle of the night. The road was engulfed in thick winter fog with zero visibility. The windscreen was covered with mist. However, it did not perturb the driver who was zooming at 80 km.

Wondering why the driver was not using wipers to clear the screen, I was about to interrogate the driver. Before I could complete my question, he stated, as a matter of fact, “Wipers are not working, Madame”.


It was useless to discuss the matter further so we mentally prepared ourselves for the adventure. Thankfully, I was travelling shotgun so had the privilege of a seat belt whereas the rest of my co-passengers (including the driver) were happy travelling dangerously. The back seat did not even have any seatbelts.

The driver kept following the white dividing line on the road; and carried on racing unabated. In between, a time came when even the driver struggled to see where the road actually was. He had to stop the vehicle to clean the windscreen.

The adventure was over with the first ray of sun when finally we were able to see where we were going. The adventure topped with life threat was over. Looking around I realised that the beauty of nature in its virgin form was breathtaking. 

Malkangiri is surrounded by forests. The next hour helped us forget the nightmarish experience of driving blindly. Nonetheless, the experience also made this travel into a memorable experience!

Friday, 20 July 2018

Religious Idiosyncrasies

Before I could share the photos of my epic journey, journalism caught me off guard.

Scanning through the stories of the day (the journalist in me refuses to sit idle), I spotted something which forced me to leave whatever I was doing, turn on my laptop, and share this weirdness with all of you. Some of you may find it funny (not funny ha ha but funny peculiar), but it may ignite anger in most of you.

Every year, during the month of Savan (from the Indian calendar), people with strong religious faith, travel for miles to pray to Lord Shiva. These travellers are called Kanwaria (read more about them here) and this journey is called Kawar Yatra.

Years ago, these people were real devotees of Shiva and would travel on foot. They were simple, mostly rural people. Over the years, the trend changed. Now, convoys of vehicles with loud music, drunk and rowdy boys, dancing and shouting, is a common sight. Their indulgence in activities of vandalism, scuffle and violence with common commuters is reported every year.

Overlooking safety of every citizen, the Chief Minister of north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath decided to use choppers to shower these kawaria with flowers. That's not all, the state government will also use helicopters, drones and close-circuit-TV cameras to monitor the Kawar Yatra (their journey). The government servants will form Whatsapp groups to exchange information. There will be watch-towers set up. The paraphernalia is set to get huge amount of tax-payers' (you and me) money wasted in glorifying the ritual, which, today, is followed by very few genuinely religious people but mostly by the followers of the saffron brigade.

Think of this - so far, the government was not bothered about the rickety electrical system, but now they plan to change the hundred-year-old wiring, at least on that route which the kawaria will take. No one ever bothered to check the quality of food available at roadside dhabas, but now the government servants will check the food quality. The roadways bus drivers are notorious for drinking and driving at rampant speed (they know that if there is an accident, no action will be taken against them because they are part of the corrupt system). But now the roadways department will ensure that at least during the Kawar Yatra, these drives are not drinking and not driving at high speed either.

If this doesn't make you ponder over government's lopsided priorities, here is more. The government employees have been asked to use social media to educate Kawaria about dos and don'ts (as if this will discipline them!). The government is even working on a mobile app which is geo-mapping all shops, medical stores etc on google, to track the Yatra and ensure that the kawaria do not face any problem.

I was just wondering if the government had thought of paying even half attention to improving law and order, women safety, bringing down maternal deaths, infant deaths, upgrading the medical care of senior citizens, improving the quality of education (the list is endless), it would have done much favour to the state and its residents, than by spending recklessly on a religious ritual.

Lastly, the measures government is ready to take for a smooth Kawar Yatra, shouldn't these be taken in a routine way to benefit every citizen who has the right to get those services (of course, except showing flowers using helicopters!)

I am baffled! What about you?

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Stars in my Eyes

The more I delay and procrastinate writing, the more I admire and respect the bloggers and writers who are disciplined and regular. 

However, I have finally got the time to relax and have a heart-to-heart talk with all of you who still like to read what I write (despite long gaps); but before I proceed, I must thank and apologise to all of you, and express my heartfelt gratitude for being there for me.

Last six months have been a real roller coaster ride for me. When I say roller coaster ride, I mean it! I travelled far and beyond, and now when back from the rigmarole, I feel like sharing my journey and experience with all of you.

After contemplating for about a year, I finally moved my base.

Three decades ago, I had come to Lucknow - the erstwhile city of nawabs (there are neither nawabs [Mughal royals] nor the nawabi tehzeeb [etiquatte] and culture). Though coming from a small town, I adapted to the city as a fish to water. The city gave me some memorable moments which I will cherish forever. My beautiful girl and handsome boy were born in the city. I changed my nomenclature from a housewife to a working mother. I found a few lovely friends there, experienced love and love lost, changed the course of my career, and found stability in life, and most importantly, understood the meaning of spirituality and contentment.

Growing in years (don't ask the age), I realised life is not about material possessions and happiness can't be found outside, in temporary elements and stimuli. Life is loving people and happiness is being at peace with yourself. The realisation was strong and compelled me to move from the city, which I found to have been going backwards - from being a peaceful city to a growing economy, in which people are becoming rats, and don't get tired of running (not running for health but running as chasing something or the other). I saw people becoming less loving, more flashy. 

I realised I was definitely not a part of that race and was certanly out of place - the odd one out.

The realisation converted into action and thus began the process of packing memories and events of three decades in small cartons. it was physically strenuous and mentally exhausting. But what gave me peace was the decision and clarity in my head, that this is what I wanted. when we turned the house upside down, many memories and moments tumbled up. Some narrated the stories others took us back to the memory lane. Pictures began in flashback. Certain things were kept aside to be unfolded at leisure when the whole family is together (for example the letters my children used to write to me, practically daily), others made us laugh and in between all that jazz, we found time to use some old stuff and get some selfies.

Finally, in my mid-life, (when people find themselves more or less settled), I moved the base to a bigger city. The solace this city gives me is that here I have stars in my eyes - my left and right eye are here - my children are here - my lifeline is here.

Bags have been unopened. Plants have found their corner and appear happy. The house has become more or less a home. Life is in its usual course. Laughter and music have filled the void. Now its time to explore its vibrancy, food, drinks and parks.

Now sitting with my feet up, I review the year-long journey - first mental and then physical - and the thought comes to my mind is that perhaps this was the longest and an epic journey that I have ever taken in my life.

This is also the time, I want to make a promise to all of you and more to myself that I will be regularly in touch with the people who give me their love in the form of their admiration. I will be regular in sharing my feelings and experiences with all of you, as you are the one who motivates me to converse with you in written words.

Some pictures of nostalgia will follow soon...

Thursday, 18 January 2018

These Stupid Smart Phones

The first day of the year! We wanted to make it special. So, we decided to visit a friend. The plan was to simply spend a lazy afternoon chatting over cups of coffee and tea, and be home before Delhi traffic becomes mental.

What we overlooked was the God’s sense of humour. Every time a man enthusiastically proposes anything, the God happily jumps to dispose the same.

The afternoon was made to order. It was so perfect that we wouldn’t have desired any change in it. We walked out of our friend’s house through a beautifully manicured park in the vicinity. We reached the main road but shelved the idea of booking a cab. The weather was ideal for walking, and we wanted to make the best of it.

On our way, we also finished some food shopping. Holding the food bags, we decided to not go for any more adventure but book the cab. My partner’s phone was already off due to no life left in the battery. I had some left so I began the process.

Ironically, before the GPS in Uber app could pin point our location, the battery of my phone suddenly slipped from 29% to zero. What we found us staring at was the black screen of the phone. This was one of those freaky and leisurely days, when we both had decided not to carry the power banks.

Now standing in the middle of the shopping area, in front of a busy road, we looked at each other. Surprisingly, instead of feeling irritated or frustrated we burst into laughter, although the situation was such that we couldn’t even call anyone to book the cab for us, and we were not in a position to do it ourselves, either.

We decided to venture out and have some fun. The idea was to prove that we could survive and manage without phones. After all, human beings were surviving even before mobile phones were invented, and were doing quite well. So, why should we be so dependent on our phones? 

We took an auto rickshaw to the next metro station. I am an Uber person and not a metro fan. When I reached the metro station, my heart began to sink. It was over crowded and was full of all sorts of people. Everyone was pushing others and running to get ahead in the swarm of people. The noise at the station seemed like someone has disturbed a hornet’s nest.

The x-ray machine was another nightmare. People were piling bags as if they were from the ‘lost and found’ section. I was worried about my bag, which was a fancy one (no zipper but jut a loop). I was afraid that my valuables (two stupid smart phones with depleted batteries and money, etc) may fall out of it, while going through the machine.

Somehow I passed the test. Picked up my bag at the other end. Stopped to breathe some fresh air, and checked if everything was intact.

The train arrived and we were pushed in by the people behind us. Standing at the door, we began our memorable journey. After a couple of stations when we got some space to breathe, we found ourselves laughing again – at the irony of the situation and our adventure. As the destination was approaching we found the situation more and more amusing.

We arrived home safe and sound after a happy and also an eventful day.
The result: unlike others who make big resolutions every year, I resolved to never leave home without power bank in future.

The incident also underlined how we humans have become prisoners of our stupid smart phones, which, after all, are not so smart.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Invisible People

31st December – this one day, every year, the whole world goes crazy! People celebrate the day in their own unique ways. Some get sloshed only to wake up 24 hours later, wondering where the hell did they miss the first day of the year. Others sing and dance away to glory whilst ushering in the new year.

There are people, who would much rather spend the last evening of the year with their loved ones. And then, there are people like us, who prefer to chill in their own comfort zone – getting the warmth from the bonfire, discussing the issues of the world, while sipping wine and eating home cooked roasted tomato pasta.

Normally, the ambience on such occasions gently caresses the philosophical side of people; and we are not saints. We too were bitten by the philosophical bug.

On a serious note, the thoughts that crept into my mind this new year’s eve were far away from philosophy. They were purely based on observation. They were worth revisiting and held enough sensitivity to linger and ponder over them.

While we made ourselves cosy near the fire, my eyes travelled to a dark spot near the house. There is some construction going on, adjacent to our residence. It was 19:00 hours, and I saw a bright bulb lit in the middle of the otherwise dark and gloomy construction site.

Two workers were unloading the cement sacks from a truck parked at the site. The men were carrying those sacks on their heads for storing them in the temporary shacks erected at the site.

A couple of men were sitting on chairs with their eyes glued on the bright screens of their mobiles. It seemed they were there to supervise the workers.

The owners of the site must have been celebrating their new year’s eve somewhere posh and comfortable while the labourers were slogging in the cold night of winter, well after their duty hours. 

The sight was provoking enough for me, and filled my mind with questions.

I wondered if these workers were aware that it was the last day of the year!
Did it make a difference to them if it was the last day of the year or the first one?
Do they never feel the need to find such excuses to celebrate life and live it for a few moments?

I continued watching them from the balcony. They worked late that night. After finished their job around 20:00 hours, they cooked their meal and retired to their small huts. Their day ended like any other day in their lives.

The following day, which was the first day of the year, and a big deal for us to begin it in a special way, they were up and about in the morning. I woke up with the sound of a digger cutting a trench at the site while the workers were busy in their mundane routine. For them that day was no different in their lives as any other. The new beginnings and resolutions, which function as motivation for many of us, eluded them.

My mind was constantly quizzing and puzzling me. A whole lot of thoughts were squirming inside. When a person can spend one or two crore rupees in constructing a huge building in a posh area, why cannot he/she spend 2,000-5,000 to make the lives of workers a bit livelier! After all, these workers put in their hard labour to construct the dreams of others!

Putting myself in the owner’s place, I started calculating what possibly could have been done to make the day special for the labourers. The labourers could have been bought a nice meal. They could have been asked to make a bonfire – which for them would have definitely not been a luxury but necessity. The workers could have been given one day’s paid holiday on the 1st January, or anything to make that day a special one.

Any or all of the above would have cost a maximum of maybe 5,000 rupees to the owner; but it would have meant a great deal to workers for they would have gotten a chance to feel human.
My thinking process would have continued if it was not shaken by a sudden but harsh realisation – for many people these workers do not even exist beyond being labourers – available to slog for anyone who would pay them their daily wage!

In other circumstances (when there is no work), this community remains simply invisible to most of the people.

I do not believe in preaching, rather I practice whatever I learn. Ideas can strike anywhere and learning can come from any quarter.

I decided that from now on at least I can try to be humble and polite with these workers, who are in millions in number, in India, and make every effort to give them some happy moments.

This is because these humans need our humane approach and touch more than our money, which we spend to buy them.

If any one of you get some idea how the quality of life of these labour community be improved, please do share in the comments.

With these thoughts I wish Happy New Year to all of you and each one of those invisible worker!

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A trip that taught me to not judge

One can learn a lot just by travelling. It is probably the only activity that offers lessons on life skills, which no person or book can provide us.

The most prominent things I learned from my recent journey to Uttarakhand was: Do not judge people. Do not carry preconceived notions about people. Do not put people in slots. Do not form opinions about people. 

Trekking up to Tungnath [LINK] temple with my friends, was a life changing experience in many ways - we realised that we are ageing, we need more cardio exercise and that we need to travel more and trek more.

Advised by the hotel owner, we had carried our picnic along with us to Tungnath. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find a few tea shops running from small kiosks intermittently placed throughout the trekking pathway. 

On our way back, we stopped at one such tea stall. It was a small tin shed with walls made of odd shaped pieces of slate. In this region of Uttarakhand, slate is the most common construction material.

It was around 10:00 am and it seemed like the shop owner had just began his day. He was busy in lighting his chulha (the earthen stove in which wood is burnt) creating a lot of smoke inside. Although there were some chairs and tables outside the shed, we decided to sit inside, nexts to the shop keeper, so that we could feel the warmth of the fire as well as strike a conversation with him. Next to his stove, were the bundles of mattresses stored in a corner. We made ourselves comfortable on those mattresses.  

Sujan preparing breakfast for the guests in his hotel
We closely observed him doing his chores with a mysterious smile etched on his face. Whilst preparing tea for us, he promised breakfast to a group of 4-5 boys.

His demeanor was intriguing. Going back to carrying prejudices, we asked him his name. "Sujan Singh," his voice was too polite and soft, albeit his eyes were sharp. He caught us struggling to comprehend. 

Swiftly, he turned and took out a card stacked amidst various other items piled on a wooden shelf behind the stove. He humbly handed over his business card to us. 

Hotel Devlok - Tungnath 
Sujan Singh Rana
Mobile: +91 99275 90165      

"Wow"! Our spontaneous reaction spurted out in one word. 

With eyes rolling in sheer surprise, we kept staring at the card. None of us had expected the unassuming man to possess a business card. The man had broken the shackles of our prejudices - "How can an ordinary tea shop owner running his business from a kiosk can be so suave and sophisticated to  carry a business card!"

The back of the card mentioned: 'Please visit us for homely food and stay at the altitude of 3,680 metres (12,073 feet) above sea-level'. 'It will become one of your best memories of this place'.

It certainly did become one of the best memories for us although not for staying in his hotel, but because meeting Sujan changed our perspective forever. 

I made a promise to myself not to judge anyone from their appearance, ever again.

During the same trip, we had arranged to meet a yogi (a saintly person who has renounced all materialism for the service of his God. When asked for his address, instead of explaining verbally, which we had expected, to our utmost surprise, he sent the location to us using Whatsapp! 

Most of our photos during the trip are courtesy, Arjun
Similar was the case with our driver, Arjun Singh Negi. We had hired a car for the whole trip and were expecting a driver to look after our bags and ferry us from one place to the other. However,  and Arjun, a nice, friendly, young and educated guy, became an integral part of our travel. He became our photographer and more importantly our friend. 

These live experiences with real people of the world humbled me. The big learning was a realisation to how we carry preconceived notions and put people in slots matching to the stereotypes of the work they do. 

Thankfully, owing to this journey, I have returned as a wiser person with a wider perspective. My resolution from now on is: Do not judge a book by its cover!


Monday, 5 June 2017

Those 12 minutes...

For those 12 minutes, I was on cloud nine - awestruck by the voluptuous curves and unsullied gorgeousness that lay in front of me. Her vastness had a humbling impact on me, whereas the abundance was simply captivating.

The profusion of virgin beauty of the earth below compelled me to gawk at it, while riding the chopper that takes pilgrims from Phata to the Kedarnath shrine, in the Uttarakhand state of India.

Interestingly, it was not my maiden ride, on a chopper.

Back in 2007, I had travelled in a helicopter with the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, during his election campaign. For about 10 hours, I had accompanied him to more than a dozen public meetings at various places in the state. However, at that point of time, my sole concentration was on covering his meetings and weaving news stories around his campaign [LINK]. The mode of transport couldn’t hold my fancy.

However, this time, the story was altogether different. It was a journey amidst lush green, colossal mountains.

We had arrived in Uttarakhand only a day before. The overnight train journey (from Lucknow to Dehradun) followed by the day-long road travel (from Dehradun to Guptkashi via Rishikesh) had drained us. Yet, fatigue was not an issue at all. We were up at 04:00 AM. An early morning shower with chilled water (in biting cold) only infused a fresh life in us.

By 06:00 AM, we were at the chopper company office. The guy at the reception asked us to wait until 13:00 hrs, as we had originally opted to stay the night at Kedarnath. But the excitement was too high for us to wait that long. We decided to play our charm and managed to get the tickets changed to same day journey. Even then, we had to wait for a couple of hours, which we utilised in exploring the surroundings and stealing a few shots (photography is prohibited in the area).

Finally, it was our turn. We queued up at the waiting area, where the usher handed us our boarding passes and baggage tags. And, then began the extensive briefing sessions (preparing the passengers, majority of whom travelling in a chopper for the first time). There were numerous directives -  “Do not touch the seat or the seat belt”, “Do not touch anything inside the chopper”, “Do not talk to each other”, “Do not use your phone”, “Do not use your camera”, “Do not walk towards the back of the chopper where the propeller runs so fast that it becomes invisible and poses danger”, “If you drop something, do not try to pick it up but wait for the ground staff to help you”, and many many more such instructions.

The company had deployed two sets of ground staff – one for pilgrims returning from the Shrine and the other for those ready to board the flight. Each passenger was individually assisted by one ground staff member.

Guided by our leads, we were rushed towards the chopper as soon as it landed. The staff hardly took two minutes in helping onboard passengers getting off safely, and assisting the ongoing ones getting on and buckling up. The whole process was ultra swift and super efficient.

The pilot and the ground staff had their routine communication gesturing a thumbs-up sign implying all set to take off.

I was fortunate to be seated in the front next to the pilot, although the privilege came with some additional riders – “Do not touch any button on the panels in front or around you”, “Do not talk to the pilot” etc etc.

I was still struggling to emerge from those ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’, when the pilot asked me to wear the headphones hanging in front of me. Obediently, I followed that instruction as well.

“Hi, this is Vicky,” a friendly voice rang into my ears. I realised that it was not a routine announcement as it happens in commercial airlines but the pilot here was trying to establish a dialogue with me. “This is Alka,” I blurted awkwardly.

An ex-army-man, flying the shuttle service (this is how the chopper service to Kedarnath is commonly referred to as) for 6-8 hours daily, Vicky was manoeuvring the machine smoothly and effortlessly. Even his face showed no signs of tension. His eyes were free of any worries. I realised that he must be used to seeing people feeling nervous while travelling in a chopper; and he must have evolved an affable way of easing the passengers, at least the one sitting shotgun. He had succeeded in his endeavour.

I found myself slowly getting in-sync with my surreal surroundings. We were more than 6,000 feet above the ground flying amidst huge and lush green mountains. The sun was bright and the clean air made the sky look pristine blue. A play of light and shadows had created distinct layers on different peaks, reflecting various shades of blue and green, blending well with each other. The snow-covered pinnacles gleamed like gold in the bright sunshine.

The splendour of the nature had left me speechless. At the same time, the magnificent view from above had facilitated my imagination to take a flight of fancy. “Had there been a heaven on earth, it would have looked like this,” my mind wandered.

As we veered right towards Kedar valley, Vicky pointed at the river Mandakini, gently flowing below. Squeezed between massive mountains on both sides, the narrow stream of the river appeared innocent and harmless. This was the same river that had caused wreckage in 2013 [LINK], after a disparaging cloudburst and terrible landslides. The tragedy had left thousands of people dead and injured and had caused heavy damage to properties.

The whole picture of that catastrophe whirled in front of my eyes for a second. At that moment, Vicky, as if reading my mind, drew my attention to the old but damaged route of yatra that pilgrims used before the disaster. The ramshackled route was full of the remnants of devastation.

“And, that is the new route,” Vicky interrupted my stupor and brought me back to hope and positivity.

I spotted swarms of devotees walking on the 20 odd km long, newly paved track [LINK]. From above, everything down looked diminutive. There were also mules and pitthus (carrier men) transporting old, invalid and children or any other person who was unable to take the journey on foot or couldn’t afford the chopper ride.

It was a landscape displaying the faith of humanity walking in pursuit of an unknown but the omnipresent power. The scenario brought an involuntary smile to my face and brightened my eyes.

“So, we are here! You can see the Kedarnath Shrine,” Vicky announced.

I could see the shrine in front of us. Surrounded by mammoth mountains, it appeared comparatively small, but the exhilaration this journey had ignited in me was enormous.

Landing at the helipad in the Kedarnath valley felt like a dream come true – an experience to be cherished forever!

More information about shuttle service to Kedarnath can be found here [LINK]

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Trek: 9 km – Age: 50 plus

We made it!

There was a child-like exhilaration on our faces. The victory grin was only adding to it. The smell of sweat, for once, did not bother us. In fact, it was making the freshly tanned skin glisten like copper. There was a race going on between our heartfelt laughter and pounding hearts. Obviously, the laughter was superseding the breathlessness.

We had completed our maiden trek from Chopta to Tungnath – about 9 km!

“What’s the big deal?” The regular trekkers may laugh and ridicule us for our miniscule achievement. However, digging deep they also may end up patting our backs.

Three working-women – all fond of luxury life, fond of drinking and eating all sorts of vices and junk, none is into any kind of regular fitness regime, and all in our mid-50s – suffering from some or the other kind of middle age ailments.  

For us it was a big achievement, which compelled me to jot it down and share with others. Who knows whom it may inspire!

We were on a pilgrimage with our focus on Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines in Uttarakhand State. All logistics for that Yatra (journey) were methodically planned. Chopta and Tungnath were only a subsidiary of this journey and no one had given it a second thought.

On reaching Chopta (LINK), which is a village in district Chamoli, our driver, Negi (who, by now, had become our partner in crime) stopped the car on a narrow road. On the right hand side were a couple of dhabas (roadside kiosks selling tea and food) and small warehouse like structures. Sun had already hidden itself behind mountains. Slight rain had been adding to the beauty of the nature.

We presumed Negi has gone out for some road permit or something to do with his taxi. Meanwhile, he popped his head inside the car and asked us to come out and check. “Check what?” our spontaneous reaction.  In this rain, on the roadside what does he want us to check! However, reluctantly, two of us got out and crossed the 10 feet (narrow) road to enter one of the rooms in this 3-roomed warehouse.

One of the three rooms in the blue structure was our abode 

It was our abode for the night. Two double beds with thick quilts. No electricity, no hot water, actually no water. For records, located in Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Chopta has only solar generated power, which is not available when it’s raining. The idea behind this is to dissuade urbane tourism and related activities and protect the environment. The absence of modern life facilities, help the flora and fauna flourish in peace.

Within no time, we made ourselves comfortable – tucked in beds. Our phones showed 40C. No one moaned about hot water or even not having water at all. Rather, we enjoyed the thunder and lightning outside which intermittently penetrated the darkness of our room through a small window at the back, which we opened to get some oxygen.
Tired with our Kedarnath Yatra, soon every one of us was snoring.

The morning brought a new day. We were up at 04:30. The door of our room opened on the road. I stepped out, and what I saw made me pinch myself to ensure I am not dreaming. We were surrounded by snow-covered mountain. In front of us were vast and lush meadows (known in Uttarakhand as Bhugyal).
The serenity of the place was simply breathtaking

Chopta is known as ‘Mini Switzerland of India’ (LINK); and we were there!
I walked to the teashop next to us and surprised my friends with nicely brewed ginger tea. All of us were out on the road breathing fresh air, enjoying the fragrance the nature was exuding. Sun was gradually coming up shining the mountains peaks like gold.

We were told that Tungnath (LINK) is 3 km steep trek with pebbled pathway. To us, 6 km sounded doable and we were up and about around 06:30 to start our maiden trek. As preparation, we had in our backpacks water, toffees, sunscreen lotion, and buns and butter (someone told us that there would not be any eatable available up there. It was cold and we were equipped with jackets, scarves, and boots.  We dragged Negi along with us, who kept narrating fables about the place.

We must have walked only half a km. There emerged green meadows sitting and waiting to astound us. Soon, we realised that the lack of oxygen was making us breathless. A km uphill, and we were panting and gasping for breath. However, our determination was too strong and the natural beauty was too compelling to stop us midway. We decided that we may make it slow but we WILL. 

Taking innumerable breaks, talking to every passer-by, making friends all the way up and doing some photography all the while, we finally made it to Tungnath – the highest temple of Shiva (LINK) – one of the Panch Kedars.

The beauty of this temple is that it still maintains the natural structure. Constructed in stones, the temple merges with nature as part of it. The serenity of the atmosphere actually makes one feel closer to the almighty. There is no pushing or shoving for darshan and one can perform puja in peace, and can take as long as one wishes. No one seemed to be in hurry and rushing for the next activity.

Steps leading to Tungnath 
I have no qualms in admitting that this was one of the rarest of temples, where I could actually imagine all my near and dear ones sitting next to me while I prayed to God.

Unfortunately, we could not muster courage and strength to trek another km to reach Chandrashila and get the surreal view of Himalayas. Nonetheless, we have already committed to ourselves for a second time; and then we will go more prepared, so no regrets.

After having some tea and consuming buns and butter which we tagged along, we started descending, which was comparatively easier. (Will write separately about the tea vendor we met in Tungnath).

It took us three hours to reach and more or less similar time to come down, although our hotel owner was surprised to see us back so quickly. Interestingly, it turned out that the trek was not 6 but around 9 km – the difference may be between the pathway and the shortcuts through the meadow, which we explored while coming back. 

However, we were happy that at least we could make it!

Now, this Tungnath trek will always remain one of the key elements of our pilgrimage.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Rescuing a cat...

It was a week-long story.
Cats getting stuck on big trees, high buildings, chimneys, and other such places that fascinate the feline creature, is a world-wide common phenomenon. First time, I was part of one such story.
We returned home after spending 4-5 days in Delhi, on the evening of 14th April. The first thing we noticed was the howling of a cat in the vicinity. Two days passed with intermittent crying. On every cry, we expressed our concern to each other, but we could not reckon the helplessness in the sound.
Eventually, we realised that the howling was not any ordinary mewing of a cat but was definitely a desperate SOS call. The Sherlock Holmes in us squirmed and we started our silent investigation.
The building we live in is three-storeyed with 12 flats. Adjacent to it, is the other block with similar set up. In total, we have 24 apartments in Block A and B. Out of these 24 flats, at least 10 were locked as its inmates were out.
The first challenge before us was to zero in as to which flats she has got stuck in. The search began. We mewed and she responded. We stood in front of every flat with our ears stuck to the locked doors. We made efforts to find out where she was locked in.
The neighbours looked at us weirdly. Their loud expressions cried hoarse that we were mad. Luckily, that did not deter us. We had our discovery of the day.
On the sixth day, we found that the poor creature was got locked in the balcony of the flat just below us.
We asked the caretaker to open the doors of that flat. Reluctantly enough, he opened the door. What happened next was expected. The hungry and irritated cat was so scared that she hid herself in the hole that contains all drain pipes.
The caretaker was not in a mood to wait outside and give the cat anytime to calm down and come out. He waited for 5 minutes by the clock and insisted that he had to lock the flat again. Our requests amused him as he refused to understand why a wild and stray cat can be so important for anyone.
At least we succeeded in motivating the man, who obviously had no compassion for animals, to leave open the doors of the grilled cage that secures the balcony.
Now, the cat was just below us. The doors of our balcony, and the balcony below us, were wide open. We could see the helpless cat, as she stepped out of the hiding minutes later the front door was locked again.
We started sending her comforting sounds, as many as we could make.
Our biggest concern was the wellbeing of the animal. Six days, or maybe more, without food or water, in scorching heat, was a serious issue.
This concern was motivating enough to make us think. We tied a small basket with a rope and put some milk in a bowl inside, and lowered the basket in the balcony below. We placed an aluminium foil in the basket the sound of which confirmed that the cat was eating the food. The basket carried water, then tinned Tuna and then some more milk and two days we kept feeding the poor creature.
Nevertheless, we needed to free the cat.
We forced the caretaker to open the doors of the flat again so that she can come out. They opened the door but stood there like police and once again the cat did not come out. She again locked herself midst drains.
The attitude of the caretaker was worse this time. He was a bit annoyed as we disturbed his siesta (of course, during duty hours). He appeared irritated and without even waiting for our advice, he announced that he was going to lock the door.
We were disappointed but we did not give up.    
Now we were sure that the onus of saving her life was on us.We racked our brain, and eureka, the bulb of idea gave us light.
The door of the balcony cage just below us proved to be a window of opportunity.
This time we used a bigger basket and kept the food inside making sure that she had to sit inside the basket, to eat.
The moment she sat in the basket, we pulled it up.
Coming to our balcony was freedom which made the cat's rescue calls to an angry growl. She jumped on walls, over the washing machine, banged her head to the door. We quietly closed the balcony door leaving her there to acclimatise with this free but strange world.
She did not take much time in calming down.
We opened the balcony door and our front door and she zipped outside. Having gained energy with milk and Tuna, the cat jumped from the second floor to the ground and found a safe hiding under a car.
We quietly gave her food there so that she is safe and strong and thus free to mew around. We were happy that she is free but also sad as she had become the centre of our attention for last one week.
Now, I am sure we will miss her and look for her and wait to see her again, roaming free and healthy.

These photos are only symbolic

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

While they fill their coffers, someone chokes on their dust

Knowing that one is passing through Kabrai city [LINK] is not a challenge for the ones with vision or hearing impairment. One doesn’t need to see the thick clouds of stone dust or hear the roaring of monstrous machines. Just normal breathing is enough to tell that one has entered Kabrai, as one invariably inhales the fine particles of that killing dust that comprise the air.

Kabrai is a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is part of Bundelkhand, infamous for decades of drought and frequent suicides by farmers.

On 21 February 2017, along with my colleague, I took the National Highway 76 [NH 76 - LINK] to travel from Chitrakoot to Mahoba, for work. Looking forward to viewing a beautiful countryside, we were appalled to the sight that was waiting for us.

I can vouch that the stretch of Highway in Kabrai is so far the most polluted site anywhere in the country.

My colleague is from Uttarakhand [LINK] the hill state that was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, and which is focusing on development without damaging the environment, was aghast to see the sacrilege.

I come from the state of Uttar Pradesh, even though; I was shocked to see the horrifying surroundings. I had travelled on this road in 2007, exactly 10 years ago. At that time also the environment was polluted but this time the situation was 100 times worse.

Nothing was visible on both sides of the highway as the air was filled with solid dust emerging from the horrendous stone crushers, chaotically functioning on both sides of the road.

Each leaf of every plant and big trees had a thick coating of white stone dust. We all know that plants breathe from leaves. How much the vegetation in Kabrai is thriving, that can be anyone’s guess.

The houses were covered in a thick white shroud of dust. (See pictures)

The health of the people living in this area, and most importantly those working in these crushers, is definitely at risk. There have been stories of people suffering from Asthma or Tuberculosis but the danger and threat to the lives of people has remained restricted to sporadic newspaper reports, on which no action has ever been taken.

The indiscriminate stone crushing is also changing the topography of the area. Bundelkhand is known for its rocky hills which give it a picturesque look.

However, now these mute rocky hills are gradually turning into plane surfaces. Some rocks which the greedy industrialists are digging ruthlessly to get stones, present an obnoxious and ugly picture. The diggers have gone so deep that water has emerged from the ground (See pictures).

Once they finish with one rocky hill, they simply move on to the other, leaving the first one raped and molested brutally.

My colleague was bewildered as to why no environmentalist has ever filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) so a legal check could have been enforced on the stone mafia of the state.

On reaching Mahoba and talking to a different section of people answered all our queries.

The whole state of Uttar Pradesh is thriving on quarrying mafia, sand mafia, stone mafia, and many other types of mafia – all white-collared, mostly politicians or their close mates.

We were told that on that highway there are 375 stone crushers in an area of 10 kilometres.

Of these, 36 belong to Siddh Gopal Sahu. The influential man started his political career as Panchayat Chairman. Even since, he has headed the Laghu Udyog Vikas Nigam (Small Industries Development Corporation) and has been a Minister for Mining, in Uttar Pradesh. He has contested the current assembly election also this time.

Other 10 crushers belong to Raj Narain Budhaulia – another powerful politician of the state. He has been known for party hopping to stay close to the power.

The rest also belong to powerful and influential people, having major political affiliations that help them carry on with their work without any hindrance.

We were also told that tragedies are common in these crushers, obviously with no record of people dying. People who work in these stone crushers do not get any safety gears.

Moreover, the cost of ‘settling’ a labourer’s death is mere Rs 30,000 (Approximately US$ 455), that too doesn’t go to his family. This money includes payments to various stakeholders, including Police and Media to keep the matter under wraps or project it in such a way that it does not come under the purview of compensation.

Some residents with high credentials also claim that the District Magistrate is the in charge of collecting money from the crushers to carry it forward to his/her superiors in the government.

Anyone who raises a voice against the damage to the environment, or reports any casualty, the influential well-connected, ruthless industrialists cum politicians cum contractors cum mafia not only crush that voice, but even gag that throat that is causing the noise.

Even the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) that normally dares to speak against all big-wig playing with environment, has been silent on these stone quarrying and stone crushers.

Giving CSE a benefit of doubt, I believe they are not even aware of any such thing happening on a National Highway passing through Uttar Pradesh.

Hence, there is business as usual!