Saturday, October 23, 2004

Chapter 2

It was the absolute limit when Rajes commanded me, “Now sing a song in English!”

He had been pattering on incessantly, asking me to translate sentences from Hindi to English. He also wanted to know, since I live in Mumbai, which film stars I have met, if I have a car, if I can get him a job and how much I weigh. I gave him a mouthful and warned him he should not speak to me again.

I had only been half-listening all this time, my concentration was on leaning forward when there was an incline, leaning backwards when there was a decline, and hanging on to Timku like a burr when she attempted to cross a mountain stream. My fingers were numb from gripping the front of the saddle and I seemed to have lost all sensation in my legs, but still, it was the environment that took my breath away.

It wasn’t a vast vista spread out. We were in the middle of the mountains, and we were following River Mandakini through the valley of wonder. The track hugged the side of the mountain like a reunited lover and I often had to duck under craggy overhang to avoid being decapitated. My view was restricted to just what was to my right – above, fleeting snatches of blue in between mountain tops, somewhat like in Wall Street. Below, sometimes sharp drops to the bottom, just a slip of a hoof away. And always Mandakini.

Every twist and turn revealed her in a different avatar, and it was an endless delight of opening those birthday presents as soon as guests left. Sometimes she was coy and playful, sometimes distant. Sometimes she rebelled, sometimes she was a patina of sweat on a sultry day. And sometimes she was so close you could almost follow the words of the song she was singing.

I would never have imagined that the large mud-slicks sloping down the opposite banks were actually blankets of ice furiously melting underneath and feeding Mandakini in a continuous IV drip, if Rajes didn’t keep yelling, “Ice! Looking! You!” The blankets gathered in folds and formed cowls over the riverbanks, as if to hide the fact that they were losing weight through a secret diet program. Where they met the river, their underbellies were finally exposed, revealing snow-white snow. A novelty for us in hot-all-year-round-Mumbai, I couldn’t help but gape like an open-mouthed tourist, because that’s exactly what I was.

After about 2 hours, we stopped for breakfast. It took Mukul and three locals from a tiny dhaaba to plead with me for 10 minutes, trying to convince me it wasn’t that difficult to dismount, before I conceded and let them slide me down Timku. Supported by them and lurching because I did not know I had legs, I flung myself and my dignity onto a ragged, filthy mattress like I had just checked into the Waldorf-Astoria. The less-afflicted sunned on molded plastic chairs. Pilgrims stumbled by, shouting “Om namaha shivaaye”. Horses offloaded dung in mid-trot. Guides, palkiwallas and ghodawallas commanded people to get out of the way. My eyes were glued to suspiciously-unwashed hands deftly roll a ball of mashed potato seasoned with salt, finely-cut raw green chilli and fresh mountain mint, fill it into a ball of dough, roll it out into a giant paratha and then slap it onto a hot griddle. On contact, the oil sizzled, sending discreet yet definite signals, like a hooker in a funeral parlor. Outside, decorum is maintained, inside they’re hot.

Throughout my pilgrimage, wherever I ate, those aloo parathas were consistently tantalizing, almost making me forget why I was there. Eaten as hot as you can bear without getting blisters in your mouth, the filling explodes through the crisp pastry at first crunch like a sunburst on a rainy day. Washed down with small glasses of hot fragrant tea, the meal fortifies you for many hours, allowing you the luxury of taking in the raw beauty around without being distracted by the raw pain in your ass from riding.

Well-fed and refreshed, I was gung-ho about mounting Timku, and with buccaneering spirit, I continued to follow Mandakini to my destiny. If the mountain didn’t come to Kedar, Kedar sure as hell would get to Kedarnath.

It wasn’t just the occasional wisp of cold air that somehow managed to get inside my collar that made my hair stand on end. It was the possibility that long ago, in another time, the Pandavas may have trod this exact same path, when they came looking for Shiva. The story of Kedarnath is simply charming.

It is here that Shiva manifested himself as a jyotirling or cosmic light, one of 12, located all over the country. A pilgrimage to Kedarnath is considered one of the holiest for Hindus, and only die-hards come here. Unlike others, the Kedarnath lingam is pyramid-shaped, and as a priest would point out to me when I got to the temple, there are distinct images of Parvati, Shiva’s wife and Ganesh, one of Shiva’s sons, on 2 sides of the pyramid. They are so well etched it is difficult to acknowledge they are natural formations in the black stone. This lingam is worshipped as Shiva in his Sadashiv form.

Why is this lingam pyramidal? According to legend, the Pandavas felt anything but victorious after their win in the battle of Kurukshetra. Wracked with grief and guilt after killing their kith and kin and wanting redemption, they came to the Himalayas looking for Shiva who kept eluding them, finally taking on the form of a bull at Kedarnath. He dived into the ground to escape, but his hump remained on the top – forming a pyramid shape. This lingam is also one of the Panch Kedars – the others, which are different parts of Shiva’s body and also worshipped as his manifestations, are at Tungnath, where his arms appeared, Rudranath, where his face appeared, Madhmaheshwar where his belly appeared and Kalpeshwar, where his matted locks appeared.
But for me, Shiva kept appearing everywhere, and it was only since the last one year that the nickel dropped. My tryst with him had been planned longer than I knew, and my connection with him - before I was born. Another place, another lifetime.

Read more!

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chapter 1

Any moment, it seemed, my toes would fall off.
I stared at them, willing them to stay connected. It seemed to work, but I wiggled them a bit just to make sure.

As icy drops of rain continued to lash at my bare feet, I leaned into the stone frame of the doorway as much as I could to escape this sudden downpour, literally from heaven. They say if it rains after your darshan, your prayers are answered. Were mine? I came here, dragged by forces unseen, though not unknown. I came because I was the most unlikely candidate and at the same time, given the perversity of my life, I was also the most obvious choice.Whichever it was, I had made it. Shiva had called, I had a date with him so here I was, 5065 meters high on the Rudra Himalayan range, in bare feet with frozen toes, just out of the sanctum sanctorum of the Kedarnath temple.

Disoriented from lack of oxygen and succumbing to the surreal-ness of my environment, I focused on the swirling trails of fog that hung around me like adoring fans with energetic arms at a rock concert. Although I could not see them, I knew magical snow-capped mountains lurked beyond that crazed fog; I had seen their pictures in the gaudy but informative tourist literature securely tucked into my rucksack and to which I referred constantly.

One of my many revelations on this pilgrimage dawned on me as haphazardly and as unexpectedly as delightful surprises of tiny mountain flowers peeking out from below rocks on treacherous mountain paths: Just because you do not see something does not mean it does not exist. When you remove that fog from your mind, you can see those vanilla mountains clearly, as in crystal.

Nearby, pilgrims impatient to get in passed by in vivid color and swatches of warm clothing. They clutched to their heaving bosoms offerings of flowers, incense, small plastic pouches of clarified butter, milk, and ragged rays of hope. Bonhomie was the melting pot here as vastly differing shoulders rubbed together in good-natured camaraderie and from that melting pot the milk of human kindness flowed thick and generous.

There were the old and although infirm, the promise of salvation made them remarkably agile. There were the crippled, and there were the children. But there were no rich nor poor, no country bumpkins nor city-slickers. The only segregation was between those who were waiting - and those whose wait was over.

They recognized me as one whose was over, by the insignia of thick bright red kumkum horizontally across my forehead, executed by a priest at the exit with the flourish of an impressionist artist. My branding only increased their pregnant expectations as they spotted me, and they pushed forward in a contraction, the labor pains of the journey at an end.

It had been a long and grueling climb for everyone. About eight hours of balancing on whimsical, spindly-legged ponies just waiting to throw you off. Even longer, for those who attempted to trek, braving a hostile uphill path made dangerously slippery by rain, horse dung and urine. I had succumbed to a pony ride much against my wishes. The spirit was willing and the flesh, definitely weak.

My friend Rita, her nephew Mukul, and I had already ‘done’ the first two of the ‘Char Dhams’ – Yamunotri and Gangotri. Kedarnath was the third, and Badrinath would be the last. This is the traditional way of doing the yatra, left to right and although they seemed pretty close to each other as the yeti flies, we had to come all the way down south after each ‘dham’ and then go all the way up to the next destination. This is where zigzag was invented.

In Mumbai we had heard reports of a hostile environment, bitter cold, dangerous narrow paths and since it was June going into July, of unpredictable rain and life-threatening landslides. Rita was my pal since we were 5 years old and we had studied together at St. Annes’s High School in Mumbai. We had a Third Musketeer, Bina, also a friend since forever and living in Mumbai, but she would never have done this trip so we didn’t even bother asking her. In school we would bully her a lot. Rita had been living in the US since the last 30 years, and had been nagging me in that 30th year to do this pilgrimage with her. I fended her off for 11 months, because I really wasn’t into all this, but her emails got pretty demanding and frequent. Then she dropped the bombshell, as in Pearl Harbor: She said she had got her ticketing done so I had better come with her or else she would give me a fat lip. Not wanting to add to my already obese condition, I gave in.

Mukul wanted to come along as well, so we were two middle-aged divorced women and a strapping 30-year old bachelor let loose on a pilgrimage for the first time in our lives, 3 wolves without the sheepskin because although Rita arrived in India with a suitcase full of them which we carted all over the Himalayas, we never used them as it was blazing hot in the daytime and we actually got severe sunburn as if we were vacationing in Goa. But nights in most places had the cold nipping at our bones and we burrowed deep into musty hotel blankets, longing for the woolies locked up in the dickey of the private taxi which was unreachable, so it was all very confusing.

Kedarnath was supposed to be a cakewalk because there was a paved path all the way up – and as I found out, it was dung-cake – and the most difficult for me. I would come to terms with Shiva and have a conversation, one of the two times in my life when I knew fear. The other was when my son, Pinaki, was born. I looked at the beautiful but angry baby boy in my arms and trembled at the thought of being his mom. Pinaki is one of Shiva’s names.

Yamunotri was trekkable. Gangotri allowed vehicles up to the town’s outskirts, Badrinath, right into town. Ponies and palkis were available for all the climbs, but one has to haggle a lot. Each palki is carried by 4 men, and they are as sure-footed as the ponies and know the mountain paths well. I was really impressed at how they marched up the mountain in unison, then trotted down in perfect harmony. The palkiwallas, not the ponies. Ponies are the pits.

We had woken up early that morning, at 4a.m., when the alarms on Mukul’s and my cellphones trilled a sharp jugalbandhi, vying for attention.

In the two weeks it took us to make this pilgrimage, we woke up every morning in different and wonderful places. That morning we were in a delightful sleepy little hamlet called Sonprayag, where we had a large bedroom in the Birla guest house which Devanand, our trusty charioteer from Rishikesh, introduced us to with aplomb, as if unveiling a statue.

Arriving there the previous evening after an exhaustingly long drive from Uttarkashi where we had spent the previous night, we ventured into the immaculate and beautiful garden, dog-tired and all, down a flight of steps which ended in a ghat on the river banks. Sonprayag is where the three rivers meet, and sitting where we were, we could see the confluence of two.

The river was just a small stream here, but with a life of its own. On the other side, the banks sloped sharply upwards into a dark forest of fragrant pine and shrubs and we were convinced strange and dangerous animals lurked behind the shadows, watching us and licking their lips. A tiny bird with reddish feathers went through its ablutions. It dived into the icy waters, sat on a large outcrop of smoothly-carved rock that regulated the flow of water like a traffic policeman, and shook itself dry. This obsession for cleanliness went on for about half an hour. We were also wonder-struck by a cloud of mosquitoes swirling over twirling waters in a drunken dance who seemed to be having such a jolly good time, they ignored us and so we remained entertained and unbitten.

The magic ended when a large family of adults and children came noisily down the steps in their flip-flops, and settled down behind us. We smiled beatifically at each other without speaking, us three muted by the beauty of nature, the large family muted at last by cucumber sandwiches which they prepared and ate with great gusto.

Just as well we decided to call it a day and retire to our room after the sandwiches and smiling were over, because, as we found out, the toilet leaked. It took the manager and two minions an hour to fix while we held onto our bladders and made wild contingency plans about going outdoors in the dark where dangerous animals lay in wait.

Although the guesthouse had a fully-appointed kitchen where pilgrims could prepare their own meals, we sure as hell were not going to do that so we sent Devanand to bring us some food from one of the small dhaabas we had passed along the way.

The food was exquisite. It came in clean, shiny stainless steel tiffin carriers and laid out in the formal dining room on a huge table along with table setting and a watchful attendant at our elbows. Pure and simple daal, sabzi, roti and rice cooked fresh and piping-hot, it disappeared in about 10 minutes and we retired to our room.

Well-fed and relaxed, I took it on myself to catch up with some washing, which I banged around in a bucket of hot soapy water and then hung out on the verandah to dry. I had no idea when I would get the opportunity to wear clean underwear and socks again. When in doubt, wash.

Rita fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. There was no TV to watch, no book to read, no email that could be attended to and since we were out of range, no calls to be made – so Mukul and I entertained ourselves by singing at the top of our voices. We had shut all the windows to keep out the cold and mosquitoes the size of helicopters so knew we wouldn’t be disturbing anyone else. I really didn’t expect him to know any of ‘my’ songs – given that he’s from another generation. But he impressed me by knowing not just the songs, but the words and we belted out numbers by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton, Deep Purple - way past midnight. Then I impressed him with my repertoire of Sheryl Crow, Enrique Inglesias, Destiny’s Child. But most of all, Rita impressed us both because she slept through the racket like a baby packed tight with mother’s milk.

As soon as the alarms went off next morning, Rita shouted, “Hey girl, are you going in for your shower?”

“No”, I muttered, pretending to be asleep, “Are you going?”

The question was flung back and forth several times between us like a rally at a Grand Slam final, so at last we hauled Mukul out of bed and walked him into the bathroom with his eyes closed.

Big mistake. Once he went in, he just would not come out. We kept yelling in order to keep him awake. We pounded on the door, we threatened we would go without him – and he finally emerged, sleepy-eyed but washed.

The ghodawalla we had fixed up with was waiting for us. Devanand, awake at an unearthly hour as well, had washed and cleaned the white Ambassador we had hired at the Rishikesh ashram which was our base camp, and he drove us to Gaurikund beyond which point vehicles were not allowed.

We were greeted by the stench of an unwashed town, along with about a 100 steaming ghodawallas clamoring for our attention before ours beat them off with a stick. Along with the first magical lights of dawn came the realization that the journey to Kedarnath really began from this town: we had to leg it to the pony-stand, which was a half-hour climb up the broken ancient stone steps of a tiny alley where just two people could pass, cheek by jowl. This was full of people, shops and cheap hotels with clothes hanging from their verandahs like festive pennants. Rita bought two cans of oxygen from a dark and dingy medical store, not knowing then that once we were up at Kedarnath, we would be so freaked out by the rarified air, we would forget to use them.

She was still saddle-sore from Gangotri, so she opted for a palki. This was a crude wooden chair with its legs nailed onto cruder horizontal poles, and carried by 4 virile and crude young men, mostly Nepali. I gave into a willful filly named Timku after cautioning Rajes, my ghodawalla – a mere kid not more than 18 years old – to walk very slowly and carefully. Mukul got a mare called Chamki.

The ponies were outfitted with makeshift saddles - a dirty blanket folded and arranged on a sheet of thin leather, with ill-fitting stirrups that held your legs in a vice-like grip – the ghodawallas hold the reigns, not you. And you better trust them. If you value your life, you hold onto the front of the saddle, close your eyes, pray and roll with the punch.

Not exactly a feather-weight, I climbed onto a low wall and then onto Timku who, as I found out later, was fickle and refused to walk unless Chamki walked in front. Through the trip, Timku would have her head stuck to Chamki’s ass, never looking up, quite oblivious to the rest of the world. She would stop when Chamki stopped, walk when Chamki walked, pee when Chamki peed. She must trust her implicitly, and I was convinced they were gay.

Read more!