Saturday, December 31, 2016

Garwhal Days

State Bank of Gongi
We had a few hours to kill before meeting a government official at Ukhimath and that's why we decided to drive to Ransi. Soon the conversation steered to money supply, and... Gongi. Two days ago, a public sector bank at Ukhimath had received deposits from an entire village, to the tune of 4.5 crores (about 700,000 USD). The banking staff of this remote township were so overwhelmed that they asked the villagers to wait till end of day, just so that they could disperse other irritated demonetized customers waiting to withdraw and deposit small amounts. The bulk deposit was from Gongi, a village consisting of about 60 or 70 families, mostly goat and sheep herders, located about 23 kilometers away from the nearest road-head - Triyuginarayan village.

The savings from cattle herding are treated as a common village asset, a socialist corpus out of which they give out loans to people from nearby towns. Local lending, what's so special? To start with, they charge an interest rate of about 20-24% (lower than credit cards and way lower than loan sharks). Surprisingly no collateral is needed, just your promise of repayment at an agreed upon date would do. No documentation! No KYC norms! An ancient tradition based on integrity and trust.

But how would anyone, forget a medieval remote village up in the woods, enforce payments, I wondered... unless they set their goons upon you or something. How do they deal with NPAs, I wondered.

What if someone does not pay back, I asked. "Not pay back??? No question of that sir, people pay back promptly, else their entire family will be doomed", Manwar replied. Now, Manwar is a good driver. I trust him to drive me and everyone I like, around the mountains.

But how will the NPAs be doomed?

"Sir, everyone in the errant family suffers, ek dum." Some sort of divine intervention, if you want to call it that. To buttress the theory, he recounted tales of people he knew, including that of his uncle whose wife went mentally unstable, before the fellow lost his life... and his son died in a road accident. They say the curse of Gongi will not spare even the future generations. Wow!

The drive back from Ransi was beautiful and uneventful for the most part and silent. In the middle of a field, I spotted a lone tree filled to the brim with white flowers. Now, this tree is not uncommon around here, and I'd been meaning to ask someone what its name was. I'd seen a similar tree on Dodi Tal trek route, where it was more of a wishing tree with people punching coins into its bark to have their desires answered.

We call it Painya, Manwar said. It is a special tree with great powers. In fact, all the loans at Gongi originate with the parties sitting beneath this tree and agreeing to the terms of the deal.
I asked Manwar if it would be technically possible for me to take out a Gongi loan. He laughed dismissively, but said "haan haan possible hain, kyoon nahin, par local guarantor hona chaahiye. (possible if you have a local guarantor.) "That should not be a problem", I said, "You will be my guarantor, will you not?" One of those what-say-you moments. He said "yes, ha ha ha, yes of course" in a veiled attempt at humor while looking at me in the rear view mirror to see if I was being serious. I did not push the matter much. In those seconds, I'm sure he visualized the horror awaiting him in his future in which, unable to repay, I flee to the relative safety of the plains while he and his generations to come are left stranded, staring at the unforgiving curse of the State Bank of Gongi.

The Legend of Prem Singh
Prem Singh is an honorable man. He was the first employee we hired and the first employee we fired. He is about 45 years young, but looks much older. He stands firm at about five foot six inches above the ground, bulky, almost bald, with a weathered-and-worn/ bruised-and-battered-villainous look adorning his face.

Not ones to judge anyone by their countenance, we put him on our rolls. His task for the first day at work was to cut the overgrown grass and weeds (pun intended) from 5 or 6 small parcels of farmland. Something that should take about a day and a half, at the most, to complete.

So, when on the evening of the Fourth day, when Prem Singh came up to us and declared proudly that he still had some more ground left to go, we were clearly not enthused. A day before, Chachi had complained to us about his slow pace. She claimed that she could have completed all of it in three days, using her blunt sickle, in her spare time.

Not ones to let operational inefficiencies pass, we asked him to sit down (on the stone slab of the temple) and tell us what HIS problem was. I still wonder what we were trying to accomplish with that question. May be we wanted to watch him squirm at the realization of his snailish pace, probably confess his lethargy, or just may be extract a promise to work faster from the next sunrise.
But, we had completely underestimated Prem Singh. He stared at us for a small while, mumbled something totally incoherent, stood up, and left. We were a bit taken aback...did he just leave? Did he just curse us in Garwhali and leave????

Baba was not too surprised when we told him that Prem Singh had left. "Chale gaye? Wo aisa hi hain. Jaane do usko. Jisko kaam karna hi nahin hain, usko rekhne se kya fayda, hain na?" (He left? He is like that. Let him go. Why suffer a worker who does not want to work?)

That was it. Altitude Syndrome's first firing. Baba promised he would convey the termination note if and when Prem Singh reported for duty the next day. The sun had set by the time we walked down to the village. It was mid-September, so the chill wasn't too bad. A few womenfolk carrying their 30-kilo burden of firewood (each) for Mamaji’s daughter’s wedding gave us warm company with their chatter.

But we still had a problem to solve. There was an acute near-term labor shortage in the village. In hindsight, the September of 2016 was a good time for people to travel to these parts, and Deoria Tal (situated 2.6 km away from the village) was attracting its share of tourists, trekkers, and fell people. By extension….anyone in the village who was able to lift an arm or leg was gainfully employed. We badly needed two or three break down and clear some chunky boulders on our proposed site. There were two people shortlisted for the job, but we had just fired the only one who had showed up.

Two days later, we walked up to our site to see two people at work breaking boulders. The sound of hammer (gun, in local lingo) hitting the bit came closer as we tried to make our way through grass and plants "cleared" halfheartedly by our friend two days ago. Much to our surprise, along with the new person, Sundar Singh, was our very own Prem Singh.

Wait, didn't we fire this Prem Singh? What the hell is happening???

Well, the story is short. Sundar could not single-handedly do the job. To break boulders, he needed a guy who could wield the heavy man-o-war hammer. Short of men, Baba had asked Prem Singh if he wanted to try out this new assignment on a temp basis.

And….did Prem Singh take to his new task with gusto - not just breaking stones and boulders, he excelled at any task that called for tough labor- ferrying rock pieces around, lifting equipment, what not. He even erected a 45 by 10 foot stone reinforcement wall, all by himself. Not for him, the “sissy” task of cutting a bunch of overgrown weed or some pesky plant. (We are working on the policy document that pays good attention to job fitment.)

Prem Singh thus holds the uniquestest distinction of being the first employee we hired, the first we fired, and the first we rehired. As somebody texted once, Prem Singh ki jai ho!

Holy Cows

Mamaji's cow fell off the village path on to the field below and snapped something. Most people assumed that it was her spine; others thought it might have been one of her hind legs - though there was nothing protruding from her body to suggest that that was the case; and a minority consisting of die-hard optimists opined that she was just shocked and would get over it in a few days. She could not move an inch on her own nor could pull herself up, that much everyone in the village knew, for the men had to lift her up on their shoulders and carry her to the cow shed.

When the vet arrived two days later, Mamaji's cow was still slouched to the ground. The five or six people who had assembled to help, positioned some bricks around her. They then lifted her up using a few wooden flats kept below her belly. The flats were placed on the bricks and she could now stand again on all fours, albeit on artificial support. The inspection lasted for about thirty minutes. They then removed the flats and lowered her gently on the the ground. Someone sprayed water on her using an ordinary garden hose in an obvious attempt to clean her up.

The vet pronounced his judgement. No spine, no bone was broken. She would be able to mind her own business in a few days. All she needed was some sunshine, which was relatively abundant in early November, and a regular cleaning up. The optimists rejoiced; the rest of the village went their own way.

Whatever was to become of her, this particular cow was lucky....luckier than the one caught by a leopard four nights ago. They say that when a leopard goes for the kill, it can devour thirty kilograms of meat in one sitting. One can safely assume that no mammal can make it out of that kind of an ordeal alive. The remains of that cow was still a feature in the middle of a less-frequented road for a few more days. I walked past the spot to see a desperate lone dog trying to make the most of what's left of it. I clicked a few pictures despite the bile inducing stench.

On a late night drive from Theda village (where Pandav Mela was happening), in an isolated stretch near Talla where the road becomes narrow, the lights of our vehicle landed on a stranded cow. Too late in the night for a cow to be out in the open! This one was past its productivity date and was possibly dropped off there by its owner from some distant village. Such behavior pattern is not rare. Maintaining a cow is not a minor task, and without the dairy incentive, the cow becomes just another big mouth to feed. Some are loaded on vehicles and dropped off - sometimes in herds and they end up turning parts of lush green meadows into huge brown patches of muddy earth, before they meet their end due to exposure or beast attacks. Some just roam around the village only to meet a similar fate. Some end up like Bindi's mom.

Bindi was upset when we met her in the morning the other day. The black calf with a white mark on her forehead (hence the name) usually runs to us when she sees us, scanning us for biscuits or other goodies that we usually carry. That particular day, she was in an irritable mood, even nudging Baba away when he tried to pat her on her forehead. "Iski ma ko kal bech di na, is liye. Doodh dena band...aur kya kar sakta gareeb?" (We sold her mother yesterday, that's why. What can poor people like us do when a cow stops giving milk?) I did not ask where Bindi's mom would end up. I could take a guess and wag my tongue, but it would have been a slippery conversational slope.

On another fine winter morning, Yashwanth knocked on the door with a cup of morning tea and announced, "Saab, baag ne phir maar diya....ithar hi" (The leopard has struck again....nearby.) What??
We stormed out, yanking the hot tea served in stainless steel glasses... and there it was....about 250 meters away..... dozens of Himalayan eagles - some seated, some hovering over the kill, set on top of a huge boulder. The crows were being kept at a distance. With a wing span of about 7 to 8 feet, the Himalayan Eagles have a majestic air about them. Sighting a single eagle is in itself awe-inspiring. Thanks to the leopard, we counted about 40 of them that day.

By evening, the feast of the Himalayan Eagles was over, and the rest was up to the crows and whatever else that came when darkness fell. But before that could happen, another cow fell. We were alerted by loud cries calling for help coming from the Temple above...Sundar, Yashwant, Prem Singh sab aa jao... We ran up. A cow had fallen over the edge of a farm into the space between a retainer wall and the brick wall of the house - hardly 1.5 feet in width - and it was trapped upside down, all her legs up in the air, grunting, squirming, struggling to get up. "Uthao isko jaldi, nahin toh yeh mar jayegi...taangein pakado," Baba yelled. (Lift it, else it will die now.) I tugged at her front leg but realized I'm not good at it. Our laborers gripped her legs, pulled her up, and placed her on the open ground. She struggled for a bit - and I wondered if she would end up like Mamaji's cow - but then she got up and walked away as though nothing had happened. She would have died of breathlessness and exhaustion in some time, Baba said.

It's been a month now and Mamaji's cow had still not budged. The days were getting shorter. She was now placed in a small makeshift enclosure to provide some sort of protection against the early winter Himalayan chill. On the day I was leaving for Rishikesh, I asked him - Mamaji, aap ki gaay ki tabiyat kaisi hain? (How is your cow doing?) It was our version of small talk. "Mar jayegi woh. Ab bachne ka koi chance nahin. Woh saala doctor bhi koi kaam ka nahin." (She will die for sure. And that goddamn vet is useless.) The optimism had vanished.

On our return journey that day, just before the U-turn at Talla Village, we once again came across the stranded cow, the one we had met late in the night, two weeks ago. Iska toh number ab tak laga nahin hain sir, Manwar joked. (This one's time has still not come.)
I know, I said. The leopard had been busy.

Illustrations by Sreejith PV.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Daadi Ma - The Story of a Painting and Much More

It was May 2014. Shyam, Kishan, Lakpath and myself had been roaming the hills for a week or so, documenting the pain and the aftermath of the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013.

"You see, there are multiple classifications of people in a region affected by a calamity - there are those who are affected, there are the unaffected, and then there are those we could refer to as the affected/unaffected."  The gentleman running the NGO for hand loom workers at Lamgaondi Village was trying to explain to us how official disaster relief may not be sufficient because some people would not just show up in the books. The first two categories were self-explanatory - the affected and the unaffected, but the third classification required him to give us some examples (like people who are "technically" unaffected, but are equally battered by the event). He need not have given examples, we were about to meet someone soon enough.

The next day walked up to Deoli-Bramhagram- a village set atop a small hill above Lamgaondi - a fifteen minute hike from the tarred Panchayath road that snakes its way from Guptkashi township in Northern Uttarakhand. Deoli Village was rattled in 2013, despite physically being no way near to the sites of disaster. More than fifty five men from the tiny village and its surroundings who were earning their livelihood in Kedarnath and the areas adjoining it perished in the flash-floods and landslides. Deoli nowadays is ominously referred to as the village of widows, a grim reminder of the casualty in almost every other home that you walk into.

After the short hike to Deoli, we came across a chirpy young guy who took a fancy to us and agreed to take us around the place and introduce us to the people we wanted to talk to. Pravesh, it turns out, was doing his graduation in Dehradun, and was home for the holidays. He pointed out a few houses in the village that were locked..."the remaining family has moved downhill to their relatives after the men passed away", he said. "Hope everyone in your family is safe," I asked him more as a reaffirmation of what I wanted to believe somehow he would have been shielded. And he said, "no....mere papa, mere uncle."

By the time we reached, eleven months after the disaster, life had returned to whatever normalcy it potentially could have, given the circumstances. Like Pravesh's mom told us when we met her later that day, "you have to work in the fields, you cannot sit idle lamenting your fate, can you?"

We spent the next couple of hours talking to as many people as we can, documenting the conversations on camera. All sorts of emotions came forth - grief, anger, contempt, hope...perhaps the five lakh rupee compensation provided to the family of the deceased came in for the harshest criticism "ek insaan ka keemat panch laakh rupaye hain kya?" (Is a man's value 5 lakh Rupees?)
We had seen similar reactions before (and "there will be a revolution if the government does not help us") but we were taking them in our stride trying hard to not get emotionally involved.

Till we reached Daadi Ma's house. Daadi Ma takes care of her two grandchildren - Rajnikanth and Lovekanth (rather strange names for Uttarakhand, I should add) - both in their early years of schooling. Unfortunate start they had in their lives, as both their parents perished in a fire that gutted their house a few years back, and all they could count on from then was their grandmother. Daadi Maa had little to count as income but she was somehow able to look after the kids, thanks to the financial support provided by her elder brother. And that brother happened to pass away in the Himalayan tragedy. His immediate family must have received some compensation. She was left, so to speak, in the lurch. In the books of the administration, she was "unaffected". Of course, we could not gather all of this when she spoke to us on camera...her age, her way of speaking, and the Garwhali language erected huge communication barriers between us. But, when the tears started tumbling down from those ancient eyelids without eyelashes, and all that was coming out of her choked throat was some guttural sounds...I could clearly gather she was saying this..."how will I be able to look after these little kids from now?"

I stopped clicking pictures; Kishan stopped asking questions; Shyam had already lowered his camera saying he cannot shoot any more. None of us had a different take on things. We wanted an exit - we were clearly adding to her angst. We promised to keep in touch and moved on. That evening, at the guest house in Guptkashi, Shyam recalled the episode and broke down - the only time I have seen him do that.  I have spoken to Daadi Maa two or three times after that - Pravesh or Rajnikanth translates for her - but I should say I get her even without the translation. We all do, don't we?

And that, my friends, is the story of Daadi Ma, among other things. My wife, Babitha, tried to capture those emotions in this oil painting. Daadi Ma's name, btw, is Sulochana Devi.

And this, is the confident and affable Rajnikanth, one of the many affected/unaffected.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Teacher (with a capital T)

I came across a wonderful post recently. It was in Malayalam and I felt it should be shared with people who do not understand my mother tongue. That should explain this translation attempt, one that does not do justice to the words (what's the English equivalent of thoolika?) of Deepa Nisanth, Assistant Professor at Sree Kerala Varma College. She teaches Malayalam.

* * * *

My first encounter with him was at the examination hall in the college where I was teaching. He stood up before the mandatory 30 minutes that you have to suffer, and asked for the thread to tie the answer sheets together (not that he had a lot of sheets to string together). I looked at my watch and asked him to wait for a while.

 “What will I do sitting here, I’m done with the exam. Can I leave?” His impatience and arrogance brought out the worst in me. And since I am not the fountainhead of virtue, my “teacher-ego” reared its ugly fangs. “No, not before 30 minutes,” I said. 

In my defense, I had just started my teaching career and was using the “teacher” tag to the hilt, as some of my students who bore the brunt of it would attest. I glared at him for a while after which he backed off and sat down fidgeting.

When it was 30 minutes on the clock, he stood up again and asked for his fundamental right of exit. I gave him a serious look (inwardly feeling smug over winning an academic battle) while dropping the thread into his hand. He tied the papers, handed it over, and left in a huff. My ego had won.

* * * *

After a few days, I found him seated in MY class. I had no idea that he was MY student. He had no record of an attendance in my books prior to that day. After registering his "landmark" first attendance, I admonished him “you will not have to sit for exams if things go like this”. He didn’t utter a word.

While taking the session, I noticed that he was sleeping, seated in a bench in the farthest corner of the class.My blood boiled as I watched his slumber in MY class, WHILE I WAS teaching. By the time I reached him, a nudge from a student sitting nearby had woken him up and he stared at me with his blood shot eyes.

“Done with sleeping?”

He stood up leaning against the desk, his head bowed.

“Why did you join college? Just to waste some other kid’s opportunity?” Seething anger was making it impossible for me to speak, while he stood there expressionless, looking out of the window. “Find some other place if you want to sleep; not in MY class.”

He just took his note book and left. The class was silent.

* * * * *

One day I was walking home after buying some books from Thrissur town, when my left slipper died on me. I walked into the nearest footwear shop. The boy sitting in the shop looked up at me. It was HIM.

He stood up and folded the newspaper he was reading. “Looking for footwear?”
“What type?”

I pointed at a piece kept on display. He picked it up. While trying to fit my feet into it, I asked, “Do you work here?”
“Yes, till five in the evening.”
“So, you do not go to college?”
“Aren’t the exams coming up?”
“Are you not writing them?”
“I should.”

I did not know what else to ask, so I quickly made the payment and walked out. It was awkward. I sensed that he was also getting uncomfortable with my questioning.

* * * * *

It was a night in Guruvayoor town. After idling the good part of the evening away, Nisanth (my husband) and I stepped into a store to buy something for our son. My kiddo was sleeping when we left home, and I knew he would create a ruckus when he wakes up if we do not offer him a bribe of sorts.

Again the same face! “Teacher!” he smiled and walked to us. I think it was the first time he referred to me as teacher.

“He’s my student.” I introduced him to Nisanth. He smiled and shook hands with him.
“So, did you quit working at the footwear shop in town?”
“No, I still do. I work there during the day…and here, during night.”

A pang of guilt washed over me as I remembered the day I asked him to get out of my class.

“Where’s your house?” My husband asked, and he responded.
“When will you reach home?” Nisanth had some concern in his voice.
“I don’t usually go home,” he said.
As if to get away from the “interrogation”, he asked what we wanted to purchase.
Nisanth ordered something and he went to fetch it. Seeing the pale look on my face, Nisanth asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” I shrugged.

The colourful plastic birds strung up there in the ceiling of the shop were fluttering in the wind. I was the one who stood motionless with something truly heavy sinking into my being.

* * * * *

I was sitting alone in the department one day when he walked in. He had some papers with him.
“This is my class assignment. I didn’t know that the due date was over; no one told me. No friends, so to speak, in the class.”

I looked at the the papers he handed over. He had beautiful handwriting. The assignment title was calligraphed neatly and there was even a little bit of artwork.

“Do you draw?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Then who drew these?”
“Those are mine.”
“And you said you do not draw?”
“Oh, is that drawing?” He smiled, and that cheered me.
“How was the exam?”
“Nothing much. I will fail.” He exuded confidence.
“That’s alright. You can attempt again.” I was in no mood to let go.
He smiled again.
“Who all are there in your family?”
His smile waned.
“Everyone, means?” I was going to get to the bottom of this today.
“Younger sister.”
“Mom and dad?” I continued to maul at his wounds.
“Dad passed away when I was young.”
“She is at home.” There was an intense loathing in his voice.
“Don’t you go home?”
“Then, where do you sleep?”
“Somewhere in Guruvayoor town...after closing the shop. Once in a while I go home…whenever I feel like meeting my sister. I do not get sleep anyway, Teacher. It’s the same for me wherever I lie down,” he said with a wry smile.

This was starting to burn me. I needed to lighten the mood. “Then come to my class. Peaceful sleep guaranteed,” I said. Both of us burst out laughing, but I think he was the first one to guffaw.

It was time for my class. He said the byes, and walked away.

* * * * *

On another occasion, I was walking back to my department and I found him waiting there for me. The disheveled hair and distraught face told me something was wrong.
“What happened?”
“Teacher, I need a big favour from you. I need some money.”
I did not feel like asking for the purpose. His face was evidence enough that the need was dire. I took my purse and handed it over to him. “Here, take what you need.”
He took a few notes and handed it back.
“I will return this….might take a while….but I will.”
“Don't worry about it....Take your time.”
I stood by the department door, watching him walk away in a hurry.

* * * * *

The next time I saw him was during an examination season. “Teacher,” he called out to me as he approached. Handing over some notes that he took from his pocket, he said “returning what I took.”
“If you need it for something, keep it. You can pay me later.”

“No, Teacher, I have more money. See?” He leaned a bit to show the contents of his shirt pocket which contained a few hundred rupee notes.

“Fruits of my labor…” he said, not making an attempt to disguise the pride that came with the line. I smiled and took the cash from him.

“If I don’t give it back, it will be tough for me to ask again, should I need help. You will also find it difficult to give. I was in a really tough spot then….had to pay my sisters’ fees….had to run around a lot to arrange it.”

I nodded.

“Do you remember that time in the exam hall when you made me stay back when I wanted to run? It was also for her.”
I gave him a quizzy look.
“It was her admission day at a college….Was worried if I would be late for the train.”
“You could have told me then.”
“I did not think you would believe. I felt like killing you back then. There was so much anger in me…and I cursed you like anything that day.”

I laughed out loud.

He told me about his family. About his mom who left two kids and a bedridden dad at home to live with someone else. About her return with her companion after his dad passed away. About two kids who spent lonely nights on the cold floor of the house. About his prayers all through the night for a deluge that will destroy the house and kill his mom and her guy. 

All of this, without the faintest trace of emotion. I listened in silence forcing my tears to flow inwards, imagining the insecurity and pain of two lost childhoods.

After the outburst, he stood in silence for some time, while I struggled to find words.

“I’ll leave, Teacher.”
“Are you not writing your exams?”
“No. I will fail.”
“Fail, it is alright to fail….but you should Write and fail.” I said.
He looked at me for a bit, before nodding a yes.

* * * * *

Met him after 3 years, yesterday! I was talking to my little one when I saw him park his bike outside my house. What a surprise!

“Teacher, you should have the courtesy to tell people when you change your contact number.” He was looking happy and chirpy.

“Where are you these days? What are you doing now?” I had a hundred questions.

He spoke about his job at length. And then, he looked at my daughter. “I came to know that you had a baby girl. I had gone to college once, but you were on leave.” He took a toffee from his pocket and handed it over to her. She took it, but flipped and ran away when he tried to lift her up.

“Where is your son?”
“He’s not here now…out with his dad.”

He was ecstatic when he spoke about his sister. She was getting married soon. He mentioned everything happening in his life, but left out one word - mother. And knowing how much it bothered him, I was wise enough to not bring it up.

“Teacher, you have started greying!” He had discovered that lone deviant strand of grey hair that peeked out from my forehead.
“Must be because I’m growing old.”
“Ah, ok. Teacher, when will you retire?”
“I think I have another twenty - twenty five years to go.”
“By that time, all those strands will be grey, right?”
I laughed. He does not know I have an anti-ageing shield in my vocation.

I had never seen him so happy, and I prayed that it stayed that way forever. My mom brought some tea and we exchanged pleasantries for a while.
“I will get going, teacher,” he said while handing over a cover to me.
“What’s in this?” I asked while taking it.
“I bought this for you. Please open it only after I leave. Otherwise, you will make fun of me.”
He waved while starting his bike. I opened the cover. A golden yellow saari and a book – Nooru Simhaasanangal (One Hundred Thrones) by Jayamohan. I had read that book before.

Inside the book, in his handwriting, was written, “To my teacher who shattered my frozen grief with laughter. I do not particularly like the word “mother.” But, sometimes, I feel like calling you that.”

Are the words becoming hazy? Are they getting smudged?

"In this little reason for a life, what matters is not the momentous's the little things... the little things" 

* * * * *

Here's the only exhibit in case you're thinking this is pure fiction.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Gods of God's Own Country

When I left that morning with Abu, on his rickety motorcycle, I had no clue where I was headed. He just asked me to carry some cash (2,000 Rupees).  "Get that cash, and just hop on, you jackass," he said in his usual style.

I was miffed as I had a lot of important things planned for that day. I had to get Sameer to give his gala treat for getting hitched. I had to plan for a major sora for Saleem’s wedding (In Northern Kerala, it has become customary for friends to play pranks on the groom and bride, usually of the embarrassing kind. They call it sora.) More than anything, I had planned on editing the crap out of my to-be FB profile pic and earn a few hundred likes.

All my plans just vaporized in the smoke that the 90’s vintage Hero Honda bike belched out in a ride to a place that I never knew. “Arsehole, whereTF are we going,” I asked Abu. He laughed at my question and said, "To the heaven of Abu, the Hoja Maharaja."

Whatever bullshit that meant, I said, in my head. After about  three hours of riding, we stopped by a roadside tea-shop (which can pass for a mini-restaurant in these parts on a rainy day, which it was today), and I realized that we were at Adivaaram, a village in the foothills of the Western Ghats. It had started to rain. It was spooky, with the dense jungles nearby contributing in no small measure. It was just a drizzle, but we felt otherwise, thanks to the impact of the droplets on the tin roof of the shack.

Someone kept a handle-less red bucket below the leaking roof in an apparent attempt to harvest rainwater.

Everyone around seemed to know Abu. I found that strange. I mean, people far removed from “civilization”, wearing their lungis and little else; people caught in the transition between mainstream and tribal life; with the never-been-to-a-salon-in-life looks; old and young alike, they stood up and greeted Abu.

"Chaatha, how are things at home? Did you enroll Vellan at school," Abu posed the question at a definitively dirty-looking old man in a casual tone that seemed to suggest that he was one among them (which was not the case, of course). "Finding food for my family is more than tough, Abbu, and you’re talking about Iskool?" 
Turning around and introducing me, Abu said…"Chaatha, this is my close friend, Noufal. He wants to see your settlement." Chaathan agreed. I was like wtf. I never volunteered that kind of stuff. And, what good will come from visiting his village hamlet? But, so it began. Another long bike ride, but this time, with Chaathan sitting in between us. Classic threesome on a twin-seater bike!

In the middle of all this, we stopped to do a bit of shopping. Abu took the cash that I had, added another 2.5k and purchased some rice and groceries from a sad excuse of a shop and handed it over to Chaathan. I wondered what was wrong with Abu, and what he was up to. The rain grew a tad heavy, and I had a nauseating time at the back of the bike, wiping off the raindrops from my face, which were ricocheting off Chaatan’s naked upper half.
The years it rode were audible from the bike, with parts of the contraption making all sorts of noises of protest, at this unruly treatment with a heavy payload on a hilly road. Abu kept chatting with the fellow, and at some point I stopped caring. We moved off the pot-holed tarmac, and into some really wild roads, and I think I dozed off around that point. 

When I woke up, about 15 minutes later, we were somewhere in a small clearing in the middle of the forest. A bunch of little constructions that stood there could pass for Neanderthal houses, made of clay and stone…with the thatched roofs meeting the ground in some places. 
Abu parked the bike and went into that community, as you would to your in-law’s place or something (assuming, you have happy in-laws.) The kids came screaming to him. They had met their Abu. They cared two hoots for the rain. Everyone, competed to invite Abu into their shelters. Abu kissed a kid that had an awfully runny nose. Yuck.

Chaathan kept the items we had purchased on the ground. Abu divided it and gave it to the five families of the settlement. I could sense an element of festivity around there, right then.
It was already around 4 in the evening, and my stomach was expressing signs of anger. “Relax,” Abu said. The rain intensified and the mercury seemed to dip with every passing microsecond. I was wearing just a thin polyester shirt, which my dad had gifted on my recent birthday. Wet and cold and shivering, I sat there, clinging to myself, wondering how this ordeal was going to pan out. Food takes longer here to cook. May be the wet firewood would have something to do with it. Hours seemed to pass by.

I looked around, and saw the kids, with very little clothing on them, hungry; waiting for the rice to be cooked. My hunger had explored the outer realms of its possibilities by then. Hunger and chill is a deadly combination, and I could not take it anymore, and I told my friend (who now was playing some silly game with a kid), “Buddy, let’s get out. It’s 8 O clock….getting bloody dark too.” Abu stood up. But then, a little kid walked in and offered me an old metallic bowl, filled with steaming rice, dal, a spicy curry, and if that was not enough, three or four chillies. The little urchin smiled at me as he dished out the fare. I'm sure he knew I was famished.

"Have it," Abu said. He sensed that I had a potential OCD hygiene issue. “Chuck your worries man, it’s much cleaner than the shit like chilly chicken or pizzas that you eat 10 times a week. These people respect food, as they would respect God.”

As I ate the food that night, with twenty other people for company, I realized that the nausea in my mind was weaker than the yearning in my tummy.

It was getting late. People were starting to "crawl into" their non-existent beds on the floor. Some kids wanted us for company, so Abu and I became their Teddy bears. Soon they fell asleep. I was tired and felt like sleeping over.

“Are you asleep?” Abu asked.
That woke me up.
"Freezing, right?"

"Habit for these kids. They fall asleep in their trousers, or whatever little they have. They don’t complain.” Abu started. "I came here for the first time, when I was in college. I had to do a project on tribal settlements. The sight that greeted me was that of a kid being cremated. That little girl had died because of hunger. The third kid to die that year in this hamlet. I felt scared, angry, afraid…all at the same time looking at the faces of the little ones who were alive. From that day, I have never had a meal without thinking about these kids. I come here every month. I bring something, something that I can afford."

I thought of something to say, but was at a predictable loss of words.

"And, btw, I didn’t bring you here to show how cool I am or to take selfies with these kids. I had to show you this side of things. Last week, at Sameer’s wedding, you guys got drunk and dumped a lot of food in the well, remember? As part of the sora. Just for the heck of it…. That food could have saved someone here. I don’t want to give you a guilt trip, but the fact is that the kind of food that you wasted could have saved lives. Treats for everything, from increment, promotion, housewarming, new phone, new car, wedding…everything becomes an occasion to throw or ask for a party, an occasion to celebrate. Facebook, Whatsap, like, share, comment, profile pic….what kind of life are you leading, mate?”

He spoke calmly. The rest of what he said was a blur. I recalled the drama that I put up about hunger just some time ago. After he fell silent, I tried to sleep it all away, but could not. It was not the temperature or the place, it was something deeper.

A little while later, we decided to leave, and he kicked the bike to life. A little kid in his torn undies (undergarments would be an overstatement) who was feigning sleep heard the noise and ran up to us. I picked him up, and he kissed me on both my cheeks. There was a lot of snot, but I was beyond caring. In that little kid’s smile, I saw God and humanity together. I promised in my head to come back to Abu’s heaven and to Abu’s Gods.

I felt warmer than I ever have been.
A painting to complete the picture. 

*I was inspired to translate this from Malayalam after I found this gem on Facebook in the middle of angst, political venom, wedding anniversary pics, Which Hollywood villain do you look like.. quizzes, motivational messages, and forwards. I do not know the author, nor have I taken permission to translate. Whoever you are, be just as good, if not more, but write more!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kedarkantha Peak - Trekking with a Bhotia Dog

Day - Minus One
2nd April, 2015
Rishikesh/Dehrdun to Sankri (1,920 m/6,300 ft)

Exaggerated account - From the eyes of Bruno:
They reached by 6 in the evening. I counted four people - 3 men, 1 woman. They felt awfully cold, is what I felt, from the way they clutched on to their jackets. They checked into Wild Orchid. I have not seen the insides of that place, but people appear happy coming out of it. 

I walked to Rinkee's for dinner. I had seen the short stranger who shook hands with My Folks buy chicken and give it to Rinkee Aunty. Rinkee Aunty does not kick me when I walk into her restaurant. I like her. The li'l kid over there is also kind.

I sat around wagging my tail for hours worrying why my folks from the hotel were late. It was 10 in the night, and almost all of Sankri had gone to sleep, and dawg, was it freezing! Did they ditch their plans for dinner? I wondered, while I licked my belly and pawed at the imaginary tick in front of my eyes. Wait! I see them....are they swaying a bit while they walk? I think I know what they must have been up to, that late in the night, but I pretend to be ignorant. I need my bones. 

My folks were gracious and I had a feast, bones that have a shred of meat on them are a rare delicacy around here. What I got was too much by local standards. I even got a bone with full meat on it!  I wanted to go out and dance when the tall guy who did not seem to like me threw it at me. My tail wagged so much that I felt asleep from the sheer effort that night, as soon as I could find a place in front of Rinkee's when she downed the shutters, immediately after my folks had left.

I really like these people.  May be I will walk with them tomorrow..I wondered where they were off to the next day....from Sankri...they could go to Har ki Dun Valley, Ruinsara Lake, or the Kedarkantha. Dawgfully speaking, I like Kedarkantha, it's just a 4 day round-trip. 

We had started the day from a private "home-stay" in Rishikesh which I had accidentally discovered  a few weeks back. Set in a farmland about 20 kms from Rishikesh, it lacks the comforts of a hotel, but more than makes up for it with the views around. It is one of those places where you could sit around in the terrace or in the farms, doing nothing (which I'm pretty good at).
Deepak, the owner of the house, as well as our cab driver, ensured that we were well-fed the previous night, with mutton which we had handpicked from Rani Pokhri on the Rishikesh-Dehradun Highway. There is also something special about farm-fresh rice - the aroma as well as the taste. Deepak's wife was happy to have "city-dwellers" (the term makes me squirm) stay in her house for the first time.
Near the edge of the forest, if you're lucky, you could catch a glimpse of some peacocks. Wait a minute, what cocks? Yes, you heard that right non-believer, peacocks, just in our backyard.

I said peacockSS.

Some random vegetation. ;)

The ten hour drive from Rishikesh to Sankri was uneventful except of course for the exceptional beauty of the route from Purola to Sankri, with the Tons River flowing to your left for the most part, and if your'e lucky, even the odd rainbow.

We met the usual suspects, Kishan, Buddhi, and the gang (our guides and support crew) at Sankri, a motor-head for multiple treks in the region.

This is pretty much all of Sankri that "usually" meets the traveler's eye.

We ordered some food from Rinkee's, a hole-in-the-wall sort of establishment, checked into our hotel, had a few drinks, polished off dinner and slept.

Day Zero
3rd April, 2015
Sankri to Sankri
We woke up to the wrath of the weather gods. It was a complete whiteout peppered with the occasional shower or five. Stuck in our rooms, there was nothing for us to do than pray for the situation to change. Thankfully, the rooms in Wild Orchid (@800 Rupees) were quite comfortable with good clean bedding, hot water, and power backup - all badly needed in this remote township. We quite liked the support of Pravin, the guy who runs the show around here.

We got out by around 10 when the rains stopped a bit. The mist cover was rising slowly, but the threat of badass weather remained, which prompted us to call off the day's trek. As a replacement event, we roamed around Sankri, a small village with may be around 30 houses, a temple, and a small primary school.

There is this village temple dedicated to Bhairav (Shiva).
When you have the whole day to yourself, this is perhaps what you should do. Click pictures of people doing nothing but standing and staring at the vast expanse. 

 Mom, we got visitors!
Ever thought why India does not produce world-class bowlers? The answer is in this picture that explains the quintessential problem of Indian cricket. How do we get them bowlers when everyone wants to bat? Forget bowlers, there is not even room for a non-striker in this kind of a game.
Soon enough the mist descended upon us. Ever heard of bad light stopping play? Those compulsions mean nothing here as the kids kept on playing in a near-total-whiteout.
Meanwhile, at the village school, a semi-indoor cricket game was afoot.
Rajani went ahead and befriended Sapna, a village girl who is a pro at this game. She scored a perfect 10 of sorts on multiple occasions, while the rest of us who tried our hands at it looked quite out of sync.
Game of Stones!
Sapna, Prabha, and Manu.
We took a detour from the village and went further ahead, with these two kids following us. Here's Reshma Rana contemplating whether it will be worth her time with us...i.e., if will go back on our promise of chocolates at the end of the walk. The two girls finally walked all the way up to the market to collect the goodies.

Looks like my folks aren't going anywhere today. I saw them walk out to the village below and come up some time later through the main road with two kids in tow. Guess, I will also idle a day away. I'm anyway getting a bit old for this trek kind of shit. ZZZ 

Which turned out to be a good decision.  They recognized me when they walked up for a late lunch....and later on, for a late dinner. Boy, these are professional late-eaters. I didn't mind because on both occasions, I was well fed. 

We chilled out the rest of the day in our hotel rooms, taking two food breaks, and then hit the sack praying for better luck with the trek as our spare day had been exhausted.

Day One
4th April, 2015
Sankri (1,920 m/6,300 ft) to Juda ka Talab (2,740 m/9,000 ft)

By now, overcast conditions qualified as "much better weather".

There was a definite chill in the air when we started walking. By the time we finished our breakfast and moved out of the hotel, it was 11. That was not supposed to be a problem as were headed for Juda ka Talab, a small lake  which was only 3 kms away, or so the big white letters on the official green signage proclaimed. We did not take packed lunches assuming we will reach the campsite by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. How much time should 3 kms take, right? Yea, right!

Bruno was with us from the start. I wondered how long he would accompany us.. Nobody knew the real name of this Bhotia dog and we called him Bruno. @Jose

After a level walk of about 500 m over the Sankri-Taluka expressway, we took a right turn to start our walk up into the hills. Here's Randeep sizing up the route, stone-paved for some distance.

The path was wet and slushy from the rains and mule dung complicated it. Kedarkantha has been heavily marketed by professional trek operators; and mules carry the bulk of the camping gear. Some patches of the path reminded me of the Kedarnath trek route of yesteryear which was wealthy when it came to the quantum of mule dung deposits.
I took a little detour with Kishan to a makeshift structure that housed a Nepali family - laborers/caretakers of the apple orchard and the huge green-topped farmhouse of its Delhi-based owner. Our team moved ahead.
The idea was to buy some local brew (kachchi), something for the road. The lady of the house poured the transparent liquid into a Quechua bottle while we made small talk with her three kids. The eldest girl suggested that we could take a different route up to join the trail. That seemed like a good idea, but Kishan had left behind his heavy rucksack while we climbed down to the house, and that was a problem, he said aloud. Hearing that, the two girls instinctively sprinted down.

There was another problem too - the bottle was full but a little bit of the brew remained in the mug. Kishan took the mug from the lady and offered it to me..le lo, Sir, waste kyun karne ka? (Have it Sir, Why waste?) As "wasting" was not a word in my hicsicon, I took a few swigs of the pearly fluid and handed over the mug to the lady. Man, that was strong!

In less than five minutes, the girls were back with the elder one carrying the heavy backpack. Even Kishan was stumped. Here are the three family jewels.

After an over-the-top thank yous and some goodie distribution, we moved up on our new path, where we met some women who were herding cows, goats, and horses; not an easy task as you can probably make out. When you are out in these parts there will always be moments like this when you wonder whether women did everything in these hills.

Meanwhile, at Sankri, men too are busy at work. Card Premier League.

After about 30 minutes, we could see our fellow trekkers walking up one elevation after the other. I yelled at them to wait for us, using the choicest Mallu expletives. Kishan looked at me as though I had gone nuts - that moment of clarity for him when he realized that the potent liquid had gone to my head. I regretted those swigs.
Resting at a bridge en route.

It took a better part of the afternoon to reach this clearing after walking up minor elevations and some level stretches. I asked my company to let everything go and strike a good pose for the camera. This is the output.

Disappointed, I asked them to try again, and they gave it another shot.  Albert Einstein once famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well I did get a different result, but not "better" by any stretch of imagination. Someday I'm gonna use this for a spot-the-difference game. (Tongue out, Hand missing, Hand higher, Trekking pole moved, More of the bottle showing, Less of the green tree in the background, Shoe position changed, Hillary Clinton in the background....)

We stopped at this little piece of heaven to have tea and biscuits. This would have made an awesome camping ground, but Juda Talab was our destination for the day, and if the sign board that we saw in Sankri was right, it should be just around the corner. We had been walking for about two hours now.

The walk kept growing longer and longer with no lake in sight. We hit the first snow patch of the day by around 3.30 where we caught up with Rinku, waiting for us with his tea flask. Kishan and the rest of the team had gone ahead to find the lake and set up camp.

It was Kishan's first time in these hills, and he was also on a recce mode. Now, you may call it madness, but mountain men like him have a knack of finding trails even in unfamiliar terrain. That said, we had anticipated this problem, and on the night we landed at Sankri, Kishen tried to enlist the help of a local to join our group as a porter. The fellow had collected 200 bucks as advance and left and that was the last time we ever saw him. Kachchi peeke pada hoga kahin, (Must be lying somewhere drunk) Kishen quipped earlier that day.

We stood around sipping tea. Rinku sensed our lackadaisical approach and asked us to move up, and fast, as the weather was turning bad. He had a sense of the route, going by the footprints in snow, but had no idea as to how far the lake was. Onward we moved, climbing up the hill.

It was not easy walking through dirty ice patches. Some of us got stuck on occasions.

Randeep and I walked behind, cracking jokes and talking about escapades from the past. It's amazing how good conversations can take your mind off the walk - both the length as well as the difficult nature. Somewhere around here, while climbing up these stone stairs, we heard Rinku's voice from up above announcing that they had reached the lake. That made us happy, and we slowed our pace further and churned out spicier stories.
All said, it was 5 in the evening by the time we reached our campsite. We were hungry as hell, but had to stuff ourselves with biscuits until real food could be cooked. Our crew had reached only 30 minutes ahead of us and had set up the tents and had just gotten down to warming up the cooking gear.

We crept into one of the bigger tents and waited for the 2-minute noodles to arrive in 15 minutes. The campsite was a big let down. To anyone traveling to these parts at this time of the year, a humble request...please do yourself a big favor, don’t camp at Juda Talab if you can. Why? (a) It is rather small, and often sees jumbo trekking groups with their 15-30 member strong teams. Fortunately for us, we were the only group that evening. (b) The lake is nothing ooo-laa-laa to look at.

Tip: If you are starting late in the day, you could camp lower at the beautiful clearing I have mentioned before - it will only mean that your second day would be longer, but your first night will be more peaceful and relaxed.
If you're starting early, there is a much better campsite about 15 minutes from here. More on that when we come to it.
Inside the tent, egged on by our grumbling tummies, the conversation turned to that stupid sign board that lulled us into starting ugly late. What we trekked that day was not 3 kilometers - IMHO, it was something in the 4-5 km range, and that's a huge difference if you speak a language called percentages. Added to that was the 800 m/2,600 ft elevation gain in that stretch. It may not be a problem for the seasoned trekkers, but first timers have to come mentally equipped for this, lest they think it's a 3 km cross-country walk.

Outside, it started to get foggy, followed by a light drizzle and some itty bitty snow. In some time, our crew managed to get a campfire going, and called out to us, but not all of us were in a mood to get out of our cloistered confines.

Randeep went exploring the campsite in a while and yelled out his sales pitch - about how warm our butts would feel at the campfire, citing his defrosted derriere as a perfect example. It did take some effort to get ourselves out of the shelter of the tent.

Linner (Lunch + Dinner) was soon served by the fire, and I sat there playing around with the food (happens sometimes, when you're too hungry, you can't eat much), grumbling all the while about the smoke from the fire, the lackluster campsite, the missed lunch, the "arrogant" monologues of one of our tough-looking porters that suggested infighting among the crew, and about the feeling of "not feeling too great". Bruno was conspicuous by his absence. He must have walked down during the day, I thought.

Day Two
5th April, 2015
Juda ka Talab (2,740 m/ 9,000 ft) to Kedarkantha Base Camp (3,400 m/ 11,150 ft)

I was the first to be up and about even before the guides (that was a first in my career) finding a nice little spot by the woods, far from the tents. Mission accomplished and with nothing else to do, I soon found myself back inside the cozy sleeping bag.

While having a modest breakfast of bread omelet and parathas, we noticed two porters coming down. Kishan asked them for directions and they pointed to the top of the hill that loomed over the lake, and said "get on top of that hill first, and after that it's level ground." I asked them where their team was, and they were perplexed..."what do you mean, where's our team? Did they not come this way?" I told them that no one had crossed our camp that morning. They seemed concerned for a bit, and then just shrugged and told themselves that their clients must have taken the Hargaon village route down. Just great! They wished us luck and moved down.

Even with their advice, we managed to  lose our path. Instead of turning left after crossing the lake, we went straight ahead, but thankfully found ourselves back on track without straying for too long.
This was a day meant for a snow hike, mostly vertical.

After 45 minutes, we stopped for a round of tea. The supposed "mutineer" porter is the guy in the orange trousers. "He is like that only and I've known him forever, but he's a workhorse. He easily carries around 40 kgs on his back", Kishen told us, when we expressed our apprehensions about the guy's sarcastic monologues. "40 kilos?" Randeep and I exclaimed together. Well, in financial market parlance, that mutineer would be called the big swinging dick. He's earned that right to be sarcy as long as he does not bring the tents down, if you know what I mean! The fellow's name is Rathod, btw (we referred to him as RathodJI after that), and the guy next to him is Rinku, our tea bearer the previous evening.

An hour of steep climb through snow followed. We stopped a couple of times to catch our breath, but managed to clear the hill in fine form.
Once you cross the top, it's a level walk of about a kilometer. The snow makes it tricky in places, but you will pull yourself up with ease looking at the comfort of the plain terrain ahead of you. The camping ground is just beyond the trees. Buddhi suggested that we have our packed lunch somewhere around here, but we insisted that we will have it at the camp, which was in sight. 
And guess who was waiting for us at the camp? I dare you..I double dare you.
I was bored with the way they walked to Juda Talab. Feeling miffed, I had walked up to the Kedarkantha base camp the previous night. Did not know some of my folks were sissies when it came to trekking. 

Things were dull last night. The base camp saw little action with just two small groups. Some guys just sat around drinking inside the channi. One group left for the peak in the wee hours of the morning. The other group went down, and the camp was silent, except for my 
occasional snarls to establish territory in the face of younger doggies. The day-long wait was boring, and I worried whether my folks would make it this far.

I saw them walk into my base camp by around 1.30. I ran up to them...the lady seemed to be walking a bit limp.....the silver haired man seemed happy to see me...he rubbed my head...the stocky fellow kept calling me Bruno....and I wondered why the silver haired man cracked up every time I was called that name - must be some inside joke. Somebody ought to tell them that I am Bittu. 
The campsite.
While having our packed lunch, we met three trekkers on their way back after reaching the top - Araib (fellow Indiamiker), Kamal Kandpal (veteran trekker), and another one. Indiamike is a great forum if you share a passion for trekking and travel - it was good fun to talk to a stranger in a strange land and then realize his name was familiar to me...and mine to him too.
The trio went down to Hargaon camp the same day.
Kishen asked us about night stay options. We agreed that we will stay in the channi (abandoned shepherd hut). It sounded much better than camping in snow. There were two concerns, though. The hut only had a small door on the right which Bruno kept blocking. That was sorted out when Jose found another entrance and removed the log blocking it. The other problem was the smoke that refused to find an exit. That too was solved, when we found that one of the logs on top can be slid down creating a natural chimney.

I tried not to obstruct anyone as I lay on the entrance of the channi. The shepherds would have really flipped if they could see folks had opened the wooden exhaust of the channi on top. Stocky even opened up a stealth door of sorts, and sat pretty for some pictures.
A round of hail ensured that we stayed inside the hut for the most part of the afternoon.
The skies that remained dull for most of the day seemed to open up by evening. And we saw Kedarkantha Peak for the first time - after walking for two days, not to forget another day spent at the hotel. The real peak is the one in the background, not the deceptive "summit" in front. I wondered whether I had the testicular infrastructure to get on top of this one.

I kept barking all night in the snow, keeping my folks from harm. The stocky guy walked out at around 3 in the morning to take a leak. Boy, was he shivering while he emptied his bladders while looking at a million stars! It was a clear night. I overheard the conversation as he crept back into the channi "there is a bear outside, big and black. No wonder Bruno is barking." "What nonsense?", said someone else. "No seriously, it is big and black and sits there on the side." stocky insisted. 

I giggled to myself, but then bit my tongue -literally - as I saw the tall guy walk out to check. So to speak, take a look at the surroundings supposedly...but mostly to take a leak, and creep back into the channi. "That's no bear, asshole. That's a tree stump." "No, it's a bear," stocky insisted. "Alright, sleep now." 

Day Three
5th April, 2015
Kedarkantha Base Camp (3,400 m/ 11,150 ft) to Kedarkantha Peak (3,800 m/ 12,500 ft) and back 
Finally, some good weather and a perfect look at Kedarkantha, a peak with no pretensions and no Mt. prefix. After a breakfast of porridge (which Bruno seemed to relish) and noodles, we started out for the top by 7.15. BTW, the bear that Jose saw last night was a fine piece of black rock.
The sun was out, but it was not yet warm enough to melt the snow. The walk felt icy and scrunchy beneath our trekking boots. 
Buddhi and Rinku were waiting at the camp to get the packed lunches for us while we moved ahead. They would would soon catch up with us.
Kishan posing with Bruno.
We were clearing hills with relative ease, and I remember telling Randeep that we were definitely going to get to the top. Jose was a bit slow, but this was his first time in the mountains and he did not have his bike with him (not that it would have helped).

Bruno kept dozing off every now and then while waiting for us to reach him. Proof that he did not sleep a bit the previous night, while he stood guard. saari saari raat soye na hum
This treacherous elevation took the wind out of us - a place where people could easily tumble down if they do not watch their steps closely.
Thank heavens for the lovely weather so far. In the dreary days before, we had really missed some great views. But then, there is still justice in the hills.

Finally, up close and personal. It was around 10 when we reached this spot, and we stopped for some precious refreshments. We decided to tackle the peak from the left side, through the ridge. The real peak was hidden from us even at this point.

They are taking the ridge route...I wanted to warn them it is The tough, but they never got me. I tried running around them a bit. They thought I was playing. They just don't know how it's done around here...the long way to Kedarkantha is from the right..that's how I have seen most people take a stab at the peak. I have seen a few take the ridge route, as the footprints show, but most returned with little far as I know. 

May be it's better that way - steeper, but shorter. I worry only about stocky. He is being motivated by the silver haired guy. The lady is struggling, but she's got a guy to walk with her. 

Boy, was that steep?
Once we had cleared that, it was a long walk before the next climb. Jose was finding it tough, but Randeep pushed him on.
It was like a series of fake peaks. Taking rest on top of fake peak no. 2. From here, you could see the small temple that marks the real peak.
A look at the other side of the ridge. Nothing much except oodles of snow and rolling hills.
This last elevation was kind of killing. Adding to the discomfort was the nagging worry if this was another fake one, while the real daddy was still a few hundred feet away.
But then this was it........our raison d'ĂȘtre. Jubilation, tea, biscuits, and pictures followed. The weather did another 180. From the top, we could barely make out the township of Purola, 40 odd kilometers away...a clear shot on a better day.
Unsurprisingly, Bruno was there at the top with us. From left to right, Buddhi, Rinku, Moi, Jose, Rajani, and Randeep.
And a Prometis shot. Oh, I forgot to tell you that four of us work for the same company.
We turned around after 15 minutes or so at the top. We abandoned the ridge route that we took on our way up and went for the steep descent - slide and slip, but much faster.
While all of this was happening and the attention of our support crew focused on Jose and Rajani, one man, oblivious to the change of plans, kept retracing our original steps. You can see Randeep (right-middle) in this pic walking his own way happily away from us.
In his words, I turned around after a point and I could see you guys tumbling down in the distance. Like a fool, I had followed the path that we took on our way up. But Bruno was right there with me, and I felt just fine. Here's the duo trekking down in snow....more like a casual walk to their office or something. 
We arrived at the campsite by 2.30 and I was greeted by an Indiahikes trek leader...2.30...that's late! Yea but we started late too. (Their teams start by 5 or 5.30) But you reached the top right? Yep, we did, it was fun. That's what counts, right? Yep, good luck for tomorrow... 
They had their colorful orange tents out in snow for a team of 22 trekkers. The camp was crowded, and of the two channis in good working condition, one was taken up for their kitchen. 
Which meant that all of us packed into last night's channi like sardines. We could have gotten our tents out, but this was fun, the fire was burning bright. And then...the hail thingie started. I worried about the people stuck inside their tents outside....we could at least move around.
My empathy soon became self-pity as the heavy hail started falling inside our hut through the opening above. We closed the opening, but in doing that we invited the swirling smoke inside. Most of us stayed close to floor to escape the smoke. Thankfully, the hail nonsense stopped after a while and we were greeted with a whiff of fresh air, once we opened our chimney. Dinner was good, but before that we said cheers using the kachchi we had procured from the farmhouse. It wasn't much and it wasn't as potent as it had felt on the day I had procured it. But it worked. PJs such as the recommended name for an upcoming Italian genetic engineering company* were invented that night.
Bruno din't bark much that night. Another doggie had also joined him, a company I'm not quite sure he enjoyed in the true sense. He spent the bulk of the night outside.

Day Four
6th April, 2015
Kedarkantha Base Camp to Sankri via Hargaon 

Kishan chided some of his crew for letting Bruno sleep outside. We had seen him bleed a bit from his privates the previous evening. I hoped he was alright. He lapped up the porridge and eggs from our breakfast and even warned another dog to not come closer to the food. The time came for us to leave but Bruno would not budge from his spot. Calls of "C'mon Bruno" were to no effect, as he just lay there on the ground, with his head propped up over his paws. We didn't push much.

Hopefully, he was thinking...They were sad to see me not wanting to walk. There are a lot of people around here and I would not want to walk down and all the way up again. Besides, I'm sure that they will catch the first jeep or bus out of Sankri. I hope they would understand.

The walk down to Juda Talab was not easy.
Another Bhotia doggie gave us good company.

We had a peek at Juda Talab, which now had a huge contingent of trekkers and turned left. That route should lead us to the village of Hargaon. Fifteen minutes into that trek, we came across this awesome campsite, something that I would recommend to trekkers on their way up (those who can start early from Sankri).
Secluded, expansive, and with great views. You can make out the distant mountain villages and the snow clad peaks from here on a better day. A little ahead of this place is the camping ground for trek operators when they take their teams on the way stop and camp here, pretty please.
We lost our way as we walked down into the forest. It was not a big issue as all routes lead to Sankri. Just a longer detour. It was just us, Kishen, and Buddhi. The rest of the team had needed some time to pack up and leave.
We finally met our crew around here. 
The fellow in the foreground is Rana. He is quite a story. He used to be an alcoholic...a solid one at that....and one fine night, he walks into his village as usual...sees something moving....and in his stupor thinking that it's a dog, picks up a stone and throws at it. Turns out, it was a leopard. Legend has it that he thrust his hand inside the leopard's mouth and fought it for 15-20 minutes, before the villagers intervened and chased the animal away. His body has a lot of marks from the claws of that predator. He does not drink anymore.
Soon enough we hit Hargaon village. I take back my words about men not working...some do.

The birth of an apple tree.
Every one of these red buds would become apples, if hail and snow stays away.
It started to rain, and we upped our tempo. We could make out Sankri in the distance and it was a long walk after we hit the road; but the tarmac was more than welcome after the knee breaking descent.

We hit Sankri by 3. Before I left, I looked back at the green signboard which said 9 km to Kedarkantha and 3 km to Juda Talab. My foot, it should say 13 and 5 respectively. If I had some spray paint with me, I would have been arrested for vandalism that day.

Deepak, our jeep driver was waiting, and we wasted no time getting into the vehicle and driving for Purola, after saying goodbye to Rinkee aunty and Praveen.

It was not just Deepak and us in the jeep, we had a stowaway.

Day Five
7th April, 2015
Purola to Rishikesh 
The drive was long....and the only good image that I have is this one, taken from inside the jeep - a reflection of our weather throughout the trip, save the day when we climbed to the peak.

While we were up trekking, Deepak had managed to buy a Bhotia puppy for 2,000 Rupees. The little one was traveling with us to its new home. I asked Deepak if he had found a name for him. He said he is leaving it to his kids. 
We took a detour to his house to drop the puppy off at his home. His kids were happy to meet their new pet. 230 kilometers away from his natural home, this Bhotia gem will now guard Deepak's house and farmlands; having seen some of his kind in action, I'm sure he will do a pretty good job. I forgot to tell the kids name him Bruno or....Bittu. But, I'm sure they will come up with something nicer and dearer to them.

As for us, we reached Rishikesh and chilled out the whole evening by the side of a quietly flowing Ganges at the aptly-named Freedom CafĂ©. Btw, a smart chap named Bittu runs the place. Serendipity!