Hanging Loose n The Himalayas - A Final 'Travel' Post

by Ramesh Mahadevan

I have walked over four hundred kilometers in the Himalayas during my several trips. Even though there could be other places in the world with similar natural beauty, for sheer heights and depths, nothing can compare with the Himalayas. When you stand on them, you are flushed with feelings of pride - of being a citizen of this great country called India - no questions asked.

On one trip lasting nearly a month, we hanged around without electricity for most days and depended entirely on strangers' kindness - and there were plenty of kind strangers. We had to sleep next to water buffalos, on top of buses; had to make chapatis at an altitude of 14000 ft on a makeshift fire. On another trip, while enjoying a glorious view of Nanda Devi and Trisul, we also discovered we were stranded in a primitive shelter in a big snow field without water. We had to somehow melt a glass of snow and imbibe it drop by drop. It was bitterly cold and we had to 'shiver' to keep ourselves warm - see, we did not want to wake up dead.

I have not done any technical climbing and so I will spare you the rock by rock account of our hikes. I am sure there are many in the bboardland who have done far more adventurous climbs than me. Instead, let me reflect on the beautiful folks who we met on the mountains of Uttar Pradesh.

TRIVIA - Pipalkoti, a small town near Badrinath is also a 'food' stop for buses. The place bustles with eateries, big and small, with a fantastic view of the Alaknanda river. We even ate a sweet dish called 'Masoor Pak', which tasted somewhat like the South Indian 'Mysore Pak'. The question for the food connoisseurs is, what is the origin of this dish, is this South Indian or North Indian ? Or are they two different dishes ? Anyone knows ?

Uttar Pradesh, in many ways is an amazing state. With a ridiculously high population and with the governmental infrastructure almost breaking at its seams, it is a miracle that things are still functioning there. But Uttar Pradesh is probably the most 'open' state in India, welcoming people from all corners of India, even though these days the politicians are trying to mess with the people. Somehow the UP folks are broadminded enough to not form a UP Association or a Hindi Association, once in the USA. I always claim that I am 'half an Uttar Pradeshi'. While great hospitality can be found all around in rural India, the Hill districts of UP probably get the highest marks for it.

In some ways, some of them were simple folks. There were people who even called cars, 'Gaadi ka baccha' ('child of the vehicle', where the 'vehicle' is a bus); people who colored us to death on Holi. There was this old man who advised me that 'one shouldn't keep his mouth empty - ever' and forced me to buy a 'hookah' and what he termed the 'best tobacco money can buy', which I proudly carried around and used for some time.

Then there was this village woman who made lunch for us and was such an illiterate she could not count how much money we gave her. (We paid her more money than she asked) There was this all-male village - their 'women' were down in the plains - where the villagers were growing potatoes and grazed cattles and told the most obscene jokes this side of the rec.humor bboard. Then there were those indigenous ecologists - the 'Chipko' movement people who were desperate to save the few remaining trees to protect the ecology. (It can get so hot in the Himalayas that you need umbrellas at some places to ward off direct, intense sun) - the environmentalists protesting the Tehri Dam, which has been in construction for decades now.

As we climbed higher, the price of chai got higher, the 'chir' trees became rhododendron bushes and then simply disappeared. But we never ran out of people to encounter. How can we forget the extremely scholarly Sadhu at Gangotri who looked after us like we were his most important guests; the numerous, friendliest Sikh pilgrims who would walk in the bitter cold in just lungis and chappals up to Hemkund Sahib and take a dip in the cold, cold lake, followed of course, by a sumptuous langar. The 'Poojaris' on the banks of Mandakini river, who cleansed your sins with colorful powders, for a payment. (some of them wore 'unpoojari-like' attire of pants and even smoked bidis)

Many 'Pahadis' (the mountain folks) consider themselves an entirely different social group, distinguished from the rest of the world, the 'Plains' people. Many 'pahadis' also complained about 'Plains' values creeping into their good mountain lifestyle. Already, Simla, Mussoorie and Naini Tal are taken over by money-grubbing, shady 'plains people', they lamented.

When we were in Srinagar (this is the Srinagar in UP, not the capital of J and K) the local students were on strike, essentially because the students in the 'Plains' were on strike and had their classes suspended. They too wanted their colleges shut. One of the students, who looked like a version of Amitabh Bacchan, confessed to us that they even threw rocks at the Vice Chancellor - who happened to be a woman. Then there were the usual signs of 'modernisms', or reverse Gandhian economy - folks wearing pink plastic slippers atop the Himalayas, making some businessman in Bombay rich, while driving the local 'mochi' (cobbler) to unemployment. No wonder village poverty is slowly migrating to the urban centers.

TRIVIA : Pindar is a river that feeds into Bagirathi (Ganga) and is a male name. Can you think of any other Indian river named after males ? (Krishna is not accepted, since it can be a female name too.) One river I can think of is Brahmaputra.

Its a pity that some of the tallest Asian peaks are not even in India. If you stretch your borders, then, maybe you can include Kanchenjunga. If you drew the map, then K2 and Nanga Parbat are in India, even though India does not control the territories near these peaks.

If I remember right, the first person to have climbed a peak over 8000 meters was Herzog and the peak was Annapurna. He was somewhat like the Isaac Newton of mountaineering. And a little time later, the Germans, Italians and the British divvied up the peaks among themselves and started climbing them, probably, as Mallory put it, 'because it was there'.

I saw old movie reels of Herzog and his bragging about his climb. His narration could put off any self-respecting person from the Indian subcontinent, even though in those days the world wasn't functioning as politically correct. He frequently referred to the 'Asiatic mind' and attributed all kinds of things to it, and characterized it to be simple, almost animalesque and uncultured. The Nepali Sherpas in the contingent got only a cursory reference.

This always bugged me. A few years ago, much hype was created by CBS and Dan Rather about a possible live telecast from Mt. Everest. It so happened that the 'Western' part of the contingent failed to make it to the top and there was no live telecast from Mt. Everest beaming into every American living room. Dan Rather was obviously very disappointed. But he did mention that "oh, by the way, a Sherpa managed to reach the top and he has thus become the only person to have climbed Mt. Everest three times". Dammit, doesn't the Sherpa have a name and doesn't his name deserve to be mentioned in the World News, given that it is no easy achievement to do this ? Sherpa kids don't pop out of their mummy's tummy and run straight to the top of Mt. Everest. For years after this, I boycotted CBS.

But once you see past the crude behavior of Herzog and Dan Rather, you can discover that there are many fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western approaches to mountain climbing.

For Indians, the mountains have been holy, abodes of gods and when you climb them, it is more like you are one with nature. Most Easterners have an almost obsequious attitude toward the whole business. There are several time-honored local beliefs such as sprinkling rice in the Kumbu icefall on the way to Everest or not actually climbing on the very top of Kanchenjunga. (These are respected by most climbers) The Western climbers look at the peaks as great challenges which need to be dealt with and conquered and there is an air of arrogance once the 'conquest' is achieved. The final camp is called 'Summit camp' by Indian climbers and 'Assault camp' in Western terminology.

Many so-called 'international' expeditions have been utter failures, with petty egos and nationalisms coming in the way of forming a solid team. One such expedition, in which silliness reached a point where the French refused to walk behind the Italians or some such, a top Indian climber, of name Harsh Bahuguna was left dangling to his death in a crevice, while some people in the crew were busy filming his fate. (The Naini Tal Mountaineering Club, to which I belonged once, has a Memorial Fund for Bahuguna)

For me, hanging around in the Himalayas added a definite new perspective to life. Being from the IITs, we tend to think that we are somehow gods gifts to the world and the others are some sort of a second class citizens, leading pathetic, second class lives. After the IITs, we come here or somehow make our bucks, continue our self-assured dreams and go on to lead a comfortable life. Nothing wrong with all these, except that we become islands of humanity, become 'clubby' and lose that common touch.

We tend to socialize only with our own circles of other IITians. How many of us even know a non-engineer or a non-doctor and how many of us know any artists or lawyers or a construction worker personally ? We enforce our own modern caste system and live in our little worlds, without any clue about how the rest of the ninety nine per cent of the world lives. We just don't bother to relate to the larger community, be it here or in India. Humility and humbleness are not our trademarks. Sharing our good lives with the less fortunate is not our trait.

Only a small fraction of us even becomes volunteers for a cause, donating our time and efforts, because most of the time, we are constantly chasing a career path, worried about our house and car payments and preparing for that weekly meetings with our ex-classmates from our IITs. After some time, when we visit India on our two week stints, we don't even know how to deal with the taxi drivers or the bank tellers or the storekeepers, preferring our friends and relatives in India to act as our agents to talk to them. Somewhere along the line, we have lost that down-to-earthness and became a swaggering elite, serving absolutely no purpose in society, other than through our careers. The same probably applies to many other elite colleges, not just to the IITs.

When you force yourself to spend weeks in the company of Himalayan villagers, you have to deal with them. You cannot wing your way out. You cannot afford to be romantic, nor can you 'City slick' your way through them. You have to genuinely make friends, however short term they will be. You have to try to understand them a little and appreciate their lifestyle, however different it is from your own and don't judge their values. Spreading your sleeping bag in a dirty corner of a stranger's hut can be a far cry from luxury, but his kindness can be an eye-opener, since I haven't had done anything as nice as having a stranger sleep at my place. It was most humbling to be immersed in another world, quite different from the fortress like campuses of the IITs and come out a better person and be able to relate to more human beings.

Yes, the 'professor' who discussed Kennedy and Nehru with us (whose college in the town of Bhatwari was almost completely destroyed in a flood a few months later), the 'doctor' who tricked me and punctured my blisters that got me better, the small kids who perpetually formed circles around us and stared at us and ran errands for us, the village elders who enquired us about our castes, the old man who complained about strange sounds in his stomach those days and asked us if we had any tablets - I did not simply leave them in the Himalayas - I meet them again and again in my nostalgic romp.

I would like to conclude these 'travel' posts on a personal note - especially directed at the numerous friends I've made over the years via SCI. I will be hauled to the Operation Theatre in a couple of days (Tuesday, July 20 th) for an 'open heart' surgery to replace my defective aortic valve with an artificial, mechanical valve. It will be about two or three months before I can return to work full time. I expect to stage a miraculous recovery (of course !) and while in the Intensive Care Unit or outside, I hope to drive the doctors and nurses completely up the wall.

After I get better, I look forward to the pot of gold at the end of it all - to be able to wander up and down the mountains once again, (I live a few miles down the road from the Great Rocky Mountains) because the last few years, due to my 'heart condition', I have been forbidden from doing any of these things I really love doing.

Archiver's Note: Ramesh's operation was succesful. He continues to live in Colorado cooking up great food and stories.