Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ashtami, Sunnyvale, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Re brishti dhore ja, nebur pata koromcha...


"This land of rivers is a land of floods, of great movements of water and the breaking and desolating of banks: Jibanananda Das wrote of the sad green river-shores of Bengal. It has been, well into a period of living memory, a land of famine, natural and man-made. Particularly within living memory, it has been a land of conflict and uprooting and helpless suffering for millions -- more millions than ever in human history on a comparable area of the earth’s surface. (This is statistics not rhetoric.) Much in Bengal’s past is of a piece with its recent predicaments. It was that past which, not so long ago as historical time goes, refashioned a harvest festival in the light of a singular combination of myths to create the unique worship of an eminently protective, eminently affective mother-goddess. That worship has so far retained its vitality, as social though not religious ritual. (The priest is one of the most poorly-paid functionaries at Durga Puja, below the image-maker, and far below the lights technician.) Not all the canned music and electric gimmickry, appropriation by political parties and gut-level street vulgarity, has been able to dispel the latent meaning of the exercise, simply because one must enact it if one goes through the exercise at all.

Durga Puja thus articulates that peculiar vein of sentiment for which the Bengali is marked, not to say stigmatised, by the world and by himself. It can, and often does, degenerate into banal sentimentalism; it induces unproductive stances and ineffectual scruples that prevent it from asserting its place in the world, or from doing any good to oneself or others. But it proves to be a compelling legacy that makes one look at the world in unusual lights, and from time to time makes possible some unusual gift of service or insight."

(Picture of crow at Kumartuli by Amit Datta of The Telegraph, Calcutta, in a rainy September, 2005; words by Sukanta Chaudhuri in The Asian Age, in a rainy October, 1999.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Kalindikhal - Part 6

20th July (Vasuki Tal): Rest day. Climbed up small slope next to the lake and did stupid things like this:

Clouds, clouds, clouds.

(I had mistakenly included some of the next day's stuff in the 21 July episode. Sorry about the mixup. It has been fixed.)

21st July (Vasuki Tal to Khada Patthar, 6km): Clear views in the morning! For once we're all cheerful :). Vasuki, Bhagirathi and a cluster of four peaks we could not identify in the distance, across the lake.

The route today involved yet another glacier crossing, and then climbed up a rocky, grassy slope to Khada Patthar ("Vertical Rock", 5456m), a grassy patch bisected by a stream. Here's Gagan Singh coming up the slope, with the glacier we'd just crossed behind him.

We dumped our packs in camp and walked up a little higher to check out the terrain beyond the surrounding ridges and to climb some boulders. Here we are being monkeymen:

Hiking boots are awful to climb in, btw.

Something about our oh-so-incredible nightlife -- evenings in camp mostly consisted of card games by torchlight, frequently simultaneously in multiple tents. Twenty-nine was immensely popular (I suck at it). Vishnoi, who assumed responsibility for teaching Vladlen the game, started with a stripped-down version and gradually introduced more complex rules as the evenings went by, until he happened to introduce some new rule that totally destroyed an exceptionally good hand held by Vladlen. "Fuck you!" screamed my venerable advisor, "There is no such rule!!! There is no such rule!!!"

Normally, we cook on treks ourselves, but this time the conditions were tough enough for us to assign the job to the porters (we took this decision after the first couple of days, and a subset of the staff pocketed extra shekels for this duty), and they did a great job, relatively speaking, for trek food is rarely palatable. The tomato/garlic soup and morning daliya were big hits.

(Part 7)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Yes, even bagpipes.

AAK: He could play about 200 different instruments himself.

SH: Two hundred? Are there that many Indian instruments?

AAK: No, but he had left Bengal and studied Western classical music in Calcutta, so he knew things like saxophone, trumpet, the double bass, bagpipes....

SH: Bagpipes? In India?

AAK: Yes, even bagpipes.


SH: I have heard from other noted Indian musicians that it is common for aspiring musicians to do a kind of musical retreat -- a chilla -- where one spends forty days and nights in isolation, doing nothing but playing. Did you ever do that?

AAK: I did not need to. My father made me practice at least twelve hours a day for twenty years.


SH: Do you think if we could get, say, the leaders of India and Pakistan, or even of Israel and Palestine, together and force them to really listen to the right music they might see the importance of peace, and work things out?

AAK: Yes. I really do. And why not try this? I think even politicians who are also musicians are going to be more concerned with peace. Look at Clinton, his attitude to the world was different than those who came after him, or others. He had a tune in him.

SH: That's one way of looking at him (laughter).


SH: Do you like other kinds of music besides what you play?

AAK: Yes, I like Western classical music very much -- Bach and Beethoven. And sometimes country music.

SH: Country? You mean like Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and all that?

AAK: Yes. I like the melodies.


(Ali Akbar Khan, interviewed by Steve Heilig)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Kalindikhal - Part 5

19 July (Nandanvan to Vasuki Tal, 7km): Woke up in the morning to find the sun out and Kedar Dome white and pristine on the other side of the Gangotri glacier, with Kedarnath peeking out behind it.

Here're a few more views of Nandanvan:

And here's our kitchen. Chandru and Chhota Govind did an incredible job manning it for most of the trip (with help from others), both in the morning and after a hard day's walk.

Our route today was chiefly along moraine ridges. Here are some pictures of the route. That's Panda taking a breather in the last picture.

And here are some of our fantastic porters:

We passed under what was probably Bhagirathi II (6512m), wrapped in cloud. The west face of Bhagirathi III, sandwiched between I and II and hanging over the Gangotri glacier, is one of the great "big walls" of the planet (see, for example, this site by Russian climbers). Here's a glimpse of B II (peer into the clouds in the top half):

We were walking along the Chaturangi glacier, a huge stream of broken ice covered with red rock...

... which developed light and dark streaks as we headed further upstream and tributaries joined it:

Apparently something like seven glaciers merge at this point. The white glacier in the bottom right of this picture is from Bhagirathi II (according to Vishnu). The picture looks in the direction of our route for the next couple of days (we took a left turn under the glaciated black peak in the distance).

The tricky portion of the day's walk was our second glacier crossing -- this time it was the Bhagirathi II glacier mentioned above. It took a long time and much zigzagging to cross, and then there was a steep and tricky moraine wall to climb up (the porters helpfully fixed a rope like a handrail).

(Look closely at the second picture and you can make us out crossing over.)

This was the last hurdle of the day, and on the other side of the glacier lay a beautiful green meadow surrounding Vasuki Tal (~4900m). The tal (lake) itself was singularly unimpressive, more a cold, dull pond than anything else.

The itinerary that Vishnoi had copied off the net read:
"Today's trek of 7 km takes us to the stunning Vasuki tal with blocks of ice floating in it. Also see stunning reflections of the mighty peaks in its waters."
Vladlen, whose Himalayan experience so far had chiefly consisted of cloud, fog, rubble and dull ice, kept repeating this caustically throughout the rest of the day. We ignored him and went off to climb some boulders.

(Part 6)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Silly pic

LEFT HEAD: Oh quick, get the sword out. I want to cut his head off!
RIGHT HEAD: Oh, cut your own head off!
MIDDLE HEAD: Yes, do us all a favour!
RIGHT HEAD: Yapping on all the time.
MIDDLE HEAD: You're lucky. You're not next to him.
LEFT HEAD: What do you mean?
MIDDLE HEAD: You snore.
LEFT HEAD: Oh I don't -- anyway, you've got bad breath.
MIDDLE HEAD: Well it's only because you don't brush my teeth.
RIGHT HEAD: Oh stop bitching and let's go have tea.
LEFT HEAD: All right, all right, all right. We'll kill him first and then have tea and biscuits.
RIGHT HEAD: Oh, but not biscuits.
LEFT HEAD: All right, all right, not biscuits, but let's kill him anyway.

I was tagged by Tely. The object is to post a silly picture of yourself (preferably taken within the last few years) and tag others. I tag Bips, Bilu, 2gi, Apurva, TVAC, Satyaki, Nishit and Amrita, and solemnly resolve to avoid other tags in the future.

(California, 2006. With thanks to GC, JC, TG, EI, TJ, MP and Apple Computers, champions of silly pictures worldwide.)

Kalindikhal - Part 4

18 July (Bhojbasa to Nandanvan, 12km): The morning was slightly clear. In other words, we actually got to see some peaks, mostly small ones though. Shivling and the Bhagirathi group were very elusive. Here's an ickle one at the side of the route:

And here's the Bhagirathi group, in a rare clearish moment:

After chai and some grub, we set out for Gaumukh, the head of the huge Gangotri glacier and the source of the Bhagirathi river. The glacier is continuously receding (global warming?) and so the walk from Bhojbasa has got longer and longer over the years. We tramped about 4 or 5 km along a rubbly path until we got to the immense wall of ice marking the end of the Gangotri glacier. Here are some pics:

Yes, everything in the top two-thirds of the first picture is ice. Rocks and bits of ice were constantly falling off the glacier into the water. While we were there, a car-sized chunk (possibly the one in the last picture) fell off with an almighty splash, soaking everyone around in a huge plume of ice-cold water. Thankfully we had moved out of range of the deluge a few minutes ago, and those in range seemed uninjured, though sodden and shivering.

After spending some time at Gaumukh, we headed up the lateral moraine (why must all moraines look like bombsites?) towards Nandanvan. We caught stunning views of the crevassed Gangotri glacier, and crossed rubble and sand. Here's some terrain (the "path" is on the left side of the picture):

At one point, the trail wound right under a huge landslide zone. I was walking alone, and decided enough was enough, and it would be suicidal to try to cross it alone. So I waited a good 20 mins or on top of a small hummock in the other direction (figuring this was the safest place to be if there was a slide) until Mahavir, one of our porters, turned up and we crossed together.

Our first glacier crossing followed shortly after. This was my first time on a glacier, and while everything seemed hunky dory there was the happy thought that if I fell and slid, I was headed straight for a churning, crashing stream 50 metres below. After some zigzagging, I found myself balancing on the edge of a drop of about 6 feet on sheer ice. I looked at Mahavir for directions. "Jump!" he yelled, "Don't let your feet leave the ground!" Both seemed impossible to accomplish together, so I consigned my soul to the afterworld and and tried a dainty little run down the steep slope. Needless to say, I slid and landed heavily (monstrously heavy backpack-heavily) on my feet, my knees feeling for a moment as if they'd popped their sockets. So much for the pleasures of glacier travel -- my knees grumbled accusingly. On the bright side, at least the slide hadn't extended all the way to catastrophe.

The less said about the last kilometre or so the better. In short, it was steep, and tough. I was realizing with every step that I was not quite as fit as I thought I was, and was pretty much in a daze, putting one foot above another. A couple of porters who had reached earlier came back and offered to help us with our loads, but I refused and plodded on. This got me into trouble with Vishnoi, who had sent the porters back and thought quite rightly that undue strain was not recommended. However, at least I got to Nandanvan, pack and all. Nandanvan (4337m) is a beautiful green meadow with rocks strewn around and little streams running through it. I was dog tired and altitude sick (splitting headache), and after a while drifted off to sleep without dinner.

(Part 5)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Kalindikhal - Part 3

(The big delay between parts 2 and 3 was because I spent 3-4 useless days shopping for an used car. The thingummy has been bought (a black '98 Volkswagen Jetta), so back to blogging again.)

17 July (Gangotri to Bhojbasa, 14km): Breakfast in the city, returned to find Panda was down with a wonky tummy. Vishnoi would start out with him a couple of hours after us. So we divided up the kerosene...

... and set out, past the temple (where Vishnu, our guide, offered a brief puja).

The route runs up the right bank (looking downstream) of the Bhagirathi. After a kilometre or so, there's a little checkpost where a guard checks your permits and levies a fee based on how many days you're going to camp higher up. Dialogue ensues:

Guard: Aap kahan ja rahein hain? (Where are you going?)
Us: [innocently] Tapovan.
Guard: [suspiciously, looking at our massive backpacks] Tapovan?
Us: Haan. (Yes.)
Guard: Sach bataiye, aap Kalindi Pass ja rahe hain na? (Tell me the truth, you're going to Kalindi Pass, aren't you?)
Us: Nahi bhaisaab, hum Tapovan ja rahe hain. Teen din ka rasta. (No Boss, we're going to Tapovan. Three days' journey.)
Guard: Hmmm.

Well, in the end I think he did charge us only three days' fee, since he had no way of disproving our claim that we were going to Tapovan, which is just one day's march beyond Gaumukh. But my memory is a little rusty in my old age.

Here are a few pics from the route. It's pretty much like this throughout upto Bhojbasa, the camp before Gaumukh. The peak in the distance in the second picture is Bhagirathi II. Clouds made it impossible (from my position at least) to see Shivling.

Plenty of saffron, too :P.

Nice guys, this lot. We must've hit the height of the kavde season -- there were hordes and hordes of them off to Gaumukh with their two little jerrycans to collect the holy water.

After a rather landslidey stretch, we made it to Bhojbasa, at about 3650m. Vladlen promptly started doing some weird stretching exercises which he'd no doubt picked up from his hobby: dancing. I don't know whether this had a "come hither" effect or not, but he did manage to attract the attention of another firang, Yaniv, who turned out to be Israeli too, and had spent time in India and picked up "thoda thoda" Hindi. A very sweet chap. He was going to Tapovan. The two started jabbering in Hebrew...

... while we attacked the tea and pitched camp a short distance downhill and upstream from the line of teastalls, beyond the GMVN and the ashram. We were getting a little worried about Panda and Vishnoi, since it was almost dark and they were about a couple of hours behind us, so we sent some staff members back to look for them with torches. We were relieved when they turned up after some time.

(Part 4)