Monday, January 22, 2007

Return of the Native, II: Himachal and North

We arrived in Chandigarh on the Christmas eve. The sun woke us up in Trivandrum. A delicious lunch was served in our flight to Delhi (and the leg room was more than adequate, not to mention the pretty air hostesses who inspired me to compose a few poems there and then). Bhaagam Bhaag, which was released just a day back, featured in the Deluxe Coach from Delhi to Chandigarh (in a government bus service).

I have a special connection with Chandigarh. I studied in the city from 1995-1997, cycling my way through straight roads and round-abouts at the crossings. The days of free flowing traffic are like the memory of my carefree childhood: Over!

I soon realized that after missing five Indian winters, I was up against a monster that I was totally unprepared to face. This was even before I reached my home state, the veil of snow, the land of Gods, Himachal. (Interestingly enough, Kerala is called God's own country).

How important is one phone call was evident on Christmas, as I waited for a call from my friend, for I was supposed to attend his brother's wedding at Kurushetra. I had no idea about the venue, and he was too busy to go check his email and figure my contact information. Meanwhile, as is the case with my every India trip, I met with a new born neice, who welcomed me by wetting my arms. The rate at which my own friends and cousins are producing babies convinces me that we have the capacity to leave not only China behind, but outnumber all non-Indians put together.

I spent the night at a friend's house who I have known for a happening decade now, am convinced will talk to every week of my life, and keep meeting everywhere in the world. Then I decided to take a detour through Shimla. My parents had left for Sangrah, a remote place in Sirmaur District, and my detour meant that I was going to travel an extra ~300 km of the hill roads. Was it worth it? Yes. Of course. The travel time was 16 hours or so, and my back and body revolted at every jolt, but it was for a good reason.

What gets better than meeting your school buddies who you have known better than anyone you have ever known, who you have known for 16-17 years, who you have grown from boyhood to teenage through college and who have great jobs and would be fiancees to boast of? Nothing beats that! What is below zero temperature when you can walk arm in arm with two of your dearest friends, arm in arm swaying and laughing on the Mall of Shimla? Shimla, the queen of hills, sulking in its chilly winds, sings to you tunes of ecstasy, as vodka brings dance to your feet and a small bed is too big to hold together a connection that is as alive, as livewire across the continents and years as every foe's jealousy demands it to be. You might think I am going overboard with this, try watching any TV serial in India. The melodrama in Bollywood is no match to melodrama in those soaps that run for a few lifetimes, have dazzling females playing the role of scheming wifes or girlfriends, and where every family keeps meeting each other perfectly dressed in their living room. Our meeting was better than anything these soaps can ever show, movies like Dil Chahta Hai can ever capture. Icing on the cake was the meeting with my friend's future: I always knew that Himachal is land of beautiful girls, but its another thing when your chum is with one. For every Ram and Sita, there is a Laxman (who, even if he finds his Urmila, may or may not get to be with her as easily and as often).

When I started from Shimla, I never imagined how remote a place Sangrah is. It was supposed to be less than 200 km, and it took me 10 hours to get there, with last 30 km in our own car, for there are only a limited number of buses on that stretch, and the last one leaves before 5 pm. The road is no wider than a bus, everytime a vehicle needs to cross, you have to back into a wider curve, where it requires both skill and daredevilry to make the pass. All hopes I had of driving in India were scared away by looking at the few hundred feet car would easily fall through at the slightest mistake.

The hills rose in their naked splendor. One mountain after the other. Small rivers separating them from each other. Valleys, dotted by houses, decorated by fields arranged like staircases, cradling Himachali's born into a life of hard work and hardship. The bazaar had half a dozen shops, and everything of value, including petrol/gas required a travel of atleast 30 km. The cellphones were working everywhere, and I guess American cellphone companies should learn a thing or two from Indian cellphone service providers. Our house stood atop a hill, and every window showed mountains ready to sink their jaws into the sunny blue skies. Temperature dropped, angithi (coal stove) and heaters faught war with cold draughts, tea flowed in, sarson ka saag was served and heavy quilts, backed by blankets, allowed me to sleep through the exceptionally silent nights.

I had been only three days in Sangrah, when we launched into another travel. Sangrah is a Tehsil, the town is located 65 km from Nahan. Nahan is the capital of District Sirmaur, and lies 80 km from Dehradoon, and about 100 from Chandigarh. Midway between Nahan and Sangrah lies the Lake Renuka. The place has a famous temple, a beautiful lake dying a natural death at hands of negligent people, for it is besotted by silt, which is the result of uncontrolled deforestation. There is a small zoo closeby, and the place is full of monkeys. The only way population of monkeys can be controlled is by capturing them and selling their packaged meat to whoever, in whichever country wants it. There are more monkeys in every little town in Himachal than existed in the whole sena (army) of Lord Ram.

Renuka was the mother of Lord Parshuram. Parshuman, the warrior saint, who killed every Kshatriya man alive, and did this twentyone times. Parshuram, the mythogical giant, who is mentioned in every major epic: In Ramayana, Ram breaks his bow to win Sita's hand; In Mahabharata, Karan pretends to be a Brahmin child and learns his craft from Parshuram. When Parshuram figures that Karan had lied to him, he throws a "characteristic sadhu fit" and announces to Karan that his knowledge would fail him when he would need it most. (Arjun benefitted from this, and death of Karan was what actually turned Mahabharata's into Pandavas' win. Dinkar's Rashmirathi is a great read, a poem that puts Karan on a pedestal that he richly deserves). Parshuram brought Brahmaputra to earth, and when he had done his penance for matri-hatya (matricide: he killed his mother as his father commanded him to), he threw his Kuthar (axe) into Indian Ocean. Out came a piece of land, the piece of land I had visited only a week back, out came Kerala.

We reached Paonta Sahib on 31st evening, taking a detour through Chandigarh, for my sister lives there. Paonta Sahib, meaning "pao tikaa" sahib (where feet were planted), has a famous Gurudwara. Guru Gobind Singh who created Khalsa panth (transformed Sikhs into a warrior tribe), had put his dera (camp) at the bank of Yamuna, at Paonta Sahib. It was here that he assembled poets, sufis, bhakti saints, and compiled Gurbaani. There are many Gurudawaras in the area. One is famous for serving tastiest langars. Another Teergarhi Sahib, derives its name from a legend that Guru Gobind Singh fired an arrow there.

Across the Yamuna lies Utranchal, and its capital Dehradoon. Yamuna has lost bulk of its water through canals constructed into Utranchal and Uttar Pradesh. Himachal, I guess, has not learnt the lessons from rest of the world, and continues to encourage construction of dams and hydro-electric power plants, earning little profit every year and paying huge "undiscussed" costs in terms of displaced farmers, ruined farmlands, changing rain patterns, and ruined water level in downstream areas.

In my last two visits during summers, I had stayed at Paonta, where temperature rose to beyond 45 deg C, and in absence of cooling, power cuts during the day, I had a torrid time readjusting to heat. All my claims of being there, done that (for I had lived through summers of Delhi, Chandigarh and even Barabanki, near Lucknow) had perished when my body refused to obey my will. This time my parents have had moved to Sangrah, and my prized luck showed me worst of Sangrah weather. Actually not quite, for I escaped a snowfall, which I don't regret.

I started New Year at a factory. (I am engineer after all). A new temple was opened that morning, and we went to attend the ceremony. (A very Brahman-like way of spending first morning of the year: had I been in US, like every other year, I would have woken up late, trying to remember how much beer moved in my blood). Soon after, I left for Chandigarh, met up with two of my roommates from Atlanta and took a night bus to Pandoh from there.

The first week of the year was one of the coldest first weeks in last 35 years. I realized how porous my skin and sensibility have become due to the acclimitization to the central heating in US.

Pandoh is 17 km from Mandi, about 100 km before Kulu on the famous Chandigarh-Kullu-Manali-Leh road. Pandoh has a dam on river Beas, and is a small but beautiful place. Like most towns in Himachal, life here moves at an easy pace. People sing-talk all the tme (talk with stretched vowels and in a tone which is more like singing than talking). I arrived shivering at 2 am, and was to leave at 11 am. Next few days had similar pattern. I rushed through a chain of relations, spread through district Mandi, dining at one house, sleeping in another, and lunching at third place. Everywhere I go I find new stories of birth, marriage, death, of cows sold, of cars bought, of Board exams, of neighborhood brawls and elopements, of crop, of diseases. On my part, I impart more information about the foreign country, see a remarkable smile flourish on faces when I tell them that I'll definitely marry an Indian, and get all the blessings possible for rolling my tongue in Himachali/Pahari dialect.

A common question after Saddam's hanging was: "When is Bush going to be hanged?" Indian public has reacted very strongly to Iraq war, something we can never gauge by sitting in US. I guess Indian response is quite similar to response in many Asian and African countries, but who cares about what people think on street anyway?

From 1st Jan night, I felt feverish and blamed it on travel. Yet I continued till 5th, by when my throat ached, my head seemed to be exploding and my conversations had become hard to come by. Then I returned to Chandigarh, and on the way, saw rashes had started appearing on my body. I had planned to celebrate my sister's birthday next, but I woke up early morning on her birthday and rushed home. Chicken Pox had conquered me. My beautification was complete. Mirror showed me how my flesh would crumble away one day, how shallow is the sparkle of skin, how evanesent the valor of looks! Without shower, without shave, I turned into a "bin Paro ka Devdas" (Devdas without Paro, and without Chandramukhi too). Thankfully I hadn't planned on the sight seeing ritual that friends of my age indulge in when they are there. I am sure no girl would have agreed to marry a poxed dude. But I had planned on eating home food for last ten days, and all I got was khichri, daliya (all tasteless, slimy stuff). I lost five kgs, and it was only a couple of days before I had to leave home that I was cured and could eat normal food.

The return was again through Chandigarh. My last day in Chandigarh coincided with Lohri. My naani (grandmother) had served me the Lohri delicacies ten days in advance. In Himachal, we make something called "Chillroo". It looks like dosa, is made out of rice flour, and is served with either urad daal (which we call maah ki daal) or milk. A next morning after Lohri is for eating khichri (rice and urad daal mixed together, seved with 100 ml or more of desi Ghee). In Chandigarh, many people had placed tents outside their houses, there were ritualistic bonfires everywhere, the singing and dancing Chandigarh reminded me of how many festivals I have missed, how many more I will miss in pursuit of a PhD, a career, and I don't know if it is really worth the sacrifice. We watched Guru, and saw how under direction of Mani, Abhishek has given a powerful performance. More on movies later.

I left to Delhi early morning. Forgot the Hunchback of NotraDame (by Victor Hugo) on my seat: may it find a suitable reader, may the suitable reader enjoy it. Saw another college friend after few years that have seen him switch half a dozen jobs, gain a dozen pounds or more. Met with my IIT professor and realized that by implementing the reservation policy, the government has created demand for atleast 200 new professors per IIT to be hired within next couple of years. With a shortage of atleast 200 professors per IIT already, dismal pay scales, and increasing Government tantrums, the whole situation looks pretty horrible. By evening, I left these thoughts behind and reached Mumbai.

In Mumbai, I reached my friend's house, by paying twice the fare, for a taxi-wallah duped me. Too many people tell me that it happens only in Delhi, and well, I found that Mumbai is no better. This friend had moved into the city only a day back, and his house was like a hermit's dwelling. I have ten years of memories with him too; during last visit we had driven together from Delhi to Paonta. We had gone to Allahabad together for my TSE, and had done that during the MahaKumbh. I had visited him in Ahmedabad, and figured that Gujratis have excellent taste and excellent restaurants. I got to gamble in Atlantic City with him. Now we walked on BanStand, too many couple haunt the place. India has moved on, and I am still in my time wrap of the country I left behind in 2001.

The next day was spent shopping. My delightful hostess took great pains to ensure that whatever I ate, bought, bargained with was upto her high standards. A Delta flight brought me back to Atlanta, while my baggage came two days later. The travel to and fro in Delta was marred by uncalled for situations, to which my copassenger into a whining complaining machine, and I had enough laughs at her expense (christened her as Picky). Lost baggage haunted me at home. My hard disk crash awaited me at school, and only when data was retrieved I breathed easy. Else I was doomed to extra six months (atleast) in grad school. Then a water leakage made my room into a swimming pool and it is still in unusable state.

I am sitting here wondering if three weeks in 2007 have been this way, what should I expect from next 49 weeks? Yet there is hope, there is Ganguly, there is a fighting Sreesanth, who knows how to dance. There is poetry, literature, movies and there are friends and parties and purposeful research. There are the last few months of Graduate school, a PhD thesis to write, and the much needed miracles to perform.

Chalna hamara kaam hai by Shivmangal Singh Suman will guide me.... ( fakat yeh jaanta/ joe mit gaya woh jee gaya/ moond kar palkay sahaj/ doe ghoont hans ke pi gaya/ sudha mishrit garal/ wahi sakiya ka jaam hai/ chalna hamara kaam hai. (QUICK and DIRTY TRANSLATION: I know this/ he who is annihilated, lives/ who closes his eyes softly/ swallows a few drops happily/ for nectar infested with poison/ is the pint of saki/ our job is to move on! [ref to the Indian legend, where the ocean was said to contain many riches. Devas and Asurs (Gods and Demons) combined forces and extracted them. Poison was mixed with nectar, and had to be disposed. The poison was too lethal, and Lord Shiva saved the universe by drinking the poison bit, which made him into Neelkanth, the blue throat.)

I will write a separate peice on the strange customs and terrain of Sangrah region soon, and I will add a few book reviews. After returning from Kerala, I ran through Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, Bullay Shah (Panjabi/Persian), Materpieces of Urdu Rubaiyat (compiled by Kanda), An Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Catalina by WS Maugham, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and Navbharati (a collection of modern Hindi poetry). Five weeks passed too soon, and I am already waiting for my next India trip. I will, like last time I wrote a travel series, write a few character sketches of people I met, in my next blog.

Bolo Chicken Mata ki Jai (Say Hail Chicken Goddess)!


Vivek said...


Vivek said...


For Vivek
By maria on Tue, 2007-01-23 14:54


Excellent narration..vivid…a great mix of the old and new…mythical and practical (pretty much like- how contemporary India seems to be!)

Lately, I have been wanting to visit Dhanushkodi (have not been there) Rameshwaram and Kanyakumari (where I have been) again..sights and sounds as you aptly describe as waves from different seas converge making it an amazing place..

You have made me kind of interested in visiting regions in Northern
India as well! It can happen:)

Anyways, welcome back..

And hope 2007 gets better and better for you as it unfolds!

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VS on unknown terrain
By Vivek on Tue, 2007-01-23 12:40

IW boss Happy new year hug (I can do that now without giving you chicken pox!) Smiling

The other VS wrote a marvellous travelogue and won some awards for it. I had loved every bit of his description of the hitchhike through Tibet (and he had described something similar, a bagpacking trip through Europe in Two Lives). I am in awe of his capacity to create books that are all do different in style, content, country and culture.

I realized after finishing this piece that it requires a lot more words and detail to write prose, and that is so far removed from my poetic self. (Irrespective of the quality: for I am still learning how to write well) Poetry falls like ripe mangoes off my lips, while prose requires a whole season of ploughing, furrowing, and harvesting. Yet I’ll continue to experiment, return with more short stories and travelogues in future.

The distances in Himachal stare at your face, for they are both tortuous and tiring. From Nahan to Renuka, the 30 km takes you atleast one hour in your own car, maybe two in the local bus. From Renuka to Sangrah, the 30 km takes even longer. Plus being the elder brother, I always had to deal with my half awake sister’s question: “Bhai, ab aurrrr kitni dour hai?” (How far is it now, bro)…. her own version of: are we there yet?
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travelogue by the lesser known VS
By India Whining on Tue, 2007-01-23 02:43

Sangrah is a Tehsil, the town is located 65 km from Nahan. Nahan is the capital of District Sirmaur, and lies 80 km from Dehradoon, and about 100 from Chandigarh. Midway between Nahan and Sangrah lies the Lake Renuka.

Am sure your primary school geography teacher would be mighty pleased after reading this post Smiling How are you able to recount such geographical details accurately, down to the last few Kilometers !! ?? Do you actually know these topographical details by heart or you refer some travel guide ? Enjoyed reading both part - 1 & 2. Took me back to “Heaven Lake : Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet ” by Vikarm Seth. Its not as exotic, but still I liked the effort that you put in by throwing a bit of geography, mythology, & a bit of, tongue in cheek social commentary. Though your writing is not quite the finished product yet, but you are on the right track. Keep writing.

p.s. : lol @ multiplying neices & nephews with each passing year !
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Vivek said...


Vivek Sharma comments: on Jan 25 2007 9:12AM
delete this comment - block this userthanks supriyad:) I guess I overdid the traveling bit, and then chicken pox was godsent to keep me confined.
it is a travelogue, but by sheer habit, it tends to observations, ideas and satire.

supriyad comments: on Jan 24 2007 9:03PM
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Dude!!!! I mean you spent all your time travelling or what!!! I can Never travel this much! Awesome travelogue.. if you can call it that!!!

Vivek Sharma comments: on Jan 23 2007 7:51AM
delete this comment - block this userThanks vandana...

Himachal is always a revelation to me: the dev bhoomi (Land of Gods) seems to reserve surprising and awe-inspiring marvels for my every trip.

vandana1982 comments: on Jan 22 2007 4:29AM
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and yes one more thing apart from "chilroo" there is another delicacy called "katira" ,which is sweet porridge made from germinated wheat seeds. Hope you relish it next time.
vandana1982 comments: on Jan 22 2007 3:12AM
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A very beautiful and lively description of "DEV BHUMI" HIMACHAL..
Looking forward to read more of it...........................

pawan said...

Hello Vivek,
Can you post some photographs of Sangrah.

Pawan Sood

rajeev said...

Hi Vivek,

Nice to 'read' your images from India and HP in particular. I, and my father as well, were born in Nahan. My dad did his 10th form Dadahu. It feels nice to find you here.
Some more common things- I did my BTech (EE) from iitd in 91. and i too love reading, though I don't read at your pace :).
Hoping to see a book written by you , soon.