Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The storyteller

There are many things that I look forward to when I travel to Goa; one of them is meeting my family; my mom, dad, brothers, sisters in law and most importantly, my nephew and two adorable little nieces.Aditya or Addu, my nephew is the cool dude and the older one. The two nieces- Netra and Nidhi who are younger to him are almost the same age. While Addu is the quiet one, lost in his own fantasy world and almost always inconspicuously hidden behind a pile of books; the girls make an incredibly naughty and a supremely noisy pair; each one of them, infinitely energetic and perpetually brimming with life!

Their questions start badgering me several weeks before I plan to leave for Goa; “Attu, when are you coming home?” they ask me with an earnest eagerness that could only match a feeling one has before an upcoming Disney movie release. “I’ll come soon! Just three more weeks to go” I reply enthusiastically.This conversation is repeated almost every alternate day within those three weeks. Finally, when I actually reach home, I receive the warmest of welcome from these three musketeers.

Attu, I want to show you a new game I’ve downloaded” says Addu while he describes one of the most complicated games I’ve ever heard of; featuring some high end gadgets that could easily put the makers of ‘transformer’ series to shame.Attu, aj ratri goshta!” (you must tell us a story tonight) demand both the girls, dancing around me in excitement, while I still struggle to make my way into the house, trying not to trip over my own luggage.“Let her at least breathe! Out, you three! “ It’s only after my mother yells at them to leave me alone, do the three make an exit, but not before they have made me promise that I’d tell them a story at night!

The very first day back home is obviously a busy one; I soon preoccupy myself with the task of idling on the cozy couch, absent mindedly flipping through TV channels while simultaneously catching up with mom and dad. Within no time it’s evening; time for the kids to return from school. It’s only after someone mentions this, do I realize, that I’m doomed!‘What’s so difficult about telling a story?’ one would say. Well, the answer is- ‘nothing’! But when you have an audience that resembles this deadly trio, the trivial task becomes as challenging as answering a viva voce to grumpy examiners who seem to know everything!

It’s ‘perform or perish’ kind of a scenario. I frantically flip through the pages of one of Netra’s storybooks that lies on the very top of a carelessly heaped up pile, trying to search for some good story.“Not one of those Attu… we already know those” I hear someone protest. Netra it is!Now this girl is way smarter than one would think. A voracious reader with a photographic memory, a national level chess champ, cunning as a fox; needless to say, far too brilliant than any of us lesser mortals!Stories from ‘Hitopdesha’ and ‘Panchatantra’ , Fables of Eosap, Vikram- Vetal are too commonplace for her. Those of Tenali Raman, Ramayana and Mahabharata are just an old cliché. She knows them all, perhaps better than most of us! What intrigues her is folklore from exotic locations, weird characters with strange names, and loads of magic!

“What story do you want then?” I ask her cautiously.“Anything  new… something we haven’t heard of” she replies almost instantly. It dawns on me that I have landed myself in what I prefer to call a ‘dharmasankat’.

“Well, give me a day then; I’ll search for a new story. I don’t know any right now” I make a feeble attempt to escape.“But you promised! This is not fair” more protests from the trio.After fifteen minutes of negotiations, I have managed to convince them that I’m too tired; and that I’d definitely find a good story for the next day. Relieved for the time being, I sink into a nearby chair!

Next day, I carry out an extensive search through old books as well as the internet, in a hope to be better prepared with a good story. At night after dinner, the kids gather around me and listen in rapt attention, as I narrate a hilarious story of how two Japanese frogs- one from Osaka and the other from Tokyo make a fool out of themselves while they attempt to travel to a new city!“Great story!” Netra is the first one to exclaim, “now another one!”“Another one? I promised to tell you one story!” I’m aghast.“But you didn’t tell us any yesterday! This one makes up for it. What about today’s story? Besides, this was a very short one too” she remarks slyly.

Thankfully, I have a backup ready. This time it’s the story of a young artist who is blessed with a magic pencil that brings whatever is drawn, to life; and how with the help of this pencil, the artist is able to trap the cruel king beneath the pile of gold coins he orders to be painted!

“But attu, why does he have to give him the gold coins in the first place? Why can’t he simply draw a weapon and kill the king?” Netra has this annoying habit of being very very practical and asking questions which I haven’t got any answers to!I feel a sudden rush of fond gratitude toward Nidhi, the relatively shy, sensitive angel that she’s got for a sister while Netra practically butchers my story with her savage logic!Amidst gales of laughter, the girls depart. Addu is still right behind me. “Attu, the story of two frogs is from one of the books in the old cupboard right? I had already read it” he says with a rare mischievous twinkle in his eyes; “better luck next time!”I, for once am very very glad that the girls have left the room!

(Note to self: if you want to be successful, keep your sources secret.)

On the third and final day of my stay however, I am determined to make no mistakes. By this day, even the elders huddle around, curious to know what the new story would be about!The tale that unfolds is a folklore woven around the character of the legendary Indian poet Mahakavi Kalidasa; about how he, with his wit, gets rid of another poet who comes to challenge him in a debate.This story is soon followed by another one about how a Russian prince Czarevitch Ivan riding his golden flying horse battles a cruel witch ‘Baba Yaga’ who stays in a walking hut deep into the woods, to rescue the princess who is being held captive by the witch.

Amidst appreciative smiles from the elders and a thunderous applause from the kids; the tale finally winds up.However, with vivid pictures of magnificent royals from faraway lands, gargantuan giants and witches, majestic beasts and legendary poets; their stories unfolding through overly animated narratives and mock battles still occupying her mind; the ‘storyteller’ becomes a child, yet again!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Trails in the snow: part II


People seek different things when they travel to a particular place. Every place, on the other hand, has something different to offer to every person who visits it! My writer friend for instance, “observes crowds from a safe distance” wherever he travels (how exactly he manages to do it without getting trampled, is still a mystery to me). Silently eavesdropping on people’s conversations, taking a peek into their lives and looking for new stories is what he enjoys the most. I on the other hand, hate the crowds. I love solitude and the peace and serenity that comes along with it!
This is exactly why I choose not to pay any heed to unsolicited advises from local drivers who clearly think staying in Khajjiar for two days would be a complete waste of time. In the morning, while we are almost ready to leave for Khajjiar however, we are informed that the shortest road to Khajjiar which is via Lakkadmandi and takes about one hour to reach has been closed down owing to heavy snowfall. Clearing the road would take at least three days more. Now the only option that remains, is to take a longer route via Chamba, which is about 90 Km and takes four to five hours at least!
This time, we decide to share our cab with a couple who comes from Mumbai. Our driver cum guide assures us that he would show us all the “spots” on the way, now that we have decided to take the longer route.
After about fifteen minutes or so of driving us through an extremely crooked road, he obliges and stops the car near an old looking shed.
“What’s this?” I ask him curiously.
“This is ‘Gadar point’ madam ji! Can you see that river down there? That was exactly where they shot the border scene from ‘Gadar’ movie!” he says proudly.
Our travel buddies step ahead enthusiastically to click a snap of the ‘Gadar point’, while I thankfully and with considerable effort, manage to suppress a giggle!
The second halt he makes is apparently the ‘Taal point’; place where certain scenes from the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Taal’ were shot. I’m starting to feel mildly amused, as the trip seems to be turning into a ‘guided tour to 101 Bollywood shooting locations’!
I cannot help feeling a little uninterested as he makes the third stop. I’m rather expecting this to be a ‘DDLJ point’ or a ‘Lagaan point’. This time however, he genuinely has something interesting to show! This spot offers a spectacular view of the ‘Pir Panjal’ range. From amidst the array of skyscraping mountain peaks, stands the magnificent ‘Chamba Kailash’ thought to be the abode of the ascetic Hindu God ‘Shiva’. This peak and the adjoining ‘Mani Mahesh’ lake is a place where hundreds of Hindu devotees seek atonement of their sins through pilgrimage. This peak is probably the farthest of all, partly eclipsed by a veil of clouds that surrounds it; yet its divine radiance stands out, like the tranquil visage of an enlightened monk lost deep in meditation amid a knot of fervent disciples.
The dangerously narrow road that twists and turns like a snake leads us to the village of Khajjiar. Although I’m calling it a village, in reality it’s a mere assortment of some thirty odd wooden houses built on elevated platforms. About 2 km away from the village is an enormously spread out marshy grassland. At one end of this grassland, concealed within a maze of shops and restaurants stands an ancient temple dedicated to the “Khajji Nag Devata”. It is from this temple and the deity, that the place derives its name. A few paces away from the temple, at the center of the grassland, there is a pristine lake with clear, placid waters. The locals here believe that the abysmal lake is the home of the Serpent God.  At the back of the temple and along the edges of the grassland, the alpine ‘Deodar’ trees stand tall; like the proud guardians of the sacred sanctuary of the enigmatic Serpent Deity.
The place where I’m staying in Khajjiar is a lone cottage right at the opposite end of the grassland, away from settlement; along the very edge of the mysteriously dark forest. We spend the entire day admiring the mountain landscape. The night however, paints an entirely different picture on its canvas. The mountains, the forest and the lake fade into nothingness; as darkness brings along with it the most splendid display of a million twinkling stars above; a spectacle which is a rarity to someone like me accustomed to the razzle-dazzle of the glamorous city streets. 
Star gazing is something that I always look forward to; and though many people would find it weird and almost crazy; this is one reason why I wish for more frequent power cuts at night! While we admire the beauty of the clear night sky, my thoughts as well as our conversation take a more philosophical turn. Gazing at stars always makes me marvel at the expanse of the universe and the innumerable secrets it holds. Unraveling all those mysteries is perhaps beyond the scope of us humans, whose existence is like a mere speck in the eternal abyss. This is precisely why I have always felt, that anyone who has given a thought to the complexities of the universe could never remain an atheist!
The next day, we decide to be a little adventurous and try para-gliding from a height of 2200 meters; which turns out to be an absolutely exhilarating experience! The remaining part of the day is spent trekking up a snow-capped hill near ‘Jot pass’, located 15 km from Khajjiar. From here, one gets a panoramic view of the old friend- the ‘Pir Panjal’.
Two days at Khajjiar are over within the blink of an eye; and it’s finally time for a goodbye! When I happen to look back and think about my stay in the tiny village, I realize that this place isn’t one of those “sightseeing places” that you cram up in your itinerary and pay a hasty visit to, with the sole intention of ticking off one of the many items on your bucket list. Unless you take a lazy stroll along those serpentine streets; experience your share of adventure; rest for a while under the canopy of a star-studded night sky lost in thoughts; devour the warm and delicious ‘parathas’ and sips of coffee you would never really appreciate the beauty of the place!
The place is a paradise for lovers; Mecca of trekkers and adventurers; food for the thought of writers and poets and feast for the eyes of artists. Khajjiar is not merely a destination; it is an experience in itself!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Trails in the snow: part I

Some might raise their eyebrows over my choice of destination. While most people would opt to travel to better known locations as Shimla or Manali, I prefer their lesser known and comparatively unexplored counterparts- Dalhousie and Khajjiar. Also, instead of the more popular routine of staying in Dalhousie for three to four days while visiting Khajjiar, Chamba and adjoining places from Dalhousie itself; I opt for a longer stay at Khajjiar which is a village located about twenty five kilometers from Dalhousie.
On the very first day, my journey begins with a bit of a turnoff. Train from Delhi to Pathankot is already late by an hour and a half. From Pathankot, we need to hire a cab to Dalhousie, a journey of about three to four hours. This means, that I’d reach my destination by about 3.00 pm instead of 1.00 pm as planned earlier. The train delay allows me only a few hours of sightseeing before sunset.
While the local cab drivers and hotel managers advise us to visit the local market, I decide to venture into trekking at this odd hour. Dainkund peak which is located at the outskirts of Dalhousie is supposed to be a paradise for trekking enthusiasts.
But apparently, February is not the appropriate time. The narrow street that leads to Dainkund has been blocked because of heavy snowfall. Although parts of it have been cleared by the army using snow cutter machines, it’s still a dangerous path to take; hence entry to vehicles may require permission from army officials.
Despite this, our driver does as promised and drives us as far up as he can. From here, we are on our own.
“Don’t try too many stunts. If you feel the path is blocked, turn back right away. I’ll be waiting for you right here” We are warned by our driver.
We battle our way up the hill, trying to neglect frostbitten toes; laboriously dragging our torpid feet through the thick quilt of fresh snow interwoven with dark patches of slippery mud. After what seems like an eternity, it turns out that we have quite successfully tackled the terrain to reach the very top, where we are greeted by four army officials who seem quite surprised.
yahan kya dekhne aa gaye aap?” they ask us earnestly, “idhar koi nahi aata”. (Why did you venture up here? Nobody walks up here in this rough weather).
I catch my breath and look around. Being quite unapproachable to masses and hence untouched by the noisy crowds that usually surround us in the cities; this place is what could easily be described as pure bliss!
The mighty Himalayas stand ahead of me with the last incandescent sunbeams gently caressing their snow clad peaks. The ‘Pir Panjal’  range looks ethereal; like a dreamy eyed bride clad in her snow white attire; with the golden gleam of the tiara softly encircling her serenely beautiful face.
The top of the hill houses a small temple dedicated to the local deity, the entrance to which has been blocked due to snowfall. I take a moment and silently bow my head before the mysterious and ever elusive ‘Creator’ who for now, has chosen to dwell in isolation; caged in his own realm within the confines of self created barriers.
Shadows of Deodar trees become taller as evening closes in. By this time, our driver has managed to stumble into a friendly army official and with his help, gained entry into this restricted zone, making our job easier. We get into the cab and take a way back to hotel.
On the way however, I cannot resist the temptation of a steaming cup of ‘chai’. We halt at a tiny tea-stall by the side of the road. The tea-stall owner and a couple of friends are warming themselves up around fire, catching up with some of the latest gossip over a hot cup of tea. With a friendly “hello”, they invite us to join in.
“Are the temperatures this low all through winters?” I ask them an obviously foolish question.
isse bahut zyada thand rehti hai madam ji” replies one of them; “barf ubal ke peene ka paani banana padta hai!” (it’s way colder than this. Even water from pipelines freezes; so we have to melt ice to make drinking water).
“Roads are all blocked. We have to stay at home most of the time” adds his other friend.
“You must be having electric heaters at home then!” I ask curiously.
ghar pe to chulha jalta hai” (We have a fireplace at home); they reply.
“We hardly need any electrical gadgets here. Temperatures are never high enough to necessitate the use of a fan or air conditioner and we have ample firewood” says the stall owner, as he serves each of us a bowl of freshly prepared ‘maggi’.
 “Have you ever tasted the ‘roti’ made on a ‘chulha’ ? It’s way more delicious than the one you make using LPG cylinders!” he remarks fondly.
I silently muse over an entirely different perspective these mountain people have about comfort and happiness as compared to us city dwellers. These are people who sweat it out (okay, that’s a mere figure of speech!) all day, savour their warm ‘rotis’ along with family sitting beside the warm ‘chulha’  and in the evening enjoy their little chat session with friends over a cup of ‘chai’  and a puff of ‘beedi’.  They are people with minimum needs. Simplicity is the essence of their lives. It is this very simplicity that makes them genuinely happy people who perpetually seem to sport an effortless smile over their weather beaten faces.
Dense fog soon begins to obscure the already blurring dark silhouettes of towering deodar trees. It is finally time for us to bid goodbye and leave this merry little gathering. Our cab takes the little path that meanders down the hill, back to the warm comforts of the hotel.

My heart however, is still lost somewhere amidst those solitary mountain peaks. My footprints in the snow must have already been wiped out; memories of Dainkund however, have been etched till eternity!