“I sleep in the railway station.” Ismail said. I tried not to display my shock but I kept staring at him, biscuit dunked in my tea. He took a deep drag of his cigarette, held it for a moment, and exhaled clouds of smoke.
I met him after my game with a 10 year old boy. The boy had just thrashed me with his Caro-kann defence. I shook the boy’s hand and stood up and I was face to face with someone who looked like a homeless man, clad in a dirty t-shirt and dirtier lungi. He bared his tobacco stained teeth and pointed to my chair. I was too heart broken to be curious. I had plans you know? Plans to make some money from the weekend tournament that the T Nagar Chess club organised.
It was a heady year for Chess in India. Anand won the Reggio Emilia beating none other than Kasparov in the process, playing black. And I was in college doing odd part-time jobs to make money. I thought playing a Chess tournament every week was a great way to pocket some cash. I wasn’t hoping to win any top prizes, but I was hoping for a consolation prize at the least. I was confident because I had already played a few tournaments in and around Chittoor and even won the ‘Man of the match’ in the Penumur tournament. (Yes, the Penumur guys had a wicked sense of humour.)
But, I wasn’t ready for what hit me in Chennai. These kids were at a different level. They knew their theory. Even that 10 year old boy did. He in fact showed me 7 variations in our post-match analysis. Within three minutes. Just like that!
That killed me. I knew the first few moves of some popular openings and thereafter I relied on my ability to generate crazy tactics. But no, that won’t work in T Nagar Chess Club. It would in Penumur, where a grand total of three people played chess.
I stepped outside the venue. The imposing apex of the Valluvar Kottam temple car was visible through the still trees. I crossed the road and reached the tea stall. I smoked a couple of Berkley’s. When I had money it was the King’s but today I only had enough money for the bus and probably another tea and smoke.
I was wallowing in self-pity. I wasn’t sure what future held. I couldn’t get a berth in the engineering colleges as I botched my EAMCET big time. I was doing B.Com, and had some 10 papers as arrears. My dad was convinced that I should become an an Auto driver for, according to him, I’d fail in every other vocation. It was increasingly becoming difficult to source pocket money. And, my grand plan of making money from Chess didn’t quite work thanks to 10 year old prodigies. Why can’t kids just stick to Cricket or something?
I walked back inside to see who were leading in the final round. And that’s when I noticed Ismail playing. I walked over to his table. The man couldn’t even write his Chess moves (as required by rules). He scribbled some nonsense and the Organisers didn’t mind. But he played some serious chess for a guy who couldn’t read or write the Chess notation.
Ismail playing White was all over his top seeded opponent. I peered into his score sheet. Ismail had scribbled some doodly stuff. A win here and Ismail was assured of the second place. Before long his hapless opponent shook Ismail’s hand and resigned. People slapped Ismail’s back, who just nodded smiling coyly. As he stepped out, I caught up with him. I introduced myself, offered him to buy tea but the man insisted that he would buy it himself. Well, there’s always a first time isn’t it? Bumming smokes from a homeless man that is. But truth be told, I wasn’t aware he was homeless until he told me.
“What happened to your matches?” Ismail asked.
“Don’t even ask,” I said and explained the mauling I’d received from the 10 year old. Ismail guffawed. ‘That’s okay he bought you tea and smokes.’ my inner-voice reminded me.
As I was stubbing my smoke, Ismail patted my shoulder and said,
“A few years back a young boy defeated me. I was also dejected like you.”
“I am sure!” I said.
“You didn’t ask me who he was.”
He continued, “But I love the game too much. So I moved on. Also, I got to pay my rent!” and winked at me.
I never wallowed in self-pity after that. Also, I stopped playing Chess.
The monkey’s (Bonnet Macaque to the foaming-at-the-mouth naturalists) exterior calm belied his cruel intentions. I should have known better. Monkeys in Chittoor, back in 1984, were omnipresent. They stole your utensils, ransacked your kitchen, terrorised kids, and violently shook innocent boy’s head( who was reading a book in the verandah). Yes, the last one featured yours truly. I used to be a firm believer in the saying ‘leave the monkey alone.’ So when a group of monkeys descended on our terrace, my mom ran inside the house and locked the door. She reailsed that I was still lounging outside, in the lawn, reading a book. And, she warned me, “Dei come inside! The monkeys are all over the place.”
Be calm. And say Ram, Ram.
I closed the book, turned to look at her and smiled one of those patronizing smiles, and said, “Mom, if you don’t bother them they won’t too!” and I continued lounging, watching the Alpha male lead his group: they climbed the compound wall and ambled towards the gate. Alpha sat on the wall at the gate and watched his subjects trickle out of the house. He was a handsome, well built monkey and appeared, from what I saw, to be a good leader. He was chewing on something. Some food that he had stored in those sacks near his throat (yes, Macaques do that.) He was glancing around and his gaze rested on me. The hair on the back of my neck stood erect. Time stood still as I stared at his moist, dark eyes. And he climbed down from the wall.
“Dei! Get inside da!” My mom said. Of course she wouldn’t step out and come to my help. But I wasn’t worried, I mean, I left him alone and he should return the favor. The only thing that bothered me was ‘what if this monkey was a book-lover?’ And you know how book lovers are. If you carefully observed them you’ll notice the unmistakable similarities between them and monkeys.
He took a step towards me. Alpha didn’t look agitated. On the contrary, he looked like he just walked out from under the Bodhi tree. He was composed and even serene. Despite the constant, reassuring thoughts I manufactured in my head and my mom’s incessant ‘Dei’ my heart started banging against my ribcage. Something told me I had to do something to keep Alpha at bay. My mind raced: should I stand up and growl to show him who was the boss? Should I just say ‘shoo’ ? Or maybe I should go prostrate, for it serves two purposes; it can be a message ‘I am your subject Alpha! Accept me. Take me! Whatever. And, lying prostrate it is very easy to play dead. I had read somewhere that animals don’t harm you if you play dead. I found that nugget of truth a little too hard to digest. So what if the animal doesn’t believe you are dead? You will be, eventually, all right but hey!
Now he was even closer. A few rapid strides and there he was sitting right in front of me on the ground. He just parked his monkey ass down as if he ran out of ideas on what to do next. I realised I had masterfully moved my feet and now was sitting in a fetal position. My mom said ‘Don’t look into his eyes!’ So I looked away, at the Kanakambaram plants that were in bloom. And epiphany struck. I recalled what Dr. Venkatesan used to tell kids just before he jabbed those evil syringes in their butts. ‘Be calm. Say Ram, Ram.’ And, if the kid still wailed, the legendary Doctor slapped the same bum on which he’d just administered the injection and said, “Didn’t I ask you to chant Ram, Ram?” I don’t know why I recalled it at that moment but the connection was made. Lord Hanuman loved to chant Ram, Ram. Thereby chanting Ram’s name can tame this tresspassing monkey?
So I started slowly at first “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram…” Alpha appeared bored. And he yawned, exhibiting his arsenal of teeth. My heart skipped a beat and I desperately wanted to pee. The chanting of Ram’s name wasn’t helping. Now, as a 12 year old, I believed in god… only on the days of my exams. Otherwise, I didn’t give too much thought about such lofty questions like ‘are you a believer?’ All that mattered was that I had to pass my exams. And of course the prasadam at the temples. Despite that I was upset that the chanting didn’t work its magic. I wanted to kill Dr. Venkatesan.
Alpha walked behind the chair where I couldn’t see him. I heard the tearing of papers. My book. I loved that book, ‘So What Happens to Me’ by Chase. It had a beautiful cover. That of a young lady, scantily clad, educating boys like me on what the future held for us. Of course that cover was covered another newspaper cover. The Hindu’s Editorial. Most excellent book cover material I’d say.
My mom was now screaming some gibberish. And I was actually a little relieved. The idiot wanted my book. I hated Alpha. That was that, I thought. And I was all set to get up and leave when I heard my mom making really strange noises. She was shaking the iron grill gate violently. I really didn’t understand why she was panicking over the loss of a book!
And Alpha climbed on my chair, held my hair with both hands and shook me like I was a rag doll. So ‘Ram, Ram’ which I was still chanting became ‘Rambambambambam’ like from this song.
Next, I thought, he was going eat my ears or just pluck my head off and keep it as a trophy. And he stopped, just like that! Jumped down, and as he walked away, he looked back. It was like he wanted to say, “We need more people like you.”
That was the day I decided that I will be an atheist forever.
It hit me in Kalimpong. Not one commercial establishment had ‘West Bengal’ on their signage. It was always Gorkhaland. I could always shield my ignorance with the excuse that I am from south India, which is far removed from the politics of West Bengal, leave alone Gorkhaland. But that is just plain lazy and lame. The truth is, we are all tourists at some level. The insensitive, check-list jockeys ticking off ‘to-dos’ on a holiday. The vermin that systematically destroyed the souls of beautiful places. So here I was in Kalimpong without a clue about why the words “West Bengal” were practically non-existent in the town.
I decided to spend a day in Kalimpong for various reasons. I just wanted to relax and enjoy some comforts after having roughed it the past week. Despite being unemployed, I booked myself a room in a star hotel-like resort called The Soods Garden Retreat, Kalimpong. Yes, so the haven’t-had-a-paycheck-in-a-year poor me alighted in center of Kalimpong, thanked my restaurateur, ex-army friend from Lava who’d given me a lift in his car, and took a cab to the hotel. Yes, took a cab to the hotel which was exactly 750 meters away and paid seventy five Rupees for it.
The Soods Garden Retreat looked nice. The room was posh. It had air-conditioning, which I never used. I am a Chennai boy and Kalimpong to me is like the North Pole. The room had running hot water, room-service… and carpenters making a racket in the floor above. 2600 INR per night. A criminal waste of money. I took a long, hot shower and lazed the whole day. In the evening I recalled that Ben, my friend in Kolkata and vocalist for Hip Pocket, had suggested King Thai as a nice place to hang out.
So I walked around a bit in the evening in the bazaar. Kalimpong is filled with old structures, just like in Kolkata. And there’s something about old buildings that attracts me. So I inspected quite a few structures as listless shopkeepers looked right through me. And it sunk in slowly that people– the locals– were distant. As if they suffered an incomprehensible ignominy in the muted recesses of their hearts. I felt like an incongruity. An aberration. Like a clown in a funeral. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe. But I was sure that people were not happy. I dismissed these ideas as I thought I was being hyper-analytical.
As darkness swooped in, I entered King Thai. The place was practically empty. An elderly gentleman was drinking in a corner. Something told me he was part of the furniture. A couple, seated at the table by the entrance, were having a fight. That’s all. And me. The waiters stood in a row by the bar. The Captain stared right back at me. I was confused. I stared at him for a bit. Not one guy bothered to ask me what I wanted. I walked up to the Captain, who was standing behind a small desk. He looked at me and said something in Bengali.
“I don’t understand Bengali… I am from Bangalore.” I said. That changed everything. The Captain ushered me to a table and was all smiles. I was actually waiting for him to ask the dreaded “Are you on Facebook?”
As I settled down, it struck me. The people on the streets weren’t unhappy or forlorn. They probably were trying to ignore me. So I started speaking to the waiter in pure Tamil to be on the safe side.
I was anyway being a vain, irresponsible jerk, so instead of the cheap Old Monk, I ordered a double of Teacher’s. Bob Marely smiled from the murals on the walls. He was the presiding deity I think, for he was all over the place. The top of the bar counter was festooned with football club insignia and memorabilia. Of course, this is football country.
The Funky Dais at King Thai. Click to enlarge.
Across the hall, behind me was the stage. No one performs on it anymore. A lonely bike stood at a corner as a stunning wall-to-wall mural of white people having a good time provided the backdrop.
I was half way through my third whisky when I heard commotion down in the street. King Thai is on the second floor and the windows were right above the street.
I walked up to the windows and joined the staff of King Thai in watching the procession of people below. It was dark now. And what I saw was poignant. A large group of protesters, carrying torches and chanting Gorkhaland slogans, marched on. But business was as usual. People continued shopping, eating, talking to friends, talking on mobiles, or just stand by. A cruel thought popped in my head. ‘Harlem Shake’ it said.
Procession in progress in Kalimpong
The staff said they marched every evening. A bunch of people marching on, reminding people about their cause.
My waiter hastened to reassure me. ”Don’t worry. It is nothing dangerous.” He said. He asked me if things like this happened in ‘South.’ I wanted to tell him “No. Things like this don’t happen. Worse shit happens. For example, when a movie star dies, we go on a rampage of looting and arson.”
I walked back to the Hotel. What bothered me more than their demand for a state was their scream of agony to be seen as Indians.
In his book The Story of Darjeeling, Basant B Lama asks an important question. The import of it is that when you hear the word “Nepali” you think Nepal. When you hear “Bengali,” you don’t think Bangladesh, do you?
I was appalled when I discovered how our leaders and founding fathers have been woefully ignorant and discriminatory:
“…The People inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-mongoloid prejudices.” ~ Sardar Vallabhai Patel in a letter to Pandit Nehru.
Ironically, Patel had to call upon the Gorkha regiments during the Partition riots to police Bengal and Punjab. And, 90% of gorkha soldiers opted to serve India post-independence even though Britain had offered them jobs.
The next day our plan to to go Chaudaferi didn’t materialise. A bunch of people were trekking through the trail, and Joseph thought it might hamper our birding exercise. So I spent the day outside the Forest Department’s Guest House: a colonial structure whose garden attracted birds and offered breathtaking views of the mountains.
View from Lava Forest Guest House lawns
Jospeh suggested that we hike in the woods for a bit. So we left the bungalow and went into the woods. The woods were so thick at times, I had to crawl through it on all fours. The woods were abuzz with the steady hum of insects, bees, wasps, and what have you. Soon enough we stumbled upon a shepherd’s path. We decided to wait near a small clearing. That’s when I heard the Collared Owlet. Whatever hopes of sighting it were dashed when Joseph clucked and said “No way.”
The Green-tailed Sunbirds were all over the place but I couldn’t click a decent portrait. They flit about and never stay still for a moment and, they are almost always in the shade. Or maybe I wasn’t patient enough. However, the day’s reward was a flock of Red-billed Leotrix. I was a little surprised to discover they belonged to the Babbler family. Prettiest Babblers in the world!
We walked back to the Forest Bungalow. Joseph offered to go get lunch and I was more than happy to just sit around in the lawns. I was a little tired, for it was unusually hot that day. I waited without any hope of spotting birds when a Green-backed Tit braved my presence and started feeding on the Rhododendrons. You know what’s a shame? Not a single nice shot of the bird, despite it almost sitting on my lap. Which means only one thing: I should unlearn my technique and learn how to take pictures from scratch. I can’t seem to find a better explanation for all the crappy pictures I had shot. I am not a great photographer. To me it is just a bonus. I love getting out and getting lost in the wilderness as often as I possibly can, and photography is only eventual. No, I am not offering an excuse. I am only highlighting the flaw in my approach. Even if it is just ‘eventual’ I ought to do it right or not do it at all. So after a few hundred pictures and almost jumping off the cliff out of exasperation I decided to sit still and just be. And, I dozed off.
Joseph returned with lunch, which I wolfed down. We decided to call it a day at around three in the afternoon. The next day, we were planning to hit Chaudhaferi and it was going to be a long day.
Some Pictures from the FRH
27 Feb 2013, Chaudaferi
The Maruti Gypsy arrived at half past five in the morning. We set off towards Chaudaferi. The plan was to hike from Zero point, a few kilometers inside the Park. The Gypsy wheezed and coughed as it laboured up the mud road. A Long-tailed Nightjar flew past us. It was still dark. We stopped in a clearing. “Your best chance of spotting a Satyr Tragopan is here.” Joseph said. It was not to be. We heard its call but it never showed itself. There was consolation in the form of a Khaleej Pheasant. He was foraging in the undergrowth and bolted as soon as I pulled my camera out. I think birds have something against photographers. Take a walk in the woods without your camera, and the birds come out like you are hosting an Annadhaanam. Take your camera– even a point and shoot– Crows don’t turn up.
Chaudhaferi camp/check-post/Zero point
It was light when we reached the Chaudaferi Forest Check-post. I had to log my visit in a Register. The staff knew Jospeh. I discovered later that Joseph has been working with the forest department for years, on a contract basis. So the boys in the camp were only happy to cook breakfast (Maggi again) for us.
The park was pristine and undisturbed. Well almost. A trekking party was behind us. They had camped at the Check-post and were getting ready to resume their trek. They could be heard miles. Probably that’s how you trek, that’s what the manual says, but it was like stabbing the place in the heart and slicing it to pieces. And, why do some trekkers reserve their most colorful outfits for the treks? Is it a ploy to repel wildlife? Or is it out of hope, to score some ‘chicks’ ? I never understood!
Trail inside Neora Valley Park, Chaudaferi
We kept walking in a resigned silence. I knew that this was not going to be the day when your dream bird appears, perches on the world’s best perch, and begs you to take a picture. No, not that day, this. This was more like, ‘how-far-are-you-willing-to-go’ kind of a day. I didn’t go too far. The thing was I was a little exasperated and I think Joseph sensed it. He tried to reassure me but I said I was fine. I mean sighting animals in the wild is a question of luck. “Don’t worry, I will show you Red Panda and Tragopan before this trip ends.” Joseph announced. I rubbished the claim. I was right. At the end of the hike, after we returned to Zero point, Joseph promptly took me to the big notice board and pointed to the Red Panda and Tragopan pictures there. I was so glad I didn’t have any sharp objects with me then.
After five days of non-stop hiking, I wanted to just relax so I decided to spend a day in Kalimpong, before I went to Darjeeling.
The next morning I bade farewell to the Lepchas. There has not been a single day ever since, I didn’t think of Lava. I am already making plans to visit Lava.
Some Bird Pictures from Chaudhaferi
So that’s how my Lava trip had unfolded. If you’re visiting Lava, please hire Joesph Lepcha as your guide. He knows the forests like the back of his hand and is a keen birder himself. More than that, he is a wonderful human being: kind, considerate, and fun.
Ashis Lepcha and Pauline Lepcha
Before you land in Lava, do speak to him (Nine Nine Three Two Zero 95242 is his number. I also created a mail id for him, try your luck with josephlepcha49/yahoo dot com). He charges a very nominal fee for being your Guide. He will also help you with stay arrangements. Remember that Lava is a remote place so carry all essentials like first aid, cash (no ATMs there) etc. Also, carry warm clothing if you are visiting in winter or spring.
Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (NJP)
Nearest airport: Bagdogra
From NJP or Bagdogra you get cabs. You need to negotiate. The price is usually around 2k for a vehicle like Sumo, but play it by the ear. If I were you I’d plan to reach NJP very early (before dawn), and do some birding in Mahananda WLS and then go to Lava. So convince the cab guy and work the cost out. It’s worth the trouble. Or you can contact Deb who lives in Siliguri. He is an eminent birder himself and he will help you with the details. You can write to him at sahadebapratim at gmail.
23 February 2013
“We are building a Church.” Joseph Lepcha said and shook my hand. “Sorry I hope you didn’t have to wait for too long!” he continued. I dismissed his apprehension. I stood in the small living room and was trying to make sense of the place which was going to be my home for the next five days. I saw circumspection and curiosity on the flawless faces of the my hosts: the Lepchas.
Joesph Lepcha and Kaaley
Joseph ushered me to my room. It was on the mezzanine floor. The wooden stairs moaned as I hauled my Lowepro and the duffel bag that carried my clothes.
It was a wooden house, best suited for the cold weather. And, of course earthquakes; the Himalayas are prone to them I was told.
Joseph was a little shocked when I told him “I am a vegetarian.”
“What will you eat for lunch?” He said. It was more of an expression of shock than a question.
“Nothing Joseph. I was up all night on the train. I think I will crash for a little while.”
He processed that statement for a bit and said, “You speak in English. I speak Hindi. Okay?”
I nodded my approval of that idea but I was not too sure, for my Hindi too, is pretty basic.
“You can go back to building your church Joseph. We can go birding tomorrow.” I said. Joseph seemed happy at that suggestion.
View from the Lepcha’s balcony
After he left, I stepped into the balcony. The wooden planks creaked under my weight. I stared into the mountains and at the Neora Valley national park. The air was thin, and cold. It was around two in the afternoon but it was cold. Cold for me at least. The Yellow and Green Gorkhaland flag on Joseph’s balcony fluttered as a mountain breeze gushed in to welcome me. Down on the corner, a poster on the wall petitioned the government for a separate state.
Lava, a mountain hamlet, is situated 34 km from Darjeeling. At 7000 plus feet, the place is cold. And, it is one of the few places in West Bengal that gets snowfall. I don’t know why that is significant, but yes, that’s what I have been told.
View of Lava
Unlike Darjeeling or even Kalimpong, Lava has yet to be invaded by the tourist. It is only a matter of time before that happens anyway. I digress. The reason why I chose Lava as my base was because it is the gateway to Neora Valley National Park, a key hot-spot for avifauna and also for the endangered Red Panda and the Himalayan Black Bear. I could have stayed in Kalimpong which has many hotels and homestays. I chose Lava as I was on a budget; commuting between Kalimpong and the Park meant a lot of money spent on cabs. As an unemployed man who claims to chase a dream, I could ill-afford to burn money on cabs and other such luxuries. So here I was, with Joesph Lepcha who graciously agreed to host me and be my guide for the trip.
NOTE: Some landscape & people pictures were shot with my mobile phone. Please bear with the quality.
When I woke up I was a little disoriented. It was very cold. I climbed down. It was seven in the evening, which meant that I had slept for more than four hours.
“Would you like some hot water to wash your face?” Joseph said.
I laughed it off. We all try to be to be macho men, in the wrong contexts. When I splashed the water on my face it was like crashing into a thick wall of ice. I recoiled and groaned. I heard Joseph chuckle outside.
I walked out into the village square. A clock-tower stood in the middle, surrounded by a few restaurants and a couple of lodges. Most of them were shut. The tourist season started only in March. I walked into a restaurant. A massive, panoramic photograph of Lhasa stared at me from a wall. I had a couple of Vodkas and went back to the Lepcha home. By eight, Lava shut down. It made sense in the cold weather.
Dal, Potato fry, and steamed rice greeted me at the dining table. Mrs. Lepcha was anxious I think. I complimented her for the food. Ashis, Joseph’s 19 year old son went and sat on a separate table. I waved him to my table.
“I am eating mutton Suman sir!” He said.
“I don’t eat meat but I don’t mind looking at it.” I said.
After listening to Ashis play some Nepali tunes on the guitar, I retired for the day, again.
I wasn’t sure what Neora Valley had in store for me, but going by what I’d seen in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning, I knew that most of the birds were going to be lifers for me.
I had reached New Jalpaiguri (NJP) at an ungodly hour. At around three in the morning. And my cab was scheduled to pick me up at only five. I’d spent the whole night on the train, writing a story idea and I was struggling to send it to the director, for the phone refused to connect to the inter-webs. Somehow in NJP, the phone-gods decided to take it easy. All of this meant I couldn’t sneak a power-nap in. And that’s how I hit Mahananda WLS. Sleep-deprived, bleary eyed, and tired. But, the excitement of a new jungle kept me up. I have traveled in the jungles of southern India, especially in the Western Ghats, but the Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests were vastly different. In terms of habitat and as I had hinted elsewhere, also in terms of fauna.
As Deb, my guide, and I started birding in the foothills, I realised that I was in a very special place. Maroon Oriole, Green-billed Malkoha, Black-hooded Oriole, Necklaced Laughingthrush, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo were some of the highlights of the morning. It was a breath-taking couple of hours. Going by it, Neora Valley sure looked like it had lots in store.
Here are some pictures from Mahananda WLS:
I drifted off to sleep after setting the alarm for five in the morning. I dreamt of being chased by a Himalayan Black Bear, while a Red Panda laughed at me from the canopy.
24 Feb 2013, Reshet
Even domestic animals look very special in the mountains. I don’t know if it is the weather, fur, or friendly demeanour, but they all– dogs, goats, and cows– looked distinct and a little removed from their respective cousins in the plains. An old woodcutter paused in his stride and smiled. He was hauling wood and I was concerned that his neck was going to snap any moment by the sheer weight of his produce.
The day had started at six for me. I forgot about the cold as soon as we spotted a Darjeeling woodpecker and a Golden fronted Barbet. The plan was to hike up to a shepherd’s house, where Jospeh was planning to cook Maggi.
The bird life was stunning. Yuhinas, Fulvettas, Redstarts, Barwings, Sibias, Finches, Sunbirds…. all unique to this ecosystem, made it a surreal morning for me. Almost all of them were lifers for me. But my target species remained elusive. Satyr Tragopan and Ward’s Trogon.
We hiked through the winding path and by the time we reached the Goatherd’s hut, I had managed to sweat despite the chilly weather.
The lady of the house, Mrs. Goatherd welcomed Joseph. They spoke in Nepali for a while and she left.
“She is going to her mother’s place. Just around the bend.” Joseph said.
The Goatherd’s dog demanded that I pet her. While the dog and I struck up a conversation, Joseph disappeared into the hut to make Maggi.
That was probably the best Maggi I have ever tasted.
Half way through the meal I paused to admire the hut and the minimalist life they lead.
“Goats, dogs… I am sure there are Leopards around here?” I asked Joseph.
“This morning, around three, a Leopard tried to steal a goat from her mother’s place but people woke up and chased the cat away. They’ll eat mutton today.” The wind picked up and rattled the hut’s thatched walls.
“You mean today?” I said, dumbstruck.
“Do you want another Maggi?” Joseph said.
25 Feb 2013, Rishap
There a few things that will make even an arrogant, ignorant fool like me, feel very small. Very few things. The ocean for one does that to me. I have stood in Elliot’s beach in Chennai and gazed into the sea, as waves crashed and stole the sand from under my feet. And every time I thought the same thing: we are so inconsequential! I was aware of how nature can humble us, but nothing prepared me for what was in store in Rishap.
As the Marutiy Gypsy swerved into a bend, Joseph said “You can get good views of Kanchenjunga in this trail.”
And, I looked to my left. And there it was, the Kanchenjunga massif. That was like finding Batman at your door. Nothing prepares you for it. I started getting animated and Jospeh said “Wait wait! Where we are headed, it is Ekdum aamne saamne!” My heart was racing.
It was the Chennai boy in me. Snow for me was proof that world can be wonderful. When I was a boy, I used to wait for the winter months in Chittoor (A.P.) Sometime in November the Coconut oil would freeze and that was such an amazing thing for me. That and fog. Years later, as an adult in Chennai, I used to go walking early in the morning, on the day after Diwali. The smog from all the crackers made Chennai look so beautiful. That was the closest I had gotten to cold weather situations. A few years later, I was traveling in the USA. We were on a road trip to DC and NYC. We reached DC on the X-mas eve of 2002. It snowed a little. Nothing great but it did snow. Somehow, I wasn’t thrilled. I just stood outside the closed Pakistani store and watched the snow fall, eating my Chinese take-away fried-rice. “USA, India, Pakistan, and China! Lennon stirred in his grave.” I thought. Snowfall in a city can never be overwhelming. At best, it can be irritating.
Coming back, here I was staring at one of the best spectacles in the world. On my right, a few hops away, was the Nathula pass. China. A little more to the right was Bhutan. The fact that I was on the very edge of India was lost on me , for facing me was the Kanchenjunga massif. It was a scarily clear morning. There were no clouds (except for one puff that hugged Kanchenjunga’s summit.) I stood there transfixed. She was majestic, sacred, and calm. She wore a resplendent light-orange sheen that morning. And it slowly started to make sense: why men risked life and limb and went to the mountains. The Britishers who stole Darjeeling from the king of Sikkim, I gather, started exploring these mountains from 1848. The people here revere Kanchenjunga. So I think ‘conquering’ her was out of the question. It is such a Western thing: to think that you set foot on a mountain peak to ‘conquer’ it.
Here are some pictures from RIshap:
“Blue-fronted Red Start, male.” Joseph whispered and I came back.
A few tourists gathered to enjoy the magnificent view of Kanchenjunga. Sensing that the crowds meant no birding, Joseph said “Let us go to Tiffindara.” I asked him if it was far away and a steep climb. He paused just for a moment and said, “Don’t worry, it is easy.”
‘Piece of cake’ I thought.
I started panting and gasping for breath exactly five minutes later. Joseph laughed and said, “Why do you hurry all the time! Walk slow.”
It was a loaded statement. I don’t know why we rush. We are always on the run. Chasing silly goals to conform to social demands. We run from ourselves. This simple man, who can walk 50 km without taking a break, opened my eyes in a way.
We were about five hundred meters away from the Tiffindara summit, when something bolted in the woods. We froze. The hair on my neck stood erect. What if it were a Bear? My heart raced. And, a Muntjac popped out of the woods. It paused to look at us and jumped across into the other side. The Dhole, which were chasing it didn’t bother popping out.
We spent some time on the Tiffindara summit and called it a day.
That night I ate some curry made from homegrown spinach and shoots, with rice. Mrs. Lepcha is a fabulous cook. When you’re there, do eat at Joseph’s. They run a restaurant in the season.
From NJP or Bagdogra you get cabs. You need to negotiate. The price is usually around 2k for a vehicle like Sumo, but play it by the ear. If I were you I’d plan to reach NJP very early (before dawn), and do some birding in Mahananda WLS and then go to Lava. So convince the cab guy and work the cost out. It’s worth the trouble. Or you can contact Deb who lives in Siliguri. He is an eminent birder himself and he will help you with the details. You can write to him at sahadebapratim at gmail.
If you’re visiting Lava for birding, please hire Joesph Lepcha as your guide. He knows the forests like the back of his hand and is a keen birder himself. More than that, he is a wonderful human being: kind, considerate, and fun. Before you land in Lava, do speak to him (Nine Nine Three Two Zero 95242 is his number. I also created a mail id for him, try your luck with josephlepcha49/yahoo dot com). He charges a very nominal fee for being your guide. He will also help you with stay arrangements. Remember that Lava is a remote place so carry all essentials like first aid, cash (no ATMs there) etc. Also, carry warm clothing if you are visiting in winter or spring.
“You guys think I am a naive piece of shit, don’t you?” Babu screamed adjusting his spectacles and grooming his non-existent moustache. We didn’t know how to react. Of all the guys in the gang, we knew only Babu could be convinced to do it. Dilip Nair, consummate salesman and super star of Tata Press Yellow Pages (TPYP), coughed into his chubby fist and stepped forward. We knew right then that if Nair couldn’t convince Babu, no one else could.
“We have a unique situation, do you agree Babu?” Nair said.
“Ngotha, what unique! You guys just want-”
“Answer my question.”
“I don’t know-” Babu said.
Nair looked at us. The Pantry at the TPYP office was a narrow space. With the five of us inside, it was house-full there. Nair drew his chair closer to Babu’s.
“Don’t you hate them? Those M&N bastards?” Dilip said.
“I do. Because of them, selling has been tough in Tambaram and-”
“Yes. And, tonight we will be sharing the party location with them.”
M&N was our competitor. They published Yellow Pages along with the White Pages and called themselves ‘Official’. And, they offered credit. We didn’t. Barely a couple of years old, the only thing that worked in our favour was the ‘Tata’ name. Almost every TPYP salesman had a story, back in 1996, on how the M&N guys screwed them over. Customers, those with a wicked sense of humour, would call both TPYP and M&N salesmen at the same time and watch as they fought over whose product was the best. There had been instances where the competing salesmen stepped out of the client’s and fought on streets.
And, this new year’s, by a strange quirk of fate (and demand for party halls), both TPYP and M&N teams were sharing the party hall at Picnic Plaza in Luz Corner. There were a few angry reactions. “I am not going if those bastards are going to be around!” Said some. But Jaideep, who was Babu’s mentor and adventurer par excellence, came up with a brilliant idea: what if we dressed up Babu as a girl and unleash him on them?
I liked it. So did Dilip and Rajesh. But, we decided that we won’t force Babu into it. He should do it on his own volition. You know what that means right? Coming from salesmen? Babu was new to the job. He was barely 3 months old on the job. And, he was in awe of Dilip, Rajesh, and Jaideep and his boss Pratap ‘bulldog’ Pandit. Their team was the best and they were a bunch of mean salespeople.
“Here you are with the opportunity of a lifetime to extract revenge. Tell me now. Yes or no?” Nair was moving in on the ‘Close’.
Babu was a little confused but the smart guy that he is, he said,
“Why me but? Why can’t you or anyone else do it?”
I liked the idea of Nair dressing up. I mean we called him ‘Shakila’ for nothing.
“All of us have facial hair. You don’t.” Nair said.
“What the fuck? Are you telling me I look like a girl?” Babu thundered, stroking his non-existent goatee.
You could have heard a pin drop. We thought that was that. No vendetta. Only Vendekka.
“We all are girls. Haven’t you heard of Shiva and Shakti?” Nair squeaked… and continued. “The thing is, at the end of the party, you get to tell them ‘suck on this you bastards’ and change into a lungi or whatever you think exemplifies your manliness.”
Babu stared at us. And after what seemed like a year, said, “Okay!”
It was as easy as that. One of the girls, I think it was Sudha, went home and got Babu a Salwar. The girls did the make-up on him. Some basic stuff: lipstick, blush, etc.
So at around 8:30 in the evening on December 31st 1996, when Babu stepped out of the rest room, we were stunned. Minus the specs, and with the make up on, he was looking like a hot girl.
So the onus of transporting the hot chick to the party hall was on me. As my KB-100 rolled into Mount Road, Babu got into his character. Partly because of men being men, hooting at a girl on a bike, passing lewd comments and so on. So Babu started waving to the boys on the road. And somewhere in Royapettah, he hugged me tight. So I had a retinue of an Auto and three bikers, constantly howling and hooting at Babu, who was now jutting his non-existent bosom at them.
I parked my bike in the Picnic Plaza basement. Babu jumped off it and said, “Why were they all so excited and behaving like monkeys on drugs?” I just smiled, and said, “Welcome to the woman’s world da!”
The Party hall was already crowded. One half of it was ours. At the start, Babu sat in one corner with the girls. After about an hour, he was dragged to the dance floor: the common dance floor.
A couple of guys from the opposite camp started dancing in front of Babu who was dancing like it was a funeral. Soon, another M&N guy got Babu a non-alcoholic beverage. Or so he claimed, because, right after that Babu was dancing around in a whirl, doing ‘jhatkas’. Soon, a sizeable bunch of M&N guys were around him.
Soon Babu ran towards us. He looked dazed.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“The paper fell down because of that guy…” He said.
And Babu pointed to his chest.
“What the hell? When did you do that da?” I was stunned.
“Jaideep only said…”
“Lose it!” I yelled.
“The other one!”
So as a bunch of M&N guys shot furtive glances at Babu and me, Babu put his hand inside and pulled the paper ball out and tossed it up, and head-butted it.
The music was on, but not a single M&N guy moved. They were staring at Babu, with their mouths open. In fact one guy walked up to us and said in a gurgling voice, “Can I have your Pager number Babitha?”
“Babitha?” I said.
Babu nodded as he patted that guys face.
As we downed two more drinks, Babu ran back to us.
“I am done!” He said. “Those guys are getting violent!”
Someone screamed “Happy new year!” The crowd joined. There were hugs all around. And to our utter horror, Babu stood in the middle of the dance floor doing a seductive jig as he removed his Salwar.
The M&N guys were transfixed.
Beneath the Salwar was a shirt. With a ball-point pen tucked in its pocket.
A collective gasp exploded as Babu pulled his pants down, only to reveal his Genesis cotton trousers, fastened- no strangled- with a belt that went around his waist twice. Babu went into the loo to wipe his make up off, as one after another M&N guys walked up to us, mouths open, fingers pointing, words failing.
There were hi-fives all around.
“Happy new year!” babu cooed to the M&N guys. They laughed, nervously and walked away.
So, as we, the boys and girls were doing a post-mortem of the sequence of events just like how you would have dissected Sixth Sense, Babu walked up to us and said something poignant to the girls.
“How the hell do you manage, you girls? I couldn’t take it!”
He said that in 1997, and I still wonder. How the hell do you manage, you girls?
1989. “Yaaru pethha puallayo! Punyam panna vairu!” my late granny remarked upon hearing about Sachin’s debut and subsequent exploits. She looked at her sons (my uncles) and said “Yenakkum vandhu porandhudhu paaru!” She was paying a glowing tribute to Sachin Tendulkar’s mom and lamenting over her sons and their inability to get a job in the ‘Gulf’. My mom too lamented over the quality of her issues, through the years, as Sachin went on and on.
For a generation that believed success in life was directly linked to an engineering college berth (or a med school berth), Sachin was an anti-thesis. And by following his exploits, a generation of us continue to live our dreams by proxy. I hated Sachin for it.
One foggy, February morning in 1992, in Chittoor, Arun came running to my home and threw The Hindu at me. “Read the Sports page,” he said. The headline read “Tendulkar’s Brilliance Illuminates Perth” (if my memory serves me right). We lost that match by a massive margin of 300 runs. But that innings, one of the greatest that I have ever seen, was some sort of a magical preamble. In 1998, when he destroyed Australia at Sharjah, single-handedly, we realised that he was not just a great batsman. We had had quite a few of them by then, including Sunny Gavaskar… I had never seen an Indian batsman be so eloquent, so aggressive at once. Until then I had never seen an Indian batsman treat the Aussies the way Aussies treated everyone else. It was almost like Sachin was telling them, “Those days, are over.”
However, it is not his achievements and successes that I want to stress upon. It is how he is reborn after each one of his failures. Sydney, 2004 he didn’t drive on the offside. How can a man be so maniacally focused? I hated him for that. I could never achieve 2% of that focus.
Every time I became lazy, tempted to choose an easy way out, or just plain give up, it is people like Sachin that scream at you – from those special corners in your head, through memories etched for life- to not give up. I hated Sachin for that. For making me work harder that I wanted to.
This afternoon, my 3 year old little girl paused pedaling her tri-cycle, glanced at the TV, and said “Sachin!” I was shocked. I probably had mentioned him when I was pleading with her to switch to Cricket, from Chota Bheem.
From my granny to my daughter, four generations love him. How can a man redefine longevity like that? I hate him for that!
I watched him in the recent past. I suffered as he failed with the bat. ‘Maybe he should go now’ I screamed. ‘Why can’t he see? He is diluting his own greatness by suffering this!’ I wept. I knew I could be wrong. I was being emotional and stupid. And, he quits ODIs. The format that he made his very own. How could he? It will be, forever, poorer without him. I hate him for that.
“Did you try Tatkal?” He said. For the 476th time. I wished I could explain to him. How making our PM speak was a possibility as compared to getting a Tatkal ticket on IRCTC. About how I woke up for the first time in years at 6:30 A.M and was staring at the clock to strike eight. About how the engineers behind the IRCTC site had designed an all-new session management logic: meant to log you out every 3 seconds.
I wanted to tell him that our neighbour, a docile, 40 plus, Iyer boy that chanted Krishna bhajans had started playing Slayer at 6 A.M thanks to IRCTC and its antics. It was only a matter of time before he killed his wife and burnt down the apartment.
But I didn’t tell my father anything. Because he has the habit of asking the same question a MINIMUM of 476 times.
“Do you have to travel to Chennai on a weekend?” I said.
My father stared into empty spaces for a while, cleared his throat, and said, “Did you try Tatkal?”
My wife stopped me from tearing off the damned grill from the 4th floor balcony and jumping off it.
She handed me a towel to wipe the foam off my mouth and said, “Why can’t you book him a flight ticket?”
Yes! Why not? So I asked my father. He lifted his head from The Hindu, cleared his throat- and I jumped on him.
“Okay, great I am booking you a flight ticket.”
He looked at his daughter-in-law for help.
“Uncle, I think you should.” She said.
“But I have never flown! I don’t know! Isn’t it risky? I am a little scared you know?”
A vacuum developed. I was getting late for work.
“Anyway, think about it and let me know dad.” I said.
“Even a bus is fine.” He said.
But I wasn’t sure if his 70 year old body could take the strain.
“They have new buses. Vulva? Or some such.”
“Yes, yes. Volvo.”
“I’ll try and get you a train ticket. Else, I’ll book you on a- um- Volvo. okay?”
He blinked and said, “Yes. But did you try..”
I bang-shut the door and ran up to the terrace, remembered I had to go down, so I said “FUCAAACCKKKKK!” aloud and the retired Civil Servant, Mallu old man on 5th floor said, “I will have sexual congress with your extended family. Each one of them. Including your dogs.”
By the time I reached work, I was mind-fried. I actually forgot about the ticket. Somewhere between my 9th coffee/smoke break and mid-afternoon snack (2nd episode), I remembered. Trains from Bangalore to Chennai were all full. I spoke to travel agents and they couldn’t help either. So, I went ahead and booked my father a ticket on Air Deccan. I decided that I won’t tell him till the last moment that he has to take a Flight.
I did exactly that. On the day, he was supposed to travel, as the cab rolled on Old Airport road, I said “You should reach Chennai by 8′O Clock. Call me when you do.”
He was staring out of the window. He slowly turned towards me. He eyes spoke. They said, “You corny little bastard! You’re teaching your dad how to-”
He cleared his throat.
“See, I tried. All buses are full.” I said.
“VOLVO. Yes. All full. Private. KSRTC. Everything!”
He looked out of the window again.
The cab swerved into the Airport approach road.
“You needn’t have spent so much- ” He said.
“Dad, it is not as costly as you think it is!”
“Yeah. But you should have tried Tatkal.”
I bit my own hand. Took deep breaths and counted till 3600 within a minute, showering the cab driver with my saliva, while my father looked out of the Window.
At the Entry gate I asked an Air Deccan staffer to help my father.
“So first I get my Security Check done and then go get a boarding pass right?” He said.
“NO NO!” I screamed.
“Got you there! Didn’t I?” He laughed, slapped my back and walked into the airport.
He messaged me at around Nine.
“Reached. They didn’t serve me any food.”
During lunch, my Mom called.
“Your father has been on the phone all day. He’s been showing off to all his friends.”
“Oh yeah? What is he saying?”
“He told Venkatesh, ‘Just landed. Slight jet lag is there.’ ” She said.
Dilli Babu, for as long as I have known him, swore by classical music. “In the cruel summer nights, when walking around the house butt naked and taking a shower every 7 minutes also didn’t help, I listen to this composition in Jagan Kalyan. And, I sleep like a baby post that!” He said, wiping the foam off the corners of his mouth.
He was visibly upset by the recentfracas over South Indian sensibilities. “What do these guys know? They are not qualified to critique I say!” He screamed at me, as he hiked his Lungi up. “If Bangalore is South India, going by what they wrote, Nochhu kuppam is Thailand!” He added, tossing a Cheedai in the air and catching it with his mouth.
“So there’s no truth in their claim then Dilli?” I asked. He looked at me as if I were a ‘oosi pona Ulundu Vadai’ and said, “Truth?” And he sat on the thinnai and asked me sit as well. I sat down.
He said, “Machan, do these guys understand the difference between Jagan Kalyan and Pavan Kalyan? Can they identify Beer-a-vaangu-nee by the initial aalap?”
He continued, “Take for instance this masterpiece in Dhodaa raagam. Many so called experts thought it was composed in Bagul-bigil. The intricacies are many and minute, for someone from outside to appreciate, leave alone pontificate upon.”
“Our ways of worship-communication are avant-garden.” He said. “Unlike other schools like Poes garden or Nageswar Rao Park. And, we don’t rest on our laurels. We wake up before dawn everyday and compose krithis. The one recent krithi in Surroongudhu epitomises our devotion and the South Indian practice of worship.” He paused to take a breath.
“What do you think about Hindustani?” I said.
He lit a beedi, drew a lungful, and let the smoke drift through his nose. It was a poignant moment. It was already dark. The barotta shop on Alwarpet street, started his rhythm practice. ‘tan-ku-taka tan-ku-taka tan-ku-taka tattaku-tattaku’ he went in a loop, with the occasional roll (didikinakkum-jakkajum). My beard started growing as I waited for Dilli to answer.
“Hey Dilli, can you answer me?” I reminded him.
“Who are you? Where is my friend?” He said.
“It’s me only da. I just grew a beard when you were thinking.” I said.
“Oh-oho-oh. ha ha ha” He coughed and spluttered. I thought I had managed to offend this great man; this fantastic exponent of Classical South Indian music.
“Hindustani eh? Well, I liked it in Tamil.” He said. “The hindi dubbing was fuckall.” He crushed his beedi with his bare foot, and walked away into the Sodium vapor lamp’s glow.