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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Thank You Letter to a Stranger

Dear Stranger,
Sometimes it just helps to know that there is someone out there who cares; even though it is a total stranger. Like yourself. 

I was having difficulty in explaining to the man at the ticket counter where I wanted to go. I did not speak the local language, and my gestures and sign language only further exasperated the ticket guy. The crowd behind me was getting impatient and fidgety. And then the ticket guy lost it. He let loose a string of anger ridden words in a language that I don’t understand; I was close to tears. And then you stepped in. You had been privy to the futile conversation that I was having with him. You were standing behind me in the queue and came to my aid. Your voice was firm and determined and the guy simmered down. I was having trouble holding back my tears. You turned to me, touched my arm and smiled, asked if I wanted some water. I smiled weakly, and nodded yes. You gave me your bottle and then began explaining the situation I had gotten myself into. 

As someone who was new to the city, I now think in retrospect that I should have done my homework better before embarking on the journey. You told me that all the buses were pre-booked because it was an extended weekend, and everyone wanted their share of leisure and bliss. The only option left was the bus which left at eight in the evening. I remember nodding my head to everything that you said, while silently admonishing myself and thinking that it was a vain attempt on my part to try and continue with the trip. Eight o’ clock was still three hours away and I was stuck in the middle of a hostile crowd, with a rucksack on my back, which sonorously screamed the word – ALIEN.   

With a legion of convoluted thoughts running around in my head, I suddenly realized that you had stopped talking and were now scrutinizing my eyes intently. As I looked up, you gave me big, warm, encouraging smile; I felt a little better. It assured me, gave me fortitude. When I told you where I was planning to go, you grinned at me and disclosed that we shared the same destination; from then onwards you took me under your wing. You coaxed and cajoled and then bargained with the man at the ticket counter and successfully obtained two tickets. You helped me with my luggage in the overhead cabin and suggested that I take the window seat. With a wink you added, “Just in case you feel sick going up the mountains.” After settling down beside me, you didn’t burst into a rambling conversation, probably because you gauged my reticent side. You made minor observations from time to time; you lamented how I won’t be able to see the grand view of the valley since it was dark outside. You put me at ease, being perfectly conscious of the fact that I was traveling alone and would reach in the middle of the night to a place where I had never set foot before. 

When we stopped midway for a fifteen minute break, you insisted on buying me coffee. Even though I am not a caffeine person, I savored the coffee because it was a wet, chilly night. I finally cracked my shell and told you a little about myself. I told you that I was a modern day drifter; yes, I do have a job, but I usually have the convenience of working from home. That allowed me frequent and regular breaks, so that I could pursue my passion of travel. I told you that I was visiting a few friends who had just moved there and knowing about my zealous enthusiasm of travel, they had invited me to stay with them. I think I dozed off for a few minutes, but I could sense your watchful gaze over me, even in my slumber. I felt your hand gently shaking my shoulder, urging me to wake up as we neared our stop. It was a quarter past twelve at night when we got off and there weren’t a lot many people at the bus station. You helped me with my luggage, taking it out gently, as if it was a baby carrycot. I took out my phone to call my friend, but my phone was dead. You readily offered me yours, but before I could make the call, I heard my name. I turned around to see my friend walking towards me. I turned back, gave your phone back and smiled. You smiled back and we held our gaze for a few seconds. You extended your hand and I shook it. You wished me a pleasant stay and walked off, perhaps forever out of my life into the darkness. 

I don’t know your name, we hadn’t exchanged names. Or numbers. Or addresses. The chances of us meeting again is extremely remote and improbable; we live in an insomniac and athletic world, where a multitude of people like us move every single day, with their bags, and larger than life dreams. But I want you know that I will be eternally grateful to you. Sometimes all it needs is the will to care, the rest just works its way. The possibilities are infinite and I believe in our future, our world, the people, us, you and me, I believe in them all.  I end by saying a simple thank you.

The Stranger You Saved at the Ticket Counter

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Now Shall I Walk or Shall I Ride?

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more”

Lord Byron has been able to translate my emotions impeccably. There is sheer pleasure in the pathless woods, there is a place where none intrudes. I re-lived all these sentiments during my recent Dudhsagar trek. The wanderlust residing within me was becoming impatient and I had to give in to its cravings. So I went for a trek to the magical and mystical Dudhsagar Falls, located at the border of Goa-Karnataka. There are stories associated with the trip, in its every nook and cranny. And let me tell you, this is what good stories are made off –the thrill of the unknown, the stimulation of an adventure.

The trek was with a group called Trek Mates India, with whom I had done the Tikona trek previously. My friend, my partner in crime, my traveling mate and I had been excited about the trek for the longest time. A prologue to the trip is me suffering from a viral, three days prior to the trek. I panicked, I became dejected thinking that I would not be able to make it. But when you have set your mind on something strongly, as strongly as I had on the trip, nothing can stop you. The fever didn’t or couldn’t stop me. I pumped myself with antibiotics, anti-allergic, paracetamol, vitamins and drew on my fortitude and determination and got ready for the trek.  

The trek was a two day affair, over the weekend. We gathered as a group of 55 at Dadar station and made our way to Pune in the morning, where we were joined by another 20. This made us a lump sum group of 75. It might seem chaotic, but trust me it was anything but. It couldn’t have been better organized than the way it was. We had five group leaders leading us; now these are your everyday people, who treks because it is their passion. They hold a normal nine to five job like you and me, and sacrifices their weekends in the pursuit of their passion – of trekking and traveling and exploring new places. 

The train journey from Pune to Dudhsagar was particularly alluring for me as we were travelling down the Konkan railway. It is considered to be one of the most picturesque travel routes in the world. Our humungous group was spread somewhat unevenly throughout the train; my friend and I were grouped with two girls and a guy. They were locals, and were extremely nice and friendly; they would be the kind of traveling and trekking mates you would want, someone who you could rely on. Sadly, it was a night train we were traveling in and the sun set very soon after we started our journey. At nine pm, our team leader came and told us to get an early night since it was going to be eventful next day. And here the story comes: there is no station per se at Dudhsagar. Yes there is cement platform, barely lifted off the ground with a signboard reading Dudhsagar, but trains don’t halt there. So how in the world is a group of 75 people going to get down?! Our leader had a grin on his face and said, the secret is that all trains, stop for a minute at the platform; it is a part of their technical halt because from then onwards it is a descend, so trains stop there and check their brakes to see if they are in tip-top shape or not. So we were going to make full use of that one minute, make every second count literally!! And the best part? We would do all of the jumping on the platform with our rucksacks at four thirty in the morning in pitch darkness. The only light we would have would come from the headlamps on our leaders’ heads and from inside of the train’s compartments. You think this is exciting? Wait till you hear about the rest of it.  

The ‘landing’ was achieved with precision; no man was left behind that is onboard. We had two hours to go before day broke in respectably, so quite a few of us spread newspapers on the dewy cement platform and laid down for a quick nap. Including myself; my agenda was to conserve as much as energy possible because I didn’t want to lag behind or get sick or not finish the trek under any circumstance. 

On the platform at 4:30 in the morning

With the arrival of dawn, we found ourselves perched on top of a mountain, amidst fog covered mountain peaks! It was a beautiful sight. We started the two km walk to the falls at six thirty. Now comes the next story. I am not clear as to why, but my friend and I were lagging behind the group. Probably we were too enamoured by our surrounding to take any progressive strides. And then we hear the whistle of a train behind us. 

We had to make way...
The few people who were loitering with us at the very back end of group, made way and got off the tracks; the rest had already made their into the tunnel. Just imagine what an experience that would have been! Stuck in a tunnel with a train rushing past! Missed that one sadly. We waved and cheered wildly as the goods train passed by; the driver and the guard also waved back and smiled at us. I am sure they thought, poor souls, they have no idea what they have got themselves into. The route that we took, even though is not a popular one, is popular for being an unconventional one and is a thrill seeker’s paradise.

Perched on top of Misty Mountain

Once the train passed away, we heard a commotion behind us. What had happened is that, behind our group, was a very miniscule group of 7, a family who were just as crazy as us and who wanted to go to the falls, using an unconventional route. The father had slipped down the slope, trying to probably take some really amazing pictures. Something like this maybe.
He was literally holding on for his dear life, hanging on to grasses and roots. The few of us who had hung back, along with our leaders, rushed to help the family out. Rahul, one of our leaders put on his harness and swiftly went down the slope and got to the father. Coming back up again was a slow process and we watched with bated breath. Luckily he had no broken bones or sprains, except for a bruise on his head. We were carrying first aid, we helped him clean up the wound, wrapped it up, and advised them not to continue with the trek. Would you believe it, he happened to be a doctor?! Well he was and had such poor judgment! Which idiot goes near the edge of a cliff, with slippers on where the grass is slippery and wet?! Thank God that he isn’t my doctor!

Leaving the group to fend for themselves, yes we were selfish that way because we had to stick to the schedule, we made our way, through two tunnels to the falls. The monsoon is the time when there are seasonal waterfalls, big and small running down the slopes everywhere. All the tunnels we went through, had a small waterfall running over them; this meant we had to go through them, which we did. It was a surreal experience. 
Tunnel Falls

It was a two km walk along the railway tracks to the falls. It was aptly named – Dudhsagar. Sea of Milk. See for yourself!
 At Dudhsagar Falls

It had rained quite heavily in the nearby Karnataka, which is why the falls was at its full glory! We donned our mackintoshes, because the water was flowing with such force that if you didn’t then you would get wet. And trekking fourteen km in wet clothes is not ideal.  

My rucksack and I at the Dudhsagar Falls

The falls is now famous for being in the movie Chennai Express and below is an iconic image. It is almost as same as the movie, except it is not the real life Chennai Express; Chennai Express does not traverse by this route.
 Chennai Express

The falls and the bridge

Spending a leisure hour, we bucked up for the trek through the leech infested jungles. Yes, that is right people I said LEECH! 

In retrospect, the trek was the best and the most challenging and crazy thing that I have ever done, and trust me coming from me, I have done quite a few crazy things in my life. While walking down the railway tracks, we took a sudden deviation from it and entered the jungle. The path was muddy, it was wet and slippery, and it wasn’t a path at all. I hung on to the hanging shoots of trees and swayed like Tarzan so as not to fall face down with my heavy ruck sack.

Maneuvering through the jutting roots, hanging shoots, collapsed trees blocking your way, along muddy pathless trails was the most difficult part. 
Man versus Wild

Or it could also be where we had to cross six streams, in knee deep water, which had ample amount of currant to drag us downstream if we weren’t careful enough. 
Down by the river

And to add to all of it, there were leeches and other bugs and other creepy crawlies, who were just waiting to climb into our clothes. Laugh if you want to, but I wore double layers of socks, double layers of shirts, topped with my mackintosh, and a cap so avoid getting bitten from those leeches who hang from branches. Are you laughing yet?! Well, you shouldn’t because they protected me and I was one of those lucky ones who did NOT get attacked by leeches. 

I wouldn’t lie; it was hard and on more than one occasion I had thoughts of giving up. But there was no option of giving up because I was in the middle of the jungle, and even though I had 74 people spread in front and behind me, none of them could carry me home, it simply wasn’t on the cards. I muttered under my breath that this experience was worth my entire life time and that I was done playing the crazy and seeking out crazy. I just wanted to settle down and be ‘normal’. Finally when we hauled ourselves up the slope to reach the train tracks once more I was ready to crash and lie down forever. But then came within me, this fluttering of perseverance, which poked at me and I got up completed the last three km of the trek, once again along the railway tracks in a record breaking time, I am sure. My friend and I were the first girls to have completed the trek; we were accompanied by a group of four guys whom we befriended and the company and the chatter made the last leg of the trek not so strenuous.

Steady feet don't fail me now...

By the time we reached the shelter in Kulem, where we were supposed to clean up and eat, my legs were ready to give up. I experienced some very anxious moments, when it was both physically and mentally difficult for me to put one foot after the other. I was almost close to tears, when we began our return journey; my legs were complaining desperately and it was a real challenge for me to make it to the platform. Once inside the train, I gave in to my stress and fatigue completely. Using my rucksack as a pillow, I laid out straight on an empty seat throughout our journey to Madgaon. Once in Madgaon, we had a stopover of one and a half hours. Most of us grabbed a super early dinner because the only thing that all of us could foresee in our future once we got up on the train – sleeping. Which is exactly what we did.

The trip had been memorable for so many reasons. I turn to Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp: “I know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.I might not look strong, in fact I am a frail little creature, but I felt strong, stronger than I had ever felt in my life. I felt exhilaration, because I broke through the chains that I was put into; I proved all my cynics wrong. Yes, I am an outdoors person. What is my fascination with that, you ask? There is where I feel the most alive, in that moment, in that special time and place. The crux of a person’s essence comes from experience. I feel comforted to have known that I have been allowed to walk here, which is to heaven on earth.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Not so Magnificent Mary

Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom came into the limelight of the Indian media after she won her fifth World Amateur Boxing Championship; prior to that India was ignorant of her existence. India then went back in time to see for themselves who Mary Kom was. And what they saw they liked. They saw an opportunity to exploit the success that this lone figure in the female boxing field has achieved, having been betrothed with the title ‘Magnificent Mary’. The exploitation was complete when it was announced after her bronze win at the London Olympics in 2012, that Bollywood is eager to tell her story to the larger audience. What Bollywood calls storytelling, I call exploitation. At least Bhag Milkha Bhag was made when Milkha Singh had retired; Mary Kom is still pretty much in the business of boxing and preparing for the upcoming Rio Olympics in 2016. I don’t see the point at all. 

Mary Kom is a poorly researched, poorly directed movie. It hardly bears any resemblance to her early life. Her parents were share croppers, it was true but life was not that harsh as it was portrayed in the film. Also, she had tremendous interest in athletics, before she decided to focus single mindedly on boxing. There is also no account of her being a hot head and picking up fights at random with guys. If you are making a ‘biopic’ please get the facts right, Omung Kumar!

Priyanka Chopra is the only good thing about the movie. Her rippling biceps definitely shows the amount of hard work she has put in to get into the shoes of this famed boxer. Apart from the physical side to the role, she also had to play a mother to twins, whom she leaves behind to get back in the ring. I have no complains about her portrayal. There were very authentic moments, we could see the doubts creeping in when she has to choose to leave behind her infant sons and go back to train. 

And now the most important part of the movie, which I detested to the core was Priyanka Chopra’s diction. But before that let me venture out and appreciate the efforts of Kumar, who tried to ruffle the feathers of the India Boxing Federation by commenting on how things run and what hurdles and hoops athletes have to jump through just so they can represent their country.  The incident may or may not be true in Mary Kom’s life, but we can be sure that incidents like these do happen – unwanted sexual advances, threatening to pull athletes out if they don’t comply, humiliating them, making use of their priviledges. Okay, back to the part that thoroughly irritated me was the diction of the titular character. When Mary is forced to read out the apology letter in front of an audience, she says ‘phedarasion’.  Yes, I tried to phonetically match her pronunciation. What makes the script writer think that Priyanka should not pronounce it as it is pronounced – federation. Whatever might the real Mary’s diction be, you cannot force it on a character onscreen. This is racism! And this is where and how it starts. Before taking shape into something that we can’t control. Also talk about poor makeup! Priyanka’s fake painted freckles were such an eye sore!

We need more than the petty and cheap histrionics and theatrics that Kumar had made use of to tell the story of Magnificent Mary!