Saturday, March 1, 2014

The early 20th century letters of Satyanand Stokes.

The Farmer of Kotgarh
I went to Shimla in 2009, while footnoting my essay, “Summer Hill: The Building of Viceregal Lodge” published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, (SHSS, Volume 18, 2010) and became interested in the history of the potato and of the apple. So I visited the Central Potato Research Institute, and browsing through newsletters and books, found that spuds grown in Himachal, were being sold to makers of American style  hot chips, and more interestingly that it originated in South America. Pamela Kanwar  in her book Imperial Simla, says Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy was associated with introducing potatoes in the hills. He was posted as Garrison Officer till 1821, and then the Political Agent, controlling the hill states. He was a good host, who fed his guests including Lord Amherst, very well and gave them champagne, hock and  mocha coffee at dinner, and Calcutta journals at breakfast. He worked only one hour after breakfast, according to Kanwar, but that was enough to unfurl the roads, houses,and bazars as they came to be built. Raja Bhasin in Simla:The Summer Capital cites Rudyard Kipling who describes it as a round of dances, picnic, theatricals and flirtations.  Vipin Pubby takes up the problem of landless forced labout, and writes in Simla: Then and Now that begar was finally abolished in 1929, through the work of Samuel Evans Stokes, who was close to Mahatma Gandhi.
In the archives at Teen Murti Library, I found a record that Satyanand Stokes, as he came to be known, had left behind for his family. It was a legacy of letters, and very interesting ones too. The first set recorded for his mother in America, a patient he was looking after, who died a most terrible death. Stoke’s horror and his  helplessness at the boy’s terminal illness, where the pustules blinded  and he tore at his flesh but in the end, became calm as death approached, is a frightening record of how illness a hundred years ago left the attendant completely enervated and sorrowful.  Stokes then goes to Kotgarh, where he falls in love with a village girl, called Agnes, who makes garlands for him to wear and shyly accepts his overtures of affection and respect. His love for her is intense, and he soon marries her. He writes to his mother on June 5 1912 that “I thank God that Agnes is to be my wife. I think that I have truly fallen in love with her and am looking forward to our marriage with great eagerness.” For Stokes, the love remains a constant space which allows him to engage with the “inner life of India” . On December 27th 1912, he writes, they are honeymooning at the Taj Mahal Hotel, in Bombay, and the village girl is now completely at ease with strangers,  “Agnes is greatly taken with saris – the long silk article of dress which the Parsi ladies wear here”. Stokes returns to  Kotgarh and Barobagh and his interest in farming is already evident. On May 28th 1913, he writes, “ It will interest you to  know that I have taken to what I never thought would interest me even a little bit – gardening. Each morning early and every evening I am out in my garden among my peas and beans and lima beans and pumpkins, cabbages etc.”. For him, his plants were like his babies, and he turned the earth “as if I were arranging their bed clothes for them and tucking them in like babies upto the chin. This ofcourse sounds silly but I cannot help feeling like a father to them for all that.”
On August 20th 1913 he writes that , “One of the things which I intend to do when in America is to go in for a selection of good wheats and grass-seeds to introduce out here. If I can find anything which will yield the farmer a larger crop per acre, and if I am able to import, and after using introduce it, I shall be doing the people a very real service. At present the difficulty is to subsist on the small amount of land owned by each. The introduction of potatoes has greatly helped, and if I  could only follow it up by the introduction of other useful things I should be delighted.”
A visit to Agnes’ grandmother’s house dazzles him, as he writes to his mother on Sept 10th 1913, “It is a beautiful day at the end of the rainy season. As I sit here upon the porch of Dhan Singh’s house, the shout of the ploughman comes to my ears, and when I look out across the fields I can see the hillsides covered with labouring oxen. I thank God for this beautiful country and for the balm it is to my spirit which has been in the last two years so cut and torn, and is now by His mercy receiving comfort and strength again.”
After three sons are born,  named Premchand, Pritam, and Tarachand, Sam Stokes is very busy, helping his wife, and at the same time, intent on educating her too. He writes to his mother, September 20th 1916, “I do the best I can to make the burden as light as possible, and do all the night work and washing of most of the bottles myself, but there are three babies to bathe and feed, and all the house-keeping and managing to be attended to by her. And besides she will not behave herself, so that when I have succeeded in making her work lighter in one direction she will put in the time saved in something else – either putting up quinces or drying tomatoes, or sewing or knitting. I am glad that in the midst of all her activities she continues to make time for reading. She has just got through four or five of Fennimore Cooper’s books and now she is devoting herself to George Elliot’s works;  at present she is absorbed in Adam Bede.… Here we are engaged in the autumn sowing of wheat and barley. I have got a number of fine big fields in shape since our return, and all being well, hope to have all our principle provisions from our own place next year. We have now got in all our potato crop - it amounted to over four tons, and after keeping what we need for sowing and home consumption we sold the rest for a good sum, getting the best price in the neighbourhood because our potatoes were the finest….So you see that at last I have gone in for selling. I don’t like it but see that it must be done. It would be crazy to distribute our surpluses at present. I have therefore determined to sell all that I can (I won’t do it myself, but my foremen does it better than I could,) and make it an aim to eventually pay all our expenses off the place. The aim is interesting even if the means does not appeal.”
Marketing produce is so hard that even if there is over abundance, the fruit and vegetables must find a buyer. Sociologists want to know the relation between the producer, buyer and consumer, across time, and in differing circumstances.
 I took the address of a descendant of the Stokes, in 2009 from the publicity officer at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and caught a bus, which dropped me off on a hill road,  and then I had to take a detour down to where the house was. The descendent was an MLA and was in Delhi, so I could not speak with her, though the  domestic staff were friendly, and the house and garden a hillside delight.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lost Worlds or Lot's Wife

 Lost Worlds (also published as "By the Rivers of India" in the Financial Chronicle of Weekend February 22nd 2014

 Two women became the symbols of Kerala as it stands today. One brought her two school going daughters and infant son to Jantar Mantar in October 2013 to protest against illegal sand mining in Kerala. It was Jairam Ramesh who immediately wrote to Oomen Chandy asking that he look into the case.( see October is not a very cold month, but it took all of four months for Oommen Chandy to respond to the environmental crusader. Sand mining is one of the most visible of illegal occupations, and no one speaks of it, for fear of being killed. A cursory web check will show the fear in which people live of the sand mining mafia. Yet, construction activity cannot ostensibly be supported without it,  though  now crushed mortar is providing a recycling alternative. Dr  Samuel Paul has argued that 60 percent of Kerala is now urbanised. The promise of  IPL games brought with it its own crushing sense of the morass of traffic, which besieges Kerala with a consumerist culture, now well in place with the Gulf Diaspora returning and looking for what they were used to. Internet parks and shopping malls became the common cause for an industrialising nation everywhere. Sunanda died leaving her families  and friends distraught,  because by all accounts she was likeable and amusing. Development strategies, however, which come with their leisure packages are not without costs. According to a resident in Kuruvillangad,  (a wealthy  rural  gulf diaspora  Syrian Christian outpost in Kerala with its proliferating colleges and ritual sites,)  “Sunanda  was so charming, she could sell sand to desert inhabitants in Dubai”. Jazeera, the autodriver however, had to sit in the freezing Delhi climate when temperatures went down to 4 degrees, to protest against the rampant death of rivers in Kerala. Jazeera’s protest, was supported by her school master husband. The future of Kerala lies in the hands of those three children who survived Delhi’s bitter cold, though the files to Oommen Chandy took four months to be cleared, before he could intervene.
Bureaucracies are the spine of the nation. If one disrupts officialise there is vagrancy. Yet Hannah Arendt said that because the bureaucrat follows orders, and because the bureaucrat is never responsible, the banality of evil is rampant. When Varun Gandhi invoked the name of his father and wished to return in the name of his father, I shuddered, for Emergency excesses were huge, and Sanjay Gandhi’s youth brigade who roistered through the streets of Delhi were very energetic.
I was 17 when the Emergency happened. Coming back from the Delhi University, (before the Mudrika bus seva had completely reinvented our lives), I had to catch a connecting bus to Nizamuddin, where I lived, from Daryaganj. In those days,  a lone 57 number bus went to D.U, and you had to find a place to catch it from. So Daryaganj was where I boarded and got off,  mornings and afternoons, in 1974, all a good forty years ago. And there, every day, I would see the government officers who would put up little tables, where people came and signed up for a vasectomy or a tubectomy because they wanted something from the Government. If one had three children, then one had to sign up and get a  sterilisation certificate. Brinda Karat upturned the apple cart by stating some years ago, that women should decide the number of children they wanted. Working classes, as Mahmud Mamdani argued in  one of our prescribed Sociology readings on the 1970s, see children as the substitute for pensions, which they don’t receive in our country, as they are poor and usually contract labour does not receive identity cards, for what permanent address do they have?
Interestingly, on 18.7.67. Panampilly Govinda Menon wrote a note in his capacity as Union Law Minister, to say “To subject a person to the operation of vasectomy or tubectomy is to inflict “grievous hurt” as defined in Sec 320 of the Indian Penal Code on that person. Currently in our hospitals and family planning centres these operations are done with the consent of the persons operated upon and therefore are not penal. The case here is not of sterilisation with the consent of the person sterilised but under compulsion of law. And the question is whether such law would be within the competence of Parliament” ( NMML Manuscript Section,File 190 xxxv 176)
P. Govinda Menon does not have a problem ethically with people being sterilised compulsorily so long it is not “deprivation of personal liberty by naked executive order.” After having clarified that none of the “religions  of the world”, besides the Roman Catholic one, is against contraception, (and this community may  be exempted along with other conscientious objectors,) the law for compulsory sterilisation may be seen as a reasonable one. “Since the proposal is to have legislation for compulsory sterilisation, the order to be issued to an individual by the appropriate officer will be according to procedure established by law and protected; unless the Courts further stipulate the law in this respect should be a reasonable law; and the stature on scrutiny is found to be unreasonable.” (ibid) In another note in the same file, which is preserved as Symposium on Greater Cochin Development Concluding Speech, dated 1967 he says, “It is time that Malayalees dropped the habit of staying in separate house, each standing in its own compound. The density of population and the scarcity of land does not permit it. Multistoreyed buildings into flats for residential purposes would be the only possible solution for the housing problem in this region. I am sure the Malayalees would be able to adjust to this type of living.”
 The Malayalees love for gardens is a characteristic,  and growing fruits and flowers has been now concretely translated by Diaspora into terrace gardens, since  Kerala government runs courses on growing runner beans, bitter gourds and ladies finger and curry leaves on one’s own terrace, or in pots. Any sorrow for lost gardens is ostensibly nostalgia, which most modernists see as potently limiting. I would just presume that having more agricultural colleges is necessary in the 21st century, and new agriculturists should by right be nurtured, instead of the Indian State going the Bt way monotonously. The survival of rivers, as Jazeera argued, is the most significant thing for those who live in our riverine and ancient civilisations. These are living and sustainable traditions, not to be axed in the name of Development, and archived through Proud Parade marches. Watching the Ladakh villagers growing apricots, apples,  turnips, radishes, runner beans, celery, potatoes, even grapes (in Kargil) for the  consumption of the Indian army, and farmers with small gardens hoping for roads to Delhi to market their excess produce was an eye opener.
Amit Shah would have us believe in television rhetoric,  that prosperity is a neutral thing, and that when water or electricity is provided, Gujarat provides equally to both, in the same village. However post 2002, many Muslims continue to live in refugee camps or ghettos. Muzaffar Nagar has proved that in some states, segregation of communities is sought. Industrialisation comes with heavy cost to the rural poor, many of whom come to the city to earn. Whether town, country or metropolis, the City decides the future of the hinterland.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Murder by any name

Nido Taniam is one more dead by the wrath of the city, and again, the unnecessary hate that goes into these macabre events leave one completely befuddled. When will it stop? Delhi is  like Chicago in the 1930s, there are no rules, and the glamour of illicitness runs its way through the city like its very veins.
Everyone thinks the other is evil, and goes to get him or her. It's a very odd way to behave as humans. I grew up in this city, dreading its entrails of lewdness and hate. The parks and the ruins and monuments made up for the dread,  and one was distracted by the flowers every Spring, but the crimes committed in the city were too frequent to allow for any real acceptance of calm. One can imagine, that at one level there is a rhetoric that says people are free, and that they must avail the opportunities of being able to use the facilities the city offers, but at another level, the risks of being out there after 8 pm are just too huge. One family was told  one morning,that the business men who had been killed in the night in an accident were theirs. Innumerable hit and run cases occur, and increasingly, murders of young people who are out at night. The students from the North East are targetted because they don't look like the other migrants to Delhi. The city of Delhi has its various layers, and in each there is a way of  presenting oneself which is like a rule of the territory. Dress codes are like uniforms. When young men appear with sharp haircuts with peroxide at the edges, the citizens behave like they have been personally attacked. When these students, both men and women, have Sino features, the ghettoised citizens in these colonies,  act as if these are enemies of the State.

As someone who is in her late 50s, I am expected to behave as if I were without any rights to my identity as a person. One instance of this is the mandatory dress code expected of me. One of the problems of "being a bad example" is that people actually imagine that if you don't look like them you are "a bad example." Constantly there is pressure to conform, to look like the woman who sells washing soap across the different states speaking a dubbed different language in each region, but quintessentially the same middle class woman wearing a bindi. This trope of sameness is ofcourse  provided by advertisers as much as state policy, where citizens are defined only by their ability to negotiate with the administration. Tobacco and alcohol may be state regulated, but so are the advertisements which project cancer as a deadly disease. The benefits received by the state from taxes has to be represented through the manner in which privatisation works in order to keep the boot leggers at bay. The Bacardi ads with which a whole generation grew up as tv watchers meant that the totemistic nature of human life would be represented as a risk taking exercise in the urban jungle. The alcohol bottles lying in the streets in Kerala have to be seen to be believed, and even in Leh, alcohol bottles lie unclaimed in growing piles. In Delhi, the recycling of waste is perhaps more exact in where these bottles go.
 Modernisation has not meant that people have left their traditional views on human behaviour aside. Each caste group, each religion, each class has distinctive ways of projecting their identity, and those citizens who break the laws such as beating up and murdering others,  must be punished. Religious identity is a personal motivation, which is decided by the accident of birth and individual choice. To kill or beat up another because he/she is different in appearance is the most dreadful thing to happen in a city. Routinely people are beaten up our city, because the mob thinks they know best. At this rate, we in Delhi, will be no different from those who live in cities which are constantly patrolled, and there deaths occur without explanation or cause.
In JNU, where students have won the right to work in the Library through the night, giving Social Science students the same privileges as Science students in their Laboratories, the Security staff are on patrol all the time. Yet there are robberies, occassionally, and an  attempt to murder and  a suicide, just last year in the School of Languages. We obviously don't have a closed entry system, since the bus comes in freely till late at night, and everyone is welcome to visit our campus. Monitoring and patrolling become symbols of a closed system, rather than a truly democratic one. What are people's life chances regardless of the accident of birth?

Unless people believe and trust in one another, how can one have democracy? The idea that people can round up on others and believe that these are criminals with intent to hurt and must be exterminated, seems medieval to the extreme, or fascist in the way Europe was in the 1930s. In that scenario, undermining institutions is not the answer, but legal remedies must be sought, before young people are sacrificed over and over in the name of something or another.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sepulchral Winter in Delhi

Its been cold, and the skies so grey, one feels afraid to look at it. The planes stopped flying for a couple of days, and it seems like twilight all day long. I have never felt so cold, but then every winter seems colder than the last, and every summer very very hot. One morning  I woke up, and read the newspapers to find that a friend's husband had fallen to his death. My neighbours and I rushed there, and found her grieving and puzzled. Later, the story unfolded with tragic twists and turns. His death had been the result of kangaroo courts publicly devoured on tv. My friend's husband had been accused of rape, that he had spiked a guest's drink and then violated her. Battalions of friends turned up at the CPI office courtyard where his body was taken from the morgue. None of us believed that he could have done this. But it was too late to help him, and his friends who had tried to protect him from this terrible ending, by providing him emotional support during the last months of his life were very distraught.
Many of us know that anyone who takes on  chroniclingpolitical vendettas and writes about perpetrators come to difficulties, or their families do. And in the case of my friend's husband, a professional activist this too came to pass. As his body went into the electric crematorium, the hatchet opening to take him into the flames, the young people who had been trained by him, and cherished him saluted him. The fire was huge, the body small. I saw it by chance, when we had all stepped out, and I looked back. The fire was immense, and the body lay there wrapped in its shroud, immersed in the final flame. Samar's father, Meenakshi's husband, Comrade Khurshid Anwar who had more friends than he had ever imagined in that sorrowful moment when he stepped off the ledge, or was pushed off by rumour and the invective of hate. All of us asked, as he had too before he died, why did the alleged victim, not gone to the police, registered a case, gone to a hospital, submitted herself for  medical examination  and dna testing...why for three months did her friends and her supporters do nothing other than spread rumours, visiting a tv channel to air their story? Rape has become such a common word in Delhi today, that we remind ourselves everyday to breathe and live, to be one with the universe, to hope for tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It was raining again.And why  not. It was monsoon after all. Let it rain. The land would breathe again when the Asuragod Mahabali returned. He belonged to the people, a simple King rendered a beggar, yes, devoid of land, people, tithes, tributary. The boy looked  up. It was a roof after all. The thatch was made of crumbling palm leaves. Sometimes he saw a spider or bees, or even a bevy of tiny sunbirds resting or playing in the eaves. They had their own life, their own language. He blinked. The spider was swinging down. Sometimes it would draw its length of thread upwards and disappear. He rubbed his eyes. It was time to wake up. The sun was glinting through the rain. The raindrops had begun to form, incandescent in the dim light of the room, as they shimmered at the edges of the slim logs that made up the roof. The roof was not leaking, the drops formed and evaporated on the dusty ledge below it. That was where they kept the large vessels his father had inherited from his mother. No one climbed up there, but the lizards and the cat, and those minstrels from the sky: sunbirds, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, and that spider swinging on its self made trapeze.
          The rain had stopped. The sky was red, and the sun was rising up, steadily. He said his morning prayers, looking at the lotus filled river, and the hill they called Malayatoor. He sang his morning song.
Many salutations to you O peacock, Salutations to you and the weapons of
Salutations to you o goat, also salutations to you
Oh Rooster, My salutation to you O Sindhu
My salutations to your divine abode on the shore.
My salutations to you O Skanda
Again and Again my salutations to you.

He worshipped equally, he sought no combat. He believed that his own birth was a blessing to ancient parents. He had no concern with the span of his life, his short life would match the remainder of theirs.  They had chosen him, and now no one could change his future. How could it be chosen? It was a shimmering river, with no beginning and no end. It was like the celestial stars, each resembling the raindrops strung like a sequence of diamonds.  The Nestorean merchants sometimes paused on roads outside his house, on their way to the mountain of Thomas. And some of them were gold and diamond merchants paying for pepper and cloves with their carefully carried goods, stitched cautiously into cloth bags. He had seen them in the market places, and occasionally one of them would expose his hoard, the diamonds in sizes too small to have any value, to other merchants, except to a man buying for his wife. The women never came out to look, but sometimes the children did, choosing for their mother a new nose ring or a pair of earrings.
Every morning he blew the conch, and having bathed in the river looked for his mother. She was busy, but he would always go from house to house looking for her. The sound of the conch remained in his mind, a hollow shout, a long dim memory of the wind as it blew through the caves. His father had died long ago, he had very  little memory of him. Words were his anointment: a long life but unbestowed with virtue, dim, unknown, forgotten at his very birth; or a short one, full of virtue. And his devout parents left it to God, not choosing to know his fate. The God with the rice dumpling, the elephant faced one, became his protector, the one who obstructed his Father and was slain and then reborn with all the might of his mother’s desire, and his father’s imagination, and ofcourse, gifted with a heroism and memory. And so the silent one, the boy, the one without spouse, became his very own Isa, the chosen. And so too, the brother Skanda, with the peacock who travelled all over the universe, chose him. To be chosen, or to choose, what was the difference? He sang praises to all. A boy like Dakshinamurty, he used the thumb and forefinger to show the integrity of the world, and the peace within himself.

         The paddy swayed in the breeze, the green shining in the early morning sun. He was hungry. The long night of peaceful sleep was now replaced by the tumult of his hunger. He had nothing to calm it, no shloka  would still his appetite. Their garden grew nothing, the red earth was too stony, not even coconuts grew, and as for yams and tapioca, the rats ate them before they became ready for eating. Hibiscus, red, large, bell like, grew profusely. They filled his eyes, the colour deep, and the stamen golden with pollen.

       The rain started to fall, and he ran back to his house. It had become oddly dark, the clouds raging in the sky, the thunder now repetitive. He was alone in the world. His heart became still. The fig tree were huge, and the roots like snakes billowed in the earth. They were gnarled, independent and many pronged. He passed them saying his prayers, the red earth laughed at him,  and in the gravel that washed away so easily he saw the poetry of his forbears, forever wandering in search of food, offering words as their only currency. The trunks of the trees stood out like sleeping elephants, still, somnolent and huge.

       Elephants, these were the stuff of his dreams. They assembled and trumpeted, chased away demons, carried kings and soldiers and slaves. They were the one reason that he slept so well. His mother would begin her day with prayers to Ganesha. She would beg him too, to protect her son. Sometimes he could not tell the difference between Ganesha and himself. He would when small, lie in her lap, pretending he had the longest nose in the world, the largest ears. He would trumpet and dream and fall asleep.

The very nature of truth is manifold and lives in our mind as the unfolding lotus. His parents, the poor pious people who found that he had given his life to poetry. The words that came from his mouth were fully formed. He lived as if he were indeed one with God. That God, Isa, Brahman, Gauri, the Sons Ganesha and Skanda,Vishnu with his peacocks and great and discerning love - each spoke of the essential way of the world.

The snake that coiled on his head, the keeper of the diamond they all sought for its brilliance, was the one who enthralled him most. He was at first  pleased with the appearance of the snake. He thought he would accept the snake as an ornament. He was afraid, though. It wanted nothing, but to protect him. Yet, as Isa’s son, he would have to keep it calm, asking only that it should not uncoil and breathe venom. The fear of death was his onlycompanion, the beautiful landscape of death and dreams. He had no reason to establish that it was an illusion. The snake uncoiled, unfurled its hood, merged with the spine. It made him feel that he was only part of the natural world, that he was essence of rainbow, and the emptiness of sky. He was the keeper of wisdom, of memory, of touch, of the sorrow that makes people wise. Why give his parents a choice of the fate he had before him? His death was preordained by many things, most of all his need to learn.
He lay down on his bed, hunger making him recite all the mantras he knew, some he made up, most he had learned by rote when very young. He was, ofcourse, expected to recite them. His mother was not harsh, merely expectant and yearning. He was her only son, the one they had prayed for, the one who had been born when the skies were broken.

The snake, more gorgeous then even, appeared as Seshadri. He bowed to it. The snake had six hoods, and so to each he spoke a verse. Let them be united. They were each resplendent, each marked by the peculiar black and ivory typical of  their tribe. Up on the hill, at Malyatoor, the Christians kept a safe distance from snake worship, in fact they killed them on sight. By the cry of Pambu, they sought no differentiation between those which were marked and those which were not, those which were poisonous and those which merely ate the mice which plagued the tapioca patches, and the fish which swam in the rice fields. The Christians were polite, powerful, civil, exchanging nods with Kings and Brahmans, dressed similarly with top knot, the diamond and the sabre. The sword was their right as was the use of the sandalwood paste, the elephant, the fan, the sandals on their feet, the keeping of slaves and the right to trade and  grow things. He himself found their ideas interesting: Isa with the uncombed hair and the flowing  robes, the three godheads united and made one (no rivalry there) and the moment when truth and love became one. They said that Isa had travelled to Sindhu. The Sindhu so beautiful, it had the coldness of wisdom, detached from the mountains, spilling uncontrolled, ready to merge with other rivers, high up in the sky.  He could imagine the snow mountain, the home of the river, passing over their heads, encircling with its many lines the mountains like the passion of snakes.

In the corner of the room he saw the fat white snake with the black blotches, watching him. He was startled by its beauty, its fat concupiscence, by its mottled nature. It stared steadfastly back at him, its small black eyes intelligent and inquiring. The snake too was waiting for its breakfast just as he was. It would not eat him, of that he was certain. If at all he stood in its path, creating an obstacle to its movement, he would indeed be killed. Adi swallowed a little, both phlegm as well as his own hopelessness. By calling him Adi the first, was he expected to be the only child? Ofcourse, his mother was a widow. Sometimes she looked at him the way the snake was gazing at him now: curiosity and a banality of enquiry about his well being. She hid the roots of her agony. The snake too, seemed to be asking “What shall I do with this boy?”
He shuddered, thinking of the blue green waters of the Sindhu which he had never seen, but informed of so frequently by the Nestorean travellers who had no fear of rivers or seas, crossing them at will, with their precious cargo of pepper, cloves, ginger, silks, cotton, diamonds, gold, wool and incense.
O lord I am poor, wretched, defeated, helpless, miserable, tired, depressed and doomed. O Sambhu, why is it that though you are the common inner spirit residing in all the creatures (thus residing in me also) you are indifferent to my sorrows? Oh Lord, please save me.
In the still hollow of his bed he lay down thinking of nothing in particular. The snake was coiled too, and the spider was still. He wandered, thinking of the oath of early death to which he had been sworn at so young an age. His father’s body lay before his eyes, hard cold, and he too became breathless, astounded by the enormity of it all. Could such a thing be, a loving father turned into somethinsg so inanimate, like the large fish he saw in the fishermen’s shops? He shuddered, wept alittle, saw how his own body was stretched out in half sleep, sighed with pleasure and dozed off. When he woke he saw that the black and white snake had gone away, perhaps she was hidden in the house itself, and his mother would find her, while she was sweeping.

  His mother fed him every day at the same time. He would hear her come into the house, and he would jump up and hug her. She was, after his father’s death usually lost in thought.  She would crumble into a heap, knocking her head. She never forgot to cook his meals, and was tender to him. Her age was such that she forgot things and had to walk long miles to retrieve them. Sometimes she scolded him for nothing, and sometimes she hugged him without reason, as he did too. The love they had was the only fire that burned in their house, the kitchen hearth was often cold with dead ash since they ate the previous night’s food, and often, nothing at all. In the morning, however she always cooked, rice thick with pulses from lentil grown in their garden, with a pickle of hot green pepper crushed with coconut, tamarind, and curry leaves. Sometimes his tongue burnt from it, but there was the cooling sour buttermilk. He was so busy in his recitation that the day went by fast enough. His tongue became thick but his mind was clear, thoughts speeding along faster than the words could catch them. He would stop, lie down, sleep deeply. Dreams chased him like flagrant butterflies, each one more beautiful than the last. Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Brahma and Sarasvati visited him and gave him their gifts and blessings. He felt that though his mother old, and Shivguru dead, he carried with him the ultimate grace: the gift of cosmos. Nothing disturned him, he bore no anger or grudge, he was now in a continual state of bliss. Ofcourse there were times when he, or rather his body, remembered. His father was always present, with his love for words, for hot rice, for bananas, for hisbiscus flowers, their poverty never a cause for discomfort.

How simply they had taken each day. Living in the shadow of his own death as if it were a blessing. It was because a son was needed to carry out the mortuary rites, that he had been sheathed in the womb. That first sheath which had enclosed him in the primal waters was indeed his first blessing. When he was born, they had scrubbed him, soaking him in oils and water, till he appeared as golden as the sun. The skin that spoke of his mother’s Pandav roots made others speak of Shiva, but he knew that it was because of the long journeys his ancestors had made. His father was old but had the strength of a bull, and his silences were sufficient to them all. His father was always in awe of the Devi, and spent his life in the calm aspect of meditation, that indeed was his calling. The language of the Gods spilled out of him whenever he came out of the room where he maintained quiet. They only had that one room, the large room, and in that his father made a small corner for himself. Everyone loved his father. He had the peacefulnesss of the anointed, and never, never, unlike his mother, flagellated himself. When he spoke, it was always with a quiet assurance, but usually he kept calm. When his father died, Adi thought he would leave the house and go looking for him. If he had become one with Siva, then he only had to go to Mount Kailash, and there he would find his father.
He had told his mother, after she cremated his father’s body, since he was too young to hold the fire, “Let me go!’

“God knows where you can go. It was for this moment that we had asked for your birth. Old though we were, we thought that you would propitiate the Gods after our death. But it was your death that was, instead. assured to us.”
“So I know the reason for my father’s death. It was from the fear of mine.”
“Then stay behind. Do not go till I am gone. Who knows when that will be.”
“Let me go now. I know where my father sits.”
“His ashes flow in the river at Vercala.”
“I will be there for  you when you are in agony and in your last breath”
“How can I ? What will people say?”
“They will say that a sanyasi has been born.”
“Even your milk teeth have not fallen.”
“Your teeth have not fallen and I am still here. Why give birth to me, if you don’t understand who I am.”
“Siva Siva Siva”
“That is true, and so I am free to go.”
“Stay for a few years here, wandering in the nearby fields, helping me with the feastdays. Now I need you more than ever.”
“Even if I am here, it is only my body. The rest of me is in the snow hills. You cannot travel, so I must go.”

She wept again. He thought to himself that if the Gods have decided, then why would she not permit him to go forwards into the time that was allocated to him. And so the three years had gone by waiting for food, for clothes, for blessings.

Sankara was waiting for the son to rise high, for then his mother would come and cook the first meal of the day. Her hair washed in the river was still black, her face uncreased. She carried the weight of her years well, tall, strong, proud: tiny white stones gleaming in her ears, the fragrance of jasmines surrounding her body, covered in old silk. His mother carried herself as if she walked on air, and he would always think of her as the princess, high born and worldly. Shivguru had called her Aryamba, and had frequently prostrated before her. So what if she was a washerwoman and cook in other people’s houses? For Shankara and his father, she would always be the Devi.

He sat up on his pallet, and started his recitation. Was his voice clear? Was his diction perfect? Would he be understood? He often dreamed of the day, when he would travel far North. Whenever death appeared, Yama: friendly, courteous, inviting, he would be ready to go, putting up no obstacle. After all, to die was to return as seed. The great deluder Shiva made everyone start again, and that too without memory.

The rain had stopped. The sun shone through their neighbour’s cocoanut grove. His body trembled with the shock of morning hunger. The sun streaked through his body and split him in two, cleanly, like an axe through the spine. He trembled a little, and sang to Shiva, his thin reedy boy’s voice wavering. The sunlight was rainbow like, and suddenly, as he sang of Shiva’s jewels enclosing his arms snake like, their eyes emerald, the spasm left him, and the spine became whole again. He spat clear white fluid in his   mother’s spittoon.  One could never hurry her. She had work, and only when it was done, would she return home.

He got up lazily and sitting outside in the damp steaming earth, he started to draw with his forefinger on the wet sand, and then with sudden urgency, he wrote the jewel snake verse, Bhujangapriyakalp, His father had taught him the power of metre, and how words could sound like elephants marching, the very beat echoing the stamping of the heart. Having written them, he sat still. The rain fell and the words were washed into the red earth, the water pounding much like the beating of his ravaged heart. He was now aware that Shiva and he were one.
Fear of death, what cause was there? Darkness, night, loss: these were his legacy, but surely not his future? Himadri appeared often to him, and when his mother lit the lamp at night, and with it the smell of incense, the fragrance of the night from many houses brought him comfort. But now, it was morning, the sun harsh in the newly washed sky. He could hear children playing, and looked for them, but none could be seen, only their voices along with the sudden twitter of birds and the gurgling of the river made him shut his ears. Why were the noises so loud? He watched the progress of the horsefly as it swirled around the room. It was menacing, looking for a wall to build its dwelling, neighbor perhaps to moth and lizard and spider and frog. Let there be no anger among us, he prayed to Shiva. And weeping a little, he said,
Ganesa, Isa, save us from hunger and anger.
His mother had come. Her hair was tied tight, the tendrils escaping. Her beautiful face was creased with oil and sweat. She had been fed in the house she worked in and  had brought for him curds and rice  in a small earthen pot. Mustard seeds floating at the top with green curry leaves, the food looked delicious. He washed his hands and face and sat down, eating quickly, greedily, no food wasted, nothing sloshed.
“What did you do in the morning?”
“Why, nothing?”
“Nothing, and how can a boy do nothing?”
“I breathed in and I breathed out, reciting Shivaya and Om.”
“Did you bathe first?”
“I was afraid of the crocodile.”
“Yes, afraid. I took a dip and came out.”
“All the children are bathed, but you.”
“They went with their mothers to the pond.”
“You should have gone too.”
“I am too small to go alone. I was waiting for you.”
“Then come here, now that you are fed, Krishna.”
“Your love is sufficient for the world, not just for your son.”
“When you speak like that, I am afraid. Tell me what is in your mind.”
“I was thinking when you were gone that I have so many songs I
could sing them in towns, moving from place to place.”
“Let’s see if you can still fit in my lap.”
“No, mother, I am big, big enough to die.”
“Like me, you will live your span of life.”
“What is a span?” He showed her his palm.
“What is a moment?”
“What is a flutter of an eyelash?”

The argument ended, she fed the cow, and cleaned the house, finding a snake skin near her son’s pallet, a little frightened and awed. They lived from day to day, not knowing how they would manage tomorrow. Shivguru’s  death had brought sorrow and unease, his quiescent personality and his his adoration of her had been the greatest boon. Now the promise of a short creative life, seemed to be the reason that her son wanted to travel, travel endlessly describing to her how travellers went from Kaladi to Indraprastha via Magadh, and yes, sharply moving to the opposite direction to Dwarka, through Kasi and then upto Badri.
If you are told you will die, then how do you manage your days? Adi laughed. He watched centipedes crawling on leaves, and becoming white blanketed pupae, and then flying away with damp wings to follow their fate. He waited to see where ants carried their food, counted them as they increased in number and marched like soldiers to their garrison. There were the fireflies at nigh, echoing the mystery of the meteors. His mother was staring at him, her washed hair now tumbling below her coccyx, her eyes a little protuberant. He hoped she would not have a visitation. When that happened, her perpetually sad eyes would flow over, and the ash covered brow would crease, her feet would stamp the ground, and with cries of Ammae, she would flail and fall. He always stood at a distance, and then when she had stopped beating the earth, with her perspiring body, he would feed her water and the pounded areca nut, which she chewed slowly, her heart, calming down. When she had spat, and washed her moth, she would lie down and sleep the whole afternoon. The sun would  dazzle her, so he covered her with a cloth, and if it rained, he ran and sat at the window, hoping that Isa would have mercy on them and not flood them out.
The food lay heavy in his stomach. It was dangerous to sleep. He would snore, his breath would catch in his throat, he would dream, and  in dreaming die. His mother was sitting in the corner of the room, his father’s place, and she was staring at him. No delirium this time, he could see she was merely revisiting the prophecy of his birth. When he asked her how he was born, she always said,
“From  a seed, a melon seed.”
“Why am I not a melon, then?”
“Siva knows.”

His father’s naked body against his mother’s. He could remember that. In Vercala, the old couple had gone to the temple, and seeing their lust for one another, and the yearning for completeness in mortuary rituals, Shiva had granted them their wish. Why had they thought that in their old age they could look after a boy? Because they were married to each other, and by some inherent practice married to the sacred worlds of Agnilingam. Their mutual  lust was something all Kaladi knew of. Only death now separated them. Shiguru had given her the boy to remind her that once they had lived together and longed for a boy who would be Shiva himself. Should one wish for children? Everyone did. Why were his parents different wanting Shvaroopa? Let it be so, that was his fate. The snake was uncoiling in his spine, moving upward, warming his back. His mother was still staring at him.
“Why are you staring at me, boy!”
“Your eyes are like Bhadrakali.”
“She will look after you when I am gone.”
“And where are you going?”
“To be with your father. I will die before you. No mother should see her son die. Then you will cremate my body and throw my ashes in the Ganga.”
“But I, I will be dead or a Sanyasi.”
She had fallen into a trance,  and her eyes were half closed. He was reminded of the Buddhists who were now everywhere.  With their polished coconut shells they went from street to street, and received alms, both food and money, sometimes jewels. They had monasteries in every corner, and on their way to Jwambadvipa, they left behind large congregations. His mother too, sometimes, gave biksha to monks, but then  she also left cocoanuts and money at Malayatoor, at the Christine shrine, constantly praying for her son’s longevity. Why accept a boon, and not it’s tax? He found it very odd indeed.
He yawned and stretched, his belly full. He noticed that his mother was twitching involuntarily and that a bee was circling her head. He wondered if she had the disease that caused people to rot and die, either of hunger or surfeit. Oh mother, you who carried me, made your body my home for nine months, how will you live without me. He looked at his birthmarks carefully, the blue seals of his God given body: there was the conch and the trident, best of all, the moon. When he was born, they had been amazed. Yet his parents did not doubt that he was theirs, drawing comfort in his glances and his tranquility. They watched him grow, placing him carefully between their conjoined eternally satiated bodies. His mother’s body concave with longing, his father with the protuberant belly and the hairy legs: they locked him in their hot embrace. The thousand petal lotus unfolded, their joy compounded by the tiny child. The woman with  her fair skin, her sharp black eyes and the long hair that she oiled, and combed, even before her face was washed, and kohl underlined her eyes rather rampantly, swearing concupiscence and daring. He had inherited the courage from her, and that was what she most abhorred begging him to stay in her lap. His  father had taught him the verses of appeasement, so that Skanda and Ganesha, those rival brothers became his guardians. Hibiscus were the only things that grew in their  garden, and Shakti puja their greatest worth. So be it. The golden lady Sarasvani would bequeath her words to him. He could see her; rotund, black haired, almond eyed, gorgeous, smelling of sandalwood, her music following him along with the yellow flowers of Brahma’s invention. Sarasvani, who was as exquisite as his mother who had no cause to weep, for even the many years she had spent with Shivguru was a banquet, heavy laden with awesome gifts. His father could make a verse out of air, roll his tongue over the most coagulated of words, unglutinate them with the ease of a maestro. His eyes were large and bright, and his smooth language, the most perfect of spoken and unspoken tongues. He never had to shout, just with a twist of his eyebrows he could make people understand that he was not happy. And when he was angry,  the sparks were like errant ghosts, blue lights that moved about in the air.
He was dead now, their very own household God, Shivguru who made life, gave him birth. Shivguru, his mother’s companion and lover, dead at fifty years, and age thought by all to be ancient indeed, for Kaladi did not boast of circumstances of health and longevity. The river was often straggling and dull, the fishermen’s webs often caked with mud. They themselves had nothing to eat, poor brahmans, for the rice came from other people’s houses. When there was a wedding feast they sat in rows eating till they belched, but Aryaramba and Shivguru ate only that one meal of rice and oily tamarind paste pounded with a scattering of cocoanut and sesame seeds. No festive foods came their way, and once he saw Aryaramba drawing an imageof the emaciated Buddha. Yes, she met the monks as she went from house to house cooking and cleaning. Maybe she had been asked to join a Sangha. He was quite sure someone would have approached his beautiful mother with just such an invitation. The thought pursued him. He would shave his head and give up sandalwood. He approached Ganesha with a jaggery ball of rice, the elephant god, blessed with memory, who shut one eye quite often to the deeds of humans, welcomed him. His mind was now glowing with the memory of the early morning sun, when he had skirted the edges of the water and the paddy fields,  hoping for a glimpse of his mother. At the thought of  the reddish hue of early morning, he ran to the garden and plucked the hibiscus so dear to the Lord. He offered them to his mother, who opened one eye strangely at him.
“What is it?”
“An offering.”
“Abhishekham  Aa,” she said a little gutturally, spit leaking from the side of her mouth.

He was frightened.
“Let me go, mother. Let me renounce the world.”
“Big words from a little fellow like you. And what is there in it for me?”
“I shall be here to light your funeral pyre.”
“That is benediction indeed. A pyre lit by a renouncer son. Being poor is bad, but a boon that gives no peace, that is calamity indeed.”
“Your love for me lights my days, short though my life maybe. May I reach manhood.”
“I shall be your partner in meditation, do not go far.”
“While you say your prayers, I will meditate so should I die I will be born again in a house where meditation is most desired.”
“Oh Arjuna, the sun is high, and the water will be alone, flowing without others present, if you die no one will know.”
“Before it rains again, mother, I will return.”
“The rice is heavy in your belly. Tomorrow I will take you with me so that you do not wake hungry.”
“My work begins early too. I was born when five stars were present in the sky, early in the morning, when the flowers were many and the light was bright.”
His mother was wide awake.
“Yes, Vashista bore you. So they say. Everyone was pleased when you were born, even though to a washerwoman. As I beat the clothes upon the rock, and the crocodiles head bobbing among the reeds, you moved shattering my body.”
“ The old  crocodile. He still waits there for me.”
“No, your time has not come.”
“Saw him in the morning.”
“Where? Was the snake not enough for you?”
“How did you know a snake was here?”
“I saw its skin. And the crocodile? Where? Where???”
“It was laughing at me when I went to bathe in the river.”
“So you did bathe then.”
“ I wanted to tell you, but since I saw Muthachen (old father) I thought you might be afraid.”
“”How did he look?”
“He had laughing eyes.
“And his tongue?”
“It was pink, and the waterbirds were clearing it teeth.”
“Well, then?”
“I ran out of the water. I forgot my cloth. When I returned the sun was high up, and I thought I would finish my bath, when you returned.”
“There is no oil, and the sandal past is finished.”
“I will use mud.”
“Your father crushed leaves of hibiscus, you do the same.”
His mother was sighing again, so he quickly ran out, singing Prakashjjpartaratnaprasoon.

I praise Ganesa the son of Isa, whose brilliant hue resembles the red hibiscus, the tender shoots of plants, the coral and the early morning sun, who has a large belly and a single curved tusk.”
He was always besieging Ganesa, and when his fear grew larger than himself, he spoke to Isa. His mouth was always moving, his curling hair streaked with sweat as he ran to the river, the food inside his stomach rolling a little. His mother had forbidden him to bathe after lunch, but after a hard morning’s work she was too sleepy. He looked up, and saw the clouds were gathering again. There was just enough time to dip in the water, which would now be pleasantly warm. The banana leaves were shining after being washed by rain, and the large ants, both  red and black were marching up in columns to feed on the dripping nectar of their white bloom, encased in the mauve cones. Butterflies thronged the grove, and he forgot about the crocodile. There were days when he was a prisoner of the house, unable to move, his body hurt, and his head throbbed. And there were days like this, when he could run, and observe things, feel the shape of the stones, and rough edges of gravel under his feet. Time seemed like an ocean, vast as the sky, pushing him forwards to his death, and to the early reclamation by the Gods. He was not asking any questions, but even the flutter an eyelash, seemed like eternity.

Small though he was, he could run faster than other children his age. There was Leela, waiting for him. She was taller than him, but always looked to him as if he was smarter. She was older too, but then, when it came to friendship, there were no rules separating them until  she came to the age of menstruation. Then, they would  have to behave as if they were strangers. They had been born in the same year, she before the rains, and he when Karkaddam had set in the same year, endless ravaging rain. It seemed odd that when they grew up, as indeed they did, slowly  and steadily in each other’s company, she should have stretched her bones faster than him. Of course, her father was a trader, and there were three meals a day. She always brought him some food, even persuaded him to eat fish, which he refused. He composed some verses to Ambika, looking at her, thinking that her slim dark beauty, her long hair always oiled and combed, her ear rings hanging in their strands of gold upto her shoulders, her flat chest bare, her waist covered in a white soft linen with  gold edges that came upto her ankles. Everything about her was perfect.

They played together most days in the cocoanut groves, never curious about each other. She always had a clutch of conches, which her father had given to play with. He traded  in them travelling as far as Dwarka and Jagannath Puri to get them. If a few were damaged, for then the priests and housewives would not accept them, he would gift them to his daughter. The two children, Leela and Sankara, blew into them, decorated their garden with flowers and shells, slept in the afternoons with pillows made of dried grass, the shells carefully guarded from each other, and their friends, for they were possessive, very possessive over each one, giving them names and identities. Ofcourse at the end the day, Leela, stone faced as if they were strangers, collected them all in a cotton bag, which she had stitched from an old towel, and she ran home.
The shells were from different seas and while the seas themselves were hidden from vies, cowries and conches were extremely important to local people, who never travelled by the seas, leaving it to fishers and traders. There was after all only the open sky which was not accessible to humans. The Gods traversed them, but for  ordinary humans there were the long roads, through forests and deserts. Pilgrims took them, protected by kings. They went over many different kingdoms, but in each case,  there were ware houses and inns, secured by the king’s soldiers.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Potato Farmer in Sabu Village, Ladakh tells Morup and me about the Flood Year.

  Upto 1974, the weather was severe. It was minus 30 and minus 34. From 1990, there were no more cold winters, it became minus twenty and minus twenty two or minus twenty five for only two or three days. The usual average was minus 19 or minus 20. Earlier there was lots of snowfall. There was one or one and half feet snow in the fields. This would remain until the end of March, after which it would melt. Now, snow fall is five inches, and the next day it melts. Rain falls now. There is normal rainfall, summer time for one or two hours, during July and August, occasionally heavy.

Mild winter, Spring is severe for the last five or six years. February and March get very cold. Spring has become cold and dry. There is snowfall in the hills,  in winter, it freezes.

This was what Morup and I were told by a potato farmer in Sabu village. In the flood year, till 23rd of June, snow didnt melt. Then suddenly it was hot.
And the water melted rapidly. He has a  water tank below ground, which is run with a motor. On the 23rd of June, in the flood year, it was empty. The tank lies 9 feet below ground.

After 23rd of June, the underground water,  9 feet below, suddenly became full, there was excess water. With the help of the motor the water was pumped out.
On 5th August, a thunderbolt never seen, lightening was so bright that a needle dropped on the floor could be found.
The flood came from the Manali road side. At two minutes to midnight- strong wind Khdddddddd loud noise, water falling through the chimney. the farmer came into the garden to collect a container, and was knee deep in water. Behind the house, the resort he was building for tourists was swallowed up in a river of water. The two Nepalis looking after the resort were lost.
In 1969, there was a cloudburst in Nimu, and in 1974 in Piang village.
The Government did not recompense for commercial losses, but they removed the silt, and gave one lakh rupees for repairs to the domestic portion of his home.

Ofcourse, this is climate change, according to the farmer. There is very little ice now. In 1940s and 1950s, the glacier was covered totally. The reasons for the melt down are large green house gas effects, population growth and increasing number of vehicles in Ladakh because of the perennial army presence, tourists, and the increased consumerism among Ladakhis themselves.
The Nallas no longer have clean water, since the local community as well as migrant laborers are careless and pollute the waters. With the flood, Nallas were destroyed, but the Government repaired them. For drinking purposes, the Government has dug hand pumps.
Former president Abdul Kalam had adopted Sabu, but they recieved little or no assistance from that head. Ladakh Autonomous Council in synchrony with the J and K government and the Centre acted very quickly.
March April May are the sowing seasons, and given the shortage of water, there is control of water during this time by the Chorspon method. Four people are chosen, each is sent out to each house, and told on the day the water will come to their field.  It is a very tightly regulated system, where the commons (in this case water) is controlled by representatives.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


I left Delhi with an odd sense of calm. What would I find at 1750 feet that I did not know in the plains? When we left Jammu and Kashmir, we travelled through the Zojilla pass, and the mountains were immensely frightening. Sedimentary alright, speaking geological time, when the shales and loose stones and boulders were covered by water, they stood out against my fear, as brittle as the past, and lost horses in ravines, and bodies floating in ether, as they tried to leave the moraine of the past. It was freezing, last nights rain had dissolved the tar. Ofcourse, the road cleared, and so did the mist, and the tarmac became solid, a bright ribbon of road. The valour of soldiers and roadworkers from Jharkhand, and Tamil Nadu and Bihar, made our swift passage over the mountains possible. I was trying to in a patch work way to imagine the journey of Adi Sankara from Kalladi. It is a journey that I imagine in my mind, and with the help of theological treatise and commentaries, I try to understand why a Malayali would have walked so far. But the Himalayas have always been our legacy, and no Malayali wishes to give it up. We passed the ancient routes, and saw the road to the pilgrim sites with the pilgrims already heading to Amarnath, inspite of the dangers. Religious tourism is very palpable by that one thing called faith, it has no boundaries.
Our first stop, after a long day's journey through what seemed unnerving silence and endless mountains was at Anantpur. We had reached Kashmir. I was visiting it after 40 years, my last visit being in 1974, when I was seventeen. Kashmir seemed dusty, the road building, the incessant search to make things faster, faster faster, makes everything incredibly dusty. The new tunnel route through the mountains from Jammu to Srinagar will cut  travel time to four hours. Anantnag followed, with its fields and orchards, and then we came to Srinagar. It was 6 pm, the light was still there for us to  see this lovely town. The people went about shrouded in their grief, so palpable, it stuck a knife into the heart. It was curfew, a sizable number of people were about though, to pick up their provisions. A handful of shops were open. There were police and army men at every corner. Everyone ignored everyone out of habit. That sullenness, that grief, I shall never forget it. The road to the University was blocked, but we took another one, and went through: my first glimpse of Srinagar campus. Its unutterably beautiful, white buildings, hollyhocks and roses standing tall, the mountains ranging behind. We collected one of our team members, an Englishman, a computer professional who had wanted to know why we were two hours late? We ourselves could not remember...yes, cafe hopping in the mountains, we had stopped for breakfast, tea and rajma, lunch, evening meal...what else can you do with an entourage of young men doing their Phds and a handful of young women?  The participants mainly consisted of doctoral candidates and Assistant Professors who were geographers, sociologists, physicists, glaceologists, political scientists, ecologists, photographers. We had started at 7 am from Jammu University, since the early morning call had been heeded by all at 5 am, all the luggage packed, but since two people were found still sleeping in their beds, everything had to be untied and begun again. So we were late, yes, that's the reason we were late to pick up our soft ware engineer!
We drove into the free falling night towards Sonarmarg. Shepherds, men women and children were hurrying their sheep to Jammu in the night, taking their ancient routes. During the day, it was too traffic ridden.  We spent the night comfortably, in a hotel, where the sheets were clean, and the instant soup I ordered on arrival came courteously hours before dinner, out of a packet. I was so relieved to have it. Then I fell fast asleep, and at five am, we were on the road again. We travelled endlessly through the same landscape, and then finally we were in Leh. It was night, and the streets were like Aladdin's cave. Winter was on its way, and the tourists had mostly gone home. The town is a dusty citadel on a landscape which draws the traveller, welcomes him or her. Its an ambience many have written about. Leh, over  the next ten days unravelled its mysteries to us: the Kashmiri and Tibetan merchants, the Ladakhi men and women who sold their garden produce, the wonderful sense of the hills beyond, continuing in an ancient trail of dust and ambition, the glaciers fast melting, the pattern of rain which was slowly becoming to manifest itself as the South West Monsoon over the last couple of years, the memory of the 2010 landslide which the inhabitants had learnt to live with and ofcourse the hospitality of the local people. The taxi drivers tell us that Television news channels with their constant drumming into us that The Chinese are Coming have put their tourist figures very low for the last two years. "With the majority of the Indian Army stationed here, why would anyone think the Chinese are Coming?" But in Pangong Lake, the rumour is that the Chinese submarine constantly circumlocutions the rim, and the smoke can be seen from the surface.
 Leh has its calm, its silence,  bright hot sunlight, cool breezes, and yes, the noxious smell of petrol ruins the air, because neither the army vehicles nor the taxis control their emissions.