Monday, May 12, 2008

Rohtang Pass & Beyond

Rohtang Pass, (51 kms. from Manali) and situated as it is 13051 feet above sea level, should be dangerous, quiet, forsaken.

I believed it would be covered with ice that shimmers and shines in the direct rays of the sun, and the wind is the only sound that one hears for miles around as one contemplates the harsh beauty of nature.

I had not reckoned with commercialization, whose far-reaching slick fingers insidiously glide and choke all that is untouched and far away, even the high mountains that stand beautiful and bold against the sky.

As I climbed the treacherous mountainside, albeit by car, the sight of a few cars ahead and a couple of them behind (some of them foolishly honking their existence) should have given me warning enough of what lay ahead. I was so happy to be in the mountains that I ignored the vehicles, their fumes, and their insistent noise.

I also ignored the rows upon rows of little wooden shacks and tents which displayed fur lined coats, caps, capes, and galoshes that posed as snow-shoes, for hire. I should have sat up and taken notice that so many locals were running shops which hired woolen garments. They were obviously catering to the needs of many unprepared and gullible city slickers from the plains.

By the time I reached Rohtang Pass, I could well have been in the centre of Chandni Chowk in Delhi, or New Market in Kolkotta.

It is the middle of June, peak season, and there is a veritable trade fair here. Delhi businessmen and their pink-rouged and high-heeled wives laden with the latest heavy gold sets don their coats and galoshes and stumble hand in hand in the muddy snow. So do Bengali Babus and their brethren, giving their children yak rides and snow slides while trying to keep their fur coats from sliding off. Handsome hulks from Haryana who believe money speaks everywhere, strut around, as do pretty young things from Chandigarh who giggle and scream with delight as they snowball each other. There are food and chips and cold drinks stalls, and an avalanche of humanity trying to find its space in the sun and snow as they eat, drink and make merry. Photos are clicked by the dozen, to show family back home that they have ‘been there, done that’.

One quick look at all this from the confines of my car, and I decided to cross the pass as fast as possible, but found myself caught in the mother of all traffic jams. There were cars of various makes and sizes, Qualis, Cielo, Tata Safari, Scorpio, Maruti, et al, inching their way out ahead of me, and more cars behind me. They ate up the narrow driving path between huge ice boulders. Also take into consideration the humanity weaving its way through this traffic, and other cars trying to find parking space to spill out the people who have come to enjoy the cold splendor of Rohtang Pass, and you can get an idea of what was happening around me. Not very different from the traffic jams in any Indian metropolis, but at least the roads are wide there! However, people behaved here as though they were in the city, expecting the environment to make the adjustments.

And it has no choice but to accept becoming dirty and polluted with litter and diesel smoke. Even the snow bows down before the human being, and has changed its colour from pristine white to a dirty brown. The snowfall here is formed from rains that bring the city soot with them.

It took me two and half-hours of bonnet to bonnet driving to get out of this two and a half kilometer stretch called the Rohtang Pass. I felt cheated, for I had not traversed steep mountain sides just to become spectator to a bustling, thriving commercial centre on the top of the mountains. Luckily, this pass is the last destination of all those vacationers who holiday in Manali to watch colour television in their hotel rooms and eat Strawberry Softy at the Manali Mall. They return from here, happy to have done this too!

I could not rejoice with them. They were unaware of the havoc they were wrecking, or did not care. Saddened, I continued my journey to the other side of the pass.

The beauty there of the untouched glaciers, multi-hued mountain sides, sheer rocks that shone black and gold and green in the intense sunlight, told me that the hand of commercialization has not crept this far. I sat on a mountain side and drunk in the view, the tensions of the past few hours dissolving right there.


P.S. I experienced this in 2002, felt the need to put it online now. Things must have worsened, or maybe I am just being pessimistic about humanity.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ticket to Ride



Theek hai?

The words are spoken by a man behind me, I don’t know what he looks like, but he has a heavy and loud voice.

Route no. 534 from City Select Mall at Saket to Anand Vihar. And I’m on it. So I get to hear this, experience a lot more.

The hair on the young boy in front of me curls nicely, like a cat’s tail comfortable.

A man on the street puts a cigarette in his mouth, lets it dangle and then lights it as the bus moves on, leaving him behind like a flash in the noon light.

White and brown spangled belts, on two different people, one of them has an orange skin tight nylon shirt and a big blue square watch on his wrist, embroidered blue jeans. The other disappears before I notice him, apart from wearing a belt in keeping with that of the orange shirt man.

On the road someone is selling helmets in blue, black, green, they are heavy upturned caves waiting to be filled by cooked heads. People working far away on dry fields, are visible. Trying to grow something in this blazing heat that makes everything wilt and bake is an amazing enterprise.

On the passing pavements now, rows of red tomatoes, ripe to bursting, their colour heightened by the strong sunlight, asking to be picked up and washed and eaten, or they will squash very soon on their own.

Cucumbers peeled and cut in the open-a cool invite to passersby.

Balloons now, shaped in all kinds of toy forms.

The bus conductor calls out, “Mother Dairy Depot, Anand Vihar, Anand Vihaaa…aar”, hoping to drum up ghost passengers from the pavements.

The boy with the curly hair leaves. Two girls with their mother now occupy the seat in front.

The kids, almost twins in the fact that they look alike except one is older, obviously since she is slightly bossy, are dressed in nylon pink and green dresses, their hair tied on two sides tight, as ponytails, with old fashioned ordinary long-forgotten use of red rubber-bands, no fancy stuff here. And despite the heat, and despite this nylon cloth clinging, and despite the fact that their mother occupies the seat with them, and she is not slim, they are excited. I can feel the excitement in the way they look out of the window, chatter and talk to their mother about this and that. Their hair is long in curls, but brittle and brown with split ends, lots of conditioning needed here, and the younger one scratches her hair, so most probably it is lice ridden. Their father, darker-brown skinned, grey and balding already, sits in the seat in front of them.

The mother takes out a coin, one of the girls hands it to the father and the father throws the coin far out. It is for a beggar on the pavement near the traffic light where the bus has stopped. The beggar slides along the hot pavement on his thin behind, his legs are thin, useless sticks, and picks up the coin with the mutilated fingers of his right hand. There is no emotion on his face.

"Lao ji," says the conductor to no one in particular. “Give, please” this means, money for your ticket to ride.

Char ka mera.” pipes up the guy next to him. He is not betting on anything. He is saying that he wants a ticket for Rs. 4/-.

The bus is decorated in the front with the usual posters of gods and goddesses of the Indian pantheon. What is new here are two steel rods strung with multi coloured bangles which add more colour to the colour. A tall thin man comes and stands in such a way that my view of the front of the bus is blocked for the moment. My attention shifts to the girls and then outside.

“Lao, bhai” the conductor is on his prowl, brown safari suit suits the predatory nature of his approach. In his simple words of “Give, brother”, a world of meaning. It means fish into your pocket and take out the fare.

“Teen ka dena” and the conductor hands over the ticket to the person who asks, quietly. He does not argue or ask till where; people who are regulars know their route cost.

The bus moves at a monotonous speed as though the heat is taking its toll on it as well, and rocks and jerks and makes straining noises like an old man trying to gather steam. This swaying and the drone of the engine and the heat hitting the face from outside, the people within, all combine to make me want to close my eyes and doze off. I clutch hard onto my purse in case I do.

“Now at Kalkaji mandir, I am in the bus, standing, will reach in fifteen twenty minutes, it will take the time it will take,” says a man into his mobile, philosophical like.

“Family passenger, gate par chalo, stand aane wala hai,” shouts the conductor suddenly. He is asking some family members to disembark. Which ‘family passengers’, I try to see.

“Maharani Bagh wali family passenger, aage se utro.” The conductor is shouting for the family to disembark, we have reached the Maharani Bagh bus-stand. I see a couple get down. They are the family? The conductor’s terminology foxes me

The girls in the front are fidgeting, they want the destination to arrive, and tell their father about how they have traveled this route before and seen the Akshardham temple, which their father is pointing out to them, earlier already. So he says nothing then, and returns to his thoughts.

“Do rupey kiske hain?” Whose two rupees are these? asks the conductor, and someone extends a hand out to grab the two rupees, acknowledging his ownership

Gulmohur trees blaze orange in the sun, so do the bougainvillea in their pinks, purples and reds. The amaltas blooms a soft, soothing yellow. The parks where the children are playing despite the hot summer sun, are parched dry and barren of grass. A stray growth here and there indicates what might have been. A forgotten green.

Stanislavski has talked of an actor’s journey. The actor’s path is set, but how he reacts to the beautiful events that he sees as the journey unfolds is what helps him create his acting. I cannot see anything beautiful on this journey of mine. My path is set too, but I just want to get home, the sun’s heat brings tears to my eyes.

School children clamber on to the bus, their white shirts hot emblems in the sun, their navy blue shorts dark against their brown skins. Their faces are tired after a stultifying day at school. There is hardly any joy or laughter among them, though some smile shyly when I look in their direction. I smile back.

A man behind me talks loudly into his mobile, chomping as he talks, and it is not because he is eating something, it is a harsh chomping of the jaws, as if he wants to destroy something, the world perhaps.

The bus turns a corner sharply and I grip onto the seat with my buttocks and grab the hand rail tight so as not to fall off my seat and onto the bus floor. The bus careens around, then stops abruptly at a red light, and I look at the crowd standing within the bus and wonder as to how they have not fallen onto each other, how they can maintain a centre of balance despite the antics of the bus. Man is capable of anything, I muse to myself.

We are approaching Balco, a local market, and the labourers laying bricks on the pavement doze on their haunches, their head between their legs, right there on the street side, impervious to the traffic, noise, heat, dust, flies—nothing bothers them right now.

Somnolent slumbering in the mid-day heat, and the bus moves on, an elephant that grunts and splutters as it makes its heavy way in the city jungle.