Monday, June 27, 2011

Kedar Tal Trek - Part 2

Day 1 (11th June) [Gangotri to Bhoj Kharak - 3,600m to 4,200m, 7 kilometers.
Document Title: Elevation, Elevation, Elevation

[Part one can be found here.]

Before starting the trek, I promised myself that I would keep a live journal. Like most of the promises I make to myself, it got derailed due to lack of resources. At the end of the day, I borrowed a pen and a small notebook from Tilak, and jotted down the following.

All in all a good day. I woke up at around 5.30, when I heard Tilak getting up. I did not move, lest he asked me to get up and get ready.

We were all ready by 7.00 and started off by 7.45, with packed breakfasts. There were fourteen of us in all - two guides, 6 porters, one cook, and the five of us. We had walking poles, ice axes, crampons, ropes, gaiters, and other gear, and we must have given the impression of some climbing team, as we walked through the crowded lane of Gangotri. Here's Lovedeep, Saurav,and Shwetha, getting anxious for the trek to start.

We crossed the bridge over Ganga near Gangotri and then crossed Kedar Ganga using another bridge. I was here in 1998, and never realized the crossing would have any significance.

The hike was steep throughout. 70 to 80 degrees is no joke. For what seemed like a looong time, there was not even 10 or 20 metres of plain track to walk on. The key for the trek on Day 1 to Bhoj Kharak (Kharak/Khadak = glacier) is one word: "Elevation, Elevation, Elevation".

We had our packed breakfasts on the way. One of the dishes were baked aaloo (potato). Saurav vouched for it and I had it with salt, and it turned out to be yummy and nourishing. There were biscuits, candies, and more, but I was content with Baked Aaaloo.

Shwetha, Lovedeep, Tilak, and Saurav soon sort of got into a rhythm and climbed fast.

As usual, I found my rhythm, and found myself bringing up the rear end, not out of virtue, but necessity. The voices from within my chemical-clad lungs kept asking "Are you serious?", and my breath answered in a labored affirmative.

Kishan, our numero uno guide soon joined me, and he announced his intentions to stay with me, throughout the trek that day. I dint want to feel like no sissy (btw, the trek was tough, but all I needed was time, not help.) and told him that he could carry on, and I would reach. He said he'll stick, and I thought - great.

Our walk was through Bhoj Patra forests. Forests is a misnomer, because they are not dense, but the evergreen feel, if you can truly imagine, is the green look on fairy tales that were telecast in DD when I was young. Do girls have a name for that green? Dunnno.

This is what I'm talking about. The bark of this tree was used to write on before paper became fashion.

In time, Mt. Thalaysagar came into view.

And I was like SHIT, I had seen snaps of it before, but this was more than IT, and I was only seeing a part of it. I was seriously ogling it when Kishan came close and breathed down my neck (somewhere there) and said, " Sirjee, you know why I come here?" And I asked why.

"I come for this. I come for Thalaysagar. Isko dekhne. I can come again, just for this."

I believed him without question. You will too - if you were in my shoes, with the mountain in sight, if you chance to glance upon the grandeur that is Mount Thalaysagar.

"And you know something else Sirjee? The NIM guys are trying to climb it."

There were people up there, trying to summit it, while I was watching it from miles away. I envied those guys and wished them luck in the same breath. It was a comforting thought to know that over the next few days, this mountain would unravel itself more with each passing step that we take in its direction.

After a few more hours I saw Saurav waiting for me on top of a hillock. That last elevation took me a good 20 minutes. And then we came to the baby "spider wall" which Tilak had warned about. Pretty much a sheer rock face with half a foot path and no handrails. That wasn't too hard to negotiate.

I reached the camp by around 2 O Clock in the afternoon. My co-trekkers had reached by 12.30. Tilak did talk about it "Sajeeesh, poore dedh ghante late ho aap".
I was pleasantly miffed and retorted "Kya, 1 bajhe ki Rajdhani pakadnee thee kya aap ko?"

And, funny, when you think of it, the whole point of reaching Bhoj Kharak camping ground was to relax. But that turned out to be a pain because our guides would not let me lie down and sleep. They were worried that we could get AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), if we rested like that. I was dead tired, and I used a swear word (F#%@ AMS)for the first time in my life - at 4,200m.

We had a sumptuous lunch that evening by around 3. Our cook had done an amazing job.

I was about to finally lie down and get some rest when the conversation steered to collection of wood for the camp fire. It was optional, but when all four of your co-trekkers opt to trek up and collect wood, there is actually no option but to tag along. Peer pressure works better at higher altitudes. Here are the load carriers.

[Photo courtesy: Shwetha Sharma]

The water that we used for drinking that night was mineral rich and dirty (muddy rather). We took it from the waterfall nearby and waited it to settle before gulping it down. Campfire took some time to catch fire, as the whole thing was damp.

Kerosene helps.

As I write this, the campfire is going strong. I think we have collected enough wood to melt the whole glacier down. The support team had their own warmth fire going on.

As for tomorrow, we will be camping at Kedar Kharak, another seven kilometers away. Tilak was warning about bigger spider walls on the way as well as a "mud mountain" stretch where your feet can sink a bit in loose gravel, with the threat of small rocks coming flying from higher up the terrain. Shwetha mentioned that she did not mind walking in snow or ice for hours, but she did not like the idea of mud mountains and spider walls. I told her I did not personally like doing any of this including walking on normal terrain. Which brought us to the question of why I was doing this then. Tilak summed it up nicely, when he said "ye trekking haina, ek type ka keeda hotha hai". Yes - it's all about getting bitten by a bug, and I guess I'm infected.

I am a bit "happy" as I write this as my load would be reduced a bit tomorrow, as we managed to drain a bit of the fluid I was carrying in my backpack today. There's also talk around the camp about the possibility of snowfall and rain tomorrow. We have our ponchos and other accessories, but I do not know how we are going to handle the whole affair. What I do know is that tonight's vegetarian dinner is going to be yummy. Vegetarian food usually tastes good at high altitudes especially if you add jumbo prawns that were pickled at low altitudes.

Part 3 can be found here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kerala – India’s export hub

Yes, you can stop sneering and smirking at the title and read on. But before we start, it’s a good idea to remember the adage: “Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; Teach a man to fish, ceteris paribus, he will eat for a lifetime.”

Before we start, it’s also a good idea to note that this article is not based on carefully researched statistics, but more on perception. I don’t like cold facts to come in the way of subjective analysis.

The popular perception is that Kerala does not produce anything of value to export.
Well, there’s a bit of IT that we do, but that’s not much. Keralites outside Kerala do more of that stuff. On a percentage share of the population basis, we produce the highest number of communists, but that doesn’t count. We produce toddy, which is a local brew made from our very own coconut trees, but the production cannot match our in-house demand, so we cannot export it – in fact, we have to adulterate it with chemicals to make everyone believe that they are having their per capita share of toddy. We used to produce Shakeela movies, which marked a turning point in Indian cinema, but somewhere along the line, our audience and consequently producers lost interest.

Other than that, we produce, well, nothing else. And we import almost everything else, including a good deal of electricity, laborers, beggars, and food. But there’s more to all of this mallu madness than meets the eye – especially if you have a trained pair of eyes.

The real problem is with the definition of exports. The moment we say exports, the things that flash in front of us are iron ore, machines, chips (semiconductor not banana chips), garments, huge installations, Chinese toys, Teddy bears, and the works. We have to get out of such stigma and dogma first, and then and only then, will the real beauty of Kerala’s export economy will open up to you.

We export a major input in production - labor. Systematically, our government policies of the last 60 years were crafted in such a manner as to make working in Kerala a very painful proposition, especially if you are the career-oriented type.
Here's an example: When Seagate wanted to establish their manufacturing facility in a tech park in Kerala, they demanded two guarantees (1) unfailing power supply, and (2) zero labor issues. Our wise CM at that time said, “no way” to both requests. Cool, isn’t it? Well that’s the way we operate. If you have to operate in our state, you will have to find the ideal time between political strikes (Hartals, Bandhs) and labor force strikes, and then check if you have electricity. Seagate went elsewhere.

If you are in Kerala, you wouldn’t want to work. Remember we used to feel so happy when we got a day off from school because of a strike or a shut-down? Well, for the majority working in Kerala, the kid never grew up.

Here are some more observations:
Almost every family has at least one family member working outside the state. This is a rule, which is proven rarely by exceptions. The natural extrapolation is the shifting of entire families to other parts of the world. These families then watch programs for expats on Asianet, Kairali Channel, and Surya TV, and feel nostalgic ad infinitum.

In the 70s and 80s we used to send one family member to the “Gulf”, the catchall term for the Middle East. Actually, we earlier used to refer to it as “Persia” more than Gulf. Persia was a bad name choice, because it meant Iran, and not many of us went there. We were mainly focused on UAE, Saudi, and Kuwait. I wonder how the term Persia came to be used. Anyway, it would not be unfair to say that our toil made the Middle East, the Middle East as we know it. We had no say in its making, only toil – which turned out to be a good thing for the Middle East.

An interesting point worth noting here is that we were not confined to the Middle East, as some ill-informed mallu-basher will tell you. Even in the 70s, we were in the US, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, anywhere you name it. The bulk of us went to Persia, which is why people think my uncle lives in Dubai.

In the 90s, post liberalization, the techie lying dormant inside us woke up. And then we really started blooming. TCS, Infosys, Wipro et al started sending us on projects elsewhere – like Belgium, Norway etc. I remember a time when “private” sector jobs were anathema in the market (labor as well as marriage).Things changed, before you could say Manmohan. It’s as if someone turned on a switch. Parents who were brought up in post-Nehruvian period suddenly started marrying off girls to these “private” sector employees and started saying, albeit with much difficulty, that their son-in-law works for Cognizant or Lucent.

Meanwhile, on the other end, the non-techies were not the ones to sit tight and watch the techies eat the whole cake. They found other avenues. One bunch took up higher education in UK, Australia, and Switzerland (yes Swiss hotel management courses), with no plans of being educated higher. They were on an immigration boat. And they too made it to the other shore with dignity.

The BPO boom that took place in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai took care of the non-IT folks, who could communicate.

When all of this happened, a bunch of hardworking guys started thinking. We cannot communicate, we cannot do IT, we cannot do higher education (because our lower education sucks)- what do we do? God opened many doors to them – one was Israel. At that time (early 2000, maybe it’s still there), there were a lot of these pilgrimage trips to Jerusalem. If you check those flight logs, you will see that we were high on youth spirituality – overbooked with 20 something kids wanting to visit the Holy Land. Modus operandi: Land in Israel, tear up your passport, start working anywhere you get a job. It could be a shoe shop, restaurant, anything. When you have made enough money in years, show up at the Indian Embassy and make a sad face.

Don’t be surprised if you read in the papers:
“Explosion in Israeli hotel kills two.
Tel Aviv: Santosh Kumar and Stanley Mangalath were going on with their official duties as usual when an unidentified assassin opened fire, and then blew himself up, killing the duo.”

Other doors God opened up included Cyprus, Turkey, Papua New Guinea and a lot. Now some of you may be thinking, stop cooking up stuff – you cannot go to Papua New Guinea and stuff like that. Trust me, we’re good in Geography, and I personally know Mallus working in Papua New Guinea. The only people who can spot Papua New Guinea on a map are perhaps a few Papua New Guinean’s and most people from Kerala.

Another door was in the service of God. 75% of priests and nuns in India are from Kerala. If you get the drift, I made that statistic up, but that’s somewhat true. Father John, Sister Loretta, no offense meant, but we’re the biggest exporter of priests, nuns, and evangelists. On the matter of evangelists, Tamil Nadu is a close competitor, but if you take the system as a whole, no one comes close. If you’re a non-Keralite Christian reading this, go to your priest next Sunday, and ask him “Achooo, actually achan evidenna?” (Father, where are you actually from?) Expect a name that you cannot pronounce in this birth - like Moovattupuzha or Udumbanchola, for starters. These names are all indicators of our beloved state.

Some guys from Thalassery, who were not killed in political violence, learned the art of baking and dissolved themselves in the bakeries in Bangalore and Mysore.

That left just a bunch of lazy bums, retired parents, and hardcore party activists in our state. In our export-oriented economy formula, the lazy bums were a problem – they were not willing to do anything like tearing up passports or learning baking to move out. But we found a solution to it in the nursing revolution. Trust me on this one – wherever you are in this big wide world (Bangalore, Brunswick, Oslo, London, anywhere), if the nurse looks Indian, she is from Kerala. Don’t believe me? Next time you get a shot, tell her “mole, pathukke”. If she doesn’t get it, come back and put a flaming comment on this blog. We export nurses like crazy - women and men. So much so that our matrimonials in God’s own Malayala Manorama reads: “Nurse has come from Germany. Will take husband along”. These ads took care of the lazy bums. It’s sad in a humanitarian way because Germany does not know what is happening to it, yet.

The problem of retired parents is getting sorted out because of 2 reasons.

(1) This is the true beauty of our export model. All of the above needs babysitting, cooking, and daycare. That stuff is expensive in any part of the world. So, we export our parents when our health worker or techie has a baby on the way. Note that this is not a permanent solution, as the retired parents tend to be less useful once the baby grows up, (or in some cases after the post-delivery care).
(2) Mushrooming old age homes. This is a solution which costs just money, so we are more than willing to invest in it.

That just leaves the trade unionists, politicians, and other activists. That’s not a problem, because they were systematically responsible for creating this export economy – the true architects of this matrix. They made this heaven which could have been the Singapore of India to the Kerala of today. If we export them, the streets of our state would be empty, except for parents in old age homes. That will be a sad day.

We teach men to fish. But we don't let them fish anywhere near.

PS: Things are not as grim as it is pointed out here, but save a thought for how much better it would have been, had we had the wisdom.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kedar Tal Trek - Part 1

Document Title: Phat Gayee / Phat Jayegi
Dates: Day -1 and Day 0 (9th and 10th June)

Kedar Tal (Tal = Lake) is situated at an approximate altitude of 4,800m in the Himalayan ranges. It is the source of River Kedar Ganga, which merges with the River Bhagirathi in Gangotri, 18 km downstream. During its 18km existence, Kedar Ganga is as rough, fast, and noisy as you could expect an adolescent Himalayan river to be.

I came to know Tilak Soni, an avid mountain trekker from Delhi, through We had become pretty chummy over the last few months. Thanks to Facebook, I came to know of his plans to go to Kedar Tal, and if possible, try and explore further up. Leaves were arranged, and, Saurav, one of my colleagues, joined us on this trip. Few more were to join us later on.

So, on 9th of June, 2011, we landed at Palam airport in Delhi at around midnight.

Our Spicejet flight was funny enough. The correct departure time was 8.25 PM. We got a message as well as a recorded call that day that mentioned that the flight was being preponed [sic] to 8.25 PM. Hmm. How can something be preponed by 0 minutes? Anyway, the flight ended up being delayed by 30 minutes.

An old man was making a big hue and cry saying he wanted to get in the middle of the boarding queue. People were in no mood to entertain him - hey, all of us were in for the same flight, so why can't he wait. Apparently, someone had told him that there were limited seats, and boarding was only on a first-come first-serve basis. (Well not exactly, but that's how things looked:-)

Once we landed at the Palam airport, I called up our driver. He was waiting at the new T3 terminal, while we were at the domestic terminal 25 minutes drive away. His response when I told him this was "Phat gayee sir". Little did I know at that point in time that this phrase was going to be the buzzword for the next few days.

We met our fellow travellers at the airport itself. Lovedeep Sharma and his wife Shwetha Sharma, both settled in Norway for a long long time. We met Tilak finally outside his residence, and the 400 km drive to Uttar Kashi finally began at 01:20 hours.

In the cab, the conversation soon steered to details of the rough trek. We already knew that the three-day 18km climb was not going to be easy. When I prodded further for exact details about the terrain, Tilak cocked his head back from the front seat of the Innova and said these beautiful words: "Ab kya bataaon Sirjee, 70-80 degree continuous climb hai, phat jayegii hamaarii."

Phat Jayeegii? [Faulty translation: We're gonna be screwed.] 
Phat Jayeegii hamaari?

Those words reverberated in my ears for some time. Nowhere during the last two months of telephone calls, were those words ever uttered. It was just not there in the unwritten contract that we had agreed upon. I did not sleep that night.

We crossed Rishikesh at 5:20 hrs, and started the trip though lower Himalayan foothills. This is Ananda spa, a neatly located facility on the way.

We reached Uttar Kashi by around 13:00 hrs. Our stay was arranged at Hotel Shivlinga, on the banks of the Ganges.

After having tea, we ventured out to buy some provisions for the trek. And that's when this thing struck us - there is no sense of privacy out here. Check out the ATM:

People were offended because they were not allowed to stand right behind you, while you were typing the pin number. ATM activity is like a mini serial for most - they will watch you click, type, withdraw, and go. This is not to offend anyone, but I found this quite strange, considering the security we attach to ATM transactions elsewhere.

Lunch from a roadside hotel was crappy.

Vegetarian dinner was in itself very good. I managed to spice it up a bit with chutney of Piscean pedigree.


We started off for Gangotri at 8 in the morning. Kishan Powar, our guide who has trekked our route 20-30 times, traveled with us.

Landslides are common phenomenon here. This one was particularly ruthless.

The true heroes of the mountains.

I saw a lady with her toddler on her back working as a contract laborer at this site. Truly remarkable, even though it's an economic necessity and not a virtue.

Here's the temple at Bhaironghati, near to Gangotri.

We reached Gangotri by afternoon. Jumbo Jilebi welcomed us.

There are shops and stalls selling pilgrim accessories. Some of them sell Rudraksh in the most unconvincing shapes and designs, and have stories to go behind them "You know, there is this one tree in the interiors of Nepal where such shapes are common." These are 100% guaranteed fake.

This is Surya Kund, right next to Gangotri, where the roaring Bhagirathi river (not yet christened Ganga - that will happen in Devprayag later) plunges down a gorge.

We went for a short 1.5 km trek to a cave just to see how our legs were shaping up. These are shots on the way.

This Sadhu apparently lives in this cave all year round. Note that Gangotri is covered under a THICK carpet of snow for six months starting October.

This is the Gangotri temple.

The real source of the river is at Gowmukh, 18 kilometers away. The glacier is melting fast, and the source is moving back slowly but surely. This is Ganga Aarti (Aarti = twilight), which is a worship ritual of the river goddess. River worship apparently is not a Hindu-only phenomenon.

I met two sadhus in the evening while chilling in front of our hotel. They did not want cash, but was checking if I could buy them some tarpaulin to cover their temp accommodation from rains. [This type of charity is not in my blood - I don't know what came over me.] It did not cost much, but the real cost was that I ended up being hassled by other sadhus left, right, and center. Ran in and locked myself up in the room.

I later met my original fellows and took a snap with them.

Their blessing was this: "Tumhara bhandaar hamesha bhara rahe!" (May your coffers be always full).

There you go - "Tumhara bhandaar hamesha bhara rahe!" That sounded much better than "phat jayegii hamaarii". I slept better that night. Tomorrow we go for the real push.

Part 2 can be found here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

What's in a name? Kerala style

There are fads when it comes to naming kids in Kerala. At one point in time, the craze was mixing dad's and mom's name and coming up with a totally meaningless (and in some cases meaningful) name for your kid. For example, if mom was Lizy and dad was Itty, the name of the kid would be Litty. Now, this guy named Tim would in due course marry Litty and their son would be named Titty. (Swear to God I did not conjure this sonflower up. I know a guy who goes by this name.)

More samples:
Bhaskar + Ammini = Bhamini/Ambha (girl).
Bhaskar + Ammini = Amar (boy)

And then, there was this time, when we went globally historical. We had names like Lenin, Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Stalin etc.(Tamil Chelvan Karunanidhi got bitten by this bug, and we have a Stalin in the Azhagiri to Kanimozhi continuum.)
And, a junior in my school was named Isaac Newton (double swear to God - first name, last name - yes!). I am sometimes tempted to put this in my resume, "I went to the same school that Isaac Newton did."

Let's move on to Betnesol - the name of a senior student in college. Yes - Betnesol, named after a medicine. Betni, if ever you read this, please don't take offense. I also had a Ghosh and a Bose in my batch, full blooded Mallus, none of whose ancestors had ever even been to Bengal. You Bongs watch out, we might even come up with Banerjee Pillai some day, if we haven't already.

But what most people in my state hate is the fact that most of us have initials, instead of proper middle names and last names. My name is Sajish G.P. It irritates me to fill out a form, where I have to type "P" as the last name.

But I guess I'm fortunate. I clicked these pics in a hospital where my dad was undergoing an eye surgery.

This fellow is a classic. I'm sure the Cold War is over, but the CIA still has an annual budget allocation to monitor his communication.

And while we're talking CIA and Russia, here's Mendeleev's (Bernard Courtois actually) contribution to names in Kerala.

Poor thing - she must have jumped in her seat during her medical studies every time they said tincture of Iodine.
Wait, did I say "she"? May be Iodine is a "he". There you go - the most unisexual name ever!

Phew. I'm glad that parents don't get to pick your e-mail IDs at least.

Update: It's been a couple of years since I wrote this post. In a recent visit to Kerala, I saw another instance of "family" names. Here you go:

There's still room for Shabin, Shebin, and Shubin in the family. Go ahead, get another auto and bring 'em on.