Monday, May 30, 2011

Mountains and Melodies

“Juda hoke bhi…. Tu muzme kahi baki hai….” I was hearing the notes of this song from Kalyug for the first time when we were making our way to Gangtok from Baghdoghra. It was late in the evening and we had been driving for about 3 hours. We had all been fascinated by the narrow mountain road we were driving on, the tall mountains, the clouds and the greenery. We had watched mesmerized till there was light and then the mood had become silent and thoughtful. It was quite dark when the driver switched on the music player and these notes floated to us. All we could see in the dark were many, many stars in the sky that we didn’t normally see in the cities and the electric lights far away in the hills – that was Gangtok…

The natural beauty surrounding us, hidden from us by the curtain of the darkness now, was still very fresh in our minds. The darkness, starlit sky and the dipping temperatures were adding to the feeling of being in an unearthly place. And this song, “Juda Hoke bhi…”, added beautifully to this overall experience. I don’t know if I fell in love with the song because of the overall atmosphere of the time when I heard it for the first time, or it was a lovely song which made the atmosphere so amazing. But, every time I hear that song now, I remember that late evening, that starlit sky and the mountains that we were driving through. 

On our trek in the Kanchanjunga national park, before which we had visited Gangtok, when we reached Bakhim after a long and strenuous trek from Yuksum, we stayed at a Jungle lodge. In this lodge, after we had had our dinner, our sherpas sang for us; some of them also danced. “Resham Phiriri” is a Nepali folk song that I heard for the first time in that wooden cabin at Bakhim. It was around 8:00 PM but it seemed much later because it had gotten dark even before 6:00 PM and there were no lights anywhere as far as we could see. The only light was those of the candles burning on the big wooden dining table. It was very cold and so a fire was setup in the fireplace. We had had our dinner in the candle light after a long and tiring trek. It was another of those surreal times. I think of that song sometimes when I remember that jungle lodge. And I think of that jungle lodge when I think of this song. I don’t know which one is the stronger memory; they are so completely associated with each other…

There are other melodies that I have heard in mountains at different times that have stayed with me as reminders of those places and times in the mountains. Some of these are old Hindi movie songs, some that have always been my favorite. But even these favorites have become more special because of the specific times & places in Himalayas.

On the same trek in the Kanchanjunga national part, we had a guide called Amar, who sang quite well. “Phoolon ke rang se” from Prem Pujari was a song he sang very well. I heard Amar sing this song many times on this trek. I myself had requested him to sing this a few times as I have always loved this song; its one of my all-time favorites. But the one time it made the most impact was when we were climbing down from Samiti Lake to the camp. There had been just four of us at the lake and it was possible to imagine yourself to be all alone; it was so beautiful and peaceful. Samiti Lake is one of the most tranquil places one can go to. After spending some time at the lake, we made our way back to the camp where others were waiting for breakfast. When we were climbing down to the camp, Amar started singing “Phoolon ke rang se”… We still had 4 days of trekking, but it was all going to be much easier since we would be climbing down. It was early morning of a surprisingly clear day and we had just visited one of the most beautiful places we had even been to. Because of all these, we were in a very happy frame of mind. That climb down to the camp, and that frame of mind is what I remember now every time I hear “Phoolon ke rang se”…

My trek to valley of flowers has been one of the most fun treks I have been on. In Rahul Bhusari and Dinesh Patil, we had 2 very good camp leaders, and we seemed to have a group with great sense of humor – that always helps on treks. When we started off on this trek, it had been raining very heavily and we weren’t sure we’ll be able to make it to the valley. In fact, that year we were amongst some 5 groups who did make it upto the valley. The first day’s trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria is 13 kms of up and down through the mountains. Its tiring but the view throughout is really beautiful; so much so that later on your remember the beauty of this path rather than the struggle you had climbing. After we reached Ghangaria in the evening, we washed up, had dinner and then went to the visiting center there to see a short film about Valley of Flowers.  After the film, when we were walking back to our lodge through the small town, I heard “Chand fir nikala, magar tum na aaye…” from Paying Guest. It was a dark night, very cloudy and no moon in the sky.  We were walking on a small mud road with a big ground on one side. And this song was probably coming from one of the small houses, being played on a transistor radio and the station tuned I would guess was Vividh Bharati. But hearing the longing in Lata’s sweet voice, at that place and at that time brought me to tears. This is another of those beautiful songs that I have always loved. But it had never made my cry earlier; somehow the impact of this song at that time was so much more intense. And now this song reminds me of walking through Ghangaria at night; I can clearly see the open ground we were walking by…

Somehow, the songs heard in the quiet of the night leave a big impact, especially in the mountains when you are already “away” from the real world. But sometimes even on quiet afternoons, when you are resting on a mountain slope, when you can see leaves fall noiselessly to the ground, you hear some melody as it rides the light breeze, coming from somewhere in the valley,  that can take you by surprise and touch your heart like never before. 

I was on a trek to Saurkundi lake in Himachal Pradesh and I got sick at Baggi Thatch. So I didn’t go up to Saurkundi lake that day. Along with Meena, who too had stayed back with her daughter, I went on a small “picnic” – we took our books and climbed a little distance away from the camp. We spent a beautiful afternoon there, reading side by side, napping when we felt like and talking very little. On this afternoon, seated there under the tall trees on that mountain slope, I heard “Hai duniya usiki, jamana usika…” from Kashmir ki Kali. It floated to us from some small village down in the valley. It was coming from a distance and if it had not been for the tranquility or the fact that we were absolutely quiet at that time we wound not have been able to hear it. But barely audible notes of this soft song, heard there on the remote mountain have remained with me very solid. Now, when I hear this song, in my mind I am back on that remote mountain….
Hearing music in remote mountains, where everything else is quiet and you are feeling closer to the universe,  is such a magical experience!! I have felt this in Himalayas every time I have trekked there.

Friday, May 20, 2011

America that I miss...

I moved back to India in 2001 after living in America (US) for about 5 years. I moved back because I missed India a lot and India is where I felt I belonged. Of course the India I had left in 1996 was different from India I came back to in 2001 but I belonged here in India (changed one too).  But, I loved my time in US and there are many things I miss about America – specifically the America that I left behind in 2001. Things have changed there too in the last 10 years; some things a lot more than others…

After 2001, I have traveled to US some 7-8 times and enjoyed each of those visits, but have not “lived” there. And though I meet many friends and visit some of my favorite places every time I travel, I still miss the America I left in 2001. Here are some things that I loved about living in America…

Melting pot of world culture:
I worked for Microsoft and a product development team had people literally from all over the world working together! People from many European countries, South Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Korean, People from Middle East,  Indians  and of course Americans – all working side by side, making software and in the process sharing their stories, food, experiences and feelings. One learnt such a lot about each other’s culture, developed a more open and tolerant views and became more aware and capable of handling diversity. This was probably one of the best things from those days at Microsoft – those crazy days of working really hard, trying to meet the milestones, meeting to discuss and debate requirements and designs…. Playing foosball and throwing darts!!  And making some great friends!!!

I lived in Bellevue, near Microsoft campus. And in 1996, driving around was such a pleasure.  The traffic got really bad after about 2000, I think. But I LOVED driving around then… Of course, driving in US is still a lot easier than India (I guess for most part), but before 2000, it was really simple and easy. The gas also was a lot cheaper…

Western Washington:
Whenever people hear about Seattle or western Washington, all they can think about is rain – how its cloudy for days and rains some 300 days a year. But its also a very beautiful region. On a clear day, its so beautiful… Seeing Mount Rainier in distance, and the skyline of the city – it’s a site one just does not get tired of… And it’s a great place for hiking, climbing and outdoor activities in general. I enjoyed living there a lot… It never really got very hot, and it never got too cold. I could handle the rain – I love rain anyways…  Oh and the people of the region were simple and friendly. I have made some great friends in this part of the world and really cherish their friendship…

Community College: 
I took art classes and dance classes and language classes and oh, mountaineering classes in the Bellevue community college. Loved these classes that let me explore new things and work on my hobbies. With my mountaineering class, I also went snow shoeing and went climbing Mt. St. Helens in the month of March when it was fully covered in snow (and hurt my knee badly – but that story some other time).  I wish we had something like community colleges in India… We do have different classes here, but most of them are private classes and there is no way of knowing how good they are going to be, their format or how the facilities are going to be etc. Of course some ARE quite wonderful…

Public library:
Oh the public libraries!! The public library system and how much you can read, listen, see and learn!!  I spent many Saturday afternoons at the Public Library in Bellevue. Unfortunately, there is nothing comparable in India…

Pro Club:
Pro Club in Bellevue was the first gym I joined. It is big and has many facilities – from a huge section of treadmills & cross trainers & climbers to personal gym machines, to tennis courts and basketball courts… to Aerobics, kickboxing as well as Yoga studios…. It was just too good. I have not seen another gym which can come anywhere close to Pro club in terms of facilities or the services offered… And especially in India, gyms have been quite disappointing…

Yoga Class:
I used to practice Yoga in India before I went to US, and I practice it (on and off) even after coming back. And I have attended different Yoga classes in India, some good, some not good and some definitely not good. I live in Pune, where the world famous Iyengar Yoga institute is and many people from all over the world come here to learn Yoga. But they conduct courses not just classes. And I have to say that the best Yoga class I attended was in Bellevue…

Travel around:
In those days, traveling around US was so easy, and so affordable!! Going to the airport to see people off meant going and seeing them off right at the gate, see them board the plane. I remember that even when my parents were to board their flight for their return to India, I had gone to see them off till the gate on the SEATAC airport. And it was so easy to take the car and go someplace, just for the day or a weekend or even longer (which I guess still is) and so affordable (which is not as affordable with the gas prices now).

I grew up with books around me and have always loved going to bookshops. But the bookshops I saw in America just blew me off – they were big, had so many books that I didn’t even know anything about, on so many subjects, they had neat little places to sit around and read, and they stayed open for a long time!! There was a Barnes & Noble very close to where I lived and many times I would spend late evenings there, since it did not close till 11:00 PM. I also used to frequent a Borders store in Redmond. And how can I forget the Half Price Books???
We have big bookshops in India too now, but they still don’t compare well with the bookshops in US.

When I went to America in 96, India didn’t have “malls”, per say – some big shops yes, but the malls no. And America was full of them!! And those big malls had so many big stores and big parking lots!! Oh and so many things that I had never seen or heard of in India. Simple things like chocolates and cheeses – I went berserk buying these!! And when my sister got engaged, I actually sent her a suitcase full of chocolates and cheeses from America!! Just the abundance one saw in these big chain stores or malls was over whelming. Till 96, I didn’t know that there were so many different varieties of milks to choose from – we had only choice of buffalo milk or cow milk – and packaged milk or fresh milk from a milkman… Things have changed a great deal on this front in India – India today has big malls in many places, big chain stores too – but they are a lot smaller, a lot more crowded and I just HATE the way the shop assistants keep following you around!!! I tend to avoid the malls in India….

Having said all this, if someone asks me whether I want to move back to America, my answer would be “no”.  I figure, its better to live in India and miss America than live in America and miss India.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ganesh Festival and two songs

When I was about 12-13, we moved from our rented apartment in a gated society on the outskirts of the city to our own house in the heart of the city. Our new house was close to a big Ganesh Mandal  (group or circle) – one of Pune’s well known Mandals – namely Hatti Ganapati (meaning “Elephant Ganapati” – the idol is a big one – hence Hatti Ganapati).

The Ganesh Festival in the city was very different from what we thought of “Ganesh Festival” when we lived in the outskirts. The decorations for the festival were huge in the city. There were pandals put up right in the streets. Many of the big Mandals put up big scenes in front of the Ganesh idol – many times the scenes were based on some story in the Hindu mythology. Sometimes there were some scenes which had a political message. There were also some other scenes which showed some scientific progress. Some other mandals didn’t have a scene, but huge lighted decoration, where the lights “danced” to the music. But one thing that was common to most of the Mandals was that in the evenings, they played records of songs – many songs from Hindi movies. Many of the songs were from the latest movies, but some old, famous songs too were played out.

Whatever music Hatti Ganapati Mandal played, we could hear loud and clear in our house.  And many times it was source of major annoyance, since you heard the loud music from about 7:00 PM till late in the night – till 11:00 PM or sometimes even later. The loudness became more and more annoying as the evening progressed.  I came to dislike many of the songs that they played out again and again and again. But there were two songs, that no matter how many times they played, how loudly they played and how late in the night they played them, I just loved them. These two songs were played every year, every day for ten days. And till date, they are amongst my favorite songs.

Both are from 60s – Both have been composed by S. D. Burman and sung by Lata; both are also dance numbers – “Raat ka samaa” from Ziddi (1964) – a very young Asha Parekh dances to this number, and “Hoton me aisi baat” from Jewel Theif (1967) – Vyjayantimala sets the floor on fire with this one! “Raat ka samaa” is penned by Hasrat Jaipuri and “Hoton pe aisi baat” by Majrooh Sultanpuri.

And while both are my favorites, I like them for different reasons. In terms of visual presentation, the choreography, or the dancing skills – “Hoton me” is definitely the winner. Every time I hear the song, I visualize Vyjayantimala dancing – and dancing so gracefully and with such ease!! But then she is one of the best (if not the best) dancers to have ever danced in Hindi movies. But minus the visuals, I love “Raat ka samaa” lot more – the tune, the way Lata has sung it – its extremely sweet. To sit in the open at night, under the stars, light breeze bringing with it fragrance of some flowering tree nearby, and listening to a song like “Raat ka samaa” can transport you to a different world altogether…

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gulmohars and Cherry Blossoms

Summer has been here for a while now. And though it has been quite mild this year, compared to the usual, and though nights are actually quite pleasant, it is quite hot during the day.  And driving on the road in the afternoon, you can feel the heat as well as the brightness of the Sun.

But when you drive around, in the city, and especially outside the city, you can’t miss the Gulmohar trees. They are everywhere… and in full bloom!! They are a riot of color on the background of the blue sky - You can see various shades from dull orange, saffron to fire red… and even some very deep red – almost close to maroon. They look wild! And oh so beautiful!! Every time I look at them I am mesmerized. I watch these trees as long as I can, and I don’t feel like looking away. I just can’t seem to get enough. 

And every time I look at them, I also remember the Cherry blossom trees…  They of course belong to very different climatic regions. They won’t be able to bloom in this heat; in fact they would not be able to tolerate this heat at all.

The two are quite different – Cherry Blossom are extremely delicate, even in their coloring – its so gentle... They also look very, very soft and refined. Gulmohars, are definitely not delicate – they are hardy – they have to be, to bloom in the heat like this. And while Cherry Blossoms are all soft & refined, Gulmohars are completely wild!! Cherry Blossoms are all pastel shades – soft, soft pink – could almost seem white. Gulmohars on the other hand are loud colors like bright Red!!

And yet, I find something similar in these two – both are, for one extremely beautiful. Somehow, no matter how much you look at them, you don’t feel satisfied… you want to look some more.. And there is that same abundance in the way they bloom.

In “The Last Samurai”, there is a quote – “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life”. – I think that’s beautiful – and maybe it applies not only to Cherry Blossoms.  I think that is true about Gulmohars too.
And the last words of the same person (Katsumoto, I think), in the same movie are – “Perfect. They... are all... perfect...” – again he is talking about the Cherry Blossoms. That, I think holds true for all the trees, trees that blossom with such abundance!!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Awesome Assam!!

Earlier, the only place I had visited in Assam was Guwahati – on my way to Shillong. And honestly, I did not have a very good impression of Guwahati – it’s not a very clean city, I felt very uncomfortable in the Kamakhya temple, many of the places we tried to see on a Monday were closed… And of course we had a “wonderful” evening cruise on Bramhaputra (that story, some other time… :-))

But Assam, as I found out in a week-long visit, is simply wonderful. And absolutely nothing like my first impression of the state based on its capital. Its beautiful and green, with abundant wildlife.  And tea gardens on either side of the roads… You also see a lot of open spaces and driving from one place to another is a very pleasant experience – well mostly, unless you come close to Guwahati – then it’s a big mess! I loved the small towns that we saw along the way and was just amazed at how many cows one comes across!!  And I just fell in love with the simple old type small houses that were everywhere…
We visited Tezpur, Nameri, Kaziranga, Shiv Sagar and Majuli. We landed in Guwahati and Assam started to weave its magic as soon as we left Guwahati and started towards Tezpur.  The most prominent color that we could see everywhere was green. And so many shades of it!! The trees, the fields, shrubs – everything lush green!!

Our formal “sightseeing” began in Tezpur with a visit to the Mahabhairav temple.
We then went to Chitralekha Udyan (for some reason we had thought this is a tea garden – we couldn’t have been more wrong…). But Chitralekha Udyan (or Cole Park) is a beautiful and tranquil plac. We also went to Agnigarh – as per the mythology, this is the place where Krishna’s grandson, Anirudh married Usha which was the cause for a bloody battle between Shiva & Krishna, and got Tezpur, which was earlier called Sonitpur,  its name (Teza in Sanskrit means blood). The view of Bramhaputra from the watch tower on Agnigarh was spectacular!

Road to Nameri  was pretty bad – that is to say, wherever there was road, it was bad… And so it took us longer to reach Nameri that what we had thought. But once we reached the Eco-camp, Nameri, we immediately forgot everything about the bad road etc. The place was wonderful. The tents were the most luxurious I have seen – ever!! Each tent had an attached bath AND a changing room!! And there were fans in the tents!! One felt really “relaxed”… But our experience with the activities done here with Eco-camp was not great.

We went for a hike/trek in the Jungle with a forest guard in the afternoon. We crossed the Jiabharoli river in a small boat and started our trek… This was a great walk in a deep forest, but it definitely would have been a lot more enriching, if the forest guard knew more about the flora and fauna. He was not interested in anything but walking as quickly as possible to the end point (which was a watch tower) and then on returning from the watch tower to the river bank.

Next day early morning (after it had rained cats and dogs in the night), we drove in a SUV towards Balukpong, thinking we were going white water rafting. But it just turned out to be a long boat ride on a raft. The boat ride was wonderfully relaxing. Moving gently with the river, watching birds and passing through small villages where odd fisherman (or woman) is fishing with the traditional fishing contraption is such a wonderful feeling… But it definitely was not rafting… :-)

After Nameri we made our way to Kaziranga. Drive to Kaziranga was good till we started seeing the national park on the left side of the road. From that point onwards it was simply great!!  We actually saw couple of rhinos in the park, at some distance even before we reached our hotel.

Kaziranga was awesomest part of the awesome Assam experience! We started our time in the national park with an elephant back safari at 5:00 AM in the western range – Jungle was still waking up and we managed to get really close to the rhinos and deer; also saw lots of birds… In Central and Eastern ranges we took jeep safaris instead. 20th April was a really beautiful day. On this day we saw many wild elephants and rhinos in Kaziranga.

From all the different safaris in Kaziranga, one vision that I just can’t get over is a tusker walking straight at us. He was in his own world, walking at a relaxed pace; walking so gracefully. But we had gotten scared. We had of course stopped the jeep and gone absolutely quiet– we were wondering if we need to reverse out; wondering if he will charge; and if he does what should we do…. And then we saw another elephant behind him! I can still remember that moment so clearly!!

It was mesmerizing and scary at the same time. The tusker in the front became aware of us when he was at about 50 meters distance; and there was a sudden change in his whole demeanor. It felt like he suddenly became more “formal”. He turned at a right angle and walked in away in the forest. The one behind, saw him turn and did the same…

We thought that nothing else would be really impressive after Kaziranga – but Majuli did impress us! Of course before Majuli we went to Shiv Sagar. The temples, pavilion and palace here were quite picturesque.  The desert pink stone temples and palace on the background of lush green fiends are really something!
And then we went to Majuli – it’s a completely different world. The satras there, their lifestyle and the way they are cultivating the arts – mask making, dramatics, music and dance…. It would be worth going to Assam to just visit Majuli! And the private performance of Gayan-Bayan that they put up for us, in the main hall of the North Kamalabari satra, was definitely an experience of a lifetime!

I left Assam after spending just a week there, but its definitely a place I have on my “to visit again” list. I also have added Assam to my list of most spectacular places I have visited in India!!