Bhabha Pass Trek – Day 1

Kafnu to Mulling

After spending one day lazing about in Shimla and getting a good night’s sleep at the Youth Hostel there, we set off for Kafnu the next day. This was supposed to be the starting point of the trek. The ride was thankfully a comfortable tempo and the roads were pretty well maintained. The ride through the scenic mountains with the occasional drizzle and the greenery was very relaxing. I had India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond by Shashi Tharoor with me. In the breaks I took from enjoying the view I read the book.

We got to Kafnu by around 5 in the evening.

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There were no problems at all though there were a lot of warnings that there would be landslips all along the road. There was just one small slip 300 mtrs before Kafnu. We got down there and walked the rest of the way to our guest house.

That night we stayed there. I had a brilliant idea while we were there. To take a cold water bath! After a hectic and violent bath involving a lot of stricken jumping about and hyper ventilation I finally tucked myself into my sleeping bag for the night. The next day we would start on our much anticipated trek.

The first hike would be till Mulling. I and KP put up a scintillating performance during breakfast. After polishing-off about 10 eggs between us we were raring to go!

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The weather was beautiful in the morning. No rain. Just a pleasant cloud cover and the temperature was perfect for a vigorous trek.

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After walking for hardly half an hour, we found ourselves in the midst of scenery that was just mind-blowing. It was not my first time in the Himalayas. But, it was my first experience of Kinnaur which is completely different from the other side which lies in the rain-shadow region. There was so much greenery everywhere.

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Immense snow-capped mountains, gurgling streams, melting glaciers and alpine forests.

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Trekking in these mountains is a completely different experience from trekking in the Western Ghats.

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No leeches, no dense undergrowth or thorny trees and branches or snakes or slippery rocks or any of the other things which make hiking in the tropical forests such a different experience. It is just magnificent and overwhelming scenery all around, pleasant and easy to navigates copses, grippy rocks and endless grasslands.

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But, what made the trek so special is the backdrop. You look at something quite ordinary… against a background of immense mountains, clouds moving at a glacial pace among ice-capped peaks and rivers trickling down from massive blocks of ice, then… it suddenly no longer seems so ordinary.

You are witnessing one end of the cycle of energy and water that powers the biosphere. The snow falling and getting packed into blocks, then moving ponderously tearing up the rocks along the way to make soil, melting into thin streams which coalesce into rivulets and tributaries… eventually joining up to form the thundering and raging rivers that are the lifeblood of India.

104-IMG_8499The hike was a relatively short one and we reached the campsite at Mulling by around 1 in the afternoon. It was a sloping, grassy area surrounded by streams and mountains on all sides. It was such a pleasant place.

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It was the first time I was going to stay in a tent. I watched with interest and helped in whatever way I could as everyone put up the tents where we would be staying for the night.

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The cook’s tent was the first one to go up. As we were rushing to put up the rest of the tents in order to get shelter before the drizzle which had already started, intensified the cook started preparing hot soup and tea for us.

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We had packed some lunch from Kafnu which we had eaten on the way. So, we were not really hungry,

Once the tents were up, we jumped in and cozied up. I was only getting used to the cold. After a little time spent hugging myself I had the tea and soup. Then we went out and had a few walks around the place. After a little while some guys started a campfire.

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After nightfall, we had dinner and the others slept off early. I had my pocket torch with me and I read quite a bit in the tent that night. It is quite a nice feeling, reading while huddled up inside a tiny tent!

The next day we would be trekking from Mulling to Karo. From there to Pustring which was the last campsite before the pass. The pics of that trip are coming soon!

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A wish!

Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road

Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to drive, travel to new places and experience new things. Last month I was reading this book called On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In my opinion, the criteria for a good author should be the amount of character in his writing and not just whether you like the style or not. You can have correct grammar, orthodox construction of sentences and follow all the rules of composition. But, still, these things alone can’t make you a good writer. What you write should have soul and people should be able to tell that it is a work of passion and love.

On the Road is one such book. As I was reading the book I realized that I was simply wasting my time. Instead of going out and traveling and having fun I was reading about what others had done. I too wanted to do it. I too wanted to go without a plan and  end up where the road takes me. I too wanted to feel the deep, throbbing excitement that comes from not knowing what to do or where to go next. I too wanted to use my brains and figure out how to make the best out of a situation!

I figured that I should probably round up some guys and go on a road trip. I had even arranged for a vehicle and a couple of friends.  But, a few of them pulled out and my parents  discouraged me from doing it. So, for now, the plan is on the back burner.

But, I haven’t completely let go of it yet. If any one is interested let me know and we can work on the plan together!

Sometimes, breaking rules is the only way to ensure justice

Today, I learned that Salman Rushdie has decided to not come for the Jaipur Literary festival after all citing death threats. This is on top of the fact that his book The Satanic Verses is still banned in India. Coming on the heels of the death of the great MF Hussain as a citizen of Quatar in a hospital in London and various other such events this news was very depressing for me. I have always found such incidents to be shameful and every time something like this happens, it is like someone has violated my own sense of security and feeling of freedom.

How is that a bunch of good for nothing bigots who have contributed very little intellectually, culturally, economically or socially apart from serving as dead-weight on the ankle of India who is in a mortal struggle to free herself from debilitating social evils and systemic problems get to decide on what others should or should not do? How is it that they have a right to be outraged when people don’t take their god or gods or prophets or whatever seriously? Why is that their sense of outrage at books being written or words spoken more important in the eyes of society than the outrage of the common man at having his freedom to enjoy what he likes, to travel wherever he wants or his right to personal safety violated?

Anyone can believe in anything. That is up to them and their right to do so is something that is worthy of protection by every member of our society. But, to think that everyone should respect what they respect as a result of their beliefs is a mistake and  if such desires are indulged it can do immeasurable harm to the intellectual and moral fabric of our society. If the government is going to accept that no ideas that can “offend” people can be disseminated then where are we going to find material with which we can evaluate, understand and question ourselves? If intellectuals, artists and activists have to operate under the yoke of religious bigotry and blackmail by pre-modern  organizations, then what hope do we have as a society of progress and enlightenment?

If the government is worried about the hurt caused to people why doesn’t it take into account the outrage that the decent, hard-working moderate majority of India feels on seeing their fellow citizens of talent, ability and erudition threatened? What about their hurt at finding out that the government won’t be willing to side with them in a confrontation with violent bigotry? What about their opinion on books and movies denied to them because it is offensive to someone else?

What is this “offense” or insult anyway!? I have the right to say no to anything that can happen inside my house or be exposed to without my express intent. I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what others should read, what others should write, what should be available on the book-shelves of India, what DVDs and CDs are available for purchase, what audio can be distributed, what can be there on the internet etc. etc.. If there are outright lies being published under the guise of fact, I can challenge them in court with a request for evidence.

There is a silent, faceless enemy among us, stalking our future. It fills the dark deprived recesses of our society and uses the cover afforded it by the ignorance and helplessness of the masses. The authorities think that they are “playing it safe” by forfeiting every challenge thrown its way. They think that they are doing the people a favor by allowing them to be lead by people with a divisive and communal ideology motivated by political aims and personal ambitions. Every time the people in charge, whose responsibility it is to know better and safeguard our values and true legacy take a step back and shy away from confrontation, they are simply setting themselves up for a bigger challenge in the future. The stakes will be higher and giving up might not be a  tenable option then…

The government does not ban every book, movie or painting that offends any number of people. Only when there is a threat of violence does it rush to oblige the demands made of it. What does that tell people who are taught to be intolerant? That if you ask nicely no matter how reasonable you are no one is going to listen to you. But, if you are going to make a lot of noise and threaten to unleash death and violence then whatever you want will be given to you. When civil rights organizations, authors’ guilds and decent people request the government for lawful protection the government has a moral obligation to listen. Else, eventually, the only people left with options will be the ones prepared to kill and once everyone realizes that, we will be only a stone’s throw away from anarchy and bloodshed.

The constitution sadly provides protection(Section 295A of the IPC) against criticism targeted at religious ideas. But, what about injury targeted at more universal ideas like freedom or expression, right to criticize and right to question? Are they not worthy of at least as much protection as old fairy tales? Reading the First Amendment to the US constitution was an instructive experience for me. It cannot be the business of the government to act as the protector of religious dogmas.

It is not enough that the government does not ban anything, it has to step in and use its muscle to protect people when rights are under attack. We have no issue with deploying massive forces against our own people. We don’t mind it when government machinery and money is put to use to maintain and service pilgrimage routes and to help people make pilgrimages. When there is an individual being threatened we must not think in terms of his security. It is our own freedom that is under attack. Nothing can be more precious and worthy of defense than that.

I read today in the morning paper that the authors at JLF read out passages from The Satanic Verses as a gesture of resistance. Individuals showed courage and vision that is worthy of emulation by our country. People like them are the ones who keep the flickering flame of hope for this country burning.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

When I was a kid, I absolutely hated History and Geography, mainly because of the need to memorize facts and trivia. After I completed my 10th boards I immediately cleared my brain of all the “crap”, because, my childish mind could barely grasp the significance of the dates and events and worse still, the texts didn’t even try to explain it.

The same goes for biology and chemistry. Whichever text you pick up, you always notice that it is loaded with information. I had recently put down my thoughts about the importance of information vis-a-vis wisdom or knowledge. The texts go about explaining how reproduction happens or the principle of photosynthesis as if they were merely mechanism to be studied, without explaining the awesome origins of such systems and their necessity to life on earth.

Textbooks always were atleast to me, something to be memorized. Recently, I read Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. The meaning and the breadth of perspective conveyed by these books is simply too awesome for words. When you consider that the Discovery of India is a book written by a single person while in jail, and the fact that it tries to convey an idea of India that took 5000 years to evolve, you feel  a sense of profound wonder and admiration. The vision and power of Nehru was rooted in his incredible understanding of India.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a masterpiece of an awesome intellect and demonstrates how reason combined with history can help one make informed choices. The book tries to expound India’s traditions in the field of debate and experimentation. The incredible breadth and depth of Indian thought as illustrated will easily amaze and render shallow and petty the ideas of even the most hardcore nationalist bigot.

The book deals with some of the biggest questions that face India, like Secularism, Globalisation, Nuclear Weapon Testing, Hindu Nationalism, the perception of India in the West etc. and tries to provide a balanced view on these matters. Efforts by people to define India and it’s thoughts and traditions in narrow and simple  terms appear silly to the point of almost being funny after reading the book. Some things like the fact that no other classical literature deals with atheism, agnosticism and free thought like Indian literature does with the same depth, beauty and power was a true eye opener. The Lokayata and the Carvaka schools of thought mentioned in the book and Madhavacharya’s Sarvadarshasangraha caught my attention and I did some more reading on Wikipedia on these topics.

The bits about the the rise and fall of Buddhism, an agnostic religion and it’s roots in Hindu literature are very enlightening. The myth about India having developed it’s culture in isolation is thoroughly destroyed by masterfully crafted arguments.T he designs of the Sangh Parivar for radicalizing sections of the Indian population with hideously distorted versions of history and the political motives for that are elucidated in some detail.

The most important thing that the book demonstrates is that things rarely have simple answers. Impulsive and “intuitive” decisions do more damage than good, and things that “sound” right more often than not turn out to be based on fallacies of the highest magnitude.

After reading this book, Discovery of India and a few anecdotes about Indira Gandhi’s prodigious reading skill by Natwar Singh I realized the true significance of the words

Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power”

Michael Foot

Each one of us has power to influence the future of our nation and our people in ways that we might not yet realize. Wielding this power responsibly requires us to honor our duty to be informed about the decisions we make. Sadly, the Indian primary education system has failed most tragically in this highest duty. India’s problems will take longer to solve without this being remedied first.

Another thing, I noticed is that a lot of people are extremely proud of everything Indian and use their prejudiced assumptions to make easy decisions when faced with choices. Do you support the Indo-US nuclear deal? Well, the US is bad, so no! Do you think that the greatest contribution of India to the world is spirituality? How do you explain away the morbid caste system? Should India let her culture be “destroyed” by ideas from outside?

India was great in several ways and like anything else, had her failings. It is important we understand that and learn to be proud of the truly noble things and try to learn from our past mistakes. Efforts by people to impress others with stuff about Vedas being the ultimate source of all knowledge are an insult to the authors’ spirit of inquiry and do gross injustice to the true nature of the works. Indian classical literature is admired for it literary excellence and the unique perspective it offers of Indian classical thought.

Similarly, the modern day obsession with glorifying the past and trying to prevent changes to our society find a mention in the book.

While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.”

Amartya Sen

A thought…

When I look back at the years I spent trying to learn Indian history in school and the amount of lasting knowledge I gained compared to the ideas that I gleaned over a week’s time from reading a single book, I feel that maybe, something, can be done differently in our school system. If schools encouraged students to read these books instead of depending on textbooks and then prepared question papers that encouraged them to share their ideas, I think, a lot might change.

India’s Unending Journey by Mark Tully

I go to the Public Library at Ernakulam with a list of books that I want to read. But, I can almost never find the ones that I am looking for. Instead I just pick up something with a nice cover and end up reading it. I don’t know what will happen to my reading habit once the classes are over. I might become more discriminating and eventually just stop reading altogether.

I have recently been reading a lot of books which have tried to elucidate the necessity and advantages of maintaining a scientific outlook on life. So, I decided that maybe I would read a book that has a different message.

Mark Tully was  a BBC correspondent in India who had a great fascination with Indian culture and ideas, which he says might have been due to his close ties with India since he was very young. From the beginning the book emphasises the importance of believing in a higher power and of religion in our lives. He describes various religious festivals in India, the myths and ideas behind them and the messages that they try to spread. He also tries to drive home the point that all religions speak of the same God or whatever that he calls  a “Higher Power” and that the teachings of the various religions are true in their own peculiar way.

He criticizes the arrogance of scientists and has even named a few including Dawkins.  He says that they discount the value of intuition and “other” ways of knowing things and says that there are certain things that science doesn’t understand. He also admits that he has been unable to obtain even a rudimentary grasp of the field and that he feels as if he is on shaky ground when he argues with people with intellectual leanings.

He also describes his childhood days and the role of the school that he studied at(Marlborough) on himself. He feels that the rationalism and the competitive attitude espoused by the school is not entirely correct. He also describes his attempts at priesthood and the reasons for giving it up.

Mark Tully has also tried to spell out his position regarding economics. He warns people against dogmatic belief in any particular economic model and emphasises the importance of trying to find the middle path.

The underlying message of the whole book is that people need to find balance in everything. That everyone should be open minded. We should value our religious traditions and by way of example he sites the examples of the religious festivals in India and the devotion of the pilgrims, which he thinks makes them happy. He also says that the replacement of religion by materialism as God has resulted in moral bankruptcy in western countries. He feels that secularists are responsible for provoking believers into religious fanaticism and that the state should try to give due to credence to the religious beliefs of people.

There where a lot of other things mentioned in the book. But, I don’t think they added to the ideas that a person might absorb from reading the book.

My take on it:

When reading the book one has this strong feeling that the author is trying to take credit for his failings. He also pushes a very strange kind of reasoning where he admits that he knows nothing about the opposition, but tries to keep harping on how happy the Masses at church made him. He also appears to labour hard to balance his belief in Christianity and his  belief in the validity of other religions, most of which seem to push contradicting ideas.

His treatment of tantric wisdom can impress only the most unread and suggestible of people. While he says that people should not fall for dogmatic beliefs as far as economic theory is concerned and should instead look at what works and what does not, he seems to be glibly oblivious as to how that can sit well with religion which is nothing more than dogma and unreasoning belief.

While he blames religious riots on the poor understanding of religions, he never provides any convincing explanation as to why people should not believe their religious texts literally. He also does not give a convincing explanation of how he balances his religious convictions with that of others. The position that he proposes is a highly metastable one and he never seems to realize that religion in itself can never provide an internal check on itself as it is based on belief which by definition is trust in something that cannot be verified.

His admiration of the vulgar and obscene displays of mass idiocy that some of the festivals in India are, is somewhat sickening despite the vague and “intuitive” explanations he provides. He never seems to grasp that ordinary people with their limited resources and time that they can devote to self-delusion and “doublespeak (1984 by George Orwell)” might be easily lured into superstition and admiration of fake and shallow phenomena. He does not understand or admire the real mysteries and suggests that people do what he has done, which is be amazed by their own ignorance.

He also does not think along common lines about how religion has stymied and sometimes just completely overshadowed debate and action on the real issues, and worse, does not even provide any reasons for his observations.

Reading the book will convince anyone about the difficulties of believing blindly and being human at the same time.

Someone also needs to explain the difference between culture and religion. India has a very different culture and this has influenced what some call it’s religions. This has kind of confused Mark Tully.