Reality Check

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Reality in India is a many faced thing. There is the reality of what we read online every day, from Indians scuffling in the heart of New York to freshly minted campaigns intent on changing the face of the country to national newspapers circling breasts of film stars in ‘news’ articles. People like me have passionate online debates to convince sceptics that feminism is not just rabid women waiting to pounce on men. And then there is the reality of undulating fields, small hamlets, buffalo pens in the by lanes of a bustling city, pregnant women doing all the cooking, cleaning and housekeeping for a household of five or more and village headmen giving government benefits only to upper castes. I descended rather sharply from the former to the latter about a week ago, while on a visit to Varanasi and Mirzapur, two adjoining districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh, for a research project.
“I took a pregnant woman to a local hospital for a check up and the Doctor there said that she is HIV positive. He refused to give her a report, any medication or even a referral and told me to leave with her immediately. I then told her brother about it and we went to Allahabad to get it checked. They said there is no such thing, who told you this? Now the family is threatening me that they will file a case against me for starting bad rumours about their daughter in law”. I could only nod in sympathy and gulp down the sense of horror I felt at the injustice that this dedicated Anganwadi Worker had to face almost on a daily basis. A job for which she gets paid Rs 3000 a month.
“These diseases were only a problem for husband and wife earlier, but in this ‘kaliyug’ even unmarried people should know about it.” My jaw dropped just a little bit because these words came not from an old village woman but a young college girl from the city of Varanasi. But I had to suppress a smile at another young belle cutting her off quite definitively and saying “no you know sometimes young people do make mistakes, suppose if my ‘friends’ get into such trouble, it is very useful to know about these things”. I know where you’re coming from, my friend!
And then there was the cliché that became real, when a bunch of “Saasu Maas” interrupted my chat with a group of very reticent married women from a village in Mirzapur, because “there was work to be done at home”. The fear of the mother in law was writ large on the faces of my company, who all clammed up even more, insisting on being freed as soon as possible. Yes, more and more Indian women are breaking the shackles of patriarchy, but here, in Arvind Adiga’s proverbial “darkness”, time has stood still for these tired, wrinkled women, on their 3rd or 4th pregnancy, still bound by the duties of the honourable “bahu”. But there was one ray of hope, even here, in the form of one feisty lady, telling everyone else to give it back to the Saas if she got too nasty.
There are no screams for justice, no candles being lit and no placards being held up. But somehow, going about their daily business, these women and girls have taken the first steps towards taking charge of their own bodies and reproductive health, opening up to their own sexuality and speaking up against patriarchal exploitation. The real feminist movement of India is alive and kicking.

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What I want to say to Tarun Tejpal…

My first memory of you dates back to a very old episode of the Bournvita Quiz Contest, and I still remember what you said when Derek O’Brien asked you what the most important quality for a journalist is. Your answer was one word – “humility”. And I, a schoolgirl watching one of the biggest journalistic dramas of India unfold on the small screen at that time, was inspired. So inspired that I took up journalism as my chosen profession.

I have read every book you have written and known you with an intimacy that can exist only between a writer and a reader who loves his writing. The Alchemy of Desire had a generous sprinkling of sexual perversion, but nothing in the vicinity of a man trying to violate his daughter’s friend in an elevator. The book starts with the conclusion that sex is the greatest glue between two people, not love, and ends with the realisation that the truth, in fact, is the opposite. I hoped to know such passion and such discovery in my life too.

The story of my assassins sounded autobiographical, I admired you for tracing the stories of the men who had tried to kill you, but was doubtful of your portrayal of women, your wife and your mistress. I wondered if this part was autobiographical too, it probably was, but I didn’t care what you did with your life, I just wanted you to write another and better book.

Then you wrote ‘The Valley of Masks’ and I was scared on reading the first half of the book…could my favourite writer really be imagining such terrible things happening to women in a fantasy of his? But you redeemed yourself when you showed that this was what you expected the world to become if it went a certain way, what you wanted to fight against. But the terrible imagery left a strange taste in my mouth. I will not read that book of yours again.

Today I read about what has happened and I read what you wrote as an ‘apology’ and I wonder…was it really a nightmarish world that you were predicting in your book or was it partly a fantasy, something you liked imagining? It sounds crazy to me even as I say it, but then its a crazy world, a person who I knew to be principled, passionate, honest, humble and intelligent  thought that a young woman was giving him signals and in response decided to rip off her clothes at the first chance he got.

I am no one to judge you on morals Mr. Tejpal, but to forego a woman’s consent, be physical to the point of violence with her and then call it ‘a lapse of judgement’? I can offer you better substitutes, that I think might have been used in a Tehelka story, if this was not you but another famous personality. How about calling it ‘barbaric’? Or ‘criminal’? Or ‘predatory’?

And THEN to use parochial, artifical, self-gratifying language like “I must do the penance that lacerates me”! Where is your humility? Where is your intelligence? Where is your journalistic integrity? What have you become? To be able to believe that 6 months of not holding a job is ‘penance’ for violating a young colleague, what abyss of self aggrandisement have you fallen into?

In The Valley of Masks, you talk about the importance of doubt against blind faith. I was never naive enough to believe that you had no failings, Mr. Tejpal. But I did have blind faith in your integrity and principles. There was a time when I would proudly say that you were my favorite writer. Though I started feeling faintly irritated with the self righteous tone of your writings and the writings in your publication, Tehelka, I continued to admire you. I would still go back to your editorials, even though you wrote less and less. I would still tell people that your editorial in the Gujarat riot expose special is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read.

And now to read that self serving, arrogant, delusional, medieval rant that you dare to call an apology for sexually assaulting your daughter’s friend. You might think you are at the centre of a Shakespearean drama Mr. Tejpal, but its actually just a sordid tale of a man drunk on his power forcing himself on a young woman. It’s a 21st century tabloid cover, that you’ve reduced your life to.

The choice between Fight and Flight – a psycho-analysis of river rafting in Rishikesh!

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The ‘fight or flight response’ is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as “relating to, being or causing physiological changes in the body (as an increase in the heart rate or dilation of the bronchi) in response to stress”. It has become a well-known concept in contemporary living these days, given its use in everything from pop culture to self-help books. But though we know the physical changes that happen to our body when we are faced with a frightening or challenging situation, nobody really knows what it is that makes someone choose fight or flight. It is interesting how scientific explanations run out of steam right at the brink of such questions.

This pseudo-psychological title and beginning might not seem to have any relevant connection to a river rafting trip in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, but I fancy that there is, so will try and convince you about it. We were a gang of 8 girls, finally managing to get away from Delhi, heat, work and other such painful things, for the duration of a weekend. Now, an all-girls trip is significantly different from other generic trips, be they with family or friends. First of all, it is a very liberating experience – the travellers can be silly, loud, ‘unfeminine’, gossipy or just plain mad, with lesser inhibitions.  But it can get troublesome or irksome too. Some of it is because of common social attitudes (evidenced by the raised eyebrows and disapproving pouts of Punjabi aunties whom we happened to chance on) and some of it is because of the high pitched cacophony that a group of 8 girls produces (our rafting guide didn’t appreciate our screams of excitement drowning out his instructions while crossing rapids on the Ganga).

But the one thing that stays with an all-girls group throughout any journey they undertake in this part of the world is the men. The men; with their eyes, their hands, their voices – acquiring a strange uniformity despite their changing faces, garments, physiques and levels of prosperity. In case you are sick of descriptions of sexual harassment incidents by ‘feminists’, don’t worry, this post doesn’t seek to do any of that. Not in the usual way, in any case! 🙂

A word about these 8 girls (includes me, of course) – they are all friends because they have worked or are working for an NGO that works for women’s empowerment. Enough said.

So we were speaking of the fight or flight response. In a matter of about 50 hours, this journey tested our instinctive responses in all manners possible. Urmi, a sociology student with a charming smile, came face to face with her childhood fear of water – be it while trying to dunk her head in a natural pool behind our camp or while being tossed high on the ‘Roller Coaster’ – the worst of the 8 rapids that we rowed across. She is dying to get back on the river now. Ranjani, another master’s student and glowing bride to be, jumped off a cliff straight into the water, and could feel her heart thumping till long after. While Sonia, the sweetheart and most delicate looking of the gang, who doesn’t know how to swim, jumped out of the boat into the rather deep waters of the Ganga without a thought, Anubhuti, a fearless swimmer, hesitated for a moment before plunging in. The latter now wants to try swimming in a rapid, which I really don’t think is a good idea! For me, the most vivid memory is of the rapids, when the raft would first nosedive and suddenly rise to a height, riding a wave that threatened to turn it over. The memory, more than that of the physical danger, is of the adrenaline rush. We all kept rowing, even while being almost perpendicular to the river, hitting the air at times instead of the water, but not stopping. It was as if we were answering the river’s challenge.

The river’s challenge is real. It looks you in the eye and asks you for a fight. Human beings, unfortunately, are not as noble. So when a group of young, affluent, probably north Indian men started making sexual noises as we walked past their camp and I asked them to come out and say whatever they had to say, I just got some more innuendo and laughter as the response. So when Anubhuti shouted at a young man on a paddle boat next to us after he splashed water on her face and said “are you enjoying?”, she just got a smirk as a response, as his boat drew away.  So when Sonia told a man on our bus that she will slap him so hard both his gaze and his neck will straighten out, all she got was some rude noises and then a grudging silence as a response.

Fight or flight? Who knows why we choose one over the other. But I do know that all through this trip, this group of girls chose to fight. We were like pupils to the masterful Ganga, which seemed to befriend us with her calmness and beauty after we successfully navigated the rapids. The other creature we faced is a slimier foe. Our responses though, remained the same. And will continue to be so.

My rendezvous with a mountain

The following blog is dedicated to Karn, Archit and Dipu Sir’s team for organising, coordinating, pushing, prodding, helping, cajoling, pulling, supporting and any other adjective that suffices for making this 3 day trek an unforgettable experience.

It is also dedicated to all the fabulous men in the trekking team – Jassal Sir, Rahul, Jasmeet, Pratap, Mridul and Himanshu – this trek was so easy because I knew that a supportive arm was never far away!

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We were at approximately 3700 metres above sea level. The Dhauladhar range was covered with more than 10 feet of snow, that would melt as the summer advanced further and reveal the treacherous ‘moraine’ on the surface of the mountains, making the ascent to the Lahesh caves and the Indrahara pass much more time consuming and difficult, our guide Dipu Sir told us.

Not that what we were currently doing seemed easy, I thought. We were lined up on a steep, snow covered slope, our feet wedged into the ‘steps’ that had been cut in the snow for us by the mountaineers accompanying us. The trek leaders were pulling up a fellow trekker who had fallen away from the line with a rope, and the rest of us were waiting for the mountaineers to cut the rest of the steps towards the rocky climb that led to the Lahesh caves.

The previous night in our camp at Ilaqa, which at 3350 metres above sea level marked the beginning of the uninterrupted snow cap of the Dhaualadhar, had been a cold one. With temperatures below zero, sleep did not come easily, even after nearly 6 hours of trekking from Dharamkot to Triund to Ilaqa. Perhaps it was the uneasy night that delayed our departure in the morning, for the final climb up to the caves and the pass.

It is best not to take liberties with time, when climbing a mountain, I now think in hindsight. The sun had come out even as we had started ascending the steeper climbs towards the caves. As we stood on the snow ladder, it cast a strong glare on us and before I knew it, the snow beneath my feet had melted.

I was falling for a very short while; I was told later, just about 5 seconds, before Happy, one of the mountaineering guides (nicknamed so because, well, he is happy all the time) jumped behind me and blocked my fall. Nothing flashed before my eyes; I just knew that I was sliding uncontrollably down a wall of snow and that my heart was beating very fast.

I think falling is overrated. It is the after that matters. (And this is coming from someone who fell *A LOT* during this trek!) One has to pick oneself up and gather the courage to move ahead on the same course. Push the thought of ‘what if I fall again and hit a rock’ out of your head. Though it does take a significant personal effort, it would be simply impossible without the support and encouragement of the mountaineering guides and fellow trekkers. It becomes easier to push fear out of your mind when there is a helping hand in front of you.

“One step at a time” is a philosophy that we all often hear and try to emulate. But nothing teaches it to you in real life like climbing a mountain. So we climbed, and crossed the snow wall. We climbed some more and reached a flat rock jutting out over the graceful curve of the mountain, where we had our packed lunches. We climbed again to reach the caves, when I fell again (much more funnily this time around, though), was helped up again by a grinning Karn, an old friend, journalist turned mountain man and one of the trek organisers; and climbed further.

It is amazing how even a little bit of altitude can change the vista around you, in the mountains. Suddenly the snow covered peaks grew closer; the sky turned a shade bluer and the sun went from angry to mellow. Many people say that the view makes the climb worth it, but at that moment I felt that the climb makes one worthy of the view.

We couldn’t make it to the Indrahara pass. The weather Gods decided to intervene in our well laid plans, and we turned back towards our camp, as dark clouds descended on us. And HERE was one of the top 10 things to do before you die – sit where the snow starts, spread your legs out and SLIDE down the mountain! No, I cannot describe in words how much fun that was, you will have to experience it yourself!

But a mountain is like a wicked mistress, you never know when it changes its mood. The joyous ride down the snowy slopes suddenly came to a close as the steep incline receded and things became slightly serious. A slightly windy hail storm lashed us as we negotiated the ups and downs of the old snow that would hold our steps at some points and give way at some others, since the harsh rays of the sun had heated the rocks jutting out from the white sheet that in turn melted the snow around them from underneath.

My feet were not strong enough to create holds in the slippery ice, so I fell again and almost pulled Rahul, fellow trekker, mountaineer par excellence and cutest person ever, along with me. But 5 parathas for breakfast counts for something and the dear boy held on to me and pulled me up, and pretty much held my hand all the way through the mischievous snow, till I could feel terra firma beneath my feet and walk more confidently.

The hard part was over. We reached Ilaqa, had some chai, clicked pictures with the very jugadu snowman built by Mridul, design djinn and fellow trekker, Archit, freakishly good climber, happy soul and trek leader and Rahul, my saviour on the snow. We walked down to Triund, where we were to camp for the night. What followed can only be described as heavenly – chai and pakodas, campfire games and conversations, even a freshly pressure-cooked cake – all in the midst of the Himalayas on a hill top that resembled a green valley.

The goodbye to Triund the next morning was an equally beautiful affair. Crispy mountain air that blew clouds along the bright blue skies, flights of white butterflies, warm sunshine and some crazy company playing strange martial arts games amidst all this.

As I walked down to Galu temple, the starting as well as end point for our trek, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much the mountains had taught me in a matter of three days. “Just feel the nature and keep walking”, Dipu sir had told me, on the first day of the trek. “Mountaineering in not about getting to the summit, it is about teamwork”, Rahul had said, while walking me down the snow. Keep walking and think about moving ahead with the team, not just on your own. How different would our lives be, if we just decided to live by these tenets?

 

Just another day…

This is not a post about violence against women. You will not find any mention of sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence or female foeticide, even.

It is just a story that I want to share.

It was a Thursday, not many Thursdays ago, and I was finally going to go the famous Nizamuddin Dargah to pay my respects to the revered Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia and to listen to the Qawwali that is performed every week there, on Thursday.

I do not have a lot of clarity on how I stand vis-à-vis religion personally…though I am more or less an agnostic when it comes to idol worship, I do pray when I go to a place of worship. I believe I am trying to find God through my own ways and do not want to be told how to get through to him/her/it.  But there are two things that make me feel the presence of a divine being – untouched nature and sufi music.

I discovered the magical effect that Sufi music has on me during school itself and my joy and wonder at the purity, passion and abandon of Sufism has grown with every rendering of ‘Lal Meri Pat’ that I have heard. Over the years I discovered that the songs that speak to my soul were very often singing praises of Bulleshah or Shahbaz Kalander. So a visit to the Dargah of one of the most well-known Sufi saints in the world was no less than a pilgrimage to me.  I felt a strange elation as I walked carefully in the colourful lane that leads to the shrine. Like a question about life might be answered today. Like I might find God today.

I was with a male friend of mine, who was going to the Dargah for the first time as well. We bought the traditional ‘chadar’ (sheet) to be laid on the shrine, sold as a customised packet outside the shrine, complete with incense and ‘elaichi dana’, entrusted one of the shopkeepers with our shoes, borrowed his cap for my friend and made our way in.

Now, I have been to a Dargah before, so I knew the drill – head covered, separate lines for men and women, so I wasn’t expecting too many surprises.  But as I stepped inside the marble sanctum, a hundred eyes turned towards me, silently saying “Here comes the other”. I was informed politely that I could not see or touch the actual shrine, but I could take a turn around it and pray from the outside. Aah well, I should have known this, I thought to myself. But I was still a privileged one amongst the underprivileged.  A young man at the shrine, who said he was a descendant of Nizamuddin Auliya himself, and seemed to hold a lot of sway there, took great care of us and got me rose petals from the shrine. Economic status (the appearance of it, anyhow!) trumps gender bias a little bit, it seems.

I settled down with the womenfolk sitting on the other side of the marble ‘jali’, praying furiously to the saint resting in a place they were barred from. I was not quite in the mood for prayer anymore, but there is something in the vibe of a place of worship, that stops you from indulging in negative thoughts.  So I bowed my head and let my mind wander to the front yard of the Dargah, where the Qawwali had begun.

My friend came back from visiting the shrine and, forever the perfect host, our young Sufi entrepreneur led us to the Qawwali, giving us the spot closest to the Qawwals. I will not be able to give a very good description here, of how powerful a form of music the Qawwali is, how it can make you go into a trance in moments and how the rustic verses sung repeatedly in unison fill your whole being. One has to feel it to believe it.

I was listening to a live Qawwali for the first time and the chords of a very beloved song called ‘Chhap Tilak’, rang out. I bowed my head and closed my eyes. Lost in the music, the soft tapping of my hands in rhythm with the music inadvertently became claps like those of the Qawwals…but only for a moment. An old man who was managing the crowd rushed towards us, bent down in front of me and deftly closed his hands around mine. Joy and ecstasy gave way to embarrassment and hurt. Here too, I was expected to be silent. Here too, I was a woman, not allowed to be just a devotee.

I looked around, observing the crowd carefully for the first time.  And yes, there were men, who were clapping, and the women were demurely tapping their hands. And the divinity that I had come to seek dissolved in front of my eyes.

This is not a comment on any religion, there are similar experiences to be had in temples and mosques too, I am sure. It is just another incident where I was reminded that my identity as a woman came before all my other thoughts, feelings and desires.

As I said, this is not a post about ‘violence against women’. Or is it?

 

 

This Blog is part of the Men Say No Blogathon, encouraging men to take up action against the violence faced by women. 
More entries to the Blogathon can be read at www.mustbol.in/blogathon. Join further conversation on facebook.com/delhiyouth & twitter.com/mustbol

Anna’s fight – A few thoughts.

Just so that we are clear, the ongoing protests in Delhi are NOT to pass the Jan Lokpal bill, but to pass ANNA AND TEAM’S VERSION of the Jan Lokpal Bill. The cabinet has passed the Jan Lokpal Bill, that is currently being looked at the by the standing committee of Lok Sabha, after which the bill will be tabled in the parliament for voting by MPs.

But Anna and team are demanding an assurance from the government that the Jan Lokpal bill that they have drafted, be passed, without any such restrictions. So, in effect, what is being asked here is that we FOREGO our constitution, which allows for the passing of laws in the country by the vote of ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES. Instead, we should accept the  draft created by 5 anti-corruption crusaders, for a law THAT CAN PARALYSE EVERY SINGLE MECHANISM IN THE COUNTRY, and simply take their word of it – that it will cure the nation of corruption.

So basically, what we are protesting for, is a shift from a democracy, to oligarchy, where the word of a few rules over a whole nation. And yes, even if all of us upper middle class people join in this ‘struggle against corruption’ despite using corruption as a convenient way to get our work done in our everyday lives, we would still be a misncule number in this nation of 1.2 billion people.

The government is dealing with these protests without any foresight, class or understanding of the current mood in the nation. But, my friends, it is a government that WE HAVE ELECTED (or those of us have elected, who were not off on a trip during the long weekend offered by the general elections).

And that is why, I find it strange that Anna and team are calling their movement a second freedom struggle. AND comparing it to Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement. Before the Mahatma gave a call of ‘Jail bharo’ to the nation, he had spent YEARS talking to people in the towns and villages of the country, telling them that they need to find the strength within themselves, to STAND UP to the British and still follow the doctrine of Non-violence.

HAS ANNA HAZARE EVEN ONCE CALLED ON US TO STAND UP AGAINST CORRUPTION IN OUR DAILY LIVES? No. Instead, we are being asked to participate in a ‘jail bharo’ andolan, in front of hundreds of television camera crews. In fact, we are not really expected to court arrest, but simply to create huge mobs, to demonstrate the ‘anger’ of the nation. And we are signing online petitions and tagging people in notes on Facebook.

What we are being called upon to do in this movement, is too easy, too tailor made for the media-frenzy following generation that we are. Don’t change anything about the way you live, just follow the mob, and you will get there.

The latest is that Anna is refusing toleave Tihar jail, until the Delhi police agrees to an unconditional, public  hunger strike, in favour of his team’s version of the Lokpal bill. I cannot help but think about another hunger strike, more than 60 years ago, when terrible rioting had spread all across the nation. The father of the nation chose to stay in the house of a Muslim, and refused to eat till his countrymen stopped killing each other over religion.

My apologies, but my mind and heart simply cannot find any commonality between the two.

A journey to remember…

Remember the times when people talk about just ‘setting out’, without any plans and what a good time they ended up having? Well in my case, I had mostly heard about this one and not actually done it. Yup, just one of those things that you always want to do but never actually end up doing.

Finally it happened when circumstances pushed me into it (which is how pretty much everything happens in my life, considering my awesomely high levels of energy and self-motivation). I had asked my boss for a FULL weekend off I think for the first time in two and a half years of working with CNN IBN. (Oh, don’t you know? Journalists actually don’t have a life!) All for a trek to Naneghat with a trekking group called “Yuva Shakti” (cringe) that I and my friend Deepti had planned. As luck would have it, AFTER I had invested a thousand bucks in the sleeping bag that I was supposed to use for the night to be spent inside a cave on a hill, we learnt that the trek had been cancelled.

Damn. Shit. Why does this always happen to me? No, there is NO WAY I’m letting this precious weekend off go waste. With these inspirational thoughts on my mind, I said, dude, let us go anyway! And guess what, the darling kindred spirit said, yes, let’s go!!! (This was not even close to the impulsive decisions she could make, as I would learn on our trip.)

20th February, Saturday, 7 am.

Step outside home, to go to station and catch a train to Kalyan. Want to go back to sleep. Feeling tired already. And my co passengers on the train feel the same way, obviously. Two women sitting opposite knocking scarf covered heads against each other…made me smile!

But as we get out of the city (Ya, ok, we can argue some other time about where the city ends), I see a mist/fog has descended on the surroundings. Eyes open suddenly, as I try to make out what’s outside the window bars, but its enveloped in fog. I didn’t know any areas surrounding Mumbai experienced this climactic phenomenon! So that thrill of travel takes over and fatigue edges away.

I reach Kalyan station at about 8:30 and from the way the road has been dug up right outside, it seems the trek has already begun! There’s something about the basic breakfast of chai and samosa at a bus stop. Reminded me of my trip to Vidarbha with college friends. Deepti is coming from Pune, so she arrives around 9. That slight logistical problem delayed our trek, so we started later than we should have. Anyway, we got into an ST bus headed towards Nagar and one sweet uncleji with a bag full of stuff shifted from his seat so that we could both sit together. Deepti later mentioned how it was so weird that we met really nice people throughout the journey. And were helped by them. Our bus conductor, a heavily bearded man with a huge teeka looked like he had walked straight out of an RSS shakha. But he too was quite nice and remembered to stop the bus for us at Naneghat, as it’s not a regular bus stop. (Of course you females would get special treatment, guys would think. But still, one is thankful for it!)

Just a thought here, I think Frida Kahlo said something about living by the kindness of strangers. It is something that we have totally forgotten to do, in our lives filled with suspicion of anything or anyone we don’t know much about.

As we start trekking, its already 11 am. (Again, quite late, I know.) But the great thing about my company was that for both of us it was more important to relish the small things we discovered on the way, rather than getting from point A to point B. The first thing that hits you is the silence. Being in the middle of a jungle, walking up a gravelly path, the only sounds are the crunching of dry leaves, the occasional chirping of birds and the sounds of our own voices. It is like the senses are finally getting some rest.

But the efforts required by the rest of the body more than make up for all the rest given to the senses!! And it was so hot!! We managed to come down to half our supply of water and finally collapsed under the shade of a tree. Which was another fun thing to do actually, lying on the grass beneath a tree…(At this point both of us would definitely have preferred some romantic company of the opposite sex, but then, one can’t have everything…) So we settled for a rejuvenating lunch of bread with cheese and water and set off on our trek once more…only to get lost in another 15 minutes! We reached a rocky dead end, looked around in all directions for another trail, waited for some shepherds to appear, even shouted “Heeeellloooooooooo” in unison but to no avail.

SO, considering our “akeli ladki = khuli tijori status” AND the fact that we had very little water left, we said, “Aah, another time!” and retraced our steps. It was 3 by the time we reached the foot of the hill and we…were…dead!! And thirsty!! So I had the brilliant idea of taking a bus going in whichever direction at the highway, so we could get to water quickly! And as luck would have it, we got a bus going further in the direction of Nagar.

At least twenty pairs of inquisitive male eyes turned on us as we hopped on…and grew wide with shock and horror as we said “Jo bhi next stop hai wahan utaar do!” One especially concerned uncleji, who happened to be sitting right where we were standing, would not let it go. “So it is the two of you?? JUST the two of you?? So WHERE EXACTLY do you have to go??” Another uncleji sitting behind us joined in the chorus along with the bus conductor, of course. And it is then that Deepti spots a milestone that says, Malshej Ghat, 27 kms. Another brainwave! Might as well go to Malshej ghat, she said! So the first and most concerned uncleji gave us some wisdom to remember for a lifetime….

“”””””“Malshej Ghat is dangerous place….full of wild animals….and (hold your breath) Wild Males too!!!!((nod nod, leery smile, slight attempt at wink)””””””

(I swear to God, that MADE the trip!!! But I should mention here that these uncle jis gave us their water bottles happily to finish, so once again, very kind strangers…)

As we digested this newfound knowledge…the chorus grew louder. Till I simply told the conductor, dude, we want to buy some water, eat some good lunch and take a bus back to Kalyan! So the din finally ceased…but the most concerned uncle ji was still not done…and began to say, “You see, I’m from the mediaaaaa…” to which I had to cut him off and say, so are we! And guess what, uncle ji turns out to be a fellow Network 18 employee!! He was ready to take us to his own village, if it had not been for the distance he had to travel and two girls travelling alone can be a problem and he was even carrying raw fish that he would have happily fed us, only it needed to be cooked and there was no way to do that right now and… “OK, WE WILL GET OFF HERE!!!”, screamed my angelic friend. She had spotted an MTDC resort called Flamingo that she had been to before and we would have jumped off the bus in another five minutes anyway…

Fresh air! Lovely view! And uncle ji is gone from our lives! Happy-giddiness!! So we started walking this concrete pathway inside the resort, and once again, guess what?? We seem to have walked in on location at the shoot of Akshay Kumar-Aishwarya Rai starrer “Action replay!” But pet pooja came first of course and we had to rouse the cook and the receptionist and the waiter to remind them of their duties. Omelette-bread with seven up never tasted so good, I tell you!

Unfortunately Akki was gone by the time we finished our meal but we did get to see Aishwarya doing chiffon saree dance! And also hear the FAKEST laughter in the world (That would be Mrs. Bachchan again)! The security guards for the shoot turned out to be a rather sweet lot, and happily clicked our pictures “properly with the hills.”

We had a short wait at the highway, got an ST bus back to Kalyan within 5 minutes. AND guess…whaaatt….bearded conductor ji with huge teeka who looks like he has come from an RSS shakha looks up at us as we enter…and grins…”Arre, aap log yahaan aa gaye??”

I couldn’t stop smiling on my way back home. Truly, sometimes, the journey becomes the destination!

Romantics – The new science!

Some recent experiences have forced me to re-think my romantic ideology. Most of my friends would go – romantic?? YOU? But I’m quite a hopeless romantic really, despite appearances. Not exactly Mills and Boon though, more like Bridges of Madison County or Notting Hill even!!

So that’s a sappiness alert for you already, if you are likely to go “urrrghhh” at senti stuff, then stop reading now!! But at the same time, I will try not to make this post an account of my crappy love life but rather about some thoughts I have about the idea of romance in general.

Even as I write this, there’s an interesting film playing in the background, called ‘Before sunrise’…and the female lead just said something that truly hit home. Something about whenever she would start dating someone, she would feel like an army general, trying to manoeuvre a desired outcome, devising strategies and observing moves.

Don’t you feel that we have actually become mechanical about romance in our lives these days? Its about rules that you need to follow, moves that you need to make, a certain way which you need to look and behave like and of course, observe the other party closely to understand their true intentions. The initial interactions with someone that you are attracted to are all about “I should try and maintain some mystery or he’ll lose interest” or “Can’t call too often or pick up the phone in a hurry or he might think I’m desperate.” And trust me, this is not limited just to women who read books like “10 sure-shot ways of hooking a man”. This is a widespread phenomenon. And perhaps men think a thousand things like these too, but I don’t know a lot about that.

SO, my point being, wasn’t this whole thing supposed to be about sudden chemistry, endless conversations, the thought of someone bringing an inadvertent smile to your face, laughing together and someone you can reach out to without a second thought? Yes I know, you don’t find someone like that easily…but these days we seem so scared to start feeling for the wrong person, we’re not ready to give even half a chance to the POSSIBILITY of falling in love. (For that matter, ‘falling in love’ has become this laughable, old fashioned fairy tale concept for so many, as if it existed a thousand years ago.)

So you might feel like being with someone but what if it goes wrong and hurts you like last time, so better to stay out of trouble. Attempts at seeking relationships are a matter of making fun now and everyone’s out to prove how ‘practical’ they are. And even for those not avoiding relationships, it’s about keeping it ‘cool’. Women want immediate commitment and men want immediate sex. We’re so stuck in these stereotypes that women are almost scared to mention anything resembling ‘long-term’ for fear of the guy running away and men who might have totally justifiable romantic and sexual feelings towards their partner feel compelled to sugar-coat everything so that it doesn’t seem like they want to take advantage. I see this sort of thinking around me again and again, and frankly, it often makes me despair. We were not supposed to live by rules so much that we forget the power of experience! And instinct! The loud cynicism of the information age seems to have drowned the racing of the heart beat…

“I don’t love as you as if you were the salt rose, topaz

or arrow of carnations that propagate fire….

I love you as certain dark things are loved,

secretly, between the shadow and the soul.”

I doubt if Pablo Neruda could have written those lines while wondering if his lady love had ‘commitment issues’. To me, the whole point of trying to walk the ‘men are from mars and women are from venus’ tightrope, is to feel something like this. Don’t you think?