You’ve Gotta Have Faith

December 28, 2006
A couple of good things have happened to me of late.

First, I got my passport today. By Speed Post. You know what an experience it was applying for it, what with it having expired, having been issued from a different state, and requiring a change of address to boot. I had been expecting a Police Verification and I don’t know if this was ever done or not. I was half expecting (dreading, really) being asked for a handout when that happened, but that never happened. I had been expecting a certain amount of follow-up (which I had been stoutly refusing to do) and some glitches along the way and that never happened either.

All that happened was that I got a note saying I should collect my Speed Post from the Post Office. Hardly daring to believe it could be my passport, I went along at the appointed hour and there it was. The post man first obtained my signature for the parcel, then he tore open the envelope, drew out the passport and stared really hard at the signature there. Then he saw the photograph and realized that it had to be me, so he handed it to me and I was done. Simple.

I felt really pleased that this whole thing went through painlessly, just the way it should. I have long held the belief that it is possible to get some routine things done through government agencies in the normal way, without bribing or using any influence. I have held this belief in the face of mocking laughter, out-of-hand dismissal, and some pretty stiff evidence to the contrary. In my experience, the people who most assertively dismiss this contention are those who have never tried, who have just assumed that bribing or using influence is the only way to get things done in India. Some things in India do work. But people don’t want to believe this. Everyone wants to get their work through, any old how, without bothering too much about ethics and suchlike, and then complain about the corrupt bureaucracy. But, whenever we have tried to get stuff done the straightforward way, it has always worked, from obtaining a BSNL telephone, to registering our apartment.

In my limited experience, the Bangalore cops, much maligned though they are, are not all that bad. The other day I was out on my bike and I was pulled over by the cops for a routine check. They wanted licence and insurance papers. I had everything, but was still worried that they would want a bribe. They didn’t. They glanced at my licence and waved me away. That’s all.

The other good thing that happened to me is a little more complicated.

As you know if you read my previous blog, I had gone on this trek last weekend. The trek was long enough, and the other trekkers inexperienced enough, that I suggested hiring a vehicle to take our equipment to the top by road, while we walked up through the forest. I had hoped that some less enthusiastic member might offer to accompany the luggage, but, after a good deal of hemming and hawing, nobody came through on that. So the driver would have to take our luggage and go on ahead of us on good faith. We would meet him at the top and collect the luggage and pay him.

When I got to the top and discharged the jeep at 5 p.m. I realized that I would have to go back down and look for the others. There were some who would certainly be struggling, and I was the only experienced trekker in the group. Moreover, I had the emergency supplies: pain-killers, crepe bandages, and Glucose.

I stacked the luggage in a corner of the guest house at the top, told the chap in charge that I would be back soon, and set off to find the rest of my group.

Telling the chap was more a matter of courtesy than anything else; he had no moral or other obligation to look after our stuff. But I had no qualms about leaving the luggage unattended. I felt the place and the people were trustworthy. And, in general, I have the optimistic (if rather foolish?) belief that if you put your trust in someone and ask for help, *mostly* people will not betray you, especially not the friendly rural people or people of the trekking community. (This is closely linked to the belief that the majority of the thieves and scoundrels of the world lurk in the cities.)

So I was fairly distraught when I got back more than an hour later, to find that my white foam mat had disappeared. How could this be? Who would flick a sleeping mat? And why just the sleeping mat, when there was mountains of other stuff lying about as well? I looked all over the guest house, but there was no trace of it. I asked the chap in charge, but he said he knew nothing of it. And really, why should he?

What about the jeep driver, then?

The jeep driver was a young chap, a rascal at bargaining, but a cheerful, likeable fellow for all that. I had chatted a bit with him during the drive. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be a petty thief, but in any case I had counted the items we loaded into the jeep when we left and the items we unloaded later. I had taken a thorough look in the jeep to check that it was truly empty. I thought I had noticed him take this mat out and I thought I remembered him bringing it into the hall where everything was stacked. I did not think that he had stolen it.

Nevertheless, it was gone. We managed with nine mats.

The next day, we returned to the town and there met up with Bindu, who had taken a jeep back. She, much to my delight, handed me back my white foam sleeping mat, intact.

Here’s what had happened: Apparently the mat had flown away in the wind and rolled downhill (plausible, because it was quite windy up there). The driver, on his way down, spotted it and recognized it. He knew we were planning to spend the night at Kodachadri, so when he came up to the top the next day with another party, he kept an eye open for someone from our party and handed it to them. Simple.

I was so, so pleased. The sleeping mat is not an expensive item, and it has almost zero sentimental value. What had really hurt me about the entire episode was the sad realization that even here, even with such small things, people could not be trusted. Now, my fond belief was thoroughly vindicated: not only had nobody stolen it, the person who had found it (and who could have “stolen” it by the “finders-keepers” logic) had even gone to some lengths to return it.

So, I continue to have faith: The world is not essentially a bad place, and sometimes good things happen to good people.


The Night Before Christmas Eve

December 27, 2006

… and in a gloomy, dense forest, alive with the sounds of crickets, bats and other creatures of the night, 10 city slickers sprawled around a sputtering fire on a sloping hillside enveloped by darkness and covered by a blanket of brilliant stars. There were three men – Teddy, Senthil, and Biju; and seven women – Chandrika, Bindu, Saishree, Renju, Meera, Neeja, and Mika. There were husbands and wives, mothers, and sons, colleagues, friends, and roommates.

There were four bottles containing alcoholic beverages, several plastic bags containing varieties of food, scattered knapsacks containing cameras and clothing, nine foam mats containing everything mentioned thus far, and ten sleeping bags, which were currently empty.

The forest made its usual nighttime sounds, but amongst the humans there was a temporary silence. Then Biju asked Mika: “Why do you do this? Why do you go trekking, walk for miles, sleep in the open? If it were up to me, I’d go to the nearest tea stall, have a cup of tea and then fall asleep under the sun.”

This was after Biju had proposed marriage to Sai, whom he had never met before that day, so nobody was taking anything he said very seriously. Besides, for everyone else enjoying the warmth of that brave orange flame on that almost-chilly evening, the answer was clear.

After struggling along a long, steep trail, staggering under the weight of a loaded knapsack, after limping along in the face of all obstacles, what could be better than being there, on that hilltop, under those stars, beside that fire, sipping on port wine, nibbling on chocolate cake (which Mika had made so well), listening to the forest and thinking of almost nothing at all? Few things could even come close.

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Kodachadri

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This trek, like every trek, had its idiosyncrasies. Despite the best-laid plans, our group of ten had left Bangalore a little after midnight the previous night. Delays accumulated along the way, the way delays do, and by the time all arrangements were made and everyone was ready to start walking, it was almost 2 p.m. Mika had made dire predictions of a five-hour walk, proclaiming that it would be nightfall before we reached the campsite; but in the end she was wrong. After much difficulty and by only just managing not to let Bindu and Chandrika turn around halfway and hobble back to the road, the stragglers of the party made it to camp by 5.30, which, everyone thought, was really not too bad.

There remained only the question of getting the luggage, because the bulk of the camping equipment had been sent ahead by the long road in a jeep. Mika, who had reached the campsite long before the others, had already gone ahead and ensured that the jeep had duly arrived at the top; but the “top” was a good 30-minute climb away from the campsite. Every able man and woman was coaxed into going up to lug the equipment down, while the truly tired members of the party stayed at the campsite to gather firewood.

By 6.30, it was all done, and the mats and sleeping bags had been arrayed around the bonfire, which had been persuaded to burn.

It continued to burn, as everyone ate, drank, and gradually slipped into peaceful slumber.

Everyone except Chandrika, who lay awake a long time, looking at the stars, listening to the bark of a wild animal and worrying about whether it would approach the campsite looking for a bite of something. Eventually, she could take it no longer and she awoke Bindu and Mika to find out whether they needed to do something about it. “Dog,” mumbled Mika sleepily and sank into deep sleep again, without losing a beat.

Bindu, Chandrika, and Biju had had enough exercise to last them a while, and decided the next morning to go straight to the top and find a jeep willing to take them back to town. Teddy, who had made it to the top the previous evening solely on the strength (psychological or otherwise) of Gatorade, was firmly resolved in going straight down, and as quick as he could make it. Neeja, who had been married to him only three months, would naturally accompany him. That left five of us, game to head for the top and beyond (for the “top” is not really the top, it is only the topmost point that can be accessed by road).

After sluggishly breakfasting and breaking camp, everyone set off at 8 a.m. We five deposited our loads at the top and by 10, we had reached the apex of the hill, where we found a small, ancient temple, a gusty breeze, and a pleasant view.

After that, it was all downhill.

We took our time on the descent and reached the road only a little before 4 p.m. There we found a stationary van and a scowling Teddy waiting impatiently. The former had been waiting since 12 noon, the latter since 10.45. He was in a foul mood and there was no pleasing him, so everyone meekly clambered into the vehicle, wiping cheerful smiles off their faces, and settled down for the long drive back to Bangalore.

But first, to find Bindu and co. who had headed for town, there to bathe, dress, and visit the temple. On reaching town, Teddy stalked off to have lunch, and the rest of us headed out to locate the temple trio. “Hopefully they’ve finished and are all ready to leave right away,” said Mika optimistically.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they’ve been asleep all this time and are only just waking up now,” said Meera, more realistically.

And then they met Biju, who at once settled the matter and proved Meera to be entirely correct. “We left our clothes in the van,” Biju explained blithely. “We’ve been waiting for you guys to come back.”

Biju was hurriedly escorted to the van to recover the clothes, but the driver had gone for lunch.

When Teddy heard of the delay, it really did look as though homicide may occur, but nobody was sure who the victim was most likely to be. Ultimately, to everyone’s relief, it was Bindu, who stoutly refused to be cowed by Teddy’s murderous demeanour, but did promise to be mighty quick about the whole temple business so that everyone could leave by 6 p.m. This assurance was met with blatant skepticism by all, but, to everyone’s surprise, Bindu kept her word to within 10 minutes of the hour.

And so it ended, as treks always do, with a long, tedious drive in a highly uncomfortable vehicle in which everyone, surprisingly, manages to sleep much better than they did on the way out.

On Christmas day, at 5 a.m., we were home.


Deutsch Lernen

December 20, 2006
So I gave up eight months of weekends to learn basic German. That was from January through August 2006, with a brief two-weekend break in the middle. The tragedy was that the exam for the second “semester” was scheduled for precisely the weekend we were leaving for Ladakh. Faced with a choice of Himalayas or German exam, the choice (if one can call it that) was obvious.

It was possible to take the exam scheduled for the next semester, I was informed, but I was doubtful whether this would really work out. Four months later, would I remember ANYTHING? Would I even remember that exam time was coming up and that I needed to enroll? Would I even want to?

But I did and I did and I did.

Not that the “anything” I remembered amounted to much, but when I woke up to the fact that enrollment time was rolling around, there were still a good three weeks to go before the exam. So I opened up my textbooks and notebook and though I found I did remember, I was still at first quite doubtful whether I remembered “enough”. Nevertheless, I plodded my way through it, making a proper plan and schedule and failing completely to stick to any part of it the way one does. I had scheduled days for writing sentences, practising adjectives, writing letters (10 marks!) and so on, and 90% of all this never happened. I did get carried away and download a couple of fairy tales from the Internet in German. Hansel and Gretel and Rumpfelstiltzchen (Rumpelstiltskin, I think, in English) – what horrible, sordid, depressing, morbid, grotesque, ghoulish tales! Who on earth ever thought they were fit content for little children?

Anyway, the most difficult part of this exam, as I had found in the first semester, is not the reading, understanding, or writing. It’s the hearing and the speaking. So, I practised diligently, by listening to the audio CDs provided with the course material, and by speaking to myself whenever I could.

And finally, yesterday and today, I went and gave the exam. In the last few days, I had realized that I would pass – even though pass marks were 60% – I would most likely even pass the spoken, provided sheer nervousness didn’t make a mess of me.

I think it all went off ok. There were a few hitches and glitches, here and there, but that’s only to be expected. For someone who’d completely lost touch over four months, I think I did “passably” well.

But I still don’t know. Not only do I not know the result, I don’t even know when I will know the result. Sigh. Life is full of suspense.


Weighty Matter

December 12, 2006
This weight thing is something I just don’t get. See, I’m one of those people that are born fat and spend their entire lives trying to change that. For very few, very short periods in my life, I have been what I considered to be slim; slim, mind you, never thin, because in my book, thin is thinner than slim. In any case, it was a rare period that I had the good fortune to consider the matter of thin versus slim with regard to myself. Most of my life, I have been fighting a losing battle with jeans, trousers, sari-blouses, weighing scale, and – in the worst battles – even with shirts and bras and (horror of horrors) nighties.

All said and done, now is the fattest I have ever been. The needle on that wretched, accursed weighing machine never stops on the right side (that is, the left side) of 60. Add to that my age, which is only going in one direction, and the result is anatomical chaos.

There are parts of my anatomy that are frequently in contact with other parts of my anatomy that they have no business being in contact with.

There are parts of my anatomy that used to be visible to me without a mirror, that have suddenly and completely disappeared from my direct line of sight.

There are parts of my anatomy where bone and muscle are completely impossible to find even after the most diligent search; but blubber can be had by the fistful.

There are parts of my anatomy, in fact, that I don’t remember ever having been in existence before.

What I don’t get is why it should matter. I can still play tennis for upward of two hours on any given day. I can still go for a Himalayan trek at 15000 ft and walk upwards of 20 km a day at that altitude – and enjoy it. My annual health check-up shows that my HDL/LDL cholesterols are on very cordial terms with each other; and heart-rate, pulse, and blood pressure are all fine.

So, in short, I’m healthy. I’m fit. Why should it worry me if I wear 32-inch waist jeans instead of 26-inch? Why do I keep waiting to fit into clothes that have become impossibly tight, instead of just going out and buying new clothes?

I don’t know. But, like millions of other women, I worry about my hips, my tummy, my bust, my thighs – and, of course, my hair, not that that has anything to do with anything. I keep trying to diet, and never succeed. I keep stepping on the weighing machine, and get off it hurriedly. I keep promising myself that I’ll be “good” for two months – I’ll avoid all things sinful, specially cakes and ice creams, and I’ll certainly start tomorrow/on the weekend/next week/next month.

But, even though I so very much want to be slim (or even thin), something inside me keeps asking: “Why? Why does it matter?”

I just don’t get it.


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