Friday, May 27, 2011 14 comments

LADAKH- Heaven, hidden in the Himalayas

What strikes me first about Ladakh as the plane hovers around the Leh skyline are the interesting colour tones- brown , patches of green, sprinkles of white set against a background of deep blue!!

“Why are the mountains looking so angry?” asks my thirteen year old.

 Angry? Probably not- just grim due to lack of vegetative cover.

I am reminded by Iqbal”s  lines  “ Parbat woh sab se ooncha.. Hum Saaya Aasman ka…Woh Santari Hamara..”!

Yes indeed that is what strikes me as I land – the protection that these towering mountains offer to us from enemies. The presence of the armed forces is everywhere as I hear the airhostess announce that taking photographs at the Leh airport is forbidden.

As we step out the cold breeze hits us! We huddle together for warmth as our sweaters are in the luggage that we have checked in!  We proceed to the terminal encountering along the way  security personnel who hand out forms to be filled in by foreign nationals. I am reminded of Port Blair..!

 Our luggage comes in surprisingly quickly .We dig out our sweaters , put them on and head outside. I call on my phone for  Nazir who was supposed to come and pick us up. Suddenly I see a lanky young man walk towards us all smiles “Meeraji?” he asks. As I nod he comes forward, shakes my hand and takes my bag off me. I introduce him to my husband and daughter and he flashes the same smile. My first taste of Ladakhi hospitality!

Nazir drives us to the Gangba guesthouse -the home of Mr.and Mrs Wangyal. Nothing prepares us for the beauty of the place…! Set amidst wide fields is a white building edged with red – the Wangyal’s home which becomes a guest house during the summer time for tourists. I see Mr. Wangyal come up the slope with a 100 watt smile saying “Juley! “ the traditional Ladakhi greeting. He is just as friendly as the voice that I had been speaking to during the course of the last week while planning for the travel.

He takes our luggage to our room on the first floor- a very comfortable homely place with an attached bath. After depositing it there he calls us down for tea.

Tea is served in the main house in the most important room- the kitchen/ living room. All Ladakhi houses have a main room which doubles as kitchen and living room. There are mattresses along the walls and low tables in front of them. The walls have shelves which are full of polished vessels. At the centre of the room is a “bukhari” or a stove that doubles as cooking range and heating stove. It has a chute that goes through the roof.

The Wangyals are a family of four – husband, wife, a twelve year old daughter and a grandmother..! There is also Tommy a black furry dog. Like most Ladakhis they are farmers growing crops during summer. Hosting tourists is something that they have started doing recently.  

We spend the first day acclimatizing ourselves to the high altitude. Some people can get headaches, others feel dizzy or nauseous during the first day. Thankfully none of us feel any of these symptoms.

The first couple of days are spent visiting monasteries – Alchi, Hemis, Thiksey ( 80% of Ladakhis are Buddhist and about 20% Muslim). The drive to these places are through surprisingly good roads surrounded by mountains! The roads are maintained by the Border Roads Organizations as part of their “Himank” project.  

 The monasteries are very serene places. The Alchi monastery is set on the banks of the Indus and probably the smallest among the three we visited. Hemis is a very colourful monastery set atop a hill. It also houses a museum with a lot of Buddhist history. I see in the Hemis museum the picture of “Avalokiteshwara Khasarapani” almost similar to “Avalokiteshwara Padmapaani” which we had seen at Ajanta.           “Avalokiteshwara” I am told is a bodhisattava who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.  The Thiksey monastery is different from Hemis in the sense that it appears to be less academic and more spiritual. We see monks or Lamas sitting inside reciting from scriptures while Ladakhi Buddhists prostrated themselves in front of the statue of Buddha. It is interesting the way they prostrate- almost similar to how Tam Brahms of the Iyengar variety do..! “Do you want to follow suit?” asks my daughter. I frown at her. Traditions are to be understood before we follow them…!  I am intrigued by the different Buddhas- there is even a female Buddha – Taara…! A very serious notice proclaims – “ Taking photographs of yourself with the statue of Buddha is forbidden. We believe that even the photographs of the Buddha are worthy of worship”. How true!!

I look at the hordes of shouting  fellow Indian tourists and wonder if it was people like them who prompted this notice to be put up. These same people point at the offerings of biscuits, chocolates, condensed milk tins etc in front of the Buddha statue giggling and saying “Look…! They don’t offer flower or fruit to their god”. A small but dignified  looking Ladakhi lady silences them by saying “Where are the flowers or fruits now for us to offer?” I wish we Indians would be more tolerant of our different cultures.

We go to the Indus – Zanskar confluence. The Indus to me has always been a river of mystery. I don’t know why…! May be because of the ancient civilization that grew there…! It starts from the Mansarovar lake , flows through Ladakh and then moves into Pakistan. We go to the point where it joins the Zanskar river. The water is icy cold..! I wonder how people enjoy white water rafting here!!!

The next day we  head out to the Nubra valley after making our permit(permits are required even for Indian Nationals to visit some of these areas). The road starts out normally enough and suddenly we find ourselves winding up the hills with snow clad slopes on the sides. “We will soon reach Khardungla which has the highest motor able road -18380 ft” says Nazir who seems to be completely unaffected by the cold with his jacket hanging behind the driver’s seat! We get off for a while at Khardungla dodging some badly behaved Indian tourists who are flinging chunks of ice at each other and others…! My daughter watches amazed that adults can behave like this…! I wish once again that we would learn to behave better when we travel.
The road to Nubra is an extremely narrow one – the parts which are snow bound. We had to wait for about 30 minutes to let a convoy of army trucks go past. We descend s down slowly. As Nazir goes to submit our papers at a check post, we venture out of the Scorpio. The cold breeze hits us! It looks like it is going to take longer than expected to get the papers submitted ( the J&K government lives up to the reputation of efficiency of most state governments!). “I want to pee” says the daughter. I look around and there is a cafeteria nearby. I ask the owner if he has a toilet. He tells me firmly t hat we can use the toilet only if we buy tea from him. I agree paying Rs 15 for thee teas and rush to the backyard across a frozen lake to the toilet where we encounter another sign board that says “Rs 5 per use”!! So after paying Rs 30 for 3 teas and 3 pees we leave the icy regions behind and suddenly find ourselves in what looks like a sandy desert. There is a sign board that says “ The Ladakh sand dunes”. We see a green river gliding past us- Shyok. The terrain again turns rocky. We see shades of brown and purple around us… I suddenly imagine I see Genghis Khan galloping out from a gorge!!! After about 5 hours we finally arrive at the Snow Leopard guest house where we halt for a night. It is surrounded by cliffs that could have come out of a Hollywood western

Come morning and we are ready for a ride on the Bactrian Camel with a double hump. The camels are not cooperating and after some coaxing mine decides to stand up..! A most scary experience..! I manage not to scream as I had seen what had happened to those who had screamed ( they were thrown down by the stubborn animal!). We take a leisurely walk down what looks like Rajasthan with its sand dunes. But the camel is too hairy to be a regular camel. I wonder if this was how people in these regions travelled during ancient times…! Imagine how long it must have taken for them to get anywhere…!

We get back to Leh and then the next day head out for Pangong lake. This lake is located at a height of about 14000 ft and  60% of it is in Tibet which today is under Chinese rule. We go through the same high snow clad mountains- Changla at 17000 ft until we get to Pangong! The first sight of the lake is simply awesome- shimmering blue against a backdrop of brown! The lake in itself is completely made up of shades of blue and turquoise! An artist or a photographer’s dream come true!! The lake is a saline one which interestingly freezes during winter. The breeze around the lake is cold and it is very windy! “Come on Meeraji it is only + 30 degrees” jokes Nazir…!!! -30 degrees is more like it….!!! There are some beautiful migratory birds – white with black markings swimming in the lake. Arctic terns I wonder?

We head back to Leh and the warmth of Mrs Wangyal’s kitchen. All through the way I keep looking at the defence establishments and my respect for these men goes up! We had been on the first day to a place called the “Hall of Fame” which is  a museum that houses a lot of information about the conflicts in that zone- the Indo Chinese War, the Siachen conflicts, Operation Vijay ( the Kargil war) . There are pictures of young men who lost their lives in these wars – parts of the letters they wrote home before going onto their end… !  I remember a quote from there “When I am gone, put me in a box and pin my medals to my chest. Take me home and tell mom I did my best”

We near the end of our stay and I cant believe it is time to leave. Mr and Mrs Wangyal give us a lovely meal of momos on the night before and morning on request give us that lovely Ladakhi bread that is almost like a Kulcha. Eaten hot with butter tea it makes for an excellent and filling breakfast! As we bid goodbye, I am reminded of a Ladakhi saying  that my friend Rekha who is currently based at Leh had once told me “ Only the best of friends and the worst of foes come to visit us ”

With Ladakhi hospitality I am sure there will not be any foes as only friends will keep coming to this lovely land of kind and simple people with their smiling faces…..! My only prayer is that let us behave like friends and treat this land with as much respect as the hosts treat us as guests!!!

Saturday, May 14, 2011 12 comments


Well, it is finally out – the people’s verdict…!
Interestingly,  in two out of the four states that went to polls we have two parties ( The AIADMK and the Trinamool Congress)  headed by  women  ( Jayalalitha and Mamata)  emerging winners! So it is going to be a very likely scenario in the near future where we will have these two ladies becoming the Chief Ministers of their respective states. In addition to the two existing women Chief Ministers – Mayawati        ( of Uttar Pradesh) and Shiela Dixit ( of Delhi) we will have four states being governed by women leaders!

There were a lot of sniggers and jokes in the office yesterday from the men – most of which were in rather bad taste. The reason being that with the exception of Sheila Dixit who is a widow we will have three unmarried women as leaders of their respective states. All these three ladies are also perceived to be very arrogant and headstrong- “Frustrated spinsters” was the comment that I heard across the lunch table! 

There were others who wanted us women to sponsor a “treat”.

 “After all it is now going to be a woman’s world” said someone…! While sponsoring the treat was not an issue, what really struck me as simplistic was the assumption that now things would get going for women.

 I will now try and reflect if women as leaders are in anyway different from men. Would they be kinder, more democratic, creative etc? I am sorry to say that while I have a lot of admiration for these ladies who have made it, it does not seem like there is going to be any difference in the way they execute their leadership.

I have worked for nearly two decades with women at the grassroots promoting leadership and it has shown me that the hunger for power is something that is gender neutral. A woman’s group leader in a small village is as capable of misusing the group funds as a man. She is as autocratic and as easily led by sycophants as men. Her core agenda for addressing women’s causes are as much determined by the  “what is in it for me/” factor as it is for the men.

So why have anything different by way of expectations from a woman leader?

 Having said that I would like to mention that what is probably different is that mistakes made by women in leadership positions and aberrations in what constitutes a “normal” life are not forgotten as easily as those of men. A woman’s personal life always comes under the scanner giving scope for a lot of judgemental comments  when compared to a man in leadership. For e.g our outgoing Chief Minister was a man of multiple relationships ( wife, mistresses etc etc) with multiple children out of each relationship. But somehow people seem to think it is normal. What is abnormal and discussed very vividly is a supposed homosexual relationship that the soon to be Chief Minister is supposed to be having with a friend. There are also speculations about a daughter of  hers from a previous relationship who is well “hidden” in another town.  
There are also comments about how these women made it to leadership. Mayawati has a Kanshiram in her past while Jayalalitha a MGR ( I am not sure about Mamata though…!).  I would like to ask “So what?”  They have obviously had to use these men to get to where they are just as these men used them for what they saw in them. No one seems to say anything about these men. And like I had mentioned in one of my previous posts – there is always a man behind every successful woman!.

Coming to the  issue of a woman’s leadership style- I think there are two types. There is one which is a rather arrogant style of functioning and there is another which is the manipulative style. I have had the experience of dealing with both styles of leadership in my life.

The arrogant style is often an easier one to deal with in the sense that it is far more open. I had a boss in one of my first few jobs who used to constantly talk down to me simply because she was about three times as old as I was! Every time I had an idea which she shot down she would ask “ How old are you?”  When I quietly announced my two dozen  years she used to tell me triumphantly “ My years of experience are more than that!”.  But I had my nice times with her when she used to deal with me like her youngest daughter prescribing home remedies for illnesses. During some of our closer moments she also almost confessed to me about how hard she had to struggle to get to where she was and therefore she had a pride ( read arrogance) in her position!!

The biggest threat in the form of female leadership are ofcourse those women whose styles are of  the manipulative variety. I had a boss like that and believe me folks she was one of the nastiest women I have ever worked for! Every time she saw me she used to welcome me with a hug but she used to ensure by all her actions that I never grew within the organization!  There was a misunderstanding once between us about something which she never confronted me with! Instead she conveyed the message of her displeasure through another woman in the organization along with a veiled threat..! This lady never committed to anything and mistrusted all. She never said “Yes”or “No”. It was always the slippery as eel comment “lets see..!”

I think manipulation comes naturally to some women especially those who have never got what they wanted by asking for it directly. Unfortunately as I am not of that category I fail to understand them.

Women as leaders, I find are also more subject to insecure feelings ( real and imagined). I guess it stems from the way we are brought up where confidence as a quality is not nurtured in us. I guess it also has a relationship to the hardships that they have gone through and the price that they have had to pay to get there that makes them more insecure than men.

 Finally a word about this “frustrated spinster” thing! I don’t know why men seem to think that S-X is the answer to everything! No wonder they value their “mojos”so much! I for one fully understand why a woman sacrifices her desire for a husband and family for leadership. A family and a husband takes up all of a woman’s time. So she has no time for anything else.

Besides, folks, which man is as seductive and sexy as “power” ?
Monday, May 9, 2011 18 comments

When knots become undone

Traditional Indian clothes are rather complicated. We have yards of fabrics that have to be draped around the body, tucked in and kept there firmly! We women are luckier than men in this as the saree during the course of  its evolution developed for itself the need for an underskirt which keeps the pleats firmly in place. 
Not so with men! The veshti/ mundu/ dhoti continues to be in its original primitive state- a long length of fabric and that’s it!!! So they are rather tricky items of clothing to say the least.
There are number of horror stories that I have heard about veshtis and mundus which suddenly developed a mind of their own and decided that they did not want to be where they were….  i.e on the waist of the wearer..!

Only this morning, my husband was narrating to me the story about how fifteen years ago he decided to wear a silk “veshti” to his wedding. The garment- a beautiful off white piece of cloth with a thin gold border was purchased and admired by all in the family. But unfortunately, he had no previous experience in wearing it.  Not something that bothered him- obviously because… after all what is so difficult about tying a piece of cloth around your middle? But as the bridegroom started to get ready for the ceremony, he suddenly found that tying a piece of cloth was not as easy as he thought it would be. Silk as we know is a very slippery material and so what he tucked into place refused to stay in place…! His uncles who were veterans in Mundu / veshti tying thought he was making a big hue and cry about nothing.  “Just let it be there. Don’t fiddle with it” said one of his uncles from Kottayam. Finally in an act of sheer desperation he took a belt and tied it around the veshti hoping it would stay in place as he gingerly made his way to the bride’s place. Thankfully the cloth stayed in place and did not disgrace him during or after the ceremony.

But not so during a friend’s wedding when hubby dearest suddenly had the yearning to again wear a veshti. Unfortunately, this time the wedding was in Trichy and he had forgotten to pack a belt. Silk began misbehaving again and he had to literally hold on his modesty!

 Life however poses a lot of challenges….! We had this fancy new digital camera  those days which he was holding in his other hand. Each time someone saw the camera they wanted a picture. Now, as we all know taking a picture holding a camera with  one hand is not very easy. Since I did not know how this electronic gizmo operated he had to perform the feat.. so what we had were a series of photos that looked like crime scene pictures and a groups of women giggling every time my harassed husband  passed them by…! Finally, taking pity on his condition, I took the camera and put it into my bag. The veshti continued to threaten but after a quick lunch we rushed out of the marriage hall before any female guest could complain of indecent exposure!

Nothing however can beat this very entertaining account that I have heard about a relative of mine. Let us call him Mr. X.  Apparently this gentleman who was also not very familiar to the veshti/ mundu wore it to a wedding. This was the 1970s when most  men’s  underwear used to have  draw strings. Well,  Mr. X while trying to manage the knot of his veshti/ mundu suddenly realized that he had another more serious problem at hand- the draw string of his underwear had loosened and was on the verge of becoming undone!!!!! Meanwhile, he saw from afar an old friend who was advancing towards him with a smile on his face and calling out his name!! He had to quickly decide how he was going to greet his friend. Shaking hands or folding them together by way of greeting was clearly out of question. So he decided he would keep his greeting verbal. Just as he was getting ready to say “Hello” his wife who was by his side suddenly tugged at his arm to pull him to a side to meet a relative of hers. This action from that quarter was totally unexpected.  Mr. X had to make a choice about how he was going to save his modesty. In an attempt to keep the veshti in place he had to sacrifice his hold on the underwear which was now clearly going to give itself up ( or down?).

As his underwear slipped down he stood riveted to the spot in the hope that it would be unobserved. But people had other plans for him..! His friend of many years after exchanging pleasantries suddenly started pushing him by the elbow to meet another friend who was spotted some distance away. Mr. X considered standing there and smiling at the other friend but his wife frowned at him said “Why are you standing here like this – go and say hello to him”.

So what did he do ? Like the brave man that he was  he stepped over his chaddis and walked towards friend no 2.

But did the story end there? Of course not ! Some nosy kids from behind suddenly picked up the fallen underwear and asked loudly – “Whose underwear is this”?

“I don’t know. Ask Aunty” said Mr. X as he glided his way to greet his friend!!!

So goes the story of veshtis and mundus in my family-  a truly simple garb until it decides to ditch you…!!!
Saturday, May 7, 2011 7 comments

A poet's unfulfilled dream

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Thus wrote Tagore nearly a century ago. His dream and his vision for the country were so optimistic and full of hope!  But today ,when I  look at where we are  in the achievement of these ideals, I must confess, as an Indian, I am not so proud.
With violence being so much a part of our lives, fear rules this world we live in. I don’t think we can hold our heads high after the shameful acts that we as Indians have committed- whether it is the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the massacre of dalits and tribals across the country. Knowledge is today a privilege of a few. In fact, what constitutes knowledge in itself is debatable! A farmer’s traditional knowledge is not longer respected in the chemical intensive agriculture that we practice today. Scientists have used knowledge to create weapons of destruction. With intellectual property rights and patenting coming in knowledge is certainly not a free resource any more.

Society is by the day becoming more and more fragmented. Caste continues to rule our lives as feelings of communalism continue to define our existence. Our democratically elected representatives lie to us and the media presents in their own warped way what constitutes the “ truth” .

I think somewhere along the way the almighty has also washed his/ her hands off us..

Is there hope for us as a nation? On the 150th birth anniversary of the great poet I am haunted by these thoughts. It is difficult to come to terms with this because I work in what is called the “ change” business- the nonprofit sector that tries to live up to these ideals. But I don’t see much hope there either…!!!

I see a generation that is trying to run away from these problems rather than take them heads on and tackle them. I am tiered and dreary folks…..! I would rather sleep with Gurudev’s dreams in my eyes rather than wake up and tackle this grim reality!
Tuesday, May 3, 2011 10 comments


All that I seem to be hearing about these days  is the royal wedding ( Osama’s death notwithstanding!). What Kate wore, the cars, the bridesmaids dresses and not to mention the outlandish head gear of some of the ladies among the guests. I remember over three decades ago – another wedding in the same family – a lovely nineteen year old girl marrying a prince twice her age. That was my first exposure to a wedding of this magnitude. We did not have televisions those days relaying the program live and neither was there internet. But somehow the magazines managed to convey enough through the lovely colour pictures! Like the teenager that I was, I felt that this is what fairy tales are all made up of….! So, it was very difficult to accept it when this “golden couple” broke up!

 What was a novelty those days however seems to be something very common now- both the grand weddings as well as the break ups.  Liz Hurley and Arun Nayyar being another much publicised marriage that broke up.  Not sure what is the status of the other famous weddings – Aish- Abhishek, Shipa Shetty and … Raj Kundra….????

 Now each time there is a marriage of this proportion I almost keep my fingers crossed….! 

However, the interesting thing is that these kinds of weddings are nowadays not restricted to people of celebrity status alone. I have myself attended weddings which are nothing short of  “productions”!! I am told these days people almost expect that weddings WOULD be like this!  There are huge numbers of people who earn their livelihoods on these “productions”- wedding planners, artists, florists, cooks, invitation makers et al! ( BTW there are wedding planners who are ISO certified says an article!!!)

I often wonder what happens to these couples? Are they still married to each other? Sadly the answer is not  always“yes”.

Since marriages these days have a lot of pressures on account of our life style and the expectations that couples have of each other, I cannot understand why people would invest so much on a ceremony which we are not sure is actually “sealing”  a relationship for life!

I remember my mother’s first reaction when I told her about the divorce of a girl whose marriage we had attended- “Oh my god. After all that expenditure…!”she sighed. I am also inclined to think like that.  While I agree that we should not begin a relationship thinking it would break I cant understand these “ over the top” celebrations.

Given the fact that the weddings are more by way of “productions” the bride and groom along with the other family members seem to suddenly start playing a part in the show with expensive props. So what we have is a lot of “form” which sadly does not get translated into “substance”. However the issue is how much are we willing to invest in that form? Afterall this is life and not some Yash Chopra film….!

And true love in itself is a celebration. It does not require all these props.