Thursday, July 30, 2009


“Breathe in, slow and deep, and gently push your pelvis forward...” uh.... ok... I opened half an eye and looked around... the room was cool and dark. The curtains had been drawn and the faint light from the aromatic candles bounced gently off the polished wooden floor. On my right, a shockingly graceful septuagenarian was ‘pushing gently’. Five other rather grand dames were also moving in concerted rhythm with their rasping exhalations. I closed my eye and joined in…

I had signed up for a Qigong (for those unacquainted with the term, lets just call it Chinese yoga, a passable distortion) class in faraway Interlaken, Switzerland. And the instructor, an elegant young man in his 60s was gently taking us through the forms. His beatific smile was probably infectious because by the end of the class, all of us perfect strangers to each other, couldn’t help but keep beaming at each other. While the others exchanged pleasantries and shared experiences with each other, the kindly instructor walked up to me and introduced himself. “Guten Tag! I’m Manfred… Manfred Miethe. Is this the first time you’ve tried Qigong? I’m asking because you use your muscles a lot more than you should… To tap into your internal energy, you must learn to relax and not focus on your muscular strength…” Miethe was right. I oft en tend to give in to vanity and focus more on muscular shape and strength even while practicing an internal energy system like yoga or Qigong. While telling him about my usual fitness regimen, I happened to mention ‘the five Tibetans’, a set of five yogic exercises that, legend says, was being practiced by a community of ageless monks near the Indo-Tibet border. Miethe’s eyes lit up… “Did you just say the five Tibetans? It’s funny that you should mention it because I happen to have authored a book on the subject, perhaps the only one in German.”

So what, I thought. I had read a few books on the subject and the five exercises had seemed fairly simple. I had begun training in them and had even introduced a lot of friends to the practice. It was very popular with everybody I shared them with, both for the benefits it promised as well as the legend that surrounded them. If you’d care to remember, dear reader, some years ago, in this very space, I had shared both the concept and the practice as I understood it then in great detail, purportedly, for your benefit. In fact, for those of you who missed it, here’s the story of the five Tibetans for you all over again…

The legend comes to us through a certain Peter Keldar who penned a document called The Fountain of Eternal Youth. Keldar claims that while he was sitting on a park bench, a rather old and bent gentleman, ‘grey and balding’, as he put it, happened to sit beside him. After exchanging pleasantries, the old gent, former British Army officer Colonel Bradford, started recounting his adventures from his time in India. One of his particularly fascinating yarns was the one about a mysterious monastery in the Himalayas. It was said that this place was so miraculous that any man who happened to reach this place, no matter how old and weak, would always return a far younger man, brimming with vitality and vigour. No one really knew what happened up there but Colonel Bradford was determined to find out. In fact he was planning a trip to India to try and reach this monastery where bubbled this ‘fountain of youth’. He invited Keldar to join him on the expedition but Keldar was too caught up in his affairs to accompany the colonel. Then one day, in his study he encountered a strapping young man who had come to call on Keldar. But Keldar didn’t recognise him. ‘Didn’t you recognize me?’ the man had asked. Keldar stared hard, and then it dawned on him. This was the old colonel, not the way he’d known the man but just the way he might have been in his younger days. Ruddy complexion, a head full of thick dark hair, and as straight as an oak… apparently, Colonel Bradford had been soaked to the bone by this ‘fountain of youth’ he’d gone to find.

It had taken Colonel Bradford many months to piece together the puzzle but he was finally able to string together a map that showed him the way. After a long hike in the mountains, the Colonel reached the famed monastery. There was no fountain here but all around him he saw young men and women going about their tasks with amazing grace and strength. As time went by, the monks accepted him and taught him five simple exercises that served one primary function – that of balancing the seven energy vortexes which controlled the body’s endocrinal system, which in turn balanced the hormonal output in the body, thus keeping it youthful and healthy.

Bradford on his return to England taught Keldar and his friends these five exercises which came to be known as the five Tibetan rites of rejuvenation or just The Five Tibetans. And from there it spread amongst like minded individuals and groups till more than half a century later, it found me. Actually I found it, in a book by Christopher S Kilham, a yoga instructor and author. When I first chanced upon the legend, I was fascinated by the idea but it all seemed too good to be true. Is it really possible that mere ten minutes a day invested in a regular practice of the five Tibetans could actually help turn back the clock, not just by a few years but absolute decades? Bradford came back with tales of sprightly nonagenarians bouncing about like people might in their thirties. Bradford himself, claims Keldar, looked like a man in his mid thirties while he was celebrating his 73rd birthday. Apparently, the more years one spends doing them, the more youthful the appearance.

The five Tibetans are a part of my daily regimen now. A lot of friends who I shared the story with were fascinated by the legend and its promise and asked me to ‘baptise’ them with these ‘rites’. And yet although these rites have been a part of my life, for the last few years, I have been never really sure if the magic worked. I felt fi t and strong but I did a lot of other things like yoga and Qigong too, so I wasn’t really sure how much the rites contributed towards my wellbeing. So that day, while Miethe was about to walk away, I stopped him and asked him if would mind showing how a ‘master’ performed the Five Tibetans, and if they really worked… Miethe smiled, spread his arms wide and then started whirling like a tornado (the first of the five Tibetan rites) and then moved on to perform the other four (each of these five movements is repeated 21 times) and all through he moved so fast, he was like a blur. It was difficult to believe that the man in front of me was someone in his 60s, and all this while, instead of breathing hard, he had that beatific smile etched on his face…

Manfred Miethe tells me, the five Tibetans work wonderfully well and looking at him that day I had no choice but to believe him. Since that day, I’ve never missed a single session with the five Tibetans and if you, dear reader, are keen on trying them out, just look for Christopher S Kilham’s book or just type The Five Tibetan Rites in Google and you’ll find multiple options to guide you through the workout. They are easy to comprehend, simple to perform and take very little time. And if they deliver even half of what the legend promises, you really ought to have very little to complain about… All the best… start spinning…


Thursday, July 23, 2009


Standing in waist deep waters of the grey and soapy Ganga, I blinked. The sun was strong and the water shimmered in the light. A priest chanted while I repeated words I did not understand. In my outstretched hands I held a small earthen urn that contained the ashes of Bawdo (big) Mama (uncle), my eldest maternal uncle and at that moment it seemed incredible that all that remained of that adorable man was what I held in my hand.

Two days ago, I’d rushed into the ICU of a Noida hospital to see him. I had taken his swollen palms in my hands, carefully, not wanting to disturb the network of tubes and pipes that carried fluids to and from his 86-year-old body, and prayed that he’d pull through. I watched as his shoulders rose and fell with his laboured breath and I tried to will more life, and more will, into him. The doctor in attendance pointed at his watch. Visiting hours were over. I let go of his hands and they withdrew with a certain heaviness. He was unconscious, but I wanted to believe I’d reached out to him, wanted to believe that he and God had heard me. I believed he would pull through. A few hours later, I got a phone call… Bawdo Mama had taken a bow.

Pangs of guilt have ravaged my waking hours ever since that phone call. Bawdo Mama had lived a good life. A man of his times, he lived by the book. Decent in school, he found a decent job, and a daughter from a decent household to call his wife, and this pursuit of decency (and being the eldest, also the need to set examples) ensured that he stayed away from the ‘evils’ of his time and so he never drank or smoked. His one ‘out there’ obsession was his passion for gymnastics and weight training. In an otherwise staid life, he did look back on one day as the day that defined him, not as son or sibling, but just him, and that was the day when he went on stage for a bodybuilding stage show and in front of a cheering audience, flexed and preened before bending a steel rod with his neck. The memories of that day held him get through years of dreary and dusty files, for no matter how dull the day, he could always relive that moment with a silent cup of evening tea and every new conversation.

He must have had his moments of pettiness and ill humour but I don’t remember them… I was perhaps too young to notice. I just remember him as this broad shouldered man who would blow into the house like a gust of joy and mirth and regale us with stories, eat mountains of rice with our rich home-cooked Bengali fare and carry on with his stories after dinner with a paan stuffed in his mouth. He was a happy man to be around…

About ten years ago, he had what he referred to as his “thyroid problem”. That problem robbed him of some of his brain cells and as a consequence he’d often forget things in his immediate environment, especially mundane stuff. For instance he might forget that he’d just given his clothes for washing and keep looking for them. Then the stories dried up. He now only remembered his favourites and would repeat the same ones every evening.

Since he was widowed and retired now, he lived with his daughter’s family. But almost every year in the last decade, he made it a point to come over and stay with us for a couple of months. Bawdo Mama was an irrepressible character and in spite of his forgetfulness he would light up our house with his joie de vivre. I guess because he was the eldest in the family, he was used to having the last word. So even in his later years, though strait-jacketed by his handicap, he would try his utmost to not let it show even when he was caught on the wrong foot. For instance, just days before his demise, while he was in hospital and the doctors asked him his name to see if he had his bearings, he forgot he had one. But without batting an eyelid he looked the doctor in the eye and said, “I think you will know that better…” and then laughed a big belly laugh. The doctor just shook his head and smiled.

There’s something about old people that makes them so adorable. They have the wisdom of years and all that love to give, and yet they have the sensitivity and vulnerability of a child. And best of all, they are not bothered by the stresses and demands of the real world that on days might pull our parents down a bit.

Bawdo Mama lived a relatively long life; a happy healthy one too. Other than that “thyroid problem”, he remained exceptionally fit, always on his feet and looked no older than a man in his late 60s. Then why the pangs of regret, you ask? I’ll tell you why… Two years ago, when he had last come over to stay with us, he saw me working out and reminisced about his old days. So we took out a camera, encouraged him to pose like he had all those years ago on stage, and like a bashful child enjoying the attention, he played along. He’d looked so full of life that day, and yet a part of me would’ve known that there wasn’t much time... maybe I just didn’t pay attention. Soon after, he went back to his house. Days rolled into weeks and weeks into months. We loved his company and he did come over for a festival or two but didn’t stay for long. Either he had some stuff he wanted to attend to, or we got too busy, but we always thought we had time.

Recently, I had started visiting our Noida office twice a week, a stone’s throw from his house. And I’d tell myself, “I’ll visit them tomorrow”. But tomorrow never did come. A week back we heard of him being taken to hospital. “He is fine”, my cousin told us over the phone. “He just has some problem with motor skills. Nothing major, perhaps a drip and some medicines and he should be okay. The reports are fine. In fact in the hospital he was singing bhajans and the ward boys surrounded him and joined in…” we all laughed and told each other that he’ll be back home soon. And my mother reminded us that we should bring him home after he recovers. I also promised to visit him on my way back from office one of these days. But each time I would either miss visiting hours or get a little too late at work. Well, the honest truth is it wasn’t a priority for me. I loved him but I was too busy to see him. It shames me to even write that, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that. Perhaps if you and I, dear reader, sit back and think, there are surely more than one loved one in our lives who perhaps sit and wait for us and we know it, but are too busy to do anything about it. One day, they’ll get tired of waiting and just die, and that day we’ll have to make time, no matter how busy we might be. I just wish I’d taken out time while Bawdo Mama had the time. That day when I held his hand in the hospital, I promised to come see him every day but he didn’t listen… This time, he was the one who got too busy.

After his death, my niece (his granddaughter) told me how he’d often forgot their names, people he’s been living with for the last decade. He’d forgotten who his daughter has been married to or if he ever had a wife but he never forgot about me and the times he spent with the four of us… the dinners, the movies, the singing bouts with my parents, even the chats with my father-in-law… for someone who might forget if he’s just had dinner, or like he once famously asked his son-in-law’s father at his grand daughter’s birthday when he was considering getting his son married, this was astonishing. My niece even said that Bawdo Mama told her that he was proud of me since I was the only one carrying forward his legacy of “physical culture” in the family. Everyone concluded that he remembered these moments because he really enjoyed spending time doing those things with us. And the knowledge that my presence could bring him such joy only made it worse. If only I could’ve spent some more time with him… if only I could’ve brought him home, given him some more joy… if only I had one more day, to see him laugh and sing… one more day, to tell him I was proud of him too… But I didn’t have that one day… All I had now were the ashes. I opened the urn and emptied its contents into the Ganga… now even those were gone… the marigold from the urn bobbed on the currents for a while and then that too was gone…


Thursday, July 16, 2009


The ochre hills are dry and bare. Swirling gusts of wind and dust chase each other around, like carefree urchins playing tag. Neither house nor tree as far as the eye can see, and a lonely road that stretches from horizon to horizon. And on that roadlurches and loiters a beat up Toyota Sedan, both diffident and determined in the same burst of combustion. And perhaps with good reason, for this car was passing through the Khyber, a region that has come to be known as the most dangerous place on the planet, between the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Western Pakistan, and Afghanistan, a region at the forefront of the war of and on terror, a red-zone if there ever was one.

Inside, next to the driver sat a man whose modest salwar-kameez belied his aristocratic bearing. He turned oft en to speak to a man in a skull cap sitting at the back. Next to him sat a boy who was trying hard to look like a man. The one in the skull cap seemed nervous, constantly pulling his right sleeve, trying his best to cover the kada (a bracelet worn by Sikhs) on his wrist. The next moment, the image went off the screen and was replaced by a commercial… I was watching an episode of ‘Jailed Abroad’, a programme on National Geographic. And though I usually restrict myself to recounting first hand experiences on this page, what I saw last night was a story worth telling, and those of you who might have missed it, missed out an important lesson about the paradoxes and prejudices of our times.

In the May of 2002, Amardeep Bassey, a British Sikh of Indian origin, investigations editor with The Sunday Mercury, wanted to make his way into Afghanistan for a story about the common Afghan’s life after the war. He met a Pakistani human rights activist in Peshawar who asked him to meet a certain Naushad Afridi, son of a tribal chieftain from the Khyber. Bassey left Peshawar and reached FATA. The Pakistan administration had little control over the tribes and warlords operating in the region. Bassey was on his own. He reached a dilapidated building where he was told he’d find Naushad. He was asked to wait. While he waited, he must’ve been a very nervous man. Daniel Pearl had been murdered mere months ago. Western journalists were aware how dangerous missions to these regions crawling with al-Qaeda loyalists and sympathisers could be. This was as good a time as any for militants to get their hands on a western journalist, truss him up before a camera, make some demands and finally behead the poor chap like a sacrificial lamb. Bassey knew that even one wrong move could well be his last.

While Bassey waited, he thought of his friends and family back home and wondered if he would be able to see them again. Just then, a tall slim chap walked in with a group of people. Though dressed like the others, he stood out because of his demeanour. He looked like a man who knew his way around. “Salaam walaikum! I’m Naushad. What can I do for you?” said the man as he extended his hand. Bassey greeted him, gave him his references and asked if he could helphim get to Kabul and back for his story. After some deliberation, Naushad said, “You are a brave man to have come this far. I’ll be your guide.” While they were shaking hands, Naushad happened to see Bassey’s kada and warned him, “People here have been conditioned to believe that any one who isn’t a Muslim is actually an enemy. So be careful.” Naushad asked him to replace his western attire with a salwar-kameez and a skull cap. And to keep his kada hidden all the time. They partied a bit in the evening with a local sugarcane brew and next morning, the two of them, along with the much younger Khitab Shah headed off for the border. On the bus, grim thoughts accosted Bassey and he kept wondering how real the dangers of this mission might be. He turned to Naushad and shared his concerns. “We’ll see what happens,” said Naushad, “but whatever happens to you will happen to me first. We’ve had fun together, so when trouble comes, we’ll face it together”. Though it sounded like rhetoric, Bassey felt at ease.

There was a big crowd at the border gate. Incidentally, the Pashtun tribals who inhabit both sides of the Afghan-Pak border do not require a visa to cross the border. But unlike his guides, Bassey was no tribal and was feeling rather apprehensive since he only had a single entry visa for Pakistan. However he’d been told that they’d return through a different route used by opium smugglers, and that wouldn’t require ‘papers’. So he just “went with the flow”. Soon they were in a cab that was heading towards Kabul which is where the commercials interrupted the story.

In Kabul, Bassey interviewed everyday people about their life after the war while Naushad acted as interpreter. Next day, with his interviews done and notes in place, Bassey joined Naushad and Khitab in a taxi that was to take them to the Pakistan border. Halfway through the journey, Naushad and the driver had an altercation… apparently the Americans were scrutinising the check posts on the route used by the opium smugglers, anticipating the movement of a large number of jehadis. So they had no choice but to go back the way they’d come. Bassey was worried. He knew he would be in trouble if the authorities check his visa but Naushad told him that they didn’t have a choice and he would definitely know someone at the border who could get them through.

At the border though, Bassey’s British passport drew unnecessary attention and the duty officer at the border took him across to the Military Intelligence office. There, the officer-in-charge, after being apprised of his visa issues, lookedat Bassey’s name and his watch which also happened to have a camera, and concluded that he was an Indian spy. Bassey protested in vain. The officer was sending Bassey to jail. Then the officer turned towards the two Pathans and said they were free to go. Naushad stood up and said, “We’re not going anywhere. This man is our guest and is under our tribe’s protection. If he goes to jail, we go with him”.

Naushad had met Bassey less than 48 hours ago and knew practically nothing about him. As far as he knew, he could well have been an Indian spy. The maximum punishment for espionage in Pakistan is death. Naushad and Khitab knew what the consequences could be, and they knew little about the man they were standing by. And yet, without batting an eyelid, they went to jail for Bassey. Amardeep Bassey spent 28 days in jail, some of them in solitary confinement and others in squalid concrete cages packed with hardened jehadis and bandits. A Westerner and a non-Muslim, Bassey felt like a lamb trapped between a pack of wolves. Inside the cell, tall gaunt men with long fl owing beards and piercing eyes looked down their hawkish noses at Bassey. One look at them and you knew these men had known war, death and desperation, and they hadn’t tired of it yet. He was even asked to convert by an al-Qaeda operative who was a gang leader of sorts in one of the jails, but Bassey respectfully but firmly refused. His courage surprised both of them, but Bassey knew his strength stemmed from the presence of Naushad. The Pathan, son of a tribal leader, was suffering the ignominy and uncertainty of incarceration for the sake of Bassey, his guest. And he was doing that because of a centuries old, pre-Islamic code of honour – Pashtunwali, the code of the Pathans – which amongst other things, states that every Pathan should offer help and protection to those in need and especially to strangers and guests, and even die for them if need be.

Twenty eight days later Bassey, thanks to diplomatic maneuvers, was finally released and deported but the two Pathans were still in jail. “Turning my back on them is the hardest thing I ever did,” said Bassey. But he wasn’t given a choice. The two of them were released a week later.

Bassey and Naushad met again in 2008 and embraced each other like brothers. Today, the two, a Pakistani Pathan and British-Indian Sikh, share a friendship that runs deeper and further than the Ganges. As the programme drew to a close I realised how recent lore has demonized these brave people from ‘the most dangerous place in the world.’ Perhaps it is the same code of honour that prevents a Pathan from giving up on another guest, even if did blow up a tower or two.

While drones rain down on their homes and their children toy with automatic rifles, the paradox of the proud Pathan chained to his code of honour lives and grows amidst the din of battle. Perhaps it is up to people like Bassey and Naushad to talk to their worlds and help them understand and appreciate the other and dispel the fears and prejudices that stoke the fires of hate on both sides of the divide.


Thursday, July 9, 2009


I was waiting in queue at the Air India counter at Frankfurt airport for the flight to Delhi, when a tall portly matron in a red and black sari sauntered across to the next counter with a wheeled suitcase big enough to truss a corpse into. Something about her reminded me of someone I knew, but I couldn’t remember who… She wanted to check the hearse in but the clerk at the counter had a problem with it. The lady in the sari tried negotiating, then gave up, turned on her heels, and shaking her head and clucking to herself like an angry hen that had lost its eggs, walked towards us. She was lugging the suitcase behind her like a desperate mother dragging home a reluctant child, and as she passed, knocked me on the shin with her wobbly, overstuff ed suitcase. As I winced and hopped in obvious pain, the lady bent over ever so slowly to pick up the bag, just like a great tree that had been sawed off at the bottom, and just before crashing down to earth, somehow mustered enough strength to heave her great bulk into an upright position again. Then she turned and gave me a reproachful look that made me feel like I’d just stepped on her child and without so much as an ‘excuse me’ walked away, still clucking… And in that moment, when she singed me with that look, I remembered who she’d reminded me of … Priscilla!

Priscilla was the school nanny when I was in elementary school. Boy, I was terrified of her. You know how things are when you’ve just gotten out of your diapers and have been packed off to school. Bladders and bowels are used to a different rhythm and haven’t quite been tamed by the school bell, so Priscilla, quite literally, had her hands full. And she wasn’t happy about it. Looking back, I don’t really blame her… it was a definite chart-topper on the ‘Dirty Jobs’ series but back then I hated her. Whenever one of us would ‘go’ on her beat, she’d be called in by the teacher and the rest of us would shudder as if the undertaker had been called in, and like a widening circle of mourners, distance ourselves from the poor chap who had to ‘go’, or heaven forbid, had already ‘gone’ in class. Priscilla would stomp in, wag a thick knobby finger at the off ending individual and say “dirty boy… kitna dirty kiya… dekho… dekho…” and short of rubbing his face in muck, do everything else she could to thoroughly embarrass the ‘goer’. And then she’d walk away with him through the door, shaking her head and clucking like, you guessed it, a hen that seemed to have lost its eggs… and we’d all shake our heads wondering what terrors might await him.

On the flight back home, I dozed off and had a strange vision of sitting in my chair and wanting to ‘go’ but the seat belt just wouldn’t open… and Priscilla, the one from the check-in counter, shaking her finger at me, saying “dirty boy… kitna dirty kiya… dekho..”. I was woken up by a voice “Sir! Sir!!” I woke up to find my neighbour on my left , a sweet young lady, dribbling on my shoulder as she slept. The voice had come from the aisle on my right… I turned, or rather half turned to encounter a rather large sphere draped in red and black staring at my face… “Sir! The tray table please…” Gosh, a talking tummy!! That sure woke me up. I shuffled back in my seat and looked up beyond the ample sphere and spied a meal tray and beyond that, a face – Priscilla’s, the one from the airport counter…! Small world, eh? I smiled a knowing smile, and would you believe it, the face smiled back…

Food was good and I was only half done when they returned to clear the tables. As the plane progressed towards our destination, I finished lunch and as the lights dimmed and passengers slept, I switched on the reading light and fished out a Hemingway and started reading. By the time I reached chapter two, I realised that no one had turned up to clear my table so I pressed the button for the hostess and went back to reading the Green Hills of Africa. Chapter three, four and halfway through five, and still the table remained as it was… still no hostess. At that moment, I had two choices – a) make some noise and berate them for the quality of service or b) carry the meal tray to them and embarrass them without saying a word… It was a no-brainer and so with noble thoughts in my heart and a messy meal tray in my hands I walked to the pantry. The stewards and hostesses were giggling over some stray gossip and it took me a couple of ‘ahems’ to draw their attention. And the attention I got was the kind most families reserve for door-to-door salesmen who come knocking just when Zaheer Khan is about to bowl the final ball of a nail-biter… well almost. The tray was removed without a second glance as the steward in question returned to the discussion. I could’ve stood there forever and not got half as much attention as a half-open toilet door…

I trudged back as a defeated Air India passenger but I still wasn’t complaining. In fact, I was still glad I was flying AI. You see, compared to what Lufthansa had put me through, this was a mere fly in an otherwise soothing ointment…

A fortnight ago, I was flying to Zurich via Frankfurt on Lufthansa, an airline I’d fantasised about since I was a child, especially because of all those lovely print ads in the National Geographic in the 80s. But right from checking in at Delhi, where eleven of us including children weren’t given boarding cards for our connecting flight, to Frankfurt airport where we waited for 90 minutes for our boarding cards thus missing our flight, to Frankfurt airport’s ‘Lufthansa Service Centre’ which was supposed to issue fresh tickets but demanded about a 100 euros or more for the same (almost on a whim) which when we refused because ‘it clearly wasn’t our fault’ (was an argument that was immediately accepted because it was obviously logical and anyways expected), to the seats on the flight from Delhi, which seemed to have been modeled on the chairs from the camps in Auschwitz (compared to them, the ones on Air India were veritable easy-chairs) it was nothing but a row of shattered expectations.

So traumatised were we that on the flight back from Geneva, again via Frankfurt, we reached about four hours ahead of time and this time insisted on boarding passes to the connecting flight. The check-in clerks dithered and insisted on issuing them to us at Frankfurt but this time we refused to fl y without them. Our flight was late by about 75 minutes. When we reached Frankfurt, we had 30 minutes to make it through immigration and reach the boarding gates. Airport authorities having anticipated this, had a bus ready to take us through, and a really helpful Iranian attendant did his best. We were just five minutes away from the boarding gates, running and panting, with bags on our shoulders and some with children in their arms when the Iranian got a message on his walkie-talkie, “it is time. We are closing the gates”. “But we’re just five minutes away”, said the Iranian… “I’m sorry, it is time…” said the voice again. Eleven passengers, half of them children under 10, were stranded at an airport because their connecting flight (Lufthansa again) was late by 75 minutes and therefore they had reached five minutes after gates were supposed to close. In industrialised nations, things become so organised, so process-oriented and the assembly line culture is so deep-rooted, that some individuals, and perhaps some organisations too, become downright metronomic and normal human reactions and emotions seem to elude them, at least at work. There was this really sweet and helpful lady, Fräulein Pilaf, at the Lufthansa Service Centre who arranged for our food and stay and the Air India tickets to Delhi the next day, but unfortunately, she really was the exception.

Contrastingly enough, on the Air India flight the next day, we reached the boarding gates on time, thanks to a bunch of helpful counter managers and airport attendants. Once there, all passengers were asked to wait for 15 minutes because another connecting flight coming in from elsewhere had nine passengers for Delhi and that flight was late. Agreed some passengers grumbled, and the gate was far more chaotic than Lufthansa boarding gates but those passengers did not have to waste a day and go through hell and we all touched down at New Delhi on time (even if some of us carried our own meal trays). There were at least 20 passengers on that flight to Delhi who were saying ‘Thank God we’re flying Air India’ because there’s an innate goodness and an irreplaceable human touch to their service. It’s a pity that the ‘turn off ’ factors dissuade international travellers from flying AI… here’s hoping they clean up their act before it’s too late... the loss would be ours as much…


Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Mountain of contentment

“It is not the ascent that separates the men from the boys but the descent… for it takes both courage and grace to stare down at the rocks at the bottom, to stare down death, and say, ‘I’ll take my time… you’ll have to wait.” These words were etched on a board hanging from a cross, next to a forest trail I was following that wound its way through the Alpine pastures and mountains and ended at the mouth of the Schwarzsee, the black lake at the foot of the Matterhorn… As I walked, the wind whistled and I listened…

When I returned to Zermatt, I drifted off towards a group of old timers exchanging stories at the steps of the local church. A short chap was regaling the audience while the others cheered and laughed. They were conversing in German so I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying but they were pointing repeatedly at two different spots on the church steps… I walked up to the short man and asked “Excuse me sir, what are these gentlemen pointing at?” The man whirled around “Hi, I’m Peter… curator of the local museum… these guys… oh… they’re just trying to figure out where Ulrich would sit most often…” and he turned and got back to their pointing game. “Oh..!” I wondered, “… where Ulrich would sit most often…” and I was supposed to know who Ulrich might be…? I let the group haggle for a while but curiosity got the better of me and I interrupted him again “But sir, who exactly is Ulrich… and (with measured trepidation) is he… er… around?” For a moment he looked like he had swallowed a mosquito by mistake. He blinked and after considering the question for a while, asked “Who? You mean Ulrich? Oh ho… ho… ho… you don’t know Ulrich? Ulrich Inderbinen?? He is almost as famous as the Matterhorn… the most famous guy in Zermatt… he is dead now, of course? Yes… yes… been dead for a while now… you have time? We could tell you his story… we’ve all seen him.”

I eased out of the backpack, set it down on the stairs and nodded and smiled. Peter spoke to the others in German and then pointed at me; the others looked at me and nodded, I nodded back, wished the old-timers and said hello. Then they all sat down and Peter asked me to sit on the steps too and he sat down next to me…

“Ulrich Inderbinen was born in the year 1900 (on 3rd December as I later found out) and died five years ago, in the year 2004 (on the 14th of June), nearly 104 years later… in many ways Ulrich Inderbinen represented this century (the others nodded in unison). At the beginning of the century, this wasn’t a very prosperous community, and Ulrich too had to work hard to make ends meet. From dawn to dusk, little Ulrich would help on the family farm, barely making enough to survive. Indeed, he was lucky to have survived his first few winters for Zermatt would get cut off by the snow and there were no doctors in town. Many of his siblings and others of his generation died of hunger and the bitter cold… He must’ve been pretty tough to have lived through all that in the first place… Until the time he was 20, he had never even ventured outside his village, but Ulrich realised that mountain-tourism was becoming popular in Zermatt and so he decided to become a mountain-guide. Now, to be accepted for the mountain-guide’s training programme, Ulrich needed to have climbing experience. So, what do you think young Ulrich happens to do?” I shake my head and stick out my lower lip…

“You’re not going to believe this… he decides to climb the Matterhorn… and not just by himself… he convinces his sister, her friend and her brother to come along for the climb. Astonishingly enough, without any equipment (and girls, reports say, wore long skirts), this group of four clambers to the top, and comes down safely without incident.” Now, those of you who might not have read a previous column and are not familiar with the Matterhorn, and might mistake it for a glorified molehill, here’s some insight on what it takes to climb the Matterhorn in the words of a certain Theodore Roosevelt... “(It is more) difficult than climbing the Jungfrau (amongst the tallest in Europe)… the Matterhorn has acquired a certain sombre interest (because of the deaths on it)… (climbing) it is like (going up the) stairs on one’s hands and knees for nine hours…” He wrote these words to his sister Anna after completing a successful ascent of the Horn. Anyway, back to Peter’s story… “So, young Ulrich acquired a reputation for climbing the mountains, and doing it safely… as though he had a guardian angel protecting him, and by extension, his clients all the time. He became very popular with mountaineers… especially the English ones… He climbed all the peaks around here (Peter pointed at the jagged giants that sprung all around us) but his greatest love was the Matterhorn. He called it the most beautiful mountain in the world and climbed it more than 370 times… in fact he climbed his last mountain at 97, the Breithorn…” Breithorn? I’d heard that name… ah yes… at the graveyard I remembered seeing the gravestone of a climber who died on the mountain with the words… “On the Breithorn I chose to climb…” So mind you, this wasn’t a walk in the park either…

Ulrich Inderbinen, like the town, wasn’t poor anymore. He was a celebrity, just like the mountains, and yet he never bought a phone or a car or a television… not even a cycle. He walked, or if the slopes allowed it, he skied. And in the evenings, he spent his time at the church square, sitting on the very steps where I was sitting. If somebody wanted the best guide in the mountains they couldn’t just dial a number… they had to come here and ask for Ulrich in person.
So how did he look? Peter took me to the museum across the road and pointed at a picture on the wall. Staring back at us, from behind sun shades and thick handle-bar moustaches was a sun-burnt face and an expression that said, “I will stop at nothing”… “Big guy?”, I asked. “Nah! Tiny fellow (takes his hand to his armpit) That short. But (points to his arm) strong, and even stronger here and here (points to his head and his heart).”

I didn’t get it. Every book I’d read about the mountains and mountaineering had said that climbing a mountain is like gambling… do it long enough and you lose… the mountain, like the casino, always wins…

“So, what was his secret? How could he cheat death so long and so well?” Peter looked up at the darkening sky and the church tower. And then he said “Ulrich used to say, ‘I live my life the way I climb a mountain… slow and deliberate, but steady and determined’. He didn’t climb the mountains for records or for fame. He climbed because he loved to climb and he loved the mountains, and the mountains loved him back.

He didn’t want much. He loved his family and his little village and the mountains. He didn’t seek fame or money and was happy with all he got. Everything he needed was here. This was his very own mountain of contentment and he was happy on it… and happy people live long”. I thanked Peter and left.

Next day, I left Zermatt for Geneva and after reaching the hotel, switched on the TV and heard of Michael Jackson’s death. As the young MJ in an Afro from long ago sang, “One day in your life… though you don’t need me now, I’ll stay in your heart…” I was stunned by the contrast between the two lives. Michael Jackson climbed his own great mountain but like on all mountains, maybe here too, it was the descent that was perilous… Perhaps he lost his nerve and his footing. Given a chance again though, maybe they both would’ve still lived their lives the way they did… One, free climbing, and the other, freefalling… guess, to each his own. RIP!