Friday, December 9, 2011

On wealth

Perhaps nothing else takes up so much of human thought as money, the endless worry, the hankering, the planning, the portfolios, the strategy… Apply that much effort and planning to acquiring knowledge or skill, or even love, and the results would be unbelievable.

Forget the tomes full of vague economic theory; essentially, money is a measure of desirableness. Something more desirable is more expensive, but this is purely subjective - I would gladly pay 1000s of dollars for an antique motorbike, but I don't see myself buying an iPad for a few 100. 

Business models and advertising work in two ways
  • Detect a latent desire in the customer and exploit it subtly - "You must look fair and beautiful!" and sell pureed edible matter with Freudian ads - as if the skin would eat that food stuff and be nourished.
  • Create a desire within people where none existed - Nobody but nobody needs a 2 gigahertz processor on a mobile phone - seriously!

This can work well only if there is consensus, so over time, certain things have come to be agreed upon as being "Most Wanted" - Throughout history there have been bouts of weirdness when some commonplace thing was driven into an upward price spiral by frenetic demand - like the Tulip craze in Holland a few centuries ago, and the steep price climb of second hand classic Royal Enfield's, RD 350s and classic Jawa's here now!

Most of the world's currency today is not backed by anything of "real" value. There is no gold in Fort Knox, nor will the "Governor" on the rupee note be able to fulfil his whole "I promise to pay the bearer the sum of hundred rupees" declaration if you held him up to it. Blame it on the reservoir dogs - I mean the fractional reserve dogs….

Thus, it's essentially bits of storage on some huge high-MTBF database server, that decide how wealthy you are - A single bit flipping due to a cosmic ray may throw you wildly across the wealth spectrum - but maybe not, there's all sorts of mechanisms (mostly redundancy) to prevent such glitches.

Some people are willing to wait for the things they desire, and will sacrifice time, in order to have the illusion that money is under control, while others will see money as a flowing phenomenon ebbing and waning, but flowing nonetheless. Some know the skewed nature of capitalism which lets you ride the wave of whatever is currently the fad. It would be quite unwise in this age to make any predictions about the financial state of the world 5 years in the future, let alone 25. Which is why the whole "save it for a rainy day" concept is not quite graspable for some people.

There is one investment that is the most fruitful, fully within your control, 100% guaranteed returns. That is your own precious self.

Whatever it takes to improve your physical, mental or digital self is way more useful an investment than any sort of material or property. An investment grows wealth from a seed - Any idiot can make 2 million if s/he already possesses 1 million. The challenge is to create wealth out of practically nothing, and no, building a marketable product with investment, while quite an impressive skill, is nowhere close to being able to create something valuable out of nothing at all.

In the (near) future…

Imagine a world where energy becomes free or extremely cheap - I'm taking about 1000 kilowatt-hours per dollar or less. In that case manufacturing anything is possible. There's enough energy to melt down and recast any bit of metal, enough energy to suck the CO2 right out of the air, enough energy to distill all the water in a river, enough juice to transport icebergs en masse from the Arctic to the Sahara. Enough to grow zillions of tonnes of food in hydroponic farms indoors. Enough to melt yourself a home out of a block of granite, with furniture to boot.

Once that happens, survival commodities will become free or trivially cheap, and economics as we know it will go for a full toss. In such a world, generating demand for anything will be extremely hard. Wealth as we know it will no longer work. Everyone is well fed and almost everyone will have no use for a number of things that solve problems that exist only today. Money is popular because it is mostly scarce, and it is scarce because it gets used up mostly for survival. Re-balance that equation, and suddenly we're not in Kansas anymore.

It will most certainly happen in the next half century or so.

And then the whole concept of virtual wealth - There are a number of online communities/games/virtual worlds where there exists some sort of karma or brownie points or whatever, and people are already directly or indirectly trading them for real money. Eventually memories, dreams, experiences will be up for download/sale, and most probably virtual goods will be traded in virtual money - Entire parallel economies will get created, and perhaps when physical necessities are not so hard to get, virtual commodities will become more valuable - If you're well fed, only then you look for mental stimulation.

In a way, money is an illusion, a vague measure of desirability of things tangible and intangible, which the marketing and advertising worlds try to force into homogeneity. A reduction in desire means a reduction in exchange of money, which is why materialism and "entrepreneurship" are promoted. You MUST buy a lot of stuff, or you MUST sell it, or you MUST market it, otherwise you are not in the club, you are an outside (wo)man in the Skonk Works. And stuff can't last too long, it must fall apart or be considered obsolete, otherwise no one is interested in selling it. Steel is passé, Plastic's in - whether in motorbikes or utensils. 
Most things are only replaceable, not repairable.

I have a simple way of measuring wealth - I look at how much I make a day, and when I need to pay for something, I calculate how many days of work went into that. That gives a very clear picture of what something is worth and how much I should worry about prices.

For e.g. I spend about 3% of my income on fuel, that's less than one day per month's work (about 8 hours). Even if the price of fuel doubles, It will simply add in theory 24 minutes of extra work per weekday to make up for it. Thus fuel prices are not even worth bothering about in my case. The same applies to things like taxi fares, electricity, internet and food bills. None of them are significant enough expenditures to worry about if the prices do go up, and I gain nothing by trying to economize on them.

Perception is everything, and stories abound about what the value of one minute of a person's time is. Some will say "It's harder to program in Java than to pull a rickshaw, therefore the software guy deserves more." - On the other hand, almost anyone with less than half a brain can program in Java, but it takes real guts (and calf muscles) to pull a loaded rickshaw.
There were times on the earth where art was highly valued in some cultures, while in other times and places, including India now, the artist are more seen as an artisan, a lowly life-form who performs for the entertainment of king and court. 
The same goes for craftsmen… in the US, a plumber can make more per hour than a manager, whereas here, a plumber is a mistri, a skilled laborer and his job is supposed to be so demeaning, that someone with knowledge of such a subject itself can cause eyebrows to raise, if it is brought up in a social gathering. One is reminded of Isaac Asimov's tale Strikebreaker in which a certain Mr. Ragusnik is held with similar disdain.

There is elitism about certain ways of making wealth, that is a cultural meme of the current age - Almost everyone who makes a decent amount of money today, does so by shifting dead trees (paper), and I will go so far as to say that 98% of these tasks are automatable.

It's a crying shame that a dancer, or a teacher, both individuals (my friends) who bring color and light into this world with great effort and enthusiasm, do not receive their deserved due - not only in monetary terms, but even as respect and encouragement.

Change. Need.

Monday, August 8, 2011

9 lessons from Ladhak

It is more than a year now since we’d been to Ladhak, and I’d like to record here some of the interesting stuff  that I learned along the way, I’m not censoring the events described here in any way, I might sound a bit rantish in places, but that’s how it was.

There were seven of us, each on a different bike:
  • Naren on a Bullet Classic 500 EFI, with Santosh on pillion
  • Myself on a ‘06 Electra 350
  • Akash on a ’94 Std 350 (all of 18 years old, probably the youngest guy ever to ride to Ladhak)
  • Jaideep on a Classic 350
  • Himanshu on a Karizma
Before we started, a vague set of rules was made about the riding order, and keeping headlights in rear view mirrors – Logic says that behind every rookie an experienced person must ride, but experience is a vague term, and the pecking order is hard for some to get. The rules were not really followed with discipline – this would lead to some grief later on.

Ideally I would have liked it if Naren had been in charge 100%, with everyone doing exactly as he planned and advised – after all he’s done more tortuous kilometers on hilly, icy, slushy, snowy, roads and highways than the rest of us put together (later events would vindicate this truth) – but well everyone knows better until the time when something goes wrong, so preparations were not exactly as Naren (and I) would have liked.

Lesson #1: Riding long distance on rough roads is a dangerous thing – you must have a proper hierarchy and command in the group, and a follow the leader approach – The person whose riding, mechanical, logistical and managerial skills is a superset of the others is the leader - as simple as that. A mission critical approach is necessary; it’s not all fun and games.

Having started out from Dehradun, we rode towards Chandigarh; we were taking the J&K route to Leh.
We rode on into Punjab and the only way to beat the sun was to soak our shirts and helmet at every possible location. I will omit the obligatory descriptions of what we ate and where, because you ride to ride, not to eat – No morsel so tasty as could exceed the pleasure of a well ridden curve, or drink with so much “kick” as that of the beat of an Enfield at peak torque.

Through Nahan, Chandigarh and so on we rode… somewhere near Gadshankar the head gasket of my bike gave out – 350s are not meant to do 80 to 90 KPH all day in the summer heat, especially those whose engines have not been examined or overhauled. First day of a ride, everyone was enthusiastic and the bikes were pushed hard. At one point I was both appalled and awed by some Jat munda doing 90 on a Honda Activa – May he rest in peace.
When an Enfield starts sounding like a choo-choo train – head gasket it is, blown it is. No sooner than we pulled over to assess the damage than some dudes hurried over and told us there was a mechanic close by. So the next three hours we waited until the chappie could dismantle the head (took a while for it to just cool enough to be handled) and refit a thicker gasket – “Moti gasket daali hai, ye knocking khatam kar denda hai” – that’s what he said.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped to admire the view on a small hill. Himanshu had a cig. lighter fitted on his bike and Akash was messing with it, and somehow it ended up with Himanshu grabbing the hot end with this thumb and getting a spiral “branding” on his thumb. That lighter would cause more grief later.

Lesson #2 : Don’t fool around – playing is good, but tomfoolery often leads to pain and sourness.

We rode on in the heat, and as we started wondering about lunch, we spot a “MacDonalds” in the middle of nowhere – A small town called Dasuya, which we will forever remember as the “MacD” place. It wasn’t really about the burgers but the fact that we’d get to sit in an air conditioned space and get plenty of cold water to drink, and a bathroom!

We reached Pathankot late that evening – A very depressing place, seedy and messy, and there was a bit of indecision amongst the chaps as to where to stay and how much it cost. Then there was the chore of unloading everything from the bikes, a tiring ritual that we would have to repeat everyday – I and Naren swear that the next time we go, we will travel light - One cramster and one rucksack per bike should be all – If you cant carry each bikes luggage it singlehandedly, it’s too much!
We were concerned for the safety of our bikes – the place had a ghetto air about it - so we parked them in a complex configuration in a small shed, in such a way that no one bike could be removed easily and cable locked the wheels of the outermost ones.

That night Akash was in bad shape, stomach upset, exhausted and he refused to eat much or take any medicine. He kept moaning that someone put him out of his misery. We had half a mind to…
He wasn’t helped by the fact that he’s not quite the fittest 18 year old, and his heavy “Harley Davidson” jacket, while looking cool and providing good safety, was not ideal for the ride in the heat, besides it was a heavy thing with shoulder padding stuff and would have weighed heavily on his slender frame.

Lesson #3: Get the rookies to prepare for the journey – I myself had never ridden in the hills, I’d ridden all of 15000 KM perhaps, Akash perhaps only a couple of thousand, and he wasn’t really prepared for such a ride physically. Santosh himself rode pillion with Naren, but having never been on a bike much, he didn’t balance well, and considering his huge heavy frame, it wasn’t ideal for Naren – Thanks to the power of the CL 500 he managed fine. Jaideep and Himanshu had probably ridden the distance, but I didn’t think they had “biker” written on them anywhere.

The next day we reached Udhampur, passed through the picturesque Patni Top, Peed, and finally bedded down in Ramban – Not much to describe about these places, go see for yourself!

Lesson #4

The real mountain roads started after Pathankot and for a novice biker like me, there was much to learn – It helps if you use common sense and a knowledge of physics, you can work these things out. I’ve always believed that theory is more important then practice, practice should be done after the theory is known.

Here I list some of the simple “common sense” stuff I learned
  •  “Apex driving” – This was something Naren explained – Ideally, if you were on a race track, and were making track records you would drive on a racing line – outer to inner on every bend, but on an unknown mountain road with two way traffic, blind corners and poor traction, you really don’t want to do this, not unless you are some Isle of Mann TT champ, riding a Ducati or something. Simple physics – A bike is most stable when travelling in a straight line, it moves the fastest, it brakes the best and it wants to be in that state – therefore, if you can see a distant point on the road across multiple S bends, and you see that no traffic will approach the line from you to that point, you aim and ride arrow straight to that point, not swinging left and right following the bends. You essentially “apex” each S curve whenever possible.
  • Don’t brake uphill! Why would you ever want to be so fast uphill that you need to brake!!! Back off the throttle and you anyway have some fraction of a G of braking. I found it odd that everyone except me and Naren were doing this.
  • Early braking on bends – Leave late braking to Schumi and The Doctor – Brake well before you approach a tight curve, if you are on the tightest possible curve when you enter, you can accelerate and widen your curve in an emergency. If you enter wide and fast and expect to tighten the curve by braking, you put your faith on the least reliable parts of a motorbike – the traction and the brake – and on dusty, sandy, rough roads, you are mocking death by braking late.
  • Downshift before entering bends and keep the engine revved close to peak torque when taking a bend – A turn involves change of velocity which means force is required, in order to maintain speed along the curve – At peak torque you get maximum force and you are at the right RPM to accelerate rapidly to control the curve diameter – Don’t be lugging the bike at 1000 rpm in top gear on a sharp bend – it leaves no margin for error or emergency.
  • Throttle modulation – Control the bike with the throttle, gently, keep the rates of change of velocity low. Don’t rev out and accelerate or slam the brakes, anticipate changes in speed and do it gently.
A lot many more things, things the body learns as the connection between man and machine grows… As I’ve said before, at least for me, it was all about the ride – the destination being Ladakh was the icing, but the ride itself was the cake.

The next day we crossed the Jawahar tunnel, 2400 meters of darkness, with the thump of 4 Enfields and the whine of one Karizma resounding through the length.
On that “note”, an interesting phenomenon that happens with a thump of Enfields riding together on the road is the amazing effects caused by the harmonics of each bikes RPM. Each of the Enfields we rode was a different one and none have the exact same gearing, so when we did ride abreast at the same speed, the sound effects were quite mesmerizing.

We were well and properly into J&K by this time and all the military presence was conspicuous. When we reached Srinagar, we heard that there had been some violence that morning, things seemed ugly and there was a soldier visible every 20 meters, loops of barbed wire (the high tech kind) blocking off certain areas. A general air of unpleasantness…
We’d accommodations at one Ashram place and A lone bottle of Fanta amongst a sea of Sprite was how Naren put it. After some discussion on whether to take bikes or not, we decided to hire a SUV and see Gulmarg.
The ride was picturesque and so was the destination, for the most part, except that it’s a huge tourist spot filled with Chunni, Munnu, Mummy, Daddy, Didi, Bhaiyya and Dadi times 500, all wrapped up like Eskimos against the “cold” June weather.

The next morning, we had a nasty surprise when we discovered the CL500 would not start. Naren quickly noticed that someone had ripped out some wires – surprising, sice we were parked within an “Ashram” premises. The previous evening had also been discordant, Naren and couple of the others had been on a walk near Dal lake and saw some eighth graders chanting some partisan slogans, and had also observed that the lake was rife with pimps dealing their “ladies of the lake”. Nothing like the lake that Shammi Kapoor fell in.

After some “jugaad”, Naren spliced the wires back, and we were off – We were never going to miss this place…

Soon all the follies of humans were forgotten as we were enveloped by raw nature riding onto Sonamarg, steep grassy slopes, the river below, cold dark morning… We climbed higher and higher, road got more and more rugged, as we climbed towards the dreaded Zozila pass.

Somewhere along the way there was a huge traffic jam, about a kilometer long, I managed to weave in and out of the stalled vehicles and rode on ahead…. Despite wearing inner and outer gloves, my hands started freezing, so I stopped by the wayside, waiting for the others to catch up, and warmed my hands on the toasty hot timing cover of the bike.

After regrouping, we rode on, and then hit “the bends” – Oh what bends, 21 hair raising hairpin bends, the road mostly rubble. On the second bend, I saw the first Shaktiman truck, and pulled to one side. It’s damn hard to stop a bike on a steep slope – Holding the front brake is useless, it just slides back. You can press the rear brake, but you need purchase with the other leg first, and that’s quite difficult on the rubble. Somehow you need to manhandle the bike until it stops sliding, then hang on.

First came one truck, then another, then another, and another, and so on – I believe 40 trucks passed in the convoy. Whew! After that the problem of getting the bike moving arises – there’s not enough traction, not enough balance, not enough torque (Yes, I know the 350cc Enfield has 2.8 KGM of peak torque,  but it’s still not enough). 

It got colder and colder and we saw huge mounds of frozen snow and slush – we were crossing little pools of melt water, and inevitably boots and pants were soaked. The temperature was dropping fast, dark and gloomy weather. We finally reached the Zozila war memorial and no sooner than we stopped for the obligatory picture-taking, than a couple of army chaps told us it would be wise to leave, since it had started snowing, a flurry of light snowflakes blowing around.

We were off, descending down towards Drass, and the snow turned to pouring rain, and gusty winds made the face numb, and drove the cold right into the bones. After what seemed like hell frozen over, we finally reached a military encampment, where we’d arrangements to stay. There was really no heat, and we had to eat lunch shivering, observing decorum with the Major who was our host.

The saddlebag that my bike had, was a “Desi” one and it finally showed its true colors… The splashing water had gotten in and everything was damp or wet.

Lesson #5 : Never compromise with substandard stuff! Take a Cramster saddlebag!

After some hours of being tucked into blankets, life returned and sleep had never been sweeter. That night we sat chit chatting with the Major, he told stories about his time in Siachen, how he’d seen Kashmiris who didn’t consider that they lived in India. I was feeling a little under the weather and some rum was most welcome.

The next morning was cold and blustery, windy and misty, we planned to get off to an early start, but that camp was officially “The coldest military encampment in the world” and it was about 8 AM by the time we had laden our bikes.

Then Akash’s bike would not start – ignition problems or a weak spark, it would fire once and sputter out. After some relentless kicking, it finally started to eight stroke! Instead of the DUG-DUG-DUG  it was more like DUG-SH-DUG-SH. The slightest modulation of the throttle would make it die.

A few patient minutes later, it came to life finally, perhaps something dried up or perhaps the battery came back to life.

Lesson #6 : Electricals are the most vulnerable part of a bike. Later events would show why.

We rode off in the cold, passing Dras town, along the Dras river, a lovely section of road, no greenery anywhere, but patches of pink flowers growing on bushes, randomly. Passed by Tiger hill and stopped at the Kargil war memorial and museum – what a wretched region to fight in!

At a point, there was a board saying “You are under enemy observation” and there was apparently a Pakistani border outpost visible across the river on top of a hill.

Speaking of boards, the BRO (Border Roads Organization) had some catchy ones like “Difficult will be done immediately, Impossible will take some time”. It’s quite amazing that they manage to keep that road open and maintained. Hundreds of army trucks and perhaps hundreds of motorbikes in the touring season ply that route and three cheers to the BRO for keeping the road working.

Kargil was a messy unpleasant town, we tanked up and were out of there as soon as possible. It reminded me of several places I’d seen before in the mountains, a “bazaar” kind of town with filth and decadence all around.

The terrain got picturesque soon – dry rolling mud hills and mountains, we climbed and climbed, and we reached Fotu La, a high mountain pass about 4000 meters high. I, Akash and Naren took a break there and we hob-nobbed with another group of biker guys on an R15 and Pulsar.

After a while Jaideep and Himanshu reached and once again we set off. After several miles on some really lovely hairpins and bends, in the glorious evening sun, we found that Jaideep and Himanshu were nowhere to be seen (the road was visible for several KM, but no trace of them). Naren decided to turn back to investigate. Jaideep soon turned up and told of how there had been a tiff between him and Himanshu and that Himanshu’s bike had issues.

Apparently, at Fotu-La, Akash had lent Himanshu’s lighter thing to one of the guys in the other group. Here is the thing about modern Japanese (or any) bike – They’re precision engineered, made to be used as is – you don’t go messing with it and modifying it unless you really know what you’re doing. That lighter attachment in Himanshu’s Karizma, somehow managed to blow the electricals of his bike completely.

The Karizma would not start – when Jaideep pressed to offer assistance, Himanshu was irritated and words were spoken – “Let me off” – this phrase was often repeated when this incident was recounted.

So Naren took my Electra back uphill and I gingerly rode the CL500 down to the Lama Yuru valley a few kilometres away (it’s real hard to ride with a heavy pillion!)
We waited and then Naren and Himanshu arrived… Himanshu decided he would stay at Lama Yuru, and wished to separate from the group. We “let him off” and wondered whether we should visit the monastery or what. It was quite late now, 6ish and we decided that we would press on and reach Ladhak – It was not the wisest thing to do, but it ended up being a nice adventure.

Then we discovered Akash’s bike had lost air – No problem… Akash had brought this glorious brass cylindered antique foot pump – Only problem was that when we tried it, it did not work. So much for delegating responsibility... The guys from the other group saved the day, they lent us their pump, and we decided to all ride together till Leh.

It was darkening now and we dropped right down into the valley, riding beside a stream in a narrow space. The rocks all around were of a peculiar purple color and the road was not quite a road, but rubble and dust and gravel. We crossed this stretch of about 20 kilometers on this really rough road. It was quite difficult. At one point I stopped and was unable to hold my bike upright, the ground underfoot was so full of gravel and rocks that it was quite impossible to even lift the bike up. It took me, Akash and Naren to get it back on track again. Riding down that road was a continuous sliding sort of motion, the bikes losing traction at every possible stage, rocks flying off the tyres, jolting and juddering… In the dark!

I think perhaps no ride has ever felt so difficult in my life – teeth on edge – the realization that we had to cross this stretch fast, falling down was not an option. Somehow, I found what it took to ride that section out without mishap. The road got slightly better and when we got about 80 Km from Leh, it turned into this glorious stretch of black smooth tarmac. We let it rip – It was fully dark now, it was past 9 PM and there were millions and millions of stars in the sky – We’d never seen so many, even in the Himalayas where we had once lived.
It was bone chilling cold and the wind chill didn’t help either, but it was a glorious ride and we reached Leh finally.

We lodged in one of those nice boarding houses, bed and breakfast kind of place. Sleep at last!

We’d talked about what we’d do the next day, go here, go there, this and that, the next morning however, we were greeted with chilling rain, I was down with a cold and everyone decided to snuggle in and make it a rest day!

In the late afternoon we roamed around Leh, a lazy relaxed day after so many days riding 12 hours or more.

I’ll skip the obligatory tedious descriptions of the places we roamed around – The Bactrian camel farm, Chang-La pass -  halfway to Khardungla, the Monasteries, The T-Shirt places (where you can get custom monograms embroidered)

Khardung – la!

That was the very peak of the whole deal – The highest motorable road in the world 18360 feet above the sea level!

The day we got the new that the pass was possibly open, we rode up and waited for quite a while at Chang-la to get confirmation. A military chopper arrived, tried to land 3 times, and they gave up and left. Some people came downhill and we decided we should attempt the steep 14 KM.

Chilling wind, flurries of snow, slushy gravely road, big gutters right in the middle, asthmatic bike revved out in 1st gear, slipping, sliding, losing traction – The blowing wind and snow made keeping the eyes open almost impossible – My strategy was to hunch over and focus on the road one meter ahead of my wheel. There was no room for error or pauses – If you stop, it’s unlikely you can restart again, there’s just not enough traction.
We’d replaced the Air filter of my Electra with a kids sock, but I’m not sure whether it helped!

Lesson #7 : Don’t take a bike with less than 20 horsepower on tap – Considering that the CL500 did that stretch comfily with a pillion rider – There’s no point flogging a less powerful bike, you just set yourself up for a fall

On the return journey, Santosh left via flight to Delhi and Naren gave me the CL-500 to ride back – It felt awesome – To quote Waldo Weatherbee : “Sheer raw bestial power! Unconstrained by the rules and conventions of civilization!”

We blasted along at a great pace on the slick black road, and reached the “Magnetic hill” place. Some simple tests showed there was nothing magnetic about it… Water flowed downhill, bike rolled downhill, apples hypothetically fell from trees and there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary as far as I could see. Disappointment – So much for other-worldy phenomena

We pushed hard on the ride back, went via Hambotu-la and Batalik - a lovely section of the road - There was a huge mountain there across the valley whose sheer cliff showed the entire rock strata in a wavy curved pattern– Rock can bend and flow!

The ride back seemed effortless on the CL-500 – That extra power and good tires make all the difference – Awesome roll on, effortless passing manoeuvres, great brakes – over all tension free riding.

Somewhere near Kargil, some villagers were hammering steel rods on the road, Akash panic braked, I panic braked even harder to avoid hitting him and took a small fall. Nothing bad happened except the bike would not start for about 5 minutes – It has some kind of safety mechanism that shuts off the engine for a while after a fall.

On to Zozila we rode, the entire road was soaked and slushy – You dare brake much, just mild feather touches – just sidle along in 1st gear on the slick mud, hoping you can reach the next bend at low enough speed not to die. Even downshifting too fast was enough to lock the wheel for a couple of feet and give me the ol’ shiver-me-timbers.

The first evening we made it to Dras town and halted there for the night – Seedy place, unpleasant and shabby, cold and dingy.

The next day we pushed very hard on the way back, everyone was in a hurry to get home, and at one point in the early evening Akash rode off very much ahead. Jaideep was just ahead of me and Naren brought up the rear…

At one point disaster struck – Jaideep overcooked a bend and took a fall – I had a grandstand view of the fall : He must have been doing about 60 kph downhill and the bike slid to the left. He was sliding ahead and the bike tumbled a bit, rotated and slid inexorably towards him – “This guy is dead” I remember thinking. The bike ended up in the gutter and he lay nearby – I cut across into the inner side pronto and raced to Jaideep, Naren was right behind – Luckily jaideep had no major injuries, and was just a bit dazed. The bikes headlight and front console was smashed, but it seemed OK otherwise.

Apparently the cause of his error had been twofold – He had just received a call from one of our friends whose family had been involved in a bad car crash (no one was hurt bad thankfully) and he was irritated at Akash for racing off into the blue – He’d wanted to catch up to Akash and ended up pushing much too hard – At least that’s what he said.

Lesson #8: Don’t push hard! 250 to 300 KM everyday for many days is not wise on mountain roads, especially if you are in a tense state of mind and in a hurry to get home

After some rest, he decided he would ride on anyway, he didn’t want to truck his bike or anything, and we rode on beyond Patni Top and halted for the night at a guest house. There was some kind of amphibious assault vehicle parked there, a mean bestial looking hunk of metal, with tracks and wheels and guns and all. Wonder how much peak torque it had…

We rode into Punjab the next day and stayed at Jalandhar at the house of some relatives of Akash, had a good rest and were treated very well by our hosts.

The next day once again the pace was pushed hard, once again Akash was way way ahead, eventually it was lunch time and we’d still seen no sign of him. Patience wore thin and Jaideep especially was quite upset with him – After lunch we eventually got Akash on phone and asked him to halt until we caught up – After we did, a few kilometres downhill, Akash’s bikes electricals gave out – complete death.

Within no time Naren hot-wired the bike and it was back on the road! With Naren by your side, great things are possible...

Lesson #9: Remember lesson #6! Learn bike theory, whether it’s changing your rear tyre single handedly or hot-wiring the ignition, changing oil or adjusting brakes, if you always depend on a mechanic, you will be in trouble when bad things happen

We were not very far from home now, and we rode in, after a glorious 2600 KM or more across some of the most awesome roads in the world. Despite all the glitches and little annoyances, the trip was the best ride I ever had in my life.

Now we plan to do it again this September!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Who do you listen to?

Who do you listen to?

All humans are arrogant, and ego(t)istical – In 98% of the cases, it is an unjustified ego, based on a skewed evaluation of ones abilities. The very few rare people whose ego is justified, are generally so able, that one can consider them extremely eccentric and not entirely human. Feynman and Hawking come to mind in the realm of science. Kasparov or Torvalds maybe.

As for the rest, the mental reality distortion field is quite intense and things connected with one self are artificially inflated, ones thoughts, words and actions seem to have importance. Nothing bad about it – "It is simply the nature of the beast" - as the Denebian Diaboli would say.

In any case, a little common sense will tell one that even if one is an outlier in terms of ability for a few dimensions and skills, that does not mean one has any inkling about certain other things. In such cases, the humbly wise will defer their opinions to anyone who knows even a little better. The one dimensional however, will falsely assume that their own needle of ability, can somehow pierce through the veil of the unknown.

The average physics guru would not realize that when fitting an axe-head to a handle, you strike the handle from the bottom not the head from the top… or that a log must be tied with a timber hitch and not a granny knot. Every skill has it’s own “kung fu” and not much of it transfers across, even if some folks feel that certain kinds of learning encompass others.

It’s all fine for the sciences - Probably the “ideal” physicist would come up with the “bang the handle, not the axe-head” system on his own, but it gets dicey when it comes to the non-deterministic parts of life. The expertise in a field of study does nothing much for the development of a person emotionally and behaviorally, thus we see the occasional “star” acting like a toddler.
I for one, have the privilege of knowing a person who, despite a blindingly brilliant intellect, has the humility to be able to listen to folks and learn from them without dismissing them off as idiots. I aspire that should my intellect ever be so stellar, my humility ought to be that grounded too.

Who do you listen to? – Is there someone who you can listen to when you are aware that your own sense of judgment is unable to cope with some situation? Major Vukalovic said to Captain Boris - “When all is lost, when there is no hope, there is that one (wo)man you can turn to”.

The question is… do you have that one person and will you turn to them and accept what they say? It may not be the same someone always…
What about in a simple day to day situation? Can you take you ego off when deciding the simple trivial things? Are you OK with things not going exactly as you fancy? Do you realize the folly of demanding perfection or everything according to your limited standards?

Can you listen and not just hear?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why spirituality matters…

There are some things that when done repeatedly, will cause their effects to get shown in other areas.
Take chin-ups: You think it’s working the biceps and chest, but it actually works even the abs, more than any other body weight exercise (Source: T-Nation). Take jujutsu rolls – they look cool in the dojo, improve co-ordination and stuff. But the effects show up when you do a jump off a wall a la “le parkour” and you can roll smoothly to absorb the momentum.

Consider life – it’s full of niggling little worries, discomforts – like walking through an anthill, small annoying bites, rarely debilitating though. There’s the weather, dangerously dumb people riding on the streets, mean people all around, shortage of money, power cuts, queues, bureaucracy, and umpteen things.

There are a lot of discomforts that we cannot avoid taking - desk jobs, bus rides and so on … you do it because you need to survive in the system…
A lot we take willingly – Trendy uncomfortable clothes, restricting or impractical shoes, sour relationships… and worst of all, attachments – especially to material objects... Tying yourself to a log that’s floating down river – That’s what it is.

We adapt – that’s the reason we rode the evolution wave so far… Keep repeating some action and it becomes easy, Keep repeating a thought and it’s committed to memory. What the body does not adapt to, eventually the mind does.

Let’s look at the body: What are the hallmarks of an all round fit human? Here is my basic standard from a survival skill perspective..
  • Able to lift ones own weight onto ones shoulders.
  • Able to carry ones own weight up 2 flights of stairs or for a half a mile on level ground.
  • Run a mile without stopping and run 10 miles any which way in less than two hours.
  • Climb a wall that’s as high as oneself.
  • Do a dead hang for a minute and on one hand for 15 seconds.

There are other strength and endurance standards which are not really translatable to real world survival needs, but I think the above is the bare minimum to survive a basic apocalypse scenario…
No doubt about 5.8 billion people in the world as of now will fail the above tests. A few hundred thousand years ago, every living ancestor of ours was capable of more than this, women and children included… We would not be here if they were not. So you may pooh-pooh about the futility of all this, but let’s face the fact that most folks let their bodies degenerate to a pathetic level of weakness, purely due to sloth and some misguided metric of what is really important in life. I, for one, believe that life is the most important thing, the things “in life” come next. Show me someone who is not mentally damaged who claims they would not want to live longer and I’ll show you a white blooded liar. Armchair musings about death and danger are nothing compared to the real threat of imminent doom. Shoot me if any human will not grasp at a rope with the strength of a Charles Atlas and the speed of Bruce Lee, when the bridge underfoot collapses into a chasm.

Now about the mind: What are the hallmarks of a fit and mature mind? Here is the bare minimum from my point of view…
  • Able to function normally and lucidly when there is an emotional blow.
  • Able to control the tongue - both in speech and in taste - To not retaliate to a verbal thrust, to be able to forsake eating something that tastes very good.
  • Able to control sleep - To awaken at the required time with no complaint, when it has been decided or declared.
  • To be able to renounce inessential material possessions - That favourite dress... That "lucky" pen. That cool watch. Would it really affect ones life if it were gone? Or is it because one insists on making life miserable due to loss? This does not mean that you treat everything as valueless, just realize that all possessions are replaceable and they can be replaced if you have enough wealth, which comes from effort. Possessions are only as valuable as the time and effort taken to replace them. There may well exist irreplaceable possessions, but since everything is temporary, one should be prepared for the situation that you can lose anything and never get it again. It applies to places, and times. That shady tree-filled MG road, that traffic free Mekhri circle, The "good old" 80s, the 70s or the 90s,  they're gone and they will keep going. why gripe about the inevitable? One had better realize that change cares not for the sighs of mere mortals. The steamroller of history destroys entire civilizations, what chance do the little streets and corners have? Speaking of "owning" stuff - the sun, the moon, the sea, do these not bring one joy by just their sight? Is it necessary to "own" something to derive joy from it? My (hypothetical) worst enemy's Porsche is still a thing of beauty and joy and it freely gives that indiscriminatingly to all who would glance upon it. Why does a loved one have to be possessed? Why should a child who is genetically linked seem all lovable but other kids merely annoying? (OK in this case there is some evolution hardcoded stuff going on, but still.).  When something is owned or disowned, it does not change, therefore the pleasure of owning an object and the misery of losing it is self inflicted. Totally distinct, from the innate pure joy that it provides by its mere existence.
  • The desire and drive to learn - Let's face it - we're human only because we have a cerebrum. Not doing with it what it's meant to do will make it atrophy, just like any other muscle in the body, and then one is closer to Australopithecus africanus than Homo sapiens.
  • Empathy - Once again this is a natural trait from evolution. If one suppresses this by relentless desensitization and insulation, one becomes less than human.
  • Cheerfulness - For a major portion of history, living up to the age of 40 (and maybe 28 for a woman) and having one surviving child was a major life achievement. That was misery. reason to weep, reason to complain, reason to frown. In our day and age, we live in a luxurious world where most problems are created in our own heads. Smile.
So now - Since there are some arbitrary standards that I have set here, how on earth is one supposed to conform you ask…

For the body – There are countless number of cults and systems and schools and techniques, which can make your body have the exact shape, composition and ability that you desire.
Conflicting and diverse systems - Yoga people, Pilates people, Hard martial arts, Soft martial arts, Weight trainers, Elliptical fans, Runners, Swimmers, Body weight and gymnastics fans (yours truly included), Kettle bell people, Malkhamb practisers, Akhada wrestlers, Crossfit, Callinetics, Aerobics, and some crazy stuff like Zumba and Aquacise and what not.

All you have to do is find a scientific method that fits your goal and stick to it consistently. By consistent I mean – today, tomorrow, the day after, next week, next month, next year, the year after that. Not some half hearted attempt that stops with a justification about why the system does not work for you, based on half baked knowledge and meagre experience. All you need is to be truthful to your self… You want something, you won’t stop until you get it - trust me, I’ve been wanting and trying for long enough and the trying never stops if the want is real. As for medical conditions, all I can say is that well, for most cases it simply is another excuse and justification for not trying – I’ve been there, worked through it and I’ve seen other folks in that situation overcome their conditions too.
Besides, don’t get into the debate on which system is best, even Bruce Lee (possibly the fittest man who ever lived in recorded history) stumbled through different paradigms of training and eating, made a lot of mistakes, even damaged his back seriously… If he got where he was, it was because he stuck at it and was dead serious about improving himself.  He had a nice philosophy

Most people who tout one system have never tried any other sincerely, so bias is the name of the game.

For the mind – Now this is more complicated, yet again there are so many schools and systems and cults, illogical practices, unbelievable claims…
Again conflicting and diverse systems – The Deepak Chopra people, The Stephen Covey people, The star-people people, The Landmark people, The Crimson circle people, All the “Indian philosophy” offshoots from Shri Shri Swami Aardvarkananda to His Holiness Zyxwoo Maharaj Avatar Baba, The Zen people, the Tao people, Wiccans, Neo-Vampires, even the Jedi, and they, the fearsome twosome that shall not be named (ask Dawkins).

Most of these systems, similar to most of the physical training systems, have the one common property – The view that one system encompasses all others, or that one system is somehow more “efficient” at bringing about “results”. Some of them -you know who- will go as far as deride every other system as evil heresy.

I propose to dispose with any esoteric mumbo jumbo and simply do “drills” that work at a very simple brain level – simple conditioning – The fact that I derive it from what Adi Shankara said is only by chance.

He says that in order to achieve liberation or nirvana or whatever, one needs the fourfold qualities. I take liberty of saying that for any result that you desire, the same applies.

1)    Discrimination – The ability to decide at every juncture, whether your action leads towards or away from the goal, whether it is for the temporary or for the permanent, whether it’s instant gratification or long term well-being.
2)    Dispassion – The renunciation of indulgences in the present and the projected future – if the original goal is liberation, then everything needs to be renounced, but if we stretch a point and assume “mundane” goals, then we can interpret this as renouncing the peripheral enjoyable distractions – Could be the IPL right now or the T20 next month, it’s all a distraction from what you wish to achieve (even if one is aspiring cricketer).
3)    Desire for the goal – Imagine being held down under water – visualize the motivation and desire one has for air at that horrible situation. Now, reflect if one has the same desire to reach ones claimed goal.
4)  The six fold “wealth” : 
  • Calmness – Silent and unwavering in the mind, quiet in thought.
  • Control – To be a master of ones senses – not the other way around.
  • Unbiasedness – To internalize the dualities of experience – hot or cold, hard or soft, pain or pleasure - Accept every experience without rejecting or coveting it.
  • Forbearance – To be stolid and patient in the face of trouble – hold your stance!
  • Faith – You have to believe in something, only then it works! Believe this one, its simple, works, and I’m not claiming to be a God or taking your money.
  • Composure – To be in a balanced state of mind, with equanimity - like a lake of oil.
If your thoughts after reading this include the words “but” and “I” and “can’t”, go read that motivation poster above of Bruce Lee 20 times.

One can’t just develop all this overnight (nor six-pack abs in a week). What you need is to be aware of this and reflect upon it. Mindfulness of the mind itself – Monitoring what you are thinking, observing your self – the whole “meta” level.

Many times as I’m walking, I’m thinking of foot pronation, hyperextension of knees, centre of gravity, forefoot strike, anterior hip tilt, lumbar alignment and arch flexion. When I’m riding I’m thinking of fuel mixture, spark strength, ignition advance, peak torque, redlines, shift points, traction limits. Thus, I am aware of what’s going on and I correct the parameters according to what I think is ideal.
The same needs to be done for one’s mind – to be aware of its every detail, every pattern of reaction, to gently correct it and improve it.

OK you say, but what do I do now? Give me tips you say…. Here are some:

Simple exercises for your mind and will:
  • Take a possession of yours with sentimental value, and give it away to some strange person, force yourself to feel OK about it, if not, repeat with another possession.
  • Sit quietly and stare at a “stranger” tree – You can only think about the tree, nothing else – if you think of anything not directly connected with that tree, repeat with a new tree.
  • Next time you are cold or roasting in the heat, picture yourself respectively as 1) in an AC room in the Sahara in June or 2) In a sauna in Reykjavik in January – Realize that you’re are suffering due to your perception of what’s normal, not due to the heat or cold itself. Think of wet, dry, hard, soft, cold, hot, heavy, light as being like colours, no particular good or bad in any way, just colours of experience.
  • If you do happen to wish to improve your body too, then that’s an excellent opportunity to do some introspection – While you’re running or holding that tough stance, or doing that 500th rep count, detach from your body and observe what is happening, understand that the body is simply sending signals about what is going on, it’s your head that is making it into “pain” or “I want to give up”.
  • Stop buying into the meme that it’s un-cool to be nice all the time. Doesn’t hurt to speak gently, calmly. Doesn’t hurt to not swear – I mean think about it… What logic or sanity is there in describing bodily functions or casting aspersions on the mating and breeding habits of world + dog at every exclamation mark? You obviously don’t mean it, so saying it is simply lame. What is proved by that anyway? That one can ape Americanisms to no end while despising America? If you can’t do it like PSmith, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Sarcasm is not wit – it takes little or no imagination to be sarcastic, it’s a feeble attempt to establish superiority by folks with low self esteem. Speech is valuable - use it elegantly, clearly – bring joy with your speech, not sighs and frowns.
  • Avoid strong sensory input – The senses evolved to detect what to do when there was something in front – Feed on it, Flee from it, Fight it or Four-letter it. They were not meant to handle an overdose – super sweet sugar, super spicy biryani, super loud rock, super psychedelic discos, super fragrant perfumes or super pungent sauces. It’s just over driving the parts of your brain. Something gives eventually, both body wise and brain wise. Your muscles get stronger with higher loads, your senses are not like that, and they simply get dulled.
  • Substances – Seriously, moderate them! I am all for exploring alternate states of consciousness, but tying your wellbeing to some random herbs and fluids? Do you lack imagination to such an extent that you need to resort to external chemical triggers to rev up your brain? Is it possible that you’ve never sampled music so deeply that you forgot where you were, or never stayed underwater for so long that you happily forgot to want to breathe? Have you never run so far that you felt disembodied ecstasy? It’s like putting random stuff in the gas tank simply to hear the funny noises coming from the engine. It’s not just the stereotypical alcohol/smokes/weed stuff – anything that you cannot resist – creamy chocolates or that “you can’t eat just one” bag of chips, or that extra teaspoon of sugar, that “free 20% extra” soft drink. Not so much about the negative effect they have on the body (don’t argue this point, it’s science), but about the atrophy of will power, the habit of giving in that causes weakness.

There is nothing “metaphysical” or “paranormal” or “supernatural” about any of these practices… If you run barefoot, the soles get tough. If you do ab work, you can withstand punches, similarly if you condition the mind, it will not reel under the prods, pokes and blows of life.

That’s all!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The elements - Water

Sigh! I'd love to write everything nice about water, but the fact is that most of my dreams are still about flood water rising unrelentingly.

In the city where the open sky is taboo, for all but the most wretched or unlucky, water is an avoidable thing. If you dare not get soaked, you seek a roof, one of those dense concrete slabs that wall you into little boxes.

In the mountains, the mighty mountains, water is inevitable - If it doesn't sneak in through that little bolt hole in your tin roof, it'll come from flowing underneath your feet, and even simply manifest under your floor mattress.

The rains in the Himalayas are something else - Have to be seen to be believed - back in July 1991, when we first set out, we had a taste of it, a pretty bad taste (I can still feel the after taste).We trekked across many mountains in a random fashion (don't ask why). At one particular high meadowy place, we decided one night to camp, a few hundred meters from some huts where various animals had been "parked" for the night (buffaloes and horses as far as I recall). With much enthusiasm Meera and the elder kids set out the plastic sheeting against a huge rock and we crept in exhausted after a day full of walking - It started raining, pouring elephants and apatosaurs, but the sheet held fine and we were all smug and dry.

Roundabout 2 AM, something was wrong, there was water all around but the "tent" was still intact. We had ended up bedding on a stream bed, and now the stream was streaming... In a few minutes the water was ankle deep and we had to get out of there. It was pitch dark and we did not know the terrain. Holding hands in a chain, with the aid of the trusty "Eveready Commander" torch, we made our way slowly across the stream, across a buffalo, towards the nearest hut. We left behind all the stuff to take care of itself.
We crept in and settled next to the inhabitants of the hut, and managed to catch random bouts of sleep two feet away from horse's tails and buffaloes rears. At first light, Meera and the elders scouted up and down the stream, and recovered whatever had been left behind, some stuff had washed downhill, almost everything was sodden. For years and years after that, some of the books we own(ed) would remind us of that sodden, scary night.

The Tons river, is the major source of the water in the Yamuna. It starts as Supin, from the Har-ki-dun glacier, joins a stream called Obrigaad, flows by our former dwelling and then merges with the Rupin, after which it is called Tons (perhaps a British corruption of the sanskrit word Tamasa - the dark one)

Mountain rivers are a strange animal, ever changing, rapid, turbulent - sometimes they descend so fast down the valley that you could classify them as mini waterfalls. The relentless abrasion of the glacial ice makes millions of tiny silica particles get suspended in the water. For most of the year, the water resembles Lime juice in color - tastes just as good too - The locals used to fear drinking the river water, because of some legend. They said - "This is the Karam Naasha. It washes away your good karma, completely opposite to the Ganga". "Khooni nadi" (Bloody river) they said. Like we cared!!

Over time, Mimroo and a couple of local kids got over their taboo of the water due to us (after all we were supposed to be learned ones) and they used to accompany us for our daily ice cold dip. The water was cold - even in summer I'm sure it was about 15 degrees celsius at most, and in winter around 2 to 5 celsius and occasionally thin slivers of ice forming at dawn, in the stagnant pools along the banks.

The bath strategy was simple (for us boys anyway), you walk in, dip and rush out, and lie on the black rocks that were heated by the sun, basking like reptiles, until you gathered enough courage to do it again. There was one particular black basalt like rock, that somehow reminded me of a triceratops' head, nice flat surface angled just right, south facing to catch the sun. Dear old rock!

The river was bifurcated in two with a 300 meter long "island" in between. Old "Mahima Singh", Mimroos father, would tell us that in the "before times", the river flowed mainly in the opposite branch. That branch was quite small usually and in some months just waist deep all over. We'd cross over to the island, hunt for a candidate log and try riding on the log downstream in the shallow water. OUCH! Splinters in the thigh! But fun!!!

Come summer, and the river would start rising, water turning more grayish, slightly brown, but still quite pure to drink. There is something about the water of the Tons, the taste of which has never been equalled for me, even by "Evian" mineral water.

And then there was the macabre stuff - Don't read the next paragraph if you are squeamish!

Whenever someone died in the local villages, they'd bring the corpse down to the river, and half a mile upstream, they'd cremate the body - partially... Some folks claimed some ritualistic reasons, but I realize it was probably because fetching enough wood for the fire to completely turn a body into ash is hard work, and it takes up all day to burn too. In any case, they would burn it for a couple of hours, and then the low caste (That's one english phrase Mimroo and Guddu picked up real fast) folks would prod the remains into the water. Depending on several factors, it would be anywhere from extra-medium-rare to well-done. Coupled with the fact that most folks died in winter, and that the water level was pathetically low (Naren and Mimroo once made history by crossing the river one winter), it was inevitable that the corpse lodge itself on some small rock, and remain there until the vultures ate it. We lived downstream, and drank the river water, and though some calculations show that the "contamination" would have been in a few parts per billion, we'd have to go deal with the issue. Several times, with Mimroo and his two elder brothers, we'd go over, grab us some long sticks and attempt to dislodge the unrecognizable mass of charred human remains - it's dense, pulpy looking stuff and you get quite queasy when you feel it through the stick.
Once, on one such "waste disposal" missions, Govind Ram (Mimroos first brother), kept insisting that the black and bluish green "thing" lodged on a rock was a "ghorrot" (mountain goat) and pointed to a bony white projection (I believe a rib) insisting it was a "seengh" (horn). I and Naren took unholy pleasure that day, convincing him of the fact that it was a human, and seeing him squirm. Talk about black humour!

The rains would start in August - and what rains! It could be the slow misty "atmosphere-condensing-spontaneously" one, or the "Can-you-shout-louder-I-cant-hear-you-over-the-din-on-the-roof" torrent. In either case, the river would rise and rise and rise, until it was dark, and then we could imagine it rise during the night. I recall one evening, in fading light, rushing down to the place we had our water pump mounted. There, the water raged, just lapping at my feet as I stood on a platform that normally was ten feet above the river bank and almost twnty feet above the water level. Now, the water was just touching it and fifty feet upstream, the water was actually at a higher level than me! It was falling at such a downward angle! Who said water finds a flat level?

The 2x3 feet platform was mounted on a huge rock by two bolts and two chains. It required great faith in physics, material science and our own design/building skills to step onto it, not to mention balance. Even more so when that torrent was flowing underfoot.
Hanging on to the chains that held the platform for dear life, with one hand, and a death grip on a hacksaw in the other, I sawed through the PVC suction line, most of which had been smashed to bits by the river already, and the remaining pulling alarmingly at the pump. Finally, I somehow manhandled the heavy 60 pound machine up to safe ground. I still get goosebumps on the soles of my feet as the sensation of standing on that slippery platform replays itself in my head now. It's not surprising that to this day I often dream of rescuing equipment from rising floodwaters.

Things went bump in the night - Huge rocks rolling downhill underneath the coffee colored torrent. Come the morning and we'd look excitedly at the river for signs of a new record level of water. Log hunting time! Scout the banks, extract promising wood, and try to somehow drag the sodden heavy logs at least a meter or two uphill, lest the river reclaim it.

Then there were dead fish - We'd never really seen any fish in the river, but I recall on one particular flood, there were a number of large dead fish washed up on the banks - I have no idea where they came from.

And the smell, a smell of mud, of the bitter bodily juices of freshly uprooted trees. In those monsoon days, the rain water that dripped from the roof, would be all we drank, often flavored a little by the leaves of the apricot tree that leaned over the roof of our dwelling.

The last year I was there, the river rose to such high levels (judging from the age of the trees nearest to the river, I believe a once in thirty years event), that the island in the middle was completely submerged, the water reached upto the bridge towers that were usually ten yards inland. For the first time ever, the water level was so high that it actually seemed level and turbulence free, upstream from our location (downstream was all rocks and cascades). To comprehend that mass of water was kind of hard, since I knew how far down the actual ground was below the water.

Then there was the brook on the other bank of the river - Papralla it was called - Flows down from the lofty "Kedar Kaanta", to the streams left was forest and to the right farmland. Also the location of the "garat" (described later) owned by one Hon. Mr. Chander Singh Rana Esquire, of short stature, comical voice and suspiciously Nepalese features, despite his "Rana" tag.
"Aisa hain na jee, Sukhe ke saath kabhi hara bhi jal jaata hai!" ( You see, sometimes, the green (wood) gets burnt along with the dry ) was one of the memorable homilys that I remember of his - he was talking about collateral damage in disputes in case you missed the metaphor.

Mimroo always referred to him (out of his hearing) as "Chandokti"(a perjorative dimunitive of the name) or "Gorkha" (in derision of the oriental features which hinted at an impure bloodline).

And his eldest son Mohan Singh (Mohna), a speech impaired kid, who made up for it with brute strength and a primitive sense of technology.
For a few months, "gaadi" was his obsession - He'd run off to the forest and return with a 7 inch thick log from a freshly felled tree (he'd felled it). Saw it into slices, and make a hole, to get wheels. One wheel was all he needed for his "gaadi" which was more a wheelbarrow with no barrow. But he'd broght down a tree and he could have plenty of wheels. Once, his design evolved to a heavy stone wheel, that he spent a whole day making... With an axle and two poles nailed to either side of it, he'd run to and fro on the bridge (possibly the most flat and level 60 meters for miles and miles around), pushing it with superlative glee. "Tya hai - gaari hai - bariya hai" was his refrain (meaning - What? It's a vehicle, it's good).

The "gaadi" obsession turned once into a "ghadi" (watch) obsession and when we got him one, it really didn't last long - What you expect from a 30 rupees "Made in China" watch? One night close to the fire and probably it's toast. I remember one mean older lad by name of "Chain Singh" try to tease Mohna, by taking the watch away from him, on the bridge, threatening to throw it into the river. There was some kind of primal rage in Mohna's eyes that day, as if he would have thrown ol' Chaina into the turbid river to fetch his watch had he actually dropped it in.

I digress from water, but he was a nice boy, very loyal to us... I recall, the first "aangan" (stone courtyard) that we laid, he helped Naren with the sledgehammer and cold chisel to split stones and carried half of them from the far bank himself - my nerdy city boy physique was not capable of doing the whole sledgehammer and stone-carrying thing then, even though I was as far as I knew, 1 year older than Mohna. "Dada" (elder brother) was how he adressed both us brothers. We'd often "hire" him (to keep his parents from grumbling when he wanted to hang around, and help with whatever we'd do) to do stuff like dig up the garden, build retaining walls, and so on - "Dera doon na, joota hai, bahuat aa bariya - dooi shou chari shou".. he'd say - meaning he'd want us to buy him shoes of worth 200 or 400 rupees from Dehradun, when we went there. Not that "dooi shou chari shou" shoes last much longer than the standard issue 30 rupee ones in that environment, still, he could wear it to the "mela" (fair) and be proud of them whole they lasted. Speaking of melas, I recall the one time we'd been to one, and Mohna found a hilarious pastime, rolling up a small cardboard carton into a sort of club and going around whacking semi-drunk youth on the butt, with intense force and much guffawing and glee - They deserved that and more, since they'd always be mean to him.
It's been about 20 years since we first met him, he had gotten married when he was about fourteen, I dare say he is a grandfather now - that's the way it rolls in the villages.

A "garat" is a water mill, the kind that Ug may have first considered a working prototype. We were fortunate to have witnessed the construction of this.
Take a thick log, say 12 inches, hack it with a "Basola" (adze) into a sort of large baseball bat shape, the bottom part remaining a thick cylinder and the top a narrow shaft (making things out of a single piece of wood when possible, is a fetish there and I have imbibed that too). Insert one foot by one foot wooden planks radially in the bottom, to form a primitive turbine. Embed a round hard pebble at the bottom and rest it on a flat rock with a depression to form a "needle" bearing. Carve a tall thick tree into a long U shaped channel, to function as a water duct, and after adding some more details like a small hut above the turbine, the grinding stone(s), raising lever, grain delivery funnel (again one piece of wood), the wooden "kookdi" (pheasant?) device that would bounce on the rough top of the rotating grindstone and transmit enough jerks to the grain funnel to make it trickle into the hole at the center of the grindstone. Shah Rukh Khan (from Swadesh the movie) and all the geniuses from NASA could not have come up with this ingenious and fun mechanism (besides, Shah Rukh Khan is an intellectual property violator - No sooner than we had seen a garat than me and Naren had instantly known that it could have easily generated 5 to 10 kilowatts if hooked up to a truck alternator or something, even with that primitive "turbine". Haa Haa, we had dibs on it... (read in Bart Simpson voice, in NANANANANANA tune)! )

Imagine a grinding millstone, on which a wooden bird like thing dances endlessly with a rhythmic ratatat to spill grain at a regular rate - Form and function! And gives early warning that there are dangerous moving stone parts around. Of course the flour from the mill would have this "minerals added" thing from the stones, giving a kinda crunchy(in not a nice way) feel when you ate it.

"Garats" are owned by the person who builds them - it's a complex process. As payment, whosoever shall grind meal there, shall give a couple of bowls of flour as payment. It must be shutdown at night - if left running, the stones would wear smooth and get ruined. It's a kind of skill to grind flour in it. You need to go regulate the water in the dug out canals with stones and leafy ferns, divert water via some wooden gates into the wooden channels, lift the turbine with a special lever mechanism (which linked directly to the upper rotating stone) ever so slightly, to get the right clearance for the grain in question. Keep the floor and walls around nicely plastered (don't ask with what) and clean to prevent water seepage into the flour - lots of details and regular supervision. Many would nap right there, waking every so often to adjust stuff. Many a time we and Mimroo would squeeze into the little hut in the night and sit swapping stories, with a small fire burning, under the background music of the flowing water, the grinding stones and the kookdi.

First there was Chandokti's garat, then there was Padam Singh's garat as competition, and then when that washed away, there was Gila Ram's garat. The stream had this nasty surprise... It all happened for the first time in August '96 I believe. The day had been quite rain free, but cloudy and humid and there was ominous darkness above the kedar kanta peak. There was a sort of whistling wind and some rumbling, and as we watched, across the river, the stream was a raging torrent, huge 4 foot diameter logs were being splintered, trees on the banks uprooted so fast that leaves were being shaken off, several hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of rock, trees, mud and all gushing down the mountain at unbelievable velocity. Bus sized boulders literally floating in the dark brown semisolid mass. In about five minutes it was over, lots of water still flowed, but nothing more was shifting. This flood ruined the picturesque landscape near the stream for ever. For weeks we could smell it, a miasma of putrescence...
That flood would supply us with enough wood for many winters to come. It would cause the bridge foundation to settle, twisting the decking into a highly impassable angle in the middle. It would ruin a nice and deep pool upstream that had been a nice place to bathe, by dumping pointy boulders right in the middle.

The monsoon after we had left the place for good, it would happen again, this time with such violence that it dammed the river, causing it to erode the banks, wash away the bridge itself and change the landscape so much, that I could hardly recognize it when I went there again to visit.

So there you have it, my relationship with water, bitter-sweet - Giver of pain, as we carried it, fought it, froze in it, soaked in it, cleaned it, and yet perhaps as we imbibed that sweet icy Tons water, we developed the super powers that we have today.