My most 'happening' New Year's eve party

It was 2001. We had all been working for more than 6 months in Bombay after B-School. All of us were single and stayed in apartments provided by our employers in a distant suburb called Kandivili, closer to Gujarat than Bombay.

New Year’ eve in the last couple of years had been spent partying the night away on campus. The music was customised to our tastes - A mix of rock, Govinda, Amitabh and the occasional regional number. The dress code was casual which meant everyone turned up in worn-out shorts and t-shirts. The liquor was a shade classier than the ones brewed illegally but just about. My drinking friends all assured me that it was quantity that mattered on student budgets, not quality. Food was never served – if people are anyway going to throw up later on, why bother? All in all, none of us really knew what happened at classy, stylish, expensive parties. And after six months of working in Bombay, my roommate R and me badly wanted to know.

We had already realised that Bombay had very sophisticated people. People who dressed well or atleast could wear skimpy clothes without looking uncomfortable. People who spent lots of money on pretentious restaurants, serving meagre quantities of food. People who lined up for an hour outside places where they had to pay to just enter. If there were a city where we could go for a ‘happening’ New Year’s eve party, this would be it.

R and I convinced enough people to go with us. Then we started to look for a suitable place. This proved to be a problem, as getting entry seemed to be by virtue of knowing someone who knew someone else who knew someone who could get us passes. Finally, the day dawned when our option boiled down to the Catholic Club in Bandra. Clearly no models would be going there, but we could probably get a free midnight mass for our money’s worth. And just when we had almost given up, a friend confirmed that he could get us passes to the Naval Club. Finally we knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who could get us passes!

We knew nothing about the Naval Club except that it charges hefty sums for civilian entry and insists that the real men wear jackets. This news created protest in the male half of our gang who threatened to boycott. The thought of actually having a bath and shaving on a holiday was unbearable enough without having to be stuffed into clothes too stiff and heavy. R was given the job of convincing the guys that a suit would obviously suit their suave personalities and make them the centre of attraction. When this did not work (possibly because of the bad pun) she just gave them a sound scolding, pointing to the fact that her entire New Year’s eve would be ruined just because her friends refused to wear a jacket for ten minutes when they entered the place. R is very good at doing this type of emotional blackmailing and as always managed to save the day.

D-Day arrived. All the guys were wearing jackets and looking newly scrubbed. The women had managed to do some work on their wardrobes too. In all our finery, we tramped to the Kandivili local train station. Since our house was too far away from the Naval Club to go by cab this seemed the sensible option. Till that point. Whether they were going to impress the Naval club crowd or not, the guys in their blazers were definitely impressing the Kandivili crowd. There was no one else in jackets for miles and miles around and even the normally indifferent Bombay crowd began to stare at them. The guys in turn stared at R who completely ignored the murderous looks knowing it was in the greater cause of making her happy.

And finally Naval Club. When you have been waiting for something expectantly for three weeks, you more or less know that the actual affair is going to be a letdown. Whoever had suggested the place had forgotten to mention that the only Page 3 it would get covered in would be that of the Monthly Naval Newsletter with captions like ‘Colonel and wife win best dancing couple’. True the clothes, food, drink, practically everything was about ten times better than our parties of previous years. But somehow, standing on a packed floor with a hundred other strangers and dancing to music which would never allow you to break into a jatka every once in a while brought back a wave of nostalgia for the campus parties. So finally, a little past midnight, we had all had enough of our ‘happening’ party and tallied the final position.

Movie stars spotted – 0
Money per head – INR 4000
Ratio of hours spent planning to hours spent in the party – 8:1

I am yet to go for an actually ‘happening’ New Year’s eve party. But somehow looking at the effort that went into this one that may really not happen in a long time.


Driving me mad

I have been driving a car successfully for the last 9 months. I knew driving in India was tough. Heck, walking in India is tough and involves constant moments of your entire life flashing before your eyes. Driving though goes to the next plane. One of the reasons is that as a car driver you are in the exclusive position of being the Loser in every possible accident situation.

Let us take the possible range of things/people you can collide with. The first obvious victim is a pedestrian. Pedestrians in India do not believe in using platforms. 'When there is a perfectly good road available, why can't I use it?' is the logic used by most. Not surprisingly over time, platforms have come to serve as places where electric transformers, phone boxes, roadside peddlers, snack vendors, beggars etc co-exist peacefully. Pedestrians also do not believe in zebra crossings, preferring to dart across the road when they spot their destination. That this may cause an oncoming vehicle to swerve suddenly and crash into a building and kill ten people is not of much consequence.

The next category closely competing with pedestrians are two wheelers and three wheelers. They follow a variation of Parkinson's laws - motorists will fill up any available space on a road. This involves making instant calculations on whether the motor bike's entire width is lesser than the 1.5 feet available between a bus and a truck on the road. More often than not, these calculations are precise to a millimeter. The 'not' is when problems arise.

With both pedestrians and smaller vehicles, the forgone conclusion is that you are a Goliath pelting Davids all over the place with your big bad capitalist attitude. The idea is that if you are driving a car, you must be rich and have the attitude of a big bad capitalist. So the public sides against you, you pay whatever money is needed to settle the issue and worry if your EMI payment on the car was lesser than that.

At the opposite ends of the spectrum are buses. The most dangerous of this lot are the public transport buses called CTCs. They are usually huge, look extremely unbalanced from years of carrying too many people and are stuffed with most of India's 1 billion population. When a bus driver knows that he is the lifeline to ease the city's transportation problem, he drives at a level 8 ft from the ground and is a government servant, he does not quite care if he dents a couple of car bumpers a day. Even during my driving lessons, I had put down CTC bus drivers as mean and unpredictable and driving next to one as the worst situation a car driver can face. At that point, however I had not seen one CTC bus overtaking another. This scene is somewhat like watching King Kong stomping through New York - beautiful but terrible.

Imagine a narrow road, which has two lanes. Now imagine a bus stop where one CTC bus is parked. The next one approaches from behind. Seeing the earlier bus, the CTC driver quickly calculates that he will have to trail behind the length of the entire narrow road. A thought that clearly causes intolerable grief. So even while the last passenger is boarding, the second CTC bus lurches in a 45 degree angle, powers full thrust ahead and regally overtakes the first one. You can usually smell the burning tyres of vehicles behind that had to brake suddenly to avoid close contact with a lurching bus. I have sometimes pulled over to admire this wonderful sight. That is infact the only way to handle the situation. If you are stupid enough to be hit by a bus, don't bother arguing with the driver for justice. He can scrunch you up like a little insect and still get away with it.

So clearly car drivers are at the bottom of the food chain. Why do we still drive? Most people, I think, love the challenge of seeing if they can get to work alive everyday. After that, anything that assails you at work can only be better. As for me - I can't think of a better place to sing aloud without inviting widespread abuse.


Madras Muggers

I blame my upbringing in the city of chennai for my woes today. I am studying (or atleast starring furiously at the pages) for my level 3 of CFA. This is a three-year course where one exam happens every year (You will understand what it means if you have seen 36 chambers of shaolin. In one grueling test they decide whether to let you go to the next level or not). It is highly recommended for every budding investment banker/trader/financial analyst working in the U.S. I am a corporate banker in India. The most advanced financial wizardry I have done so far is calculate the equivalent front ended interest rate from a back ended one. However for the last three years I have been indulging myself in an expensive course with no payback visible in the horizon. The only conclusion I have reached is that I am a closet student.

It is not like I have been a steady topper (I have had my moments, but given the amount of time I had spent writing one exam or the other, probability must have ensured I did alright in a few). But nothing to indicate I derived sustenance from knowing I was studying for something.

I think this phenomenon started quite early in life when I chose to do commerce instead of science. I had already signed up for the course chosen by losers in Tamil Nadu. Now the rest of my life would be an endless endeavour to set this right. Which meant when I was filling my admission forms for B Com, I had already gone through the brochures of ICWA, ACS, CA. So I could fruitfully spend extra time ‘adding value’ to myself. In my first year, I had finished a certified course from NIIT (To this day, I wonder when I will get to use my strong foundation in DOS. So far I see it when my computer starts up and feel happy momentarily that I recognize C:/). In the beginning of my second year, I had passed my C.A. Foundation course. The whole of second year and most of third year was spent in clearing exams for the C.A. Intermediate course. This could have gone on an infinite period of time, had I not started a MBA. There were temptations (do I write my C.A. Intermediate and then maybe finish the final after B-School…?). Luckily since enough people told me that MBA would be tough by itself, after a long time there was only one thing I was doing. After two relatively ‘extra course free’ years, I thought I had finally exorcised the ghost of Madras Muggers (The ‘mug’ as in study, not ‘mug’ as in steal.). Infact joining work seemed to have been a reasonably good indicator that I had been saved from me and there would be no more attempts at trying to string more degrees to my name.

Sadly, I was mistaken. One year went by in peace and harmony and at the end of it had signed for the ‘U.S Recognised’ CFA course. I once again attacked my books with a vengeance. And realized I had signed up for another three years of feeling guilty about spending free time on movies or books or dining out (not that it stopped me from doing all the above). And feeling really noble if I restrained and instead starred at my books while all my worthy compatriots were not utilizing their time in toil. Again I plunged into questions on the sanity of studying given a lot of people in the world got on all right without it. The torment of realizing in the nth hour that you still have 50% of the stuff to cram. The resolve to drop out of the course at the end of 1st year no matter whether I passed or failed. The usual pre-exam melodrama.

I passed the first year and in a happy daze had already paid the USD 500 fee for the second year before I could recollect all the trauma of studying the previous year. Infact, by the time I recollected, it was already finals time for the second year and there was a fresh set of trauma to grapple with. The second year exams finally got over too. Collapsed into a chair outside the exam hall with a worthy co-masochist friend. Who had suffered more than me clearly going by the number of cigarettes he was smoking and the look of hopelessness in his eyes. And listened to some serious soul searching. ‘What is it with us that makes us write more and more exams and collect more degrees even though we are not really getting anything out of it’. Not surprising coming from a guy who was working in Infosys in software and had bid goodbye to finance after just a year in it. I, of course felt smug in comparison since I was alteast in banking which qualified as ‘finance’. And then continued ‘I think it must be the tam in us’. Voila! How right was he! It was not the commerce degree that was propelling me to fall deeper into the pit. After all this guy was an engineer, and really by Indian standards he had nothing more to prove. And in all honesty, after an IIM MBA, I could at least state I had reached a bit of an academic pinnacle in India (never mind people who were in with you know how much of a pinnacle it is). Yet we were both spending hours making notes on heteroskedascity and delta hedging.

It figures. Any good Tamilian is told that the only way to come up in life is to study hard. A constant background noise throughout childhood on the importance of education had left a deep unerasable scar in our heads. Now there was nothing to do but to study more. Possibly through the rest of our lives (shudder). My friend took a last drag and said ‘so let me know by when we have to pay the fees for our third level’ I nodded in understanding.
It is not almost time for level 3. A sense of déjà vu fills me again as I open the portfolio management book. My friend called to say he is definitely going to flunk this year and he cant understand why he threw away good money on a stupid course etc etc. I listen and agree wholeheartedly and add some good criticism of my own. He is also planning to write his GMAT in October. God save us.

p.s. Two years have passed since this was written. I am happy to announce that I am yet to start another course.


Dance classes 1

I have always wanted to learn dancing. Even as a child I used to put up programmes during family vacations, which involved a bunch of cousins dancing to the latest hit song. This allowed me to indulge in two of my favourite activities – dancing and bossing over everyone. Unfortunately this enthusiasm never translated into actually going for a class as a kid. The blame for this of course lies entirely with my parents (as also the blame for my lack of cooking skills, swimming skills, inability to do origami, play the piano and any other life saving skill which they should have equipped me with).
So when I finally graduated, got a job and settled in the heart of a south Indian locality in the midst of Mumbai, it was time to give the sleeping dancer in me a chance to bloom and blossom. Being a good south Indian my first and obvious choice was to enroll in a Bharatnatyam classes. Without much ado I made enquiries and found out that the South Indian Education Society (SIES) conduced classes every Saturday and Sunday.
Bharatnatyam is a dance where you start of by learning the basic steps, and then you learn Alaripu, and finally move on to more complicated sequences involving intricate footwork and vivid expressions. After about 6 – 8 years or so of dancing, you are more or less ready to perform in public. I knew all of this at some level. But I forgot to account for the fact that people my age would have obviously passed through the 8 years of training and would be pros. So if I had to start with the basics, I may have a much junior set of people to contend with.
The first hint of this occurred me to me when I called up the SIES office and I asked when the next session would start. The gentleman on the other side said it would be soon and then proceeded to inquire how old my daughter was. I muttered that actually it was I who was interested in learning. I don’t know if it was embarrassment or merriment which made him gulp a bit and forcefully regain his composure before proceeding to tell me stories of people who started late but became pros. Encouraged, I hung up and started looking forward to the first class on Saturday afternoon.
The room was filled with little six year olds running to and fro and chasing each other. A couple of them stopped and looked a bit frightened when I passed by them and made my way to the teacher. I humbly did a Namaskaran and then as the teacher called the class to attention, took my place at the very last row (‘tallest girls please stand at the back’) of the bunch of six year olds. My classmates looked at me through the corner of their eyes, less frightened and the class began.
The first few classes were difficult. My thighs were hurting like mad but I could not confide in to my co-classmates because they seemed to spend all their breaks playing some running game. Obviously their thighs did not ache as much. All my breaks went in catching my breath. So I really did not miss the conversation. But gradually I started enjoying the idea of being let loose among kids on Saturdays and Sundays. After a week of ‘real’ world at the office, suddenly I could look forward to singing happy birthday if it was some kid’s birthday and waiting with anticipation as she distributed chocolates. My classmates treated me as a likeable but possibly slightly demented adult (why else would anyone this huge be learning dance with them) who could be admitted into their world. I got glimpses of first fallen tooth, new bangles and extra chocolates on birthdays.
The highlight of my dancing life really was the annual dance at Vijayadasami. This was a performance, which everyone in class had to participate in. Each batch of students had a dance to do and since within six months I had gained enough expertise, I was included in the batch of ten year olds. All the younger kids would have to wear the standard white salwar kameez uniform and the older ones would have to wear splendid silk sarees, jewellery and good make up. I was not sure if I could handle getting into such elaborate dancer costume all by myself and managed to get one of my dancer friends, Leo, to help.
The day of the performance dawned bright and sunny. Leo enthusiastically applied the make up pro style (which meant lots of it), wrapped the saree beautifully, arranged the jewellery and even managed to remove imaginary lint from somewhere. Then satisfied with the results settled to watch me perform. I had already warned her that elaborate costume aside, I was still a bit junior in the scheme of things. How much junior, she had not guessed. She watched open-eyed as I joined the row of 4ft something kids. I think this was the moment when she decided to play ‘mom’. With gusto Leo began to click various snaps of me along with my classmates. She beat every aggressive go-getter mom over there to hover right in front of the audience with the camera. When the performance got over I could hear her cheer me loudly. Much as I was proud of my accomplishment (and the loud moral support), suddenly I was wishing I had come alone.
The classes went on for a year after that. I was not really regular. After all I could blame work if I slept instead of going to the classes. And then just when I had finished Alaripu and had started on a slightly more complicated piece, I moved back to Chennai. I considered taking up classes again in Chennai but realized the kids here were way too ambitious, the teachers much more strict and the whole thing too serious. Dancing with ten year olds was OK on my ego. But dancing with snooty ten year olds would have been too difficult.
I still have the 12 photos Leo took of me in the 8-minute dance. A bunch of 10 year olds in white salwar kameezes, with me rising like a shining beacon in a bright saree somewhere at the back. I am not sure if I remember too many of the steps. But finally I have stopped blaming my parents for not enrolling me in dance classes.


Good things about being 20 and earning

1. Money - No more hoping pocket money goes up or guilt pangs at spending Dad’s money on restaurants instead of tuition. I can splurge.
2. Looks – No more experimenting with make-up of all sorts hoping to eventually look like Sushmita Sen. You know exactly what suits your face and you are OK with not looking like Sen.
3. Curfew – No long explanations to anyone on why I am out late instead of studying
4. Education – No more worries on will I make it to this IIT or that B-School or this medical college. Your education, whatever it is, is done.
5. Parents – More adult-adult interactions than parent-child ones. Heck, you discover their flaws but at least you start appreciating that they really like you.

On the whole, you are old enough to be surer of yourself now than you were before and young enough to make a new start if you want to.

Beat that.


Rustic Retreat

Homestay as a concept is fairly alien to India. At any rate, it was to me. When Sonal, Uma and myself were doing our research on a holiday plan, it was Sonal who first mentioned homestays. Not having heard the word before, I assumed that she had decided to call it off and wanted to stay at home. That’s when she explained that it meant staying with a family in their house and paying for it. A thorough net search had yielded a place next to Coorg. We all agreed that this seemed an interesting, non-touristy and inexpensive alternative.

That’s how we found ourselves outside the Mysore railway station waiting for our taxi to pick us up. Sunticoppa, our destination, was about a 100 kms from here. The road, however, looked like a cross-country trainer’s dream and the journey would take 3 hours. Darkness falls rather soon in these parts and the road creeps through the forest – a beautiful sight in the daytime but spooky by night. Especially if you have been stupid enough to discuss your cash positions in front of the driver just before starting off and then worrying if he will actually relieve you of the dough. Luckily we reached Sunticoppa at eight in the night with no incidents. The estate we were staying in was about half an hour away to be reached through an even more poorly lit, deserted, winding road surrounded on both sides by trees and bushes. In short, the exact setting where one can expect the spirits of the dead to come rushing. We turned into the dark, silent estate and true to expectation, there stood a cottage with no one around but a small boy staring calmly into the headlights.

As it turned out, fairly sane (and alive) people stayed there. That was our destination and our host, Giri, was waiting for us. Giri’s little son (the small boy) and Giri’s dad were introduced to us. Giri’s psychologist wife, Suja, was expected back from Mysore after conducting a soft skills seminar. Infact, the whole place felt like we had come to a well-to-do cousin’s house with none of the obligation to make polite small talk about the family.

The house was visibly old fashioned with railings running on the ceiling, wooden doors and windows. The family had added some welcome amenities like big modern bathrooms. It was also a fairly self-sufficient place. The family grew it’s own supply of fruits, vegetables and rice. They used bio-gas instead of LPG and solar lamps in addition to the State Electricity Board’s supply. Their cows gave them milk, and of course all around them was their coffee estate. Possibly this is when I realised a home stay is the closest you can get to experience a community firsthand if you have only three days to spare. Giri and Suja made an effort to feed us the local cuisine and chatted about their wedding rituals, family history and the local circles.

We had reached without any game plan on hand. I wanted to do a trek, Uma wanted to shop and Sonal was torn between the two of us. Finally we made the arrangements for a trek when Uma was busy lazing around and could not protest. Uma took it rather well when we told her about the trek, especially when we omitted the fact it would be 12 kms totally.

It was a perfect place and day to trek. Nishanidotta, the mountain we were gunning for was not too tall or challenging. It was 4600 ft. There was a two-km trek to a village house from the road. And a further eight kms up and down from the village house/‘base camp’. And then back to the road. The countryside was perfect. The first two kilometers were a mixture of loud buzzing trees and green paddy fields. The rest of the trek went through a muddy track with a bit of forest and a lot of breathtaking views tossed in.

Our hired guide, Puneet, had taken the son of our village house along for company and as a substitute for a GPRS. We were a bit skeptical about the rather young age of this supplementary guide – around seven. In the event, he proved to know his way better than Puneet and kept running ahead. We were panting to catch up with him and were rather sour about it till Puneet mentioned that we stood a better of chance of escaping leeches if we moved too fast for them to climb on. After that even Uma bucked up considerably.

After two hours of climbing, we finally started approaching the top. This was the only steep part, but there is something to be said about running to the summit of a hill with gentle raindrops hitting your face and the wind rushing past your ears. We took triumphant snaps complete with a flagpole left behind by previous enthusiasts. After that it was a quick descent back to the village house for lunch.

The pre-lunch ritual consisted of checking for leech bites – something all of us were nervous about since leeches have a tendency to cling on, suck your blood and look gross. Uma gently undid her shoes and discovered one well-fed specimen entangled in her socks. Sonal checked and got a zero. I began to slowly roll up the leg of my track pants and saw a black mark above my ankle. Losing no time, I went into hysterics. This prompted everyone in the house to come and watch bemused. I was hoping they would have sympathised if not called the paramedics. But apparently it is a daily phenomenon in their lives and I was left to my own devices to cope. Luckily a leech bite is not lethal or even harmful. Local remedies like squeezing lemon on the leech till it falls off followed by Soframycin on the wound helps.

After the trek, we were too tired to take in any of Coorg’s tourist delights. Which it seemed to have quite a few of going by the brochure Puneet waved in front of our faces for the tenth time that day. We humoured him and decided to stop at Rajah’s Seat - one of those panoramic views of the hillside you get at all hill stations in front of which families with huffing grandparents and fidgeting children cluster to pose for a snap. We skipped Dubare, an elephant camp around 40 kms away, a 200-year-old Shiva temple, a dam and other such treats. Puneet, being a loyal local, was quite upset that we could resist traveling 40 kms up and down Coorg to visit all these places. Possibly being a local was why he did not understand that Coorg’s beauty lay in the sparsely populated countryside, mountains, backwaters and such other places we could visit only from the estate we were staying in.

Giri and Suja proved to be brilliant hosts and had hot food, hot tea and hot water ready for us to use upon our return. We also happily borrowed from their wonderful collection of trashy and intelligent novels. The only blot on the spot was Giri’s tendency to chat incessantly. Mostly interesting, at times it could have a dramatic climax, leaving the listeners a bit nonplussed. During dinner one day, he ended a happy trekking story with someone falling off the hillside. I quickly left before he could tell the story of someone who died of a leech bite.

On our final day, we found ourselves back on the road to Mysore – this time in the daylight where we could admire Coorg’s lush forests. On the way we stopped at the Tibetan settlement in Kushal Nagar. The place is colourful, to say the least. The main temple has lovely golden statues of Buddha, Buddha Amistava and Guru Padmanabha. There are murals all over the place with gory pictures of people suffering in hell. We assumed it was the senior monks’ way of enforcing discipline among the juniors. One quick peek by a believer into the picture of a monk being roasted in a frying pan would keep all minor transgressions under control.

From there we proceeded to Mysore and to see the famed Mysore Palace. The ruling dynasty seemed to have had considerable wealth. Perhaps too much wealth, because every previous owner of the throne had added the style of his era to the décor, giving it a look of complete overkill. Delicate marble arches would be superimposed on wooden frames and surrounded by garish green paint. There are some lovely pieces though if you watch out for them – a lovely threshold, an intricately carved door, random glimpses into good taste.

With that, we boarded the train back home and bade good-bye to the lush forests, fresh air and endless greenery. The leech mark on my leg still glowed red, but what is a trip if you don’t have a souvenir to show the people back home?


Trekking in Coorg

Coorg had been one of my dream destinations for a long time. Given that I stay in Chennai, this is not a very unambitious dream to have. However, I had not managed the trip. So, when in December one of my colleagues sent pictures of his trek in Coorg my resolve strengthened. In lush greens, with grass growing till his chest he posed with all the pride of an Edmund Hillary. I wanted to be him.

D-Weekend arrived in March. My friend, philosopher and guide for the trip would be Monika, another enthusiastic if amateur trekker. Sheshadri of Care Adventures and his Man Friday, Rajesh organized the trip. The journey to Coorg was in an overnight bus. There were 34 people in all and well past midnight, everyone reached a compromise with the reclining seat and fell asleep.

I did not open my eyes till it was already light and the first sight that met my eyes was a fast approaching huge rock. I closed my eyes and opened it again and while the rock was still there we had stopped proceeding to attack it. A quick check proved that our bus driver was struggling with a hairpin bend and the bus was spluttering and groaning to turn. Sheshadri brushed away our suggestions of just walking to the camping spot. He had paid for our comfort, and we would get there in style.

After two more unhappy bends and ten minutes we were there. Much as I would have liked to call it Base Camp, it proved to be more a quasi resort. There rooms to lock up the luggage and toilets. Everyone, however, was to sleep in tents that night.

After a quick wash, the brood gathered around Sheshadri for breakfast and introductions. As expected there was a profusion of software engineers and BPO employees. Monika, myself and another woman proved to be among the honourable exceptions. This lady, lets call her X, was from Delhi (Dahl-hi) and was working as a marketing consultant. She was tall, fair, fairly slim, had straightened hair and all the good looks of a well-groomed Delhi woman.

Even as we stood around and introduced ourselves, Monika and myself realized that the temperature was climbing pretty high. With our rather appalling knowledge of geography, we had assumed Coorg would be like Shimla or atleast Ooty. As it emerged, summer time in Coorg is quite hot and the climate is not substantially different from Bangalore. We had signed up for an eight-hour trek in 32 degrees C.

The team set off through the bare fields and progressed along the roads. We were on our way to Tadiandamol Peak, the tallest peak in the area with a height of 5700 ft over sea level. We would be climbing 1300 ft and be doing 14 kms in all. Notwithstanding the heat, all day sounded like a lot of time for this distance. Assuring ourselves that this would be a breeze we continued.

The first sign of how exhausting this may actually be began when Monika noticed after an hour that her water bottle was half empty. It was meant to last eight hours. All the women had started knotting up their hair. Except X. X still looked fresh, her clothes neat and did not look like she was interested in tying up her hair now or ever. When I pointed out this to Monika, Monika casually informed me that she had made a study of her husband’s side (He is from Delhi) and she knew X would collapse from the heat before spoiling her hairstyle with a knot. I could not believe it and promptly bet a hundred bucks that she would tie up her hair by the end of the day.

The journey continued without many variations. After three hours, we were still walking in what seemed to be an endless time loop. Suddenly I could sympathise with lost travelers in the deserts. Somewhere along the way when Rajesh sensed people were getting disheartened, he pointed at a distant peak and said we were headed there. I could not have spotted the peak clearly without a laboratory scale telescope. This was definitely more disheartening than kidding oneself that we were close enough. Besides by now one peak seemed as good as the other and I slowly began questioning the logic of being obsessed with the Tadiandamol Peak.

The sun was hotter now, the track was entirely uphill by now and there were absolutely no trees. We met people walking down and while they assured us that we could do it, we could not help noticing that they definitely looked relieved to be done. Monika and myself began to take breaks every 15 minutes and gradually moved to a point where the breaks were longer than the walks. The team was now scattered on the hillside, puffing and panting and looked like geriatric ants pointlessly climbing a scorching anthill. Finally at 1.45 p.m. Monika and I made it to the top. We found the nearest rock and sat down to examine the reason why we were there.

I don’t know if this rhyme ‘The bear went up the mountain to see what he could see’ is famous. It has a rather tragic end that goes ‘The other side of the mountain was all that he could see’. Our story was somewhat similar. From the peak we could see hills upon barren hills roll away with the same meagre burnt vegetation. The only relief in the scenery was a merry forest fire burning on adjoining hills. Given that, defying all weather lessons I had learnt, the sun was hotter there than anywhere else, the sight of a fire made one perspire more. We had nothing to do but sit in the hot sun and watch the lone cloud hoping it would come over us and provide some relief. After half an hour though, the charm of this activity began to pall and thoughts of lunch began to emerge. We had to go back to a shady bough where the resort people would have come with our lunch.

The descent was easier than the ascent but more treacherous. Finally we reached the bough. There was cold water in a nearby stream and lots of food. After gulping the food and water, Monika and myself quickly lay down for a nap and missed all the excitement the group went through in finding two snakes. At this point, I would not have budged even if I had definitive information that a python had marked me down for lunch. Just when we managed to get comfortable on the rocks, it was time to move again. We began to walk down. From here on, the slopes were more gradual.
At five, we turned into the track leading to our resort and finally came and collapsed under the eaves. We watched as one by one, the people trekked in and joined us. X had still not tied up her hair and Monika won her 100 bucks for her anthropological skills.

After a much-needed bath, Monika and myself settled with a cup of tea each in the only two hammocks in the place. The sun was beginning to set and suddenly the heat was no longer trouble. We began to notice the quiet stillness of the place. Not a single sound of civilization – Music, vehicles, crowds. When it became night, there was a full moon and we could actually see picture postcard views of it through the trees. No lush green trees but atleast no polluting vehicles either and a sense of perspective on everyday life!