A LONG WALK / TRAVERSING THE WESTERN HIMALAYA

The team members; from left – Pranav, Bharat and Shekhar (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Over end-August to mid-October 2018, a team of three completed a long traverse of the Indian Himalaya from Ladakh to the border of Nepal. The trio covered 950 kilometers and crossed 27 passes. One of the participants, Bharat Bhushan – he is a seasoned mountaineer and hiker and an instructor with NOLS – mailed in a report on the expedition. Presented below, as an article by invitation, is an edited version of the report:     

The summit is for the ego while the journey is for the soulthis oft heard adage from the mountains, in a way, encapsulated the driving force behind the Western Himalayan Traverse. The idea was to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, have least ecological impact on the places walked through and keep Leave No Trace (LNT) principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces you to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling you to cover distance faster.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

India lacked a long hiking trail. The US has the Pacific Crest Trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya Trail. We wanted to correct the anomaly. In recent years, the idea of the Western Himalayan Traverse seemed to have finally come of age. Establishing such routes enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact environment friendly backpacking.

The planning process took over a year. Three members for this traverse seemed an ideal number. Each member picked was physically well trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills and knowledge. This would help minimize risk in case something went wrong during the traverse. Having the ability for one teammate to go down and call for help and bring aid to the others in case of an emergency, increased safety margins during those patches of the route where communication devices would be of limited use and mountain hazards faced would be the highest. Team members make or break an expedition. Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and I, Bharat Bhushan, complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We made for a strong cohesive team.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

The planning process was divided equally between the three of us to get things done faster. I poured over contour maps at the library of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The initial plan of starting out from Siachen Glacier had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it would have added to the expedition. In the end, Markha Valley in Ladakh was zeroed in on as the ideal place to start from. The trek was flagged off from Chilling Bridge. Dharchula at the Nepal border was our end point. With the start and end points fixed, now it was time to fine tune the middle portion of the traverse. We had two considerations – keeping it a simple, direct and straight route which would take less time. And avoiding as much of challenging and technical terrain en route, as that would require greater effort, technical gear and resources. Eventually, the Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical terrain we had no option of bypassing due to the nature of the route. We kept it in.

We got down to collecting as much information as possible from the internet and having conversations and meeting up with people who had done sections of the traverse before or had ground level knowledge. Ravi Kumar, Director of NOLS India, gave us maps and shared what he knew of the areas we would pass through. In Delhi, Punit Mehta, who is an independent explorer and NOLS instructor, filled us in about the Ladakh and Garhwal areas in detail. Chetan Pandey, my climbing partner from Almora, gave me details of the Garhwal Himalaya and helped me plot the way points on Google Earth map. Over conversations in the IMF dormitory, my friend Kaushal Desai along with Bhagwan Singh from Manali helped fill in the remaining gaps. Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela my climbing partners connected us to a lot of people who could help us when tackling officialdom – paperwork to be filled and permits to be issued.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Following this process, Pranav and I, sitting in Manali, were able to compile the information by plotting all the way points and making a rough Google Earth map of the traverse. It felt like the second concrete step towards our expedition. Step three entailed selection of lightweight technical gear and apparel. Keeping in mind the time of the year, possible weather faced and climate zones we’d be crossing we finally got down to making our required list. We also devised contingency plans. We only had cell phones as devices of communication. That made us vulnerable because connectivity is not available everywhere. Our plan was, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send one member as a runner to reach out and contact the team from 4Play, who were waiting with ration parcels at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. We also made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed.

It took us 47 days to do the entire Western Himalayan Traverse route. We started on August 27, 2018 and completed the expedition on October 12. During this entire journey we put in four rest days. We took full day stops at Kaza, Chitkul, Auli and Himni. Else, we walked every day. Some days we did up to 44 km. It was only by such a disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse within our scheduled time frame.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

While covering the entire route we had to cross varying terrain, and different ecosystems and climate zones. We had four passes to cross that constituted glaciated terrain – Bhabha Pass, Parangla Pass and Lamkhaga Pass were comparatively small. Kalindi Khal proved to be the most formidable, being a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper glacier travel equipment here. A major obstacle we faced was unexpected bad weather while crossing Kalindi Khal. We had limited fuel and were running out of rations. We had to adapt to the situation by cutting down to having just one meal a day and trying to collect water through ingenious unconventional means. We collected water by wiping the top of our tents with bandannas and squeezing it into containers to collect it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. There were many big raging rivers that we had to cross. The biggest of them was the river in Norboo Sumdo on the way to Parangla Pass from Tsomoriri Lake. Scouting these rivers, choosing from where to cross them and the time of the day chosen for it were important factors we had to keep in mind. Steep trails on the way to Kumaon and Garhwal were a challenge. This year the monsoon was still on in full swing while we were negotiating our way through the trails. Many times we had to forgo the main trail and search for safer alternative route.

Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 10 of them were above 5000 mts in height. We covered a total distance of 950 km with cumulative ascent of 123,432 feet. The following passes were crossed during the traverse:

  1. South east pass parallel to Dhat La (5610 mts)
  2. Kyamar La (5100 mts)
  3. Mandalchan La (5210 mts)
  4. Shibuk La (5270 mts)
  5. Kolakongma La (4940 mts)
  6. Kai Yeru La (5420 mts)
  7. Koste La (5380 mts)
  8. Yalung Nyau La (5470 mts)
  9. Parangla Pass (5560 mts)
  10. Thaltak ( 4710 mts)
  11. Bhaba Pass (4910 mts)
  12. Lamkhaga Pass (5270 mts)
  13. Kalindi Khal (5950 mts)
  14. Kuwari Pass (3670 mts)
  15. Vinayak (3170 mts)
  16. Kukin Khal (3120 mts)
  17. Ali Khal (3470 mts)
  18. Pass between Garwal and Kumaon (3350 mts)
  19. Above Garkuti (2770 mts)
  20. Khati Khal ( 2920 mts)
  21. Bainsa Kharak (3040 mts)
  22. Dhara Pani ( 3150 mts)
  23. Rur Khan (3440 mts)
  24. Unnamed pass, East of Puniya Peak (2860 mts)
  25. Dharti khal (3430 mts)
  26. Chongmo (3810 mts)
  27. Balsi Khal (3900 mts)

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Among rewards, we spotted the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar Lake. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. There was also blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasants and many more; enough to fill an entire journal. All through the hike we came across bridges built by shepherds. We always examined its strength first, to see if it would bear our weight or not. There were occasions when we found the bridge weak or collapsing. We always had to keep a Plan B in mind in case we had to find a way other than using those bridges. We were a group with mixed levels of experience in this terrain. Shekhar was new to most of the passes we faced. Pranav had seen a good bit of the trail before. I too was fortunate to have covered most parts of this trail in bits and pieces on previous forays. In spite of that, route finding remained a major challenge. Not having a good reliable map and the tricky terrain of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya always kept us on our toes. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone will be able to follow our trail by downloading the file (editor’s note: at the time of writing, such a file with updated map was in the process of being made, Bharat said) and using it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximation. We set up seven predetermined re-ration stations at various places of the traverse. These were places where we had previously sent boxes of ration well ahead of time, in order to be able to collect them as we passed those places during our journey. We also ate at village homes and food shacks along the way. This helped us not to carry extra ration and instead, move faster with light backpacks.

4Play – it is an Indian outdoor adventure content and media company; Pranav Rawat is their sponsored athlete – tried securing sponsorship for the Western Himalayan Traverse. They pitched our idea to several companies here and abroad and upon not finding much of a response to it advised us to try and see if crowdfunding would help. Pranav and Shekhar campaigned for the Western Himalayan Traverse project and raised funds individually. In spite of that we still had to invest our own funds to buy the required gear. Raising the funds for this expedition was almost as challenging as completing the traverse itself.

(The author, Bharat Bhushan, is a seasoned mountaineer. He works as an instructor with NOLS.)

REDISCOVERING SIMPLICITY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When a company that was once the world’s biggest automobile manufacturer decides to add electric bicycles to its product range, you sit up and take notice.

Early November 2018. As Delhi faced yet another smoggy winter and traffic elsewhere in India continued to worsen with people buying more and more vehicles, news appeared overseas of General Motors (GM) planning to sell electric bicycles.

The business of electric bicycles is nothing new. Established bicycle manufacturers already produce electric bicycles. Within the world of bicycles, electric bicycles form one of the fastest growing segments of the market with large volumes sold in countries like China. Automobile companies have romanced electric bikes for a while now. The Internet says, BMW (which is a known brand in two-wheelers as well) has been making them since 2013.

What made this latest news item interesting is that the company in question was GM. In the twentieth century, the automobile industry was the biggest industrial sector around. The concluding decade of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the twenty first saw much restructuring in the automobile industry. It was driven by sluggish market conditions, business economics (including cost of manufacturing) and larger questions looming over continued use of fossil fuels. Detroit, once the capital of America’s automobile industry, faded. As consequences of climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion gained in various parts of the world, the industry couldn’t anymore ignore the reality it had partly contributed to. The biggest of the automobile companies of the twentieth century – indeed the biggest company in any field for a long time – was GM.  That pecking order has since altered with Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai overtaking GM in auto sales (data from Wikipedia). Meanwhile the world’s biggest company by revenue is retail major, Walmart; the world’s most valued company is Apple (the next four also being in the IT / digital space, in Amazon’s case, combined with retail). It is a measure of how things changed in sales, human habits and overall industrial reality. In GM’s case, the interest in electric bicycles is a consequence of thrust commenced earlier to explore electric cars. But as anyone can see, there is a lot of industrial history behind this latest vehicle, likely GM’s smallest.

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk announced recently that electric vehicle manufacturer-Tesla may look at making an electric bike. The Internet also directed readers’ attention to companies like Uber being bullish on rides offered on electric scooters and electric bicycles; in April this year Uber even bought bike-sharing start up Jump for an amount, the media pegged at around $ 200 million. Among factors inspiring these trends are environment friendly last mile connectivity and potential for digitally networked transport ecosystem, the latter in instances of bike sharing. Although they engage as relevant for today’s polluted, congested traffic environment, electric bikes have their set of problems too.  The Internet has much in-depth discussion on technical aspects and mechanical issues customers face; something engineers will enjoy wrapping their heads around. For the rest of us, I found a couple of points worth mulling over.

A bicycle is a combination of mathematical parameters (its dimensions from frame to crank, cogs and wheel size), married to propulsion and covering distance by that. When motor aids human propulsion on standard bicycle dimension (or human propulsion aids drive by motor), the resultant speed may amaze.  For humans, speed has always fascinated. There is in fact, a lot of celebration of e-bike speed one comes across on the Net. Two questions matter therein especially in the context of bicycle being simple structure at heart and capacity to tinker being hardwired into humans. How much speed can regular bicycle components shoulder without mechanical or structural failure? Second, how safe is it for all, if speed is accompanied by silence, something typical of electric motors? Clearly, just being alternative means of transport does not directly translate into a healthier, safer traffic environment. A bad driver is a bad driver, no matter how many wheels under him or what engine he uses. Further in as much as regular vehicles have messed up urban environments through congestion, the bicycle too can be guilty of it when accumulated in big numbers. But on one aspect it scores indisputably.

Pedaling – whatever be the degree of pedaling involved, pedaling in part as with electric bikes or pedaling in full as with normal bicycles – is healthy on human being. To my mind, in a reverse migration of sorts, electric bikes can be a bridge between giving up mechanized, fuel guzzling means of transport and rediscovering pure cycling. Industry though may see it just the opposite way; that’s what capital does to every equation. There’s more money in getting those on plain bicycles to graduate to motorized two wheels; electric bike is convenient bridge for that. Shortly after news of GM’s electric bike appeared, I asked a Pune based-designer of bicycles what he thought. “ I may look at electric bikes as a matter of market interest. But if I do, I would want to make it look very bicycle-like because my heart is in pure cycling; non-motorized,” he said.

According to published reports, technical details of GM’s electric bicycle are not fully available yet. The company has announced a naming contest. This blog spoke to a senior official in the Indian bicycle retail business, who had seen media reports of the GM product. There was doubt on whether the model is a pedal assisted electric bicycle or one that has a throttle-assist, in which case the bike / bicycle may move even if you don’t cycle. Websites reporting on the product have so far conjectured on their own. At least one pointed to the modest size of battery visible in product photograph and speculated that it seemed a pedal-assist.

Meanwhile for those on plain bicycle – non-motorized two wheels – life remains simple, as always; till world around decides to make it otherwise.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

VICE ADMIRAL MANOHAR AWATI (RETD) / 1927-2018

Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sailing in India lost one of its strongest supporters with the demise of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd) on November 4, 2018. He was 91. Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s project to execute solo circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat, owes much to him.

Circumnavigation had fascinated Vice Admiral Manohar Awati throughout his career in the navy.

But he had been unable to realize it while in service.

As he told this blog in 2013, it all started in west London soon after World War II. He was in his early twenties, freshly commissioned in the Royal Indian Navy and attending a course at the Royal Naval College. While out on a walk, he bought a book from a person selling books on the footpath near Charing Cross; it was Joshua Slocum’s account of his solo circumnavigation in a sail boat, the first such voyage done. It impressed him deeply.

“ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ he said. In that while he would be awarded the Vir Chakra for leadership and gallantry during operations in the Bay of Bengal (1972 India-Pakistan war), serve as Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and eventually be Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, sword arm of the Indian Navy. All through his career the idea of circumnavigation in a sail boat survived in his mind. Upon retiring, he persisted with his pet project. It was an uphill task. The project needed funds. The navy wasn’t quite enthusiastic; corporate India – he approached them for funds – by and large cold shouldered him.

In 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, became navy chief. He warmed up to the idea of circumnavigation. Vice Admiral Awati proposed a revised budget and added a condition that would distinguish Sagar Parikrama – he wanted the boat being used for circumnavigation to be built in India. The navy allotted funds. From this was born the INSV Mhadei, perhaps the toughest little boat the Indian Navy has known yet. Based on a Dutch design, she was built at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa. In 2009-2010 Sagar Parikrama bore fruit when Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) became the first Indian to do solo circumnavigation in a sail boat. Two years later, over 2012-2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy executed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat.

Vice Admiral Awati wasn’t done. He had a few more voyages he wished to see happen. Over 2017-2018, the first of these – Indian women completing circumnavigation in a sail boat was realized when six Indian women naval officers sailed around the planet in INSV Tarini, the Mhadei’s sister vessel. In August 2018, soon after an article on the circumnavigation by all woman-crew appeared on this blog, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in: At near 92, I still have ambitions. (a) to be around to see the first Indian woman solo circumnavigator, and (b) to see an Indian sailing boat (go) through the Arctic, and finally (c) to witness an Indian sail boat circumnavigate Antarctica. All this and more shouldn’t take long to be realized if the momentum of Sagar Parikrama is maintained.

Vice Admiral Awati was among the few readers of this blog who periodically wrote in with feedback and suggestions. He wished to include the public in his enthusiasm for sailing (Sagar Parikrama and the fan following it had is excellent example of this). Compared to 2500 kilometers of Himalaya and considerable fuss around mountaineering, India has 7500 kilometers of coastline and no matching push for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing or any such water-based sport. Vice Admiral Awati felt India was inadequate in its appreciation of the sea and wanted to see the trend corrected. He also knew that if it was to happen in a convincing way, then sailing as activity had to grow. When Maharashtra evolved a policy for outdoor / adventure sports, he was concerned that sailing should be both properly represented and backed by supportive policies. He sought the contact details of those in charge.

This write-up must necessarily end on a personal note.

File photo / INSV Mhadei; at berth in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Journalists are typically awful communicators in the normal sense of the word. Newspaper offices receive so many mails and press releases daily that if you honed your skills in such an environment, you take it for granted that you needn’t respond to each personally. When world reduces to information and data, an element of the impersonal creeps in. The first time I met Vice Admiral Awati was at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Center (INWTC) in Mumbai, when I was doing my first article on Sagar Parikrama. Captain Dilp Donde (Retd) and Commander Abhilash Tomy were also there. We were on the second floor and the lift had been kept on standby for the retired admiral, then in his late eighties, to take. He took the stairs instead and reached the interview table, a bit tired by the effort but happy for it. He spoke to the point and was very articulate; his choice of sentences leaned towards classical harking of bygone era.

Conversation around sailing over, I requested him for a copy of his bio-data, which he agreed to mail across as soon as he got back to Vinchurni in Satara, where he lived. I received the mail – if I recall correctly – the very next day. I was busy writing the article and while I perused the bio-data for material to include in the piece, didn’t reply to the mail. Two days later I got a mail from the admiral in which, he pointed out that while he had promptly dispatched his bio-data to me, I had failed to extend him the courtesy of acknowledging it. I learnt something that day. I have since tried my best to reply not only to his mails but most other’s as well. He never belittled freelance journalist for not belonging to any big media organization or writing for a blog. He recognized individual character and interest in subject. He appreciated good work and always sent in a line when he noticed instances of it. A naval officer once said this of him to me, “ he is the best chief the navy never had.’’

Vice Admiral Awati passed away on November 4, 2018. “ A giant of a man, one of our tallest heroes and greatest icons. Its truly the end of an era. May his soul rest in peace,” Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, said in his statement available on the official Twitter handle of the Indian Navy spokesperson.

Thank you for everything sir; this blog and this writer will always remember you.

To read an interview with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (it was done in 2013), please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-four/)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For all articles related to sailing and Sagar Parikrama, please select from story list / archives or click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section.)

TO TATTOO OR NOT TO TATTOO

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ruminations on blank skin.

Tattoos are beautiful.

Some people wear it well.

I have friends who are into tattooing; not just getting it but also giving it. More than once the blank skin on my body has been their target. Why don’t you get one?

I spent a few years wondering what tattoo I should get.

Since you can get a tattoo but not easily erase it, the image would have to be something you deeply identify with. My dilemma starts there. You see there is nothing I deeply identify with; nothing I cannot really live without. I used to hike, climb rock and go mountaineering. When my resources dried up after I turned freelance journalist, I found myself lacking the money to indulge in these pursuits. It hurt for a while. But when you live life like a voyage you wonder – should I go back to where I came from or should I see what lay beyond the bend? What’s the point in tattooing an ice axe or a coil of rope, if you are not anymore that frequent in the mountains?

Perhaps then I should be a collector of experiences. I could collect tattoos representing each. I may then run the risk of looking like one of those pirates from Hollywood’s popular franchise. But frankly I don’t think I am so adventurous in life or so prolific at gathering experiences that I may run out of skin. But do I wish to be known by any of my experiences? Yet again I don’t think I am defined by anything except the fact that I am sailing through, which raises a question – would you be traveler reaching town branded as something or traveler reaching town attracting no attention? Worse – as is typical in debate by degrees of belonging – what if you walked into some place sporting wrong tattoo or walked into a place full of tattoos with none on you?

Tattoos are invitation to dwell on identity. But who do you pick for pack? Religion, divinity, community, cult et al – I find them delusional comfort. Even music – I listen to what I feel like at given point in time and that means, curiosity for many genres, preference for some and not loving one to the expense of all else. The Earth is five billion years old. It will be there – in varying forms though – for another five billion years. I am 50 years old. What do I know of universe yet, to soak in and claim for identity? Now artists are creative and I am sure they have a design that captures above mentioned state of mind. But what if you thought yourself so and then proceeded to be something else? Like I said, nobody knows what lay beyond the bend and if you did, the question arises: is that universe or your imagination?

It’s better to stay seeker than pretend to have found or been found. And if you haven’t found or been found, what do you tattoo into your skin?

But that’s not how identity works.

Identity is not as insistent on timeless truth as it is of something you can identify with. It seeks to merely answer concerns that matter to the human hive. So you don’t work back from eternity, the age of the universe or planet. You work back from a human lifetime. Within that, tattoos are many to choose from. And as some critical of my escapist, ever-blank argument may say, the problem is perhaps mine; I am not adventurous enough to court powerful experience in the hive, the sort that impacts.

Still I keep asking myself: what about people whose minds exceed hive; people for whom the hive smacks of entrapment?

The universe as it is seems infinite.

I wonder what the universe sports for tattoo.

Who tattoos it?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)      

“ NOBODY KNEW MALAYALAM COULD BE SUNG THIS WAY’’

Avial (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Avial is a traditional Kerala dish. It is central to Malayali cuisine, has a recipe and at Malayali feasts, served on plantain leaves, occupies pride of place. In as much as it is recipe-based, avial is not a stickler for the same. It is seen as prepared from whatever vegetables you have in the kitchen. In colloquial Malayalam, something resembling avial also alludes to an element of disarray and absence of perfection. Arguably therefore, avial is life as it is. A night in Kolkata, sometime in 2009 or immediately thereafter, I realized that a rock band had transformed forever the link between music and my mother tongue. Almost a decade later, while visiting Kerala, I managed to meet the members of Avial. This article written from a fan’s point of view, attempts to explore the context which birthed Avial, the early years leading to their debut album, what their sound meant and what stands between them and a second album.

Avial / Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

With annual festivals dedicated to classical music, Thiruvananthapuram is unlikely home for rock. Cold shouldered locally and living as they did in a corner of India, removed from the musical scene of the metros – fans of alternative genres of music in Thiruvananthapuram had to stretch to access their fix. While many stayed content with rock acquired for the heck of being branded hip, some plunged into it seriously. A handful of rock’s followers thought of music as potential career. Bands mushroomed. High point was becoming regular, paid act at the five star-luxury hotel in Kovalam. Those not making it so settled for a hotel in town. Life wasn’t easy. “ I was lucky to come from a well to do family. Still my mother would sometimes jokingly say that while others worked and brought money home I was borrowing from her to keep my career alive,’’ Tony John said laughing.

Compared to this Kochi was more happening place for western music. In the days of Tony’s school and college education, Kochi even had a famous band that cut an album – 13AD (the city would follow that up with another talented act – Motherjane). In retrospect, what everyone may have underestimated was the value of stretch. Who would have thought for instance, that one day, there would be a recording studio at Tony’s house in Thiruvananthapuram? The band Tony initially played with was called Karizma. They sang in English and performed covers of songs originally sung by well-known bands overseas. By 1996, it was disbanded. Soon after Karizma wound up, John P. Varkey who was the band’s guitarist, moved to Bengaluru. He played classical guitar there as part of a trio. In 2000-2001 some of the band members reunited under different circumstances.

Avial / Tony John / live at Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

Now squeezed by the city and portions of it threatened by pollution, Vellayani, is a picturesque freshwater lake in Thiruvananthapuram. It is the sort of environment creative minds craving an element of solitude away from city, would drift to. Among those choosing the area around Vellayani for base, was the Daksha Sheth Dance Company. According to the group’s website, its mission is to create international quality performances by integrating contemporary dance with traditional movement art; theatrical design, innovative design, innovative sound and state of the art visuals. The dance company wanted a drum and guitar ensemble for one of its productions. In 2000-2001, this brought Tony and John to Vellayani. When John left for Sweden, Rex Vijayan stepped in. Sometime later, when John returned, Tony introduced Rex to him. Looking back, this coming together of the three musicians was the seed of Avial. Working with Daksha Sheth Dance Company, they got opportunity to travel abroad. “ The overseas trip was an eye opener. We realized that people were appreciative of original music, sung in one’s own language,’’ Tony said. It was reason to reflect on the tradition of rock bands from Kerala singing in English.

If you meditate on it, you will realize that a lot more goes into language than meets the eye. That’s why languages are different as are the styles in which they were originally shaped into song. “ Doing rock in Malayalam is not easy. You have to find the right word and sentence length,’’ Tony said. One of the bands John had been part of earlier was Jigsaw Puzzle. They brought out an album but it didn’t click. Among the songs Jigsaw Puzzle performed was Nada Nada. It was in Malayalam and felt like folk music. “ The use of local folk music in rock was John’s vision,’’ Rex said. Both Tony and Rex had heard Nada Nada before. They had been impressed by it. Pradeep Kallipurayath – according to Tony, he worked for SS Music (a TV channel) then – wished to feature the song on video. John tuned the song. As important as tune, is overall sound. For discerning bands, their sound is aural signature. “ Rex is an amazing music producer,’’ Tony said. Rex did the music arrangement for Nada Nada and Tony worked the turntable. The track was produced at the recording studio Tony had built at his house. The video accompanying the song was shot in Irinjalakkuda.  It was subsequently released on SS Music. “ The response was amazing. Nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way,’’ Tony said. Pradeep suggested that the band have a name. Rex came up with Avial. The name stuck. At this point Avial had all of one song.

Avial / Rex Vijayan (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Rex was born and brought up in Kollam, 64 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father Albert Vijayan worked as a music composer and arranger for the Malayalam film industry. His mother liked to sing. Born into a family given to music, Rex started off playing the piano. “ But I got bored,’’ he said an early evening at a cafe in Kochi. It was late September, less than ten days since I met Tony in Thiruvananthapuram. Bored of the piano, Rex taught himself how to play the guitar. He initially played in “ random hotel bands.’’ Then he joined Motherjane. Unknown to him, where he was heading for – the place that would spawn his best creativity yet – was a room in Tony’s house, that recording studio. Growing up in an environment filled with music, Rex was familiar with studios and recording technology. “ I started recording when I was in eighth standard,’’ he said. Rex is credited with creating the signature sound of Avial. It is a sound that is rich, wholesome and quirky. In times of bands choosing utterly polished aural signature and sometimes sounding flat as a result, Avial dared to go with a pulsating bass reminiscent of the psychedelia of the 1960s. “ We knew that as a generation born and alive in the period we belonged to, we had this ability to bridge a variety of aural signatures in music,’’ Tony said. While bass made the band’s music feel like a flow, the quirkiness was courtesy unconventional aural inputs providing a graffiti-like visual quality to Nada Nada. Once as band members and friends sat together, one of them – Reeba Paul – happened to make a phone call. Upon not getting through she spoke frustrated about the recorded message from the telephone exchange: you are in queue; please wait. It struck a chord. The sentence uttered by Reeba and textured to sound like the voice from the exchange, made it into Nada Nada; as did the call of a rooster. It is hard to intellectualize relevance for such audio inputs. The right word seems – quirky or as George Mallory is said to have quipped when asked why he wished to climb Everest: because it is there. Notwithstanding all these audio inputs, for Malayali listening to Nada Nada, the trigger to sit up and take notice was something else.

Avial / live in Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Avial)

For a year after the Nada Nada video appeared on SS Music and began making waves, Avial didn’t do much. Asked if there was any live performance of the song, Tony said, “ Maybe there was one. I recall a show in Kannur, where we sang one or two songs.’’ Then one of Tony’s friends gave money for the band to start work on an album. Encouraged, Rex who was then based in Kochi shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. For the next three and a half years, the band worked diligently on its album. Except for the final mastering, the rest of the recording work was done at Tony’s home. Rex had a room to stay there. “ When we stumbled on to something interesting, we went to the adjacent studio to record,’’ Rex said. The total number of songs worked upon across the three and a half years, was just eight. It betrays the amount of attention and work that went in as combination of music by band and further fiddling in the studio. “ I see the computer as another band member,’’ Rex said. They wished for sound signature capable of long shelf life. One of the interesting outcomes of this period was the creation of multiple versions of some of Avial’s songs. From them, the best versions were chosen. “ Throughout this work, our focus was not on the market. It was not on selling the music. It was to get the sound right,’’ Tony said. Among those who had provided music for the dance productions by Daksha Sheth Dance Company was Mumbai-based bass guitarist Naresh Kamath. When Avial needed a good bass guitarist to play for the album, the band contacted Naresh. “ We sent him samples of what we had created and he was immediately interested,’’ Rex said. Naresh introduced the band to Phat Phish Records, a music company operating from Mumbai. The final mastering of the eight songs was done in Mumbai. Phat Phish also brought out a video of Nada Nada; the song as featured in that video is probably its most popular version.

Avial / live at Blue Frog (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In 2009, music label EMI brought out a compilation of rock songs by Indian bands. The CD was called India Rocks. The first volume was released in 2009; the playlist included Nada Nada. Around this time, freelance journalist was at Music World in Kolkata, looking for CDs of Bengali rock, when the salesman recommended India Rocks as well. That night before sleeping I listened to the album on my portable CD player and was stunned by Nada Nada. For Malayalis fond of rock and other genres of western music like blues and folk (freelance journalist among them), there had always been a major gap in the local style of singing. Popular Malayalam music was trapped in compulsion to endorse social order. Melody was important and melody in turn, was usually based on Indian classical and devotional music. Either way, the songs got lauded for their structure, lyrics and delivery but stayed limited in their capacity to convey variety in human emotion especially when juxtaposed on vastly changed times. Visceral connection was absent. On the other hand in blues for instance, the rawness of human emotion – sorrow, anger – all these are captured in an idiom that is definitely the stuff of music but is content not to be classical or distanced from singer / listener. It links directly. In western music, blues has lent itself well to rock, as did folk. Both Tony and Rex said that discussion on what Avial’s idiom means is beyond them. They navigated their way through the band’s first album with music and sound signature as compass. They hadn’t imagined any of what people (freelance journalist included) read into their work. I could not find a clear response from them describing the band’s sound; it appeared the stuff of exploring and discovering using sounds already heard as reference points. Among external influences, both Tony and Rex said that band members had been fans of Linkin Park. Having mentioned Linkin Park, Rex thought some more and added Incubus and Pearl Jam. Back in time, motive if any appeared confined to finding a solution for the limited audience English rock music fetched in Kerala. As musicians loving the genre, they wanted to break out of such restricted appeal. Singing in Malayalam had seemed potential answer. What made Malayalam click in rock was folk.

Avial / live in Kuwait (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Resonant of bygone times and rich in its interplay with nature, Malayalam folk music can be soulful. Yet in hindsight, one would argue that even Malayalam folk songs – so capable of conveying sorrow, sense of loss and angst – fall short of the total bandwidth of emotions contemporary urban lifestyle, consumerism, globalization et al unleash. But what if, folk and rock joined hands? That was the brilliance in John P. Varkey’s vision. He was based in Thrissur, a little over 80 kilometers north of Kochi and some 280 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. For folk song, John got in touch with an upcoming lyricist. Engandiyur is a village in the Chavakkad taluk of Thrissur. Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan is a writer and lyricist hailing from this place. According to a 2012 article on him in The Hindu newspaper, his studies discontinued after class 10, Chandrasekharan went into his family business of making furniture and wooden sculptures. What fascinated him however was literature and acting. In the article, he says of his writing style, “ I use ordinary language. I write what I understand. That’s why people like them.’’ John asked Chandrasekharan to write some songs in Malayalam, which Jigsaw Puzzle could sing. “ He told me to write as I wished. There was no brief in terms of subject,’’ Chandrasekharan told this blog, mid-October 2018. Nada Nada was one of the songs Chandrasekharan penned so. “ I imagined it as a journey; you walk seeing many things,’’ he said. Tuned by John and powered by Avial’s rock music the song exploded to being an anthem. “ I didn’t expect such popular affection for that song. What happened just amazed me,’’ Chandrasekharan said. Nada Nada and Avial changed his life. Once a writer of lyrics for small films, he is now an established lyricist in the Malayalam film industry. What we haven’t mentioned yet in Avial’s brew, is the significance of voice.

According to Rex, Anandraj Benjamin Paul grew up overseas. The two met when Rex joined a band called Overdrive. “ In real life I don’t think Anandraj can read and write Malayalam,’’ Rex said. It offers insight into not just Avial’s unique predicament in Malayalam rock but also what the idea of being Keralite means these days of globalization and diaspora. Anandraj’s raspy rendition of Chandrasekharan’s folksy lyrics was the blues connection long missed in Malayalam songs. It confidently, almost defiantly took on popular perceptions of vocalization in Malayalam music and inspired the imagery of anyone singing their heart out. It removed intermediary inhabiting space between feeling and singing. That night in Kolkata, I felt exactly what Tony would tell me almost a decade later: nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way. Adding to overall impression was freight train of a band in the background. Interestingly, despite one of Avial’s strengths seeming the skilled craftsmanship of its musicians, Rex said, “ we are not a band of exceptional musicians.’’ Posted on YouTube, viewers from across the world have sometimes commented below their videos that they don’t understand a word of what is being sung but the music is excellent.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Like all genres of music, rock too is an interpretation. The late G Aravindan was one of Kerala’s most respected film makers. In 1979, he made a film for children called Kummatty. It won that year’s state award for best children’s film. The music for the film was composed by M.G. Radhakrishnan. Kavalam Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics; he also sang them. A memorable song from the film was Karukare Kaarmukil. Aravindan wasn’t a maker of mainstream, commercial films. His films were realistic and belonged more to the parallel movement in Indian cinema. The song in question was meant to accompany scenes of dark monsoon clouds and approaching rain. According to Kavalam Sreekumar, Narayana Panicker’s son and a well-known singer in his own right, the song was based on Samantha Malahari raga, which in turn finds prominence in Kerala’s tradition of classical music called Sopana Sangeetham. This tradition which developed in the state’s temples has distinct ragas and also ragas commonly used in South Indian Carnatic music. Sopanam – Wikipedia describes it as “ a happy blending of Vedic, folk and tribal music’’ – shares a similarity with Hindustani classical music in that both traditions have ragas meant for singing at particular times of the day. Malahari is a Carnatic morning raga capable of providing a sense of calm. It is associated with the rainy season. Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics of Karukare Karmukil with Samantha Malahari in mind; M G Radhakrishnan tuned it. Tony had a friend from Kottayam with whom he used to jam. The friend had a habit of singing Karukare Karmukil from Kummatty. Its haunting melody and folk flavor caught the band’s interest. Rex was hearing the song for the first time. “ I remember waking up next morning with that melody still in mind,’’ he said.

Avial / Benjamin (Binny) Isaac (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Intrigued, the band proceeded to work on a version. The friend who sang the song had sung it slow. The slow pace remained tempo for Avial’s interpretation of the work by Kavalam Narayana Panicker and M. G. Radhakrishnan, both acknowledged masters in their space. “ Played slow and with rock elements added, the song acquired the feel of grunge rock. Had it been played faster at its original pace, I suspect that within rock, it may have sounded clichéd. It may have ended up just another rock and roll song,’’ Rex said. Crucially, aside from slowing the tempo, the band maintained the song’s melody. “ I don’t think I have heard another melody like that,’’ Rex said. The resultant Karukare has stayed a fine example of Avial’s creativity. Even as the music arrangement is powerfully alternate rock and electronic, it retains the tenderness and mischievous tenor of the original. It broadly retains the original tune, uses rock music in a measured way (it is a song with moments of high decibel music and fade to quietness) and also manages to create the atmospherics of gathering rain, a vignette of existence that is typical Kerala. For purists, it probably remains debatable whether rock is apt format to showcase the devotion and melody associated with Sopanam. Sreekumar said that his father always welcomed creativity and considered Avial’s interpretation as another version. “ I think the underlying reality is that it is a simple, beautiful song. As long as you stay loyal to the melody, it remains beautiful no matter what the style you sing it in,’’ Sreekumar said. Indeed one of the significant aspects of Karukare is sense of unchanged melody – like a slice of timeless old – with rock building a brooding, contemporary envelope around it. Any which way you look at it, it is fantastic recipe. In 2008, Avial’s first album – named after the band – was released to critical acclaim. “ Even though we started off with Nada Nada, the main element was the album. Songs like Chekele, Aadu Pambe, Ettam Pattu – they played a huge role. We started performing because of the album,’’ Rex said. As with all bands, behind the scenes, there were losses. John left quite early in the production process. Then just ahead of the album’s launch, Anandraj moved to the US. Tony, who had until then sung back-up, took over the lead vocals for the band’s live performances that followed. But he knew Anandraj set the bar pretty high. The band’s first live performance post album-launch was at Eastwind music festival in Delhi. It was also drummer, Mithun Puthanveetil’s first show with the band.

Avial / Mithun Puthanveetil (Photo: courtesy Avial)

At Vazhuthacaud in Thiruvananthapuram are two bungalows long familiar to the public as official residence of ministers. In one of them, on the first floor, was an old, weather beaten bass drum, which had followed its owner around, a reminder of his early days in music. Rooms nearby represented the other end of the journey – they had fully kitted out drum sets, equipment for programming and old cymbals, cracked and broken, retained by artiste to add variety in sound. At the time of writing, Mithun’s father, Kadannappalli Ramachandran, was a minister in Kerala’s government. Mithun’s mother liked to sing; the family loved music. The old drum had been acquired years ago, when a young Mithun became obsessed with a drum set he saw at a shop in Kottayam. At his father’s request, the shopkeeper sold Mithun a cheap drum he had in stock. It had no pedals, hi-hat or cymbals; Mithun had to improvise all that.  “ I like seeing an array of drums before me,’’ he said. Mostly self-taught, he however had one teacher he met at Kochi and owes much to – Mathew Joy. By around the time Avial was readying their first album, Mithun had become drummer for the Thiruvananthapuram based-metal band, Rage. Although drumming for a metal band, Mithun’s natural inclination was towards genres like funk and jazz.  Nithin Vijayanath – then guitarist for Rage – was Rex’s friend; Rex used to help the band with music arrangement and mixing. Rage kept a practice room near Keshavadasapuram in the city. Mithun fondly remembered a jam session with Rex (he was on bass) there as first hint of potential chemistry. Among those leaving Avial after work on the first album concluded, was their drummer – C.I. Joffy. Mithun stepped in to fill the gap. The jam session in the practice room was arguably the second turning point in Mithun’s journey in music. The first had been his introduction to western pop music as a kid; he recalls touching the speakers of his National Panasonic audio player and feeling the pulsating rhythm. During his childhood at Iringal near Vatakara and later years in Kannur (including his earliest bands), Mithun’s intake of music had been eclectic – there was Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English. Avial’s rock – sung in Malayalam – resembled best of both worlds. There was the rhythm from those speakers and the language he was born to.

Avial / live in Kozhikode (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Naresh also left Avial; he has since been replaced by Benjamin (Binny) Isaac. An accomplished bass player who has played with several bands and musicians / singers from the film industry, Binny is Avial’s oldest band member in terms of age. He spent his early years in Thiruvananthapuram, where working with his church choir introduced him to classical guitar and piano. His two brothers were award winning classical guitarists in their college days. Guitar and keyboard available at home, meant ability to train diligently. For lay music listeners like this writer, bass would seem challenging because its trajectory runs distinctly apart from progression of melody. “ For me transition to bass was relatively easy because classical guitar entails playing melody and bass at once. I was already used to the technique required,’’ Binny said. In 1986, around the same time he started playing bass, Binny’s family shifted to Kochi. Ten years later – in 1997 – he joined his first rock band called Nine Hours. They sang at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. According to Binny, these years saw quite a few musicians and singers from Thrissur play with bands elsewhere in Kerala, including in Thiruvananthapuram. There were also youngsters who had picked up western music in the Middle East, shifting to Kerala. It was a period of churn. From Nine Hours, Binny moved to Overdrive, a classic rock band which had in its fold Anandraj and Joffi (as mentioned earlier, Rex too had a stint with them). They played at the luxury resort in Kovalam. Binny was thus known pretty early to the talent that would converge as Avial. When Nada Nada made its debut as a single, Binny was still with Overdrive. Having known John, Tony, Rex, Anandraj and others, he had an inkling of what musical idiom lay in store. He liked what he heard. “ It was an experiment. I don’t think anyone did it as well as Avial did. The song was distinctly rock. It was also distinctly Malayalam. Anandraj’s style of singing played a role in ensuring that,” Binny said.  When Naresh got busy with his own work in Mumbai, the band asked if Binny would step in as replacement. His first live performance with Avial was in 2008-2009 in Mauritius and Reunion Island.

Although critically acclaimed, Avial enjoyed a mixed bag of commercial success. The band’s debut album produced by Phat Phish was to be distributed by Sony BMG. According to Tony, the album sold some 50,000 copies. But following disagreement between Phat Phish and Song BMG, distribution too was done by Phat Phish; that may have limited the album’s reach. Aside from initial signing amount received, the band got no royalties. “ Phat Phish folded up later,’’ he said. The main source of revenue for the band has been live performances. In that market, they remain among the better paid acts. But given to singing original songs, their repertoire of work is limited – about 14 songs. It is enough to perform on stage but probably not enough when imagined as band’s lifetime work. What is remarkable is how some of these songs continue to be heard by fans. By 2018, Nada Nada for instance, was almost 15 years old. The song remains Malayalam rock’s ambassador to the world. About three years ago, Avial was featured on BBC. Ettam Pattu and Aadu Pambe were played on BBC Radio, Tony said.

Avial / live in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In Kerala there are still those who refer to Avial’s music as `fusion.’ That is cavalier. The best approach is to call them a rock band and their work as rock or plain, music. One reason I pitch description so is that from vocals to their sound in rock, the Avial package has been more wholesome and committed to genre than later entrants into the same space. There isn’t any pleasing the market, in Avial’s work. The studio may have played a big role in shaping Avial’s sound but the band made no effort to sound sweet. Neither Tony nor Rex could describe accurately how the band’s sound or that creative drive behind the first album evolved. The indescribability of those times is one of the concerns playing in their minds as they contemplate a second album. They may have succeeded in recreating the atmospherics of rain for Karukare but can they recreate the madness which made them a band in the first place and fueled them to one hell of a debut album? The period preceding Nada Nada and their debut album had been a very unsure stage in the careers of band members. Avial was a cathartic release born from that. “ What keeps us going is our passion. You can’t force creativity,’’ Tony said thoughtfully. Both lead vocalist and guitarist concurred that the band’s preferred idiom would continue to be rock and folk. “ Going ahead, the only thing to worry about our music is whether we like it or not. We are that sort of people who get bored of our own music,’’ Rex said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was written in October 2018, long after Avial became an established rock band.)      

THE 6+6 FORMULA OF HAPPINESS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On my visit to Kerala, 6+6 was often reason for happiness. Will it stay so? I don’t know. I hope it does for it reminded of common sense in fashionably expensive times. 

From the highway as we turned into the road leading to the South Kerala tourist attraction, the ambiance changed; distinctly.

The surroundings were shaded, temperate and green.

The road we were on was unlike any other I had seen in these parts. It was well maintained with a proper footpath guarded by steel railing. Refined as it seemed, the atmosphere was also synthetic. Not that the mess of everyday Kerala is inspiring; just that you know an island of deliberately developed property when you see one.

For some reason the first thing I thought of as we beheld this place was Jurassic Park. The impression was strengthened when a posse of muscular men, clad in tight T-shirt and cargo pants, walkie-talkie in hand, waved down our autorickshaw at a junction ahead. “ Do you have tickets? It is booked online,’’ one of them said. Behind the guards and the access they regulated were the lower slopes of a hill with a huge rock on top. To be honest, the welcome had felt tad aggressive. But then gated properties are valued exactly for that. If you take away the barricades to entry, the exclusivity craved by those frequenting it, is lost. Degradation also happens faster when whole world goes in. There is an alternative. You can start at school level and teach every generation to tread light on nature, preserve beauty and appreciate solitude. That is however longer haul. Who has patience for it? Certainly not, when schools and colleges are factories in service of successful career. Given we hadn’t booked tickets online, we were politely guided to ticket booths nearby. A young man offered assistance. It seemed a junction waiting for business. All eyes were on us.

Now both my cousin Rajeev and I like to walk. Our idea of coming to this large rock, which everyone praised for a big bird sculpture recently installed there, was to walk around, eventually reach its top and enjoy the view. Although growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, we had never visited this rock earlier. In our fifties, we wished to catch up on what we had missed. At the ticket booth we sought price. Ticket price nudging Rs 500 and a strict no to going up the rock along old paths or newly created ones (you had to compulsorily take a short cable car ride) ended our original mission. Something about the whole affair – perhaps the ticket rate, the guards and the packaging of outdoors and adventure as spectacle – put us off. We decided instead to walk along the road, see where it takes us. Hopefully it went all around the rock’s perimeter offering us a glimpse of structures on top and lets us enjoy the idea of being free, devoid of boundaries and guards.

At some point on that winding road, we met a local resident parking his scooter before his house. Behind the building set in plantation like-ambiance, the rock loomed large. We chatted for some time about the rock that had now become a tourism project. We asked him if he had been on top and if so how it felt. “ Long time back it used to be our backyard and we would go there. The rock’s top is vast. The view from there is really nice. Now we also have to buy tickets,’’ he said laughing. According to him, all the planned services and attractions were yet to be in place. When they are, there will of course be a cost to experience them. “ What they are planning is supposed to be really good,’’ he said. We left it there. Staged stuff wasn’t our cup of tea.

The walk around the rock was relaxing. We imagined early morning hours and decided it was a promising place to run. About half of the distance to walk was on the well maintained road with paved footpath. It connected to a bigger road leading to the local bus depot some kilometers away. Here the traffic rose. From a curve on this road, we saw a temple like-structure on top of the big rock. If I was reminded earlier of Jurassic Park, now I was reminded of the movie, Bahubali. I liked Jurassic Park for bringing dinosaurs to life convincingly. But like the Jaws franchise and its dilemma of how much shark it takes to scare audience progressively losing their fear, it tired pretty soon. As for Bahubali, neither of the two films interested me; I saw them on night buses plying the Mumbai-Bengaluru route, breathing a sigh of relief when kings, queens and heirs concluded their fantasy and Volvo returned to being quiet. Somehow, in these years of decadence by human numbers, excess and vanity, larger than life isn’t an engaging paradigm for me anymore. On the other hand, smaller than life, quieter than life – they attract.

An hour – maybe hour and a half – later, we walked into Chadayamangalam’s bus depot, bought a glass of tea each along with dal vada from a nearby tea shop and sat down to savor it. We looked up from our glass and there, clear and free for all to see, was the bird atop the rock. It was without doubt an impressive sight. I don’t know if its destiny will be the same as Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs but this I know – for centuries that rock, just as it is, had existed brewing fascination. The question is therefore legitimate – what counts more, nature as it is or what we do to it? After the walk, the hot tea and vada felt good. Where we sat probably added to the feeling – we were seated on a large concrete block; tea shop counter behind us, bus depot in front, busy road to the side, people around, all of that open to sky and rock in the distance. It was the abject opposite of being larger than life. You were nobody.

That was when I discovered a wonderful formula in the neighborhood.  The glass of tea we were having – a full big glass, not the cutting measure of North India – cost six rupees, significantly less than Mumbai’s cutting chai. The vada cost six rupees too. In fact, according to the tea shop owner, there were other snacks to choose from as well and any of that had with tea, sold for six rupees a piece. Yet again, not the tiny portions sold for double the cost in northern cities; these were decently sized specimens. Chai and kadi (something to munch) – the combination sold for Rs 12. It satisfied my soul. Two days later in Thiruvananthapuram, I was treated to same formula at a small hotel near Vellayambalam; 6+6, no matter what snack from the designated lot you had full glass of tea with. The formula repeated again at the city’s East Fort bus stand.

It was nice to see small tea shops defying market trends even as big projects succumbed.

I sincerely hope some aspects of Malayali sensibility don’t change.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)      

A MODEL FOR KAYAKING

Manik Taneja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A school to train aspirants, a shop to buy good quality gear, a festival that brings the best in the sport to India – this is a model to grow kayaking imagined from landlocked Bengaluru. It appears to have worked well.

“ In India, Bengaluru has the highest number of recreational kayakers,’’ Manik Taneja said.

Traditionally Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other places along the Himalaya, have dominated river rafting and kayaking in the country. Kayakers are more in these parts. They do kayaking for livelihood. Bengaluru in contrast, has a growing number of recreational kayakers pursuing the sport as hobby. Landlocked and located at the southern end of the Deccan plateau, some 2300 kilometers away from the Himalaya, the city is an unlikely magnet for the sport. The sea is a few hundred kilometers away and while rivers for kayaking take anywhere from four to six hours to access; none of them strike imagery in the head as grand as those from the north do. It was late August, 2018. We were at Manik’s house in Bengaluru. Aside from sporadic showers there was little in the city for sign of what monsoon had unleashed further to the south west. The floods of Kerala were just over 10 days old.

Anvesh and Sanjay of Expeditions India; from a multi-day trip on the Mahakali River (Photo: Dileep Marar)

Manik is among names you turn to for kayaking. Born in Dehradun, he grew up in Pune. During his school days, he was into sports and athletics; later he played hockey all the way up to league level. He graduated in computer science and took his masters abroad, in Amsterdam. Following his masters course, Manik went on a small bicycle tour in Ladakh. Soon after this, he did a three day rafting trip in Uttarakhand’s Alaknanda River. The latter, he did with the well-known adventure travel company, Aquaterra. The rafting trip was led by Anvesh Singh Thapa, an experienced river guide. The two became good friends. The trip was Manik’s first exposure to kayaking. Upon securing a job back in Pune, Manik drifted into work. Sports receded to being strictly recreational. However as disposable income rose, he got back to the outdoors. When Anvesh commenced his own river rafting company (Expeditions India), he asked Manik if he would like to sign up for a rafting trip. Instead, Manik asked him to teach him how to kayak. Anvesh put together a training program. Five people registered. Only Manik showed up. “ That’s how my journey in kayaking started,’’ he said. It wasn’t easy.

Kayakers compete at the 2014 Ganga Kayak Festival (Photo: Manik Taneja)

To the lay observer, kayaking seems simple. You sit in a boat and paddle. According to Manik, learning to kayak requires patience. For instance, the type of balancing kayaking demands is different from the regular type of balancing people are used to. For most people, the popular image of balancing is riding a bicycle. That is typically done on a flat, stable surface, at worst on surface where unevenness can be anticipated in advance. Unlike land, water is dynamic. A turbulent river – on which whitewater kayaking is done – is even more so. The closest a cyclist can come to whitewater kayaker’s predicament is in downhill biking, where the pace is fast and the going, constantly dynamic. If you wish to be a good kayaker you have to be mentally ready for dynamic medium. Then, there are the details – the techniques of the sport. “ For newcomer to kayaking, the scariest part is getting flipped upside down,’’ Manik said. Legs placed well into kayak and the chamber sealed, instinct is to use one’s free torso to get back up. It takes a while to understand that the roll is done applying momentum to the lower half of one’s body. Executing the roll properly is merely beginning. It takes longer to keep ones cool and be good at doing the roll in all circumstances – rapids included. “ You have to keep your wits about you. Women tend to do better at kayaking. Men try to power through everything. You have to contain panic, slow down your mind, remember the techniques you learnt and execute them,’’ Manik said. Within the world of water sports, Manik believes kayaking is more individualist than say, river rafting, which showcases team work. He finished the introductory program Anvesh designed but on return to Bengaluru found himself as high and dry in kayaking as the city itself was in South India’s geography. Every time Manik wanted to kayak in white water, he had to haul himself to Rishikesh via Delhi. It wasn’t an efficient situation to be in.

Manik, Jacopo and Sid at the 2017 Adidas Sickline, Oetz, Austria (Photo: Manik Taneja)

The mountains and rivers of North India are bigger than those of the south. Despite this, river rafting and kayaking had presence in pockets of South India. It was of modest scale. Naveen Shetty now runs a company in the adventure travel space. Originally a software engineer, he got hooked to kayaking after a couple of commercial river rafting trips in Karnataka. The connection he felt with this new experience was so strong that Naveen and his friends did not hesitate to buy inflatable kayaks, which they had to import. “ We invested in four or five kayaks, for ourselves and to also take anyone else interested, along,’’ Naveen said. Problem was – the potential for kayaking hadn’t been properly explored in South India. There were paddlers in Bengaluru; most of them frequented lakes in the vicinity of the city. Around this time – early 2008 – Sohan Pavuluri, having spent eight years in the US, picked up whitewater kayaking over there and since shifted to Bengaluru, was looking for a local community of kayakers. That put Naveen and him in the same boat. “ I came across this website called Dreamroutes. While mostly dealing with activities like trekking, it had a section meant for paddlers,’’ Naveen said. The forum on kayaking at the website was started by Sohan and administered by him for a few months. The two – and interested others – agreed to meet up at one of Bengaluru’s lakes. Thus was sown the seed for a group that sought to take Bengaluru’s kayaking beyond its lakes. “ There were five to six of us. Sohan had a proper whitewater kayak; the rest had duckies – inflatable kayaks,’’ Manik said. According to Sohan, over a period of time and after experimenting with a few names, the group came to be known as Southern River Runners (SRR). Paddling was largely seasonal; during the monsoon. In the rains, the rivers of the south swelled with water and for a few months as the water rushed from hills to the sea, select rivers became amenable for kayaking. Bengaluru’s kayakers traveled to Coorg and Chikmagalur in search of rapids. But there was a major problem. It was one that adventure sports earlier into India – like rock climbing – had faced. Pioneers have to navigate the rapids of social perception and judgement. When society is unfamiliar with any risky sport, it clamps down. Climbers saw this happen many times at various places in India before a degree of accommodation for their sport set in. It was the same for whitewater kayaking in South India. Unable to comprehend what the kayakers were up to in the fast flowing, upstream section of rivers, forest officials and sometimes local people, objected, Manik said. And when such objection was overcome, permission became next challenge. In most instances such permission in India has to be obtained from officials unfamiliar with adventure sports and the human instinct driving it. Eventually as accessing water bodies became difficult, Bengaluru’s fledgling community of kayakers realized that the only way out was to grow their community further and enlarge the overall kayaking ecosystem.

Goodwave kayaking classes on the Cauvery River (Photo: Manik Taneja)

At the time of writing Jacopo Nordera ran a vineyard in Italy. Back in the time Bengaluru’s kayakers discovered that they needed to grow their community to get the sport going, Jacopo was part of the group of paddlers Manik belonged to. Jacopo lived in Chennai and every time there was a kayak session planned out of Bengaluru, traveled in from Chennai to join. “ He was the most committed member of the group,’’ Manik said. The two kayakers joined hands and formed a business composed of two distinct halves – a kayak school (called GoodWave Adventures) to teach the sport and a kayak shop (called Madras Fun Tools [MFT]), from where local kayakers can buy good quality equipment. A good kayak can cost over a lakh (100,000) of rupees. Manik said that prices at MFT are better than overseas despite import duty for kayaks beings high and General Sales Tax (GST) pegged to highest bracket. “ We have to grow the market and so keep our margins thin,’’ he said. In tune with the overall niche market kayaking is in India, MFT is a small but profitable operation. “ It took us two years to sell the first container-load of boats. The second container, we sold all the boats in a year. Now we take 6-12 months to sell a container of boats,’’ Manik said. According to him, at least half of the total number of recreational kayakers in Bengaluru, own kayaks. Over time, the community around SRR grew. Those who had previously gone kayaking or formally learnt the sport joined the group. Resident expertise improved. “ Initially, everyone went to the same river. Now the group is mature enough to have different groups going to different rivers,’’ Manik said. In 2013, Manik and Jacopo did their instructor course in kayaking from Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the US. As SRR, GoodWave and MFT slowly grew, a new project started taking shape in the mind. Bengaluru’s kayakers had seen the Ganga Kayak Festival in Uttarakhand. How about one in South India; and if so, where?  – That was the question.

The start of an enterprise; items from the first container load of kayak gear Madras Fun Tools imported (Photo: courtesy Manik Taneja)

Besides equipment cost, one of the major components of overall cost in kayaking is transport. You have to take boat and paddler to river and within that, to specific section of river. Since rapids are a product of water volume, gradient, nature of terrain inside a river and surrounding geography (how it channelizes flow of water), the home of rapids are not always close to urban centers typically located in the plains. You have to travel to meet rapids. An element of research to make sure the destination one is heading to is apt to kayak, is appreciated before spending on transport and access. Google Earth was a great resource for kayakers to get a fix on rivers suitable for whitewater kayaking along with the best sections of river therein. “ Among us, Jacopo was the one who was most active on Google Earth, scouting for engaging sections of rivers,’’ Naveen said. For two to three years, SRR confined its activities to the rivers of Karnataka. Then it started to explore Kerala. “ We were skeptical. But Jacopo pushed for it,’’ Naveen said. On India’s map, Kerala is long and thin. At its widest it is probably less than 150 kilometers but within such distance and less, offers landscape changing from seacoast to backwaters, rivers and hills. In terms of elevation this can range from sea level to 6000 feet plus (the highest point in Kerala’s hills is 8840 feet). It has 600 kilometers of seacoast and an equally long spine of high hills. The state is environmentally sensitive and if you take a bird’s eye view, short of space for the consumerist excess, which characterizes contemporary notion of success. Yet Kerala lived oblivious of its geography and environmental fragility.

Bird’s eyeview of Kerala; hills and rivers. This photo is an overview of the terrain around Kuttiyadi River in north Kerala (Photo: Goodwave Adventures)

The floods of August 2018 changed popular imagination of life and Kerala, at least temporarily. A remittance economy measuring human existence by capacity to afford and lost to the deep end of settled life, the monsoons of that year combined with the deluge caused by multiple dams opening their shutters at once, flattened rich and poor alike. Suddenly people noticed geography and nature, both of which had been pushed to the backdrop for long and were now returned to center-stage. Across the state, the aftermath of flood was time to reflect and as many feared – reflect briefly – for Kerala’s deep rooted affection for wealth and consumerism is a bigger flood that can be kept at bay only for so long. By late September 2018, aside from their banks still adorned with the debris they bore when flooded, neither Chalippuzha nor Iruvanjippuzha betrayed any sign of monsoon’s fury. “ The water level has dropped,’’ the driver of our autorickshaw said looking down from the bridge over the rocky Chalippuzha. A rather tame river flowed below. The only trace of white water kayaking around and an annual kayaking festival claimed to be among Asia’s best, was a house in Pulikayam rented by kayakers, where preparations were on to ship kayaks back to Uttarakhand, Bengaluru and wherever else they came from. This was GoodWave’s outpost in north Kerala, from where they ran a season of kayaking. The boats lay stacked in the courtyard of the house and inside the garage. Kayak season had ended in Pulikayam. It will return with the next rains; as would – hopefully – Sagar Gurung and Amit Thapa, river guides from the north. In the same room and chatting with Sagar and Amit, was Vishwas Radh from Balussery, a town roughly 30 kilometers away. Having kayaked regularly in the rivers near Pulikayam, he on the other hand, aspired for a taste of kayaking on the Ganga.

2015; kayakers training on the Chalippuzha River (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The gateway to whitewater kayaking in north Kerala is the small town of Kodenchery, some 40 kilometers away from Kozhikode. It is agricultural country; not in the paddy field sort-of-way but in the manner of plantations and densely vegetated, green land holdings typical of the hills. Three bank branches situated close by in town would normally hint wealth by remittance. But the drivers of the autorickshaws we hired as well as Joby who ran that home of delicious Kerala food called Janata Hotel, assured, wealth in these parts is mostly agrarian. Hailing from Wayanad, he had been in Kodenchery for the past 17 years, initially toiling as a farm worker, then driving an autorickshaw and eventually running the hotel. Janata Hotel was classic Kerala; affordable and serving portions big enough to satiate one’s hunger. It was practical, functional ambiance. Style and glamor had no place in it. “ The restaurant has just begun stabilizing,’’ Joby said of the business. Kodenchery is not far from the ascent to the hill district of Wayanad. The hills on the edge of Wayanad and Kozhikode were visible from town. The most prominent landmark around was a large hotel – Tushara International. You wondered how something that big ended up here. Yet securing a room over the weekend was difficult. They had none to spare (it is usually not so; a special occasion like a wedding can take up rooms, kayakers familiar with Kodenchery said).

James Smith from UK practising at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Not far from Kodenchery’s main junction, at Pulikayam, is Chalippuzha. Further away is Iruvanjippuzha. The former is a tributary of the latter, which in turn feeds into the bigger Chaliyar River. The Chaliyar, close to where it met the Arabian Sea near Kozhikode, was host to Jellyfish Watersports, an enjoyable destination for paddlers into gentler, expansive waters. The first people to do whitewater kayaking near Kodenchery were Jacopo, Manik, Naveen and a few others from Bengaluru. Some aspects about the two Kerala rivers and Kodenchery attracted them. Between the two rivers and the sections on them selected for kayaking, they found a healthy balance of technical kayaking and voluminous water flow. The rivers of the Western Ghats maybe small compared to those of the north. But they have good gradient and as in the case of Chalippuzha, is rocky, requiring a degree of technical expertise to negotiate its stretches. With rapids ranging from Class 3 and below to Class 5, both amateur runs and pro runs could be hosted. Above all, after encountering suspicion and hostility in some of their previous river exploration trips, the group from Bengaluru was happy to see none of that attitude in Kodenchery. Naveen recalled the kayakers’ first visit to Kodenchery and the nearby rivers. “ Jacopo had done all the required scouting on Google Earth. The section of river we kayaked on wasn’t inside the forest. It ran through villages and as the kayaks navigated their way downstream, word quickly spread of what was going on. By the time we reached the bridge at Pulikayam there was a crowd of enthusiastic people gathered to witness the proceedings. We stayed at Tushara International. On the last day of our trip, a local journalist appeared and said someone wished to talk to us on the phone. It was the District Collector! He welcomed us to the state and offered support. That was a big difference compared to what we had encountered previously, elsewhere,’’ Naveen said.

Intermediate category race at the 2016 MRF (Photo: Neil D’souza)

Nistul, who hailed from Kodenchery, attributed the local support for kayaking to Kodenchery’s innate affection for sports. According to him, the region has produced district level swimmers and a clutch of physical education teachers. “ We were swimming in these rivers before kayaking reached Kodenchery. When we saw whitewater kayaking, more than anything else we became curious to learn it,’’ he said. Further, within Kerala, north Kerala has always been close to sports. The famous track athlete, P.T. Usha, hails from this part of the state (she is from the adjacent Kannur district). India’s first cricket club was founded in Thalassery and while cricket never really fascinated Malayalis, football has stayed much loved madness. There are many national level football players from north Kerala and during the FIFA World Cup, international football stars are portrayed on posters, wall paintings and the sides of transport buses. This is sport loving-country. Once they got a feel of the rivers, mapped out its stretches suited for kayaking and sensed the local community’s empathy for sport, Manik and others from Bengaluru knew they had found the venue for the kayak festival they sought. In otherwise quiet Kodenchery, the annual Malabar River Festival (MRF) seemed appreciated as a valuable revenue generator for the local economy. It brought international caliber kayakers, lovers of the sport and tourists to town. Several people we spoke to found it an engaging fixture. Tushara International serves as base camp for the festival. The house at Pulikayam rented by kayakers was known locally as Kayak House. Say so and autorickshaw drivers knew where to drop you off.

UK kayaker and film maker Joe Rea Dickens competes at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

MRF, which is now supported by local authorities and the state government, has carved a niche for itself. The event is well known in the global kayaking community; the sections of river it is based on are deemed world class for whitewater kayaking. Diligent and smart marketing aside, the event has merits founded within the sport. “ In India, this is probably one of the hardest courses. In the north, volume of water and its temperature make a difference. But in the Western Ghats, rivers are typically steep making for narrow passages and tighter maneuvers. Less water volume in these rivers also means that they are less forgiving; chances of physical injury are high,’’ Manik said. The event attracts some of the world’s best kayakers. Of greater interest is how over multiple editions of the festival, kayaking has sprouted roots in Kodenchery. There is now a small team of kayakers from the region, regularly paddling in the two rivers, competing in MRF (with podium positions earned in amateur category) and hoping to earn a name in India’s kayaking scene. Nistul and Kevin were among them. Other names included Nitin, Vishwas and Reshmi. About 18 people from the locality had initially trained in the sport, Kevin said. Ten of them continue to be active. Those this blog spoke to recognized Jacopo and Manik as their main teachers (Manik’s approach of holding down a regular job even as he pursued his passion of kayaking and managing a business, seemed preferred pattern for the trainees too; of the three we spoke to, at least two weren’t targeting full time kayaking). Training sessions with expert kayakers arriving to participate in MRF were bonus. Visiting kayakers and the group from Bengaluru have provided a few kayaks to these enthusiasts. But they had two constraints.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First, the transport component in kayaking – the need to carry self and kayak to where the chosen section of river can be accessed – makes every outing expensive. You need a vehicle. You need money. There was talk of sponsors. But if they are not adequately self-aware and self-critical, sponsorship can be delusional sense of accomplishment for young athletes. Real sport is a long journey and the right ecosystem is one that keeps it so. How do you support athlete and yet keep the journey long and continuing? Second, given kayaking is seasonal experience in Kodenchery and the water level in the two rivers drops once rains recede, year-round training is not possible. When water level falls, paddling and practising of skills reduce to what is possible within the stretch afforded by a check dam at Pulikayam. Those committed to the sport, wished to spend time in the rivers of North India. Moving to northern rivers like the Ganga, when water levels fall in Chalippuzha and Iruvanjippuzha, appeared the right thing to do. It made sense from another angle too – a paddler’s repertoire of experience is based on the variety of waters he has tackled. You can’t be well rounded in the sport if all you know for experience are two rivers. Kodenchery’s kayakers have a long way to go.

Looking ahead, Manik hoped that more considerate import duty and tax structure would grace kayaking. He also wanted the sport to find greater acceptance and merit more towns hospitable to kayaking like Kodenchery. As yet even within Kerala, Kodenchery has proved an exception for some later river exploration trips in the state didn’t find the same popular support as extended at this settlement near the border of Kozhikode and Wayanad. But a model to spread kayaking, commenced from Bengaluru, has worked – training school, gear shop and community of those practicing the sport. The results encourage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He visited Kodenchery during the fading portion of the 2018 kayak season and after the year’s MRF was over. He is yet to witness MRF and the region during the festival.)