CLIMBERS IN THE BIG WALL MIRROR (PART ONE)

Climber in the big wall mirror (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

Climber in the big wall mirror (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

The man on the climbing wall outside moved confidently, gracefully.

He initially traversed the lower routes; then climbed up, alone.

All of us, members of Girivihar, a Mumbai based-mountaineering club, returning from a climbing expedition in the Zanskar Himalaya, watched him from the dormitory of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). It was 2004, Delhi. Abhijit Burman, who left the room to investigate, returned excited, “ that is Thomas Huber, they have come to attempt Arwa Spire.’’ Arwa Spire, Arwa Tower and Arwa Crest are snow capped peaks in the Himalaya characterised by huge vertical rock faces. Thomas was one half of Germany’s Huber brothers, famous for their ascent of such big walls. We learnt later that they successfully climbed the west peak (6088m) of Arwa Spire. 

Coincidentally, four years or so after that chance encounter with Thomas Huber in Delhi, the club decided to attempt the East Face of Kedar Dome (6830m) in Garhwal. To the best of Girivihar’s knowledge, there had been no officially approved Indian civilian expedition to attempt big walls in the Himalaya. When I spoke to him for writing this article, Burman attributed the move to an attempted convergence of the club’s experience in the Himalaya and the ascent of a new generation of rock climbers in Mumbai.

More than climbing, the project would prove an expedition in learning.

Girivihar’s challenges were basic.

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome’s East Face involves mixed climbing. To begin with, there were few people in Mumbai who combined good skills on rock and ice. The mountaineering lot were given to the Indian tradition of large expeditions with hired helps. Alpine style ascents featuring lean teams were a rarity. Many of these mountaineers were average climbers on rock. They weren’t fiercely the Himalayan type either for mountaineering is resource-heavy; in the typical Indian environment, spending a month every year in the Himalaya is a costly luxury. And if you don’t frequent the Himalaya, you won’t be at home there. On the other hand, the best rock climbers had become Sahyadri (the hills of the Indian peninsula, called in total as the Western Ghats) crag rats never venturing into unfamiliar terrain. They had become specialized for their warm weather, climbing-ecosystem. They had no appetite for the punishment that high altitude and big, cold mountains posed. The club assembled a team largely composed of young rock climbers with a few mountaineers thrown in. At practice sessions in Pune and at Ramnagaram near Bangalore they understood how far off the mark they were in terms of teamwork and a work ethic suited to high altitude. Within months, the more experienced climbers agreed to call off the expedition. “ That first attempt was poorly imagined and planned. We had neither done proper homework nor understood what a big wall at altitude entailed,’’ Vaibhav Mehta, among the best rock climbers from Mumbai (now settled in France) and who was to lead the climbers on the wall, said. Burman and Franco Linhares, who was the club president then, travelled north to check out the targeted rock face so far studied only from Internet photos and expedition reports by foreign teams who had climbed it. In Garhwal, looking at Kedar Dome’s giant East Face, Franco was convinced of the enormity of the challenge. “ It was serious stuff,’’ he said.

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

As a club member, I was disappointed when the expedition was called off. Not so much for big wall lost as for an opportunity to attempt Kedar Dome in the regular mountaineering fashion. The way this trip was originally conceived, there would have been two teams on the mountain. I was to be in the much smaller team attempting a conventional ascent. Now that wasn’t to be. There is a slight vagueness surrounding the choice of Kedar Dome East Face as initial objective in big wall-climbing. Foreign reports still available on the Internet, clearly mention the nature of climbing involved. You could ask – why did the club target something as formidable as the East Face straight away? Girivihar also didn’t attempt big walls in the Sahyadri like Harishchandragad’s Konkan Kada (a huge amphitheatre of rock not far from Mumbai), which was a prized local achievement, before looking toward the Himalaya. Maybe the quality of rock didn’t appeal. Rock in the local hills, which were volcanic in origin, tended to break and fragment. Maybe the climbs were distinctly different with little learning transferable to the Himalaya. Referring to the aborted expedition, Vaibhav said, “ we had not properly thought through how to stay on the wall and were assuming that we could transfer the same Sahyadri style of climbing to the Himalaya; basically climb and set up fixed ropes, return at day’s end to base camp and then go back up the fixed ropes to start climbing from where we left off earlier. That works for the rock faces of the Sahyadri and the long warm days here. But when it comes to climbing a big wall in the Himalaya, the scale of mountain face and the variables affecting the climbing environment question such approach.’’

Notwithstanding cancelled expedition, the big wall project didn’t die.

It hibernated.

That’s Girivihar’s strength.

In 2004 when we climbed that peak in Zanskar, it was after three expeditions to the region ranging from exploratory to path finding to actual summit attempt.

Two years after calling off the Kedar Dome trip, Girivihar organized a big wall expedition in the Miyar Nala area of Himachal Pradesh. This too was based on foreign reports but the approach to the project was more realistic. Vaibhav was by then working and living at Leh in Ladakh, where he ran a climbing gym. With him moving that side, a couple of close friends, also climbers from Mumbai, had shifted there. One of them was Shyam Sanap, a strong moody climber, particularly good at bouldering. They consistently climbed in and around Leh. This – climbing at altitude (Ladakh is above 10,000ft) – fitted in with the required approach to attempting any big project – like a big wall climb – at altitude. But problems continued. Typically big wall expeditions in the Himalaya – indeed any expedition – by foreign teams were lengthy affairs because acclimatization was a must to perform well. In the case of Indian expeditions, most people were on leave from city based-jobs they couldn’t afford to lose. So the duration of an expedition was normally just a month. It meant that those coming from the plains were not going to be climbing at maximum strength in Miyar Nala even if they had left Mumbai’s sea level-altitude in peak form. Second, the shortage of climbing equipment lingered. The group had no multiple sets of protection devices yet. The club’s cachet of equipment, collected and preserved over the years was there. But it seemed insufficient.

On arrival at location, the team shifted the target from an earlier planned vertical big wall to a more inclined, long stretch of slab. Rock in slab form with gentler incline is a better, more forgiving medium to get used to challenges. It was blunt experiential education happening. In the Himalaya and seeing that vertical face alongside available climbing calibre and gear, the team realized they were unprepared for a combination of long climb and absolute verticality. The shift to the slab made sense.

While the slab project was on, it rained.

Enter the third problem – bad weather. People from warm peninsular India were no stranger to the rains. Among Indian metros, Mumbai had one of the heaviest monsoon seasons. But how the rains felt, the way it changed the overall ambience – that took a toll depending on where you were. Up in the Himalaya, rain meant wetness and cold. Clouds descended, visibility would turn poor. What was joyous mood of expansive mountains till some minutes ago became world shrunk to a few square metres of relevance to human being feeling cold. Very often in such situations, teams have to wind up work and wait out the bad weather. The Himalaya is an epic you tackle patiently.    

I asked Mangesh Takarkhede, a seasoned sport climber and part of the second expedition what was the toughest difference between the Sahyadri and the Himalaya that he endured at Miyar Nala. “ Sitting in a tent doing nothing while the weather ran amok outside,’’ he said. Mountaineers and high altitude trekkers learn this from years of being out. Nature is not in your hands and you have to learn to be patient, last things out, sometimes work despite it. But urban climbing, even sport climbing (which is climbing on pre-designed, pre-set routes and is the style that hosts climbing competitions), was a different animal. It was young, impatient and increasingly in a self endorsing cocoon narrowly focused on climbing to the expense of all else. Bad weather and the unpredictability of mountain terrain aren’t a problem in the controlled conditions of a climbing gym – are they? Vaibhav himself admitted that he would rather climb than hike although hiking was the only way man ever properly understood any terrestrial environment. In the limited window of opportunity available, the team nevertheless ascended several pitches (rope-lengths) up the chosen rock slab, some getting their first taste of Himalayan rock and rock climbing at altitude. According to the club’s in-house report, “ In this first exploratory trip, The team succeeded in climbing a 1100m long virgin rock face, with climbing grade of about 5A and total of 23 pitches. The two team members who summitted were Vaibhav Mehta and Shyam Sanap, while others climbed a 600m route on the same face.’’

Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

In 2012, a third big wall expedition was mounted. This time the objective was Miyar Nala’s Toro Peak, already climbed by a foreign climber who had left behind route details. Weather was good. The team climbed Toro Peak two times that month. It showed their growing comfort with the environment. The club’s report said, “ we succeeded in a pure rock climbing ascent of Toro Peak (4860mts)’’ They opened two new routes, one being a central route of 550m; the other, a South Eastern ridge of 400m. Two separate climbing teams, one of three climbers and the other, of two climbers, topped. The climbing grades appeared easy overall save for the final portions. The report indicated a long day (over 12 hours) from base camp to summit and back. To be factored in additionally would be the effect of altitude on human effort. All in all, it was a more encouraging outcome than happened on the previous trip.

Vaibhav on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Vaibhav on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

But problems persisted. Given ancient volcanic rock that broke off periodically, many routes in the Sahyadri had shifted to being bolted diluting to that extent the climber’s ownership of protection placed. It freed him to climb but removed a critical component of true climbing from the frame, which was – you are responsible for your safety and should therefore know how to place protection. For the few still doing traditional climbing (trad) this way in the Sahyadri, Himalayan rock (nature of rock influences equipment placement style) was new. Result – the required trad climbing competence wasn’t second nature yet for the team. In contrast, years ago, Girivihar had pioneered civilian mountaineering from Mumbai, including the first civilian expedition to the Himalaya from Maharashtra and the first Indian civilian attempt to scale an 8000m peak, Mt Kanchenjunga. In the Sahyadri, it had trekked hard and climbed pinnacles. It had a past that was rich in Himalayan experience and trad climbing in the Sahyadri. Now it celebrated sport climbing and was identified best with an annual sport climbing competition on artificial climbing walls. Perhaps the unnoticed drift here had been acclimatizing to staged-events? Psychologically, this was a shift from the typical Himalayan environment and the whole deal of being outdoors. What Mangesh said had more to it than met the eye. An observation by Vaibhav also struck similar note. According to him, unlike in the Sahyadri, where rain was seasonal and spring and winter had nice dry days, a variety of factors affected the climber’s window in the Himalaya. When the weather was apt, you had to use it well. The climber had to be efficient; something particularly important on big walls where rope and gear could be many. Vaibhav felt that climbers from the smaller, sunny Sahyadri hills, while certainly good on rock, had slipped into a comfort zone (he didn’t spare himself). It was a bit like Sahyadri all the time, everywhere, when all the time and everywhere wasn’t Sahyadri. The biggest handicap born from comfort zone is ego. It blocks change. Arguments erupted at altitude among the participants during the second Miyar Nala trip causing fissures in the team. That’s how much a change to familiar context can mean. Equally, that’s how much an attempt to do something new can teach.

The team (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The team (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

After three expeditions (including the one that was cancelled) and Toro Peak done, Vaibhav believed there was a lot to learn before the team could be on a genuine big wall. He was yet to trad-climb in the Himalaya with the same top notch calibre that he was capable of at lower altitudes in peninsular India. He wanted that flow to happen. “ I wish to climb hard on rock, at altitude,’’ he said in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Belapur, where preparations were on early January 2013 for the 10th edition of Girivihar’s annual climbing competition featuring sport climbers from home and overseas. That was the story till then of the first Indian civilian attempt to climb a big wall in the Himalaya. What they did does not match the visual impact of typical big wall-imagery from overseas or even such imagery from the rock faces of peninsular India, an environment they were used to. But they looked in the big wall mirror of the Himalaya and saw themselves. They knew where they stood. Knowing them, the team should be back for more. Vaibhav felt that a big wall expedition in the Himalaya could be candidate to collaborate with foreigners who had done it before. “ You learn a lot,’’ he said.

Perhaps that gentleman, from a morning long ago at the IMF climbing wall, should hear this.

 

Girivihar, on gauging the competence of its original big wall team, did the right thing by calling off the Kedar Dome East Face expedition and choosing instead to start from basics in Miyar Nalla. It may have been humbling but in climbing, such decisions in the interest of safety are as highly respected as a climb well done.

Among information studied by the club for the proposed Kedar Dome East Face expedition was material on the ascent of the peak’s South East pillar by Englishmen Tim Emmett and Ian Parnell. It showed the nature of difficulty in big wall climbs at altitude, the equation between chance and luck and the climbing styles unique to each team.

The crux of their climb was high up at around 6000m. The degree of difficulty of this portion was estimated as 6c in accordance with the French system of grading. To put it in perspective, while there are climbers in Mumbai who have climbed at grades beyond this level, the said portion is at 6000m altitude where oxygen is less and exertion would be tiring, not to mention, the risks associated with a 2000m rock face. You are also carrying stuff you need on the wall. In an interview to planetfear.com Parnell said, “ As usual we carried no bolts and had a pretty light rack, only six pitons, which we placed about once each. We were very lucky to find good tent sites except for one day where we had to bivi* on some poor sloping ledges halfway up the final rock headwall, shivering the night away racked by continuous stone fall. The main difficulty on top of the crux pitches was following with a big rucksack, which was very tiring.’’ According to him there were times when they cried; sometimes, threw up from the strain. Plus, “ add to this the first 600m section we climbed in the night, which included some terrible rock with no protection and no belay.’’    

The crux was on-sighted (that is, climbed without any prior information about the specifics of the route; discovering it as you climb) by Emmett, who was described as among Britain’s strongest all-round climbers. He called it the most demanding piece of climbing he had done without falls. Interestingly, while Parnell was well experienced in the world’s big mountains, this was apparently Emmett’s first trip to the Himalaya and only his second alpine climb.

*Bivi is colloquial for bivouac, which is to camp while still on a climbing route. This spans being in a portaledge (a small, hanging tent) on a rock face to using any other type of shelter to having no formal shelter, spending the night on some ledge, sometimes with sleeping bag, sometimes, without.

(PLEASE SEE PART TWO OF STORY FOR EXPLANATORY NOTES)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra and Franco Linhares for permitting the use of photographs from their collection. An abridged version of this article was published in Man’s World magazine.)

CLIMBERS IN THE BIG WALL MIRROR (PART TWO)

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

EXPLANATORY NOTES

Big wall climbing

When the first moves in modern rock climbing and alpinism happened in Europe, the Americans got left behind. There wasn’t a personal stamp for them in the sport’s evolution. In the mid 20th century, they focused their attention on El Capitan, a sheer rock face of around 3000ft in Yosemite. The race to climb El Capitan and the subsequent ideological confrontation between two schools of climbing – one advocating clean climbing with removable protection (that is, you use devices which you can keep taking off from the rock as you progress up a wall leaving little trace behind of the climbers’ passage), the other, prone to installing permanent bolts into rock to host the protective gear – was a famous chapter in the evolution of climbing. It birthed two American greats with contrasting approaches in rock climbing – Warren Harding and Royal Robbins (please see earlier post ` The Short Cut’ for details).

Although huge rock faces had been climbed already in Europe, El Capitan’s first ascent revived the interest in big walls. The debate on climbing style continued. The French bolted like crazy. But the Americans and the British, favoured climbing with removable equipment, one reason why traditional (`trad’) climbing is big in the US. While established long routes (especially bolted ones) may get speed-climbed later, exploratory big wall climbing can be equipment-heavy. It requires efficient equipment management and entails staying on ledges on the rock face being tackled, sometimes using portable hanging shelters called portaledges. The climbs are typically multi-day affairs. Big wall climbing at high altitude (as the Huber brothers did on Arwa), developed as an extreme version, for high altitude is tough environment to hike in, forget rock climbing. Rocky peaks in West Karakorum and Patagonia became iconic in the discipline. These include Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower (6286m) and other rock faces in its neighbourhood and Torre del Paine of Chilean Patagonia with its rocky peaks of modest elevation but tricky Patagonian weather nonetheless. In India, visually speaking, the Arwa peaks fit the big wall category beautifully. Through all this however the attraction to climb El Capitan rules strong as that is the de facto spiritual ground of the discipline. Even established big wall climbers from other geographies come to Yosemite to prove themselves on El Capitan’s routes. Thus the Huber brothers, despite climbs elsewhere, briefly held a speed record on El Capitan. I have come across Indian climbers who dream of trying El Capitan one day. That said, big wall climbing is at its classic best when it is exploratory for that is true climbing, that is when climbing is stretched to long affair and gear and knowledge of gear placement is tested. In practice, in the high mountains, a big wall may stop being strictly rock and strictly vertical to being mixed terrain and amalgam of gradients. Some extreme mountaineering routes therefore have the traits of rock climbing’s big wall.

Bouldering in Miyar Nala (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Bouldering in Miyar Nala (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Types of climbing:

Bouldering: This is the minimalist form of climbing. The gear used is restricted to climbing shoes, chalk to keep the sweat off one’s hands and a crash pad to cushion falls. No ropes are used. As the name betrays, you climb boulders, typically up to fifteen or twenty feet high. Your friends `spot’ you as you climb to make sure that if you fall, you land on the crash pad. Since you don’t climb high, bouldering compensates by challenging you with very difficult moves, some requiring climbing technique, others, raw power.

Sport climbing: Sport climbing routes are longer than bouldering problems. Expansion bolts are drilled into rock to prepare a route. These bolts can take `quick draws,’ through which the climbing rope attached to your harness is passed as you ascend. The idea being – if you fall you will be stopped from going all the way down by the nearest quick draw and bolt. The other end of the rope is with your friend who is belaying. He feeds you enough rope to keep going up, monitors the feed and uses a belay device through which the rope has been passed to prevent the free end of the rope from quickly running out should you fall. Belay devices work on the principle of friction; some allow the belayer to manage this friction manually, others with auto-lock facility restrict the rope-feed to one direction thus automatically checking slack in the system should the climber fall.

Trad climbing: This style is characterized by the use of removable protection like cams (also called `friends’), choke nuts and pitons. The climbing style is near similar to sport climbing with your friend belaying you. On trad, you are more cautious than on a sport route because there is no previously installed protection on the route. As you climb up you look for features in rock, like cracks, to place the protection. Once the protection is placed, you attach a quick draw to it and then pass the rope through the quick draw. Once the lead climber has reached a rest spot, he anchors himself securely and belays the second climber up. As the second person does so – if it is a two-person team – he cleans the route removing all the gear that was placed as protection. This is clean, pure climbing. Unlike sport climbers, trad enthusiasts have to carry a lot of gear. Transferred to big walls, this work will also include gear-hauling for as you progress up a rock face you have to carry with you whatever you need for life and work further up.    

The club, the people:

Girivihar (www.girivihar.org) started life in 1954 as the Inter Collegiate Hiking Club of the Bombay University. In the mid-1960s, the name was changed to Girivihar to broaden the membership base to beyond the university. It is today Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club with a track record of mountaineering in the Himalaya and trekking and rock climbing in the Sahyadri. Of late the club has also spawned an interest in cycling. Girivihar is notable for its regular itinerary of weekend activities (trekking or climbing depending on the season), annual outdoor training camps for school students and adults and an annual bouldering competition that sees participation from India and overseas. The club’s office bearers meet every Wednesday at a cafe in Dadar in the city. Girivihar was also instrumental in setting up and managing the climbing wall at Mumbai’s Podar College.

Franco Linhares is past president of Girivihar and most importantly, its longest serving. He is probably the oldest, consistently active rock climber in Mumbai. You will see him every other day on the Podar College climbing wall and at most weekend treks / climbs of the club save those occasions when he escapes to merry Goa or can’t get away from life with the climbing bug for the slower pace of a hike. A chemist by training and once employed with a MNC, he chucked it all up for a life in the Sahyadri and the Himalaya. Abhijit Burman aka Bong is an institution in Girivihar and the Mumbai climbing scene. An unforgettable character, he works as a technician at BARC. He has been central to many Girivihar projects. A mountaineer and cyclist, he appears to have transformed to being a mover of projects and their manager.

Shyam Sanap on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Shyam Sanap on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Years ago, Vaibhav Mehta etched his name into the rocks at Mumbai’s Borivali National Park, founding a climbing route aptly called `Finger Crisis.’ From them on, he hasn’t looked back. Originally not members of Girivihar, Vaibhav and his close friends – Shyam Sanap, Sandeep Varadkar, Mangesh Takarkhede (they originally belonged to a group called DARE) – was the energy missing in Mumbai’s sport climbing scene. They were the first hard core addicts of the sport, spending days obsessed with climbing-problems and blazing a trail difficult for others to emulate. Until the arrival of these youngsters, the prized pursuit in Mumbai’s rock climbing was ascending pinnacles in the Sahyadri. Climbing was largely trad climbing but leaning towards bolted routes given the nature of rock. Vaibhav & co fueled sport climbing. Now, as the big wall climbing-story shows, trad probably beckons. Vaibhav has ranked among the top sport climbers in India and more importantly, distinguished himself as a route setter for climbing competitions. This generation of climbers linked up easily with overseas rock climbers, particularly the French. Rather amusingly the most common encouragement in Mumbai’s climbing circles now, is “Allez!’’ Vaibhav ran a cafe and climbing gym in Leh for a few years. He now lives in France, visiting Mumbai in time for Girivihar’s annual climbing competition where he is usually the route setter.          

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra and Franco Linhares for permitting the use of photographs from their collection.  An abridged version of this article was published in Man’s World magazine.)

THE LUNCHBOX

Lunchbox (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

Lunchbox (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

`The Lunchbox’ was a nice film.

Its story – of a wrongly delivered lunchbox connecting two strangers in a large city, has been described as a known theme. It may not have been a lunchbox before, but similar predicament has been the stuff of link-up in stories. For all its alleged shortcomings, The Lunchbox warmed up to me effortlessly. It was neither difficult art nor any of that mainstream song and dance-routine. It was very much, the bland ordinary Mumbai life, told as it is with characters portrayed well by its lead actors.

In The Lunchbox, the sounds of everyday Mumbai were clearly heard. Music was mostly background score, that too only where needed and, subtle. There was an amazing economy of dialogue. When the characters spoke, their words and intonation fitted them to the T. Dialogues were crisp, sometimes tender and in a rarity for contemporary Indian films – there was an entire character who was just voice heard and not person seen. This film worked well as cinema. Its continuity was maintained through a mix of narrative, visual linkages between scenes and such funky aural continuity like the same song sung by different people with different tone and aural quality in different environments, which conveyed volumes about the travel through different contexts that is a daily Mumbai life.

Mumbai has been featured liberally on film. It has been shown umpteen times by the local film industry to the extent that its presentation on cinema often leaves people confused when they see the city’s harsh reality. They search for an elusive optimism in the mess. The Lunchbox seemed an honest depiction of life in the apartments, suburban trains, buses and streets I left behind to walk into the cinema hall and see the movie. The fulcrum for its story was the city’s dabbawalas, famous for their daily delivery of lunchboxes bearing home cooked-food and food prepared at small hotels, to people working in various offices. It is an amazing distribution system, very unique to Mumbai. Around the everyday journey of the film’s central lunchbox and the story of a relationship spawned by its incorrect delivery, the film captured well the city’s feel, from crowd and congestion to the less spoken of but very real loneliness of the individual. It is easy to pass off Mumbai as a city of great energy and enterprising people, prospering from opportunity. That isn’t how life is for all. Many of us remain anonymous and ordinary. An ordinary life is just that – ordinary. At day’s end you crawl back to your corner of accumulated loneliness. And as the city sleeps, perhaps you wonder whether there is someone, somewhere in the millions staying around who would understand you. The relationship that evolves between the two strangers was treated as the friendship it is with no judgement.  In the one moment in the film, when one of the protagonists judges the relationship, the other attempts to bridge it. Friendship, companionship – they are like oxygen. This one shines against the bareness of the mental landscape it is located in.

According to Wikipedia, the tradition of dabbawala is traceable to 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. In 1956, a charitable trust called Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust was registered, followed by its commercial arm in 1968 called Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. The website estimates that between 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes are moved daily by 4500-5000 dabbawalas.

Finally, you have the actors. The film’s casting was overall well done. Including the voice only-Mrs Deshpande! Three good actors formed the visible central cast. Given movies celebrated for their box office performance no matter how loud and atrocious they are, The Lunchbox is a reminder that if you try, quality is within reach.

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

TWO TRAINS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The express train was soon cruising.

About twenty minutes out of Howrah, the pretty young woman on the seat opposite me exchanged her assigned berth with the middle aged housewife gazing disinterestedly at the world outside. Right upper berth gained, she hauled herself up to its privacy. The housewife on the left lower berth put on a sick expression; the sort that requires no hospitalization, merely attention, a little fussing over. Her husband, a businessman bound for Bhiwandi, rubbed his sleepy eyes and worked the cell phone. The morning sunshine on the side lower berth – the short one parallel to the aisle, if you know the anatomy of a typical Indian railway coach – bothered him. It was settled quickly. There was an exchange of berths with a less tired middle aged man, owner of the right lower berth in the main coupe. Within the air conditioned compartment, the latter immediately spread out railway bed sheets to mark his new acquisition warmed by sunshine. He sat on the compact berth with his back to the aisle, cross legged, staring at the passing landscape like a trader in his shop awaiting customers. I wondered what he would sell; sunshine perhaps? Bottled sunshine to cure the world’s problems; a shop laden with shiny glass bottles flashing by in an express train. All this – exchange of berth and setting up shop – happened in five minutes.

The Bhiwandi bound-husband was now seated next to me.

He gave me pleading looks.

“ Which is your berth?’’ he eventually asked.

“ I suppose you want to sleep,’’ I said, trifle annoyed at this rapid collapse of people around me.

He nodded like a neglected child.

The wife, probably angry with him and his cell phone, had already gone to sleep, blanket over her head.

I knew it was my turn to move.

I was on the Duronto Express; non-stop from Howrah in Eastern India to Mumbai on the west coast, save a technical halt at Bilaspur in the country’s middle. The train had just been introduced. It was fast by Indian standards but certainly not so by standards elsewhere. The Indian Railways meant a lot in India. It was one of the world’s biggest railway networks with portions – like the Mumbai suburban system – ranking among the busiest worldwide. The Railways meant so much that they struggled to keep pace with the demands India’s huge population heaped on it. Right now as I edit this piece, relentless inflation, unstable oil prices, the depreciation of the Indian rupee leading to costlier imports – all have conspired to make road and air travel expensive for the average Indian. Under such circumstances, the country counts on its government owned-railways to guarantee affordable transport. It may be over two decades since economic liberalization started and we may be now trillion dollar economy. But if you want to meet India, you still have to take a train. On busy routes, tickets are usually hard to find unless you book early. Speed can’t be a priority on overcrowded rails. What could be done instead and which the Railways do despite protests, is reduce halts en route for semblance of super fast and express travel. My Duronto Express was unique for its single halt, that too, technical. The train was painted in strange fashion; its facade sported illustrations of meadows, forests and trees as though a child had sketched it. At that time, if I recall right, it was the only Duronto in the country. Now there are several.

It may be over two decades since economic liberalization started and we may be now trillion dollar economy. But if you want to meet India, you still have to take a train.

Non-stop rail travel made the experience a bit like an intercontinental flight minus pretty air hostesses and luxury. You felt trapped in a long, air conditioned tube of an ecosystem. Half an hour from Howrah, with me now on the left upper berth, our coupe settled into the pattern it would hold till Mumbai next day. I read the biography of Slovenian mountaineer Tomaz Humar till my eyes ached; then I listened to rock music till my ears throbbed, after which I tested my left leg to see how long it could bear the cold blast from the overhead AC duct. With people genuinely asleep or lazing around on the lower berths, tea, breakfast and lunch – everything was had sitting in C-shape on the upper berth. Bored, I looked towards the pretty young woman who had occupied the right upper berth. She was busy talking on her cell phone. I began praying that the instrument would conk off forcing her to seek conversation elsewhere. She was the only one around doing anything more than eating, sleeping, eating and sleeping, even if the difference was endless whispered nothings to her boyfriend over that phone

My mind drifted to the Kamrup Express. Two weeks earlier, life aboard that train had been as different as alive from comatose.

I had the lower berth on the left. Seated opposite was an elderly trader headed for Guwahati. In half an hour he found devoted following in a young man from the same community, employed with an engineering firm. An extended family tree was discussed; shared branches located. They conversed like two cozy birds on the same branch dipping into that tradition of centuries of unchanged sunrise and sunset. Somehow Indian conversations – especially those tinged by mercantilism – drift to endorsing unchanged society. I suspect money likes to keep everything else the same so that it multiplies undisturbed. That’s why, if you sit in on it, conversation among traders can seem depressingly mono-cropped. It’s shaped to single dimension. Knowing the state of my purse, I end up feeling that I have no future. Not that other Indians make it any easier; money is obsession everywhere here. The compartment’s aisle stayed busy with soldiers visiting coupes hosting friends. It was probably their last socializing before dispersal to far flung military camps. The army had a strong presence in North East India. The lone person from the air force sat tracking the stations to his halt; it was his first time in Assam. A cell phone blared Malayalam film songs from the next coupe, while not far off Tamil held forth. The Marwari engineer sat reading a book called Making Breakthrough Innovation Happen by Porus Munshi. It fetched a strange visitor from the next coupe. Taking charge of the book the man said, “ I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the army. Promoted out of turn; all my batch mates are still major.’’ I remember that introduction for its utter strangeness. Later, he kept calling up people – I suspect from the conversation, they told him to spare them the trouble. Past midnight, he was still getting ticked off, offering a quick, “ okay, ta-ta, bye-bye, good night, sweet dreams, ‘’ to every person slamming the phone down. The last time I saw him, he was sitting alone on the coach attendant’s seat near the wash basin, cell phone in hand, train’s rhythm on rail for company.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Early next morning from New Jalpaiguri onward, the train became a bazaar. It was an invasion of vendors. My favorite was a man selling popcorn, peanuts, roasted green peas and a whole lot of similar eatables. His signature call was, “ ta-ta-time, pa-pa-pass.’’ Put together that became `time pass,’ the Indian solution to tackle many things in daily life – from delays caused by gargantuan bureaucracy  and the queues of huge population to a moment of restless standstill in cities of constant rush. He also had soft items for “ old men with no teeth,’’ crunchy ones for the young and peanuts, sold as catalyst for conversation between lovers. The sales pitch in the latter attracted questions. “ Nowadays people overlook peanuts and talk on the cell phone. With phones you need towers and signals to talk to your lover, peanuts need none of that, ‘’ the vendor explained before moving off to another chant of, “ Ta-ta-time, pa-pa-pass.’’ What amazed was the array of goods sold by these vendors – there were pen drives, flash lights, film rolls, mobile chargers, mobile batteries, cameras, watches, track suits, massagers, foot pumps, flasks, jackets, hand held sewing machines, DVDs, carpets. China had changed even vendors on trains; their talk was now peppered with megabyte, cyber, digital, MP3, I-Pod and like. Some of the vendors were dexterous; the gamcha vendor was a heap of clothes on two legs, as was the carpet seller. The soldier from the upper berth, traveling to Dimapur, struck a deal with the young engineer to buy DVDs. Using the engineer’s laptop, they scanned disc after disc for good, pirated prints till it drew loud protests from the vendors. “ You are scanning all my discs and buying only one. I would have sold ten by now,’’ a vendor remarked as a coupe-load of people helped the soldier bargain down DVD price from Rs 60 to Rs 20. Half way through the exercise, the engineer, mindful of new found uncle nearby, reduced his involvement to pure technical assistance with no say in film selection. Curious, I thumbed through the soldier’s selection. It ranged from 3 Idiots and Avatar to Emmanuelle and riskier beyond. Uncle looked stoically into the distance. The engineer buried his nose in his book.

The train was now two and a half hours late and politely making way for every other train to pass us by. Occasionally, when we had the benefit of a platform nearby, we got off to stretch our legs. “ That’s the Amritsar train, that’s the Rajdhani express,’’ the ticket inspector would clarify oblivious of our self-arrest. He was like a railway historian giving us a guided tour of the why, how and several other qualities of a journey disrupted. Standing so, on the platform at Barpeta Road, I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that said, “ Japan-US at war, 104 die in Hawaii raid, McArthur in Australia.’’ It appeared topical for the only region in India to have experienced real fighting in World War II. The Battle of Imphal and the Battle of Kohima were major turning points. As the crow flies, Imphal and Kohima were not hugely distant from where I was although actual travel along hill roads meant distances in the North East were often deceptive. The T-shirt also appeared topical, given the purpose of my trip to Assam and from there to Arunachal Pradesh to write about the Stilwell Road. The train crawled on. A harried coach attendant arrived muttering, “ people give me thousand rupee-notes and demand a bottle of water. What am I to do?’’ The matter was giving him a headache. As if to soothe his headache, the China connection made itself heard once again; a blind vendor produced three different sized-vials of “ China Vicks.’’ Meanwhile, the upper berth bearing the DVD obsessed-soldier, emitted kung fu shouts, bomb blasts, machine gun fire and full throated passion. The laptop stayed up there with the soldier through the day; the engineer sat reconciled to Porus Munshi. At night, our coupe converted into a cinema theater, laptop on the small folding table with soldiers from nearby coupes converged there to watch 3 Idiots. Film over, a bizarre incident occurred. A passenger woke up from deep slumber inquiring why he was on the train. Co-passengers comforted him and hushed him back to sleep. Morning brought mist, winter chill and Tinsukhia. As with several stations before from Barpeta Road to Guwahati, I got off the train to `set foot’ on a platform I may not see again. It was my little conquest-of-Everest act. It was also perhaps a measure of my meek character for the truth was I was still in India. Yet these were parts I hadn’t been to before. Indeed one of the things I discovered as I grew up was how little I knew of anything in India; I didn’t even know my neighborhood well. In the desperate Indian life, we reach other countries before we discover the places we were born in. In middle age, I was doing what I should have done earlier. After Tinsukhia, we moved on tracks bordering a road beside tea estates, to Dibrugarh. I remember looking at those tea estates on vast, relatively flat ground and wondering how different they seemed from Kerala’s tea estates situated on hillsides. Somewhere out there, not far, lurked the architect of Assam’s geography – the mighty Brahmaputra; a river wide enough in parts to seem a small sea.

As with several stations before from Barpeta Road to Guwahati, I got off the train to `set foot’ on a platform I may not see again. It was my little conquest-of-Everest act. It was also perhaps a measure of my meek character for the truth was I was still in India.

Luckily for me, the young woman on the Duronto Express was as bored as I was. She was moving to Mumbai on work. Conversation served well to distract her from the approaching huge city she had transited through before but had never wanted to live in. Now she was going to live there. She seemed happy to talk. I missed that vendor on the Kamrup Express. He could probably teach a marketing lesson or two to the Railways on the real USP of the non-stop Duronto Express.

Introduce peanuts for a start?

(The author, Shyam G. Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A smaller version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)

STILWELL ROAD (PART ONE)

This article is composed of two separate but convergent stories. One is narrated in normal text; the other is in italics.

Stilwell Road between Nampong and Pangsau Pass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stilwell Road between Nampong and Pangsau Pass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mid-January 2010.

Assam Rifles camp at Jairampur, Arunachal Pradesh.

The wooden table, covered in clean white cloth and moved by smartly dressed soldiers to a sunlit spot for photography, resembled the typical setting to display captured arms. It appears often on television – rocket launchers, AK-47s, rounds of ammunition, all stacked, labeled and kept on a clean, white tablecloth. That day however, as I got my small camera ready, the soldiers brought forth rotting pieces of weaponry. Two machineguns of World War II vintage, rusted to golden brown with yellow streaks, several parts missing. They kept it reverently on the table and as soldiers do, faded to the backdrop. Some days before, just behind the camp’s administrative block where I stood, men were tilling a patch of land to cultivate plantains and papaya, when the foot-deep blade of the tiller struck metal.

Welcome to Stilwell Road.

Officially it was National Highway 153 running in from Assam. Earlier, past the dusty, coal-smeared roads of Ledo and opposite another military camp, a large board with an overgrown path nearby and a long forgotten railway track leading to a long gone bridge had announced start of the Stilwell Road. Across the river, the old track now partially covered by earth, led to the Lekhapani station with its plaque reminding us that it used to be the eastern most tip of the Indian Railways. The last train to the erstwhile coal loading station was in February 1997. On the road nearby, a truck lay overturned on the road, its load of coal being shoveled into gunny bags by workers. It must have begun its trip at Ledo, a coal town with an open cast mine operated by Eastern Coalfields; long stretch of road bordered by heaps of excavated earth and a stream colored yellow with effluent. For those in search of Stilwell Road, this was the Ledo of World War II, from where General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army built a road into Myanmar to connect with the famous Burma Road leading to China. It was a Herculean task involving the Americans, the British, the Chinese and Indians; a road that cut across high mountains and dense jungles, best captured in an oft published black and white picture – one snake of a road slithering down a mountain.

At an outdoor camp in the Himalaya in 2007, I met Pearly Jacob. She was from Mizoram in North East India, working in Bengaluru (Bangalore), the South Indian city made famous by the IT industry. Despite my desire to visit the North East, I had never made it anywhere that side. Courage, especially the courage to travel alone, was in short supply. Much of my so called adventures had been with others. It usually embraced conquest of something – a peak or a pass – as objective, while real adventure lay already lost through sticking to familiar group. Perhaps she would travel with me? Pearly laughed off the suggestion, asking why I would need company. Instead she cited a friend – Malayali, brought up in India’s IT capital – who had gone exploring in Myanmar. I didn’t seek details, for the person’s whereabouts appeared hazy and more important, somebody taking off just like that made me feel like an abject coward. Couple of years later, Pearly herself reached Thailand. In a remarkable journey, this former radio jockey at World Space, cycled through a few countries in South East Asia into China and then traveled right across to Mongolia.  Late November 2009, after a long gap, I checked Pearly’s travel blog and saw a remorseful entry on Arun’s demise in Dali, Yunnan. That’s how I found the name of the man who went off to Myanmar, obsessed by the Stilwell Road. An Internet search then threw up Arun Veembur’s obituary from The Hindu: Young Writer and Intrepid Traveler Dies in China.   

The Stilwell Road’s construction and the preceding airlift, flying in supplies from Assam to Yunnan in China across mountains exceeding 10,000ft in elevation, was considered one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II. It was necessitated following the Japanese invasion of China and the consequent inability of Allied Forces to supply China by sea. To make matters worse, the Japanese land thrust towards India from South East Asia, cut off access to the Burma Road once Myanmar fell. The airlift from Assam – called `Flying the Hump – became a legend in aviation history. Flown by American and Chinese pilots, several aircraft were lost on this route at a mountainous knot on the planet where the combination of altitude, rain bearing clouds and powerful winds made flying terribly difficult. The jungles below were called an aluminum trail for the aircraft debris strewn around. Needless to say, the terrain made rescue operations difficult. Yet rescues were carried out. The planes transported items ranging from ammunition to fuel and even currency notes, often making for a combustible mix when kicked around by turbulent weather. There were two flight paths across The Hump, the dangerous upper one from Assam and an easier lower one from Calcutta. In 2010 the lower one was being used by China Eastern airlines for flights linking Kolkata and Kunming. Some of the air strips associated with the Second World War airlift had since come under Indian Air Force charge and were still functional at Dibrugarh. As were the tea estates which lent their names to the air strips, provided accommodation for the airmen and whose personnel – through the Indian Tea Association – were associated with building railways and roads in these parts, not to mention, taking care of the refugees that poured into India when Myanmar fell to the Japanese. The 3727ft-high Pangsau Pass in the Patkai Hills was where they had crossed into India; that’s where the Stilwell Road was headed.

The Stilwell Road’s construction and the preceding airlift, flying in supplies from Assam to Yunnan in China across mountains exceeding 10,000ft in elevation, was considered one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II.

Several years ago, a civil contractor was intrigued by the bricks he was being supplied. They were old and unlike the regular ones. Investigations exposed theft from a local cemetery. That’s how state authorities and the Assam Rifles stumbled upon what is now an official World War II cemetery, with almost 1000 graves, many of them Chinese. I sat before the grave of Major Hsiao Chu Ching of the “ Independent Engineers of Chinese Army stationed in India,’’ born July 1913 in Hapeh Province and died, December 1943. Less than 100 feet away was the newly erected memorial and a row of Assam Rifles soldiers gearing up for the arrival of Pallam Raju, the then Minister of State for Defence. He was on his way to the 2010 Pangsau Pass Winter Festival at Nampong, last settlement on the Stilwell Road before it crossed the pass into Myanmar. The festival had built a buzz around the road, a buzz that highlighted its potential place in trade. This one was compelling, running as it did from Assam through Arunchal Pradesh to Myanmar and eventually, Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. No other road did this. At the festival’s inaugural ceremony attended by Arunachal Pradesh’s then Chief Minister, the late Dorjee Khandu, speakers welcomed the tribal artistes from both sides of the border and hoped that the road would be opened for trade.

The old rusted guns unearthed at the Jairampur military camp (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The old rusted guns unearthed at the Jairampur military camp (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

You know that a person born in the noisy 1980s is different, if he likes Buster Keaton, Hollywood actor from the era of silent movies. Unusual tastes, often dismissed as eccentric, are typically the product of investing in a fascination. It betrays curiosity. Arun was unusual, often entertaining friends with a Keaton or Charlie Chaplin act. He was an only child. His father worked with the DRDO in Bengaluru. His mother was related to E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Kerala’s most famous Communist leader. The parents moved to Thrishur in Kerala. As a young man shifting from engineering to a course in journalism, Arun displayed a craving to know. He was an avid reader, a keen quizzer and passionate biker owning a RD 350 and a Yamaha Crux, but had a penchant for trouble. “ With him around, the darnedest things used to happen,’’ Darshan Manakkal, who along with Robin Browne, had been Arun’s seniors at Christ College in Bengaluru, said. It all started with holidays in Assam, where Robin’s parents lived. The first visit was to Tezpur; the second was to Dibrugarh with forays to Margherita and Ledo. That was how Arun came to know of the Stilwell Road. On return to Dibrugarh, he found books on the subject in the personal library of Robin’s father, who had an interest in the World War II history of the region. It probably began focusing his life for the Stilwell Road began to grow as an objective. In appearance he was a scrawny individual, possessing many of the habits of the contemporary urban youngster. “ But he had this urge to show that he was capable of what seemed difficult,’’ Arun’s uncle, Rajesh P, said. According to friends and family, he also had another under-estimated virtue. Arun could make people feel special and he never hesitated to strike a conversation with anyone, rich or poor, big or small. Not long after he stumbled across the Stilwell Road, he did his basic mountaineering course from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and made a third visit to Assam, this time traveling down the Stilwell Road with a view to hit the Pangsau Pass. Manu Neelakandhan, Arun’s cousin, believed that he was turned back just before the border by the guards. Arun had worked with Deccan Herald. After returning to Bengaluru from this third trip to Assam, the young journalist took up jobs – he worked at Silicon India and Mid Day – purely to fund what he realized he should do next, go to Myanmar. In his mind, a book on the Stilwell Road was taking shape. It became an obsession and for a brief period the bug bit Rajesh as well. One day he called up Arun from the Blossom book store on Church Street and said there was a copy of General Joseph Stilwell’s autobiography available. “ Pick it up,’’ Arun said, thrilled. By now it was official to family and friends that Arun would head off on his little project.

Lobbying to reopen the Stilwell Road had been on for some time. A news report from Kolkata dated August 4, 2004, said that the Eastern Region Chairman of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations had pitched for reconstructing the road. In November 20, 2008, a report quoted the Chairman of the China Council for Promotion of International Trade, saying in Kolkata that reopening the road could be a vital trade link. Another report cited then Minister of State for Commerce, Jayaram Ramesh, symbolically handing over a sack of salt to a Myanmar army officer at Pangsau Pass. He said the Commerce Ministry wanted to reopen the route by 2010. Then a June 18, 2009, report from Guwahati quoting B.K. Handique, then Minister for Development of North Eastern Region, said that plans to reopen had been shelved following Myanmar’s objection on security grounds. At Nampong, I asked Pallam Raju what the government’s official position was on reopening the road. He declined comment and referred me to S. Sharma, Secretary of the Border Roads Development Board who said, the Border Roads Organization had nothing yet to do with the Stilwell Road. Reconstructing the road was probably important for Arunachal Pradesh. The state with China to the north and west had only Myanmar to probe for international trade route. Setong Sena, then Finance Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, had been among those who visited the Prime Minister’s Office to seek the reopening of the Stilwell Road. According to him, the government had put the Stilwell Road as a third priority after routes opened in Mizoram and Manipur. Now in retrospect, it appeared that the Myanmar authorities having seen India build a Friendship Road into Myanmar from Manipur were possibly wanting similar work this side. Indeed, much of the Stilwell Road in its World War II form reportedly lay on the Myanmar side. That was great history but it raised the question – how can there be trade if the road was too bad for modern transportation?

(…TO BE CONTINUED)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Ripunjoy Das and Pranab Phukon while doing this story. An abbreviated version of this article – ie part one and two – was published in The Hindu newspaper. That article has a photo of Arun. This is the link to the article in The Hindu http://www.hindu.com/mag/2010/05/02/stories/2010050250140400.htm A bit more elaborate version was published in Man’s World (MW) magazine.)

STILWELL ROAD (PART TWO)

This article is composed of two separate but convergent stories. One is narrated in normal text; the other is in italics.

Past the cemetery at Jairampur, the only reminder of World War II on NH153 aka Stilwell Road was a narrow Hamilton Bridge.

Stilwell Road between Nampong and Pangsau Pass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stilwell Road between Nampong and Pangsau Pass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nampong resembled a market town spilling with activity for the festival. There was a designated spot for traders from Myanmar. Business was brisk and the articles on offer included packaged food items, garments, toiletry, cosmetics and small gadgets. A lot of the stuff was Chinese but some, like the instant tea and coffee, was from Myanmar. A particular attraction were knifes and ceremonial swords. Although there were instances of the same tribe spanning both sides of the border, not everyone there for the festival succeeded in communication. Plenty of gesticulation and intonation sealed a transaction. The currency was always rupees; that’s what the Myanmar traders preferred. Border policing in these parts worked on the principle that people residing in the neighborhood of the international divide be allowed to cross. There were specific dates for visits by either side. Previously a visitor from Myanmar crossing over to the Nampong market was identified by a rattan basket. Then, the basket while still around, was overshadowed by weather beaten 4-stroke step-thru motorcycles. They were allowed to be driven till a small clearing overlooking Nampong, where all vehicles were parked and the visitors walked down. The Stilwell Road was in the process of being widened here. It alternated between very narrow stretches that emphasized the lush green jungle around and bulldozed patches of orange earth betraying the soft terrain that had made work difficult in the 1940s. Past the last Assam Rifles check post, the road deteriorated into a bouncy, mud track. Tucked behind a couple of bends was the real boundary line between India and Myanmar with an old stone marker and alongside, an overgrown path – the old alignment of the Stilwell Road. Few more turns and the first check post on the Myanmar side drew up followed by a cracked building with a derelict Lifan truck parked in front. Ahead, the village of Pangsau in Myanmar was already busy with people who had crossed over as part of the festival. Behind the market place, a steep road ran down to the edge of a beautiful lake – The Lake of No Return. It was associated with the region’s World War II history as a lake into which planes crashed. Its shores were utterly peaceful.

I found Khaing Tun’s diary on the Internet. In an entry in Yangon, dated February 3, 2007, Khaing noted on the upcoming trip she had organized, “ Arun (from Bangalore) has many questions and continued to be so enthusiastic.’’ Unlike in India where there was little tourism in the North East around World War II sites, there were regular trips in Myanmar, usually availed by Second World War veterans who had fought in the region. Arun had got himself on to a similar trip to the Myanmar side of the Stilwell Road. Khaing met Arun on February 16 at his Yangon hotel along with Peter, whose interest in the Burma Campaign of World War II was triggered by Louis Allen’s book `The Longest War.’ The next day, a third person, Ron, arrived. The team hit the road for Pangsau Pass and Myitkyina on February 18. Photos of Arun from the trip show a T-shirt clad, bespectacled young man, busy scribbling on a note book or standing with camera in hand. On February 21, after traversing through a lot of harsh terrain, the team was advised not to proceed towards Pangsau Pass and instead turn back from Nanyun. The main problem had been the three foreigners in the team – an Indian, an Australian and an American. Apparently, permits were only as good as the goodwill of local military officials and to the team’s bad luck they had a newly posted commander put his foot down. They withdrew to Shinbwiyang, which as per the Stilwell Road’s old alignment was 105 kilometers from Pangsau Pass, and from there to Myitkyina, 342 kilometers from the pass according to old estimates. There the team took a plane back to Yangon. However Arun and Peter got off at Mandalay to travel to Kunming in China. Little was known of this trip likely down the Burma Road; when built the Stilwell Road was connected to the old Burma Road at Wandingzhen. Arun was believed to have reached Kunming in typical backpacker fashion with no money and just happiness for the journey done. He eventually found a base at The Hump, a backpackers’ hostel with a colorful bar. It had a lot of World War II memorabilia for theme, especially the aviation part including those flights from Assam to Kunming. Arun loved this place where all sorts of travelers and people with crazy projects washed up; he also became a good friend of the hostel’s owner. According to Pearly, much of the `work’ Arun did subsequently was basically anything to further his stay in China.

Shop at Pangsau in Myanmar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shop at Pangsau in Myanmar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

What struck me that day in Pangsau was the absence of the Myanmar military. At the first check post I had seen a policeman; at the second I saw one person in olive green surrounded by men who looked like villagers. A senior officer of the Assam Rifles later said that overt military presence had been relaxed on either side for the festival. Nevertheless it felt strange to be in a country ruled by a military dictatorship with no passport or visa on oneself. You worried when the veneer of welcome would crumble. Either side of the border in these parts had experienced insurgency. In Myanmar it was the Kachin rebels. There was reportage on the Internet by the Kachin News Group on the Stilwell Road in Myanmar; about reconstruction, accidents and life along the road. On the Indian side, Dibrugarh from where one proceeded to Ledo, was the home town of Paresh Barua, leader of the ULFA while Jairampur and Nampong fell in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district, which along with neighboring Tirap district, were part of the Greater Nagaland claimed by Naga militant groups. Consequently, Naga rebels had been active in these districts. Further, Indian militant groups have operated from foreign soil and militancy everywhere had links to narcotics. In Dibrugarh, I met Dr Nagen Saikia, former Member of Parliament and former President of the Asam Sahitya Parishad. He wrote in a newspaper article that reopening the road would be a blunder.  Dr Saikia felt that the government’s `Look East Policy’ was both an oversimplification of the North East’s cultural roots and a boost to international trade from the region earlier than required given China’s confusing stance towards India. “ Assam also does not have so many products to trade with Myanmar and China,’’ he said.

I did not speak to Arun’s parents, who at the time of writing this article, were still in mourning. It appeared that the variety of work Arun did to stay in Kunming and complete his book, ranged from content development for The Hump and tourism in the area to work with the Yunnan Chamber of Commerce and helping Indian businessmen in Yunnan. He learnt Chinese. Both Rajesh and Manu recalled conversations involving potential business contacts between China and India. In 2008, Arun briefly visited India; then returned to Kunming. Around this time, Pearly who was passing through met Arun in Kunming. He had been her senior in Christ College. In her blog, Pearly captured the emergent core of Arun’s travel philosophy. He had moved on from Lonely Planet-totting backpacker to staying and knowing. Pearly was in Kunming for a month, she then moved to Dali. Arun, who had by now started developing content for a website related to the historic city, initially made periodic visits as part of his assignment and then after Pearly resumed her journey to Mongolia, himself shifted to Dali. On the fateful day in early November, Arun was out on a solo hike in the Changshan Mountains. During descent, he slipped at a dry waterfall and injured himself badly. Having informed his friends in Dali of the accident, Arun who was on a less frequented trail, crawled under a ledge for shelter. By the time rescuers found him, it was too late. He was 28 years old. “ He had told me that traveling and writing was what he wanted to do. After Stilwell Road, he had planned something in Peru and another trip in Europe,’’ Rajesh said. The family was trying to compile Arun’s notes from China.   

Lake of No Return (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Lake of No Return (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road came with a fan following attached to it. At Nampong, I met Professor H.N. Sarma from Digboi, former Principal of the Margherita College and acknowledged locally as an expert on the Stilwell Road. There were a couple of vintage jeeps driven in for symbolism. Teams continued to attempt traversing this link between India, Myanmar and China; some like the Cambridge / Oxford team of 1955, Eric Edis in 1957 and Donavan Webster later, wrote memorable books. Others plotted travel in Internet chat rooms. None of this mattered for local people crossing the border. Quirks of history and accumulated neglect had made their everyday life an adventure for others. The irony of the Stilwell Road was that not long after its completion and the first convoy of Allied supplies reached China by that route in February 1945, the Second World War ended. Hundreds of lives had been sacrificed building the road but its use in entirety for the purpose it was meant for – a transport link between India and China, was hardly tapped. In the years following the war, the forces supported by the Allies shifted to Taiwan and mainland China became a Communist nation. Then in 1962, China invaded India in a war that contributed greatly to the mistrust which came to characterize relations between the two countries. Economic growth only made them competitors. Post World War II, Myanmar enjoyed a brief fling with democracy before slipping to military rule in 1962. Over the last decade, while India initiated steps to work with Myanmar including the opening of trade routes and proposing a sea port at Sittwe, the latter’s proximity to China was arguably more. In recent years, the junction of India, Myanmar and China has been called the setting for a new Great Game of sorts. Sixty eight years old, the Stilwell Road awaits realization of intent.

Arun was a good writer, peppering his observations of China with wry humor. But what got me off my chair and off to the Stilwell Road was an eight point-declaration of intent written in September 2009 at Dali that he subsequently mailed his friends and they in turn, mailed me upon hearing my queries. The eighth point said, “ I stand firmer than ever in my dedication to the avoidance of boredom. This boredom is not the situational one, like when a reputed bore buttonholes you at a boring dinner (well, even there I would try my best to flee to the loo and dodge out the back door). It is a boredom of existence.’’ That last point had visceral connect for it described the state of the world around me. There were those of us who tried to break free from that boredom but never succeeded in getting past its strong gravitational pull. There were those who manufactured a picture of virtue from their daily surrender to boring rat race. Privately they admitted they were bored. But soon after, they constructed a magnificent justification for ignoring the obvious. In fact, it had become one of the challenges of my times – everything becomes boring; how do you avoid pattern susceptible to such entrapment?

Arun seemed aware and he tried. Significantly, he articulated the predicament beautifully and bluntly as a “ boredom of existence.’’

The least I could do to commend his spirit was, be at Pangsau Pass.

(CONCLUDED)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Ripunjoy Das and Pranab Phukon while doing this story. An abbreviated version of this article was published in The Hindu newspaper. That article has a photo of Arun. This is the link to the article in The Hindu http://www.hindu.com/mag/2010/05/02/stories/2010050250140400.htm A bit more elaborate version was published in Man’s World (MW) magazine.)

WINDOWS TO THE MIND

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many years ago, when studying in Thiruvananthapuram, I used to be active in a small society called Literary & Debating Forum. On days when the onus of organizing a debate fell on my shoulders, I would go to inform the college principal of the chosen subject, seek permission to use the auditorium and put up some posters for publicity. In the early part of my time at college, my father died. I suspect, the principal who saw some promise in me, kept a distant watchful eye on how I was faring. By my final year of graduation, I had both nose dived in academics and grown a beard. One day, I went to the principal’s office for the routine appraisal of upcoming debate. He heard me out without taking his eyes off my bearded face. Then he asked me, “ Shyam, what book are you reading now?’’

Those days, books were prime fertilizer for beards. Youngsters read books, beards grew and some years later, they were usually lost to navigating a confusion that the more pragmatic avoided and chose decent careers instead. The principal’s concern was spot on. In retrospect, I am glad somebody bothered to ask that question too. If my principal had any worries, they came true. For after college, I meandered for long in a maze of impractical ideas and idealism. I was never a fan of ideology. But ideas hook me easily and I am never above an impractical pursuit if there is a journey in it, even a short lived trip. I am therefore not the type anyone can use to build a nest or fiefdom. The moment I detect territory marked and stamped by ownership – which is the problem with ideology too – my trip ends. For I know well that the compulsion to defend turf will kill the original idea. It is not that this trait doesn’t bother me. It does. The world’s money lay in the family-fiefdom-kingdom-empire-country sort of social arrangement and to be useless for it is to embrace penury. Indeed any perspective that doesn’t make sense to people fetches no money for money is a human construct found only with people. Yet the thing is – the way of money is just one way to live and life was never all about one way. That old beard is no more there on my face. But as you can make out from my writings, its ghost lives!

The reason I brought up my principal’s question to me is because when I wrote on Madhavan Nair, who was a fine collector of music (please refer earlier post – Remembering Madhavan Uncle), I remembered that nobody asked me of the music I liked the same way they asked me of what I read. We think books are a window to people’s souls. We assess people by what they read. But why not by what music they listen to? And the thing is – for most people, the music they like is far more personal than the books they read, save of course the books you are told to read for salvation and such, like our religious books, where anyway it isn’t inquiry but blind faith. For me, someone who likes pop music is different from someone who likes classic rock as is that person from someone who likes film music. Or to dig into my own tastes and give a very Indian example – I like Hindustani classical for its seemingly unfettered exploration of universe and its reduction of life to a relation between self and universe. Carnatic music in comparison leaves me cold. I feel it emphasises laid down structure and appreciates in terms of loyalty to an established perfection. Maybe that’s because I don’t know enough. But that’s my aural perception and I usually don’t labour to understand music through explanation. Music is what it does to your atoms and molecules when you hear it. It is that simple. Take it or leave it, but PLEASE – respect what you leave too, for it is plain stupid to conclude that an arrangement of atoms and molecules as you are is the best arrangement nature could ever manage.

Perhaps somebody with an appetite for anthropology and social research can enlighten us on why we are conditioned to place appreciation / knowledge of words above appreciation / knowledge of music. For sure, the world has disseminated itself more on words. Sometimes I wonder if music’s comparative relegation is because our words are inadequate to articulate what unravels through music. For after all, the vibration of a drum or string appears closer to the wealth of vibrations that seems the universe itself. Are we paying the price for mastery over what is only a second or third language of the universe? Yet we never even give it the benefit of doubt. If you reach home lugging books everybody approves it as opposed to landing with headphones on your ears and spring in your step. No boss asks you in an interview, “ so, what music do you like?’’ leave alone celebrating a discovery of matching tastes, with a jig around the table. Maybe they should read Sherlock Holmes for one of the mysteries of his character is how that alchemy of astute observation, chemistry, the occasional drug and violin, converged to crack a case.

Commuting in Mumbai, a city of travel given its distances, my small backpack may or may not have a book to read. But it will rarely miss out on my old portable CD player (go ahead and say it: this man should be in a museum!). Right now some songs have to be at hand. They mean the world to me. None of them arrived at the same time and any such favoured playlist keeps changing. However some songs stay long. From the first time I heard the song `I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ I was hooked. It was the very essence of journeying. In my opinion, journeying is different from journey. Many people go on journeys, but few actually journey in the sense that they allow what they are experiencing to come within and move them, shift existing patterns. This song and the album `The Joshua Tree,’ more than any other song and album I had heard till then, embodied seeking and they did so, as a wholesome body of music, not through recourse to lyrics. Through thick and thin, through the ups and downs of life this song by U2 and the album, `The Joshua Tree,’ have stayed with me. Although acquired much later `Dear Mr Fantasy’ quickly grew to be a permanent fixture on my playlist. Herein I am not referring to the song’s original version as recorded by the band, `Traffic,’ but the version performed by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at their 2008 reunion concert in Madison Square Garden. Hanging on in the periphery of these two songs and for now, rounding off my essential playlist are the songs, `Imagine’ by John Lennon, `Bridge over Troubled Waters’ by Simon and Garfunkel, ` Silent Lucidity’ by Queensryche, ` Closer to the Heart’ by Rush, `Maa Rewa’ by Indian Ocean, `Drive’ by REM, `So Much to Say’ by Dave Mathews Band, `Snow Flower’ by Anand Shankar, `Midnight Rider’ by Allman Brothers Band and `Farm on the Freeway’ by Jethro Tull. You don’t have to like them. They happen to be my choice for my current days in Mumbai. Days change; so does the playlist.

Music is one of the most under-estimated windows to what we are. It encroaches upon the terrain zealously guarded by the old fashioned, feudal question of who we are. That question is typically answered by disclosing names of parents, family roots and details from the circumstances of one’s birth. After holding forth on that, play the music you genuinely like, watch those swaying to it and you are left wondering – really? If the above mentioned songs are currently fundamental to my sanity then is an explanation of who I am by the circumstances of my birth adequate or inadequate? And if I am born in accordance with what answers who I am, to merely then cross over to the pleasurable confusion of what I am, then of what relevance is this question – who am I? And if I am happy with whatever musical tastes are compliant with my identity by birth, then does that bar me from whatever I can be by way of wider empathy for music? Chances are music will leave you belonging to bigger universe against which, the whole feudal rigmarole of who you are looks petty. Of course, you can cap the inquiry for convenient outcome or profit – that’s beside the point, not to mention being dishonest to the spirit of inquiry. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

My college principal, Fr Thomas Kottarathil, did the best he could. Except him no teacher ever asked me what books I read. Maybe someday in the future, a principal will ask students, in addition to what books they read, what music they listened to. In the more informal setting of outdoor experiential education courses, I have often seen this happen – we stand around in a circle and try to open a window to what we are by listing one or two songs and singers / bands we like. The effect is usually nice because music is not seen as part of our weaponry for mutual competition. Sadly however, that wonderful privilege is eroding. Attitudes encouraged by the industry of marketing, which sells by loading every product silo with attributes, is making music seem more physical than the fluid medium for journeying it actually is. Now that you read this article, why don’t you reflect on the songs and music you like and see what they tell you about yourself? A word of caution: they don’t tell you everything, they just tell you something.

When my principal asked me of the book I was reading, my answer was – James A. Michener. Thanks to good friend Rajagopal, who started the trend, we were both onto one Michener after another. To my mind, Michener and U2 or ` The Joshua Tree,’ aren’t exactly the same spirit by different names but they belong to the same region in imagination. Michener’s huge books, if you have the patience for it, engage for their vast canvas of people, history and times. It is a journey. But it also resembles a giant fresco that is all about reporting a million movements but needn’t really move you, for it is a frozen account. That’s where music scores over words. Starting with our heart beat and breathing, humans are naturally rhythmic. Music adds a dynamic dimension to words that words are simply bereft of. U2 captured the spirit of journeying with `I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and some other songs in `The Joshua Tree.’ That album moved. You felt wind in the hair, solitude and moments of utter standstill. The Madison Square Garden-version of `Dear Mr Fantasy’ too falls in the same league. It evokes imagery of journeying and multiple perspectives. Does that in turn provide a clue or two about me? I suspect it does.

There is however one danger, we should be aware of in this sort of profiling. The human being nowadays is way too intelligent for his / her own good. We reverse engineer like crazy. We ask ourselves what impression we need to strike and then arrange the required pointers in place. We quickly learn what music we should like to impress the boss; what books to read to impress a teacher, what degrees earned and from which university structure a great career, what picture of self indulges our own vanity for a blog. A few screeches on the violin, some time with the magnifying glass and a few puffs never made anyone Sherlock Holmes. Sadly that works in our world. Everything is bio-data for competition; not understanding a journey. It is success by formula, till the chemistry of pretention wears thin and reality emerges.

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