Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This is an old story, from a time when Badami was yet to have climbing routes of grade eight.

I noticed Badami when my rock climb failed.

A high rock face to climb trad-style, but few minutes into it my mind panicked. It fled into the `can’t-do’ zone, from there to the `why-do?’ and eventually the `won’t-do’ zone. I lost my confidence, packed up my rucksack and walked away to nurse my shattered ego. I had been climbing for close to a decade and yet I cannot do this? Perhaps this vertical business with challenges every second is not for me. It rankled, for up there, you are alone and have to work things out yourself. Having tasted climbing before, defeat hit me hard; exiled me into the realm of ordinariness. Who likes that?

Badami is one of the best places I have climbed in. When the light is right, it’s beautiful sandstone glows. From a climber’s perspective, I found the rock suited for my style and grade of climbing, which was beyond beginner level but still intermediate. The rock sported a variety of holds ranging all the way from painful pinches to thank God-jug holds. Above all, the rock had a gentle, sandpaper feel to aid friction. You found climbs to encourage the beginner; engage the enthusiast and obsess the expert. In a world where 9a was the toughest climbing grade yet, Badami had plenty of routes in the sixes and sevens. I was witness to an attempt by French climbers to open something in eight. The hardest I could manage on lead was a low six. Probably when in fighting form in the head and body, I could nudge that up to a mid six.

What I loved about Badami were two things – first, if you got tired doing long climbs, there was always plenty you could dig out from rock, to boulder; and second, this wasn’t a place that imposed a climbing style on you, here the rock allowed you expression. You just had to look around to find a line somewhere to call your own. Problem with me had always been the mind. It had a tendency to magnify failure, pick up that train of thought and flush the rest of the brain down the drain double quick. No matter how much I climbed – and I did quite a bit for the average Indian of my age – my mind remained the same. Its inability to perceive my strengths eventually crushed me. I tried disciplining it with positive thought, didn’t work; I tried distracting it with motivational reading; didn’t work. There were flashes of relief, but soon thereafter the slide to gloom and self deprecation would take over. I gave the condition a name – the crab. That’s how the head felt when the lows grabbed you with its pincers. And right then after the failed climb, I could feel the crab groping around upstairs for a strand of grey matter to torment.

Badami was dry, dusty. Climbing agenda gone, I began to see the town. Well over a thousand years ago, Vatapi as it was known then, had been the capital of the powerful Chalukya kingdom. In the Badami of today, you hardly suspected such a grand past. The ruins and temples on its edge had design, the town had none. It was a collage of powdery soil, congestion and the regular motifs of clustered human habitation. A demolition drive was on against illegal structures, the bulldozer furiously stirring up dust. Like elsewhere in this country of harsh realities, old glory dies hard and the name of the Chalukya kingdom’s greatest ruler, Pulakesi, showed up on a board or two. In the world below the boards with Pulakesi’s name, children asked for a school pen; not getting which, they sought a chocolate and failing that, a one rupee coin. There is even a climbing route called `school pen’ – so ubiquitous is the request! I began my exile from climbing with a visit to Banashree Restaurant. Upendra Kumar served me a plate of idli-vada. He was typically a very reserved person whose demeanor betrayed disinterest in matters other than his own immediate work. For some reason that day he enquired where I had been. Probably sensing a day not gone well, he recommended that I visit Badami’s archaeological sights and rattled off details as in a guided tour. He spoke in English; I could imagine him holding forth in one of those rock-cut caves, a group of foreign tourists tuned in gravely. In fact, he had worked as a guide before he became a waiter. At snack’s end, I paid the bill and offered him a tip. He declined it, saying, “ service is my duty sir.’’ He smiled, wiped his hands on a small towel, returned the towel to his shoulder and left. Red-faced with embarrassment, I suddenly realized you don’t have to climb or build empires, to be extraordinary. You just have to do a good job with whatever you are engaged in.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The day before, Lakshman had carried his situation with similar dignity. Hailing from Belgaum, the post graduate in social work lectured at a college in Badami. He was once selected for a job at one of the companies of Godrej in Mumbai but caught typhoid and couldn’t make it. Not one to waste time over the setback, Lakshman had then registered to study law alongside his job as lecturer. He was wandering around the town’s sandstone rocks, text book in hand, when he saw the group of climbers attempting routes in a discreet gap between high rock walls known to crag hoppers as Badami Deluxe. “ So, this is a game for you?’’ he asked, attempting what many people strain to do – read logic into the act of man courting the vertical. Popular belief is that everything has to finally boil down to a set of comprehensible urges, like why you play football or cricket. You know that the target driving all the physical activity on the field is to score a goal, take a wicket or score runs. In sharp contrast, climbing typically loses its wealth of dimensions when forced into paradigms of competition, fixed time and forced result. The times climbing gripped me the most was when personal universe shrank to a dialogue between self and rock. These are moments of near emptiness in the head or acute focus on the immediate. It is actually hard trying to explain why people climb rock or for that matter, endure the hardships that come with ascending a mountain. As regular life remorselessly patronizes the rat race, such pursuits as chasing endorphin or courting emptiness in the head or feeling good through alternative perspectives of life – they gather momentum. Tragedy however is that we bring rat race to the alternatives too. We are our worst nightmare. In my experience, the first move in climbing is akin to taking a chance. Thereafter, what keeps you in the game is a combination of your wish to taste what you are aspiring for and the knowledge that your limits can be pushed. You fail many times. In right company, failure is positive fun (right company, as always, is hard to find). No amount of watching climbing will put you adequately in the zone to appreciate what’s going on up there on rock for the amount of experience climbing shares with the observer is very limited. This is a doer’s sport. When you convert it into an arena based-event, the ones in the audience connecting convincingly to the moves on stage are climbers.

It is easy for climbing to thus get dismissed as a pretty selfish pursuit something reinforced by its own eccentric rituals like callused skin, fascination for climbing moves and the use of chalk almost as metaphor for clarity. Crimping or the art of pulling on nearly non-existent rock features hurts the fingers due to the inordinate strain it imposes on delicate joints otherwise used to easy tasks. Climbers merely tape up the joints with plaster to enhance local support and continue chasing their obsession, the pain buried by the mind’s fixation on the route and the encouragement of others with tape on their fingers. That’s why on most occasions climbers make sense to only their community. It is a tribal bonding that management consultants and marketing types like to showcase (rather incorrectly) for team building. But none of that would ever get close to what you likely feel when you are one of the real climbers. An authentic climber, I suspect, may not even be aware of the tribe. He / she is aware of just the rock, blissfully exhausting a lifetime’s supply of mental focus and physical energy on investigating why person shouldn’t stick to challenging rock face like a lizard and move up. From the rock climber tackling a boulder to one on a high face to the alpinist attempting a several-day challenge on snow and ice, there is a certain self imposed isolation that characterizes climbing and climbers. Climbers give off this attitude that they don’t require the rest of the world for company. I see it as the experiential impact of the sport they pursue, which is marked by focused attention on what is at hand, rarely what is around. When I was into climbing, this bonding by climbing came naturally to me. In exile, I saw it differently. Exiled, I wasn’t what was immediately at hand; I was part of what lay around. Climbers relate through the act of climbing and the world of climbing so overwhelmingly that nothing else intrigues for stimulation. When you drop off that world, climbers have no value for you. It is like a blip seen no more on radar. Now, try explaining all this to an observer asking why you climb. So I just nodded and smiled at Lakshman’s query. If he was earnest in finding answers for his question, the next time I came to Badami, I would find him a climber. If he wasn’t earnest, well I saved climbing from one more potential critic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

However, what struck me about Lakshman was something else. I have always been agitated by my inabilities; especially, if others could and I couldn’t. I never got my climbing peace engineered the proper way. For all the monastic tranquility I confer on climbing it is a thin line that separates the act of climbing from degeneration into a mentally self destructive engagement. Because it is a difficult art, failure is frequent. Courtesy the simple truth that you are either climbing or falling, there is no place for the ego to hide when failure strikes. Your friends may say it is okay if you failed, even you may counsel yourself so. But the inner self weaned on climbing’s harsh lexicon, knows YOU failed. That’s what happened to me that day in Badami. I let the pressure crack me up. Then someone else of my grade climbed the route smoothly. It burnt the failure in. I had always had problems leading on rock and that incident crushed me. I felt I didn’t deserve repeated failure after years given to the sport. Why was I still struggling, when every molecule in me wanted to climb? My failures told me in an unadulterated way – I was doing something wrong. I wanted help. I got none. The failures stayed. Looking back, I feel, climbing was for me a lot like being infatuated with a completely indifferent woman on the strength of maybe one incisive observation about you she made long ago. That one comment stays in your head for an eternity because it was honest and accurate. It is riveting enough to burn her into your mind but it is also true that there is a limit to how much burn a man can take. I get fed up after a while. I admired climbing for its unflinching honesty. I got exhausted of failing to attract its fabled flow. I stopped climbing.

Jacques Perrier seemed just the opposite of my frustrated self. To start with, this climber from France was almost sixty years old when I met him through my climbing club. The only time I saw him agitated was when he was bundled into a thickly packed mini-van headed for Badami. I was seated on the engine box next to the driver. Perrier, I am not even sure if he boarded that vehicle or took the next one. I do remember seeing him shocked on the road, beholding the van built on a narrow wheelbase with people stuffed inside and piled on the roof, his hands up in the air as the highly expressive French do when agitated. He may have hated that van passionately but he was passionately in love with rock. And it showed in each and every move he made at Badami, it was smooth, elegant and the way he gripped rock, I could write poetry on that if I had the talent. It was an act of love without the slightest strain showing on face or fingers. In a world where every tennis player worth the brand he endorsed, grunted his way to glory on court, Perrier was a silent artist weaving spell after spell on rock. He was at peace, happy to be doing what he was doing. Lakshman was the Perrier of another world, he appeared at peace with the universe, uncomplaining about his position on the ground while half a dozen crazies sweated, fought and extracted achievement from rock. He was content to be sitting there, books by his side. Before he left, he enquired if we needed help carrying our equipment down the steep gully we had come up. He may not climb but he certainly was a helpful human being. What more should any person be?

As I sipped tea at Banashree, the jackhammer’s rat-a-tat was relentless atop Ganesh Prasad, the small cellar-hotel where I used to have breakfast. The food at Ganesh Prasad was often explosively spicy but it was cheap and for those wanting to save money like me, the extra spice muted hunger. Dust and debris littered its entrance as the jumpy machine pounded concrete. Hit by compressed air flowing down a connecting tube, the jackhammer’s pile driver bangs the drill bit down onto the concrete surface. No sooner does it do that, a valve reverses the air flow retracting the pile driver and allowing the drill bit to relax. Then, the pile driver goes down again. In one minute, the jackhammer repeats this cycle fifteen hundred times. That’s some signature of demolition in a town, whose ancient rulers are remembered by their long surviving temples. Everything in life has two sides; where there is construction, there is destruction. Where there is empire, there are ruins. Where there is furious climbing, there is exile. By night, Ganesh Prasad had gaping holes up front and the hotel had temporarily shut down. Illegal the building may have been, but the cheap eatery had greeted the morning with South Indian devotional songs, recreating an ambiance from my childhood in Kerala when dawn arrived with songs from the nearby temple. Anand, our fruit juice vendor, had lost the facade of his shop to the bulldozer. Next morning as I stepped over the rubble for some lemon juice, he bore no sign of remorse. His family was large, seven brothers and sisters. They had three juice stalls in Badami. He would rather think of the promise for business in today than rue the damage inflicted. Life carries on. “ Some fresh lime?’’ Anand asked. “ Yes please,’’ I said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The ordinary was balm for my soul fried by failed climbs. And as it soothed, so the ordinary seemed as courageous and extraordinary as the spectacle of climber on rock. I was discovering a side of the universe I hadn’t noticed before. However I sincerely hope the extraordinary visited eleven year-old Salim who sat watching our last day of climbing at Badami, sullen-faced. He lived with his mother, younger sister and brother. Salim quit school after five years to work at a local hotel. He worked from 7 AM to 9 PM, earning twenty five rupees. His mother washed dishes at the same establishment. The father, given to drinking, worked in Goa and often left the family to fend for themselves. You could sense anger and disappointment in the little boy. Now with strict laws in place, he could not work as well. “ Employers fear trouble if a small boy works,’’ he said. Listening to him, I felt my disappointments in climbing were trivial. Salim needed a king’s blessing or at the very least a bulldozer, to set right his life. The only king around had become a name on the odd signboard, the only bulldozer in town was too ordinary for the miracle he sought.

All this was long ago. Badami has since got climbing routes in grade eight, including the high eights. Back in Mumbai, I slowly withdrew from climbing and climbing groups. I did climb in Badami after the episode mentioned in this article but never as involved in climbing as it was previously. For most matters concerned, my exile from climbing continues. I haven’t yet regained my affection for rock climbing.

(The author Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Badami please visit this link: and navigate on from there for further reading.)

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