THE OUTDOORS AND THE LURE OF THE HIVE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A recent Court order that bans camping on Uttarakhand’s alpine and sub-alpine meadows has left trekkers and the outdoor industry confused. Confusion can be clarified. Of worry is trends inspired by commerce, noticeable in some of the responses to the ruling. As life becomes hive, the question is: to bee or not to bee?

Recently a friend needed assistance in articulating what the outdoors means and I found myself writing so:

Wilderness and open spaces are not merely part of human heritage. They are fundamental to the evolution of our aesthetics. One manifestation of such aesthetics inspired by nature is our idea of freedom. For some inexplicable reason, open spaces and wilderness with few humans in it, remind us of freedom; alternatively whenever we think of freedom, we imagine open space. We periodically yearn to be away and alone in the outdoors because we wish to reconnect with dimensions of existence denied us in the human cluster. Thus much before the outdoors is industry or industry to be regulated, it must be acknowledged as a side of us we are bound to go seeking, allowed or not.

To mindsets like the above, regulation is self-regulation and that is inextricably linked to education and awareness. The goal should be to create better informed practitioners of outdoor sports and adventure activity.

I reproduce the above here because of a recent Court order in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and responses to it I noticed on the Internet; in fact, with reference to my opinion on the matter, less because of the Court order and more because of the responses. Towards the end of August 2018, the High Court ruled that camping should not be allowed on alpine meadows, sub-alpine meadows and bugyals. It put a question mark on trekking in Uttarakhand because many treks – particularly long ones – require camping overnight. The order also set a limit on the number of visitors allowed at these locations.

News reports following the Court order said that the Uttarakhand government will challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court.

I leave it to the experts to decide what should be done.

What distressed me was some of the reactions in the wake of the Court order.

One big player in the outdoor industry lost no time in positioning large companies as environmentally responsible and small groups and individual trekkers as potentially irresponsible. To me, such posturing is unacceptable because there are exceptions to every generalization. There are lone trekkers and small groups of hikers who conduct themselves responsibly. Similarly, there have been big tour operators who defiled destinations by running hikes with large number of people or handled their garbage irresponsibly. Second, this argument of big operators as the most responsible ones around and therefore ideal model to support flies in the face of why we choose to be in the mountains in the first place.

My gut reaction when I saw the tour operator’s observation was: don’t compulsorily push me into a group. I come to the mountains for relief from the human hive and you are simply extending the reach of the hive when you insist I be in a group. That is not to say I am averse to groups. I am a meek fellow. Except on a handful of occasions, all my treks and climbs were with at least a friend or two. I have also hiked with groups and been on commercial treks; in the latter case, enjoying the comforts provided for I can’t handle frugality perennially. All through my life I have picked and chosen from a basket of options. What I wish to underline is that there is an element of getting away in most outdoor adventures. Outdoors, wilderness, open spaces and such have historically been a valuable counterpoint – even source of counter narrative – to life by clustering. What is the fun then, in forcing everyone into groups in the outdoors too? Why limit our choices?

The unsaid truth is – hive and group are good for business (not to mention – they are also politically fashionable these days). Companies love seeing us arranged in silos and seeming ready-made market. Before we know, the silo is swung by capital, technology and social media to the convenience of those controlling it. Such hijack of individual is overlooked. The danger implicit in this imagination resembles the tussle between personal freedom and nationalism. If you are going to put resources behind empowering anything, it should be personal freedom because that is innately fragile and typically, stands alone. Even a school student, aware of bullies and bullying, knows which side to support as a matter of principle. Somewhere in life as adults, we seem to forget this. However – and thankfully so – not everyone forgets.

Years ago, when I was introduced to hiking and climbing in Mumbai, my seniors at the climbing club talked of a book that was deemed essential reading. Its name – rather aptly I would think – was Freedom of the Hills. I didn’t read this book (it is there still on my shelf) but I read similar others. More than reading I was lucky to be with friends who liked the outdoors and respected it. Point is – nobody recommended an Outdoor Industry Handbook or How to be Hive and in the Hills At Once as essential reading for novice. My seniors were clear – the hills meant freedom. And because they are precious as abode of that freedom, you tread responsibly, you care for it. We went in small groups / expeditions and years before the Court order of 2018, were already carrying our trash back. It is my request to policy makers that individual hikers and small groups should not be automatically branded as irresponsible. Sometimes we hike alone or in small groups because we can’t afford commercial hikes or we simply wish for our own space. What you should emphasize instead, is good education about the outdoors so that anyone – traveling alone or traveling in group – is motivated as individual, to be responsible visitor in wilderness.

A commercial trek should not be anything more than an option. Much the same way, going alone or in a small group, should always be there as option. You can’t impose one option on everybody. The solution should be – no matter what option we choose (and the option we choose will vary depending on our state and stage in life), the environmental standards (and safety norms) expected of a trek must be met. Educate and train – that should be the way ahead. The hive will always tempt us with business models suiting its logic. But remember this – you will know the value of freedom only when you lose it. Even as I am yet to read it, I just can’t get over the name of that book: Freedom of the Hills. So apt. But for how long? – I wonder.

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

THOUGHTS AROUND SMOG

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Breath is life.

Early November 2017, the question vexing Delhi was – how safe is the air?

The smog hung thick.

The union environment minister was quoted in news reports ascribing the smog to “ adverse meteorological conditions.’’ According to him, there were the twin problems of still wind at ground level and two wind masses – one bearing pollutants from crop burning in Punjab, the other laden with moisture and blowing in from eastern UP – colliding in the upper atmosphere. The minister was likely correct. It was also selective explanation, the stuff of calibrated response. It suggested that the fault wasn’t ours; it was more a conspiracy by weather.

We have known for long that Indian cities are polluted and becoming increasingly so. Across Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and more – there are rivers, streams and creeks that have been polluted to varying shades of sewer. Blaming their toxicity on lack of water flow or colliding water currents, would be laughable. We know the toxicity is us; our way of life. All the three major culprits cited for the Delhi smog are man-made – crop burning, automobile emission and construction dust. Mumbai escapes terrible smog probably because it is a coastal city. But its land, water bodies and the adjacent sea are scarred by pollution. Adding to the confusion over how to tackle pollution is life by religion. Amid smog in Delhi, some highlighted how the Court erred, blaming Diwali for pollution when immediate culprits are other causes. I shut my ears. By the time I left Delhi for Mumbai, two people were dead after their car fell into the Yamuna River, courtesy smog and low visibility. Elsewhere, there were reports of vehicle pile-up.

For those interested in running, major question was – what will happen to Delhi’s biggest running event due later in November? This discussion too was characterized by calibrated response. The organizers termed medical advice seeking cancellation of event as premature; they said similar conditions had been there before, they said vehicles wouldn’t be plying the race’s route from 12 hours prior to the event and that salt water would be used to wash the route to keep dust settled. Are we past calibrated response? Anyone who walks, runs or cycles regularly in Indian cities is automatically exposed to the dark side of our collective existence; the extent of air pollution and the danger of rising vehicular traffic. Besides poor quality air for runners to inhale, cyclists have got knocked down by aggressive traffic. People have died.

What worries in an experiential sense is how respect for human-powered locomotion and the outdoors is shrinking in Indian life and how that attitude is spreading like fashion. Nine days after I left Delhi, the city’s prestigious half marathon was held as scheduled. News reports said, close to 35,000 people had registered. Thanks to wind and rain, pollution thinned and air quality improved. It’s good to know that committed runners will run no matter what. Unfortunately nobody asks – what happens after they display their resolve? Will the resolve extend to making sure that next time around, pollution levels are low? As we become more and more slaves of our emergent nature, those of us feeling alarmed by pollution outside shrink in number and calibrated response to pollution becomes increasingly acceptable. It is convenient, avoids blaming us. Colliding air currents suffice to explain Delhi’s smog and runners and cyclists would seem a nuisance on streets meant for climate controlled-vehicles transporting people and goods to their destination. Why are we suckers for calibrated response? Why don’t we notice the blunt truth? Nobody likes pointing the finger of blame at themselves, particularly in context like India where national problems – from population to pollution – are self-wrought. Calibrated response is dished out to keep the human collective and strategically important economic interests therein, happy. Population becomes market and workforce for GDP; pollution becomes collateral damage for industry and employment.

Delhi, early November 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In contrast, endurance is about experiencing self and solitude. Deep into a run, hike or swim you confront it. You become just what you are. There is no room for pretense, cover-up and fraudulence. There is no hive; only bee. For such a mind, between noticing smog and buying into calibrated response, the former should attract. Doing so, you are no more market. A market pace of evolution is nowadays not only slow compared to the urgency of our problems, it also leaves us intellectually dissatisfied. Increasingly now, a better environment is our individual responsibility. The outdoors and endurance sport are like portals to awareness. Some view it as achievement. A slightly different lot would view it as a new way of looking at life. The word for it is perhaps – aesthetic. The Oxford dictionary describes aesthetic as: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. Dig a bit deeper. Here’s how the dictionary describes beauty: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight. Within that meaning and several other sub-texts, there was also this: a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect.  Question to ask is – are we living an aesthetically pleasing life? Did the smog seem beautiful?

There’s more to the smog than meets the eye.

In it, we see what we have become.

A sense of aesthetic will help us pollute less.

Following which, any marathon will be beautiful, no salt water needed.

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

FOUR QUADRANTS AND DIVERGENT FOR RELIEF

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What am I?

The question fascinates us no end.

I had a phase as an outdoor educator.

In that period, I was introduced to a method used by experiential educators in leadership and team building sessions. My memory is a little foggy around the edges but I think it involved using personality and temperament – as stated by participants and corrected by fellow participants where required – to assign people to four quadrants showing distinct leadership styles. These four quadrants (we would create them on the ground using trekking poles or ropes) were deemed essential for a good team. Initially the exercise engaged for it answered the question of what I am, like a case of self-discovery. Oh…so this is what I am – there was enough in that nascent discovery, however questionable, to ruminate and reflect upon. Then problems with self-image set in.

I debuted in a quadrant meant for those who value human relations. That felt good, except – what I wished to be was something else. I wanted to be a doer. The rules of the exercise were pretty clear. A quadrant, diagonal from where you were placed would be toughest to transition to. The doer lot was diagonal to where I was. Adjacent quadrants were easier accessed. Given the model accepts that you tend to change with time, in several subsequent instances of exercise repeated, I found myself in the adjacent quadrants – some showed me up as an information gatherer and analyst of data; a few other instances showed me as a motivator.  Not once was I a doer. Damn!

To an extent the analysis was correct. The most powerful sport I ever engaged in was rock climbing. As lead climber, placing protection and opening the route, I was weak. As follower, I was good. Climbing doesn’t lie. I found myself enduring the notion – repeated for my benefit by friends – that I was adventurous only because I knew others better than me. The description denied me ownership of initiative shown. Even a hitchhiker owns his / her journey. Why deny me mine? We never spare an occasion to rub into someone that he / she achieved because they were lucky followers.  On the other hand, during the several instances when I was travelling alone or the decade I have been freelance journalist surviving on tight budget, I was a quiet doer, executing things as needed. It never landed me in anyone’s doer quadrant. Who thinks of writing and freelancing as challenge or doing?

Quadrant for membership is an easy way to address life’s pressing question: what am I? The experiential education method I was familiar with is but one of many such approaches to temporarily categorize people. Books have been written and movies made on the premise that everybody belongs to some category. And almost always the quadrant of the action hero – the doer – is a coveted spot to be in. He gets all the pretty girls. In due course, I accepted the fact that life didn’t find me a doer. Accepting it allowed me to move on. Sometimes the categorization business was fun. Once on a hike that I worked as a junior instructor, our students – all fans of the Harry Potter universe – deliberated on what maybe my house at Hogwarts. I was touched. Not because they gave me a house in the Harry Potter universe but because somebody bothered to think about me that deeply and for that long. Thank you.

J.K. Rowling isn’t the only author who dabbled in the politics of categories. The search for a category pervades all walks of existence now. One of the factors that made this tendency widespread is the rise of technology and organization; the latter triggered the ascent of management science. The combination – technology and management science – unleashed the regime of everything as measurable. Most job applications are precise, well defined exercises. If there are multiple responsibilities involved, then each is segregated and shown as a percentage of the whole. An enrollment process is designed to find the best fit for an opportunity. That automatically births the notion of right mental type and category. I am uncomfortable with such certainty in the meeting grounds of technology and management science. Not for me, this use of us as emotionally dead building blocks. I am sure that in their own discreet way, organizations later seek to retain talent by allowing people to move across functional capacities. However if you want to know yourself by confronting that which you are genuinely not good at, you may need to give up employer-organization.

There is only so much any employer will be willing to lose. So you quit and go solo. Solo keeps risk and loss restricted to you. My hunch is – soloing while difficult, will amaze you by what it reveals. Personally, I think we have the potential for all those quadrants wired in us. We deliver as circumstances require. In a lifetime we journey through different circumstances. The question to pose would be: are we journeying enough to realize our potential for all the quadrants; or houses and factions as the world of fiction elects to call them? And if you can pass through all those separating walls, what are you? If that’s what you are and you are still dubbed loser, what does it say of world declining room for you?

That’s why the Divergent series engaged. Written by Veronica Roth, the trilogy was made into three movies; the last one of the series Allegiant, released in March 2016. I haven’t read the books; I saw the films. There have been many movies that leverage the interplay of what we are and what we are expected to be. The Divergent series caught my eye immediately because its premise of a dystopian citizenry assigned factions to belong to, instantly reminded me of my experiences with that experiential educators’ model to teach leadership. More important, it helped me assuage my grudges against that method by creating the idea of divergent as category, a rebel category. I am not a fan however of the purity-impurity angle built into the story with the divergent protagonist positioned as most evolved. I tap into the idea of divergent as relief from the need to be a fixed somebody.

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

SIMPLICITY, MARKET STYLE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

I had waited long to hear this.

I thought of a similar moment earlier at the peak of my research and subsequent confusion over what bicycle to buy. That was expenditure heavy to shoulder on freelancer’s income. Unable to throw money around as the consumerist market expects, I had worked on understanding bicycle models and component specifications to find the bicycle model suited for my needs, at my price point. Problem was – my price point was too low for the specs I sought. Suddenly a slightly old bicycle model of right dimension and specs, at price tad discounted given its age and outmoded wheel size, materialized. It was perfect fit for freelance journalist lacking a fortune to spare. A source of considerable enjoyment since, it is now parked six feet away from my work table.

The dust on that purchase had hardly settled when the government threatened my comfort zone with all out drive to go digital. I use an old Nokia feature phone. What it can do is all I need. It also suited my interface with universe, which is quite tactile. Back in 2002, it was nice seeing Tom Cruise swishing his hands this way and that as he shuffled data on virtual screen in Minority Report. I didn’t ask to live it. I also have difficulty viewing large sections of geography on small screen. Where am I? – is a more important curiosity for me than destination guaranteed. We don’t mind small screen for maps because we value destination guaranteed with pointer showing you the way. Besides, your typical smartphone keeps beeping with messages from this app and that. I don’t like it. I have zero appetite for some of the messages floating around, particularly the troll type. Further, once I started going on expeditions, I grew accustomed to switching off phone and being out of contact. The digital epidemic however meant more angles than the above, affected. Unlike the phone of old, now our money, bank transactions, passwords – all have dovetailed into the smartphone. The world around me was being prompted to transact its business in a certain way and if I hung on to my old phone, I risked getting deleted from existence. The epidemic triggered hunt for a smartphone.

In both bicycles and smartphones, trends appear similar although it is particularly entertaining in the case of phones given that simple argument – if you spend for a bicycle as much as you spend on a smartphone; at least you gift yourself an active lifestyle.  Needless to say, one of the most hilarious sights I witnessed recently was a fellow commuter on a Mumbai local train taking selfies with his tongue sticking out. It amused to think that moments like this get official patronage through policy favoring smartphone while the bicycle battles daily with growing traffic hell bend on denying it space. Don’t these trends speak something about us? Anyway, the nature of market evolution I noticed from my search was somewhat like this:

First you take an innovation that has at heart a relevant and clear proposition. None can dispute the clarity in what a bicycle or a phone means.  A bicycle takes you from place to place at modest pace with zero pollution and physical exercise included. Motorized transport beat the bicycle in terms of speed. But in days of present lost to smog and sedentary life, the bicycle has been reborn absolutely futuristic. To think that it was introduced in the late nineteenth century and its relevance remains strong – now that is a product. A phone helps you talk over long distances. Do you need one? The answer is yes. But that isn’t good enough from a manufacturer’s point of view. So in the second stage of evolution by manufacturers and market, you dismantle given product into its several constituent parts and start tinkering with the parts, such that you are developing capabilities in apparent isolation. This is a departure from the unquestionable relevance of a product at debut stage. In the second stage, either industry players are many or more players are seeking to muscle in. In both cases fresh raison d’etre needs to be manufactured. The plain vanilla cellphone, which catered to clear, fundamental needs, gets touch screen, camera and apps (none of which are the sort we died for lacking) and becomes a smartphone. During marathons you hear technology’s automated voice speaking with robotic love: congratulations, you have completed a kilometer; the time taken was….Or, there is the selfie generation, which has grown so big and omnipresent that of the smartphone’s two cameras, the one facing user is gaining more megapixels than the one facing world.

The third stage is the strangest stage, when the focus is no more on overall product relevance but marketing gimmicks promoting the technological advances in specific components used, quite often at the expense of larger harmony among components. It is the Popeye stage, when brain and body live in the shadow of outsize bicep. In my search for smartphone, I came off wondering why someone is selling an imbalanced product. A typical review: this smartphone does this, this and this. But the cost of having all these functions is – it heats up and may not run that long on a single charge. When was the last time a decade ago, that your phone claimed to be smarter than you and died every day for want of power? Equally confusing are the product reviews. Online retailers in their effort to empower customers with information, host plenty of reviews, many of which seem rants or half baked analysis. Not to mention, there is nothing in the identity of reviewers to prove that they are really customers and not paid PR by brand or competitors out to put a spanner in the spokes of a brand. Given this, my hunch is brick and mortar will return for those valuing tangible product before buying. But it won’t be as the regular brick and mortar of old. Its new avatar could be in line with trends articulated at the end of this article.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Meanwhile, business is brokered by how you look at a problem. The above mentioned lacuna of inadequate power opened up room for phones with massive batteries. Not all massive batteries are sold to you with quick charging devices alongside. If you want your own private power station that takes a lifetime to charge, you pay a certain price; if you want the same with quick-charge, you pay a bit more. And no matter how huge your battery, few of these phones with ever increasing apps and expectations riding on them, match a good old feature phone in terms of reliability. The old phones were rugged; they survived in rain and cold. They used all the power they had for two primary functions – talk and text. The new ones are comparatively fragile and born of proximity to power sources. You can make up for absence of power source nearby by carrying a variety of portable power sources and charging devices, all of which merely add to the stuff you truck around. With required gadgetry stashed on self and backpack, you could call yourself a smartphone-commando, a smartphone-marine or member of the elite squad of communications-special forces. Point is – this third stage is all about confusing the customer and milking him. Do you want to make a phone call or do you want to look like a commando?

A good instance of third stage in the bicycle market, in my opinion, was the confusion over wheel sizes in MTBs – 26 inches, 27.5 and 29. It had nothing to do with the happiness you found, cycling. Cyclists had managed to reach most places on the planet. The 27.5 and 29 were not going to reach you some place humanity hadn’t. Yet you paid for industry’s eccentricity because industry was desperate for a reason to energize its business. A case of overlapping domains in cycling and communications technology would be using smartphone for navigation, weather forecasts etc. Yes they are absolutely relevant. They work. But setting out on a ride only if you have all this is a bit like retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo or Fa Hien and knowing all along that they ventured out despite not having any such technology in their times. With capital backing technology, there is no great wave seeking to restore the adventure in adventure. Instead, there are isolated moves afoot. For example, the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which is a race to circumnavigate the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat, has banned all kinds of modern electronic gadgetry aboard participants’ boats. They want you back at technology levels matching the year of the first GGR – 1968.

Not surprisingly, the fourth stage is clarity rediscovered and restored. I greet it with as much hope and affection as Ice Age’s sabre toothed-squirrel does his prized acorn. It celebrates relevance, aptness and perfect fit. Sounds like fundamental rights. Isn’t this what buying a product always meant? Transpose this to the idea of democracy. If a democracy deemed fundamental rights luxury you would be quick to say it got things wrong. What would you then say of a market where relevance is luxury or matter of circuitous rediscovery? Overall therefore the simple description for this evolution by market is: wild goose chase. There is a saying that you can either touch your nose from front or you can take your hand behind your head and try touching the nose from behind. Smartphone’s discovery of simplicity harked of the latter. How else would you birth bloatware, sell a tonne of it and then acknowledge it as dispensable?

My friend Prashant owns a couple of smartphones including the sort that currently dominates sales in India: 3GB & 32 GB, 16 MP & 4 MP, quad core Snapdragon at 1.3 GHz and 3000 mAh battery. Prashant likes to climb and cycle. He is into yoga. Recently I found the old Nokia smartphone with Windows operating system back on his table. “ How come?’’ I asked. “ If I can live without all these apps, this much of phone is enough for me,’’ he said bluntly. I know he was saying it prematurely for there are facilities from the smartphone’s recent past he has got used to and which need a different phone to run. But he had a point. If I go by specs from six years ago archived by Wikipedia, the old phone should have 512 MB RAM-16 GB internal storage, 1.4 GHz single core processor, 1450 mAh battery, 8 MP rear camera and no front camera for selfies. Between this phone and returning to this phone, were a couple of other phones owned and got tired of. One discussion Prashant and I often have is whether money can be the answer for everything. If you look at the market, it would seem – you fix the problems you are facing at a given state of life by being capable of affording a better one. But we moved from sophisticated phone to more sophisticated phone and after screwing up the phone market with a plethora of transient twists in technology, we are gifted a simple, uncluttered phone. It harks more of starting line than finish.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well to Latha and me: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

Wonderful!

There is one thing though: simple phone doesn’t come cheap yet.

You still have to pay the premium for industry’s return to simplicity after many intervening phases of delusion by technological opiates. Like that ` carefully worn careless look’ from the pages of fashion glossies, this is ` simplicity redefined’ and expensive. The same will shape brick and mortar’s return too. Prices there are already not as low as prices quoted online. They have a valid reason – you are getting to touch and feel a product before buying it. It is an argument that wasn’t there earlier. A precious part of the data our brain uses to decide – the sense of touch – has got monetized. That’s one of the legacies of wild goose chase – all aspects of our existence get monetized. Meanwhile big data has been compared to what oil was in the twentieth century. Shareholders and equity markets must have liked that. By the same yardstick, I would assume parallels between the legacy of oil and the evolving legacy of big data. The new legacy will unfold even closer to our physiological and psychological make up for when I look around I find the smartphone’s impact on human behavior to be profound. Through smog and climate change – both legacies of the oil age – the smartphone’s fans stay glued to the mesmerizing device. This time, whatever smog and storms are due, will be in the human head. No wonder gurus and babas have a roaring business teaching us how to install delete buttons in the brain.

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

THE NEW RAIN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a new rain in town.

You have to walk, run or cycle to feel it.

Actually it is a rain that has been around for long.

What is new is its ferocity.

Unlike climate change which bewilders with its unsteady, erratic nature of incidence, this one has been systematically growing. We do nothing to merit the rain of nature and its life force. Yet we receive it every year, like God sent; sometimes more, sometimes less. In contrast, the new rain has thrived under our active patronage.

I like a morning run or a round of cycling. The number of runners and cyclists has gradually grown over the years. However, what has increased more visibly is traffic. It is a barreling flow. There was a time not long ago when the roads I frequent early morning were relatively quiet. Service roads (a narrow road parallel to an existing big one) featured almost no traffic. The air was clean. Now that is gone. Traffic starts building up from 7 AM. Traffic rules are also broken that early. Engine powered-mobility has scant respect for self-powered-mobility. Might is right. Runners and cyclists on the road have to be careful. Its raining vehicles.

There was a time in my days as employed journalist, when I wrote on the automobile industry. I wasn’t one finding vehicles sexy or magnetic. I wrote on the industry; I did so for a decade. At that time, the automobile industry with its basket of ancillary manufacturers and dependent service providers was the world’s biggest. I have since lost a lot of my fascination. I outgrew it. Further, when I got into running and cycling and had my taste of what it is like to be at ground level sensing a tonne of metal hurtling by, I saw myself looking at automobiles differently.

Like many other industrial sectors, the automobile industry was encouraged with investment sops. I haven’t seen similar encouragement offered in India for the active, healthy lifestyle. Let me be clear: the idea of healthy lifestyle is not to be confused with support for the medical care / hospital industry.  Like the auto industry, this industry too feeds off our purse. I am talking of communities enjoying adequate open space, green environment and easily accessed facilities for sport.

I haven’t seen one city, municipality, district or state that declares itself keen on supporting a physically active, healthy lifestyle for its citizens. States and districts bought into literacy; they have missions to ensure cleanliness. They haven’t bought as well into what constitutes an interesting life. Its like a crisis of the imagination. We put up a hospital with maternity ward quicker than we would anything to make the life that follows birth, interesting. Isn’t that contradictory? We don’t design our environment to be sufficiently engaging. We don’t plan our cities and living spaces for it. Many housing societies have space for a swimming pool. Just that nobody wants a swimming pool when that space can be used for parking. Even then, quarrels erupt over parking slots usurped because the number of vehicles is going up. So it isn’t just new rain. There is the flooding too.

The Indian approach is – money is king. In its durbar, sedentary imagination dominates. That imagination percolates down to everything. Its terrible as theme for life. Merely accumulating money never made anyone happy. Often when I find myself muscled out by vehicle on road, I wonder: does the driver hate me because I am living the life I like? You know what? – I suspect that is the case; especially in cities. Strange as it may seem the few instances I received room as cyclist, were in the hills and mountains. His loaded truck laboring up a steep slope, driver, upon seeing cyclist powering self and baggage on same road with no engine for help, would give a wave. Or a passing car driver would stick his hand out and show a thumbs-up.

On hopes of such moments visiting us somewhere, back in the city, we weather the new rain of an old order.

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

THE TINTIN YEARS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many decades ago, two significant developments happened near simultaneously, in my extended family.

Two uncles, two comic strip heroes and a bunch of school going cousins – that was the context.

My uncle Narayana Pillai got me Flight 714, my first title from the series showcasing the adventures of Tintin. Until then, the only illustrated narratives I was familiar with were the ones from Marvel, DC, Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha. They had strong following among school students, to the point that classmates with bound volumes of comic books were important people to know. I didn’t have bound volumes. Although my mother helped out by borrowing bound volumes from a local lending library, in general I suspect, my parents and grandparents held the view that comics, while popular, made for simplified narrative requiring less imagination. Reading was encouraged, purchase / borrowing of wholesome books approved. Days when the cousins got together typically featured a morning or afternoon of painting. Imagination was encouraged. A picture may speak a thousand words but the mind gets useful stretch if it can paint a picture from a word or a theme, perhaps even nothing – that seemed the approach. Into this ambiance landed Flight 714 and at the house of my cousins – Rajeev and Manju – thanks to another uncle: Sachidanand, a handful of books featuring Asterix.

It took me a while to warm up to Tintin. But you guessed it right – it took no time to like Captain Haddock. Who can forget “ thundering typhoons’’ and “ blistering barnacles’’? I also remember liking Skut for no stronger reason than that he was a pilot in Flight 714. Those days I shared a craze for aircraft with my cousin Jayu. Both of us had those small, thick Observer books with plenty of fighter planes in it and we spent time piecing together our respective air forces, which then competed for supremacy in the sky. We also made model aircraft from cardboard, Jayu being infinitely better at the job than I. Flight 714 thus landed at the correct time. My mind was ready for adventure. What attracted me to Tintin were also perhaps the size of a Tintin book and the average length of a story. Uniquely, it was bigger in size than the regular comic book. It told a full-fledged, long story spanning continents, sometimes taking two issues to finish; a sort of early introduction to the graphic novel format that would become popular decades later.

What I remember most is however something else.

Maybe it is a larger Malayali trait, maybe it is a family trait – I don’t know which of the two is correct –we had the tendency of analyzing experiences. At near fifty, I understand childhood better now. It is a phase when you have the luxury to do something because you feel like it; no analysis in the mix. Impulse and intuition are not unfashionable. Our passage to adulthood is fueled by just the opposite. We become adults by analyzing to make sense, till we become armchair analysts of all that is alive and stirring. Expectedly, my extended family put Tintin and Asterix under the scanner. The emergent fascination among the children for these two series triggered discussion among the adults. It was a discussion revolving around idea, story and artwork; we had no clue of such political details like Tintin’s origin in a Belgian newspaper identified with far right views. I remember the outcome. Asterix stayed ahead because its illustrations were bolder and had more flourish. Asterix stories with their play on characters’ names were also more deeply imagined and as the more sophisticated, layered comic book it was respected that much more because childhood is after all stepping stone to more sophisticated adulthood. None of that bothered me. I like Asterix. But Tintin is special. Something about it appealed to childhood’s idea of adventure.

My uncle probably noticed the brewing interest. His work took him often to other cities in India. Occasionally, it also took him overseas. Almost always, he returned with another title from the Tintin series. All the titles were displayed on the back of each book. So it was easy to identify what you hadn’t read and hunt for it. Tintin made me do crazy things. One of them was my scale drawing of a rocket. I arrived an evening with my father at the house of Rajeev and Manju. Their father – Govindan (he was a physics professor) – smiled and indulged me with his time and patience as I explained how my rocket would work. It was all well illustrated in the drawing on large graph paper – the fuel tank would feed the engine and my rocket would escape Earth’s gravity and be moon-bound. Why shouldn’t it? I had a rectangle with dials on it, labeled ` control panel,’ another rectangle with pipeline attached, labeled ` fuel tank’ and yet another one marked ` engine.’ That last rectangle ended in a nozzle copied from one of the jet engines in my Observer book. In retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t join the Indian space program.

In those days of economy yet to open up like now, each Tintin bought traveled to multiple homes. At every home a kid or two eagerly lapped up the contents. Sometimes titles got exchanged at school; I will lend you my title if you lend me yours, which I haven’t read – that sort of deal. And unlike, regular comic books, which few bothered if they got misplaced or torn through lending, deals over Tintin and Asterix were deals of honor. Misplace or mishandle, you risked being branded unreliable for life. That adds a touch of mystery to how my Tintin collection – all titles acquired save four; that’s 20 out of 24 – fared, once I reached college and employment beyond. Back home in Thiruvananthapuram, not one title survives. I hope some kid; somewhere is still reading what I collected and drawing rockets and submarines. Slowly as Tintin titles became more easily available in India, we started buying the books ourselves (a visit to Kochi was always incomplete without dropping in at PAICO). One by one, we collected the titles mentioned on the back cover of every Tintin book. Then the search commenced to at least access and read titles not mentioned there; titles mentioned in Tintin lore or in conversation among his devoted fans. Meanwhile, my uncle’s children, Lakshmi and Hari, also grew interested in Tintin and started their own collection.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I never outgrew Tintin. I can still pick up a title and enjoy browsing through it. In my adult life, the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s film on Tintin was a much awaited event. My favorite character was Captain Haddock and I was utterly curious to see how he would be on celluloid. I was disappointed and it isn’t Andy Serkis’s fault. My curiosity was in seeing which actor would pull off that role well and being an avid watcher of Hollywood films, I had even attempted some casting in the mind. As it turned out, the movie was made using motion-capture technology. That put it neither here nor there. It reminded me of the title: Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Of all the Tintin titles I had, this one – assembled using stills from a 1972 animated film – had attracted me the least. When it comes to converting comic books to movies, I am not a fan of hybrid. After all, Tintin is not a Jungle Book, wherein modern animation technology makes animal characters life-like rendering the film a classic. Tintin sits firmly in the world of people and it surprised me that the producers deemed hybrid imagery, acceptable. I felt that was a letdown, considering Tintin has been portrayed before on stage and several other comic book heroes have been adapted brilliantly for the big screen.

In early August 2017, Lakshmi mentioned that a prominent item at Hari’s home in California is a poster of Tintin. Among his favorite shops is one where he picks up “ his Tintin stuff.’’ It made me wonder: what made her father Narayana Pillai, pick up Tintin books in an era of closed economy in India? Laskhmi’s own take on it was that her father bought it for the children in the family but he wasn’t above reading it on a flight himself! But then, unlike today when the media floods you with trends instantly, those days a comic book hero from Belgium was as distant as Belgium itself. You were compelled to read about Superman, Batman, Phantom and Mandrake because they were around. But Tintin? He didn’t have any PR machinery promoting him in the Indian media. It left the question: how did Narayana Pillai born and brought up in the Kerala of the 1940s and 50s, come to know about Tintin? He had never shared those details. A day into recollecting my thoughts around Tintin, I called up my uncle at his home in Aluva. Now in his mid-seventies, he laughed upon hearing that the phone call from nephew nearing fifty years of age was connected to his Tintin purchases from long ago. There was no loss of time in recollecting details. The bulk of the Tintin books were sourced from a book shop at the Mumbai airport of old, which my uncle visited during his business trips. “ I used to look for illustrated children’s books. That’s how I came across Tintin. I flipped through its pages and felt the characters in the book were interesting. The hero was a young journalist. When I bought my first Tintin, I had no idea how it will be. But from that one book, we moved onto many more, possibly the whole lot…Hari’s collection is still here,’’ he said. Further, in as much as he bought the books for children, he loved reading Tintin himself.

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

THINK EVEREST IF YOU MUST BUT DON’T FORGET THE SEA

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early September 2017, I read a news item from Kerala that spoke of a state based-adventure outfit wishing to put women from South India on top of Everest.

It made me sad. Not because Everest is unworthy of aspiration but because it captures our attention at the expense of other equally worthy if not worthier objectives.

To begin with, in May 2014, Malavath Purna, a 13 year old-girl from Telangana had successfully scaled Everest. She was at that time the youngest girl to ascend the peak. That’s sufficiently record-making for South India if you ask me. Maybe then, the adventure outfit’s reference was to people from Kerala. While anyone is free to raise the required funds and attempt Everest, it is a fact that in mountaineering, Everest is equated with guided mountaineering as long as one is attempting it by its frequently climbed routes. The most important factor in guided ascents of prized peaks is whether you – as client – can afford the cost of permit, gear rental charges and the fees of the guiding company. In Everest’s case that is a big amount. Everest tests your stamina. It also tests your purse.

A guided climb of Everest by the normal route does not automatically make you distinguished in the company of mountaineers. Discerning climbers will seek details and they know well that challenging peaks are available elsewhere too in the Himalaya. On the other hand, alpine style ascents on Everest or climbing it by less frequented routes are ideally tackled by experienced climbers for they are quite difficult.

If you can raise enough money to climb Everest; then directing those resources to any other part of the Himalaya will yield plenty of peaks of lesser height that cost less to climb. Should Kerala structure a mountaineering program that puts the focus on less known Himalayan peaks, it would do climbing a service. Some of these peaks are genuinely challenging. Ascents on them have been the stuff of award winning mountaineering. For those who define adventure differently from courting a tonne of risk (I belong to that category), these lesser mountains and their landscapes also harbor much wild beauty and solitude. Currently they don’t fascinate Indians as much as Everest because we and our media are still in the early phase of mountaineering. We haven’t got under the skin of climbing. We remain awestruck by Everest. That’s why the world’s highest peak, climbed by many and their guides every year, continues to attract. A good example of its popularity and symbolic value is betrayed in the experience of a well-known mountaineering club from western India. Having climbed Everest successfully, this club tried raising funds to climb other peaks. It didn’t work. It was easier to find sponsors for yet another Everest expedition with adjacent peaks included. Among mountains, Everest fetches sponsors and when it comes to money to attempt other peaks, Everest done or Everest too in the frame, is the stamp that fetches sponsors.

It doesn’t end there.

When individual aspirants fall short of funds for Everest, they borrow. Some even take bank loans. For these folks, a trip to Everest and summit missed means investment lost and life in debt. Such stories have been reported in the media. Further, government departments awarded promotion at work against Everest ascents recorded. Potential recognition of this sort, which has nothing to do with climbing, inspires its share of unrealistic expectations, not to mention fraud. I climbed Everest but didn’t get due recognition – is a complaint sometimes heard. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team from India was shamed not long ago for faking their summit photo.

Given several states have already seen their residents ascend Everest, I wonder if yet another Everest expedition or creating a training base for those aspiring to climb such a costly peak, deserves priority. Sure it can be a business opportunity, for those seeking guided ascents up Everest are clearly people willing to spend money for it. However if one is imagining sport with support from state exchequer in mind, then I submit what Kerala must do is something else.

As a coastal state, it must embrace water. It must encourage disciplines like swimming, distance swimming, sea kayaking and sailing. Water rarely gets the attention it deserves in our imagination of adventure although it forms 70 per cent of the planet and is deep enough to sink mountains. In his autobiography, American swimming legend Michael Phelps states his admiration for Australia. Down under swimming was one of the most popular sports, a position unheard of for swimming elsewhere. Phelps wanted this to happen in the US too. Access to water and sea is Kerala’s real gift. There is nothing wrong in wishing to meet the Himalaya. In fact, there is nothing wrong in anything you choose for adventure – it is your instinct, your choice. Just that in Kerala’s case, it would be a tragedy to hanker after the Himalaya far away, and merit in the process, guided swims and sailings in the Arabian Sea lapping at one’s feet.

Kerala has produced good swimmers who topped nationally. A couple of them also participated in the Olympics. Kochi has a marina. It is hometown of Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation of our planet in a sail boat. Did this translate into policy supportive of water sports in the state? I doubt it and by supportive policy, I don’t mean events (that’s tourism). I mean training and empathy for those wishing to court water. I have also not heard of any endeavor from Kerala that is the equivalent of an ` adventure’ on water. Further, for the record: swimming cannot be substitute for regular climbing as means to be good at mountaineering. But it provides physical fitness and cardiovascular health; both essential for any endurance based activity, including mountaineering. There is a lot that focusing on water can yield – it can help you excel on land, if land still be your chosen medium for adventure.

If you are in Kerala and can call upon government, companies and people to contribute resources, what would you attempt for adventure – Everest or a long distance swim or voyage?

Think about it.

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