Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

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

99.9 %

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On Monday as another round of school board exam results with its related procession of stratospheric marks went by, I was thinking of something else.

Not long ago, soon after I turned fifty and mortal, I visited a man I owed much to. He and another teacher ensured I crossed the finish line when I faced my board exams. Like one of those body shutdowns at marathons, I was a mess in my tenth standard, crawling to a verdict I had dreaded for years. These teachers put up with my very average academic ability. They coached an also ran to somehow perform and get a finisher’s medal.

Since then I have walked a path away from the competitive exams, the majority clusters to. Life has been considerably less rewarding on the road less traveled. It has also been quite lonely. But I feel life, as moment and journey. If I hadn’t felt it so, would I go back to thank my teacher at fifty? Fifty was remarkable for another realization. In India, the legacy of competition beats the best of stain removers. Most of my friends are still in board exam mode. They aren’t done with accumulating distinctions to stay on top in the rat race. Unlike me, they either love the rat race or having got married and raised families can’t afford a different perspective. Old friends meeting up, is like playing pool with glass balls. You have to make sure no ego is pricked, no vanity punctured. As we live we pile on such layers.

Life’s greatest question is: what am I? Like toddler comprehending movement because there is fixed ground below for index, board exam gives you an initial baseline. It is also misleading because there is a lot of others – comparing with them, beating them – in the frame. After all, 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 pose no value if they don’t take you to the head of a queue and for queue, you need others. But hive is not sole reality around. What about every bee’s individual excursions? Remember – the one we live with the longest is our own self. That’s why the question: what am I? – It matters. What am I? – cannot be answered by looking at others. I never forget the scene of Sentinels invading from The Matrix Revolutions. The screen turns dark with a swirling mass of squid like robots, each reporting to the rules of the matrix. Contemporary Indian life is a lot like that dark screen. We lose sight of sky because our vision is blocked by human beings, rat race and rules we dare not question. Universe unseen, what am I? – is trashed as irrelevant. That’s when 99.9 per cent in accordance with curriculum by hive, looms as only viable torchlight in utterly dark cave. All the while, the switch to know one’s self – the best illumination existence provides – remains undetected.

In a sense it is good. Life thereafter becomes discovery. But not if an edifice of trashing genuine questions becomes your cocoon for the next several decades. Employment these days is just that. The relentless march of compliance as virtue is a peculiarly Indian thing. We seem wired to be the world’s torso harboring the organs and processes that keep existence going. Not so much its brain or probing finger tips.

I love those friends with whom I can question rules and imagine without boundaries. It clears dark screen and Sentinels, makes you sense universe beyond. Monday night, I asked one such friend how much he scored for his board exam. It was 75 per cent. Then, there is the other case. A brilliant person (brilliance measured on my terms, not 99.9 per cent) I knew from my college days, now shuns company. I think he needs to be so to preserve his mind. When I asked him how he survives in his city prone to flocking and quick judgement, he replied, “ I keep to myself.’’ Every May as the frenzy around 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 rolls out, I remember the teachers who saved me. I also feel amused. All that celebration and publicity in the media is like declaring winners before the race of life has begun. Forget race, the beauty of the path ahead is that if you bother to notice life, it dips, dives, soars, plunges, turns, meanders, wanders – it does too many things to be any one in particular and be the stuff of a discipline and a race. But then you have to notice it.  How many of us do?

Apart from visiting my former teacher, the other thing I did at fifty was visit the parents of an old friend. Somewhere in that chat I blurted out, “ I still don’t know what I am or what I wish to do in life.’’ Oops, I thought clamping my mouth shut. If it was office, that would be hara-kiri. “ Interesting,’’ the father said smiling. He had a look in his eyes. The easiest description of that would be `distant’ but a more accurate one I think would be, `knowing.’

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I know it is Thiruvananthapuram. But for the heck of these musings, let’s keep it Trivandrum in the title for that is what the city was called years ago; the start line from which my generation commenced its journey. Vignettes and thoughts from a recent visit:

From deluge to frying pan

At his house in Thiruvananthapuram, my uncle told me of a video his son sent him. It was shot in Chicago, during the extreme cold weather caused by polar vortex. In it, a cup of water is thrown up in the air. It transforms to a shower of ice in no time. I remembered this well into my regular morning run in Thiruvananthapuram. The predicament around was abject opposite of Chicago’s cold. It was a few days into March 2019 and Kerala, still bearing scars from the floods of 2018, was officially into heat wave.  From extreme rain, the state had swung to unbearable heat. With humidity also in the mix, the resultant brew wasn’t pleasant by any yardstick. Advisories had been issued by the state government urging people to stay hydrated and avoid working in the open during hot afternoons.  Sweat is familiar companion on runs in Kerala. But the run to Kovalam from home in the city went a bit beyond that. Heat overall and straight, monotonous road in parts – that’s how the bypass leading to Kovalam was. It brought spells of boredom. Good thing was, the struggle made breakfast on the beach well earned. After days of such warm weather, we had a slightly overcast evening. Early next morning as my daily run entered its concluding phase, an excuse of a rain drop made its presence felt. It seemed the reverse of that story from Chicago.  Once was rain drop. Somewhere along its passage through hot atmosphere, it vaporized to excuse. For a while it rained excuses. Despite drizzle, the road betrayed no sign of wetness. As Bob Dylan sang: the times, they are a changin’. Yet Kerala marches on; its priorities in life, consumerism, social attitudes and lifestyle declining to acknowledge the changes afoot. From weather to environment, demographics and remittances from overseas – there are impacts felt or due to be felt. An hour later, runner and excuse of rain gone, that narrow city road lined by myriad plots sporting individual houses within, would be lost to a flood of automobiles. Like serpent eating its tail, our habits swallow us. Thus content, we conclude: nothing has changed.

City of stadiums

Thiruvananthapuram’s Jimmy George Indoor Stadium is right next to the local swimming pool, venue for many national competitions from years past and training ground for several promising swimmers. In his younger days, this author too had his share of time at Thiruvananthapuram’s pool aka Water Works pool. Promise, unfortunately, there was none. My swimming stayed survival-level. Early March 2019, the indoor stadium named after Kerala’s greatest volleyball player yet, was hosting an exhibition of sports equipment. On land between the stadium and the pool, was a make-shift auditorium for panel discussions and demonstrations of various sports; right next to this temporary facility was an equally temporary boxing ring. The first evening of the expo, a few boxing bouts were staged for the public to watch. A law student into boxing that I consulted for better understanding of how points are awarded told me that Kerala lagged in the senior category in the sport even as it managed to perform decently at junior level. Somehow the promise seen at junior level didn’t get carried over; there was continuity lost. He couldn’t articulate why. I asked him about local facilities to box. According to him, there was one boxing ring on the outskirts of town. College level boxers trained in improvised circumstances and before a major competition, managed some sessions at the ring for the feel of being in one is distinctive. On the brighter side, he said that Thiruvananthapuram now had a boxing club of sorts with he and interested others training youngsters in the sport. I have said this before and I say it again – few Indian cities have as many stadiums, sports facilities and synthetic tracks, all within relatively short distance of each other, as Kerala’s capital does. What we need to do is use it well and along with that, love well-rounded education more than one heavily partial to academics. To exist is to breathe life into all of one’s faculties; mind and body fuel each other. Ideally, success by career should be secondary to awareness by existence. Don’t you think so?

Extreme academics

Kerala loves films. In my childhood, English films were regularly screened in Thiruvananthapuram. Past college, as the ascent of television commenced and programming in Malayalam gained currency, Hollywood faded at the city’s theatres. Cinema halls previously associated with English films started hosting the latest Malayalam blockbuster. For a while I was upset because there was little in vernacular content that fascinated me. Not anymore. Some Malayalam movies are now genuinely engaging and well made; among the best in India. Back in time however, Hollywood was welcome diversion from plots, contexts and characters I couldn’t relate to. Several years ago, on a visit home I was delighted to find Apocalypto running at a local cinema. Until the latest visit home that was the last movie I saw in Thiruvananthapuram. With many of the old cinema halls since converted to multiplex and spliced for consumer preference, Hollywood seemed back. Given Mumbai’s multiplexes are unaffordable on my freelance journalist-income I hadn’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar winning biopic on Freddie Mercury. Courtesy Oscar glory, a Thiruvananthapuram multiplex had this movie and Black Panther returned to the screen. As memorable as Bohemian Rhapsody, was a set of hoardings I found outside the cinema hall; actually across the road from it. I quote from memory. One board sported two messages: For your entertainment (arrow pointed to multiplex); for career advancement (arrow pointed to a nearby building offering coaching classes for various exams). Another board nearby announced: Extreme Coaching Classes; cautionary note below added: only hardworking-students need apply. Who said extreme is meant only for extreme sports?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The success epidemic

I love Kerala. I hate Kerala. Middle aged, living life as I wish and hauling my share of broken ware courtesy such experiments, I visit families only to be treated to tales of successful parents, successful children and successful grandchildren. It is typically success measured in terms of academic brilliance, intelligence, smartness, career and well settled life. In land by attributes like academic excellence, remittance economy and well settled life, the above said narrative is all over the place like a background drone. Families draw satisfaction from humming it. I sit and listen. In Kerala, this parade of success would seem a bigger epidemic than all the fevers, coughs and ailments surfacing by summer. Successful people should be happy people. Interestingly, that isn’t always so. I have a theory for it. When life is lived too much on the theme of last man standing, accumulating all the wealth required to buy your passage when world crashes, it is possible that you revel in having bolstered your chances of survival; it is also true that you acknowledge inevitable disaster lurking in the horizon. Else why would you arm yourself so with more and more money? Are you then, happy or afraid? Worse, none of the factors around raising fear of potential disaster, are addressed. As this trend grows, private fortresses become coveted shelter.

In Thiruvananthapuram, a friend’s father told me this – he had been attempting unsuccessfully to get the residents of his colony to meet up and chat. It is something everyone wants to do for there is real loneliness in successful Kerala. But as yet, the chat has remained a dream. Except one person, nobody turns up. Why? – He asked me. My analysis was simple and drawn from the distance growing between my friends and me as we age. The colony in question showed no visible sign of struggling to exist. The houses were solid, many were multi-storeyed and all houses had compound walls and gates securing them. It was the epitome of successful well settled life; very Malayali. Each plot, likely a tiny kingdom. When people emerge to meet world outside it is like ambassadors dispatched for diplomatic engagement. You are projecting image, lineage, social standing. Now, people are people. They will socialize. The problem is when they come accompanied by their success and other related baggage, including ego. Too many peacocks in one room make it a competition in preening. Who feels happy comparing and competing all the time? Park that baggage outside and the human warmth and company sought, should resurface. Life is about you, your times; your friends and what you understood of planet from your fleeting existence. Why crowd it with talk of parents, children, grandchildren, engineering, medicine, MBA, career, USA, Europe, NRI, bank account, mansion and car; none of it really you as in you in your bubble of existence? Families, dynasties and kingdoms have had their time. You have a sense of world, all your own. Revive that. That’s the challenge confronting my friends and me too. In our middle age, the ego and baggage we reaped living, does the talking. To meet person like you once did before the deliberate living began, you have to get past an entire chess board of accomplishments, avatars and accomplices.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ruminations on blank skin.

Tattoos are beautiful.

Some people wear it well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not how identity works.

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

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

The universe as it is seems infinite.

I wonder what the universe sports for tattoo.

Who tattoos it?

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


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.)         


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.)  


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.)         


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.


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.)


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.)