Lost in translation

I’ve been subtitling a video for an NGO about a remarkable woman in her 50s in a Keralan village. Someone who’s still full of life and laughter despite tragedy being her constant companion in life. People like her inspire me to make the most of my blessings. Also, in the past week, I dusted off a few moldy VHS tapes featuring some ancient home videos and a 1986 wedding and ripped them into DVDs. It was funny to see myself as a gawky teenager (something that I’ve still not outgrown, according to mom) with braces. Even more curious to see my parents younger and surprisingly not bad looking at all! How people change over a decade and half!  The wedding of my aunt, the first in the family to be ‘caught on tape’ was such a simple affair.

Regular readers might have noticed that although the author claims to be a vagabond, he doesn’t actually do much travelling. So to set the record straight, in a few days time, I’m finally planning to move my butt and do things I have wanted to do for a very long time. First I’m off to foggy Delhi, travelling by train in sleeper class. Excitement guaranteed for 3 days! Then the trail leads to Manali and further up where I’m joining a skiing camp. This has been a childhood dream of mine: to learn to ski. When almost your entire life is spent in the tropics, snow takes on a magical quality. Skiing and snow were mysterious things that I saw on TV screens, surreal. I always thought it would remain that way. So improbable. But now with loads of free time, it’s a possibility. After a couple of weeks on the ski circuit, its back to Delhi and then off to Rishikesh where I’m enrolled for a 2 months yoga course. Let’s see if I last that long.

I’m almost sure that the ski station near Manali won’t have internet access. About the ashram in Rishikesh I don’t know if I can sneak away once a week for surfing the net. I hope to log in at least once a week to update this blog.  I’ve almost totally made up my mind that I will not be taking a phone with me. I like these periods when I’m cut off from the ‘media world’, not reading newspapers or watching television. But so far I have not tried to go without a mobile phone.

 I’m already feeling a little nervous and excited. It’s always that way for me with regards to all long term travel. There’s a not so small part of my mind muttering about the craziness of the whole thing. Why leave a warm clime and cozy home to freeze your butt off somewhere?
Ah, the trepidation of insecurity and also the pull of adventure. But I do hope to continue writing and telling everybody else what a wonderful time I’m having. ;)

A village day

The people in the village are always curious about me. The neighbours frequently visit trying to figure out the guy who doesn’t work for a living. When the same questions are put by the nosy arrogant middle class living in the frigid cities, I usually lose patience. But here, I am embarrassed. Mani, from next door, leaves the house at 3 in the morning to catch the train to work. The subsequent train that stops at the tiny village station is too late for him. If he wants to travel cheap using the season rail pass, he has no other option. Otherwise he has to take a room in the city paying exorbitant rent. He has 2 daughters to raise and his wife is a stay at home mum. He gets a pittance at work and returns at 7 in the evening. Raising daughters in India, that is another story, but in a nutshell he needs to start saving for the inevitable double dowry.

He came yesterday evening and insisted I eat from his house instead of trotting off to the nearest hotel.‘I don’t understand  why are you so embarrassed about this. If I was staying in Trivandrum near your place, would you let me eat from anywhere else but your home?’I think, probably not. For all my pretensions, I think I still have the hard brutality of the city dweller inside me.  Even unconditional kindness and warmth offered takes time getting used to. I reluctantly agree on breakfast the next day. Enough to say people here are embarrassed by my embarrassment for inconveniencing them.

The morning is always the most beautiful and exciting part of the day. This time of the year it’s a bit chilly and the mist does magic with the sunrise over the kayal. I take the thotti (an aluminum pail with a rope attached) and head for the well. It’s just about 10 feet to the water surface and I send the pail crashing down. Juggling the rope like a music conductor I manage to fill the thotti to the brim (this is pure art!). After filling a couple of buckets its time for the well bath. A towel tied around my waist I splash the cool water from the well over my body with the grand finale being emptying the whole bucket over my head. The most refreshing bath ever! Nobody’s interested in the noisy performance except the odd kingfisher or crow perched on the mango tree.

I wear one of the most comfortable garbs in India for a man, the mundu. It’s a cross between a small bed sheet and skirt, wrapped and tied around the waist allowing free circulation of air! Perfecto for the tropical climate. Nobody wears a shirt here unlike the cities, especially at home. My chest exults in the new found freedom and I’m in the mood for contemplative relaxation.
As the sun makes his way up the sky,I slowly head to Mani’s house with a sturdy stick in hand. The house dog is notorious in these parts for sinking his teeth into unsuspecting visitors. The red tiled house is dark with little ventilation and furniture. I am in good time. His wife Mili has just made a steaming puttu ( steamed rice cake) .   
 I mash it along with banana, sugar and ghee. Mili talks about her small ‘business’ in which she lends money to other housewives like her for a small interest. The milk is from the cow next door, she says. Will I have tea? I decline the offer and laugh seeing the incredulous look on Mili’s face when told I don’t do tea or coffee. Among other things she tells me about the time she saw the temple elephant stamping a man to death during the last festival.

Her eldest daughter, the shy one, is flitting about doing chores before she heads to school.  She’s excited to be going on a trip today to watch a  nearby exhibition. Her skin is gleaming with the mustard oil she has applied before taking bath. There is no water connection in the house, so she has to draw water from the well. Still in school, she’s already a beauty. I smile as I  envision her breaking many hearts in the future. But she’s hardly aware of her exquisiteness  as she walks around almost half naked . A most beautiful thing to see innocence still unharmed in a girl flowering into a woman ! I go back to watching the hypnotising tender ripples on the  kayal.

Ass warming

My lingo for useless time spent between vagabonding. It’s similar to the feeling of ennui the non-vagabond has going for a 9-5 job she detests but worse coz the vagabond doesn’t even have that detestable job to lose himself in ! Personally, I warm my butt mostly at home. Every self respecting Indian son is expected to stay at his parent’s home if he is within a 1000 km radius. If work takes him away, 'that’s alright, son.' Even after marriage lots of sons still live under mamma’s wing with their wives as per tradition. And hence we have all these exciting mother in law/ wife spats that’s serialized by TV channels as soap operas and hence provide employment to thousands. Yes folks, optimistic oppurtunistic people that we are, there’s always a silver lining in India for even the most hopeless problem.

When I come home after a long trip, I help around the house and finish all those chores my folks lovingly put aside just for my arrival. After that initial adrenaline flush and honeymoon period with my folks, relishing the unbusy streets and clear soft water of my home city, the lethargy soon sets in. Soon im moaning about going to the shop around the corner for bananas. The Malayali’s love affair with bananas, that will have to be another post !

Although my star sign dictates me being loyal and submissive to my blood no matter what, I have not exhibited any such idiosyncrasies so far, much to my parent’s exasperation. So to avoid calling in the cops, I usually get away every couple of weeks when I’m home to the village where my dad grew up. Ah yes the die hard fans of this blog, who devour every word I write, would realize that I have been raving about this place in the past few posts. Terra firma surrounded on 3 sides by a kayal (lake), it’s the kind of idyllic place writers or pretenders like me would feel inspired. I always stay for a few days recharging my vagabond batteries. Also by this time, folks back home think that maybe having me around is not such a bad idea after all. Of course this cycle repeats itself ceaselessly.

to be continued...

The home coming...

The clouds hang low with rain as I race back to the past to dig out my first memories. I was maybe a tad over 10 years, playing by myself in the forecourt of an old tiled house populated by my mother’s parents in the deep south of Kerala. With the darkness of night  fast approaching I was watching with interest yet another ant that I had captured being devoured by a kuzhiaana. (Literally: elephant in the hole, antlion in English). The kuzhiaana lies deep in a small sandpit near the walls of houses and makes a meal of any insect unlucky enough to slide into its hole. It comes out kicking up little spurts of sand before nabbing the ant and disappearing underground. It’s such a fast and covet operation that I never saw a kuzhiaana in the flesh.

A kuzhiaana's abode !
Image courtsey: Wikipedia.

The gate creaked open and the telegram man walked in. I called to my grandparents above the crackle of the state TV station. I was old enough to know that the telegram man inevitably bought with him bad news.
‘Your grandfather has died. We will have to leave tomorrow’, the living grandfather told me matter of factly.
My first encounter with death. I watched the darkness outside for a long time and maybe felt a certain sadness. When I went inside again, my grandparents were still seated in front of the television engrossed in the unfolding drama. Did that telegram really not come?

The next day we made the 2 hour journey to the small village where my father grew up. Down innumerable winding tiny lanes ending at last with a vision of silver and the breeze. Every time I go there it has been the same and every single time it gives me the goosebumps to see the endless lake and the sea just beyond. An old tiled house with broad verandas and sweeping views of the lake. My grandfather had a white cloth stuck around his face resembling a white beard. There was a lamp burning at the head of the body and incense sticks galore stuck in ripe bananas. Nothing though could mask the smell of rotting flesh in the room, the smell of death. We had to sit there for sometime as someone read the holy text and women wept silently. People were constantly filing in and out of the room.

Outside the men were pasting betel leaves with white lime and stuffing it with betel nuts and tobacco. When their cheeks were close to bursting they would spit it out colouring the earth red. Plates heaped with cigarettes were passed around. The women were either inside the house or in the smoke filled kitchen. The men stood around talking about the weather, current affairs and everything else but death.

A beautiful final resting place

Some of the branches of the enormous mango tree were being hacked and made into little pieces of wood. My uncle came out dripping wet after a ‘well bath’. The elaborate rituals and Sanskrit chants started for the departed soul. Soon the body was taken out of the house accompanied by a mass wailing I have not heard since. The pyre was soon lit on the banks of the lake, with the soft breeze and the sea just beyond. Everybody, the fishermen going about the day's work, the people on the opposite banks and those in the train that sped past must have been transfixed by the fire.The coconut tree planted there in my granddad's honour is quite tall now. But all those years back, I had a strange thought : 'This is not a bad place to die'

Confessions of a neurotic narcissist blogger

I can never quite forget the first time I received a comment on my blog. I was not even aware that other people were reading stuff that I wrote. A certain secret satisfaction that 'someone out there' cared enough to blurb. A rite of passage every blogger goes through. It would tally with my theory that all bloggers, more or less, are exhibitionists. Not with regard to their clothes, though there may be the odd exception, but with their feelings. We like to be appreciated for our incredible writing skills, artistic ability or photographic finesse as the case may be. ;-) And of course a bit of narcissm helps to convince ourselves that our thoughts are important enough to be read by other people.

Once you succumb to that first comment, which is usually mildly encouraging, you're a goner. Soon you are logging in and going straight to the comments section. Six years back on blogger, that was the measure of your popularity, the number of comments you had. And the number of times you logged in to check the comments section was an indication of your neurotic obsessive behaviour. Thankfully blogger didn't have 'followers' then or I would have been permanently docked in a blog rehab institution!

Pretty soon when I sit down to write I take into consideration my imagined audience. E.g. if you have too many sensitive readers, you don’t want to be f*&^!#^ rude do you ? The pressure is on dude, you have got to make them laugh, entertain them. All the attributes of the audience, your own perceived notions of course! So what started off as just a venue to blow steam and let out dirty thoughts and secret fantasies becomes an exercise in posturing. Bloody hell!

The best part of blogging has to be the 'blogging buddies'. You can impose your wish list of what qualities constitute an ideal friend, on them.  They are on their best behaviour, so are you. Only if they lived longer. Of the many buddies I had six years back, only a couple survive. And they DON'T remember me now! The rest are dead. Maybe not physically but for all practical purposes for me, they are stuffed. Most leave without goodbyes, just like in real life. Their thoughts compressed into pixels still remain like an elaborate tombstone on the net.

Some weirdoes like me go into a coma for 6 years and then suddenly spurt back into life. When I read my old entries I couldn't believe I had ANYTHING TO DO WITH THEM, much less write them. But I love myself too much to delete them. Even the bad jokes copy and pasted from a website now forgotten.

 Who would have thought watching traffic was so much fun? Of course I speak of the site meter. Coming from all over the world for reasons that would of course put any self respecting exhibitionist to shame. God forbid, if any of your posts contain Indian or mallu in combination with girls, s*x , hair, eyes, toe nails, back, ankle... You get the drift. All thanks to Google of course. I imagine some poor sod hunched over his lappie hyperventilating with glazed eyes as he makes his way with high expectations to the vagabond's site. My apologies to all those sods. That way traffic watching is not so great. The realization that most visitors come here to blow steam like me, but in a very different manner.

On a slightly more serious note, isn't there something fulfilling about reading what people feel when they read our little entries? Isn't that the closest we can realistically hope to getting published? And of course to read what others write is much less stressful and more pleasurable than writing! The different way people tick, think and of course Google still amaze me...

Dedicated with special affection to my blogging buddies.

The New Year resolution

On New Year's eve under a pregnant moon soon to be eclipsed by the shadow of the sun, swatting mosquitoes and nursing an ageing glass of red spirit, I broke convention. This year I would have resolutions, for the first time ever. What's the area of my life I want an improvement in? How many new languages to learn? How many habits to kick? How many promises to keep and break? After a long deliberation of a minute, I decided to just have one resolution since im pretty happy with the way I am . So here it is: do 10 things(maybe more if i get bored too quick) this year that I have never done before.

So I'm off here, to stay alone, which hasn't happened before. more details on return .

How did it all start ?

I hadn't thought about this recently. There's a faint recollection of dreams as a kid, wanting to see the snow, the mountains, especially the Himalayas, of getting lost in a forest, diving into a waterfall. Maybe the way of the vagabond was in my blood ! But many years after, during a break from work, found myself in a small village in the Alps in Switzerland, near the Italian border. No one spoke a word of English and I was the only brown man in the village ! Girls in their teens would look up , whisper , giggle and then go back to chopping  wood wheneverI passed by. It could have been my first "non touristy" travel. The first day I woke up and looked outside the log cabin to view the  dazzling snow covered Alps. There was nothing to be described. My misty eyes said it all. Nature had never moved me that way before or maybe I had never allowed her to...

After  returning to work, something that I enjoyed immensely then, I began to wonder. What if.... I travelled......maybe, just for some weeks?! What if i dared to chase my childhood dreams? Too far fetched? I dusted off all the idealistic plans i made in college with friends  for trekking, mountaineering and aimless wandering. So crazy , so not practical and so not easy! Slowly the realization dawned that this is what I  REALLY wanted to do,for an extended period. And then in between, I saw the movie 'Into the Wild' , and that was it. No more doubts in my mind. It still took me another year to have the guts to quit my job !

Now it seems so easy typing this, but at the time there were endless insecurities. Life , encouraging at first, seemed to be teasing me at the final step. A foreign country, a fat paycheck, the best work colleagues I could wish for ! But there was a strong conviction, that it had to be done now,no more dawdling. The flight tickets were bought, the suitcases ready!

10 days before my planned exit to vagabonding, I met an incredible woman. One of those you feel  you've known forever. It was still not too late to stay on. The people at work were sad to see me go and they would have been more than happy to welcome me back. And then there was her, who materialized out of thin air and who ticked all my boxes, except for the fact that she couldn't travel with me.

Well a couple of more years at work and I could still travel. Again the same questions, what did I want from life? Was I prepared to make a huge personal sacrifice?Looking back,if she had asked me once , I would have stayed back. Hell, I told her that. Ask me to stay back and I will ! She rightly said that I wouldn't be happy ,   if i called everything off now. That even if we had the perfect relationship, I would still always wonder, 'What if...'

Now, I don't have a clue how I got the strength to leave, everything. Maybe it was the high of taking a totally reckless decision that got me through it... Right now, it seems  so natural, so easy, so right. It wasn't. I guess she knew me better than I did myself.  Funnily enough, I never think about what would have happened if I stayed on...For the view on this side is so much the better...