Chadar Trek Jan 12th-19th 2014
There is something unstoppable about a river tumbling down the mountains. Its clear waters tripping over itself as it frantically makes its way to the plains. A river is helpless against the lure of gravity. I am reminded of that tale from mythology when Ganga, furious at being called down from the heavens by King Bhagiratha, descends with such great force that he fears for Mother Earth. He prays to Lord Shiva. And Lord Shiva comes down to take Bhagirathi (another name for the Ganga), in all her fury, and she gets lost in his locks. He then leaves her out through a strand of hair and that little sliver of water is what is now known as the Alakananda. It took divine intervention to stall a river coming down the mountains. The Zanskar too, similarly, comes down the mountains, tumbling over rocks and pebbles on its way- unstoppable. And yet, every winter it stops itself in its tracks, it would seem. It freezes over and if you listen closely, you can still hear the gush of the mighty river underneath the sheet of ice.
When Chi told me about the Chadar trek in late 2012, I was ecstatic at the thought of walking over a frozen river. The river Zanskar freezes and a sheet (chadar) of ice forms where once flowed water. But lack of finances ( the bane of my life) determined that I wouldn’t join Chi and CAP in their frozen river trek in Feb 2013. It so happened, CAP couldn’t go that time either and Chi came back with stories. Stories of ice cracking below the feet, of overnight snow being dusted off tent-tops etc. Stories that we listened to wide-eyed but CAP and I knew we had to do it to believe it. Finances improved, but January 2014 started looking like a transition period, with jobs coming to an end. Prospects of going to the Chadar trek dimmed and with that, so did I. So one evening in late October, after work, I went online and booked the Chadar trek. I sent CAP a message that I had done it and expected her to be by my side. She replied with a thumbs up. It was then that I was introduced to Gudiya, CAP’s friend from another life. The three of us prepared for what was going to be the wildest, most terrifying and funnest thing we had all ever done.
The following is a retrospective recounting of this trip and what it meant to me. It is in parts, and each of the link below will take you to each part. To protect the privacy of the characters, I have used monickers. While it may not be a very informative travelogue in the strictest sense of the word, its my reading of my travels. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. But to enjoy the trek itself, sign up for the Chadar trek now!
The year was 1927 or 1928. Or was it 1929? Not too sure. A little girl, not more than 8 or 9 years old, was playing outside her home in Kumbakonam, a small town south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Her hair was drenched in warm coconut oil and held in two tight braids. Two flamboyant ribbons were generously tied around the two braids into large sloppy bows. She wore a cotton long-skirt and blouse, that ubiquitous little-girl attire, Paavaadai Choka. It was evening. Suddenly, her father emerged on the road outside and she ran to the gate to greet him. Affectionately, he placed his hand on her shoulder and braced himself to field all the questions his little girl launched at him. As they conversed, they both moved inside the house. He sat down to a snack of freshly prepared hot idlis that his wife had brought from the kitchen. The little girl sat on his lap, regaling him with school stories until he finished his snack.
After having poured her heart out, Ambuja ( for that was the little girl’s name) ran away to resume her play. Her father, an English professor in a college in Kumbakonam turned to his wife and gave her the news. He had been transferred to Patnam. The word itself meant city, but those days that meant only Madras, now called Chennai. At dinner, the couple broke the news together to their children. While the younger boy was too small to understand, Ambuja was delighted. The big city, at last! Oh and she will learn English. Kumbakonam had only Tamil medium schools those day and she was in one. Her Tamil was good but being her father’s daughter, she had this strong urge to speak English like him and have conversations like him. This move to the city meant getting admission into an English medium school and her dream seemed that much closer.
Her mother, too, had dreams. Moving to the city meant some lifestyle changes. Changes for the better, mostly. Oh how she would dress this precious first-born of hers so that she could go like an English child to school. No more these long skirts and tops that everybody in villages wore. She would choose the finest cloth and stitch her daughter the finest frocks with lace and satin ribbons.
That summer was a busy one. Ambuja’s mother was preoccupied making a whole new wardrobe for her daughter. On a Professors salary, there were times that she felt she was going overboard. But a little chat with her husband would usually set it right. Ambuja’s father did not want his daughter to want for anything and a little something here and there that might require a small sacrifice from him was something he would gladly do. And so it was that the frocks were stitched, gowns bought, and matching socks and shoes and hair-clips sought.
The family moved to madras just in time for the start of the new academic year. Due to her excellent grades, Ambuja had no problem getting admission in school. And then it was time for first day of school. Mother and daughter were excited. With a gleam in their eyes, they went about getting ready for the school in Patnam. After getting ready, they both looked with satisfaction at the mirror in front of them. Yes. That reflection was exactly what they were both aiming for. She looked like a little brown English school girl. With confidence oozing from every pore, mother and daughter set out to school.
Mother left Ambuja at the door of her class room. She strutted into her class and sat at a bench only to discover everyone else around her in the much maligned Paavaadai Choka, their hair, oil-drenched and in two plaits and simple sandals on their feet. ‘Why! They all looked like the village girls!’, she exclaimed in her head. And then the distressing thought struck her that this might not be an English medium school after all. She knew her father would set everything right. But how could he make such a terrible mistake, in the first place. Her mind was so full of these thoughts, she was hardly able to concentrate on the lesson taught.
But she was a good student, so she forced her mind away and towards the lesson. To her surprise the lesson was in English. She didn’t understand a word. Miserable! How was she to keep up her good academic run if she doesn’t understand a word the teacher said. And worse, everyone else was responding in English. All these girls in their long skirt and blouse, looking no different from the village girls, were actually speaking impeccable English, with the teacher and also with each other.
Ambuja, a vision in her lacy frock and socks and shoes, was, by this time, almost in tears. As she felt the other students’ eyes boring into her, her consternation increased. She wished she could sink into the earth. But no such luck! She gulped back her tears and somehow, managed to survive her class.
Back home, in a fit of rage, she threw her school satchel one direction and kicked of her shoes and socks in four other directions. She burst into an inconsolable volley of tears and sunk into her mother’s arms. Her mother calmed her down, at last. Together they decided, not for them this show and pretense. And when her father came home, she asked him to teach her English. He gathered her in his arms and said, ‘ oh why not! We will start today.’
Ambuja is my grandmother. May be I should say ‘was’, because she passed away in January this year at the age of 91. Nothing deterred her on the academic front after this. At the end of that school year, she received a prize for getting the highest overall percentage across all the classes. She not only mastered the English language but read novels and books in it until almost two years before her death when her faculties began to fail her. The last book she read in our house perhaps this was the last book she read ever- was Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’. She and I had a quiet and hilarious conversation about it after. But that is for a different blog post. 🙂
I wasn’t around in 1927 or 28 or 29. I have liberally used my poetic license. And I dare say, my mother too, whom I heard this story from in the first place, has used hers. Needless to say, this is only an attempt to capture my grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of those times.
I picked up The Gaze after listening to a speech by the author on TED talks. I usually give a book 50-100 pages to draw me in. And the first couple of chapters were bleak. I didn’t quite understand what was happening and where the plot was headed, mostly because I was busy deciphering a rather confusing narrative. But instead of putting me off, it challenged me to stay on as if to say, ‘see if you can make sense of me’. And I was equal to the task. I decided to let go of the plot- one of the reasons I was getting bogged down was because I was trying to tie it up with the back cover blurb- so I let go of what I had read there. And I just focused on deciphering the narrative. Which was the best thing I could have done. Shafak has a delicious narrative style that sometimes makes you want to re-read sentences/ phrases and sometimes read them aloud (making everybody around you think you are slightly cuckoo). She effortlessly goes back and forth in time and space and has us surrounded not only by people who are stared at but also the quintessential voyeurs i.e. all the rest of us, both men and women.
And it is in this circumstance, when the reader is surrounded by all these fantastic –cum-terrible-cum-wonderful creatures and voyeurs, that she introduces the Dictionary of Gazes. And who better to obsess over it than B-C, the dwarf. The words that go into the Dictionary of Gazes now appear intermittently throughout the novel.
So, in short, I loved reading this novel. And here’s why. The narrator of the story is nameless. This is a brilliant way of telling you that this character is a ‘nobody’. When you name something, you give it that much more importance. In this case, the idea communicated that the character had a really low self-esteem not least because she was obese. The only other place that I have come across the use of the nameless narrator is Ghosh’ s The Shadow Lines.
There are a couple of chapters that go to 18th century Siberia and 17th century France. Shafak is describing the origins of two spectacles that form part of an exhibition of spectacles in 19th century Turkey. Before delving into these background stories she introduces a caveat in the previous chapter suggesting that the reader can skip the following chapter completely if she so wished. I didn’t. Personally, I loved both chapters because it gave a background to something I wasn’t quite comprehending. But more importantly, both of them was talking about some violation that had taken place that had led to the creation of these spectacles. But I also think that her suggestion was interesting. Towards the end she says there are many ways of telling a story and repeats the stories without the key violation. There is no spectacle that is created, rendering both stories useless. One is left wondering if the reader could really have left out those two chapters in her reading. I will never know.
Finally, her language is full of imagery. I also found some ( not too much) similarities with ‘magical realism’. Both of these made the reading so much more engaging. Sometimes imagery is easy to get but this kind of imagery was challenging, and so there was a continuous dialogue with the reader. Her language was also whimsical at times. This was one of the things that took time getting used to. But in the end, it was also one of the things that made the reading challenging and interesting.
A final caveat- this is a translation from the Turkish original. I am not sure how much of the ‘challenging’ aspects of the language of the book comes from it being Turkish and how much from it being an inefficient translation ( if it is). Perhaps someone who knows both languages can tell. But I do wonder how much was lost in translation.
Yes! I have a predilection for Javalis. Recently, I saw a kannada Javali called ‘Sako ninna sneha’ where the nayika(heroine) tells the nayaka (hero) ‘enough of all this (show/pretense) of love. Remember, you had a good time with her as well’. The music was in ragam Kapi set to Mishra Chapu talam. Before I rave about the Javali, let me say that it would have been lost on me were it not for the beautiful execution by the dancer, Swaratmika.
In terms of theme- the expression of love and devotion between the nayika and the nayaka- a Javali resembles the Padam. In a Javali, though, the music is generally more lively. In a Javali, the nayaka-nayika devotion is expressed in terms of love between two mortals while in a Padam it is the love/devotion of a Nayika for the immortal lord, Nayaka. Moreover, in a Padam, I think, the bhavam is more of surrender to the beloved. Not only is the mortal being surrendering to the lord but even vice-versa. After all, the lord has to surrender to the devotion that the mortal being expresses, a devotion, that in effect, has been his making. I have heard that this fundamental difference comes from the fact that the Padam was danced by devdasis in temples for the lord while the Javali was danced by rajdasis in the courts of kings where the nayaka was supposed to be the mortal king himself.
But, what is fascinating about a Javali for me is the absolutely mundane expressions of love that a Javali portrays. Like this one I saw had a tinge of jealousy and exasperation. The nayika says, ‘ I see through you, man! I know the games you are playing. I am done with you. you just be on your way.’ Now the gauntlet is thrown and it is up to the nayaka to pick it up and assuage her as best he can. But even as she says these things, she knows he is irresistible and that ultimately she will be back with him. A Javali is playful, what in real life we may call ‘silly in love’.
Expressions of bhakti in Padams, I feel are slightly more esoteric and quite lost on me because, frankly, I am yet to feel that kind of devotion to anybody or anything. I believe that the mundane expressions of love is what would ultimately lead you to realizing that kind of bhakti and devotion. That might take a lifetime (or beyond, though I don’t believe in life beyond). But, hey! I am in no hurry. Until then, bring on the mundane, physical intimacy !
Wistful monotones emerge from my keyboard
I look down to see whats causing them
Only to feel silly for,
These are my fingers
Flying over the keyboard
Causing the monotones.
Listless monotones emerge from my keyboard.