Wednesday, August 24, 2016

K is for Krishna

Re-posting this one to celebrate Krishna's birthday today.
Happy Janmashthami!
Butter thief or makhan chor was how Krishna was introduced to me. I was little. Stories were my classroom. My mother and grandmother were the storytellers.

Who's Krishna?

Our God. Or rather, my mother's favourite God. My mother's family (her parents) called Krishna their Ishta Devata or their favourite deity.

It may sound strange to you -- this business of favourite deity and choosing a God to worship. In fact, I've been asked this question many times by friends, acquaintances, colleagues and students- Why do Hindus have so many Gods?

When my eleven year old students in London asked me this question during a RE (Religious Education) lesson, I read up and researched a bit to find out a way to explain to them. I used an explanation I found online to make my point one rainy afternoon in October of 2005.

'Do you wear the same clothes to go swimming as you do when it's snowing outside?'

No, Mrs Jain. (in unison)

When you look at your holiday photos, or birthday photos or school photos, do you notice you look different in different clothes?

Yes, Mrs Jain.  (in unison)

Do you become a  different person every time you change an outfit?

No, Mrs Jain.  (in unison)

Here's Kelly's photo when she went to Spain last summer, and this one was last week at her nana's 90th and today Kelly is in school uniform. Is that 3 Kellies, then?

The shuffling shoes and loss of eye contact meant I had less than 7 seconds to wrap up and make my point, and I did.

Our different Gods may look different, they may have different qualities, but they are all representing the One God. Just like you look different in different clothes but you are still the same person. As a Hindu, I can choose which God I like and make him/ her my companion and friend and guide. Isn't that the point of Faith? To find a way to make the best versions of ourselves with a little help from a friend?

Looking back, I sound like such a boring teacher! Poor poppets.

I digress.

As children, we would listen to our grandmother tell us tales of Krishna stealing butter and getting caught, lying to his mother and getting punished for it, being naughty and teasing his friends. He seemed so accessible.

His antics change as he grows into a young man. In his youth, he is a model lover. His girl friends (gopiyan) adore him. He adores Radha and teases her all the time. He plays the flute and herds cows. And you thought that Bollywood heroes are a modern invention?
This image was sent to me by my friend Mimi who took a photo of a wall mural in a restaurant. 
I love it.

Miurali Manohar or flute charmer is another name by which we call him.

He will kill demons and destroy corrupt Kings. He will recite the Bhagwad Gita. His words and their meaning will be sung and recited in Hindu homes all over India and abroad by aging grandparents. Sometimes, these words will enter the souls of the young and take root. Most times, they'll become another hymn to be recited as a ritual, without any thought given to their meaning or relevance.

Krishna has been many things to me in my lifetime.

Lying on a charpoy in our veranda under the twinkling shadow of sapta rishi (Ursa Major), my mother's chiffon dupatta (scarf) would flutter over my eyes in the evening breeze. I remember covering my eyes with it, while listening to her Krishna stories, imagining him stealing all that butter, some smeared on his mouth while he protested his innocence. Only the yellow light of the lamp was visible from our veranda. Rainbows appeared around the yellow light when I saw it through the dupatta. Playing hide and seek with the rainbows, I'd beg my mother to tell us another Krishna story, the one about his evil uncle, or the one when he stole all his friends' clothes when they went  swimming, or the one when he showed the entire universe to his mother...or....or...the requests were many, the time was limited.

I met Mark, an ISKCON devotee in Budapest yesterday. He told me about organic farming and I said I'd like to volunteer once my son goes to university. This chance meeting with Mark gave me my K. I was pondering over Kabir, Kolkata, Kareri while flying back to Doha, when Krishna presented himself. I was saved.

It's impossible to write about Krishna in a single post and that too when I'm typing with eyes half shut --I'm shattered. It's late and I've had a long day.

I'll leave you with a quote from Bhagvad Gita. It's easy to understand but very difficult to imbibe. I try and fail almost every day. But, I try gain. It's the reward bit I get stuck on. I'm working on it.

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. 

For more information about ISKCON:

Monday, August 15, 2016

Roopkund -- of moss, meadows and motherhood

Wash your hands!
Have you washed your hands?
Did you wash your hands?
I hope your hands are clean.
When was the last time you washed your hands?

Summer 2016 started a day before my son's school term ended. He and I flew to Delhi to start our first ever mother-son trek along with my usual group of 'adult' friends in the Himalayas. We were Roopkund bound and I was in my element -- my nagging element.

Nagging my sixteen year old son to maintain hand hygiene became my prime occupation as soon as we set foot inside the night bus which would take us to Haldwani. I had visions of Delhi belly forcing us to abandon our trek and head home. I HAD to pester. I'm sure mothers of teenage sons understand.

'Give him space. Let him be.' was the advice I didn't want to hear, but I got it all the same, from a fellow trekker who was new to the group. Her words stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen myself as a 'helicopter' parent. Secretly, I pride myself as the kind of mother who doesn't hover over her children, one who gives them space, one who has a life of her own; i.e. a cool mum. Obviously, I'm not. If a stranger can offer this advice after two days of trekking with us, then I must be a version of Debra Barone (Ray's mom from Everybody loves Raymond) without realizing it.

It was a wake up call and time for me to introspect.

Himalayas helped.

I wish I had carried my copy of Parent's Tao Te Ching with me. I hadn't. The beautiful and breathtaking (literally- as there were times on this tricky trek that I thought I may be taking my last breath-- more of that in another post) beauty of the Himalayas calmed me down. The mountains have this magical power to bring out the best in me. It's only when I get back down to reality that regular reminders penned down by wise men like William Martin are needed. He says:
"You cannot force your will
upon other human beings.
You can not hurry children
along the road to maturity.
And the only step necessary
on their long journey of life,
is the next small one. "

Don't get me wrong; I loved his company and so did the others in the group.

"We must make it mandatory to have one sixteen year old on all of our future treks!" declared a dear friend one evening by the campfire, where we were drying our sodden boots like cobs of corn--turning them every once in a while to ensure they were dry enough for the next day.

A few tips for those of you who are planning to go trekking with your brood in the future:

1. If your offspring doesn't fill your water bottle, or run to fetch sun cream when you ask him, but does all these jobs willingly, quickly and with a smile for all the other adults in the group, pat your back and say to yourself:
'Well done! You raised a helpful kid."
They will take you for granted; even in the Himalayas.

2. Be prepared to be made fun of; of your technically challenged brain and your TV serial choices in front of strangers for this is how teenagers bond with other adults. Just pray that there are a few others like you in the group who will come to your rescue as some of my friends did for me.

3. If you are sharing your tent with your teenager-- BE WARNED-- it will turn into a bomb site every time  they need to change, even if it's just the wet socks. Trust me!

4. Any safety advice should come from the guides or other adults. They listen, period.

5. Enjoy the times when they bring you a hot cup of tea without being asked or insist on carrying your bag at the end of the trek when you know they are as shattered as you are. They will soon become adults and go on treks of their own. Time we have with our children is finite.

6. Relish the pride you see in their eyes when you get rid of spiders or mosquitoes that have entered the tent.


7. Carry a pack of cards.

Before I get all emotional about how great trekking the Himalayas was with him, let me dig the photos out and take you to my home state in India, Uttrakhand--all the way to the lap of Trishul massif-- to the glacial lake called Roopkund with me. Are you ready?

An almost ten hours' ride from Kathgodam (last train station and close to Haldwani) led us to our first camping site: Lohajung.

One of the first things we spotted when we started our trek the next morning were these locals sorting 'moss'. They were sifting through the moss that grows on oak trees in the area, separating twigs and other dried wood. Apparently, this stuff sells for a decent amount of money. I had no idea.

Lush bamboo and gurgling brooks kept us company.

Stunning creature, don't you think?
 And this my dear readers is monkey corn. Only monkeys eat the kernels that grow around the black stalk. We spotted many more as we climbed higher.

The first day's trek was a stroll in the park compared to what was in store for us later!
We reached Didna village, stopped for chai and carried on to the spot our guide had picked for us to camp for the night. 

It was a little piece of heaven. 
Birdsong chirruped all around us.
 The next day took our breath away- literally!
The climb was intense, but the promise of walking through India's most beautiful meadow (bugyal)kept me going and of course, the suggestion made by Chauhan, our guide, that there would be a chai stall in that meadow made it easier to cope. 

 The moss collectors:
'My photo?' he looked surprised, but struck this beautiful grin for me anyway.
He also told me about the many uses of this moss. It's used to prepare medicines, shampoo and even paint!
 'What will you do for the rest of the day?' I asked her.
'I'm getting old now, so by the time I reach back home, it will be late afternoon. I'll eat and rest.'

'May I take a photo?' I asked. 'I may never come back here.'
'Of course, you will!' She declared.
'This is the land of the Goddess, you will be back.'
I like her confidence.

 The moss eventually destroys the oak.
I guess, this is how nature balances it all out.

Aaah...! Ali Bugyal

'My photos have gone to Germany.' came the happy reply when I asked for his permission to click.

 Water is always on the boil in this pateela. He then uses boiling water to make chai on the gas stove. We devoured egg bhurji with chai at his stall.
He operates this stall for 3 months -- for the trekkers! So glad he does.
We were cold.
The wind was harsh-- bitterly cold and strong-- pushing us back. The climb after this lunch break wasn't too pleasant.

 But, just look at the view ...
Bedni Bugyal: our camp ground for day 3.
 I was too restless to sit when we reached. The sky was blue. My camera and I decided to explore...

Just a short walk from the camp and the temples above was this temple-- encircled by a stone wall. Legend has it that this lake (which fills up with rain water and is now marked by the stone wall) was carved out by the local goddess.
Here's a more detailed explanation:
"Bedni too comes packaged with a legend as informed by our guides. ‘Bed’ (pronounced baid) is a unit of hand measure/hand span. The reigning goddess is said to have carved out the lake using her hand span (‘bed’) after doing a parikrama  (inspection) of the area and choosing the spot for the water body. Hence the name ‘Bedni’ (carved by the hand of a goddess)."

Insomnia becomes my companion when I'm trekking. Lucky for me, most sunrises happen early in the morning too:)
And how can one sleep when this is what you see when you peek out of your tent?
That night in Bedni, sounds of bells kept waking me up. I wasn't sure why the donkeys (who I had seen with bells) were so active at night.
It was this pack of Bhutia dogs, not the donkeys.
These three came up to the top of the hill and petted each other for a good thirty minutes, stretched...yes, downward dog, no less...and climbed down the hill to start their sheepdog duties for the day.

 We started our day. 
 Himalayan Iris
 and stunning views.
 Look! A dolphin!

 The point where it got tough...
 really tough...
We are headed to Bagwabasa: den (waas) of tigers (bagh).
It's the last campsite. 
We will be starting our trek to Roopkund at half past two in the morning the following day!
Yes. In the dark-
with torches lit!
Listening to our guide, more than seeing him--
after getting our oxygen levels checked for fitness the previous night.
We will thank our stars that we started the trek in total darkness when the sun will shine the next morning at 5,029 metres OR 16,499 ft!
Because, we (most of us, at least) know in our hearts that had we seen what we had to climb to reach Roopkund, we would've chickened out.

Hope to see you soon with the last leg of this trek and a few shots of the beautiful Roopkund.
It's been a busy summer and blogging has suffered.

Meanwhile, here's an account of the trek by Vani, a fellow trekker who became a friend:)
She tells the stories and retells some of the legends here: