Monday, February 29, 2016

Hair and Happy Birthday!

Born of Punjabi stock, I've inherited the following traits:

1. An innate urge to use made up words which are almost always superfluous. For example, kee laoge? cha, sha, ya paani, shaani? What would you like? tea/shea? or water/shawter?

2. An involuntary impulse to dance-- anytime, anywhere -- the body takes over even at the slightest hint of a beat.

3. Ample child-bearing hips. "Kuddi healthy honi chaideeyee"  My match-making aunts would often advise each other. No size zero would wed their munda (boy) Naa jee! NO WAY!

4. And bounteous facial hair. Yes, you read it right -- dark and lush facial hair, especially on the upper lip.

Now, not all Punjabi females are adorned with all of the above attributes. You will come across the chubby ones with hairless chins and cheeks. And there are the super slim ones who don't like to dance. Or the quiet ones who make do with, 'roti khaa lo.' Eat your food. Instead of Roti, shoti khaa lo. Have food, shood. Not all Punjabi girls have to worry about their upper lip threading/waxing/bleaching schedule before accepting a social invitation. Not all are so bountifully blessed.

I, however, have been bequeathed with ALL of the above.

I remember my aunts advising my mother to use ubtan (a face pack made with chickpea flour and other icky ingredients) to get rid of the fine growth that had started appearing when I was about eleven or twelve. My mother didn't push me and anyway she always used to say, 'kum saariyan nu pyaara honda hai, chum nahin'. What you do with your life is more important than what you look like.

Her Teflon words kept me safe from worrying about what I looked like all through my school days till that fateful day in grade 9.

He was my second serious crush. It was a Science lesson. We had been asked to copy a diagram from our text books. His desk was two rows behind mine, diagonally to my right. So, I kept turning around to talk to the girl sitting behind me for a chance to see him. Crushes were top secret business in the mid 1980s in Dehradun in India. You only shared this secret with your closest girl friends. Then they would keep you abreast with any voluntary or involuntary actions made by your love interest that would suggest that he too liked you. Even an innocent offer to share a text book/ notes could be read as a serious move. Valentine's Day hadn't yet knocked on India's door. But, Mills and Boon had planted enough romantic notions in our hearts to fall for the TDHs of our school -- yes, the tall, dark and handsome guys.

On this fateful day, while I was busy shading in the chloroplast within the cell membrane of a plant cell coming to life on the page of my Biology exercise book, my love interest, I had been informed, was sketching my portrait.

All the sitar strings of my heart and soul were jangling sweet music. He LIKED me too. Life was perfect.

"Zaara sa turn karna, tumharee muchhoon ka style copy karna hai."  Hey, turn a bit so I can copy your stache properly.

His cruel words cracked through my mum's Teflon coating and crushed me a little that day.

I didn't stop liking him. In fact, his bad boy remark made him even more attractive. But I started covering up my upper lip with my fingers or hands when I saw new people or attended weddings and I avoided being photographed at all costs.

Visiting a beauty parlour to get the whiskers waxed or bleached didn't surface in my middle class Punjabi home. At fifteen. I was supposed to focus on getting straight As and that was enough. It didn't bother me either. I was my mother's soni kuddi (pretty girl). In grade 12, I ended up as Miss ISC- the photo shows me in all my glory, clad in my mother's favourite wine-coloured Banarasi silk with silver butis (motifs) and a woven silver border, oh! and my darkish upper lip stretched in a Colgate smile, standing next to Mr. ISC.

Next year, I ended up in Delhi University . My college friends introduced me to Fem bleach. I would sneak into my local guardian's bathroom and apply the white mixture, leaving a trail of stinking hydrogen peroxide that lingered on long after I'd washed the stinging souffle off. Armoured with a blonde stache, I was ready for Delhi's hip crowd, or so I thought.

One spring morning, my dear friend, Asha, and I were hovering around the college library door even though our work in the library was done because the college hunk had made an appearance. We just hung around to gawk discreetly. Spring mornings in Delhi are painfully romantic.

"Oye, toone apni moonchen kub mundwayi?" Oye, when did you shave your stache?

The words were fired by my dear school friend who was training to join the Indian Army. He had dropped by to say hello. His words shot through the long, cold corridor and shattered my armour into tiny smithereens.

My friend had to feed me samosas in the canteen followed by noodles by the U-special stop, before I begrudgingly forgave him.

Bleach was followed by that very Indian practice of making us Punjabi girls pay for our genes-- threading. This is where the practitioner uses a thread to create a knot and skillfully pulls each hair out of its root. Does it sound painful to the uninitiated among you? It bloody is. And if you have sensitive skin like mine, the newly cleaned upper lip skin goes red in protest- swollen and red- like an angry toddler whose favourite toy has just been taken away from him.

College days ended. I started working.

This time, for the first time, at the age of 21, the boy I liked, liked me back! Hooray!!!

No, don't go singing duets in the sunset just yet.

Wait. Ponder on the plight of people with upper lip hair issues. I couldn't just dive into my first kiss when the hormones were raging. No, sir! I had to stop US! My threading was due and I didn't want him to notice the little blighters poking up when he came close. I couldn't risk it.

So the first kiss, like any other social engagement like lunches with friends or official dinners or business trips had to be timed perfectly around the threading schedule. Not too soon or I'd be sporting the red Hanuman lips and not too late for obvious reasons.

One of the first things I had to look for when we relocated to London was an Indian threading parlour. Unlike these days, they weren't many of those around in the late 1990s.

If any magazine had asked me what I'd need if I were ever stranded on an island, my answer, without any hesitation, would be: WAX-STRIPS. They are a life saver...thank you Nad's and Veet...I owe you one. xx

I've just turned 45.

As I examine my reflection in the mirror, I realise that I'm at last getting comfortable with my Punjabi heritage. I've had a couple of laser treatments this year. As melanin is a scarce commodity for patients of Vitiligo, I was advised not to use laser hair removal therapy. But I am almost pigment-less now, so I gave it a shot. I'm glad to report that the weeds of the upper lip land seem to be responding well:)

45 and free! Yippee...I can boldly accept lunch invitations without first checking the upper lip status.

Free at last!

Hey, what's that? Those fine lines in between my forehead....they weren't that deep last year, were they?

Methinks, it's time to inhale...exhale...:)

Have a lovely week all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

To click or not to click in Mana - India's last village.

"No photographs, please." pleaded the priest. The priest at this temple shattered all my prejudices about priests in Hindu temples. Not only was he kind, but he was so patient that for a moment I wasn't sure if he was really a priest. Such humility is rare to see in people who consider themselves keepers of God and religion- rare and beautiful.

"Why not? What's wrong with taking a picture of our God? Why are all the temples so fussy? We come from such far off places..." grumbled the old gentleman, his voice becoming shriller as he went on. His hands jutted forth, shaking with anger and trying to make his point for him.

"Please do the darshan with your eyes and imprint it where you can see his image all the time, anytime." gestured the priest, raising and resting his fingers on the vermilion tilak on his forehead, in between his eyebrows. He closed his eyes. A hint of a smile twitched at the corners of his salt and pepper mustache. When he opened his eyes, they sparkled.

I was putting my shoes back on when this exchange happened. The temple is tiny, so I could witness the scene without intruding. 

The angry gentleman muttered his annoyance to his group in his native language, looked up and caught my eye. I smiled. 

"Was I wrong, wanting to click a picture? You know how difficult it is to come here at my age? Why are these priests so fussy?" he presented his arguments to me, in the hope that I'd side with him. 

I had smiled. I must be on his side. The angry gentleman turned towards me to boost his army. I must have looked like an ally because my camera was lying next to me. 

"Isn't it?" he continued in a much calmer voice as I pushed the bulgy ankle of the woollen socks I was wearing into my trainers.

He stationed himself opposite me. I had to engage. There was no escape. 

I straightened up and said, "I don't know. I love taking pictures, too. Panditji isn't wrong though, is he? I don't recall taking a picture of my daughter when she was born, but I can see every detail of her the first time I saw her. Maybe, sometimes we don't need the camera to take a picture."

I have no idea why I said that. It must be Ganesha's wisdom emanating from the cave and affecting me. I'm the last person on Earth to say that because I love to click. Ask my family how frustrating it gets for them to venture out with me.

Maybe it was the fact that the now-not-at-all-angry gentleman's group was threatening to leave him (or so I assume for they were talking in a language I couldn't identify) or maybe my smile had worked or maybe he was a softie who just got a bit irritated because he knew he wouldn't be able to come on  this journey again. He looked like he was in his mid or late seventies. Whatever the reason may have been, by the time I had tied my shoe laces, he and I were exchanging details of what we'd seen so far and just how beautiful this place was.

When I started writing this story, the kind priest's words came back to me. I tried to recall my most precious moments. Eureka! Not a single special moment of mine is a photo. None. But I can still recall each detail with complete clarity.

Those moments are so perfect that I never had the need to capture them artificially. What an odd thing to say as I sit here today cobbling together the photos I've taken of the last Indian village.

But, that's how I feel. My clicks are of moments I like to capture to look back at or to share with friends- beautiful, stunning moments.

But the perfect ones, like my first crush in grade 7, or the second one in grade 9, or the one in college. Or my secret one-sided love affair with the guy who used to flip rumali rotis in that dhaba I used to pass by in my school bus every afternoon. Throughout grade 10, I sat on the left side (window seat) of the bus for a chance to spot him. He was gorgeous. I was 15. It didn't matter that he didn't know I existed. Hindi films coursed through my veins passionately. I rest my case. Or my first kiss. Or the moment when my children were born. These perfect moments don't need any cameras. It's all here, like Wordsworth's Daffodils:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
The priest's words stay with me. I may keep my perfect moments for myself, but the beautiful ones need to be shared. Hop on board for the last leg of our journey on this mother-daughter trek in September 2015.

We had gathered at Gobind Ghat to squeeze into a mini bus which would take us to Badrinath. This 25 km drive is breathtaking and scary. I would've preferred to walk, I think. We drove over melting glaciers! Yes, the glacier is packed down with grit to make it easy for vehicular traffic, but when you see water dripping from the piece of ice block your bus is on, you do feel a bit jittery.

Badrinath was silent when we drove in just after mid-day. We were informed that the temple wouldn't open for darshan till 3pm. So the group was led to a restaurant to eat lunch and that's where I devoured this thali. It's a mini miracle that I got this shot...I was soooooooooooooo hungry!

Chillies, anyone?

3 kilometers from Badrinath is the last Indian village, Mana. It's about 24 kilometers from the Indo/Tibetan-China border. We went exploring...
Imprints of the Mahabaratha and its legends are visible all over this tiny village inhabited by the Bhotias (a Mongol tribe). It feels like walking onto a film set of the Mahabaratha. There are two caves here: Vyas Guha and Ganesh Guha, the place where it is believed that Ved Vyas dictated the epic to Ganesha. This is where I met the wise priest.

According to the priest, Ved Vyas needed a scribe when he was ready to dictate the Mahabaratha. Ganesh agreed to be his scribe on one condition -- Ved Vyas should recite the entire epic non- stop. He agreed but put a counter condition for Ganesh-- that Ganesh should only write the verses he understood. This way, while Ganesh was figuring out a verse's meaning, Vyas would compose the next verse and so on. Also, when Vyas needed the loo or a nap, he would recite a tricky verse. So while Ganesh took his time to decipher and understand, Vyas would be done with his bodily functions. Cool story.

Like the priest, the villagers were anti-photographs. I wasn't sure why. The women working in their garden patches, selling woollen hats and woven mats, grinding herbs for tea or tadka for daal, washing wool in the streams all protested aggressively against being clicked.

I asked a lady whose integrity impressed my daughter. She was selling tea leaves. I bought a few packets. She didn't have change. I gestured for her to keep the change.

She promptly gave me another packet and settled the transaction, " Zyada paisa nahin chahiye." (I don't need the extra money) and smiled.

"Aap log photo le kar kya karega? Yeh to humara roz ka kaam hai." What will you do with our photos? This is our daily life. She answered my question with a question.

The Bhotias are hardworking, honest and proud.

I began to understand why they don't like being clicked. I would protest aggressively if you came to my door and started clicking me while I was fixing my morning cuppa. Intrusion is never welcome.

There are those among us who travel like hunters- hunting for photo opportunities. Not a bad thing to click, I agree...but can we show some etiquette please?

As a rule, please ask for permission when you are clicking photos of humans or their property.

Would you be comfortable being clicked by a complete stranger? I know, I wouldn't.

The hunter-gatherer traveller who forces locals to pose with them needs to think how he/she would feel if the roles were reversed.

Clicking photos is not the focus when we meet people on our travels. The people are. The people and their stories enrich my travel experience. I click people I've met, with their consent, to look back and reminisce. Usually, it's after a short/long chat that I ask for their permission. You know instinctively when someone would like to be clicked. I hate being photographed. In my mind, I'm so much more beautiful than what the camera captures. Don't laugh...that's how I feel. The camera doesn't lie, you my case it does, trust me.

So I know how uncomfortable it must get for people who live in places where tourists flock and force them to pose. Tourism brings revenue, so it's not always easy to refuse. But as travellers, let's not forget basic human courtesy.

Before I get all carried away with my rant, let's get back to Mana...

As you get to the end of the village, your ears pick out the gush of roaring water and your eyes are drawn to these huge boulders. They look like two boulders to me, but it's a single rock. This is called Bhim Pul. Legend has it that Bhim made this bridge to help Draupadi cross the gushing river Saraswati when the Pandavas were on their way to heaven.

This pul (bridge)reminds me of Gustav Klimt's Kiss.

The crashing cacophony of the water fills your ears and thoughts. Legend has it that Maharishi Ved Vyas requested the noisy Saraswati to flow quietly so that he could dictate the Mahabharatha to Ganesh without the noise in the background. Saraswati didn't oblige and like a true evolved soul, Ved Vyas banished her to the underground. Yes, this most sacred Hindu river, the Saraswati, plunges underground somewhere near Mana and then reappears (mythical) near Allahabad in  Prayag.

If you'd like to read more about the latest on Saraswati, check this site out:

On our way back from the pul (bridge), we saw this sadhu. He didn't say anything. I asked if I could click. He seemed extremely ready. He posed. I clicked. I made an offering at the altar. Transaction complete.

It was time to pose and get clicked.

The mini bus drove us back to Badrinath temple. I took some photos on the way and a few before entering the temple. My mother-in-law had warned me of the heaving crowds inside the temple. I wasn't looking forward to jostling my way to God! I'm sure he'd understand.

As luck would have it, our group of seven were the only people inside the temple that afternoon. We sat down and did our own thing -  chanted/meditated/stared/counted our blessings/ thanked the universe. I hopped between reciting the Gayatri mantra, patting my back for being so lucky to be there minus the crowds and admiring the beautiful antique chandelier hanging above me. It was made of silver which had become more beautiful with time. The grayish patina lit up like a faded moon peeping through feathery clouds; alluring in its evanescence. The glass lamps were milky white, soft and welcoming like the froth on top of a tall glass of lassi. It's the most beautiful chandelier I've ever seen. God seemed happy, too.

Parikrama around the temple followed by dipping our feet in the hot spring at the bottom of the temple completed our trip to Badrinath.

It was time to head back. A short walk through the bazaar and we were back in our mini-bus: 
home bound. 
  He may not show it, but he agreed to be clicked:)

"Kuchh de kar jaana." (Give us something), they said.
"Then I can take a picture?"
"Kyun nahin?" (why not?)

I'm all for sensible commerce.
Commerce with courtesy...I like the ring to this phrase.

"...Yadaan aayeean...
Lokee punj wele
Sanu har wele
yadaan ayeean..."

These lines are from a sufi song I listen to often and it translates as:

...memories and thoughts ...
people think of you five times a day
you are with me all the time
memories and thoughts...

Have a lovely day and hope to see you soon.