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Japan Tsunami 2011 en route to Shimla

As I drove up the twisting roads to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas on 11th March I learnt of the severe earthquake and the tsunami in Japan. I also learnt of a relative who was in Japan to attend business meetings. It was two hours to sunset and my aim was to reach the Shimla before darkness fell. I didn’t want to drive uphill on the mountain roads in the dark. I drove with only a 5 minute break for a Limca  and reached the hotel as the sun slipped behind the hills.

Over breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant the next morning I watched the news on BBC World. I learnt of a rumoured nuclear leak from a power plant about 150 km from Tokyo. I SMSed my relative stuck in Tokyo so he’d redouble his efforts to get out. Unaware of the  electricity situation and to help conserve the battery of his cell phone I didn’t call. The delivery report of the SMS was enough.

On the Ridge in Shimla children enjoyed joyrides on horses, people licked ice-cream and had their photos clicked with the Church in the background.

As I climbed up the steep slope to Jakhu temple, in faraway Japan, the threat of a nuclear disaster loomed big upon the small nation struck by the earthquake-tsunami. I looked at the scenic Himalayas and wondered if they were rumbling inside. The Himalayas are in a highly seismic zone being one of the youngest mountain ranges. The thought refused to bother me.

I climbed up the steep slope calmly huffing and puffing while the monkeys pranced lightly on the trees.  I felt tranquil and the monkeys didn’t appear to be threatened by the Himalayas, either. I wondered how the situation could change in a flash and devastation engulf us. Yet, I just enjoyed the invigorating mountain air which brushed my cheeks, ruffled my hair and rustled in my ears.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in the Fukushima nuclear plant 200 operators stayed behind to mitigate the effect of the nuclear disaster. With clothes probably seethed with radiation their last ditch frantic efforts are for the benefit of not one person but for all the people who might be affected by the nuclear radiation. Maybe they hum, under their breath, Everything I do, I do it for you.

The ‘Fukushima 50‘ are the living embodiment of the Bryan Adams’ song, Everything I do, I do it for you. The answer to the question, Who’d be affected by radiation, is blowin’ in the wind. The direction in which the wind blows would decide that. As BobDylan sang, ‘the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.’

There are others like the ‘Fukushima 50.’ Here is what my relative told us upon his return.

The earthquake struck while the visitng team from India was in a meeting with a Japanese firm. Initially taken lightly, the smiles turned to fear and then to resignation when the earth didn’t stop shaking for a few minutes. The meeting resumed 45 minutes after the earthquake and ended sooner than planned. The drive to the hotel took 3 hours instead of the usual 35 minutes because of the heavy traffic. They were driven by a senior official of the Japanese firm they’d been meeting. Even though he had no information about the whereabouts of his wife and daughter the Japanese official felt it his duty to first drop the visitors safely at the hotel before looking for his family. The night in the hotel was spent in the lobby. Nobody wanted to sleep in rooms many floors above the ground. The hotel staff provided blankets, tea, coffee and dinner. The next task was to get to the airport. An Indian, a business associate, who’d been in Japan for 40 years, took it upon himself to see them off safely. He arranged taxis and didn’t leave till the boarding passes were in their hands.

Byran Adams in Bangalore

Last Tuesday my cellphone rang late at night. My nephew had just exited the concert by Bryan Adams in Bangalore and wanted to tell me all about it.As I listened to him I was transported back to the Bruce Springsteen concert in Delhi in 1988. My friend, his little brother and I  had gone to the JLN stadium in New Delhi for that concert. His father had driven us in his old car that we had parked in a side lane some way from the stadium. There were many performers. Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Bruce Springsteen at the end.

My friend had fallen asleep  by the time Bruce Springsteen came on stage. I had to wake him up. We stood up, sang out loud and clapped to the rhythm along with all the songs.

23 years later my nephew went hoarse singing along with Bryan Adams. He stood only 30 feet from the singer. On his way back he picked up a souvenir for me. A guitar pick that the lead guitarist Keith Scott had dropped after the concert.

A pick of the pick. Courtesy, my nephew

Here is a pic of that pick. Looking at it I can hear the music flow out merging songs by Bryan Adams and the Beatles.

Everything I do, I do it for you (while my guitar gently weeps)

The colt

Today the colt had been brought to a bigger pasture. The owner hadn’t brought it here earlier. The colt was silent and wondered about the reason. There were other colts there too. From time to time each would steal a glance at its owner. None knew it was there for the race.

Then the owner told the colt to perform. It dug in its heel. These were things the colt usually did easily. In the presence of so many people and the new environment the colt didn’t. The cajoling and the threats didn’t make the colt perform.

The owner berated it on the way back. It had let the owner down. How would the owner now walk with the head held high? What would other people say?

Neither the colt nor the owner realised this was the beginning of a life of races.

The colts are little children in the age group of 3+. The owners are the parents. The race is for admission to a ‘good’ school. It happens every year. With no clear and ever changing admission guidelines the parents run the rounds of the schools. They seek the the ‘best’ education for their children. Many school agree to admit the child for a sum euphemistically called a ‘dontation.’

This is the first race. Others would follow. Perform in sports. Perform in arts. Perform in class X board exams. Beat others in Class XII exams. Make the list in the engineering or medical entrance exams. Get an MBA. Clear the civil services entrance. Get a high paying job. Move up the ladder. A bigger car, a house in a posh location, the list is endless.

The Race Horse

The results of the race were announced.  Joy, despondency, excitement and anger followed. Some jockeys were happy, some were sad, and some were satisfied with the performance of their steed. A few jockeys cursed their horses angrily.

The competition had been intense. It was known in advance that the horses were being put through special programmes to train for this race. The programmes were conducted by specialised centres which charged high fees. They offered weekly programmes, weekend programmes, day programmes and evening programmes so that all the jockeys could bring their horses in.

In addition, the jockeys had arranged special coaches who provided services at the doorstep. The demand for the services of these coaches was very high. Many coaches had to work overtime till late in the night to cater to the requests they received. They were paid highly for their services.

A horse had little choice in the matter. Willy-nilly it had to through it all. The jockeys were determined to win. The widespread belief was that the horse that won the race would lead a great life thereafter. Money, fame and power would all flow to that horse. A few jockeys never mentioned the race in the presence of their horses. They were afraid it would cause stress to the horses. Nevertheless, the horses sensed the apprehension of the jockeys. A horse could never gallop freely in the open fields.

The jockeys are the parents and the horses are the children who prepare for competitive exams.

The movie

A long time back I had gone to watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at Chanakya Cinema. Those were the days when Chanakya cinema hall was at its prime. It was customary for the movie goers to have a bite at the Nirula’s restaurant next to the movie hall after the show. The other day I was watching an Indiana Jones series movie on Star Movies. I had missed the title of the movie at the beginning the way I always do. It reminded me of my trip to Chanakya all those years ago, the bus trip from college to the cinema, the burger and ice-cream at the Nirula’s, the bus trip back home late in the night, and on reaching home catching the end of the World this Week on TV. By the way, the world has stubbornly continued turning round and has refused to end inspite of the innumrable doomsday predictions between that movie and this post. Anyways, let me come back to the recent movie. There was an ad break, many advertisements jingled, I got to know what next I’d watch on Star Movies and finally the screen read, Now Showing, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!! I had forgotten the storyline of the movie but had remembered the things that surrounded it.


I wish there were some way I could easily digitise my cassettes. There is none. It will require playing each cassette and recording it on a computer. Time consuming. I have an ace up my sleeve. An old Walkman. No not a Walkman, it is a Sanyo portable stereo that plays audio cassettes. Quite nice with auto reverse, radio AM/FM and recording facility with a built-in microphone. It lacks a belt-clip and is bulky in the jacket pocket but is sturdy.

In the years gone by people who’d walk with headphones clamped on their heads were oddities. They attracted stares. Joggers with headphones were still accepted. Maybe the bystanders thought the joggers’ hardwork justified some entertainment in the form of music.

The hands-free kits of cellphones have changed this. Car drivers, bus drivers, auto drivers, rickshaw pullers, bike/scooter drivers, the elephant’s  mahout, the horse rider, the bullock cart-walla, the crowd in the metro, the young and the old, the vegetable vendor, the kabadiwalla, the painter perched on the ladder while painting the roof, the plumber fixing the drain under the sink, the electrician repairing the door bell, who doesn’t have earphones plugged in the ears?

Elvis, Beach Boys, Cassettes, CDs and Digital Formats

I think I’d heard Elvis even before I’d heard the Beatles. I think it was Teddy Bear and Wooden Heart that I’d heard on the radio. Then one summer day I made a trip to Palika Bazaar after school and bought a cassette of Elvis. I used to listen to the cassette over and over again. The Beach Boys came in much later. The first song I remember by the Beach Boys is And then I Kissed Her. Another that keeps playing in my mind now and then is Barbara Ann. I got my hands on a cassette by the Beach boys too but not until much later. Classical music was yet to venture in through my ear drums and create space in my mind. I treasured my collection of 17 cassettes and these were arranged in some order, I’ve long forgotten which. I do remember I’d always place the cassette I’d heard back in its proper place.

Now all the cassettes, many more than 17 in number lie in dusty rows in a couple of cardboard cartons on the floor with a few CDs scattered on the top.

Cassettes and CDs

The CD arrived many years ago and still lingers. MP3 and other file formats rule. Just like the digital camera. Film still lingers, the amateur or the old timer still use it. Digital reigns.

The Beatles

I remember it was my sister who’d told me the Beatles’ accent was easier to understand compared to the other Western music groups. One day I chanced upon a Beatles’ cassette in my cousin’s home and played it in his tape player. Some kind of noise came out of the speakers. I stopped it. A few years later I would sit glued to my radio with a blank cassette ready to record each song that played in the programmes ‘The Sunday Request’ and ‘In the Mood’ on Yuv Vani on All India Radio.I’d record each song but would rewind and record the next song over it if I didn’t like it. This way I had my own ‘collection’ of music.  I also discovered that the songs I liked a lot were mostly by the Beatles. This led me to buy a cassette of the Beatles. I had gone with my father to Karol Bagh and we stopped at a shop that sold English music cassettes. I would play both sides of that cassette over and aver again day after day. Time passed and I bought a songbook. I had gone alone to Connaught Place and had visited all the book shops.  Most of the songs it had were by the Beatles and had the lyrics and the chords. The only think left to do now was to learn to play the chords. Years later I’m still learning. While my guitar gently weeps.

Delhi Metro

The chilly wind in January had failed to keep the city at home. The windy platform was crowded. The Delhi Metro train crept into the station accompanied by warnings over the PA system advising commuters on the patform to step back behind the yellow line. I took a step back, clutched my bag tightly and prepared to push through the crowd into a coach. Delhi Metro fares are reasonable so it is crowded. I managed to squeezed myself into half my body’s volume. The smell of sweat wafted from someone’s armpit against my face. The fourteen year old boy behind me played music on his cellphone’s speakers. The PA system requested people not to play music, announced the names of the stations and informed the passengers that doors would open to the left. I plugged in my ear pieces and turned on the music in my cellphone. Surprising how the same 12 notes played different  tunes in the ears and minds of the many passengers in the metro. The music drowned under the din of the announcements, the noise of the metro and the gibberish of the crowd. A girl read the latest Chetan Bhagat novel. I caught a few lines over her shoulder. A couple with a baby and 3 bags stood in a corner waiting for Rajeev Chowk. I guessed they would change the metro there for the New Delhi station. Must have a train to catch. The baby howled because of the crowd and the closed environment. The father and the mother tried to pacify her. A lady with a bundle sat cross-legged in the vestibule between two coaches. At one station the doors refused to close. The train stood at the station for a few minutes. The guard ran frantically back and forth to ensure no one obstructed the doors of any coach. Finally the doors shut and the train moved. I stared out the big windows of the coach. I got a new perspective of the city. The privacy of the big bungalows had been invaded. Their once private life was now rendred public because of the high vantage point the metro provided. I could see the posh colonies merging into the slums. The city seemed to have been invaded by construction equipment. Construction of flyovers, metro lines and facilities for the Commonwealth Games 2010 all seemed to be happening at the same time. The cranes moved across the roads and the cars would zip by under their hooks. Dust hung heavy at many places. The Ramakrishan Mission Ashram station’s platform looked like the waiting lounge of an airport with many foreigners waiting for the next train. In the distance Old Delhi was visible. As I walked through the turnstile at my station I wondered if I would emerge like Superman did everytime he walked through revolving doors!! Maybe someday a metro token would cover that change in the personality too.

Manali, Rohtang Pass, Solang Valley, Kullu, Manikaran from Delhi

The cold and rarefied air at Rohtang Pass was new and unfamiliar to me. The snow covered stark mountain sides were refreshingly alluring at one moment and scarily ominous at another. It clearly wasn’t a place to walk forward while looking back over my shoulder. I did slip a few times even though I walked slowly and  placed my feet firmly in the snow. The rubber boots kept my feet dry but did not keep them warm. It was all so different from life back home. Or was it really.

The food stalls at Rohtang Pass rival those at any of the Diwali melas that spring up in the parks in Delhi towards October. Maggi, bhutta, eggs, tea and coffee can be had without worrying about the litter at 13051 ft. There’s no point in driving up the highest motorable road in the world if one can’t carry on with the great Indian tradition of using the road as a dustbin.

The traffic jam at Rohtang Pass resembles the gridlock at Ashram, Indirapuram and Gurgaon. It makes one feel at home. The cold air at the high altitude keeps the car cabin cool as one inches forward at fifteen minute intervals. Some of the drivers are as reckless, careless and probably as drunk as on the roads in Delhi.

Some people try to overtake even if the road is only wide enough for one car to pass through. A bus and a truck jostle for space on a hair pin bend because the drivers are bent upon testing each other’s driving skills to the utmost. The prospect of a 200 m straight fall for either vehicle into the valley below makes the duel more exciting.

The mall at Manali is as crowded as Ghaffar Market, Ajmal Khan Road, Chandni Chowk, Sector-18 in Noida or the malls in Gurgaon. What’s missing are the drivers trying to wade through the pedestrians because the administration has closed the mall to the traffic.

The tiny Maruti Suzuki Alto makes its way along the grinding and winding road up to Rohtang Prass easily. The Tata Indica fumes and lumbers up. The big quasi-SUVs (Chevrolet Tavera, Mahindra Scorpio, Tata Safari) that are poor cousins to the Mitsubishi Pajero and the Toyota Land Rover climb up easily. Some have luggage piled up on the roof because they have been hired for a trip to Leh/Ladakh.

Most bikers announce their presence with the thud-thud of the Bullet echoing off the mountains. The smaller bikes keep you company noiselessly. Neither weaves through the traffic unless there is a traffic jam when a biker’s natural flair for streaking through traffic comes to the fore.

What else did we do in Manali?
Day 0 we boarded the overnight Volvo for Manali from HPTDC’s office in Delhi
Day 1 arrived in Manali and spent it on Mall road and the garden at the bottom by Beas river.
Day 2 was spent driving from Manali to Rohtang Pass, having fun at Rohtang Pass and a stop at Solang Valley on the way back to Manali
Day 3 we drove to Kullu, Manikaran and boarded the overnight Volvo from Kullu for journey back to Delhi
Ever after: Remember the refreshing Manali air, the rejuvenating holiday, the simple and relaxed life, tough uphill walks, hot tea in cold weather, shopping for trinkets

Be well prepared for the fickle Rohtang Pass weather. Light woollens required for the cold Manali weather. Pack a synthetic down jacket to keep you warm in Manali. Do not fly to Manali. The drive to Manali is full of twisting turns and enchanting mountain views. Take the bus. The Volvo bus is very popular. Or, drive your own car. Flying economy class to Manali is not possible since there is no airport there. You can fly to Kullu which is nearby. Best to stay in a hotel close to the mall. This way one is assured of a chemist near the hotel in case of an emergency.
Deforestation in Manali is seen on the hills since many trees have been felled. Wonder if there has been a rise in temperature in Manali over the years as a result. I regret not having chai pakoda in Manali. I did have fresh sweet lime juice in Manali which tasted great. Mobile signal was strong in Manali. Didn’t see any Ola or Uber in Manali. Didn’t see any radio taxis in Manali.