Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.
It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.
I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.
These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them
goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.
Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.
One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.
And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.
No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.
It’s not the same thing.
*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.
Poopkund. That’s what Roopkund is called when three of your fellow trekkers are between 9 and 10 years in age. The hordes of trekkers heaving their way to vast campsites which have taken over every level spot make that name more real.
We did this trek in early October and the weather was perfect. Ashish, a close friend, does such treks professionally and arranged everything. We had our own food, provisions, and staff. We hired six mules. Five to carry our material & packs. One mule was dedicated for my daughter R who loves animals. R had come on the condition that she would ride a mule.
This was the most ambitious trek we had attempted with kids – it’s highest point was 15750 feet. We had three kids in our group – R and AS, both 9, and AM who is 10. Every day of our trek was different and interesting.
Day 1: Drive to Wan village
We drove to Wan and stayed at the Paras hotel, about the only place in town. It was basic
and clean, but the kids named it the Kabristan (Cemetery) hotel.
Day 2: Hike from Wan to Bedni Bugyal
The trek starts with a gentle ascent, and a short downhill to a lovely stream. After that it is a steep climb. The total ascent that day was some 3500 feet. After 10 km we reached Ghairoli Patal. It was a pretty place and not too busy. In hindsight, we should’ve camped there even though it had less of a view. But we were on a schedule, and so we headed on to Bedni Bugyal. Bedni Bugyal was overrun with fixed campsites operated by outfits like Trek the Himalayas & Indiahikes. We liked the Indiahikes people and they also helped us in a tight spot. But we didn’t like what these companies were doing to the place with this volume of trekkers.
At the end of the day R & AS were fine but AM complained about aching feet. At one point that night tossing and turning in his sleeping bag he asked me “Why did we come on this stupid trek?”
Day 3: Bedni Bugyal to Pather Nachani
We started walking after a leisurely breakfast. This day was a short (5 km) uphill walk and the gradient was gentle. We reached Pather Nachani by lunchtime. We had planned less walking on day 3 & 4 because we were reaching higher campsites in short distances – Pather Nachani was over 13000 ft. We didn’t want to push for longer distances to ensure everyone acclimatizes well.
The shorter walk also helped AM recover. On reaching camp, after a brief rest all three kids were busy playing their games and running around.
We met Anuja at a chai shop in Pather Nachani. She was an Indiahikes staff member
and she was very curious about how the kids were doing. When she learnt that this was their first trek at this height, she handed me a whole strip of Diamox. We were blown away by her generosity and concern.
The main campsite at Pather Nachani was small and crowded. Our guide knew of another site further up the hill and it was a better place to stay for the night. Our campsite offered an amazing view of Chaukhamba.
The next morning we woke up to frost and below freezing temperatures.
Day 4 : Pather Nachani to Bhagwabasa
The alleged 5 k hike felt like less. The GPS said 3k, but with frequent patches without satellite signal. Not too reliable. This day’s walk started with a steep ascent. Once we reached the Shiv temple and two tea shops, the trail leveled off to a pretty & easy walk. The view from the temple was amazing – provided you have clear skies. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti loomed over us, austere and aloof in their snow capped glory. It was a great reminder of my own pathetic ego and mortality.
Bhagwabasa was yet another busy campsite, and water was hard to find. We had sent an advance party to grab a good campsite, while the rest of the group followed later. The advance party – two ultra fit women and our guide – were the luckiest because they got a clear open view of the big mountains.
As camp was being set up, we came again to the pit loos. The art of digging a pit loo was something Ashish’s crew learnt on the job. The first campsite had the pit so wide it felt like the morning dump and morning yoga were combined. The crew kept getting better with each new campsite. When the pit loo was dug in Bhagwabasa, we all saw Ashish do a tryout squat at the trench even before the tent was put up. Fortunately, he kept his pants on. That’s when we realized just how anal he is about customer service.
Bhagwabasa was freezing. Kids being kids insisted on running around without gloves and a hat. Earlier in the trek, the kids (and some adults) had complained of the occasional headaches and painful limbs, but they had all recovered on their own. But that evening, R threw up three times in a row. We panicked – our biggest fear in this trip was Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). (Learn more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altitude_sickness). Headaches and vomiting are both symptoms of AMS. One of the best ways to tackle AMS is to lose height. I immediately decided to put R on a mule and head down to Pather Nachani. But the mules and Mule-walas had all gone down to the valley so that the mules could graze and be warmer. They would only return the next morning.
I then headed to the India Hikes campsite to seek out their trek leader – a young man named Dushyant. He had stopped by our campsite at Pather Nachani that morning. An exceedingly nice person, he had asked about how the kids were doing, and had offered to help in any way required. At Bhagwabasa – after I told him R’s symptoms – Dushyant immediately walked back to our camp with me.
He had an oximeter – a tiny device which clamps on a finger. He told me that the Oximeter indicates the blood saturation level and is a good indicator of AMS. When we reached the campsite he chatted with R for a bit, and then took her saturation level. It was well above the minimum of 85. Then everyone in the camp had their saturation levels checked. Safe in the knowledge that nobody had AMS, we all slept.
R had a decent dinner, kept it down, and insisted that she would walk upto Roopkund the next day (mules don’t do the last 3k).
That night – or early next morning – we heard many groups pass by chanting stuff like “Ganpati Bappa Moriya” and “Har Har Mahadev”. My spiritual Himalayas had turned religious.
Day 5 : Bhagwabasa – Roopkund & Junar Gali – Bhagwabasa – Pather Nachani
We started off for Roopkund around 7 AM. Most groups had left at 4. The alleged reason was that you got a clear view of the big mountains from up there. I think it was also because it gave the camping companies enough time to get everyone down to Pather Nachani the same day.
But even at seven the temperature was 00C. The kids were cold, and R (who almost changed her mind about walking up) kept whining about how hard it was and how cold her fingers and toes were. I put her in an extra layer, had her tuck one hand into her underarm, and held her other hand in both of mine. Even then, she was cold. After a while the sun came out and she was warmer, but the whining continued about how difficult the climb was.
Vandita (R’s mother) turned around and told her “R, the constant whining doesn’t help you climb. You have to make up your mind and then act on it. You have to decide what you want to do, and do it for yourself. Just like when you decided you wanted to learn to swim. You inhaled water, you coughed and choked, and finally you learned how to swim. You had decided. This climb is the same way. You have to decide that you want climb the mountain, and then do it. The constant whining doesn’t help – it only makes it harder for you.”
It worked. R was energized after that, and went the rest of the way without a peep. A few places she stopped and took breaks, and said she was tired. But it was factual, and not whining.
The thin air made the climb to Roopkund harder. The last half km was the most gruelling. AM also had a slow climb. All the hikers coming down from the lake would say complimentary things to the kids. At one point AM saw a large group of trekkers descending towards us and said “Ab phir thank you bolna pade ga.” (Another round of thank you’s to be said.)
The rock star was Ashish’s son, AS. He’s only 9 but walked effortlessly without any signs of fatigue. Only on the final lake ascent did he display the smallest weakness – probably because of the altitude.
Roopkund itself was anticlimactic – more a puddle than a lake. AM gave it one glance and said “This is what we walked 4 days for?”. Junar Gali is a path going further up to the ridge beyond the lake. AM & I stopped at the lake itself, but Vandita and R went up to Junar Gali. They said the view from there was magnificent.
The walk down was as treacherous as the uphill was hard because of loose rock and scree. We made it down to Pather Nachani and decided to call it a day.
Day 6: Pather Nachani to Wan & drive home
Wan was a walk of 17 k – all downhill. It played hell on the knees and toenails to do it in one shot, but we were keen to get back in a hurry.
We reached Wan by lunchtime and drove out. Although we would reach home late in the night, it was much more inviting than another night at the Kabristan hotel.
Our Roopkund experience was great and terrible. The nature was great, the crowds were terrible. In future, before planning any trek I will check the websites of Trek the Himalayas, Youth Hostels Association and India Hikes. I will skip all treks that have fixed date departures on these sites and look for something less mainstream.
*Please note that the kids who went on this trek all live at an altitude above 6000 feet where they run up and down slopes all the time. They’ve all done easier treks like Pindari before.
Have you heard of BT Starbucks? BT stands for “Better Than”. The three café’s up here in the Himalayan Mountainside have been christened BT Starbucks, BT Costa and BT Barista. Each serves up one thing neither Starbucks, Costa or Barista can. They serve Simplicity. You go there and sit on the basic wooden bench and order a cup of tea, and that is exactly what you get. If you don’t say otherwise, it automatically comes with sugar. None of the three has the Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande on the menu. Yes, that’s a real drink at Starbucks. Yes, that is just one drink, not three.
BT Starbucks does only “wood fired” tea because the owner does not use LPG or kerosene. We can discuss how eco-friendly that is. Best to do so in a Café Coffee Day where the Air Conditioning is set to teeth chattering. None of the cafes up here have air-conditioning. Actually, I am not sure they all even have electricity. You see, they close well before dark.
So imagine my shock when I went to a tea shop in the neighbouring village of Reetha, and the shopkeeper asked if we wanted regular or herbal tea. I was with my friend Nitin. I looked at him and found his eyebrows were attempting paragliding as well. We both sat down and agreed to try the herbal tea.
It was lovely. A clear golden-brown color, the rich smell of herbs – all served up in simple steel glasses and cups. The tea was free of sugar – sweetened naturally with a herb called Stevia. One could taste some rather distinct flavours. And the size of the serving was also just right – not an attempt to sink the titanic.
We had to come back to Reetha the next day to meet someone. As happens often in the
hills, we had to wait. So we had another round of the herbal tea. It was still great, but a little different from the previous day. The Rosemary was stronger. The sweetness a little less.
You see, the owner of tea-shop – a very friendly man named Harinder Singh – is not a barista. He does not have a single definition of perfection which he has decided to foist on all humanity. He said they tried slight variations and something new came up. And their customers enjoyed it.
So we got chatting about how he made the tea. Harinder Singh ji readily showed us all the ingredients – some which he had kept carefully in ziplock packets, some in plastic jars (see slideshow). It was obvious he took joy in growing and drying these herbs. With much pride he explained some trade secrets-
like mixing Rhododendrnon flowers with the Stevia makes a better sweetener. He enjoyed the appreciation and special attention he got from us.
What made the tea completely unbelievable was the price tag of 10 rupees. So the next time I am travelling to the city and we want to catch up, please don’t ask me to meet at a Starbucks. Where I come from, I can get 29 cups of real herbal tea for the price of one Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande.
And if you frequent Starbucks, come and stay at Reetha for a few days. Your savings on herbal tea will pay for your entire trip.
(Title photo credit : Ek Chidiya Cottage)
About Chetan Mahajan: Chetan is a full-time author who lives in a village in the Kumaon Himalayas. He published his first book with Penguin, and is working on his next one. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com . He also writes and edits this blog.
“Bro, I know it’s a big ask so don’t hesitate to say no.” said Tim.
He had my attention.
“My motorbike’s rear brake has packed up, and I am riding down to Munsiyari with some other bikers. I just rode past your place and was wondering if I could borrow your Himalayan for a couple of days.”
“When are you back?” I asked. My car was limping on a broken shocker, so the bike was our main transport right now. The car repair would wait for when I could find time for the 3 hour drive to the Honda showroom in Haldwani.
“On Saturday. In three days.” he replied
“And your bike is driveable? You’re moving around on it?”
“Yes. The front brake works fine. It’s just that my journey is a rather long one.” I knew Munsiyari was at least a 10 hour drive.
“Okay sure. Come by and pick it up.”
“I just rode past your house. See you in five minutes.”
I had just dug out the bike papers when Tim Subhash Chandra rolled in on his black Himalayan. His real name is Tim Sebastian, but he’s realized that Subhash Chandra is easier for most Indians to say. I’ve known Tim for over a year – I first met him just a few days after he had opened the iHeart cafe down in Bhimtal. It is a great little cafe with a lovely ambience and good food. moreover, it makes a great pit stop on my trips to the plains. And he’s helped me in many ways in pushing my recent baby – the Himalayan Writing Retreats. So he’s not a dear friend but he’s more than an acquaintance.
He hopped off his bike and we chatted. He talked about the possibility of getting the bike fixed in Almora or borrowing my bike. I told him I was happy to lend it and it was entirely his call. As we chatted, he explained his chain of thoughts about whether or not he should call me to borrow the bike
“The guy’s Indian and a village man, so he’ll probably say yes. But he’s lived seven years in Chicago, so that part of him would say no. Heck, let me just call him and ask.” he said.
Now that was an interesting insight. Even as an American, he expected an Indian to lend him something fairly valuable more readily than another American. And if you’re a “rural” Indian, that increased the chances even more.
So what exactly was Tim saying? That a city bred, more urbanized and therefore Individualistic person is less likely to lend something? And the rural person – who probably has a lot less to start with but who is used to living in a community and is more accustomed to sharing things – is more likely to lend you something of value?
Rings true in my experience here so far. And Tim – obviously very tuned into India – clearly seems to think so.
Pahadi’s are the people of the mountains. And they are clueless about urban measures of distance and time. That is universal whether it is Kashmir or Himachal or Uttarakhand. If you’ve ever hiked through mountains, you know how useless it is to ask a pahadi about distance or travel time. The typical conversation goes like this.
“How far is Sagnam village from here?”
“Oh not far.”
“I mean how many kilometres?”
Pat comes the confident reply “Oh, less than one kilometre.”
You dig out your map, do some math and know that cannot be true. You try another tack.
“Okay so how long will it take to walk to Sagnam from here.”
“It’s just a 10 minute walk.”
“We’ll reach Sagnam in 10 minutes?” You ask, sceptical but full of hope. Maybe you got your math wrong. That 20 kg pack has been feeling like 40.
“Yes yes, 10 minutes.” He repeats with authority. “It’s just past that little hill” he points to a mountain in the far distance.
So you continue your trek. After half an hour of walking that “little hill” seems as far as it was before. You stubbornly continue and after an hour of trudging you come across another pahadi. You eagerly ask him “How far is Sagnam from here?”
“Oh, not far” he says “Just 10 minutes.”
And so it goes.
In our neck of the woods this vagueness had been institutionalized and put into stone. Literally. If you drive from Mukteshwar through the IVRI forest reserve you will cross a milestone which will say “Sitla 0”. A hundred yards later there is a second milestone which says “Sitla 0”. That much I can still understand. But then you drive down a good half Kilometre. The Village of Sitla has been left behind, and you are now in the Village of Satkhol, and you come across a third milestone. And guess what it says?
These photographs are testament. And then the other day I went to Mukteshwar. This time I decided to measure the distance between the two milestones. Both say Mukteshwar Zero. They are exactly 1 km apart.
Imagine a cafe that actively reduces its profit to save the environment. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s real. But before we go on, a little background.
I love the mountains, and I hate the plastic that litters them. We’ve all read about how plastic chokes the environment. I no longer take the free bottle of water they offer on the Shatabdi train. I avoid bottled water in hotels and airports. I bring my own waterbottle from home, and refill it from safe water sources as I travel.
Why does this matter?
What travelers need is safe drinking water. There are many ways to find it without using up extensive amounts of plastic. Bottled water is the most convenient and irresponsible way to get clean drinking water. In a world where all airports come with water fountains and any home and restaurant you visit has a decent water filter, avoiding bottled water is about just a tiny bit of planning, and being just a little contrarian. A simple thing like carrying a waterbottle from home. It can be helped by buying a good waterbottle (so you dont lose it and refill it often) that fits perfectly into your bag or hand. If it’s expensive you’re less likely to lose it. Decathlon has a full range.
So, of course, it pisses me off when I walk into the average city restaurant and find sealed plastic bottles of water on every table. It’s a default sale for the restaurant. I always call the waiter and ask if they have a water filter. Eyes roll. But restaurants invariably do have potable filtered water. Of course, giving away anything free reduces profit. Even water. And restaurants are about profit maximization at any cost, it seems. So you can imagine my delight when I walked into Chandi Mati cafe in Mukteshwar the other day, and found this on the menu.
Wow! No bottled water sitting on each table. By default they serve filtered water. Here was a business actively reducing its profits by telling you not to buy something. Just because it is the right thing to do. And Chandi Mati is not some huge, successful enterprise. It is a young business working hard for its own success. Yet, it is clear on its principles.
So the next time you visit Mukteshwar, go to the Chandi Mati cafe. Click a selfie with their menu and post it on Instagram & Twitter & Facebook and myriad other online places.
This will boost Chandi Mati’s business and make it wildly successful, maybe some other restaurants will follow suit. The use of plastic bottles will reduce, and you would have made the world a better place because of your responsible social media behaviour.
A little work that I enjoy,
A little writing that turns out right,
A little love after a long, dark night,
A bird singing in the tree outside,
A small luxury, like a wireless speaker.
All these things fulfill me
It’s not a good thing, I tell myself;
I can work more, write more,
Love more (read: start a family).
Sometimes I chide myself:
You’re not hungry enough.
You’re happy with too little.
You’re an anomaly, a beautiful loser,
A problematic outlier
In the otherwise Olympian story
Of human success.
But then I write some copy for a brochure.
I wrestle with the sentences,
Trying to get them to cohere
Around an idea I have.
I like this process.
It’s like composing a symphony.
Then I counsel a friend, try to get him
On the path of reason, of compassion
Without losing my temper.
People can be so stupid, so stubborn.
I have to be patient.
All this takes a lot of work.
Then I have my simple, home-made lunch,
And open the novel I’m reading.
I read just two pages and I come away
With almost supernatural bliss,
A mental orgasm if you like
(Such beautiful, pitch-perfect writing),
And by now, (I am embarrassed to say),
I am so ridiculously content,
So happy. And with so little.
I know my happiness is small when
Compared with marketplace happiness.
My happiness comes too easy.
It’s not big enough, not bright enough.
But my happiness has all the
Self-sufficient, narcotic bliss
Of a glass of wine.
Is this self-actualization?
Or fatal contentment?
I don’t know, really.
Who can say for sure?
Since definitions are uncertain
I decide to say instead,
“My blessing is I am happy with little.”
I can live on a well-written sentence
All afternoon, after all.
Now that, fortunately or unfortunately,
Is my reality.
So yes, my blessing,
My innate, ennobling, damning blessing
Is I am happy with little, too little.
No use fighting it anymore.
Best to sing it out loud,
Best to be proud.
So this then is my bittersweet song to myself
My elegy for opportunities foregone,
My resignation letter to marketplace happiness,
My making-peace-with-myself declaration,
My moment of sublime self-acceptance
(Or sophisticated self-deception,
I don’t know. Best to be
Healthily sceptical always,
Even of one’s own philosophy).
But if it is indeed a blessing
Then I know it is just like
A gift for language
Or a cleft lip
A talent for cooking
Or a sixth finger on one hand.
What a mixed blessing this is;
Being happy with (too?) little.
I am going to the park with my book.
Join me if you like,
All you beautiful losers,
You poets, you philosophers,
You worriers, you misfits,
You self-proclaimed failures,
You quietly desperate beautiful children
Of the god of too little happiness.
We shall hunt for a ladybird in the grass.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen one.
About the contributor : Philip John co-runs a boutique creative agency in Bangalore. He is also an independent creative consultant and writer. His short fiction has been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Out Of Print, and Helter Skelter. Philip teaches a creative writing program at Bangalore Writers Workshop. He is an alumnus of Mudra Institute of Communication, Ahmedabad (MICA). Any comments about his poetry will be conveyed to him.