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.
This is about the Himalayan blogging and podcasting retreat but it is not an advertisement. I am going to tell my personal experience at my dad’s retreat. OK, where do I start? I should start with the bad things first. I don’t know about the rooms I have not stayed there. As a 10-year-old, I got super bored. The wifi was not good and the light went often.
Now let me tell you about the good things like food and more food and also people. Okay, so food. They have good food and if you’re lucky you might also get a barbecue. I was lucky by the way that’s how I know. If you want to know more about the retreat then go to the writing retreat website at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com. So to tell you about the people – there were 10 people who were attending the retreat. Two hosts – my dad
and Kiruba uncle. He also has a blog. And I liked the guy who wrote about iHeart café. iHeart is my favorite cafe in this area. There was also my boring cousin sister Shruti didi and Manoj uncle who owns the place where the retreat was happening and he does the barbecue.
In the retreat I also committed to a 50-day plan – in 10 days I had to write a blog and that’s what this is.
That’s about it for the blogging and podcasting retreat. I forgot Podcasting was also there but it was boring.
About Anhad Mahajan: Anhad is an animator who has published his own comic book titled “Nature Heroes”. He is in grade five, and is currently recovering from a broken leg. That setback allows him free access to most of the events organized by his parents under the Himalayan Writing Retreat banner.
At the age of seven months I moved from the US to India. At the age of eight, 2015 March 25th was when we moved and my birthday was March 3rd. Honestly I was scared because I thought Leopards and Tigers were the same and they could eat me. I also was teased at school because I did not know good Hindi but English.
I found very very easy (what) they were teaching me. He, she, it. No offence but the teachers were worse than me. And my favourite subject math in the first 3 months it was revision of plus the next three months was minus revision. How much revision can I get when in Shikshantar I was learning Multiplication. (Shikshantar was my school in Gurgaon.)
In Gurgaon I had wheezing and difficulty in breathing and no clean air and I am living next to one of the most polluted city in the world. No offence again but it is Delhi. I like both places equal.
I like the shops, restaurants and friends of Gurgaon but I don’t and never will miss the pollution of Gurgaon and Delhi. I like the Greenery in Kumaon and Satkhol. The kid upstairs is our landlords son. He is in boarding school. Now I have friends here. I have also written a 40 page comic book.
(This content is exactly what he wrote – only spellings have been fixed. He actually has written a 40 page comic book titled “The Nature Heroes” with superheroes et al. If anyone could help illustrate it, that would be awesome! He is keen to have it published. Please do get in touch if you would like to chat about this.)
Kids grow up quickly in cities. The hardness of the place. The ambient ribaldry. Shorter tempers and better(?) vocabularies mean quicker access to four letter words. And thoughts.
I think the “Rate of Losing Innocence” (“RLI” drawls the smug MBA) for both my kids has really gone down since we moved a year and a half back. It becomes obvious when we meet city kids.
Recently a visiting teenage intern asked A (my 9 year old son) if he had a crush on anybody. A immediately responded “mummy”. While I completely echo his sentiments, I am pretty sure a city kids reply would’ve been different. And when the intern tried to needle A about whether or not he had a girlfriend, it didn’t really work because A actually couldn’t relate to the concept.
My kids had learnt expletives like fuck while in Gurgaon. Those have largely faded from memory but still crop up sometimes, especially after some urban contact. But the good news is, that vocabulary building stopped there. Here in the village they have learnt some local abuses, but the simpler, more harmless variety. Nothing compared to what some city kids mouth. Thankfully we are not in Punjab!!
Of course, curiosity still exists. “Where do babies come from” and “How are babies made” and other such questions. Healthy, natural curiosity. But answers are easier to come by because both my kids saw a calf being born, and understood more about childbirth than a classroom would ever teach. I hope they grow up knowing that breasts weren’t designed for dirty magazines – they already know breasts have a biological purpose when our pet Fia nursed her six puppies.
On the flipside, the gender definitions here are stronger and the kids have adapted. When we left the city my daughter R – who was six then – had always referred to herself in the male gender “main khaoon ga, main khelooon ga” etc. But within two months of moving she had changed to the feminine. I ride a bike and she finds that cool, but out here seeing a woman on two wheelers is much rarer than in a city, so she has actually asked me
“Papa, can girls also ride motorcycles?” or others like
“Papa, can girls also play football?”.
That conformity to a more traditional way of thinking and gender stereotypes is something I don’t like as much. We influence that to some extent by our actions. Last month we went for a three day rock climbing course in Nainital which the kids really enjoyed – especially R.
An old african proverb says ” It takes a village to raise a child”. And when a village does raise children, they are will obviously be village kids. In balance, I think that is a good thing.
(My better half Dr. Vandita Dubey is a US Licensed Psychologist. Rupa recently published her book on kids and sexuality. The book is not about the rural-urban difference but on sexuality in general, and how parents can deal with it. You can check it out at http://vanditadubey.com/dr-dubey-on-parenting/ and also see the counselling and workshops she offers on the link above.)
The Calvin & Hobbes creator made a little-known comic strip about his world view on work and life. He is a master, and I can add zero value to his work, but his words resonate. I am simply transcribing them here. If you find these words powerful, and would like to see the comic strip these are taken from, please click on the link at the bottom of this post.
“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement.
In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life…a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric if not a subversive.
Ambition is only understood if it is to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.
Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities…. Is considered a flake.
A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential. As if a job and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing … and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing.
There are a million ways to sell yourself out …. And I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy … but it’s still allowed … and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
“Hindi medium?” said my city friend, aghast. Eyes wide open. Mouth also. The food was going to fall out, so I quickly said “It’s not that hard. Let me explain.”
She swallowed the food, but not my reasoning. I could see that my logic completely missed the mark. Let me try again here.
The essence of what I told her was that my wife and I were not necessarily looking for a highly competitive school with lots of tests / tuitions / cutting edge technology. Quite the opposite – we were looking for a simple school. One where kids stayed innocent a little longer. A school where our kids would be happy and enjoy the learning process. Both my wife and I remember school as a stressful, unhappy place. But we believe that joy and learning are not contradictory, and should not be.
The last one year has largely borne out our beliefs.
Our two kids moved from a large, urban school to a small rural one*. Both schools follow a similar belief system and methodology – but differed in many other things, including the medium of instruction. Our kids left all their old friends behind, and how quickly they adapted depended a lot on how quickly they made friends.
Our daughter R was not yet seven when we moved. She loved the open green spaces and all the natural beauty of the mountains and she was perfectly at home within the first few days. A was eight, and took longer to adjust and get accustomed to the new set-up.
But they have both adjusted and evolved in their own way.
R has embraced everything around her. Whether it be butterflies, or what the cow eats, and when it gives milk, to how long a pony lives or what a horseshoe does – she is seeking out knowledge of nature and our surroundings with an amazing curiosity. Her Hindi has improved a lot, and she now speaks two versions of Hindi – one in the house, and the other with her Kumaoni classmates and friends. The difference is drastic. And of course, she is picking up some Kumaoni as well.
A is more reserved, and took longer to make friends. But he has been able to get deeper into things that interest him. The stuff he now chooses to do are driven by an inherent personal interest, rather than the influence of friends or peer pressure. He has developed a deep interest in paper folding which he feeds by teaching himself stuff from the internet. He has also developed an interest in Chess, and plays that with the computer and also some of his classmates.
They are learning about life from the cow next door having a calf. From our pet dog delivering a litter of six pups, taking care of them, and the pain of giving them away. They learn from finding the skull and bones of small carnivorous rodents in the forest, taking them to school and researching them. And learn about life simply from the extreme seasons, and understand what grows and when. They don’t just study the relationship between the seasons, and when fruits ripen – they live it.
One of the most satisfying things for me personally is the interest they have developed in Hiking. We have done two hikes, the last one being a six day hike to Pindari glacier. R rode a mule while A walked 60 kilometres up and down forest trails with small backpacks over 6 days. What surprised me most was that on the last day of the hike A was already planning the next one!
But above all this, the biggest factor is the time I am able to spend with them – be it reading together with them, going on picnics, playing games, plucking fruit or doing small woodworking projects. Being a father in person beats being a father in absentia hands down. And I’ve been both. Since we have left the city I have much more time for them, and they both notice and appreciate the change.
We all love the time we now get to spend together. And that’s hard for even the best school to compete with.
*This blogger relocated to the Kumaon Himalayas from Gurgaon, and the fun stuff he does besides trekking, writing this blog, riding the Himalayas, running marathons and contemplating the universe now also includes hosting the Himalayan Writing Retreat https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/retreat/ .