Star-for-fewer-bucks

Star-for-fewer-bucks

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

IMG_20170825_115046
The man himself – Harinder ji

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-

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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.

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Who can borrow what from whom?

Who can borrow what from whom?

“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.

What do you think?

(Image credit : studentsforliberty.org.)

Time & space aren’t relative here. They’re vague.

Time & space aren’t relative here. They’re vague.

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?

“Sitla 0”.

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.

 

Welcome to the mountains.

I am happy with too little

I am happy with too little

Contributor : Philip John

My problem is I am happy with too little.

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
Disproportionately.

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.

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

So you want to leave your gated community in the city for a gated community in the village? Like in the above ad of home-in-the-himalayas ? Your gated community must be eco-friendly, of course. Options abound. Tata Housing sells its “Myst Eco-luxury residences” in Kasauli as a super-premium gated community. “This exclusive gated community has been designed by the world’s leading expert in sustainable architecture…” says their website.

Another similar property touts “an exclusive residential address, a community of like-minded people who value the same ideas of wellness, privacy and under-stated luxury.” The background picture shows a large, eco-friendly gate.

In the city one key thing a gated community provides is security. What are they afraid of here, I wonder?

All these exclusive properties tout how sensitive they are to the environment. The Tata Housing site says “Never before has luxury been more sensitive in its approach and more evolved in the statement it makes about those who choose to live here. ” Strangely, none of them talks about how sensitive they are to the local people and culture.

Eco-friendly is better when it is also people friendly. And that doesn’t mean just a maid and a caretaker.

At the other end of this scale is Ashish Arora. He moved here from the city over a decade back. He has built a thriving business not by excluding the local communIMG_20170601_110934.jpgity but by including them. He actively helps all the village people in their issues. He was recently elected to the van-panchayat of his village. He works hard to save the forest, employ local people, and is an integral part of the local community. He is invited to every local celebration. He pays homage when any villager dies. His wife Deepa single-handedly employs well over 50 local women through their enterprise called Chandi Maati.

Arvindji is another great example. He moved up here and set up a library which the entire region benefits from now. And of course there are many who work and contribute to the local NGOs.

These and many other amazing people are not here as expats, but migrants – woven into the local fabric.

You dream of living in the mountains. Who do you want to be?

You can be the rich city Expat who lives in the gated community in the mountains, making exclusivity statements. Or you can be the migrant who makes a statement by making a difference. Someone who connects with and changes the lives of the people around you for the better. As a city-bred person with education and exposure you can do so much for the local community. In return, you actually get to be a part of a real community – possibly for the first time ever.

Please don’t tell me you will live in the gated community and integrate with the local community. That statement doesn’t even sound right, does it?

_____________

About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author and blogger who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. 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.

Change your privacy settings – to Himalayan.

Change your privacy settings – to Himalayan.

Contributor  : Vandita Dubey

It had barely been a couple of weeks since we had moved from Gurgaon to our new home in the Kumaon Himalayas. Boxes piled up, unopened. Fitting a four bedroom bungalow worth of stuff into a small two bedroom place seemed like an impossible task. In the midst of this chaos, I also needed to get some writing done for a book deadline that loomed. One morning as I sat down in the verandah converted into a drawing room-cum-study hoping to get some words down as the kids were at school, a most unusual thing happened. The glass door of our house was suddenly pushed open by Aama (old lady/grandmother in Kumaoni) who lives next door. She walked in confidently, though leaning heavily on her wooden stick, and sat down on one of the chairs. She said not a word.

So, I had a visitor in the house who did not feel like a visitor: I did not know what to do. Many years of social training finally kicked in and I stood up, offered an uncertain IMG_20170507_072226“Namaste.” She non-chalantly accepted my greeting and in the same breath told me to continue my work, adding that she would just sit there. Social interactions in the city don’t follow this script and so I felt at a loss about what I should do. Was I actually supposed to carry on with my work? Or, was I supposed to set it aside and pay attention to the visitor? I turned back to my writing as instructed, but my brain wouldn’t work. So, I shut the computer and turned my attention to the lady. “Would you like some tea?” She readily agreed. Cups of tea were made, she wanted to know where we had come from, what I do, etc: Usual getting to know the new neighbour questions. Tea over and some curiosity satisfied, she went on her way. I still did not know what to make of this social interaction.

There is a common perception that Indians do not have as much of a concept of personal space as North Americans or Europeans do. I always thought it was because we are all so tightly packed – such a huge population and such little space, especially in all urban areas, even towns and most villages. But many villages in Kumaon, including the one where we live, have houses set far apart. I have heard that at one time, before city folks started buying second homes and urbanizing this area, people used to actively welcome a family that moved close by. It meant that there would now be more people extending help in case there was an emergency or natural calamity. Aama is someone from that time. She has virtually adopted us and we are grateful for all the help that she and her family have extended to us in the past two years . But quite remarkably they have been able to maintain the fine balance between offering help and interfering or taking over our lives.

We urban folks tend to worry about our privacy and erect tall fences, lock our doors and install door bells. Even in areas where safety is not an issue. Here, village folk regularly walk through each other’s backyards and nobody raises a heckle about trespassing. While people of various nationalities have made this area truly home by integrating themselves in different ways with the local community, others have failed miserably. The most recent incident involved a French & Israeli couple who rented a house and rumours are, wanted to grow marijuana. Now, marijuana is a grass that grows in most people’s backyards and does not catch any attention. This couple, however, erected tall fences around their house, effectively blocking direct access to the houses below. The residents of those houses were forced to walk a long way around, up the hill, to access the road. Soon enough, the villagers made a complaint to the DM about the marijuana crop. The house was raided and the couple arrested.

There is much unlearning we have done since our move here, fortunately without getting arrested. As they say, when in Rome do as Romans do: In Kumaon that may mean changing your definitions of privacy.

 

About the contributor: Dr. Vandita Dubey is a US licensed Psychologist and a permanent Uncity resident. She continues her conselling practice from her village home on phone and skype. The book referred to in this post has since been published by Rupa, and is titled “Parenting in the age of Sexposure : raising the precocious generation. ” She also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreats. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com .

 

Getting plastered on Holi

Getting plastered on Holi

This Holi our ten-year-old son A got plastered. After just one shot he virtually passed out on the cold metal table in the X-ray room. The plaster went onto his left leg – all the way from his toes to his thigh. It was a pain in the tibia.

The evening before holi, he was out swinging – literally – just like any healthy, active, outdoorsy child. The rope of the swing snapped and he came down on his left leg. We did not rush to the ER because the nearest one is over an hour’s drive, and we don’t trust it much. Having heard the horror stories that emanate from most city hospitals, I believe the nearest decent ER is probably a six-hour flight from Delhi. A sleep-deprived intern in an Almora hospital on the night before Holi was not our idea of medical care.

We preferred to trust our neighborhood hospital run by the NGO Aarohi, but it was shut that evening so we planned to go there the next morning. That night was painful on multiple levels. The child endured physical pain and we parents flagellated ourselves for not checking the rope knowing fully well it was an old swing. The next morning –  the morning of Holi – we picked up Pandey ji, the X-ray technician, and reached the Aarohi Hospital. The key was traced out and the hospital unlocked especially for us. The very senior Dr. Sushil – the founder of Aarohi – was waiting for us. A doctor waiting for a patient was a first for me. The X-ray was impossible given the pain A was in, so they anesthetized him and then did the X-ray.

The shin bone a.k.a the tibia was fractured but fortunately still in place so it did not need setting. We were there for over 3 hours while Pandeyji and Dr. Sushil laboured over A’s leg. Finally the cast was spelled. Happy Holi.

The hospital bill was well below the 2000 rupee note I had on me. That included IMG_20170324_115417_HDR the X-ray, the plaster, the anaesthesia injection and the pain medication. In response to my not having change, a face smiled back and informed me that I could pay later. In the high-end resorts around our house we sometimes meet important people who are on the boards of big hospitals, and they talk about how ethics are important but sales targets for doctors are a reality. I’m not sure when these guys went from Hippocratic to Hypocritical. I hope science soon comes up with some treatment for regenerating a conscience.

It’s been two weeks and our son has learnt to live with the plaster. In these two weeks we again realized what a community really is. Worried neighbours brought food. As word spread in the local community, comic books, movies, and friends have turned up to visit. The principal of A’s school called us full of concern and workbooks and tests have been arranged in the house.

Instead of the world going on its way ignoring the hurt little child, it seems to have changed course just a little to provide him solace and company.  It is beautiful to live amongst a few people who care instead of a few million who don’t.