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

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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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About the blogging retreat – this is not an advertisement.

About the blogging retreat – this is not an advertisement.

Contributor: Anhad Mahajan

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.

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This is Julie the pup at the retreat sleeping in the fireplace.

 

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

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This is iHeart cafe. It’s my favorite.

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.IMG-20170430-WA0000

 

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.

 

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At the end, everybody is happy. It’s not bad after all.

 

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.

My nostalgia is better than yours. It’s the latest.

My nostalgia is better than yours. It’s the latest.

Having left the city, we have time for long, relaxed family conversations in our Himalayan village home. Yesterday my two kids – my daughter is 8 & my son 10 –  asked “What are the things from your childhood that are not around anymore?”

“Well, we had transistor radios.” I replied

“What’s that?” came the question.

“Oh, you listen to music and stuff on them. They are typically battery powered and my grandfather used to listen to them all the time.”

“Isn’t that the same thing Mohan da listens to? You know, when he is gardening and doing stuff.” My son asked.

Mohan da (da is big brother in Kumaoni, our local language) is our landlord, neighbour, go to person and an amazingly nice guy. He loves gardening and doing other little house stuff around the place – lighting the open chulha (wood-fired hearth) to heat water, sweeping the fallen leaves and so on. As he potters around, his constant companion is a battery-powered transistor radio tuned to All India Radio Almora, playing hindi film songs from the Palaeolithic era.

“Yes, that is a transistor radio.” I replied, somewhat sheepish.

“What else did you have?” They asked.

“Well, we had electric heaters with coils that turned red and hot to cook on. And white stone bases” said the wife.

My 8 year old daughter looked at her with some disdain this time “Mama, there’s nothing old about that. I’ve seen it in Kuku’s house – her mother cooks on it.” She went on to describe what could only be an old-world electric heater.

“Well, we had cassette players and cassettes.” I continued.

“What’s that?”

I described a tape recorder, and this one passed muster.  Phew!

“And we had kerosene stoves to cook on. We had to pump the stove, and had a pointy little metal thingy with a pin to clear the fuel flow. They made a mess and one helluva racket.”

After the two imps were done imitating my “helluva” my son exclaimed “Isn’t that what he uses in the tea-shop in Sitla?”

“BT Costa.” A voice inside my head says. I have christened the three village tea-shops in the neighbourhood BT Costa, BT Starbucks and BT Barista. Each has a nicer view, ambience, and character than any of their namesakes. And much simpler menus. BT stands for “Better Than.”

“Yes, actually he does use a kerosene stove.” I remember.

The kids push for more. I am feeling less and less sure of myself. Next, I hesitantly mentioned Black and White TVs that were too big & fat to hang from any wall. Even that had been seen by my kids. We go on, talking about Kerosene lamps and rotary telephones and so on. Then the topic switches to all the things that exist now that did not exist 3 decades back.

It was a revelation that so many of the things I considered obsolete are very much in use in our little village. Was it poverty? In a few cases, maybe. But many people around could afford better. Was it habit? Conscious choice?

I remember a conversation I had with Mohan Da. He doesn’t own a television, and we had arrived from the city lugging truckloads of stuff including a 32 inch Sony TV, a satellite dish and two set-top boxes. Having forsaken television, we offered the whole thing to him free.

He declined. He didn’t need to think. It was a simple choice of what he thought was important to him. Pottering around and gardening probably won over television for Mohan da.

This whole conversation made me questions my assumptions about obsolescence. Why do we continuously buy new stuff? And does it really make us happier? “Happiness doesn’t come from what you have, it comes from who you are.” I had read somewhere. And Vicki Robin, the author of “Your Money or your life” says “If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough.”

The critical word is “enough”. Enough to Mohan Da is a defined set of things that make him happy and keep him happy. The same enough is constantly changed, pushed, altered and moved for most people exposed to media and its motor – advertising. John Kenneth Galbraith once famously said “A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.” That doesn’t say much about how deep those emotions run.

Everytime I visit the city, the advertising barrage overwhelms: the new car model, that new phone, sales, clothes – just so much stuff. It is all about bigger better faster more. And I want all this stuff. And then I go back to my little Himalayan village, and suddenly that desire fades.

I think I need to travel less to the city. That way I always have so much more.

_______________________

About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. He published his first book with Penguin, and is working on his next one – a novel. 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.

Uncity in the City

Uncity in the City

Contributor : Mariam Karim Ahlawat (reprinted)

I was to wait outside a school which was hosting a competitive exam in RK Puram New Delhi. Hot dusty April, the hottest in decades, swirled about. This school is in one of the narrow old lanes of the colony built years and years ago. I got out of the car to look for the gate the children were to use. Many other parents stood about with anxious faces. Suddenly a fragrance I had known as a child assailed my nostrils..the sweet, all too sweet fragrance of wild figs. An orchestra of chirpings and chirruppings and cheepings seemed to be playing—I looked up to see an immense, goolar tree, the ficus indica, spreading its long boughs laden with the ripening fruit . And in the branches there was nearly every species of bird that inhabits the trees of New Delhi: parrots, mynahs, brahminy mynahs, white-eyes, pigeons, green pigeons, bulbuls, sunbirds, babblers, and even kingfishers ! And of course there were the squirrels running up and down the branches, bobbing their tails, going from fruit to fruit, testing  their ripeness!  The cool shade offered by the old spreading tree and the delicacies of the wild fruit along with the insects they attract provided a heavenly arbor for all these creatures –  a rarity in the city today. I can say the wait outside the school was a wonderful treat indeed. Yet I found few people looking up, caring if there was a sweet orchestra of birds playing, noticing that here in real life was a programme in progression which they might watch with interest on Discovery or Animal Planet… in fact there was a man in a long expensive car parked under the tree, windows up, AC switched on, chatting away on his cell-phone. The air around the car was getting extremely hot because of the AC.

He opened his window for a moment to look out and see if the exam time was over and if any children were emerging from the gate. I took the opportunity to approach him – I told him it was very cool under the shade of the tree, there was no need to keep the AC on, and it was in any case adding to the heat all around. I pointed out to him the variety of birds in the tree. I said “Your child will go to a premier Institute of Technology, so at least a little awareness of the environment on your part won’t go amiss”.  He looked nonplussed for a minute, but luckily for me he smiled, and agreed that he shouldn’t be using his AC.

I realize that our day to day lives do not include awareness of our immediate surroundings any more. We think about the traffic, the petrol we spend, the time taken to get from one place to another, the movie we must watch in the evening, the contacts we must make for our various businesses,  the money we owe or someone owes us, the mobile bill…anything at all. It is obviously foolish and without profit to look up into a bird-filled tree. What good will that do us? Leave it to ornithologists.

We are no longer excited by the life that exists around us, and that is why we are losing it so quickly. A grown woman watching birds and squirrels? When her son is sitting for such an important exam on which his entire future may depend? She must certainly be soft in the head!

No, we do not live in the world any longer, we live in flats and cars and malls and

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Mariam Karim-Ahlawat – co-host of the Himalayan Writing Week, April 2017.

restaurants and keep the world out. We are afraid of the heat and the cold and the dust and we shut ourselves in cocoons and refuse to live each moment. When we feel spiritless and hollow inside of ourselves, we run to gurus and babas and chanting groups and kirtans and samagams…now even psychotherapists—when just around the corner, Nature provides beauty, harmony, melody, joy, relief from stress, in little pockets that still exist in the teeming cities.

 

We look desperately for God in human gatherings and we ignore, neglect and abuse the world God created. Spirituality can lie only in the preservation of Nature and all creatures great and small, with the lives of which our lives are intimately linked; otherwise search where we may, inner peace and harmony will always elude us.

About the contributor: Mariam Karim-Ahlawat is a published author and playwright and will be co-hosting the Himalayan Writing Week in the Kumaon Himalayas in April 2017. To learn more about her, please visit www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/#facilitators . Mariam lived in Delhi.

This article was originally printed in the Times of India Supplement under a different title, and is republished with the author’s permission.

The Difficulty of being Sexy

The Difficulty of being Sexy

Contributor : Gurcharan Das Chetan Mahajan

I always had this belief that I was really good-looking. Somehow, the world at large seemed to disagree.  Until now.

The call from the casting company changed everything. It started with a facebook post looking for a 45+ marathon runner for an ad film, went on to an online audition and finally culminated in me sitting in the airport lounge typing out this post, en route to Mumbai and the beautiful world beyond.

The moment the casting company confirmed the assignment, I felt an overwheming urge to end world hunger single-handedly based on my fabulous good looks. I now notice my ridiculously handsome reflection in every mirror and glass I walk past. And am seriously considering launching my own line of fragrances and deodorants. I can’t wait for my name to be in every underarm in the world.

The village is no place for a budding model – the supply of beauty and skin-care products is so limited. But I went to our local store and bought an exfoliating scrub, the age defying cream and some other random cosmetics – even though I couldn’t read much of what was written on the labels (reading glasses really don’t fit in this new world you see). The other stuff was okay but I really didn’t like the age defying cream. It tasted horrible, which was shocking given it was more expensive than a whole tandoori chicken. Of course the next stop was the salon to have my hair styled.

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Irfaan ki Dukaan. The best (and only) Salon in our Village.

Many other cosmetic concerns emerged. Will I have to start using skin lightening cream? But the mirror told me sex appeal oozed from my dusky hue, so I decided against it. The casting guy had loved me just the way I was. And will I have to shave off my chest hair and stop eating puris? I hate shaving even my face. Then I remember Sean Connery with relief – at least for the chest hair. I wonder what the Hollywood Scottish do for Puris, though.

I am really looking forward to being at the shoot, although I guess I won’t have much to do but hang around and look pretty.

Letting such raw sexuality loose in a rural setting, however, is not without risk.  The other day as I caught my own reflection in the window pane, I pouted. I noticed some movement outside the window and heard a crashing sound. I rushed outside to find a cow had fallen over outside the glass I was pouting at.  As I bent down to take a closer look at the cow, the bovine beauty made a sudden jerking movement. I swear she was trying to kiss me. I guess it was just my irresistible animal magnetism.

The cow will eventually get over it and return to normal quite quickly. But I wonder how long it will take me.

The guy who wrote this post, along with his more talented but less good-looking colleagues host the Himalayan Writing Retreats – a variety of events on writing, blogging and podcasting at gorgeous Himalayan locales. You can learn more at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.

Time is precious. Waste it wisely.

Time is precious. Waste it wisely.

Heartstrings. The word is meaningless unless you have a pacemaker. I always thought of it as one of those unnecessary words writers make up – until I heard that voice yesterday.

It was the sing-song of her typical Kumaoni way of speaking that made me smile. It was the sound of simplicity, of an unhurried, uncomplicated life. It was the sound of home. I did not ask her name, but I did will her to speak some more. She did, asking the price of the bhindi, and asking why the beans weren’t fresh. I then caught the shopkeeper staring at me and I realized I was staring at the cabbage with a big smile plastered on my face. He looked carefully at the cabbage and then back at me.

I was at a vegetable store in Bhimtal, headed back home after many more days than were

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The road home.

necessary. And hearing the lyrical Kumaoni lilt of her voice triggered a joyful jangle inside me that I could almost physically hear. It was like some latent thing inside me was suddenly awakened, resonating with the music of beautiful memories. And suddenly “heartstrings” made perfect sense.

 

Maybe 38 days in the land of pubs, imported custom kitchens and business conversations was too much. Maybe it was just the knowledge that many of the meals I had with friends in the city cost more than a month’s salary for my friends in the village. Maybe the fast-talking, deal seeking “fame, success, money” types were just way too much work for my rustic soul. I pined for the land where speedpost takes 5 days, and no other courier works. A place where it isn’t strange to sit and have tea and a conversation with the postman when he brings your mail.

I missed the land of rustic familiarity. And the woman’s beautiful Kumaoni song-voice started the journey of my return, triggering the feeling of being back home. Everyone along way was a friend.  After the vegetable store my next stop was the grocery store in Bhowali – the man there asked me about my prolonged absence. I then drove further on, and at one point crossed my contractor and architect headed in the opposite direction. We both stopped our cars, stepped out, shook hands, and talked briefly. They weren’t just helping me build my new home, but we shared a strange kinship. Like we were the few that knew the secret of the mountains.

I remember the look of envy on the faces of city people who see pictures of my home. And a few lines form in my head:

You chose the huge car, the massive house

Take pleasure in that hi-tech Bluetooth mouse

Why then, the Famous Grouse?

Village folks along the way ask for a lift. I give a ride to everybody who asks till my car is full. As I chat with them, I can feel the city with its 100 rupee teacups slowly peel off me and fall away like unwanted dead skin.

I feel new again. And I wonder, why did I ever leave?

Tha above video is the dawn I came back to.