Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

“The American writers are coming.” I told my four staff members “We need to do a few things differently.”

Vandita and I discussed the meal schedule with the cook.

“The snacks are quite heavy at 6” he said. “We’ll keep a light dinner?”

“The 6’O clock meal is dinner, Vicky”.

He looked confused.

Raat ka khana 6 baje? Tab tak to andhera bhi nahin hota

(Dinner at 6? It’s not even dark by then.)

I told my staff to put toilet paper in the bathroom before the American writers arrived. When I went to check a pen was dutifully placed with each toilet roll. I inquired.

“Sir, yeh writer log bathroom mein likhte honge. Warna bathroom mein kagaz kyon chahiye?”

(Sir, these writers must write in the bathroom. Otherwise why would they need paper in there?)

We had drilled it into them that we ran a writing retreat. Ergo.

We were paranoid about the hygiene. Wash hands repeatedly. Nothing uncooked on the menu – all salads and cut fruit were gone. Only whole fruit and well cooked meals. Recyclable 20 litre Kegs of bottled water were brought up from Haldwani at an extra cost – we were unwilling to hand out a few hundred single-use plastic bottles.

We prepared hard before their arrival. The guests landed in Delhi and after 2 days in the plains finally reached the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Their first response was love. They loved the décor, the rooms, the cedar-wood smell of the furniture. Then some basic questions came in.

“Why is there a bucket and a tumbler in my bathroom?” one writer asked.

That was explained.

“And that strange shower thingy next to the pot? What’s that for?”

Explaining a health faucet took a little more tact.

One of our staff has the habit of using rather graphic descriptions of our visitors.

“Sir woh moti wali madam garam paani maang rahi hai.”

(Sir the fat lady wants hot water.)

“Sir woh jo junglee baalon wali didi hai – woh ……”

(Sir, that lady with the wild hair, she …..”)

And so on. Indian village folks aren’t exactly famous for their political correctness. I’m glad they spoke in Hindi.

Picking a movie for Bollywood night was another challenge. We needed a masala bollywood film with song, dance and a reasonably illogical plot (Andhadhun was out). Yet it had to be short – less than 2 hour 30 minutes (Sholay was out).

Finally we watched “Jab we met”. It started well but the late hour and impromptu singing and dancing breaks in the story took their toll. Only 2 of the 10 writers made it till the end. The subtitles of the song lyrics had them bewildered.

“My beloved is like lemonade. I will glug him down.”

said the subtitle as Kareena Kapoor gyrated. My guests sought an explanation. I tried,  but how do I explain “Mahi mera sharbat warga. Mahi tainu gat gat pee laan.” In English?

Food was a high point. Only one participant fell sick, and that too just for one day.  Our neighbourhood baker Keith’s range of organic, whole-grain breads were a big hit. The writers picked three dishes they really liked from our menu and we held a cooking class and taught them how to cook those three dishes.

Many other little happinesses peppered the retreat.

The walk through the village resulted in an impromptu concert at the home of one of our staff members. The tall Himalayan peaks turned up in their full majesty, and doing yoga in their shadow every morning gave Yoga itself a whole new meaning. We went hiking and sometimes wrote in the surrounding forests. Meeting a real Sadhu at the Mukteshwar Temple added a layer of Hindu mysticism. Power was a challenge, so the internet was a challenge, but the hardy travelers had done their research and came with low expectations. The writers wrote a lot and seemed very happy with their progress.

We were grateful that everyone had something nice to say in the end.

Click on the above link to see what they had to say.

Before the writers left, we got some great suggestions on how to make things better next time. And next time isn’t too far – just another 5 months. Our next retreat is in the fall – details are at

Our staff was delighted to have this group over. Not just because they tipped in dollars, but because they were such a great, happy bunch to be around.

We’ve made new friends. We’ve learnt a lot more about writing from the amazing Erika Krouse. Most importantly, I think the retreat has changed all of us. We started off as Americans Writers and Indian villagers. Ten days later we had moved one step closer to being fellow citizens of a single planet.

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 .


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

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.

One Tribe

One Tribe

Contributor : Matthew Wheelock.

Shared values are surely one of the fastest and strongest makers of bonds between people. Identified and defined by what is not said. The disclosure of a different set of priorities that act like a secret handshake, after which a great deal is silently understood. You can be close to and know a person for your whole life, but still carry the slightest doubt about them. Or meet someone for the first time and know that they’ll never give you cause for distrust. It’s a strange thing, bigger than age or culture or faith or colour, it’s instinctive.

There is an eclectic range of people here in Sitla, city runaways, educated and adventurousonetribe 3.jpg that know what they want. Or who more specifically, know exactly what they don’t want and have given up more than most are willing to in realising it. The rewards of which are implicit, so understood that we seldom speak of them. Being here through choice, making it self-evident.

You see it in the villagers, sat silently in the ‘garami-garami’ warmth of the afternoon sun, their gaze lost to the distant peaks. I see it in Kishan, my local home help, as he takes selfies on a crystal clear morning, capturing the distant snows in stark relief behind him. And when I pass him my binoculars and watch him utterly absorbed in his first sight of the intricate details of our giant neighbours.


I was sitting at my favourite viewing spot on the road from Almora one afternoon when an Onetribe 1.jpgelderly villager stopped to talk to me. ‘Very beautiful’ I say in my terrible Hindi looking out to the faraway mountains and the valley disappearing below us. ‘If you want to see a really beautiful view of the mountains, you should climb that next peak’ he says pointing to the opposite mountain. ‘Amazing 180 degree view of the Himalayas from there, incredibly beautiful’ he tells me passionately.


The love and admiration for this mountainous beauty isn’t diminished by being born here, like the local villagers. It is a constant and lifelong source of delight, sustenance for the soul and that shared appreciation transcends all boundaries and limitations.


But to outsiders; the people of the plains, we must often explain it in detail. The forest, the clean air, touchable horizons, the pinks and oranges across the snows in the dying light. The pace of life and the grace of bells and children’s laughter.


I have lived here in the hills for nearly two years. In that time, I’ve learnt that the common ground the mountains provide, to us that live here, is as much cultural as physical. Drawn from such a range of origins and for such differing reasons, we all consider it a privilege to have arrived.


Our love of the hills, of nature and the peace and tranquility are not just passing interests, but fundamental parts of our being that reach to the core, as values that bind us.

We are many things here, but we are one Tribe.


About Matthew Wheelock :

Matthew left his job as a management consultant in the UK in March 2015 to move to the hills of Kumaon. He is currently writing a book about a recently completed 21,000km solo motorbike trip across Canada. He writes on a range of themes including, nature, travel, identity, belief and time.

More information can be found on his website


When a snake bites you, dont bite back.

When a snake bites you, dont bite back.

Contributor : Capt Ajay Sud, co-founder, Banjara Camps

When people see a snake, the instinct is to scream and run in the opposite direction. Captain Ajay Sud – my college buddy and close friend – catches them. Always the contrarian. He and his partner Rajesh Ojha actually pioneered crazy Uncity ideas back in 1994, which resulted in the creation of the fabulous Banjara Camps, now a household name in many households.

So when the Captain saw a pit viper last year – which he knew to be a highly venomous

snake – he caught it instead of running and screaming (the above photo is of that very reptile). I remember a hike long ago to the Sangla Kanda when he had handed me a snake he caught on the jungle floor. Honestly, holding the snake did fill me with a sense of bravado and manhood. I felt like Rambo for the next whole week, even with my humble biceps.

IMG_3771Unfortunately, this time around the snake bit him. This is his story, one year on.

“Sangla (Kinnaur): One year back, on 16th July 2015, I was bitten by a Himalayan Pit Viper. Ironically, I was holding the viper by its neck and finding it uncomfortable under my grip just loosened up a bit only to be bitten by it on my left hand. Tourniquet and squeezing out blood with my mouth from where I was bitten was followed by a visit to the local hospital where I was told by the Doctor that I will be attended to only at 3 pm after he had finished his lunch and had siesta. Meanwhile, to kill time, I ended up with a “jhaad phook wala” who had residence close to the hospital. The gentleman did his tricks and assured me that no one has ever died under his care. By the time I was free to go, the Doctor had landed in the hospital. He observed me and my wound from about ten feet and then instructed the nurse to give me a pain killer and an antibiotic!

By this time, it was getting painful and we decided to drive couple of hours to get to bigger hospital in Recong Peo. A friend who got to know about my predicament said that couple

Venom swollen sapera wallah  hand

of “sapera wallahs” have just landed up at his doorstep and that I must give them a chance before going to the hospital. Chance I gave. They immediately pricked my hand with a needle and with a sheep horn shaped hollow instrument, sucked “venom” out of my hand. I could see blood (that they had pricked) and some saliva kind of liquid. For few moments, I thought that the venom is really out and was relieved. But then, soon it dawned on me that how could venom and blood be separate? Anyway, the sapera wallahs made some good money and off they went.


Now, it was time to get to the hospital as it was getting very very painful. On arrival, I was told that I can’t be given anti-venom straightaway without first ascertaining the kind of snake I was bitten by. Inspite of showing doctors the photograph of the snake and also the fact that only Himalayan Pit Vipers are found at that altitude (9000 Feet/2700 M), the doctors went through the drill. The night was something to remember. Only, in the morning was I administered anti-venom and was assured that I can look forward to many more summers.

For the last 23 years, I have been here in high altitude, I had never seen the inside of the hospital. So to my surprise, I got a room with a window from where I could look at the 20000 Feet/ 6000 M) high massif of Kinner Kailash. For just that magnificent view, I could have easily stayed in that room for more than three days that I actually stayed.

“All’s well that ends well” hand

It is 16th July again. I will be more careful today – after all it is my wife Chandrika’s birthday.


As far as the snake is concerned, it must be still moving around freely as I told my colleagues that the snake should either be left to himself or caught and dropped on the other side of the Baspa river. After all, it is I who had invaded his space.”



About the writer : Captain Ajay Sud served in the Indian army for five years as an infantry officer, including 2 years in Sri-Lanka. Disillusioned with the experience, he moved out and after trying his hand (pun intended) at various things he enrolled in the MBA program at Panjab University (a.k.a PU) where he supported poor, lovelorn classmates in their courting of long lost female penpals, amongst other things. Some of those social causes ended in happy marriages, including my own. On graduating from PU he tried a regular corporate job, and again found the hollowness too difficult to sustain. So he took off into the mountains, and went on to create the fabulous and highly successful Banjara Camps with his partner. He now travels extensively, hikes and follows his love for Photography with a passion. To see a sample of his work please visit  (Highly recommend full-screen).

The Existential Angst of the Saree Guard

The Existential Angst of the Saree Guard

My Kawasaki Ninja 650 came factory-fitted with a saree guard in 2013. Government requirement, evidently.  I paid to have it removed and get the original handle re-installed.

Last month when I got my Royal Enfield Himalayan, a saree guard looked up at me again. Fragile. Delicate. A complete misfit on the big muscular motorcycle. It could feel it in its bones that no saree would grace the pillion of this bike. It gave me a futile, resigned look. It meant well, but was in the throes of self doubt. “Why do I exist? What is my purpose?”

I tried to convince my saree-clad mother-in-law to ride with me. She is all of 4’ 10’’ and would need a ladder to reach the Himalayan pillion seat, but she was the only likely candidate. However, she has a healthy mistrust of motorcycles. And of me. So that didn’t go anywhere.

When I started gearing up for the Spiti-Pangi ride, the saree guard went into deep depression. Two weeks of long rides with a backpack on the pillion!! And further, this rather dainty, delicate saree guard being sent to Spiti and Pangi Valleys non-existent roads on a mule of a motorcycle – it was like forcing an undernourished, anorexic teenager to play in the pro kabaddi League.

As the trip started, my saree guard started to lose it one screw at a time. 70k in, the first screw went missing.

“What I the meaning of life?” It asked me, as I replaced the screw. “You are helpful but pointless” I almost said. But didn’t. It didn’t choose its existence. Someone else did. Just like humans.

At 500k the replacement screw was also gone, and the frame itself was broken. I fixed it

(literally) with borrowed duct tape and donated bolts. But just another 40k and a resounding clang accompanied every rock we went past.

I dismounted and checked – my worst fears had come true. The saree guard, unable to find purpose or meaning, had joined the many saree guards up in the deep blue sky. My Ninja Saree guard was there as well, waiting along with an angel motorcycle at the gate for the ideal saree clad pillion rider to walk through.

The bodily remains of my saree guard IMG_20160626_065432at its elevated resting place at the Chandratal
parking area.

RIP, Saree Guard. Enjoy the heavenly roads up there.