Saturday, July 21, 2018

Endaro Mahanubhaavu …

Bear with me for a little flashback.

This happened somewhere in the late eighties …

Our house was getting spring cleaned and the children (especially us girls) were told to be in the best of our behavior for the next two to three days.

It was because we were expecting a guest.

Our guest was related to us from our Maternal grandfather’s side. Apparently in his hey days he was a much respected Harikatha (also referred to as Katha Kalakshebham) exponent. He was a direct disciple of the famous Mangudi Chidambara Baghavathar (whose famous name we had not heard until then).
 We were told that our great grandfather and later my grand father patronized this artiste till bad times fell upon them in the form of urban migration and old age caught up with all of them.

Our guest arrived and within hours his presence was overpowering.  My mother who at that time was in her late thirties apparently grew up being cradled in his arms as an infant and in his lap as a toddler.  He recalled many of her antics as a little child and was amazed at how that little one had grown up so soon. 
She was still being treated like a toddler by him despite being the mother of three young children at that time. This amused us girls to no end.  He addressed her with endearments like the ‘naughty girl’, ‘the plump little imp’ (all loose translations from Tamil) that sent us into bouts of suppressed laughter, behind his back.  

Clearly the old man was stuck in a time warp. 

He chided her for falling for the trap of modern gadgets when he saw her cooking rice in a pressure cooker and using a mixer grinder to grind coconut for the sambar.  His view was that the modern consumer driven gadgets were the root cause of all diseases and she should get rid of them.

He concluded that Amma  wasn’t conceiving enough children (she had borne more than her quota of government allotted two children) because she was leading a ‘modern lifestyle’.  He took Appa aside and advised him to steer clear of all the modern family planning methods that the government was so aggressively pushing down their throat.  

Later he asked Appa for my Horoscope and said that he would help find alliances in good families who hosted him as he travelled all over.  

When Appa said that I was barely fourteen and that he was not planning to marry me off anytime soon, he did not realize what he was in for.

With his typical story telling abilities in full exhibition, he sat Appa down and explained why he should not go against the will of nature.  Young girls, he said are like freshly sprouted paddy saplings.  They need to be transplanted at the right time in the right place for them to thrive and give a good yield.

He was very vocal and made it clear that in these modern times, young men like Appa were getting carried away by the Modern day moralities and lifestyle, that did not carry much of the wisdom and knowledge that our own culture has imbibed upon us.  
As young girls growing up in a nuclear family we felt he was a massive intrusion into our privacy. My sister lost her cool when he tied up a clothes lining right in the middle of our drawing room and hung his dhoti, angavastram and loin cloth over there after washing them off himself in tap water (without any soap). 

To say he was a storm that swept us over for the two three days that he visited us, would be an understatement. But like in all Indian families where the guest is like a god (athithi devo bhava), especially an elderly guest like him who enjoyed much admiration and respect in his hey days had to be respected and served as long as he was our guest.

As his train that was woefully behind schedule by two hours finally departed that afternoon, when we went to send him off, the entire family sighed in relief and laughed out loud. 

‘What a character he is, in this age and time, behind schedule by 30-40 years’, Appa remarked.    

‘I hope he does not go and give a scathing review to my parents about how I run my household’ a slightly worried Amma remarked.

For a long time thereafter, Appa quoted his ‘Paddy sapling’ example and threatened to marry me off if I did not do well in my examinations.  That in itself was deterrent enough to study hard and get decent marks.

Thus was kept alive the memory of MDB , the old, slightly senile and arguably the most  regressive Harikatha exponent whom we hosted at our home in the late eighties. Others forgot him soon but for some reason he remained etched in my memories.

Many years later in a quiz the question was asked.  ‘Which art form originated from Maharashtra and flourished by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur'' ?  

That was when I again heard Harikatha or Katha Kalakshepam mentioned. It was an art form of oral story telling that Saint Samartha Ramadas from Maharashtra brought to Thanjavur in 1677, when he visited Ekoji, Shivaji's step brother, who was the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur at that time. 

The mention of Harikatha re-kindled the memories of that rather old, senile, overpowering, country bumpkin of a man who visited our home many years ago.

How that perception of a typical Harikatha artiste would change and  transform me on that hot and rather humid evening at the auditorium at Udupi Sri Krishna mutt …

She had me teary eyed and left me with goose bumps all over as she concluded her show.

I am in Udupi.

As I step out of Uttaradi Mutt in Udupi where I am staying for the day, I take in views admiring the grandeur of the Vaishnavaite temples and their architecture. Around the temple are institutions run by various Mutt’s who are headquartered in Udupi, one of the top five Krishna temples in India.  

Intricately carved wood work, delicately designed entrances and grandly lit facades speak of an ancient culture that must have once thrived in this temple town giving artistes and art forms prestigious platform to express and showcase their art.   

I would witness one such art form in a short while that would blow my mind over. 

This is off peak season and pretty early in the evening.  A ‘darshan’ of the richly decorated idol of Udupi Shri Krishna gets over in no time.  

I have nothing much to do and so I walk in to the temple auditorium, attracted by a performance of a young girl with two accompanying artistes, one on the harmonium and another on a tabla.  The plastic chairs are all taken, so I sit on one of the stone walls, far away from the stage.  

I am awe-struck by the performance. I decide to hang around for a while. Besides me comes and sits a middle-aged woman and tries to strike conversation with me.  She asks me where I am from and how long I am here for. As much I am interested in striking conversations with strangers, the performance is too good for me to get distracted.  I do not pay her much attention after the initial few minutes.

Later she is joined by another woman who comes and sits besides us. They are talking about some shopping and are inviting me into the conversation.

That is when the antenna of the solo traveler in me rings the alarm. I surreptiously check my gold chain and the gold ring in my index finger.  They are safe. I embrace my hand bag closer to my body and get a a little extra vigilant. 

I always wear some gold when I am travelling because it is the best insurance, when you need strangers to help you in case of an emergency like an accident. Arguably it also makes it unsafe to travel for the fear of getting mugged. But I would any day absorb the collateral damage of being mugged, to not being attended to by strangers, for want of money if you are caught in a nasty accident, when you are travelling solo.    

At the next chance I get, I tip toe my way out without excusing myself from the chatty middle-aged women and move towards an empty plastic chair closer to the stage that has been vacated by someone.

I am enthralled by the Harikatha performance by this young girl would could be in her teens.  She wears absolutely no makeup, sans her bindi.  Her short, slightly curly hair is  oiled and plaited into a single braid. Dressed in a blue long skirt (Lehenga) and pink blouse, she is standing at the middle of the stage reciting the ‘Srinivasa kalyanaa’.  The marriage of ‘Tirupati Venkatesha’ to his consort ‘Padmavati’. While the format traverses through the various avatars of Sri Vishnu, Rama and Krishna being two among them, the story telling is interspersed with teachings from the Bhagavata Puranam.    
As she bursts into songs, stories and anecdotes while reciting the story her expressions, her tone and her demeanor change. On her right hand in a cymbal that she plays in order to keep the rhythm and add music to her recitals, she is accompanied by two men, much older to her, one on the harmonium and the other on a tabla.

Her recital is in Kannada, a language that I have just begun to sparsely understand. But the story of Vishnu Avatar’s and Bhagavata Puranam is universal. So, I have no problem understanding it. Moreover, that universal language of music can enthrall anyone and language can never be a barrier.

I am mesmerized.

When she bursts into ‘Venkata chala Nilayam … vaikunta pura vasam’, the composition by Sri Purandaradasa describing, Sri Vishnu’s abode in ‘Vaikunta’, there are tears in my eyes.

With such a talent, she should have found national level recognition, is what I think. I do not even know her name or where she comes from.  I am a stranger, who just passed by and happened to sit for the performance.

As the performance draws to a close, the father of the young artiste is introduced.  The audience, as mesmerized as I am, put together their hands for a huge applause for nurturing this young talent. I walk up to him and let him know that despite not knowing Kannada, despite not being familiar with this art-form (which is only partially true) I was spell bound with his daughter’s performance.

Sraddha, from Kasargode learns Harikatha from her Guru Sri Adiga.  She is studying for her bachelor’s degree at the local college in Kasargode. 
I congratulate her for a wonderful performance and let her know how talented she is. A very shy and introverted Sraddha thanks me for the compliment and moves closer to her father, while busying herself packing her backpack with her belongings as they wrap up the show.
I ask her if she has plans to pursue this art form as a full-time career. 

She says she would do her Master’s degree after her Bachelor’s degree.
I let her father know that he should not let her talent go wasted and take leave.  

Not sure if Sraddha will ever get to perform at a bigger platform to a wider audience. 

All I can say is she has the potential.

There must be many like her in small towns like Kasargode and beyond, whose talents may be lost to the world.   
But it opened my eyes to what depth of talent lies hidden in a rich ancient culture that promoted story telling as an art form for many centuries over.

I am glad that the art of Harikatha did not die a slow death with opinionated artistes like MDB.  It is alive and kicking among millennials like Sraddha from Kasargode and various other more glamorous exponents like Vishaka Hari, who add a contemporary twist to the good old Bhagavata Puranam and keep the centuries old tradition of oral story telling alive.

As I walk out of the temple auditorium that evening in Udupi, I feel small and humbled.

Had Sraddha appeared for an interview as a fresh graduate in the ITes industry that I come from, we may have possibly rejected her for ‘lack of confidence’ and ‘below average communication skills’.   

When you free yourself away from the narrow confines of those glass buildings, where you are constantly sizing up others or getting sized up, is when you realize the vast expanse of how there are so many unsung heroes whose talent will sadly remain unseen by the larger world.

It is in that moment, that the ignorant soul cringes. It cringes out of shame and out of sheer awe and bows in utter admiration for all those less recognized art forms and unsung artistes that have ever existed.   

Involuntarily, I hum
Endaro  Mahanubhavu .. anthareeki vanthanamulu

Saint Thyagaraja’s famous composition, which he is supposed to have spontaneously composed  when he saw great people assembled in a hall as he entered. 

Loosely translated from Telugu it means

There are so many great people in the world
To all of them I offer my salutations.

For more on Harikatha as an art form and its history and tradition please visit the blog by Sriram V
He is the expert on these matters. Salutations to him as well.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Life on the slow track …

Life on the slow track …

After ‘How I got those bloodsuckers off my A*s*’ went viral and got me a lot of flattering as well as a few not so flattering feedback, the pressure to continue to post on my travels has been very high.

That trek up the Kumara Parvatha was undoubtedly the highlight of my experiences.  Actually, it was meant to be a post talking about a very deep spiritual encounter but turned out to be some kind of a thriller and veiled corporate bashing.  

Perhaps I have not been able to convey what I actually set out to convey. Some other time, I will attempt to elaborate what a profound spiritually uplifting experience it was. 

For now as I am settling into this ‘Life on the slow track’ mode there have been a lot of amazing learnings and experiences that I am waking up to. 

Of course, It is not all that hunky dory.   

I know there a’int going to be another fat pay check at the end of the month into my bank account.
I know I need to keep track of the income and expenses diligently.
I know Amma and Appa are not exactly proud of having me home every day.

But of course, there is so much that I have enjoyed in this short time, that I wonder why it took me this long.

The travel bug had bitten me and I was on this unplanned trip travelling Dakshin Karnataka region making much use of the Konkan railway network. 

Sitting by the ‘Aapatkaalin khidki’ – the emergency window on the Karwar express on a nearly empty train on a weekday morning and watching the lush greenery and the stations pass by was a pleasant experience by itself. There were about a dozen people in all in the entire compartment meant for seventy two.  Most of them had alighted at Mangalore.

Every time the train passed through a tunnel and darkness engulfed the entire compartment, some naughty kids (or perhaps adults) let out that shrill shreiky noise indicating joy and horror at the same time. The noise amplified as it echoed through the tunnel.  It would stop when the train emerged out of the tunnel.  It happened every time we passed a tunnel.

That brought back the child in me.

With no one to watch or judge anywhere in the near vicinity I too joined them in gay abandon and shrieked my throat and heart out.  By the time we had passed the fifth or the sixth tunnel, my throat was hoarse and my heart was light.

The last time I did this I was perhaps nine or ten years old. That time we were passing the long tunnel at lonavala / khandala enroute to Pune.  

The Mumbai – Pune expressway was not built then.  

Neither was the Konkan railway. 

Konkan railway – the one legacy that we did not inherit from the British is one of its true 'Make in India' engineering marvel through the nineties. And a true delight to travel in and experience the beauty of the Western Ghats especially in the monsoons.

As the train stopped by at almost every station with station names that I did not know doubled up as surnames, I learned that the Bijoors and the Bhatkals, the Padubidris and the Moodbidris, Hattiangadis and the Hemmadis that I have known in my life had ancestors who belonged to this place. You learn something new everyday. 

The train slows down and stops at the station. An elderly couple who are the inhabitants of my compartment prepare to alight the train.  As I help them with their luggage, I peep out of the compartment door to see the name of this quiet and quaint train station. 


For being such an iconic restaurant brand and being the temple town of Udupi Sri Krishna , it is surprising  that its railway station is so unassuming and quiet.  I began humming ‘Krishna ne begane baaro’ without being conscious of it. A composition made famous by the singer Hariharan (and  many others before him), dedicated to Udupi Sri Krishna. 

On a whim, I made note of visiting Udupi on my way back from Kodachadri which was the destination  I was travelling to on that day. 

Two days later, after a visit to the Kollur Mookambika temple on the foothills of Kodachadri and a jaw dropping jeep ride followed by a trek to the Kodachadri mountains, I check out of the hotel and ask for the way to the Kollur bus stop. 

My next destination is Udupi.

It is about 1.30 in the afternoon and the sleepy town of Kollur has gone into a siesta mode. 

Dark clouds pregnant with rain pass by the hills as well as the plains.  A soothing silence and peace has engulfed this little town. The only irritant is the noisy wheels of my luggage that I am wheeling down to the bus stop on an uneven and pot hole filled road.
‘Shall I arrange for an auto to the bus stop madam’, asks the hotel security guard, perhaps irritated by the noisiness of the wheels disturbing the siesta time of Kollur town. ‘Twenty-five rupees only’ he adds. 

‘I am in no hurry’, I tell him and wheel my luggage noisily through the next 500 metres to the bus stop. 

'I am in no hurry' - somehow saying that loud, feels so liberating.  

I walk up to the Kollur bus station and sit inside the only bus that was to leave for all places outside of Kollur which included Udupi.  The driver is having a siesta on the long front seat and the conductor is out smoking a cigarette.  For now, I am the only passenger on-board.

The conductor welcomes me into the bus as though I was a first class passenger on an international airline and then he quickly disappears to gather any other passenger that is travelling out of Kollur.

Sadly, he does not find any.

I have a lovely window seat and the seat beside it to spread myself out. I tug my luggage safely to the iron railing and sit comfortably cross legged occupying both the seats. I open a pack of masala nippattu (a local snack item) and start noisily munching it. 

As I am taking in the view of the lush green mountains and the slight nip in the moist air of Kollur, the bus takes off.  

The bus stops. Not at designated bus shelters but anywhere where a potential passenger has put out his or her hand for the bus to stop. 

Burkha clad ladies accompanying their little daughters and sons back from school get into the bus and get off at the next stop. 

From there on it is a steady change in demographic profile of passengers. I am probably the only long-distance passenger seated on the bus.  
I take in the lazy experience of watching from my window seat the landscape as it changes from the greenery of the mountains to the barrenness of the plains especially when the bus takes the route on that recently constructed National highway - NH44.  The freshly felled trees are an indication of the newly built National highway that pierces through this place that would be expanded into an eight-lane highway.  

On the yet to be expanded national highway are huge billboards advertising gold and diamond jewelry showrooms, neo-rich educational institutions guaranteeing 100% job placements and infertility clinics with 99.8% success rate of producing children for infertile couples.

The traffic gets dense as the long vehicles from the Mangalore port, the trucks, the tourist buses and the plush cars whiz past at dizzying speeds.

The landscape of the coastal plains is a complete contrast to the mountains. The weather is warm and humid. There is a saline tinge to the air. It does not do much to soothe my nerves. I have been travelling for a good four hours on a rickety KSRTC bus when I arrive at a noisy, busy bus station. That is when the conductor calls out for passengers alighting at Udupi to hurry up.

Udupi bus station was the exact opposite of the train station that I fell in love with, a couple of days before, when I started humming ‘Krishna nee begane baaro…’ a composition on Sri Krishna, the reigning lord of Udupi when my train halted at Udupi railway station.  

There was no song humming in my mind when I arrived at the bus station. The traffic, the noise, the crowd, the billboards and the pollution hit me hard. Messily handling my heavy back pack and hip pouch, I alight at the bus station and ask a school girl, the way to Udupi Sri Krishna temple.  Without uttering a word, she walks a few steps ahead and points out to the auto rickshaw stand behind the building. I thank her and take an auto rickshaw to my destination.  

I have never been here before.  I do not have any bookings or reservations and in general no agenda, except to see and experience the place. 

For someone who until recently was driven by a calendar full of meetings invites, inbox overflowing with emails and notepad full of ‘things to do’ list, this feels revengefully liberating.

‘Arriving at a new place with no agenda and with nothing to do’… this was a longtime dream come true moment.     

After the auto rickshaw driver drops me till the drop off point besides the Sri Krishna Mutt, I do not know what to do.

I have arrived at my destination for the day. 
I spot a tourist information center nearby. They are about to close for the day, when I stop a man, probably a high ranking official in Karnataka tourism. For some reason he starts the conversation with me in Hindi and I merrily carry on.

I let him know I am a solo traveler and would like to look at a simple accommodation for the night while I visit the Udupi temple.

He does give me the same skeptical look that others have given me when I tell them, I am a single woman travelling alone. He asks me if I have proof of identity and if I am a ‘Hindu’. 
After a brief conversation he gives me the reference of Uttaradi mutt, which is just round the corner, where there may be rooms available.

I thank him, note down his name and title and wheel my back pack along to Uttaradi mutt.  A ‘China Bazaar’ shop selling cheap plastic items and fake Puma track suits for 200 rupees camouflages the entrance to the Uttaradi mutt.     

However, as you enter the Mutt, a different aura engulfs you.  The front yard is decorated with   Tulsi alcove. (Basil – shrub considered to be Sri Krishna’s consort). A woman renunciate, a Krishna devotee is arranging the flowers and the copper vessels that would be used to offer the evening pooja to the Tulsi Alcove. 

Inside the mutt is a big hall and on the first floor are rooms available to rent. As I approach the person at the Mutt’s office, he asks me the same questions as the high ranking official at the tourist information center, before handing me the keys to the room. 

It is a rather spacious room with freshly laundered bedsheets on the double bed, and a spotlessly clean bathroom.  All for a pittance. That is all I need for the day. No frills like air conditioning, bottled mineral water, a flat screen television with a thousand channels, a stocked up mini bar or room service.  

I have had my fill of them in my previous life.

I am apologetically told that the hot water service is from 4 am to 8 am and then later in the evening from 5 pm to 8 pm. In this humid sweltering heat of the coastal plains, hot water is the last thing I need.  I take a shower in the cold water and feel fresh like a flower. 

This is ‘Krishna’ land.  In keeping with the tradition, I decide to dress up and flaunt my feminity. To the temple, I wear a handwoven Bengal cotton white and red saree. On the way to the temple I buy myself some Champaka flowers whose heady fragrance can actually trigger  a headache, if you are not particularly used to that fragrance.

As I step out of Uttaradi Mutt, I take in the grandeur of the Vaishnavaite temples and their architecture. Around the temple are various institutions run by various ‘Mutt’s who are headquartered in Udupi, one of the top five Krishna temples in India.  

Intricately carved wood work, delicately designed entrances and grandly lit facades speak of an ancient culture that must have once thrived in this temple town giving artistes and art forms prestigious platform to express and showcase their art.   

…. Life on the slow track will continue as I ramble on with my travel …
Stay tuned for the next one  scheduled for next friday ... .   

Monday, July 09, 2018

How I got those bloodsuckers off my a*s* …

No swear words however mild has been used during the writing of this post.

Kumara parvatha ke hoge beku .. rasta .. eedu …

This was the 5th person in the last 24 hours that I had asked for the way to Kumara Parvatha and who gave me the usual smirk ...

Ok … let me start from the beginning.

After an exhilarating solo trek to Kodachadri in Malnad, a couple of days before, I was determined to do Kumar Parvatha, apparently the toughest trek in the Malnad region of the western ghats. All the Travel junkies that I googled around described the trek in detail , how tough it was and how to go about it. So I knew pretty much what to expect.

None had done it solo except Rohith H. And that too in the monsoon.  I read his blog a zillion times for inspiration.

I landed at the temple town of Kukke Subrahmanya and checked myself into the third hotel after being denied by the first two because they said they do not give accommodation to single people,  despite putting up the cost of single bed room on the price list.

I asked the man at the counter the way to Kumara Parvatha. He said in a matter of factly manner that the way to kumara parvatha was through a trail besides the kukke subramanya temple where they sell coconuts and is fairly well sign-posted for the first 3-4 kms before the dense forests begin.  He asked me where my trekking group had checked in, because I was checking in single at his hotel. This was off peak season and he had most of his rooms empty.   

I said I was trekking solo.

He gave me a look and I almost thought I needed to look for yet another hotel.  Apparently single women have an overbearing tendency to commit suicide or die under mysterious circumstances after checking into hotel rooms. Fair point though. We have known atleast two women celebrities dying mysteriously in hotel rooms in the recent  past. But then I am not a celebrity. Even the security guard in my apartment does not to recognize me.  

I did not want to be stereotyped and did not have the energy to look for yet another hotel. My over defensive instincts kicked in and I pulled out my Aadhar card, my PAN card, my  credit card and my business card that I had from my previous life and laid it before him on the counter and busied myself to fill in the register.  I saw the reluctance in him fade away slowly as he read the fancy title on my business card from my previous life. I am assuming he was convinced or perhaps because he was desperate for customers, he called for a bell boy to show me the room.

No one treks the kumara  parvatha in the monsoons, he told me, as I tucked in my Aadhar card, PAN card and credit card back into my  pouch. ‘It is very slippery and dangerous’, he said with what I assume was a pleading look. 

‘I know’ I said without offering any further explanations and hurried off with the bell boy to check into my room overlooking his plantation.

He was not the only one.  There were many others.  But I did not heed to their advice. Because I assume I was destined to experience what I had set out for.

I was warned about the leeches by my dear friend Mahesh, who has very diligently coached  me as I approached the D-day when I hung up my corporate identity  to travel around and do nothing . More about that later,  but thank you Mahesh.  Per his advice, I tucked into my first aid kit along with all other stuff many small pouches of table salt.
That morning as I set out for Kumara Parvatha I generously applied table salt on my foot, under the  soles of my shoes,  my ankles and  sprinkled them generously  inside my socks and shoes.  I packed myself with the first aid kit that Hyundai dealer had gifted me 8 years ago when I brought my car. Thankfully it had not been put to use since then. 

Only the day before while trekking the Kodachadri mountain I put my first aid kit to some use when I helped a leech bitten young man. I generously offered him hydrogen peroxide solution  and a band aid.  As we got talking, he was impressed that I was trekking solo and was clearly in awe of me.  We took a selfie on his mobile. It did wonders to my ego and felt  good for some time.

That was perhaps why all those men who gave me a smirky look and reluctantly offered me directions  to Kumara parvatha did not have any effect on me.

Trust me that ego massage is very addictive. Especially if you have just come off the corporate world.   I was not yet satiated and I clearly wanted more of it.

It was seven in the morning and as the devotees thronged to the Kukke Subramanya temple, I stopped by at ‘Sri Raghavendra Prasad’ for a quick breakfast. ‘Usili’ the dish made with sprouts , onions and grated coconut looked appealing and instantly knew I wanted to eat that instead of the usual fare of masala dosa with sweet Mangalorean sambar. More about this later in yet another blog. 

Getting back to the point, I offered one sincere namaskara with folded hands to Mr. Subramanya from outside the temple, as I could not take off my salt sprinkled shoes and stand in that serpentine queue for the darshan that morning. Then I turned right in that small muddy path sign posted as ‘way to Anugraha lodge’ and followed the trail.

Filled with adrenalin rush I walked along the concrete path as the monsoon fury lashed the lush green mountains.  River Kumaradhara was gushing down in all its fierceness from the mountains and you could hear it from everywhere. A couple of kilometers along the route came the cross roads.  There was a sign board, but I was the illiterate here as it was written in Kannada or perhaps Tulu. 
I waited for a while, as I saw a man approaching the cross roads.

Kumara parvatha ke hoge beku .. rasta .. idalva , I ask in my broken kannada desperately trying to sound confident.  

As he replies I realize I am being asked a question and I confess , ‘namge kannad gothilla’.

I do not speak kannada very well … I say.

We switch to English.

God bless queen Victoria, and the legacy her men left behind. Never mind all that they plundered.

He tells me to take the right and then look for a small temple, besides which is a green gate from where the forest department starts.  ‘But you are going alone ?’ he asks.

Ah yet another one, I sigh.

I have travelled alone the world over Sir. I know this one is dangerous, especially in the monsoons. 

But I am going only until ‘Bhattare mane’. I am sure the forest department officials will not allow me beyond that.  I just want to try, I say.

  Oh… good. He says. Again this man too is impressed and I soak in to that ego-high that engulfs  you as you know when someone is in awe of what you are doing.  

‘Be careful, there are leeches right from the temple entrance. It will take you three to four hours to reach ‘Bhattare mane’,’ he says and leaves in the opposite direction. And I march on.

Clearly, the rusted green gate is wide open and unmanned by the forest department officials. In the pouring rain, with no one to check me and question my whereabouts, I walk through the creaky gate and enter the forest area. 

It is a cloud burst and I am loving it. Ah … the monsoon magic of the western ghats.

In the Malnad region of western ghats as you climb up in altitude, the rains do not drop down from the clouds. They are the passing clouds themselves.  

The visibility is barely the next thirty meters ahead of you.  The noise of the cloud condensing and the deluge is deafening.
My next road block is a huge tree that has been uprooted over night due to heavy rains, just outside the forest department office. There is no way but to climb over the tree and cross over.  Slimy leeches are all over the tree trunks. I try to circumvent the tree through a longer route, but there is no escaping the leeches. They are all over the place.  I find a small opening by the side and tip toe my way across , making sure I do not expose my bare hands. After all, I have got sturdy Nike shoes and red socks ( Courtesy : Virgin atlantic business class) generously sprinkled with salt that are covering my soles. 

And it begins from thereon.  The rain is intermittent. The vegetation is dense.  The path is not very steep, but small brooks or streams have appeared in the monsoons. It is a walk uphill through these small rivulets that flow alongside the roots of huge tree trunks.  It is dark despite the late morning sun whose rays have barely managed to penetrate the dense vegetation of the forest. Kumaradhara river is gurgling its way downstream somewhere faraway … or perhaps near by , I would not know.
All I know is that I follow the trail for the next three hours and there would be a human being in sight at Bhattare manne.  ( Bhattar’s house)          

Three hours seems like a long time.  I realize there is no other human being anywhere in sight right now. It is a slightly scary feeling. I try to live in that moment. And then my phone beeps with a whatsapp message. Honestly that is very reassuring. 

Soon even that connectivity would  diminish. The sound of the crickets, the roar of a water fall somewhere at a distance and a millions of other living organisms going about their daily chores on this wet monsoon morning is breathtakingly refreshing.

The ego pops up yet again.  My mind conjures up words to write for the blog post. I am excited.  I take lot of pictures.  

And then I give up. 

It is the memory up there in my head that needs to fill up, not the one on my 32 GB mobile phone. Because honestly no one else cares.

As I walk along I look down my shoes and I panic.  A slimy little leech is desperately trying to find its way through the pores of my Nike shoes.  I remember what I have read on google. 
Leeches are found in semi moist places all over the western ghats. They are harmless creatures, except that they latch on to warm blooded creatures, including the human beings and suck the blood out of them.  Nature has endowed them with a natural anaesthetic and anticoagulant which they inject into their prey before they begin to suck the blood.   Thus you feel no pain and would not even notice them for a long time to come.   
The best way to get them off you is to flick them off with an object like your credit card from the posterior and they would  fall off .  You can also irritate them by sprinkling with salt and they would fall off.  But then that would mean you have to deal with sprinkling salt on your own wound. 
Although I am panicking, it is the race between me pulling out my credit card and the leech finding its entry into my shoes.  I flick open my mobile cover and I find my PAN card coming out effortlessly from the slot.  Google did not say a PAN card would do, but I know it will serve the purpose.  And so I flick it off my shoes, before it makes an entry.     

I click a picture of the stubborn leech crawling on my PAN card.
Ah .. another instragram  moment to write about.  I am super excited. 
I am constantly monitoring my shoes and concentrating hard to spot any leeches. I know I am missing the forest for the leeches. But I am determined. I would not have them get my way.  Every leech that crawls up my shoes has been flicked away by my PAN card. 

I follow the trail, continue to keep a close watch on the leeches.  Oh my god , this is leech kingdom.

Looks and feels like navigating the peak hour traffic on outer ring road.

The leeches, they are every where. I realize there would be no moment to pause and take in the view, because every moment is a fight to get ahead of the leeches.

Much like the peak hour drive on Marathalli bridge where if you looked too long at the pretty girls on the bill boards modelling for ‘lovable Bras and panties’, you could lose out the fight to get ahead of the traffic.  

I was determined the leeches were not going to get the better off me.  I was hands free. I knew I could not rest anywhere until I reached ‘Bhattare mane’.  I kept a watchful eye on every leech that tried to crawl up my shoes. Walking fast or walking slow did not help.  They just crawled in from every direction. Keeping up pace with the leeches was getting tiresome.

Much like that constant crawling and creeping of ceaseless e-mails into the inbox in my previous life.  Fending off those soul sucking emails before they turned into stinkers was a task I was familiar with. It was tiresome work. This task of flicking off the leeches before they get on to your shoes was just as tiring but unfamiliar.  Sure, out there too in the concrete jungles of ORR, in my preoccupation to fend off those emails from my  inbox,  I did miss out on the woods for the trees, metaphorically speaking.

Back on the western ghats, suddenly my destination ‘ Bhattara manne’ seems far away.  The dense jungle, the flora, fauna, the noise of the birds, the river, everything seems tiring and monotonous as every effort of my existence is on keeping away the leeches from crawling into the pores of my shoes.

And that is when it happens.

As I am about to take my next step, I notice Him slithering away. The fluorescent green colour of my Nike shoes matches His.  For a second or two, or perhaps many, we realize and take in each other’s presence.  He has paused and is looking at me. Or so I think. 

Here words fail me. 

I freeze.  For a moment there is absolute nothingness in me. 

English vocabulary is very limited, to describe the experience.  To call it fear would be an understatement. Surrender would be slightly closer to the feeling I was experiencing.  For want of a better word, I would call it ‘Absolute surrender’
In that moment, I experienced nothingness. If that is what it is to connect to that higher energy, then that was what the moment was all about. 

In those moments the body perhaps chose the flight mode  and retreated. I say 'perhaps', because I did not know what was happening. 

I had seen up and close, many snakes in captivity and from a safe distance. I was educated by Vava Suresh and many others through practical demonstrations that not all snakes are poisonous and even among the ones that are, as long as you do not get in their way, they are harmless. I knew from knowledge to distinguish a venomous snake from a non- venomous one seeing the shape of its hood and mouth.  
But in that moment, nothing mattered. I stood there, struck by a power whose energy was way too strong for me to comprehend and assimilate.
Into it dissolved my ego and ambition to complete the solo trek to kumara parvatha.
I had experienced the pure feeling of nothingness. Albeit for a moment or two.  But that was so overpowering that  I had no wish to ascend any further.

It was not fear.  I am almost certain of that. If it indeed was fear, I would have retreated, waited or moved on.  But I did not. I stood there frozen in time.

All my five senses felt suspended. I was beyond seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling anything. There was a feeling of  absolute bliss. How i would gladly give up the five senses to stay in that zone. 

In that moment I clearly knew I had to surrender to the magnificence of nature. 

Malnad in monsoons belongs to the leeches, the snakes, the fury of the rivers and waterfalls gushing down the plains and a million other living creatures that inhabit it.  The pesky human being is certainly not one of them.  

In those moments of nothingness, when my senses froze, my body did otherwise. It took some steps backwards to retreat and my back rested over a tree trunk.   The green snake, was still looking or perhaps hearing ( snakes cannot hear .. or can they …) out my presence around Him.  He was as green as the fresh grass around him, as restless as the water flowing down the river and as fear inducing as a huge monstrous cobra could have been.   He was beautiful.

Many hours later, back in my hotel room I would type out on Google images ‘ green snakes found in malnad’ and learn everything known to mankind as yet that one has to learn about Him.  But at that moment, He was much more than just a species of ‘Ahaetulla nasuta’ family, known commonly as the green vine Malabar snake.

Photo courtesy :

I experienced the feeling of purity.  Many have said, it comes from deep meditation and focus. But mine perhaps emanated from the basic instinct of fear.  The raw feeling of fear comes from that need for every living creature’s  inherent need to survive.  

 However I did not retreat for a while. I just stood there taking it all in. That ‘absolute surrender’ moment was too strong to be described in limited vocabulary.  It was purely experiential.  And I will leave it at that.

I start descending the same trail that I had ascended for nearly two hours.   

On the way almost near the forest gate entrance, I meet a man who is carrying supplies over his shoulders. Clearly he is going to ‘Bhattare  manne’.  Because there is no other inhabitant out there and the only trail out here leads to Bhattar’s house where all trekkers stop by to have some sumptuous food, take rest and register themselves with the forest department before beginning the steep ascent upwards to Sesha parvatha that comes before conquering Kumara parvatha.  Atleast that is what adventure junkies tell me on their blog posts.

The ego in me pops up again and tempts me.   I ask him if he was going to 'Bhattare manne' and he replies ‘yes’.  I ask him how far it was and he tells me it was another 4-5 kms away.

I reluctantly ask him if I could come along with him and he gives me that much familiar smirky smile. Then he says it would be too late for me to descend down before sunset which I know is true. I could have persuaded him to accompany me for a few extra rupees.

But my heart is not into the ascent anymore.  A feeling far too powerful than the petty ‘ego-high’ of conquering the Kumara Parvatha has engulfed me and I really need nothing else at this moment.

We part ways and my descent further down starts.

I know that by now there are leeches feasting all over me and I could not care two hoots about sprinkling salt or to pull out my PAN card and flick them off. I was experiencing a state of mind that was beyond the comprehension of those blood sucking leeches.

There was a time perhaps a few months ago, when I could not care about that ceaseless deluge of emails that flooded my inbox . I could see the futility of it all and I was beyond  the rat race of being available 24/7 all just to prove a point. Moreover it was tiring and I was exhausted. 

A couple of hours later after walking back the trail that i had set off in the morning, I am back at my hotel stripping off my clothes only to discover the slimy slippery creatures emerging from all over my body and my clothes. 
I now realize that while I was in my trans-state, face to face with Him, I perhaps retreated a few steps and rested against a tree trunk while the green Malabar vine and I were facing each other off.  I say perhaps, because I do not know I did that because I have no memory of anything that happened then.

But I must have, because there were no leeches around my foot or on my ankles when I removed my shoes. Generous sprinkling of the salt did the trick. They emerged from my back, my a*s* and the upper part of my body.

I look myself in the full length mirror and realize they had had their fill of my blood and were plump and content. No PAN card was needed this time.  They were falling off from my body leaving painless spots that were bleeding profusely.  
On any other normal day I would have shrieked out in horror. But this day was not a normal day. An unfathomable feeling of pure bliss and calm had permeated into me and all around me.

If you have not experienced a Leech bite, let me assure you they are painless. The anesthetic that they inject into you before they bite ensures it is painless. But the anti-coagulant that they inject ensures they get their fill of blood without the natural healing power of the predators body that would otherwise ensure that the blood coagulates in some time.             

We Humans emulate or strive to emulate a lot of behaviour from other living creatures. Management and motivational books are full of those examples.  And here is one more of that I reflected upon that day that will never find a mention in management books.
A career in the corporate world is similar to a leech bite. It is painless. They inject the anaesthesia into you with the promise of good money and an exciting career. By the time you realize what you have signed up for and slave it out, they have sucked your blood, fattened their bottom line and top line. Then suddenly you are no more relevant in their scheme of things. They offer no coagulants and leave you bleeding for a long time to come. 

Unlike the leeches in nature that suck just as much as they need, the greedy corporations know no such limits. How we wish they did ?        
As I chased the plump leeches away , ( and kept photographing them on my PAN card and  debit card)  I observed that I was bleeding. Painlessly but profusely bleeding. 

That leech that bit me up my a*s* slid down effortlessly. She was ten times bigger than her usual self after feeding off my blood than she must have been when she slimily crawled up from my back through the full hand round neck T-shirt that I was wearing. ( Full hand round neck T-shirt Courtesy : British airways first class )

My first aid kit is pulled out.  I drown Hydrogen peroxide solution all over my leech bitten spots. This ensures that the bleeding pores do not get septic by other foreign objects. The liquid Hydrogen peroxide sizzles as it comes in contact with the blood. I apply band aids and plasters all over my wounds. It is all  so painless that it feels as though you are performing the first aid on someone else.

I am still pre occupied with that all powerful feeling of nothingness and peace  that I experienced up there in the dense forest on the way to 'Kumara Parvatha' and I do not want that memory to fade away.   
But there are leeches to be flicked, wounds to be healed and band aids to be stuck.

And so, I get practical and do the needful. 

The plump leech’s photograph on my Debit card  is here for you to see. 

Bloody Blood sucker.

Remember I said at the beginning of this post, No swear words  has been used during the  writing of this post.

I drape myself in fresh set of clothes and dump all my old clothes into a bucket of salt water.  

May their soul rest in peace. 

They are paying the price for their greed, I justify to myself.  
The leeches of the Corporate world. When you get on the bandwagon of a hyper competitive rat race,  and grab that plump offer and a fat pay check, there is a price to pay. As you get fatter sucking the blood off your prey, the greater the risk of falling off or getting flicked away. Because there are many more leeches waiting to suck the warm blood and moreover you have had your fill. Suddenly you find yourself irrelevant. But you do not realize that until a long time and by then it is too late. It is never a happy ending.   

A dozen thin leeches struggling for survival crawl out of my clothes soaked in salt water in a desperate attempt to save themselves. I say a silent prayer to their souls, lock up my hotel room and walk to the temple. Somehow I have fallen in love with them – the Leeches. They really are cute.

Still reeling under the experience of that all powerful feeling of ‘nothingness’ that I experienced some hours earlier, I grab a quiet corner at the temple observing all devotees falling all over each other for the darshan. 

I feel peaceful. I feel energized. I feel joy. I feel humble and I feel nothing.

A couple of hours later, I am still sitting in the same quiet corner. Instinctively I feel moist at my back and touch my back. My hand is stained with fresh blood. On any other normal day I would have panicked.

Instead am actually feeling blissful and calm.  

As far as the after effects of the leech bites  go, Google bhagwan had the answers.  

I go out of the temple in search of the most powerful anti coagulant of all - Tobacco.
Damn it, this is a temple premises and there would be no cigarette or beedi shops anywhere closeby.

I walk and walk and decide to ask a smoker where I could buy cigarettes.  He is taken aback.  I then explain the context to him without getting into much of details.  He directs me to a small corner shop that looks like a local grocery shop.  I am skeptical, but I take his advice because I have no choice.
At the grocery shop, I pull out my mobile and show the picture of the plump leech on my debit card   and ask for tobacco in broken kannada. He is quick to understand and tells me that the tobacco in a cigarette or a beedi is ineffective for Leech bites and hands me over a long tobacco leaf for eight rupees.

It is so big that the contents could have rolled into a dozen cigars.  
I walk back to the hotel, still in a trans-state, blivious to the bleeding all over my A*s* and back .
In the hotel room I rub along crushed pieces of the long tobacco leaf.  And guess what, the bleeding stops. Almost instantly. 

Who said Tobacco kills … eh ?.

Dear Trekkers : if you are foolish /ignorant/ brave / crazy enough to trek in Malnad during the monsoons please carry along with your first aid, some raw unprocessed tobacco leaves. 

The effect of dried tobacco scrubbed on to my back and a*s* makes me smell like a chain beedi smoker.  It takes me back my memory lane and reminds me of the mother in law of our house maid in Tiruchirapalli who smoked ‘Suruttu beedi’ in private which smelled even when she emerged in public.  

Sorry for the deviation here. But the trivia freak in me wants to mention this.
 Tiruchirapalli or rather ‘Woraiyur’ a suburb of Tiruchirapalli is famous for the Tobacco that Winston Churchill ordered for his pipe and cigar. For many years it travelled all the way from Woraiyur to a trader in England who had that old boy Winston as his loyal customer.  Until very recently (that is many decades after Churchill kicked the bucket) the Woraiyur tobacco was being exported to this trader in England duty free. That I am told is not the case anymore after a very patriotic district collector spotted this and put a stop to the age old colonial practice. 
Not sure if Churchill was ever bitten by leeches. If he had he would have found other uses of tobacco as well.  Not sure though if the blood sucking leeches would bother to suck the biggest blood sucker of them all. ( Churchill bashing among Indians is trending on social media  and I am sure among many others Shashi Tharoor will like this … )       

Forgive me for this digression.

To summarize, those were the highlights of my solo trek to Kumara Parvatha. 
Inshallah … god willing … if Subrahmanya Swamy ( the one from Kukke ) beckons me again, I will come again to trek kumara parvatha in the non -monsoon months. 

For now, I have learnt to surrender to nature or to that magnificent force that engulfs all things.

How I would love to experience again the same feeling of nothingness where all your five senses feel suspended and you are in a zone of nothingness.  It was pure bliss.
Nothing  would be the same again.     

Moral of the story :
‘Malnad in monsoons belongs to the leeches, the snakes, the fury of the rivers and waterfalls gushing down the plains and a million other living creatures that inhabit it.  The pesky human being is certainly not one of them’.  

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.’ 

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