My Mathematical Muse: A Journey into the Life of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Three years back, in 2016, hubby dear bought the book -The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. It was supposedly a well researched biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Not a fan of biographies then, I let the book rest on my shelf for a whole six months before I started reading it.                                                                themanwhoknewinfinity

Until then, I had only heard passing mentions of Ramanujan, never read about him -surprisingly, not even an anecdote or snippet from his life. So, Kanigel’s book came as a surprise. It immediately drew me into its pages, taking me back to an era (Ramanujan was born on 22nd Dec, 1887) that was hitherto unknown to me except in the context of India’s freedom struggle.

For reasons unknown, the book had a profound effect on me. No sooner than I had finished reading it, I got an opportunity to go to Chennai. I immediately made up my mind to visit Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan had spent the better part of his short life. From Chennai, I took an overnight train to the small, dusty town on the banks of the Kaveri – the journey in itself was rather amusing, with my second class compartment being populated by men wearing white lungis and white shirts and women wearing gold jewelry that offset their lips and tongues that had turned red with chewing betel leaf.

Once in Kumbakonam, I spent half a day at Sarangapani Sannidhi Street that was, at one time, witness to the many eccentricities of my newfound muse. Ramanujan’s house -recently renovated after escaping demolition, thanks to our late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s intervention -sat sandwiched between two other houses that had been converted into shops. A set of steps invited me into this narrow house that stretched backwards in length. The blue columns weren’t blue during Ramanujan’s time; I’m sure they weren’t even painted then. The well laid Mangalore tiles weren’t there during his time either -the house had a thatch roof then.

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The majestic gopuram of the Sarangapani Temple

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But the columns and roof didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the high plinth on which Ramanujan sat as a child with a slate and chalk and worked on his mathematical ideas. What mattered was the window behind which was the tiny room with a single wooden bed under which Ramanujan hid to solve equations as a child because his father would get angry if he saw him do something so useless! Further inside was a small living room (that’s now a memorial of sorts), kitchen and the backyard with a well.rama-mainP1020154P1020161

It was indeed a humbling experience to stand inside that house, on that street, in that dusty town from where Ramanujan had started a mathematical journey that took him all the way to England and back. But, as Kanigel’s book informed me, Ramanujan wasn’t just about mathematics. His short life (he was 32 when he passed away) was a tapestry woven from numerous strands, each as interesting as the other. He was a staunch Vaishnavite Brahmin, who not only knew his scriptures but dissected and discussed them even as he brooded on the concepts of ‘shunya’ and ‘infinity’. He was highly superstitious, with an interest in astrology as well as the occult. He was a quintessential ‘mama’s boy’ who fell back upon his mother for everything in his life. Be it narrating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas, or imparting knowledge about their traditions or teaching him to pray and become a devotee of the Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal or playing with him, his favorite board game -the Aadu Puli Aatam (Goats and Tigers), or giving that vital push towards achieving his mathematical goal, Komalatammal was instrumental in nurturing her son’s love for Math and standing up for him when it mattered. Finally, there was also a strange dichotomy about Ramanujan – while he was confident about his mathematical prowess, he was extremely insecure about everything he did, yearned for recognition of his genius, and took offense at the tiniest of alleged faux pas by friends or peers.

Sitting on the steps in the backyard of his house, I recollected excerpts from Kanigel’s book and found myself drawn to this complex, intriguing character from the past. Soon, I was trying to imagine Ramanujan’s childhood, figuring out how his surroundings could have contributed to his love for mathematics. As I did so, quite unknown to me, a seed was sown into my thoughts -a seed of an idea for a book for children based on Ramanujan’s life story. Researching for the book, I ended up reading many more papers and books that talked about his life and works -most importantly, S R. Ranganathan’s Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician. Today, that idea is on its way to becoming a reality. My picture book biography on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan has charted its own journey and is expected to be released soon.

But that is only half my story.

Being an interior architect, my first connect with people is through the spaces they inhabit. So, after visiting his Kumbakonam house, I wanted to now visit all other places he’d been to or stayed in. This wasn’t easy, given that my city of residence isn’t anywhere near these places and that I have a home, office and my kids to tend to. However, they don’t say -if you wish for something with all your heart it does become a reality- for nothing. So intense was my wish of understanding the enigma that was Ramanujan that serendipity offered me a few chances to catch up with my muse. Earlier this year, I got another opportunity to visit Chennai. I made the most of it by visiting the house he’d briefly stayed in, in Triplcane, thanks to a dear friend. I then hunted down the site of the house he’d breathed his last in -unfortunately, the house is no longer in existence- and another house that he’d briefly lived in after his return from England.

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The house in Triplicane where Ramanujan lived briefly
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The ‘Crynant’ where Ramanujan stayed briefly after returning from London -he was shifted to another house, Gometra, because he felt the word ‘cry’ in the name of the house was a bad omen

Then, as luck would have it, I got an opportunity for an academic visit to London. After my professional commitments, I stayed back for a few days to visit places in London and Cambridge that my muse had been to. And so, with the help of Richard Chapling, a young mathematician and Trinity alumnus, who started off as a total stranger but ended up being a dear friend, I traced Ramanujan and his mentor Godfrey Hardy across London and Cambridge. Together, Richard and I walked the walk that Hardy once described as being the ‘most remarkable walk’ – from his home at St. George’s Square, along the Grosvenor Road and across the Vauxhall Bridge to the Oval; we visited the house in Putney that is famed for being the place where Ramanujan had the legendary conversation with Hardy about the number 1729; we traveled to Cambridge to visit the Trinity College where he had spent five precious years, the Wren Library where his original letter to Hardy has been preserved, the Center for Mathematical Sciences where his bust sits in splendor; we paused at the houses he’d stayed in at different points of time, we walked down the streets he would have once walked… back in London, I hunted down the house on Cromwell Road that Ramanujan had stayed in when he first arrived in London -the building is now home to the French Embassy.

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The house on Cromwell Road
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The house in Putney

 

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The plaque commemorating an interesting conversation
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Richard outside what was once Hardy’s post-retirement home in London. Incidentally, Hardy has been Richard’s mathematical muse for quite some time now 🙂
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The house on Chestertown Road, Cambridge
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The Great Court at the Trinity College Residential Campus
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The New Court where Hardy lived when in Cambridge
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The dining hall for the Trinity professors and students where Ramanujan refused to eat since non-vegetarian food was served here.
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The block in Bishop’s Hostel where Ramanujan occupied a room on the top floor
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Issac Newton at the hall of the Trinity College Chapel that acknowledges the contribution of the all-time great Trinity alumni through engravings on marble and etched brass plaques (in Latin).
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Next to Ramanujan’s plaque

Visiting all these places was a strangely emotional journey for me – strange, because here I was, getting effected by places that I had no immediate connect to. I often sit and wonder why I was drawn towards Ramanujan’s story. A friend recently tried to impress upon me the idea of ‘past connections’ and ‘karma’. I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to agree with him in this context.

There are some more places with a Ramanujan connect in India that await me, and there is a more detailed story of his inside of me that needs to be told (perhaps, for older children). I guess I’ll get that sense of closure only when both these journeys are completed… and I hope it happens sometime soon enough.

Today, though, I’m going to celebrate Ramanujan’s birthday by sharing the Magic Square he’d worked out based on the date of his birth: 22-12-1887 (exploring possibilities with these squares was one of Ramanujan’s earliest mathematical preoccupations).

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For those who do not know, a Magic Square is square grid in which a given set of unique positive integers are arranged such that each cell has a different integer and the sum of integers in every row, column and diagonal is equal. In the above case, the sum in each case is 139. It is a happy coincidence (I’m sure Ramanujan would’ve been pleased as a punch when he realized this) that 139 is a prime number and the sum of five consecutive prime numbers: 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37!!

And on that note, here’s me wishing my mathematical muse a very happy birthday!!

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File photo of Ramanujan (center) at the time of being conferred a Bachelor’s Degree at Trinity

**P.S: There’s a separate post begging to be written about my amazing visit to Cambridge with Richard. I hope I find time for it soon enough…

 

 

 

No Woman’s Land

My story ‘No Woman’s Land’ is part of Muse India Literary Magazine’s Fiction selection for Issue 86.

Hailing from the south, I have not been even remotely connected to the at times heart-wrenching, at times blood-curdling #partition experiences that I have read numerous accounts of. However, for some reason, it is a topic I keep revisiting in my mind. I remember, when my first children’s book got published and I was asked for an author bio, I had mentioned in it the following line:

With a belief that boundaries – physical or psychological – are for the faint-hearted, I’d rather be a global citizen with a boundless imagination.

This is something I truly believe in and hence, the very concept of regionalism, let alone any other ‘ism’ has never crept into my understanding of life. The idea that a mere length of barbed-wire can separate people and stop them from being human has always been hard to digest.

Why‘, I’ve often asked myself, ‘do I need permission to travel from one place on earth to the other when the earth belongs equally to all?

And so, while ‘No Woman’s Land’ is based on my interpretation of the trauma of partition, the larger idea that I am also trying to question is – Why Borders? The question is even more relevant today when governments of powerful countries want to build walls, decide frivolously on sensitive citizenship issues, make beggars out of immigrants and so on.
Then again, the story for me is not only about the geographical border but much more.

What do you feel about this? Do read the story and share your thoughts.

http://www.museindia.com/Home/ViewContentData?arttype=fiction&issid=86&menuid=8433

Also, do spare some time to read Semeen Ali’s short note in the Editorial Musings page -it talks about ‘identity’ and its relevance, something that resonated immediately with me.

Poetic Injustice

Is there something like poetic injustice?

The red effluent emptying into the sea through a pipeline is not a chemical; it is waste from a fish cutting factory a few hundred meters from the shore at Kadike beach, Udupi dist. If you want me to spell it out, it’s fish blood. And bits and pieces of fish too, I guess, my clue being the crazy number of eagles hovering around the point where the waste is flushed into the sea. Every now and then, they swoop down to pick up tiny pieces of cut fish that must’ve gotten flushed along with the blood.

After observing them for almost half an hour, I’ve decided that not only is this a case of poetic injustice, like I pointed out, but also one of rendering the eagles lazy, almost domesticating them! I stood for a few minutes exactly under the cover of eagles in the sky -they were flying pretty low and their white heads popping out of speckled coats looked awesome from below- but none was bothered by my presence; their eyes were all on what the pipe was spitting out.

The pic above is of one of the two pipes that connect the factory to the sea. Ambling along the beach, when I first spotted the red effluent though, it wasn’t gushing out of this pipe but what seemed to be a cloth embedded into the sand a few feet into the sea (see pic below). My detective senses went on an overdrive and I imagined all sorts of things… especially given the fact that there was news just the previous day of mutilated parts of a lady’s body having been found in Mangalore, not far from where I was.

‘Could this be someone’s mutilated body part?’

I shuddered at the thought.

A closer look revealed that my imagination was indeed fertile, thanks to the innumerable whodunits I watch on TV! The cloth was just a shoddy job at camouflage -it covered a pipeline that carried the effluent to the sea. I sighed in relief, but was soon angry at the mindless pollution being caused, no doubt by some chemical factory nearby. Seeing a local strolling along, I stopped him and asked him about the effluent.

That’s when I was told about the fish cutting factory.

My anger immediately dissolved into deep sadness at the irony of it all… imagine you are the ocean; how would you feel when the blood of your own children were drained back into your lap? Tears collected in my eyes as I looked at the waves lashing against the shore -a desperate ocean trying to collect every remaining bit of her children and pulling it into herself… back into the womb from which they’d all once emerged.

Yet, there is a counterpoint to it all. Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens that it was the Cognitive Revolution that made homo sapiens a successful species. I agree. The power of imagination did set us apart and it is that power that makes me imagine the sea to have a soul, to feel like I do, to react like I would. What if I did not imagine? What if the sea was merely lashing its waves ‘coz that’s what nature, as explained by science, makes it do? And the fish? Well, they do not have cognition; they might suffer physically as they gasp for breath and die, but they don’t grapple with concepts like ‘was my fish life purposeful‘. They just cease to exist.

And that brings me to the part where I realize how important a part language plays in our cognition. When I asked the local about the red effluent, his words were crude – fish cutting was the exact phrase he used. And it is his choice of words that has made me write this entire piece! What if he’d said fish processing? Sounds more mellow, more peaceful, more acceptable to the emotional bit of our brain, doesn’t it?

Note: What I’ve expressed above was typed onto the ‘notes’ app in my phone in one flow -from start to end. I haven’t edited it; it felt more authentic to present my thoughts in the exact same sequence they occurred to me as I walked along the beach… all in the space of fifteen minutes!

Yellow blossoms and Ulysses

This piece of short fiction written by me has been published by Kaani, a bi-annual literary magazine publishing short fiction and short story reviews.

KAANI

Bunches of yellow blossoms hang overhead like delicate chandeliers. I can almost hear the clinking of the crystals as they sway to the tunes of the gentle summer breeze. But death lurks in the shadows that dance on the parched earth below.

And this same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying . . .

 . . . Robert Herrick whispers his prophetic verse into my ears. Yes, the blossoms would be history in the days to come. The delicate petals will detach themselves from the stalk and float down in a spiral. The koel, whose melody reverberates in my ears today, will sing a dirge then. But I, oblivious, would trample the fallen petals under my heel even as I tried to imitate his enviable call. I seek him amongst the leaves of the jamun tree – in vain. He is an expert in covert operations, it…

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A Strange Pass, an Arduous Descent

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 9

Waking up to a bright sunny day with my tent surrounded by verdant grass seemed surreal after a night of non-stop snowfall. The only evidence of nature’s nocturnal activity was the generous sprinkling of snow on the hills surrounding the camp-site – hills that had been barren until last evening.

The day began with mixed emotions. Today was the last day of my trek. We’d be climbing one more pass -the Yalung Nyau La, which would be the highest one yet for me at 5450m. However, Tashi assured me that despite the altitude, it would be much easier to navigate compared to yesterday’s torturous passes. I tried to believe him even as I mentally prepared myself for the worst. 

Talking about preparing for the worst, that’s something I do all the time. In fact, the first thing I do before starting off on any new venture or task is to think about the worst case scenario and prepare myself and my family for it. Hubby dear thinks that’s pessimism and I think it’s realism – so you now know the reason for most of our fights!

Well, coming back to the mixed emotions, I was told that Namgyal, our horseman, would be not be accompanying us for the rest or the trek -of which only one more day remained. I don’t remember the exact reason for his decision to leave, but it could be that there was hardly any fresh grass for the horses along the route. Of course, it wasn’t that he was leaving us high and dry -he’s far too professional for that. I discovered over breakfast that another horseman, heading towards Korzok, the final destination of our trek, had camped across the stream last night and Namgyal had arranged for his horses to carry all our supplies for the day. So, after breakfast, we watched with a heavy heart as Namgyal packed his stuff and got the horses ready to leave. We then took a quick photo of us all -well, all except George who, for some reason, did not want to be photographed- before Namgyal set off on his journey back home. I stood watching for a while as he crossed over the stream and disappeared behind a far bend in the trail along with the horses.22851917_10214615649130793_4431518431988373803_nIMG_0245Before starting on the day’s leg of the trek,  I surveyed the terrain in the general direction of our trek and promised myself to enjoy this last day come what may. The weather was pleasant and the blue sky had already attracted a slew of mammoth clouds. Climbing a small hill, I could see the gentle slopes of several other hills coming together in a criss-cross manner to form a herringbone trail for us to follow, alongside a gurgling stream.IMG_0250After walking for half an hour or so, we left the stream behind and took a turn and lo! the terrain changed drastically, without warning. For the next few hours, we walked through what would seem like a pile of stones and small rocks dumped on the ground by a garbage van. The slope wasn’t as bad as the ones I encountered the previous day, but the stones made it difficult to trek on.IMG_0256IMG_0257IMG_0258Even in this bizzare terrain, someone had taken the effort of piling up stones to make a ‘lata’ (a simulation of the stupa) to propitiate the spirit of the mountains to ensure a safe journey – a hint that this strange route was not all that desolate. This was made more obvious as I trekked on and reached the top of the pass to find a larger pile of stones supporting several strings of prayer flags. Many of these stone slabs had the names of couples etched on them; it made me wonder about the strange urge people have to leave behind evidence of their visit everywhere they went.IMG_0265While what lay before me was acceptable since it did not defile anything, it reminded me of this horrendous sight from my visit to the Thanjavur Durbar Hall few years ago. I hope all those who took the pains to etch out their names on the historical monument did end up with each other, leading a life filled with love, else this disgrace would all be in vain.P1020287P1020290P1020289Coming back to my journey, I could spot the Tso-moriri from where I stood and that was motivating enough to continue walking towards my destination. Little did I know that the notion of distances can be deceptive when standing atop a mountain and that it would take me more than three long and arduous hours to just get down to the plains, leave alone reach the campsite at Korzok.  The descent down the Yalung Nyau La was several times more difficult than the climb, what with me trying hard not to slip down the narrow trail on a gravelly slope. To makes things worse, the slope along the descent was as steep as the ascent was gentle.IMG_0269IMG_0272IMG_0276IMG_0275Every once in a while, I was offered a breathtaking glimpse of Tso-moriri, as if to reassure me, but once I was more than half-way down, even that view disappeared and there was nothing but sand and rubble to look forward to. Once down on the plains, I realized that as usual, I was trailing behind the others by quite some distance. Tashi was just a speck on the horizon far head of me. With my limbs groaning in protest, a feeling of defeat crept into me, but I reminded myself of my promise to stay upbeat. So, I trudged ahead, trying to distract myself with the sights surrounding me. A settlement along a stream soon materialized, bringing with it a cheerful green almost as a relief to the stark browns and blacks of the landscape I’d traversed until now. I could see tiny houses and hoped the campsite would be somewhere close by. However, it was not so. I passed the green patch, the stream, the wild asses, the yaks and the houses with a look of yearning I’m sure I’ve not sent even my husband’s way in all these years.IMG_0287IMG_0290IMG_0291IMG_0292IMG_0293After what seemed to be at least three more hours, I finally hit a tar road that took me along a curve and revealed the welcoming sight of our blue tent. Oh, how relieved I was to have reached the campsite! Crossing a small metal platform, I reached my tent and kicked open my shoes for the last time. This was it! IMG_0294IMG_0295George was already there, taking bath in the cold waters of the stream. Much as I was tempted to do the same, I decided to just wash my face and change clothes. I’d sustained on only liquids -fruit juices and electral- these last eight hours and was desperate to dig into some tasty food. And boy, was I in for a surprise as I entered the dining tent!IMG_20170831_191339Siddharth had baked this cake (in an aluminum vessel!), with frosting and all, to celebrate the completion of my trek! What an amazing way to conclude a seemingly never-ending day on the slopes . . .

Passing the ‘Pass’ test

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 8

It’s not always that you wake up in the morning to the sight of Yak grazing outside your tent. So, no prizes for guessing that I was thrilled to bits. P1020754Two passes awaited me today and although skeptical about my stamina, I was ready for the test. Having camped last evening at the foot of the first pass to be climbed -the Kyamayuri La at a height of 5350m above sea level – it was obviously going to be an uphill task today. So I packed my stuff and set off in earnest, taking in the sight of the nomads heading out with their herds.img_20170829_175217.jpgThe climb started off well, with the slope being gentle under my feet. I took in the mountains towering over me on one side and a stringy rivulet snaking through the terrain on the other. But it soon started to get tougher. As the slope grew steeper and the air thinner, I found it more and more difficult to take every next step. Less than an hour into the trek, I was on the verge of accepting defeat. It was so tough, I found myself taking a five minute break after every ten steps. When I got half-way up, I turned back and looked at a swarm of sheep closing in on me. On the adjacent hill, sheep dogs were running up and down the much steeper slopes as though they were flatter than my flat feet! P1020756 (2)To rub salt into the wound, all the other guys in my team and the French team trekked past me with what seemed like considerable ease. In my frustration, I put it down to my being the oldest among them all (which was true!), but in my heart I knew it had nothing to do with my age – I was just not fit enough! My months of training before the trek stood me in good stance on the plains, but the passes were something else!

Well, it took me a rather long time, but I finally managed to reach the top of the pass. And the pass decided to reward me with some of the most stunning vistas spread around it -that and some sensuous curves that I guess only the artist in me can appreciate.P1020758 (2)P1020757 (2)I guess the lost-and-found adventure of the day before yesterday had made Tashi realize that he couldn’t afford to lose sight of me again and consequently, I found him waiting for me at the top. I was glad he did and as we started our descent, we exchanged a bit of info about ourselves. I got to know that he was a student at a college in Jammu and joined trekkers as a guide during vacation time. He also had a girlfriend -Sonam- back home and planned to visit her once this trek was completed. I too shared some tit-bits from my life with him and sparse with words that I am, I was soon out of things to talk about by the time we had descended into the Gyama Barma valley and walked to the foot of the next pass.P1020762 (2)P1020763 (2)Through the route, the ground had a hint of fresh green on it thanks to the grass and patches of these soft moss-like growth. I found out later that these are known botanically as the Thylacospermum caespitosum. Their almost cushion-like form helps trap heat around the crucial growing parts and thus helps cope with not only very low temperatures but also limited soil and water.P1020760After a good amount of rest and something to munch on, we started climbing the next pass – the Kartse La at 5300m. As I took my first few steps up the dark, blackish slope of the mountain, I could already spot the rest of the team approaching the top. At that moment, a voice in my head screamed, ‘What will they think of you? Slow-coach!’ Given the physical and psychological toll the first pass had taken on me, it was easy to slip into a negative frame of mind and I was soon wondering if I had it in me to attempt yet another steep climb.

Tashi had already made a head start and now, when I turned back, all I could see was a vast light green valley nestled between several high mountains. There was not a soul -not even an animal- in sight for as far as my eyes could see. I didn’t have a choice here – I’d just have to climb and get to the other side of the pass to Gyama, our destination for the day. Closing my eyes, I reminded myself that I wasn’t a quitter. So what if I was slow and had to stop after every ten steps? I was still moving ahead, wasn’t I? And I had already crossed one torturous pass, which was no mean achievement. The small self-pep-talk did me good and I soon began my second ascent of the day.

I don’t have any photographs of this leg of the trek since I was a tired wreck and my only aim was to climb that god-damned pass! It was by far the most arduous thing I’d ever done in my life and when I finally reached the top after a couple of hours, I just threw down my trekking pole and lay down flat on the ground, almost in tears. And yet, I knew that the day’s trek was far from over. I still had to complete the descent and trek for several kilometers before reaching the camp-site. Getting back to my feet, I spent some time taking in the sights around me. The snow-capped mountains that had looked far and unreachable from the plains were now tantalizingly close. And the grey clouds slowly moved away, opening up to reveal patches of bright blue.P1020761 (2)P1020767 (2)P1020768 (2)After lingering for a while, I started my descent feeling like a zombie; but I was happy that the worst (at least for today!) was now behind me. Albeit with poor grades, I had passed the ‘pass’ test! All that remained now was to get to the camp-site in one piece. Tashi had been really patient until now – although it must’ve been frustrating for a sprightly 21-year-old, he had slowed his pace considerably so I could remain within his cone of vision. Hoping to relieve his agony, I asked him to explain the route to me and get ahead if he wanted to . . . which he readily did.P1020769 (2)P1020766 (2)Alone amidst the mountains once again, I took my time ambling through the desolate valley – passing a rather lean stream, crossing an arid, stony expanse and finally arriving at another slightly broader stream where I saw his beautiful golden-maned dog, almost blending into the terrain. The French team had set up camp not too far from here, but my blue dining tent was nowhere to be seen. P1020771 (2)Letting out a curse, I trudged along for half an hour more before I spotted the tent. However, it was on the other side of the stream, which meant I had to walk some more before arriving at a spot from where I could cross over easily. I’m so not joking when I say I let out a slew of curses at this point! It seemed like the universe was conspiring to keep me away from the comfort of my little green tent!!P1020773 (2)So no prizes for guessing that as soon as I reached the camp site, I kicked off my shoes and ran into my tent as if to greet a long-lost friend. And no sooner than I’d started to rummage though the back-pack for my book to read with the hot juice Siddharth was preparing, the sky turned grey again and it started to snow! It seemed as though the snow had been patiently waiting for me to make it to the camp before showering down. If that were so, I must give it a nod of appreciation ‘coz I don’t think I could have completed the day’s trek had it snowed earlier. That would definitely have been the proverbial last straw in my case!P1020774At first, the sharp pitter-patter made me believe it was raining, not snowing; but I soon realized it was otherwise. Popping my head out of the tent, I was hit by these small thermocol-ball sized flakes of snow that also stole inside the tent through the edges.

Having zero energy to put on my shoes again along with a raincoat to head to the dining tent, I decided to skip my meal altogether. Siddharth, however, wasn’t pleased with my decision. He’d, after all, cooked a delicious meal for us and didn’t want me to miss it. So he ran to my tent under the snow with a plate of pasta and boiled veggies and a bowl of soup and insisted I call him for another serving if required. Well, this was one of the best dinners of the trek, had huddled in my tent even as the snowfall gathered momentum outside, and it made me understand what it meant to cook with love.P1020778P1020777With the snow busying itself with rendering the entire landscape white, I finished my dinner at a leisurely pace and prepared myself for a good night’s sleep. But sleep did not come easily. Lying on my mattress, with the sound of snowflakes knocking on my tent providing a soothing background score, I was acutely aware of every bone and muscle in my body even as my mind replayed the entire 8 hours of the day’s trek. Today’s was the toughest challenge I’d ever faced and although I was glad to put it all behind me, I also felt that this was one experience I’d miss more than anything else when I got back to the humdrum of everyday life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer Flags, Yak and Pizza!

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 7

The human mind sometimes filters out details served to it in the real world as ‘knowledge‘ and ‘facts‘ and delves into only those aspects that resonate with its true self. That’s what happens with me when I look at stars. Despite being a keen outer-space enthusiast and having read several scientific expositions on the topic of stars, what has fascinated me the most is the surreal concept of their ‘birth’ and ‘death’ -something that almost personifies them.  This is an idea I have tried to explore in my children’s book When Grandma Climbed the Magic Ladder and in some of my poems.

Coming back to my trek, the information overload about these curious cosmic orbs did not prevent my mind from perceiving them as pinholes in a two-dimensional sky as I lay staring through the opening in my tent last night. I’d ideally have wanted to do this lying on the grass outside, but it was biting cold -although still technically on the plains, we were camped at a height of 4300mts above sea level with winds blowing like crazy into the funnel-like valley.

I did venture out to take a leak in the middle of the night though (I usually frown when told how men are more gifted than women – but after this experience, I’m grudgingly willing to accept that men are better gifted when it comes to the act of peeing!), and that’s when I was overwhelmed by the number of stars above me – perhaps, if a population census had been taken right then, China would’ve been beaten hollow! It was at the same time beautiful and weird to have these million eyes staring at me as I peed!

Walking back to my tent, a zillion story ideas passed through my mind and I hope to exploit them sometime in the future (when I get over my procrastinating ways!). For the time being, though, I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and allowed my mind to run amok thinking of all possible starry thoughts. Uncharacteristically, Mr. Dog did not howl last night and it was all eerily silent as I dozed off with an Eskimo saying playing in my mind:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings from where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

Well, that was last night. I woke up today feeling upbeat – the time had finally come to conquer my first pass. At the height of 4900mts, the Horlamla Pass was a climb of around 600mts from our camp. Tashi assured me this would be an easy climb, with gentle slopes and beautiful vistas. He wasn’t wrong – it was ideal for a first-timer like me. After breakfast, George and I set out first as usual. Tashi helped me cross the stream – it seemed to be a deceptively easy task but was in fact pretty rough considering the gushing cold waters and slippery stones – and went back to pack up.22815045_10214615652210870_2139143481966744979_n

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The camp site that finally found me! The white tent was the French team’s dining tent.

P102072822788640_10214615644250671_9141334806434276633_nTrekking up, I was back in the lap of a barren sandy landscape with snow-capped mountains playing peek-a-boo. And when I turned back after a while, I was in for a surprise. Tso Kar had actually followed me all the way here (like I’d wished yesterday)! As I climbed higher and higher, the view of the lake became clearer and I was ecstatic.P1020731 (2)At the same time, I was acutely aware that Mr. Dog wasn’t following me today. He sure was at the campsite when I left; so, where was he now? However, I was distracted before I could confess to myself that I was missing the little fellow. Watching me from far away, blending surreptitiously into the landscape, were a pair of Kiang – the Tibetan Wild Ass. They are said to populate the entire Changtang plateau, but this was only the second time I’d spotted them during my trek -they’re either shy creatures who don’t venture close to humans or are damn good at camouflage. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of them to share; but if you’ve seen the Indian Wild Ass at the Little Rann of Kutch, these looked pretty much similar -except, I’m told, the Tibetan species is by far the largest of Wild Asses. Well, I’m not going to spend more time ass-essing this, but rather take you quickly to the summit of the Horlamla where an interesting sight awaited me.P1020733Now, isn’t that a welcome sight! Not very far from this guy were two stone piles with bits of cloth strewn on the ground in between. I wondered why someone would make such a mess at the top of a mountain when Mr.Goat himself had been so carefully assembled. After a bit of poking around I figured out that the stone piles were meant to prop up poles that, at some point of time before the strong winds blew them down, would have held a string of Tibetan prayer flags, ‘coz that’s what the bits of colored cloth were. Just as the ‘mani walls‘ were a common sight on the plains, prayer flags hung between poles as close as a few feet to as far as mountains apart are a common sight at passes. I’d noticed them at the Tanglangla Pass too and would see many more of them over the next few days.P1020732Being an atheist, it was easy for me to put away the idea of prayer flags as gobbledygook at first. But then, I was told that these weren’t meant to carry prayers to the Gods but to spread the positivity of the Buddhist mantras printed on them. Ancient Tibetans believed that as the flags flutter, the message of the mantras are passed along by the winds, spreading goodwill and compassion to people all over the world – something that current-day Tibetans and Ladakhis (did you know that Ladakh is sometimes called ‘Little Tibet’?) still passionately believe in. The traditional prayer flags are printed on colored cloth depicting the five elements – blue for sky/space, white for air/clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Further, hand-carved wooden blocks are used to print the mantras along with symbolic creatures such as the Wind Horse, Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, and Tiger as well as divine figures such as the Buddha, Green Tara, Padama Sambhava etc. Each set of five flags comes with one of the above symbols surrounded by the mantras. Here are a few samples off the internet:

If you want to know a bit more about their history, check out thepeaceflagproject.org

Back at the Horlamla Pass, the vistas all around were breathtaking to say the least. The snow-capped mountains that had teased me were still miles away but I could now see them in their entirety, not just their tips. After a long time spent in conversations with George and Tashi, who’d caught up with me by now (and so had the French trekkers), it was time for descent. Casting a last look at the Tso Kar behind me and whispering a silent goodbye, I started towards the vast valley opening up below. We would now trek down to Rajungkaru, at a height of 4700mts and move on to our next pit-stop.P1020734Walking down, it was hard to ignore how the terrain had changed. The slopes were now populated by clumps of dark green shrubs that no one knew the name of. Returning home, I tried hard to find out what these were called and finally pinned them down to being the ‘Bird’s Nest Spruce’, a hardy evergreen shrub that resembles – you guessed it right! -a bird’s nest. Their thorn-like leaves prevent them from being grazed on and help them weather the snowy winters well.  If you’re wondering why I’m meting out a botany lecture here, it’s because my mother is a botany enthusiast and that inspired me to take photos of and research a lot many of the Ladakhi flora after my trek. So be warned, some more botanical knowledge awaits you in my future posts . . .P1020738 (2)P1020737Down in the valley, specks of black and white against a sandy backdrop welcomed me. As it turned out, they were a mix of sheep, goat, horses and . . .yes, YAK! Everyone has some strange wish or the other that they hope will be fulfilled during their lifetime -something that’s difficult to explain to people who’d rather roll their eyes and guffaw than confess to their own much stranger wishes. I have many. And one of them has been to see Yak in the wild. P1020739 (2)The only other time I’d seen a Yak was at the Hidimba Temple in Manali where the poor chap was used as a prop for touristy photos. While I didn’t savor that experience, I won’t deny I too clicked some pictures -just in case I died before meeting one in the wild. It is another matter altogether that I didn’t pose with Mr. Touristy Yak; no one from my family fancied the idea of sitting on him either -so this picture is of some random tourist posing for his newly-wed wife.20131108_140735Coming back to my trek, I must point out that these Yak were not wild in the true sense of the word; they were domestic -reared by the Changpa nomads for wool and milk. However, they were out there grazing in the austere beauty of the Ladakhi terrain and that was wild enough for me!P1020744P1020742P1020745 (2)The appearance of the animals heralded the presence of nomads and soon enough, we walked into the village that was to be our next pit-stop. As usual, we set up camp near a gurgling stream and I crawled into my tent to relax for a while. P1020747Outside, the herdsmen were bringing their animals back home. These were the same nomads whose desolate villages I’d passed in the plains during the last few days. They would remain in the mountains for one more month before heading for their stone huts. Out here though, they live either in parachute tents or in the traditional rebo -a tent made of yak-wool fabric, woven and stitched together by the Changpa women, and erected over a shallow pit about two feet deep with wooden posts for support. These, however, are not as commonly used now, since the parachute tents are easier to erect and maintain and withstand the strong winds better. The Changpa women also weave shawls to be sold to middle-men who supply to shopkeepers in Leh, and are adept at milking the yak and preparing curd which, sold as Tibetan Yogurt, is much sought after in the plains.

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The vehicle in the pic belongs to a middle-man, come to collect his supplies for the month.

I soon got summons from the dining tent where Siddharth had prepared some hot soup and pakodas. As I savored the food, a Changpa matron stopped by and started to chat with him. Before she left, Siddharth packed some pakodas for her grandchildren and handed her some money -I wondered what the latter was for and soon got to know that there was a fee levied on all campers in the region to help keep the premises clean. I love the idea and hope other camping locations will also follow suit so nature, the natives and campers can all benefit from it.

We were all soon chatting and even as the pakoda plate was licked clean (well, not licked!), Siddharth told us how he’d attended cooking classes back home in Nepal. Then, as if to prove a point, he started preparing Pizza for dinner! In a tapeli! With pebbles on the base and an aluminum plate mounted on top! Forgive me my exclamation marks, but given my own aversion (and incompetence) to cooking, I just couldn’t help being in awe of this guy.

Here are some pics of how the tapeli-pizza was made . . .for those who don’t know, tapeli is the Hindi word for a deep metal vessel with a broad rim and flat-ish base used to cook a variety of liquid-y Indian dishes.

Well, this was my hurrah moment – relishing tapeli-pizza at a height of 4700mts above sea level!! And while I don’t have pics to show how it was all eaten up in a jiffy, trust me it was!

Later in the night, the shepherd dogs belonging to the nomads began howling even before I could get comfy in my tent. I had earlier counted at least five of them; but now, with their howls echoing through the valley, it sounded like there were several more. This was definitely not a night to take a leak in the open! And although I was as scared as the night at Tso Kar – even more so considering there were more dogs that could come tearing into my tent – I was also sad . . .because suddenly, I missed Mr. Dog.

Why hadn’t he followed us here today? Could these other dogs be the reason? Or was it that the last campsite was the extent of his territory and he didn’t want to stray beyond? I remember a conversation with a friend about Mr. Dog after I returned home -given the sudden appearance and disappearance of my one-day-companion, he hinted that maybe it was not a dog at all, but the spirit of the valley. Although it does seem temptingly romantic, I’m quite sure it was indeed a dog and not a spirit. In hindsight, I wished I’d known he wouldn’t follow us that day . . .I’d have at least spent some time beside him, bidding him adieu and wishing him well. And I wished I hadn’t taken his company for granted . . .