Sunday, 13 September 2020

Lockdown Dairies:

There’s a sublime quality to the time in the hour before dawn-break. If there’s a slight breeze during that time, it has the capacity to transport you to a different realm. I tried to keep up with my routine of getting up before dawn, but have slipped back into a post dawn schedule. Autumn is right around the corner, and the nights are getting longer. Soon dawn and my waking up time will coincide once again. 

Mornings have become a packed time for me, a time which is solely for me and my care. A time for noticing new growths in my balcony garden and working on soil and compost with my hands, feeding the birds and squirrels on the terrace and refilling their water bowls, doing my rounds of walks around the terrace bare feet, lying down on a mat, sometimes in the sun, to just look up at the vast blue skies and clouds as they pass by at their own pace, slipping into a deeply meditative space, doing yoga, meditation, going for weekly morning walks, and making breakfast. 

Who is my body? What role do I play as a female of the human species? As a unique person like all else, what can I offer to the world? In what ways do I connect deeper with Earth and nature within a restricted environment? These are the questions that are arising in me since the time of the lockdown. The world is in turmoil which has now gone beyond the pandemic, and people are suffering deeply, especially the poor. But nothing changes without a crisis. You do not transform into your best selves until you go through a test of fire, a personal or collective ‘dark night of the soul’. Each one of us has contributed in some ways to the situation we are in today, and each of us has to do our bit to steer all of us out of it in future. Like many indigenous tribes say, either we look at a crisis with joy and as an opportunity, or we get bogged down and entangled in a web of fear and mayhem. 

My life right now is limited to my terrace and within one kilometer radius of my neighborhood. But then it gives me a chance to observe nature that much closely. It gives me time to observe over 30 species of birds and many more that I can hear but not yet identify, numerous dragon and damsel flies, bugs, spiders, house flies, bees, and butterflies. It gives me time to watch the male koel distract the crow while the female lays her egg in the crow’s nest and over months watch the juvenile koel hop around in the sesham tree as the mother crow shrieks her head off protectively if I even glance in her ‘baby’s’ direction. It gives me time to watch butterflies and bees flocking the flowering shesham and mast trees and the arrival of bats as fruits begin to appear. It gives me the time to befriend a few crows and mynahs who sit very close to me when I put food out for them, catalog the never-similar sunsets and cloudscapes as spring turned to summer and subsequently the arrival and departure of monsoon clouds, and experience intimately the joys of sudden thunderstorms, lightning strikes, light breeze, intense heat, numerous rainbows and double rainbows, heavy rain, and brilliant full moons. And it also gives me the time to learn about wild plants that grow in my pots, parks, and sidewalks and include them in my diet and life with a lot of gratitude.

Cloudscape from my terrace

 
All my scattered energies are finally coming back into my body, helping me tune in to its own wisdom and deep-diving into its healing with food. I am trying to understand what I did to my body and spirit all this while by not accepting my periods as something intimate and wonderful but rather viewing it as a roadblock to my freedom and adventure. 

Time seems to have slowed down considerably, yet time is zipping away at a rate that seems faster than usual. While I live somewhere between these two spaces, I continue to enjoy my time with my work, books, art, long conversations with friends, and deep contemplation. For, when I finally step out into the ‘new’ world, it will be from a space of ‘I’, that is my spirit. For, there is no going back to the ways of an old fear-based world.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Monsoon, The Phenomenon:

As temperature begins to climb after spring is bullied out hurriedly by the approaching summer, thoughts of the monsoon begin to stir somewhere at the recess of the mind. These thoughts are always there, though at a very subconscious level as people go about their daily lives. The countdown to the arrival of the rain bearing clouds begins in earnest when the thermostat moves beyond 40 degrees C in large parts of the country.

India is not defined by its searing summers, as many would think. Rather, the annual seasonal reversal of wind patterns that bring some of the heaviest rains in the world, it’s the power of the monsoon that leaves nobody untouched, connecting all our souls in a strangely sublime way. Despair that it’s too strong or too weak, anguish that it didn’t arrive on time, the jagged anticipation of the dark clouds, the visceral fear of flood or famine, the relief, joy and effervescence, the romance and poetry, the moodiness and constant wetness, the festivities…..the emotions around the monsoon are just as many as the number of people in this country.


Monsoon in Mandu: Image - Bipasha M

During my childhood in Bihar, monsoon meant wearing shin length raincoats and plastic shoes to school which we would deliberately take off while coming home giving us an excuse for getting wet. It also meant wading through stagnant waters to get to the bus stand, making paper boats, and pushing them across these waters to compete whose boat went the farthest. It meant school holidays during days of incessant rains when we would tuck ourselves under covers and read storybooks through the day or sit on the windowsill and day-dream as the rain drizzled outside steadily. On days when the sky would stay dark and rain refused to stop, worry lines would creep in on the faces of our parents and elders. Discussions would veer towards the rising levels of Ganga, and a time when the river breached her banks during the dark of the night drowning people in their sleep and destroying properties.

In the first phase of my stay in Delhi, the crisp autumn and clear blue skies during the peak of winter held sway over my thoughts and emotions. Oh, I did love the rains, but it was in a dramatic, nostalgic, angst-ridden way that younger years tend to elicit, full of longing for things hard to define, and a love for life that can be expressed only when the world around gets washed off all its dreariness. But in all this, for me, the monsoon remained a season which heralded the approach of autumn and winter.

Fourteen years ago, when I landed at Mumbai’s airport, it was a typical grey day with a steady drizzle and sleek wet roads. That was my first brush with the monsoon in the city and which continued to define all the years of my stay there. For this is the land where I understood the glory and the power of the phenomenon, what it means to live for four months with grey skies and continuous wet conditions, of having walls and clothes covered in moss, of carrying a change of clothes every time you stepped outside, of getting totally drenched due to the force of the rain despite all your measures to stay covered. And this is also the place where I understood what unadulterated joy is when the first drops of rain begin to fall after months of heart-numbing and physically-draining mugginess, when this joy is reflected in everybody’s faces around you, when “poush aala” rings out from everywhere, when the city suddenly comes back to life.


Monsoon in Maharashtra coast. Image: Bipasha M

Some of my defining monsoon moments though have been in places outside of Mumbai – at the sea coasts when we watched the rains arrive on darkest clouds across the sea and cover us swiftly, within minutes, with a force that was almost like a physical blow; or amongst the fluorescent green hills of the Western Ghats shrouded in clouds and mist with numerous waterfalls rolling down the mossy rock face. It was during these moments and places that I could intimately witness the magical sway the monsoon has over this country.

Last year, the monsoon made an extremely short and bipolar appearance in Delhi leaving us to deal with a rather sizzling and long summer. This year, post an unprecedented thunderstorms season that lasted most of summer, the monsoon arrived sooner than usual and then weakened. As it continues to gathers strength, and the air here grows thick with heat and heavy moisture, my gaze is fixed eastwards waiting impatiently for the full arrival of the monsoon clouds.               


Monday, 1 June 2020

Living in the Fear Matrix:



                                                              Photo: Bipasha M


The realization that we all are living in a make-believe illusionary world of our perceptions came to me in the most unlikely of places. I had finished my work and I felt good, I had said my byes to my colleagues and was walking down the same route towards Churchgate station in Mumbai to catch the train home. Suddenly I felt strange, as if I was in a bubble, and out of nowhere I got the feeling that this (my reality then) is not true. That everything around me is fake - the buildings, the road, my career, my goals - that the whole world as we know it is fake.

There was nothing extraordinary about that day. The crowd at the station, muggy weather, the chaos, all seemed as real as the previous day. Yet, something had changed.

That was almost three years ago. And now, during the time of Covid, I finally understood what I had felt that evening.

Yuval Noah Harari mentions in his book Sapiens that only homo sapiens have the ability to create fictional or imagined reality that includes politics, religion, money, human rights etc. and accept that reality over and above the objective reality or the reality as experienced by the natural world.

This fictional reality we now have come to believe, to be the only known reality. So, majority of us go through our whole lives without doubting anything about it. Sometimes we meekly follow all the structures put in place since thousands of years, sometimes protesting the injustice perpetrated by these structures but still living within them with minor shifts here and there. 

The chaos that ensued around the world after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly brought the ‘fakeness’ into sharp focus in my heart and mind. I realized that our ‘fictional’ world, as we live it, is based on a fear-matrix. I am not talking about the pandemic here, though reactions to it are a virtual cherry on the fear-matrix cake. People who have seen the movie Matrix might be able to understand this better. Our collective psyche or consciousness is controlled by the power of fear, the basest of all human emotions. And its fear that gives rise to other base emotions of greed, hate, aggression, power and control, separation of the self from self itself as well as nature, separation of the mind and heart, division between people etc. Hence, all our societal structures, systems, hierarchies, human relationships were created and are still being created from this space, the lowest level of emotional evolution.

Even the love of a mother for her child – an emotion that is said to come closest to understanding ‘unconditional’ love – has elements of fear involved (I love her so much I won’t let anything happen to my child).

To understand this, do a simple exercise: If you had no fear in your life, what would that life be? Here you can include all the decisions that have a base in fear – the need to earn more and more money so that you can be financially secure, the need to be seen as ‘somebody’ because you don’t want to be seen as a failure, the need to get married because you don’t want to be alone when you are old, the need to have children because you want to leave a lineage etc. If there was no fear, you would perhaps leave your job and be the artist, healer, writer, story-teller that you always wanted to be. If there was no fear, you would perhaps be happy with living for the moment and not accumulate for future. If there was no fear, you would perhaps marry only for love and partnership. If there was no fear, your child would perhaps be a natural extension of you to be raised to her highest potential.

Spiritual and ancient traditions know that to heal and shift the perspective of the world, we need only a small section of the population to live from this ‘fearless’ state consistently for a certain period of time. This was also proven in a research on non-violence by Erica Chenoweth who found that it required only 3.5% of the population to actively participate in order for systems and governments to topple or for that matter change the world.     

That the world is still in the throes of fear shows that we still haven’t reached the threshold number of people who have successfully broken out of this state, that fear is so pervasive and deeply entrenched that it’s difficult to even imagine any other world outside of this one.

On one of the lockdown nights, while walking around my terrace, I knew for sure that a joyful abundant world exists just beyond these boundaries. I felt I could reach out and touch it even. Whenever we return to normal (whatever that might mean right now), I will not be able to go back to the old ways of life and living. But how the path unfolds to the other side of the world is yet to be seen.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

How I Shifted to an Earth-based Life:

Image: Bipasha M

One thing struck me while I was reading Pranay Lal’s page-turner ‘Indica’ which traces the deep natural history of India since the time Earth was formed. To me, it seemed as if Earth has been experimenting with herself and various life-forms as she journeyed from a spinning ball of molten iron to the most gorgeous of all planets in our solar system. By one explosion of a supervolcano here, and upping the temperature there, she would swipe the planet clean of the evolving life-forms and then start afresh. The current coronavirus pandemic, similarly also looks intelligently placed: only affecting the species that is causing her trouble, as a warning of what she is capable of doing if we do not pay more attention.

Like in any challenging situations or catastrophes, there will be sufferers, largely the poor, who end up bearing the brunt of something which they did not create in the first place. Keeping this societal paradox or injustice aside, I see this as a hugely opportune time to bring about far-reaching changes, to shift the tide of ‘business as usual’. Globally, it puts the spotlight on environment and our terrible disconnect with it, the lies upon lies about how nature and economy cannot go hand-in-hand, and people’s spiritual disconnect with themselves. In India, it puts the spotlight on an invisible, indispensable, yet an often discriminated against community of migrant labourers, and it gives women a huge opportunity to get men involved in household work and correct a societal order that provided undue privileges to them.

With the rise of Greta Thunberg’s ‘Fridays for Future’ movement and now the ecological concerns raised by the virus, many people have asked me as well as asking each other how to lead a more Earth conscious life. My foray into living a more conscious life was a result of yet another global challenge – the 2008 economic slowdown. I had lost my job, but it provided me an opportunity to shift from a much hated work life to something which made better sense to me. I joined an NGO which paid me 30% of what I used to earn. After a year and a half of not buying any new material stuff, I realized that I didn’t really need much material stuff in the first place. That experience started my evolution into a more earth-based living which I continued for the next ten years.

1) Getting into the circular economy: This happened out of necessity. Since I did not have enough money to buy new furniture, I bought a second-hand one. When my flatmate left the city, I bought a few things from her. Post that, I made a conscious decision not to buy anything new. So for the next ten years, all things in my house were hand-me-downs – cooking stove, fridge, utensils, jars, curtains, cushion covers, bedsheets, furniture, and even clothes. Trekking and travel items and work essentials like laptop, camera, and phone are the only things mine, which I haven’t changed in many years now. But I do accept gifts!

2) Going organic, going local: The idea here was to shift to healthy food and to our traditional food sourced locally. The spices, oil, pulses and grains were the easiest to change. I felt guilty of ordering organic vegetables only from Bigbasket (which didn’t use plastic for organic items!) as it added to emissions. So I would alternate between that, hypercity, and the tribal and east Indian bhaji walis who used to get seasonal and local green leafy vegetables early in the mornings. I also removed many MNC-produced processed food from my kitchen and added a whole lot of millets, barley, and rice products, basically food that were Indian. It helped that I was in the social sector – my travels would lead me to places and NGOs that would sell real honey, organically grown local grains, pulses, spices etc. which I never failed to pick up. A lot many NGOs also deliver online albeit a bit slow.

3) Choosing herbal over chemical: All products marked ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ are not necessarily environmentally friendly. In India, it’s difficult to differentiate too well. However, there were two reasons for this shift: a) herbal/natural is any day better than chemical; b) there are numerous locally manufactured good products that are way better than the mass produced large company products. So, my house cleaning items, shampoos, soaps, lotions, cosmetics have all turned natural. Except detergent powder as I have not yet found a good substitute. And I use this minimally anyway; you don’t really need as much as ads say you need!

4) Castile soaps and vegan or responsibly sourced products: I came to know about castile soaps here and was happily surprised that they are available in India and that too at a fairly affordable price (for me). This has been my most recent shift. The other recent shift has been towards products which don’t add palm oil or source them responsibly, which is still a bit tricky to find out. I once wrote to Fabindia to check where they source their palm oil from, to which they said it’s responsibly sourced within India without actually mentioning the source. I have taken them at face value and use their products sometime. Products that use animal-testing have been off my list for a long time now.

5) Saying No to plastic: Clearly this needs a lot of work, because plastic is everywhere especially in the packaging. But the least I could do was carry my cloth bag at all times, reusing the same plastic pouches again and again at hypercity (sometimes fighting with the sales people who would eventually acquiesce), carrying my metal water bottle everywhere, using biodegradable (corn starch) dustbin liners, never ordering in unless absolutely necessary, carrying my own boxes to buy idlis, upma, or any other breakfast items, asking for glass tumblers at the tapri chai stalls, refraining from buying tetrapacks, using bamboo toothbrush, etc. I stored all the plastics from packaged items to give away to recyclers. Much later, I came to know that there are small enterprises in and around Mumbai/Thane who collect these plastics to make fuel from them. I also recycled even the smallest of the tetrapacks (if I ended up buying any) at Sahakari Bhandar even if it meant traveling from Malad to Fort for that.

6) Being aware of the source: The source of all materials that we use - from plastic, glass, fossil fuel, electricity, clothes etc. – is Earth. It’s easy to say no to plastic and fossil fuel and pick up any other alternate material available. But one has to do a bit of analysis to see if the alternate picked up is better or worse than what you previously used. For example aluminum that is extracted often at the cost of vast stretches of forests and tribal land. Electric cars are good but have you wondered where the electricity comes from in India? We are still dependent on coal which is mined in open-pits making it environmentally destructive. In India, where companies do not use sustainable business practices and hence we do not much choice unlike Germany (where people can choose renewable energy over others), we can still be more aware while making decisions. I have not thrown away the plastic bottles in my kitchen yet because I am trying to find something sustainable and earth-friendly like earthenware which seems readily available these days. To know more about the source of all our products, watch this.

7) Using less water: Small changes can lead to big savings like fixing a water saving device to all taps, using the shower at half the speed, and only half flushing the toilet when you pee. If it’s your own house, you can also add a rainwater harvesting system.

8) Segregating waste: This has thankfully become a mandate now but I have been segregating waste since the past ten years, much to the amusement of my friends. Though I knew that it would all land up in the same landfill, the only reason was that it became a bit easier for the kachrawalas to pick up stuff for recycling and earning money. Now that I have a terrace vegetable garden, I use some of the kitchen waste for composting.

9) Using environmentally friendly non-stick cookwares: I used the regular non-stickware for the longest time without knowing how toxic they are both from the health as well as environment perspective. Now I have shifted to environmentally-friendly ones and yes, it’s available here! Though they are not as good as the ones available in Europe and elsewhere.

10) Recycle and responsible disposing: When I was leaving Mumbai, I had tons of newspapers, plastics, e-waste, clothes etc. that I had to dispose off. My electric and electronic items were all given away to an e-waste company, newspapers and plastics I sold to an enterprise that used the money to support various NGOs, clothes and utensils I gave to my domestic help and also to Goonj (an NGO who reuses, upcycles used clothes).

11) Saying No to companies that promote profit at all cost: Two companies which tops this list are Reliance and Adani. I refuse to buy any of their products or use any of their services including mutual funds. This is not 100% foolproof because I am not fully aware of their subsidiary companies or associated or sub sub associated companies. But by moving to NGO products and products made by small enterprises, I have been able to reduce their intrusion in my life much. However, I had to use energy from Reliance as well as the metro system in Mumbai, and now I am paying my electricity bills to Adani in Delhi!

12) Using natural fibers: I wear largely cotton or khadi clothes. Even at weddings or parties. I have not been able to switch kitchen wipes (which uses micro-fibers) to clothe yet. And I also use fleece jackets during winter (which is polyester and micro-fibers or basically plastic) since I can’t afford the expensive woolen jackets yet. However, to assuage my guilt, I use jackets made from recycled fleece! Now, I want to try out clothes made from hemp!     

13) Using local travel: Mumbai is good that way, and now also Delhi with its excellent metro connectivity.  In Mumbai, I often used to offer lifts to people going the same way as me. In Delhi, I haven’t done that yet! I like to travel by trains and buses as much as I can but I do take flights depending on the distance and time at my disposal.

14) Switching to bamboo-based sanitary napkins: Finally! For years, I felt awful about not being able to switch to menstrual cups and using toxic regular pads. But now, with easy availability of bamboo-based sanitary pads and liners, I am finally guilt free. Now I am trying to figure out if there are any home incinerators that I can use to burn them instead of throwing them in the dustbin.

Image: Bipasha M

I am happy that for ten years in Mumbai, I managed to stick more or less fully to these choices. Things are not the same after I shifted back with my parents. Rise in expenses sometimes don’t leave you with much choice. Also I realized that it’s very difficult to change habits of people when they are old. For example, my father keeps getting polythene bags leading to much mental trauma for me and many fights with him. However, I have made my peace by continuing to do what is possible for me do within the restrictions.

If the pandemic with its physical isolation, more self-analysis time, and images of nature reclaiming its space inspires people enough to shift to a more conscious earth-based life, then I hope this list will make that journey a little bit easier. 

Oh by the way, I still buy books!

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

What Buddhist Philosophy Taught Me:

Disclaimer: This post is about what I gained from studying Buddhist Philosophy (from Tibet House) for a year. The topic is vast, deep, simple yet complex. If anyone wants to understand more on the subject, s/he would need to either enroll for the same or longer course or read original books written by ancient Buddhist scholars and masters.


Be kind to yourself. Be wisely kind to yourself.

This was the main ground or precept which formed the basis of Geshe La’s teachings - how to be kind, and then wisely kind to yourself. Buddhist philosophy and practices are meant to unravel part by part, thread by thread, the working of our psyche. Here psyche means the mind which is different from soul or consciousness. The mind, which creates layers and layers of illusions that we cling to so desperately, sometimes for lifetimes, in order to seek the elusive ‘happiness’. The step by step practices, therefore, help remove these layers of illusions and perceptions, by which we live, think, believe, and act, till the time we find the pure essence or the Buddha in ourselves.

Difficult, you would say. Actually its not.

Reality Vs Perception


Take for example these mundane conversations:

A: Is the pancake stiff?
B: I liked it.
_______

A1:  Have you been to Ladakh?
B1: Three times. Last time I stayed there for two months. It was awesome.
_______

A2: Yaar, I don’t want to continue with this corporate work anymore. I want to do something for the society, create an impact.
_______

In the first two, the answers are not in sync with the questions at all. Yet, most of our routine conversations are exactly like these. We don’t realize that the way we answer or have conversations can lead to different perceptions, which again add layers of further misconceptions as you go along in life. The third, though well meaning, is steeped in the ‘self’ – ‘I’ want to change the society. All three are rooted in the ‘Self’.

Buddhist philosophy has taught me how to recognize these ‘self-grasping’ and ‘self-centred’ attitudes which are based on ego and fear largely, understand why they are there in me and how they underline all aspects and relationships in my life, how to break these illusions that I have created around me, and seek true freedom.  

All the answers that you seek lie in understanding the ‘Self’. The more you are rid of these self-aggrandizing illusions, the more your reality changes. Like Shamanic traditions, Buddhist philosophy reiterates that we pause; listen and listen well; notice our reactions and actions; seek wisdom rather than just knowledge, from the right sources and our own lived experiences; practice and more practice and then some more; live mindfully and act rightly with love and compassion for all sentient and non-sentient beings; and live from your heart.

By focusing on understanding that our current reality is merely made up of layers and layers of perceptions created by us, we can break out of the cycles of “I will be happy if I can build a house in the mountains; I will be happy if I am commissioned by Nat Geo to do a story for them; I will be happy if I can get her to say yes; I will be happy if I can travel to 44 countries before I turn 44 etc.” 

And that’s where true happiness lies. In being Free.  



Monday, 13 January 2020

What is wrong with our men??!


Me: I am travelling in the hinterlands of UP.

Guy: That can be exciting too :-). You get cat calls there? :-D

Me: Next you will say rape is super exciting for us?


This whatsapp conversation happened just a few days after yet another gangrape victim was killed with impunity by her perpetrators in Unnao and protests by women across urban India were still going on. I was traveling in UP meeting grassroot women working in various sectors. Keeping aside their success stories, a single thread ran across the lives of these women – being subjected to abject and horrendous levels of violence. 
  
Violence was the underlying story of majority of the women in the state. This is the underlying story of majority of the women in our country. Forms of violence which have been normalized pervade the fabric of our society. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It’s so deep rooted and seeped into all layers, that I find it difficult to believe that change can happen in my lifetime.

Hyderabad gangrape and murder; Unnao rape and murder by burning; Nirbhaya gangrape in the capital city; Kathua gangrape of a minor girl in a Devi-temple by men who came all the way from UP to participate; Rajasthan gangrape where a young girl ran naked for 1 km before she found help; hanging of Dalit girls by upper-caste men, gruesome sexual assault on adivasi woman by police so much so that her uterus is rejected by her body; beating a wife till she becomes unconscious or her skin falls off; kicking a pregnant woman in womb so she loses her child every time she becomes pregnant; pushing a daughter-in-law down the stairs for carrying a girl-child; forcing a wife to have sex because she has to submit to his needs by the virtue of marriage; burnt for not providing the money which was not theirs in the first place; asking for dowry from a would-be IAS daughter in-law for an IAS son just because he is a son; a father negotiating for money over the dead body his daughter, threatening the husband with an FIR, where a woman is reduced to mere money to be haggled over; child pregnancy because she is assaulted by upper-caste men and boys in her village; sexually abused by fathers, uncles, brothers, in-laws and others; adding the nine months of life in the womb to her actual age, so that she can be married off as early as possible; thrashed senseless because she dared to say that she wanted to complete her school education; threats of getting raped if she raised her voice in the community – tum janti nahin ho main kya kar sakta hoon; not being able to go to college because the neighbourhood boys make lewd gestures and cat calls.

These are the real life stories of many women across the country, their every day lived reality. 
   
Even if you move away from gender-based violence, and look at any other form of violence (and there is so much out there), the one underlying thread across all forms of violence is that it’s perpetrated by Men. Men are violent towards women. Men are violent towards children. Men are violent towards men. Men are violent towards other nations and communities. Men are violent towards nature.

It’s time our Men realize this and do a collective introspection on why violence has become their essence, almost running in their DNA.

Until then, we will remain a sick society, a very very sick society. 

Until then, all men will remain guilty.



Monday, 18 November 2019

Sillage (n.):


A brilliant day in Sikles, Annapurna Conservation Area. Photo: Bipasha M


The scent that lingers in the air, the trail left in the water, the impression made in space after something or someone has been and gone, the trace of someone’s perfume. (French)


The bus was packed – all seats occupied, spaces near the seats filled with luggage, jute sacks, cardboard boxes, gas cylinders and more luggage. I was about to get down when a woman in the seat next to the driver’s called out to me and shifted making a bit of a space for me. I squeezed in. There was a cardboard box kept below, so I put my feet on it and tried to make myself comfortable. Both the woman next to me and the man sitting behind the driver started saying something in Nepali. The urgency in their voice suggested I should not keep my feet on the cardboard box. The next ten minutes were spent by these two people trying to help me find a place to keep my feet, which finally was on somebody’s luggage.

The driver (guruji) finally started the bus. A few things moved and resettled including my leg position. Through hand gestures, actions and broken Hindi, we communicated. The box contained chickens which were being sent by somebody in Pokhara to their family in Sikles, a Gurung village high in the mountains. Both these un-related fellow travellers kept an eye out for the chickens during the journey up. Everybody was talking to everybody else as if they all knew each other. I was also pulled into their conversations even though I barely understood the language. Soon, they all knew that I was a ‘very brave’ woman travelling on my own from Pokhara to Sikles.

A few kilometers into the mountain and the bus came to a dead stop. There were two road-rollers ahead working on widening the narrow mountain roads. Stones and rocks fell as the machines gouged out the earth from the mountain sides. It meant a delay of one and a half hour or more. My Nepali saathi had warned me – the first thing to learn in Nepal is patience. I ate the apple I had bought and then went off to sleep. After almost one and a half hours, the bus re-started. Everybody settled back into their respective seats, each looking out for the person next to them.  It was once again like a big happy family traveling together. Children sat holding onto the arms of strangers while parents sat elsewhere knowing they will be looked after.

The bus shook and rattled; roads rose, dipped and fell; my bones felt as if they will come out of their sockets. People got down, more people got up. Parcels for unknown people were picked up and dropped. Messages were passed. Beautiful picture perfect villages set against the backdrop of snow mountains came and went. In five hours, we reached Sikles.  

An elderly fellow passenger in the bus offered me his lovely home to stay. He spoke a bit of English and Hindi and addressed me as “daughter”. I shifted between calling him “dadju” and “father”.  He took me to the viewpoint early morning next day from where we could see the himal up close. He treated me to evening snacks of roasted maize and boiled soy beans all the days I stayed there.

His joyful wife could barely speak Hindi, so most of our conversations were based on simple words and actions. Other times, it was intuitive. We joked and laughed a lot also. She told me about her youngest son who doesn’t live with them anymore. The father and the son had a fight. She is one of the last few women in the village who still weave sheep wool into blankets on a traditional handloom.       

Their daughter and grand-daughter lived with them as her husband worked in a foreign land like most young Nepali men. The daughter was reserved and had striking features. We slowly got speaking and created a space for ourselves. I helped in the kitchen while she cooked.

This Buddhist Gurung family prayed to Shiva and their own ancestors. Every time a meal was cooked, it was first offered to them before given to others. The kitchen leftovers were fed to an old stray cow with no teeth. The bones were fed to a village dog. Nothing was wasted.

In their own non-intrusive ways, they looked after me in the short while that I was there. They left me alone to stare at the mountains and read my book, frequently brining me steaming cups of kalo sugared chiya. It was Tihar, the day I left. The three of us hugged each other – mother, daughter and I. We held each other long, not a word was spoken, a silent acknowledgment to the kinship and bond that can exist only between women.

I took the jeep this time instead of the bus. My “father” came to drop me to the jeep. He told the other travellers that I was from India. We all started speaking with each other including the driver in limited Hindi and Nepali. The old woman sitting next to me kept her hand protectively on my legs and went off to sleep. It was again one big happy family travelling together. The morning autumn sun was beautiful. I looked out at the mountains, layered in mist and ever so mystical.