Monday, September 9, 2013

Bicycle Blues (True story bro.)

It's been a while since I've returned from cycling up in the Himalayas. Long enough for immediacy and the seared shadows of the mountains to have dimmed in the whirl of the daily commute and glare of naked light bulbs of yellow expectations.

There is so much that will remain unsaid here. I am not a notebook and a pen person, so the names of little hamlets and the mountain people are already fading.  The nine days I cycled there, are all blending into each other and distorting my recollections of sunsets, prayer flags, wind sculpted ravines I'd then imagined plunging into and landing painlessly on a family of shocked plump marmots.

However, there is a little stretch of the trail I'd like to put down on record.

I shall fast forward to the aforementioned little stretch, between Pang and Debring, two outposts in the bizarre mountain desert wilderness, both blessed and damned at the same time. Timeless, except they are force fitted into the present by the yellow Maggi packets in the little road side shacks.

The first days on the trail had been singularly taxing, much like a baby just out of the womb, I gasped and gasped for air which I barely inhaled before I had to cough it out or wheeze judiciously to keep the cough from wearing me out. I took a couple of days to settle into some breathing rhythm where I could manage significant displacement without having to stop.

We started for Pang from a place called Whiskey Nallah(named so because an Indian Army truck bearing nightcap supplies for soldiers hereabouts toppled and spilled it's contents into the cold desert dusk), where we had spent the night.

We started early, the sun had just started to rise and there was a crystal crust of frost on the seat as we mounted the cycles, pedaling up the Lachlangla Pass in a stiff trundle. We reached Pang a little after noon, not without incident, having to deal with a couple of flats and a couple of tyres actually ripping at the seams and then climbed up a few steep kilometers into the plateau of the Moray Plains.

Moray plains.

After the longest time of pedalling at the lowest gear and terrain more suited to mountain goats than anything humans could engineer, there lay a brilliant stretch of black tarmac, straight as it could be, shimmering and disappearing into a madly fluttering haze at the horizon. Flanked on either side by signature landscape reminiscent of imagery from epic Mongol sagas. Vast emptiness, textured silences and a tinge of green coaxed out by the summer sun.

The air seemed to buzz with an almost unnatural energy and as we loitered at the summit. For the first time in all these days on the trail, all my aches, the dodgy knee which I had injured fording a mountain stream  somewhere below, seemed to fade away and like a crazed Pamplona bull just out of the pen, I shot into the road in a blood tinged rush, cranking up a gear every few pedals.

The whole scene was set to a blues soundtrack running in my head. I dont think I can remember if there was a particular one, but I shall pick Howling Wolf's Wang Dang Doodle as most likely.

There I was slicing through the thin,still mountain air. Howling Wolf's swagger in my shoulder posture. I was the Mongol horde charging to plunder, I was Dylan writing Visions of Johanna, I was Arthur swinging the Excaliber jubilating in it's perfectly balanced arc , I was Paul Simon's Boxer winking at the women in diaphanous tight dresses and their come-ons on Seventh Avenue, I was the rifle shot that killed an antelope in a Hemingway short story.

I, for that briefest of moments, was everything I wanted to be and could be.

And then there was a fierce gust of head wind, that slammed into me from nowhere and time froze as I was stopped dead in my tracks. One moment speeding down in a visceral day dream, and the next suspended in perfect equilibrium, all the energy pumped into the pedal, emasculated without malice, by the gust micromanaging my inertia to a standstill.

As the gust swept by chuckling, I put my foot down more in shock than anything and the thin film of sweat evaporating on my cooling forehead being the only sensation I registered.

I think I must have laughed at it all. There was no one around to confirm. But I can I imagine I did. 

The rest of the journey is possibly inconsequential to what will be my memories of the trail. Numbers like 5400m at the highest point may probably tell a story. Bragging rights for bar stool conversations.

When at the end like they say your life flashes before you, in what I'd like to believe will be a set of photographs set to the comforting whirr of a projector beaming pictures on the favorite wall of your childhood home, I'd like the operator to really linger for a bit on breathtaking landscape of the moments on the black tarmac, as I have one last chance to chisel out a hitherto unseen detail and then fade to black to a familiar and dear blues riff and ...

For context: In June this year, in the company of three other friends, I cycled from Manali to Leh and since then have been left with the lingering feeling that I may have done the coolest thing I'll ever do and learning to live with that while I plot to ensure that this will not be so.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Of delayed trains and an early breakfast at Denny's

I met Anna Pianzola in the summer of 2004.  Some people would say that this isn't a long time ago. Maybe it isn't. But with time ever slowly accelerating as I enter my 32nd year, the past is receding away faster than ever, like it has been for the past few years, like it will be tomorrow ticking faster than today, everything seems so long ago and worse.. concocted. But I digress.
I met Anna Pianzola with her grey irises symmetrically strewn with black shards of Veneto glass on the last train back from Nikko on an August Saturday night.The Tobu line train to Asakusa at the fringes of the madness that is Tokyo to be precise.
It maybe summer in the plains, but up in highlands of Nikko, fog was rolling in, and the train with dew drops sticking to it's sides like beads of sweat on the back of a particular lissome lady who will remain unnamed , settled with a sigh. People more anxious than usual (the last train has that effect, much like when you decide to marry for reasons other than love) hurried in to catch a seat for the three hour ride back into the Tokyo night.
I found a seat by the doorway of the last carriage( I've managed to find a seat in the last carriage of most trains in Japan). Just before the train was scheduled to depart, two women came running into the platform with their day packs slowing them considerably. One woman was much taller than the other. The shorter one was Anna. They got in as the station master politely apologized into his tinny Tannoy for any inconvenience caused by the slippery stairways and that the doors would shut for a departure in the next minute.
As the train departed, a drizzle ,which soon turned into a sleety downpour with raindrops splattering the panes and them slowly sliding away backwards like helpless panicking lovers,  clouded the countryside.
We only got as far as a few kilometers past Shimo-Imaichi when the train slowed down and eventually squealed to a full stop. Shortly a tremolo voice (very apologetically) announced that, there had been a landslide and the tracks needed clearing. A crew was on the job and he'd report the progress periodically. Or that was what I thought he announced (my Japanese was laughable then, it is merely bad now).
An old, heavily made up lady donning a green surgical mask with her picnic bag and her older mother in a wheel chair stood leaning against a pillar next to Anna with a deep frown on her forehead. I walked up to her and offered my seat. She refused at first, but was happy to take up on my offer once I insisted. Her mother, in the wheelchair, insisted I take a lion's share of the almonds she had in a pouch.
Fair bargain. But more importantly, there I stood next to Anna (feeling like a creep, for this subterfuge, but in my defence I probably would have given up my seat even if it wasn't for Anna) and for the first time studied her from close quarters. There were drops of the rain nestling in little pockets in her tightly pleated brown hair. Probably twenty and Italian (Guidebook one carries gives away a fair bit. Hers was a 2003 Japan Rough Guide in Italian). Freshly waxed arms, clear skin and those eyes . Her companion was Nordic and what humour writers would call big boned.  But this isnt about her. It's about Anna.
"How long do you think we'll be here?", Anna asked her big boned friend.
"Couldn't for the life of me figure what the guy announced", she shrugged in reply.
"There has been a .land..landslide", I stammered and weakly interjected.( Opening lines have never been my forte and sadly never will be)
"Oh, that sounds bad", she said with the searching look of a person who'd only just seen the person who'd spoken to them.
(Over the years since, I've known many women who have perfected this to an art form, and I've learnt to be a little less disappointed with being an invisible presence to pretty women).
"Did he say by how much we are delayed? We have a train to catch from Asakusa", she continued.
"He said, help was on the way. So I guess, we shouldn't be here for too long."
"That's good to hear.", she said, as that constant wingman of mine, uncomfortable silence, slid in between us.
"You travelling in Japan", she asked after a while.
"No, I am here on business for a few months", I said, hopefully,with a not too audible sigh of relief.
"You are Indian, aren't you?", she continued.
" Yes. Been here a couple of months now. And you? I guess you are Italian"
" Yes. I am. And my friend is Swedish. We met in Tokyo and are travelling together. I just finished a semester at med school in Torino."
"A doctor then."
"Not quite yet. I am planning to move to the US on an exchange program, so I guessed I could use a holiday before that"
I'll spare you the details of the small talk, though sometimes small talk is all we have. We were there for the rest of the night after the worsening weather made clearing the debris, the driver announced, increasingly dangerous. The lady in the wheelchair had run of almonds. She was probably wishing she hadn't been as generous as she was with her gratitude (But at some point in all our lives, who isn't)
Anna and me talked through the night as her Swedish friend pretended to be consumed by a deep dreamless sleep. We talked of the war, volcanoes, sakura, sake, home and for some reason soaplands and Mishima(who I'd just discovered)  .
I most admired her for her fortitude in the face of the certain to be missed prebooked train connection. ( One doesn't just miss a train, in Japan, it can mean having to skip one's next vacation altogether). Admiration is an admirable and a very convenient projection of many unarticulated emotions.
At twenty two(I'd like to think I was younger , but sadly not) ,many a confused Indian adult of my era didn't understand, or didn't want to , or was too squeamish to consider consequences that intimate conversations in a warm last carriage of the last train could spawn.
Articulating desire tastefully, burdened by nonsensical, though hopelessly binding self imposed moral codes , is still a challenge. Then, one just didn't try.
So there we were at three in the dead of the night, meandering around long conversations without dead ends, me not being certain where it would take me(or us?).
Eventually at four , the train started to move and this made me anxious. I could sense the same in her, but I can be easily accused of seeing things that aren't if you knew me well enough.
Nothing breaks a spell like daylight. Dawn heightens the spell, only for the daylight to bring it crashing down with the attendant clarity and reminder of things to do like breakfasts to be had, clothes to be laundered, trains to be caught.
We reached Asakusa around five in the morning.  She had to go on to Ueno where she'd left her bags in a cloak room and then head to Kyoto.
On the platform, we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers and made promises to meet the next weekend at Asakusa for the annual fireworks which she said she was looking forward to.
We never met again. Promises made on railway platforms are rarely kept, very unlike what happened in a certain Linklater movie.
A couple of years later, out of the bleeding blue, she wrote to me asking how I was and asked me to visit Turin for the winter Olympics. This was the first I'd heard from her since we last saw each other. At twenty four, I knew a dead end when I saw one. I never replied.
That morning after Anna and her big boned friend left for Ueno by taxi, I decided to take a long walk through the familiar bylanes of Asakusa, now devoid of the usual throngs. I went to the shrine passing under the gate of thunder, Kaminarimon, and made a wish at the offering box and then went looking for a Denny's because pancakes drowning in maple syrup are the answers to most of the world's problems(not that I had any problems I intended to solve with their aid this early in the morning)
And, oh, my wish was answered a few years later, so maybe there's something there.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Inventory for a monsoon fortnight

Sandpaper - backpack backpouch
Tubes 6
Spoke spanner
Swiss knife
3 allenkeys
Puncture kit
Chain links
btwin below seat pouch
Rolson hammer
Cycle pump big
2 brake cables
5 gear cables
Sleeping bag
Bottle cage
brake shoe
Gel seat cover
Red cycling gloves
Sleeping neck pillow
Fleece gloves
Fleece scarf
Camping hat
Cycling shorts 2
Wilson pants
Disposable gloves
Rubber bands
Cleaning toothbrush
Miners lamp
6 tshirts Green screwdriver.
Jute turtleneck
Normal Shorts 2
Boxer 1
Underchunders 9
yomiuri giants towel
safety pins tablets
Cable ties
multi tool
Duct tape
insulation tape
Ashwin's Ayupatthichurna
Contact lens
Spare glasses
Columbia rain jacket.
Marquez and Updike
55 250 Tele
Tamron wide
2 flash cards
3 decks Playing cards

Shared from Google Keep

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Prelude to an unexpected death in a mango orchard.

Sitting underneath a mango tree,
Eyes closed, counting stars in daylight.
Shafts of sunshine. Shimmering komorebi.
Distant sounds of a Ray Manzerak Moog solo,
Discordant night music around what might be noon.
The stars continue to fall from the sky, all make believe.
Shattering on the ground ,
Lying in glittering shards, bottles thrown by drunk Gods.
Her diaphanous muslin heart,
The osmotic quality of her treacherous love.
Permeating reality, obscuring imagination.
Heaving hurting lungfuls of humid tear soaked air.
Opening her eyes , eyelashes bunched,
she turned another page of her heavily marked Bell Jar.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

As we dance to the masochism tango

Sliding down a rainbow, splashing into giant vats of cold liquid gold, we scream a happy breathless scream. We then run, bathed in gold into the cornfields, the fresh, dewy, ripe cobs whipping against our faces, us dripping gold. We swiftly ford an ankle deep stream running alongside two big friendly retrievers. One was named Fickle and the other Fuckface. No one told us that.We just knew. Fickle and Fuckface panted white wisps of heavy breath into early spring morning air. They chanced upon a fat rabbit and they broke off and chased it into the shrubs and all that remained of their presence were the gently settling stalks of dandelion that had been disturbed when they burst through the underbrush.
We ran along the stream until we came upon a sunny grassy knoll. We scrambled up and sat down to catch our breath, the fast drying gold now flaking finely on our faces and forearms. She prised out the gold dust under her fingernails with a little sharp twig. The sun shone warmer as she placed her palm across the back of my neck, flicking the back of my ear lobe gently with her thumb. We drank from the stream with cupped hands and washed all the gold off our faces, the gold forming a shimmering pool on the gently undulating surface.
She wanted to swim. I said I can't. She smiled and said she knew a spell which would help me. I said I didn't believe in spells. Her high timbre laugh rang out and she said that for a guy who'd just slid down a rainbow, I was strangely obtuse. I admitted she was right and asked her to teach me the magic words. She said she didn't want to swim anymore. This suited me just fine and I slept with my back against an oak tree, her hair sprawled on my lap. I dreamed of an ending to this dream. I wanted to ask her how it would all end. I didn't. It would only make her sad. I dreamed a foggy vale and Fickle and Fuckface, next to each other, silent and eager. I didn't see me. I didn't see her. I knew she'd left for a place called dawn where past, present and future are tangible and encumbered by reality.

The sun warmed my eyelids. The pressure cooker whistled softly and constantly. TV sounds. I woke up and as I brushed lazily , I decided I'd been reading too many of em blasted South Americans. Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango played on the radio as I scrolled through the messages from her piled up over the night on my mobile phone. She had detailed her nightmares in them. I sighed as I replied that I'd call her in a while.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Conversations and a minor mishap foretold by K

K walked in an hour late. She usually was on time for our not frequent evenings together. So if she kept you waiting, you knew it was for a good reason and one not concerning you. This is a comforting thing to know.

Excerpts from a thread of conversation an hour and a carafe of the house red thereafter.

K : So if I understand correctly you've found yourself a Zelda who'll soon turn you from the Hemingway you think you are to the Scott Fitzgerald that you are.
Me: I'd rather you prefer a softer metaphor like Pattie Boyd ,Harrison and Clapton.
K : Train wrecks are train wrecks. I'll mince no words. I don't like the sound of her. She can't do you any good. You can't do you any good already and you could do with a little less of that.
Me: All this you conclude from my narrative about a woman I haven't yet met?
K: For all your faults, you make for a delightful teller of stories and coherently interpolated narratives from distant observation points with little standard deviation to the actual event set.
Me : Your statistical methods degree hasn't ever served you better than in that sentence.
K: I measure people by means of standard deviance.
Me: You are the outlier?
K: I agree to meet you on a weekend I was supposed to do my taxes. I must be.
Me: You do know you are hard to unlove.
K: I try not to be. Getting back to the issue at hand, you have to start believing me, that you shouldn't be feeling the way you are until you've waded shin deep in the waters. Not when all you have is a hint of moisture in the air.
Me: K, It's not so bad. She's just a girl who probably is no different from you. I'll never know if I don't go looking or wading or whatever metaphor you choose to use. Besides it's almost rude not to.
K: No. I am definitely prettier and I'll never be your girl.
Me: But you are already.
K: Shut up and finish those mushrooms. You want more olives?
Me: Yeah. Feta too.
K: How long do you think I'm gonna be the gangman pushing levers and breaking my freshly painted fingernails to shepherd your train away from tracks leading into imagined sunsets?
Me: K, I think I'll take my chances here. What's the worse that could happen?
K: The sooner you men realize that all you are looking for is a warm bosom to cry into and stop over analyzing obscure micro poetry and demagoguery, the better. Stop grinning. I can't wait to tell you I told you so, the next time we catch up.
Me: I'm trying hard not to. I'm also slightly worried that one of these days I will end up as a character in that novella you are writing and I am wrongly portrayed as the person I'm not.
K: I could do worse and write about you as the person you are.
Me: You are hard to unlove, K.So damn hard.

We ran through another carafe and it was a fine fine December night that we walked back to the familiar lanes of forgotten childhood games and then on to our respective homes.

I called K today, almost two months since the day we last met, and told her she may have been right about some things she told me about over the two carafes.
She spared me the 'I told you so's(she never 'I told you so'd me ) and asked me if I had made any plans yet for the spring break I usually took in March and how she was looking forward to my photographs.
That's why she is hard to unlove.