A Return to a Child’s Life

It is snowing outside as I begin this blog.  It is hard to imagine that just a few days ago I was in Chennai in India where the temperature was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit!

I never really completely adjusted to the change in time zones during this trip to India.  I was up well before the morning hours almost every day during my three weeks there.  I did not let this strange affliction bother me.  I found something or the other to do – spending time on the computer, or reading a book, or doing something else that did not require me to get out of bed and disturb everybody else.

This trip was a little different from my past visits. I actually had time to relax at home, even keeping visits with friends to a minimum towards the later part of the stay.  But the trip was also exhausting, and also a little emotional in some sense, since I made the visit to Kerala, the state where I was born, the place where our family is originally from. I have blogged in the past about the nostalgia associated with traveling to Kerala as a child, and also writen more recently about how my love of the mountains may have blossomed with one such trip.

The quick trip I made to Kerala this time was different from the journeys of my youth, when I used to stay there for the long summer holidays, but it was also about being taken back to the days of my youth.  I was going to visit relatives who lived there whom I had not seen for many years.

For starters, because I did not have time to do so, I did not go to Kerala by train.  Instead, I flew into Kochi airport.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first stop was to see an aunt and uncle in Aluva whom I had last visited about 12 years ago.  Life has changed for them since then in ways both happy and sad.  The joy of the growing grandchildren in the family has been balanced by the impact of a devastating accident a few years ago that has changed their lives in a dramatic fashion.  After some conversation and lunch, I took the opportunity to go down to the Periyar river that flows next to their property.  They had been forced to evacuate their apartment just a few months earlier because of flooding of the river.P2110042.jpgA long taxi ride in the evening got me to my next stop in Irinjalakuda to see my cousin – whom I had also not seen for a long time. Along the way, it was interesting to see that they still paint the state’s public transport buses the same way they did as when I was a kid.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have very little recollection of having visited my cousin’s home (which was built in the 1980s) before, even though we have met a few times since then. Most likely, I have never been to this house.

The emotions welled up in me as I talked to my cousin about the days of her youth and her connection with my parents when they were young and had just got married.  (My cousin is significantly older than I am.)  I felt a sense of the passage of time, and a sense of how lives lived in the past lead into the future.  This was one of the nights that I woke up earlier than usual in the morning and lay in bed unable to sleep – this time simply thinking about the connections of the lifetimes.  I was somewhat of a wreck by the time day broke, but I did take the time to go out and take a picture or two after recovering my composure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bonus of my stay in Irinjalakuda was the opportunity to meet a high-school classmate whom I had not seen for 43 years!  I got to go to his home and also meet his wife.  It is interesting to to see how how circumstances in life can take you in very different directions, and to many different places, but that you can end up in the end at similar places of peace and happiness.  You can define success or failure in your way without allowing others to define it for you.P2120080.jpgThen it was off to the railway station to catch a train to Palakkad.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train journey was an interesting experience, but I must move on without talking too much about it, since this blog is already getting longer than I would like it to be. The only thing I will note is that my experience of the train journey left me feeling that I was still in the 1970s!

The train journey was to take me to Dhoni, near the Palakkad railway station, where I was going to visit another aunt of mine.  I had not seen her for decades.  We have a little bit of a language barrier since I do not know the mother tongue well, but I need not have worried.  That did not stop our conversation.  My aunt has gone through the struggles of time since I last met her, having had a somewhat painful physical setback.  She manages.  She now cheerfully oversees the larger family, including her own children’s families, who have already set up, or are in the process of setting up, their own roots all around her.  During this visit she insisted that I needed to eat well (more than I am used to eating), to taste all the foods from my youth.  It was a treat!

Dhoni lies in the shadow of the Western Ghats.  I set out to explore the place at sunrise.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe village’s charm has not changed over the years.  While the population of Dhoni might have increased since the old days (there are more houses, and even a management college started by one of my cousins), it is still not crowded, at least in my eyes.  The roads are broad and also empty the time of morning that I was out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe waking hours reveals the feel of the village, the only distraction being that of the trucks from the local rock quarry that kick up a dust and do not slow down as they speed down the road. The family house in Dhoni begins to catch the light of the rising sun in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mountain of my youth (or maybe I should call it a hill) still remains, still looking a little formidable to the young child who has now become an older man.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I am not sure if the hill is as accessible as before.  New property lines lie between me and the peak that I can barely make out in the early morning light.  There was no marked trail for me to follow, although my cousin might have known a way had he been able to accompany me.

Habitation on the road that used go past my aunt’s place has extended towards the mountains these days.  There is a bus service, and I saw a couple of hotels when I looked on the map.  Kids climb into the back of the auto rickshaw to go to school in the morning, while the dog runs freely on the street,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand the roadside tea shop is open for business early.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are farms that did not exist a few decades ago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of peacocks fly away from the field when I point my camera at them.  Somewhere, a cow grazes surrounded by egrets – probably cattle egrets.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did also visit my cousins’ farms closer to the mountains.  You could see the Western Ghats in the distance as we walked past an open field, just before the entrance to the farms.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am told that elephants have come to roam this space these days, and there is an electric fence around the fields for protection.  One of my cousins takes care of all the properties and grows fruits and vegetables on them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe tells me the story of having been given seeds for what he was told was cabbage, and finding out that he now has tons of lettuce growing on the property!  That is the way it goes.  Life still seems to have a certain simplicity to it.  I could get used to it.  I wish I had learnt to speak the language better as a youth. There is a certain sense of loss.

I had to leave Dhoni even before noontime to catch a flight from Coimbatore (across the border in the state of Tamilnadu) to Chennai – but not before my aunt plied me with more food.  The short, intense, and tiring, trip was coming to an end.  Back in Chennai I went to bed early, and then slept like a rock, waking up a little later than usual.

And then, less than a week later, I was sitting in my room in Gaithersburg in Maryland watching the snow falling.P2200016.jpgIt is quite the change.  Life can be that way, I suppose!

 

The Mountains Are Calling

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Canyonlands National Park, Utah

There is something about the nature of the hills and the mountains that has drawn me to them over the years.  I am not sure how this happened.  My first remembrance of such feelings was when I would visit my aunt and her family in the hills of the Western Ghats in Kerala.  From the front porch of their house, in what was then the little village of Dhoni, one could see a hilltop that was untouched by development.  We, the children that we were, made one or two explorations into the hills, trying to follow the informal trails that other like-minded people had created over time.

Years later, I still feel like reliving that feeling, and that moment in time, but the world has probably changed in the meantime for the people of Dhoni and Palakkad.  Also near my aunt’s house was another forested hilltop which was a part of the forest reserve lands of the State of Kerala.  I never made it there, but it has always been a part of my imagination.  I am not sure exactly what lay there, and what remains now.

It was only as a graduate student that I was finally able to actually respond to the call of the hills.  We were able to drive from the university to the Bear Mountain area in New York State for day hikes.  About four or five miles of hiking and we would be completely exhausted because we were completely out of shape.  But it felt really great, especially relaxing with a bottle or two of beer after the whole effort.

And then there was the downhill skiing that I discovered when in graduate school.  When you are standing on top of the mountain – with the wide open snow-covered slopes lined with evergreens in front of you, with a panoramic view of the landscape all around, with the little chalet that is your destination way, way, down below you, you are in a kind of heaven on earth.  As you prepare to launch yourself off the flat top and on to the slope, you take a measure of the nature of the challenge, and the slope that you are about the conquer. As you start your way down the hill, the exhilaration  increases to the next level.  You have a smile on your face and you are whooping with happiness as you speed downhill (carefully!) – even as the icy cold wind blows across your face and freezes the tears that flow from your eyes.

I ski very rarely these years – there is a chance that the joints will not take the pounding.  But I am absolutely certain that if I were to get to the top of that hill on my skis the feeling of happiness will be renewed instantly, even if it is for a short while.  It would be as if I was experiencing all of the thrill of skiing, and of the mountaintop, once again for the first time.

I was diagnosed with CAD many years ago, and at that time I had to undergo a couple of procedures to address the problem.  A good friend from childhood called me then to chat and cheer me up.  We were talking about possible restrictions on my lifestyle in the future, and he mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that perhaps I would not be able to climb  mountains like the Himalayas in the future.  My response was – why not?!  My response was not based on reality, but even if I do not make it to the Himalayas themselves, there are plenty of other doable challenges all over the world.

Meanwhile, the mountains continue to call.  Every time I see a picture of a mountain, I wonder if there is a way to get to the top.  (And I mean get to the top on foot!  Driving a car to the top of a mountain, however high the mountain may be, is not as much fun!)  And every single time I go to a national park, I get the urge to see and experience that trail in the park that can lead to the top of its highest peak.  Of course, that does not happen most of the time these days due to many reasons.  And even I know the risks of trying to tackle a trail like the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park.  (I do have a natural fear (perhaps healthy) of narrow open spaces at great heights.  My knees get weak even looking at the pictures!)

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Bright Angel Trail, North Rim, Grand Canyon

But the good thing is that I am still able to hike today. And I can walk a trail, and climb the hills, for miles and miles – to get to the highest destination, that mountain top where my expansive view of the world awaits.

I have to continue to answer the call of the mountaintop until I am physically unable.

Broken Wings (9/4/2008)

When I was a young lad growing up in Madras I used to enjoy the trips to Kerala for our summer vacations.  It did not take me too long to get bored during my stay in my grandmother’s place once I was there, but the travels on the train were one of the highlights of the summer experience.  The romance of these journeys by train never dimmed.  Arriving at the train station and wading through the crowds, to try to find one’s reserved compartment at the beginning of the journey; trying to sleep on the berths next to the noisy ceiling fans during the night as the train rocked rhythmically and sped on to its destination; trying to wake up at various points in the night so that I could see all the stations that the train stopped at, and perhaps even buy a cup of tea from a lonely chaiwalla on an empty platform; experiencing a sense of the power of the diesel locomotive while listening to its distant horn in the night – these are just some of the many, many, memories that come back to me as I write this.  The train would lurch back as the engine connected to the carriages of the Trivandrum Express at Madras Central Station, the horn would blow just as the train started inching forward into the evening, and from then onwards it was a nonstop adventure until the time we reached our destination.  Perhaps I was the only one sitting in the moving train during the daytime with my head against the iron bars of the open window peering towards the front trying to catch a sight of the engine every time it rounded a curve. Was I the only one trying to count the number of carriages on the train?  I might have been the only kid with the railway timetable for the Southern Railways in hand trying to figure out where the train was supposed to be at that particular time, watching the hundred meter markers by the side of the tracks and trying to figure out the speed of the train, trying to anticipate when exactly one would arrive at the next station.  I most likely was not the only one with my head stuck to the window staring at the passing green fields and coconut groves of the Kerala landscape, watching the local folk go about their the daily activities – magical people living their lives in a faraway enchanted land.

The first train stop in Kerala, after it crossed the Western Ghats, happened to be at a place that used to be called Olavakkot Junction.  (The name of this station has since been changed to Palakkad Junction.) If we were lucky we would break journey at Olavakkot Junction and we would make our way over the back roads to my aunt’s place the little village of Dhoni.  At that time there was nothing more than a few houses and surrounding farms in Dhoni.  But Dhoni was a great place to visit for a vacation. My aunt’s little house with its open front veranda looked out onto wide open spaces and the hills of the Western Ghats.  Up in the distance on the hills to the east you could see the trees and the forest, and if you looked up carefully you could even see the dirt road that led up into the woods.  Towards the front of the house was a bald hill where I probably experienced hiking and rock climbing for the first time.  From the top of the hill, one could survey the surroundings.  Getting to the top was a big achievement for me and I would feel a sense of elation.  In hindsight, I do not think that the hill was really as imposing as it appeared to me a child, but nothing got in the way of my imagination and the spirit of exploration.  I have to imagine that Dhoni these days is not the same as it was when I was growing up.  I am sure that the place has developed quite a bit and that one would be quite disappointed if one were to return, not just because the place has changed, but also because the sense of wonder seems to become more scarce as one becomes older, more jaded, and better trained for living and surviving in this world.

So, here I was many years later, a middle aged dude with internal plumbing problems, driving through the mountain passes on Route 15 north of Williamsport, PA, on our way back from Rochester after dropping Christina off at college, still feeling a little bit of that sense of awe and wonder while observing my surroundings.  It is not as if the hills of the Alleghenies are one of the great wonders of nature, but it still does not seem to take too much for me to be impressed when I out in the natural surroundings.  Hill after hill stretched out in front of me as the lanes of the endless highway weaved a magical path from mountainside to mountainside while leaping over the valleys that lay in between them.  Looking at the hills one wondered what it would feel like to be on top of them.  My instincts told me that I should explore the mountainsides on foot and look down on the valleys, the lakes, the rivers.    So long as it was a new experience in natural surroundings, it had to be interesting.  It occurred to me that perhaps in matters such as this I was still an easily impressionable little kid at heart – a kid occupying the mind of one who is supposed to be an adult.  Why is it that growing up and becoming a responsible person appears to be a somewhat orthogonal process to finding a way to continue to enjoy the simple and innocent things in life.  Something is wrong with the way we are being taught to think in this world.