Running a marathon.

Sometime in July 2007, I heard these words on the phone:

Kanna nee aanalum konjam koraikkalam” (I think you could reduce a little bit).

These words brought my world crashing down. Because they came from my mother. The same mother who would not say a word if I had aaloo paranthas for breakfast, aaloo kari for lunch, aaloo chips for tiffin and dum aaloo for dinner. I was the quintessential Amma chellam (mama’s boy). I could eat the vadai before it was offered to God and I could get away with “hey God is inside me too”.She would make a face but smile at me, as if God had descended in our kitchen, defying space time continuum and entered my mind and conveyed this message through my not so melliflous vocal cords.

I felt devastated.

I looked into the mirror. I looked like this:

I looked like this.

(OK this wasn’t taken from the mirror but I did look like this).

I realized that I lived close to a river and US was full of enthusiastic people. Ann Arbor gets pretty cold (I’ve witnessed -5F several times) but people ran. Wearing thermals, bundled up in thick jackets. But they ran. On a warm spring day, I decided to put on some shoes and go for a jog. I must have run for about a mile. I was spent and felt like someone had filled my lungs with water. But that’s how it all started. But then I became a treadmill rat.

After moving back to India in 2010, I started pursuing outdoor running more seriously. 2k s that turned into 5k s, that turned into 10k s. I still remember the day I finished the TCS 10K in 2014. I was ecstatic. I thought I had hit my limit. But someone suggested I try a half marathon. I was overwhelmed by the thought of running for more than twice as long as I would, compared to a 10k. I said “No way!”.

Sometime in 2014, my wife and I took a break and went to Coorg. I was reading a book called Born to Run. Right after finishing the book, I put on a pair of socks and ran 10kms. I nursed blisters and couldn’t walk straight for the next week or so. But I had decided to run a half marathon. Funny how major things happen just like that…all it takes is a tiny spark. I still remember my first 21k. Before the run I had thought to myself I’d yell in excitement if I made it. But after the run, I think I felt at peace more than anything else.

In fact, running has taught me that if you achieve something you had set for, the reaction shouldn’t be that of “Hey doubters I did it! In your face” or “Hey look I did it, I rock!” but “I’m glad I finished. I didn’t give up”.

I again remember someone encouraging me to go for a full marathon. To which, I said, you know what? 10K to 21K is still plausible but 21 to 42? No way!

That changed after I completed the Bangalore (half) marathon in 2015. I don’t know why. I guess probably I was feeling really fresh after the run.

Fast forward to January 2016. Actually during this fast forward, there were many more runs. , lunges, crunches, mountain climbers, planks, 21k s, 23k s, 25k s, 27k s, 29k s, 31k s, 33k s, 34k s, 35k s, 37k s, then 35k then, 33k.

A final 35k before leaving for Bombay on a biting cold day in Bangalore. 14C. Fog.

January 17th 2016.

Ok. Game time.

Confession 2: In dire circumstances, my mind resorts to (often childish) humor or random thoughts to either distract myself from the pain or stress or just as a mechanism to tell myself  that better times are ahead so just relax. I tend to have strange conversations with myself (thankfully not aloud!).

Funny how your mind tries to play games with you during running. It is a humbling experience. I’ve realized that running is more mental than physical. As long as you can quell that voice in the back of your head asking you to sit down and take it easy, you are fine. As one of my good friend Mohan says, “Mind over body”.

Coming back to SCMM, I don’t know how I remember what my mind and I talked before and during the run, but all these thoughts did occur at some point. I’ve tried my best to recollect them in their order of occurrence.

5:39 a.m.

Set distance on Nike+. Check.

Running playlist ON. Check.

5:40 a.m. Run starts!

Mind voice: “No tension, no shock…Jai mata di, let’s rock”.

I always imagine Nandu’s smiling face before every run. Did that. Imagined Nandu smiling before me, waving. The image quickly disappeared before she could give me a chore (Ajit can you drop the trash bag on your way somewhere or some such…).

OK why are things so slow? Is there a local we all have to get in and get out as part of this run?

Someone just yelled “Come on guys, move it!”. My thoughts exactly but thankfully I have maintained my decent guy image by not yelling it out loud.


Should I push for more speed?

No you fool, you’ll burn yourself too early…but what if I settle for a low speed and my legs get stiff and used to that speed for the rest of the run?

Wait what’s that? Oh my God I shouldn’t have had that extra paav yesterday out of greed…is that my bowel…Noooooooo!

OK calm down, you’ve done some of this before. Get a grip. Deep breath. OK feeling calm. Let’s focus.


When my power song (boy am I going to be judged for this or what) started playing, I did cover a km by the time it ended. Just like I used to during all my practice runs. This was turning out to be just like a practice run so far. But it’s just the 12k mark so let’s not get carried away. But I was stoked!

Oh my God, that’s the sea link! Looks so beautiful. Can’t wait to get on it and run.

What the actual hell?! This is like someone set an incline at 4-5, removed rubber mats from some 100000 treadmills and laid them in the form of a goddamn inclined road. Oh the barricade on the side preventing people from falling over is rather short. Maybe I could jump into the sea, go for a dive and never come back…

I had to slow down quite a bit. Suddenly, a girl zoomed past me. Then a guy. They were running side by side. I thought I could use the girl as a pacer. I tried to increase my speed. The whole relative velocity = 0 as both runners are running at constant velocity lasted for possibly 2 minutes when the girl apparently found a supply of hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide inside her and propelled herself ahead with escape velocity, leaving me gasping….in awe of her and for some breath.


Wait whoa! That’s sunrise. What a gorgeous sight! Blood orange ball of fire but gentle enough to be gazed at without hurting my eyes. A portion of the sea looked like someone was trying to mix colors to get the right shade of orange to paint the sky with.

Oh look at those half marathoners on the other side. Enjoying the downhill run. If I patiently get past this stretch, I will enjoy that downhill stretch later too. Brilliant!


Ok what is going on? It’s just 25k and my legs are beginning to give in. This can’t be right. I’m not pushing too hard…oh dear lord, is it because I bragged about the butter pav bhaji and badshahi falooda as a balanced and nutritious pre-run meal on Instagram? Nandu keeps telling you no….no need to Instagram every damn thing you make or eat. Surely someone has put nazar….

Ok can you shut the hell up? Sheesh!

But my calves were letting me know that this was nothing like any of my practice runs…

Oh wow…26k mark.

“Thirteen and a half kilometers….to go”…

What the what? Has Nike+ lost its mind? That’d be about 40k. Oh crap, did I set it to some wrong before the run? Is UMich going to revoke my PhD…oh for the love of God, calm down!

27k mark…

This is crazy. My legs hurt. Should I just stop and sit for a few minutes? Or just walk for a bit and then resume?

Flashback to December 2015…one fine afternoon:

Amma I’m going to run a full marathon in January. You know that na?

Amma: Full a? How long is that?

42kms Amma.

Amma: “Kanna there is no need for you to run 42kms and post a picture on Facebook. If your legs hurt too much, just shut up and stop running. Sit down in one corner and take an auto home.”

Back to the run. My mother’s words flashed before my eyes. I think it was Calibri 11 font. On a white papyrus type scroll. It unfurled and my Amma read it to me.

Thanks Amma, just the words of encouragement I needed.


Wait why is that police fellow stopping the little kids? Aww they just want to give high 5s to the runners. Here, let me veer to the right and….hi 5!

Man the crowd here is amazing! SO nice of people to support us. Come on…push!

Calves: Hi we run on ATP, not some emotional nonsense. Just adjust with our pace.

But this is ridiculous! I ran a 35k last Saturday and it felt pretty good! I shouldn’t have to struggle like this around the 30k mark itself. But yeah, it’s starting to get a little hot.

Glutes: You should really cut down on the Cityle Bangalore weather tweets.


Oh hahaha look at that policewaala…cheering us. That is excellent! And wow, the crowd is handing Perk?? And fresh oranges?! Salt?! How considerate and knowledgeable! Aww look at that little girl holding slices of watermelon…


OK you know what, you’ve entered the final 10k. But there is no shame in walking and then resuming. Ok no!

Ooh what’s that? More cooling sponge? Man this south Mumbai is super posh. Also, I’m glad Nandu is not running with me or else she’d have asked me to pick up some 5-10 so we don’t have to buy scotch brite for some time.


People are yelling…


Wait what the heck? Ok let me move to the left….but why are the event crew folks asking? Oh some poor guy must be in an ambul….wait what in the world?

That’s a double decker BEST bus! And it has some people cheering. That’s odd.

WHOA! What was that? A comet? No wait those are the Kenyan runners. Oh this must be the elite runners. Oh way to make us slow coaches move over and look like fools!

Calves: Hey remember the beginning of the run when you were looking to burst past some slow runners?

Oh thanks for the logic! Just what I needed. Buzz off!


Hang on a minute. What’s that? The sea link?? But that’s far away. And it doesn’t look like I’m going to run there again….doesn’t look like part of the route.

WHAT? That means that downhill part I’ve been dreaming of…

Organizers you #$#%* @%#*!$  !#%@#@% (*%@#%&%&! !$@#% !&% & &#%@#%@#! !%# #%! !%#!#%!!!

Ok no need to get riled up.


OK my legs are really hurting. I really wish this run ended at Tardeo and we all got a complimentary pav bhaji from Sardar. Oh wait a minute…that Badshah guys yesterday didn’t toast/fry his pav and make it nice and red. Damn it!

Flashback to January 9th

Hey I had a smooth run. One of my best!

Nandu: How far did you run?


Didn’t you want to do more? Haan?

No kanna this is not an exam for which you have to finish the whole syllabus and score a centum. Just passing in first attempt is fine.

Back to SCMM.

Well, maybe I should have listened to her and just ran a 40k at least…OK too late for that now. If you stop, you will bring disrepute to all those who memorize important questions before exam night and manage to just pass.

OK let’s keep running…


Wow, last 5k man. Just hang in there. You haven’t stopped so far. No reason to stop now.

Remember what Mo says? Mind over body.

OK right now forget mind, even vacuum over body feels like a lot of weight. Wouldn’t mind being picked up by a temporary Tsunami and transferred to the finish line…


This is real. No mind voice.

Someone tapped on my shoulders.

“Hi Ajit!”

“SoBoD (her real name is Divya) !!!!!” What are YOU doing here??

“I’m just cheering people. Glad I could meet you!”

“Yaar you guys are the best! This is the best crowd ever.

SoBoD: Let’s run.”

She actually ran the last 2 point odd kms with me! How incredible is that? Apparently, she did that with a few other runners in her running group also. Mumbai folks, you guys are crazy! Crazy awesome.


Flashback to 2014

“It was brutal Nandu…I felt I was going to die. I couldn’t run anymore. I just sat on the lamppost and collapsed. It took about 5 mins to get my bearings back. I walked to the nearest house and asked for some water from a watchman. Then I just limped home. I’m glad it didn’t happen too far from home. I, I didn’t even have any money on me. I could have asked an auto but I couldn’t find any…”

I wiped my tears as I poured my heart to my wife. On that rather eventful day, I ran the longest distance of my life. It was about 37 kms. The longest I had run before that was about 22kms. I have no idea what got into me that day. But I’ll never forget how enervated I was.

Back to the run.

Holy crap 40k! I’ve never run this far before. And this feels incredible! I’ve come a long way from almost giving up on that day.


Oh watch out SoBo. This kid with that vuvuzela like thing needs to get off the track else he might get hurt.

Wow there is no way I am going to stop now. Come on!

1000m to finish.

SoBo: This is it Ajit, 5 more minutes.

Me: Yes, there is no way I’m going to stop now.

Someone yells “Hey push you have run so far so run a little more, little harder”

Mind voice: “I hope someone stuffs all the t shirts that runners have removed due to excessive sweating, crumple them and shove them into his mouth.”

SoBo: Hey you want to run a little faster?

Me: I’ll try…

Wow I can actually do this!

400 m to finish.

OK time to really let loose. RUN damn it!

Finish line.

I remember raising my hands. Not really to feel victorious. The first thing that I said was “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! I actually thought I’d stop in the middle”.

“Thank you so much SoBo! You really helped.”

SoBo: “Arrey no sweat. I’ll see you in a bit. Let’s grab lunch or something. That’s the medal collection zone.”

I collected the medal, gave all my refreshments (sandwich, a bun and some soy milk packet) to a small girl who was begging inside the maidan….I just saved an apple for me. I wanted to tell her “For a change, I might be in a worse situation that you right now….” but well…

I walked back to the hotel and took a shower. I think the water also quelled my mind voice for some time. No thoughts, just clarity. I’m glad I didn’t give up.

I’d like to thank a few people. First of all, Nandu. Because I think she was, in a way, my mind voice. Always supporting, often annoying, but that’s what kept me sane. And only she knows what a pain I can be to deal with. Especially when I’m trying to be funny.

Mohan, Srini, Anil and several runners who inspire me and give me the faith that I can do it.

Mirnalini and Abishek for letting me stay with them and let me do what I wanted. I didn’t tell them, but I was really nervous inside and allowing me to be myself without feeling any awkwardness and totally feeling at home at their place helped. And I can be quite awkward to deal with. Srini again, for letting me stay with him at the hotel. Really helps to be close to the starting point. SoBoD. You really helped me forget the last 2k. Hope to run SCMM with you next year!

And finally, Mumbai. The spirit of Mumbai. The people of Mumbai. Every time I saw a little kid extend his/her hand for a high five or give away a chocolate, water or a piece of fruit, it felt exhilarating. Thanks for smiling back at me and cheering me when I looked at you with a feeble smile and a listless frame.

I will come back. Hope you remain the same.

And if you’ve managed to read this far….I’ll end by saying this. If I can do this, so can you. I really mean it. Did you say “no way!”? Well, that’s a good start. Waiting for you to post a pic like this:



How does it matter…to you?

I have to get this off my chest because otherwise, it would devour me from inside and I’d be somewhat repentant I didn’t do it.

In a historic ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that marriage is a fundamental right for every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation. As a result of this progressive ruling, many wonderful events are transpiring , even in states that are typically against such activities. The governors had this to say about the ruling. And this.

But coming to what I intend to express.

There is a section of people, fairly large in number, who have asked me:

“What difference does it make to you?”

Well, not directly. Maybe not tangibly. But I do feel good about it. I feel good about the fact that people with a sexual orientation different than mine are free to marry, just like I am. But if we’re applying that rationale, here are a few other things that don’t make a difference to me, Mr./Ms. “How does it make a difference to you?”:

  • Someone came and gave you a large chocolate cake. In fact, shoved it down your throat and poured a mug of crème anglaise on top.
  • Someone came and took a dump on you and left without cleaning up.
  • Someone came and hugged you.
  • Someone came and commented on your physical appearance.
  • Someone came and sealed your lips with araldite so you couldn’t speak for a while.
  • Someone came and tied you to a chair, tied a handkerchief to your mouth and made you watch Hum saath saath hain, Ek Vivah Aisa Bhi, Raja and Prem Aggan…back to back to back to back.

None of these would make a difference to me. Probably it would make some difference to you because some stuff is happening to you. But I’d be pissed if you didn’t have the freedom to choose. You should be free to choose Hum Aapke hain kaun over hum saath hain…or tell the person you don’t enjoy the taste of araldite or the fact that you might have to do surgery to separate your lips…or you’re more of a lemon bar person than a chocolate cake…or if you’re NOT a hug person so back the f**k off….or whatever floats your boat and as long as you’re not harming others.

You see, the freedom to choose to marry is not very different. A gay couple in their 80s getting married doesn’t make a direct difference to me but I am elated at the fact that they are free to choose. I’d like to choose and arrive at a mutual consent with my spouse. In fact, I’ve had that freedom. And I’ve found a wonderful better half. Hopefully she feels the same….I mean the having the freedom to choose part. Because one relationship, at least mathematically, can have only one better half…but I digress.

This ruling is fundamentally important because it doesn’t force anybody to marry or not marry. But every human being on earth now has the freedom to choose. And that way, yes, it does matter to me. And it would be nice if we, as a people, could move from “how does it matter to you?” to “How does it matter?”. The characters in the how does is matter to you could change any minute. But as a society that is trying to strive towards equality, it makes sense to think about things holistically. Rationally.

So yes, it does matter to me. Because next time, if a channel, for whatever reason, chooses to inflict the last bullet point (sans the tying to the chair bit), I have the freedom to flip the damn channel. Enthusiasts are free to tie themselves to a chair and watch the four movies if that enhances their viewing experience. But at the end of the day, freedom to choose makes everyone happy. Not you, not me….every one.

Part IV (and final): Pangarchulla and back.

Day 9

Having taken a short, day long vacation from vacationing in the Himalayas for some adventure, we were all set to commence the next round. The final frontier. Pangarchulla. Without Harshal, the financial acumen of the group had reduced to half, which is a euphemistic way of saying that Grond’s financial acumen was equal to the rest of the group’s financial acumen put together.

We drove to Dhak (about 20 mins from Joshimath). The goal of day 9 was to cover about 12 kms and reach the base Pangarchulla base camp. The journey seemed quite tractable. We passed through a village called Togasi, which offered a bird’s eye view of Tapovan and Purva Donagiri peaks.



Purva Donagiri parvat. Also seen are the gorgeous Marchola/Ramdana farms.

Purva Donagiri parvat. Also seen are the gorgeous Marchola/Ramdana farms.

At that point, the peak we should have been focusing on, namely Pangarchulla, appeared to be of a very low IQ (Instagram Quotient) amidst all the scenery. It would have been like Instagramming curd rice in a variegated continental spread. We had lunch at a small stream running through rocks. The water was cool and we used the new-found vast thermodynamic heat sink to chill the plastic can in which we stored our orange juice for lunch. After lunch, we crossed a forest (Phulara range). We reached the base camp around 3:30 p.m. After stretching, we realized that we were suddenly being ‘dragged’ into some kind of Bernoulli’s fluid dynamics experiment inside the placid valley. We felt a sudden drop in temperature followed by a significant lift force that not only put us at the risk of taking a short flight, but given the vectorial disposition of the forces acting on us, they would propel us straight towards the tents meant to be used as toilets. In summary, it got windy as hell and we could have been in deep shit.

After dinner, Rajuji briefed us about the following day. We’d have to leave pretty early, climb Pangarchulla in about 4 hours, take a break on our way back and head back to base camp in another 3-4 hours. Even if we were a bit leisurely with our approach. But this is what was going through our minds as he spoke:

Mood inside base camp on the eve of Pangarchulla.

Mood inside base camp on the eve of Pangarchulla.

I don’t think it was arrogance. Just that nobody really had a clue what was about to hit us on the next day. And oh, they made exquisite Momos! There was a bonfire outside the common tent and it was much needed. If we had a cannibal among us, (s)he’d be salivating, for we were about a dozen humans roasting themselves in a fire, turning around like a rotisserie to ensure even cooking. It got really windy during night and we had to endure the coldest night (-10C with windchill) of the trek.

Day 10. D-Day: We woke up and left well before sunrise after grabbing some breakfast. This was the first time we had trekked with our night lights on. To add to the challenge, the first leg was a tough climb as visibility was limited and we had to negotiate a fairly steep, rocky terrain. This lasted for the ~ 45 mins. Then, dawn broke. We saw the majestic Neelkanth mountain bathed in sunlight in the most spectacular fashion. It was like someone had poured molten metal all over it.

Neelkanth mountain right after sunrise. No words. WOW!

Neelkanth mountain right after sunrise. No words. WOW!

The next phase was fairly straightforward. Walking on somewhat flat, meadow-like terrain. At this point, another interesting event transpired. I guess I hadn’t had a good filter coffee during this journey so maybe I was a bit out of my element, but for some unfathomable reason, I asked Rajuji at what percentage of his REAL speed was he walking with us. But I didn’t plug my oral orifice just there. I had the audacity to ask him to show me a sample of his true speed. Even before I could finish (I think the word sample was the trigger), he was already a parsec ahead of me. If only a sustainable fire had come out of his derriere, we could all have witnessed the launch of another Mangalyaan (could also be called PangarYaan) right there. Upon triangulating his final coordinates and plotting it mentally with respect to his initial location prior to him hitting the escape velocity button, and approximating the time taken to traverse the displacement, I arrived at the following conclusion:

Rajuji's key skillset assesment.

Rajuji’s key skillset assesment.

It was all fun and games until now. We stopped and took several pictures every now and then, took breaks, refreshed ourselves and walked at a somewhat leisurely pace. The target was looking quite cute. It seemed well within our grasp.

Seemingly innocent looking Pangarchulla peak.

Seemingly innocent looking Pangarchulla peak.

A few kilometers on frosted meadows later, we took a break on a seemingly small bed of rocks as Rajuji asked us to get some wind before the final stretch. Some decided to remove a layer or two of warm clothing, some drank their PowerAdes. I just wanted to chug along. As we started the final leg by taking a bit of a turn from the apparently cozy bed of rocks, we saw this:

The beginning of the Moraine. stretch. Chukhamba and Neelkanth mountains are also seen in the background.

Moraine and more moraine. Mohan talks about his experience with moraine here. This is when it really hit us. This was going to be excruciating. This was no longer a trek. There was no defined path after this point. 1000 meters of raw, hellacious, but most (painfully so) importantly, vertical climb ahead of us. We all realized what an expedition meant. At this point, Sriram and Arundhati decided to call it a day. It was quite sad as their resolve and spirit had lifted us throughout the journey. There was no choice for them but to wait right at the base of the moraine stretch and wait for Kalamji to come and get them. After a short while, Chuck and Paddy decided to join them. The dispiriting moraine had caused two more brave folks to call and end to their journey. I was actually surprised that Paddy had made that choice because it appeared to me that he was keeping a terrific rhythm and throughout the trip, he didn’t really show signs of extreme enervation. Same with Chuck. He had walked with us steadily throughout the journey. I guess it was going to be Mohan, I, Mahesh, SoBoD and Pun. Thankfully Kalamji had arrived by then (he was almost running on the moraine! I wasn’t sure if we weren’t with some kind of real life X-Men). Rajuji and I were in the front. Followed by Mo, Mahesh and SoBoD. Then Kalamji and Pun. A bit later, as we looked up, we were greeted by this:

Mt. Augean.

It seemed that Nostradamus was right, the world had come to an end and it looked like some post apocalyptic, post nuclear annihilation of world junkyard. There was no escaping. We had already taken 4 hours (Rajuji had estimated that we’d CLIMB Pangarchulla in 4-4.5 hrs.). The picture depicts the two approaches to navigate this part. Either you climb straight ahead (shortest distance), which would mean that each step would be a climb on a rock, which would put a tremendous amount of stress on out thighs, knees and calves. Also, the snow on the rocks could be a bait for poor footing. Another option was to alternate between the soft grass (brown patches in the pic) and rocks. But this would mean a zigzag path and a substantial load on our energy reserves. At this point, nobody was sure how much they had left in their mental gas tanks. After a while, as we started the ascent, it got a bit foggy and we waited for Pun. 5 minutes. No sign of her. 10 minutes. Nothing. We had come to the conclusion that she had decided to stop. I should have asked Pun to imagine 4 rocks as some kind of animal and start petting them one at a time and keep moving. If that animal were a sheep, Pangarchulla alone would have put New Zealand to shame. But essentially, another blow dealt by the now gargantuan looking Pangarchulla. This peak wasn’t cute anymore. It demanded, no, commanded not just our respect, but any synergistic combination of any and every faculty left in us. It would be the four of us (Mohan, I, Mahesh and SoBoD) along with Rajuji. I realized that if I stood and waited with Rajuji for the remaining folks, I would get tired. This wasn’t about being overenthusiastic one bit anymore. But upon repeated reminders by Mo for me to slow down and keep Rajuji’s speed in check, it hit me that there would be no point in leaving the rest behind. We win as a team, we lose as a team. I climbed over a few rocks quickly and waited for the rest of the folks to join. We did this for a good 30-45 minutes. The peak looked within reach. When the peak was (what I thought) 50 meters (vertically) away, I asked Rajuji if that was it. Rajuji smiled. I was stunned. This meant some kind of surprise (and not the I was hoping for 80 marks but got 92 instead kind but probably the I thought I’d win at least a set but screw that, I got bageled in the tennis match kind) was in store. And there it was:

What waited for us at the  (spurious) "peak".

What waited for us at the (spurious) “peak”.

This was getting to be sheer cruelty. As I looked at this, I thought “has someone taken a road in Bangalore and erected it vertically here in the mountains??” I guess I was just thinking of asinine things like this, just to keep my mind from playing games with me. Rajuji gently whispered to me “I knew about this but didn’t tell anybody because you would be demotivated”. I realized I shouldn’t waste my energy in cursing but just swallow my emotions and focus. I remembered Mohan’s mantra “mind over body”. I kept telling myself “It’s never a question of if, but when”. At this point, I (think I) heard Mohan telling me he wouldn’t be able to do it. Or it was Mahesh. I’m not sure. But I yelled back “that is bullshit! Get up and we’re doing this together”. Apparently my little ‘pep talk’ worked because I could see them coming. It was clear that this climb was now more mental than physical. I asked Rajuji, who told me another 300 meters to go. It was about noon. We had already taken six and a half hours.

About 100 meters to go. Another thunderbolt. This  ‘peak’ we were  climbing was also a mirage. The closer we got, the farther Pangarchulla moved away from us. A glimmer of hope every 150 meters, only to be extinguished mercilessly by the moraine spewing leviathan. But thankfully Rajuji showed us a temple at a distance, assuring us that that was the peak. Same routine. We walked ahead and waited for the rest to join. 150 meters to go. Really. At the 50 meter mark, I got carried away. Rajuji had already reached the top. I couldn’t wait anymore and literally ran towards the peak. All this while, I (along with Rajuji) kept egging Mo, Mahesh and SoBoD by saying “just a little more, come on!” I decided to put an end to it. I reached the peak at 1:18 p.m. I yelled out of sheer euphoria! I guess Mo, SoBoD and Mahesh knew they were really close.  They decided to hold hands and finish together. 1:20 p.m. Almost seven hours after we had started from the base camp. There we were. We did it! At the top of Pangarchulla. I was elated but at the same time I felt a bit humbled. We might have scaled Pangarchulla but it Pangarchulla that had pwned us in one sense. I wasn’t tired but I guess my mental tank had hit reserve. We all signed a Grand Adventures Banner and posed for a few pics. The victory seemed a bit Pyrrhic because it would have been great to have the rest of the gang at the top.

Victory is ours!

Victory is ours! From L to R: Ajit, Mahesh, Mohan and SoBoD.

The weather changed suddenly. The sun disappeared behind the clouds and a huge gust of mist engulfed the mountains. The good part was it covered the seemingly endless ocean of moraine that was now beneath us but that would also mean we would have no clue when it would end…AGAIN! It was starting to get cold. We spent about 10 minutes at the peak, recharging ourselves. A word about SoBoD here. She wasn’t feeling particularly well and hadn’t eaten much, if any, since morning, For her to do it under such circumstances, she deserves an honorary Rajuji degree.

We started the descent after munching on some more Perk and bhujia. It seemed quite easy at first as we were revved up by our sense of accomplishment but it soon hit us that controlling our footing while rolling with gravity on rocks, coupled with snow was a herculean task. Since even typing the word moraine feels painful at this point, it suffices to say that we took another 3 hours to climb down that stretch. By the time we reached the base camp, it was nearly 6 p.m.

At the base camp, we were greeted cheerfully by the rest of the gang. It was great to know that they had reached safely. I don’t think anybody had the energy to stretch, including our guruji Mo. We were happy to be back. The weather was kinder (not as windy). We finished the day with another bonfire and beautiful renditions of Rafi and Kishore Kumar songs by Mo and Paddy.

Days 10 and 11

LOL what? There was more trekking left after Pangarchulla?? We left the base camp, traversed some meadow like things, some forest, reached Auli and drove to Joshimath. The highlight of the day (apart from sighting Nandadevi, the tallest peak entirely in India), was a highly stimulating discussion with Chuck on Nadir of 90s. We unearthed some true gems from the most prolific decade in Bollywood history. Bali Brahmbhatt’s Kook Kook Kooky, Govinda’s pop album (Kar ditti jaan), Baba Sehgal’s “Kapoorthala se aaya hoon”, Amitabh Bachchan’s pop album and  Anu Malik ‘s pop albums dominated the proceedings. Pun coined Devang Patel the weird Al Yankovic of India After scaling peaks, we were now exploring abysses.

Nandadevi or Nadir of 90s #YouPrefer

Nandadevi or Nadir of 90s #YouPrefer

We ended the day by sleeping like a log at Joshimath. We drove to Rishikesh on the following day, the highlight of the day being stopping at Devprayag and collecting Gangajal right from the point where it originated.

We all left for our respective cities in the next 2-3 days.

2 weeks. Nearly 140 kms. 4800 meters. Twice. A trek and an expedition. Friends made. Fun. Adversities. Overcoming adversities with fun. I will never forget this experience. There are dozens of stories and tidbits bit I realize that this tetralogy (?!) has already exceeded the yield stress of most human minds so I’ll bring it to a halt here. Until the next trek, that is 🙂 As much as I’d have loved to pour concentrated sulfuric acid in the mouths of a particular mountain that called us on this trek, especially when we were stranded in moraine, I have to admit the veracity of the aphorism “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

Part III: Scaling Roopkund and getting ready for Pangarchula.

Day 5 & Day 6: Bedini Bugiyal->Bugiyal Basa->Roopkund->Deldunga

Day 5 began with one of the most breathtaking sights. The tip of the Trishul Mountain was gently lit by the rising sun. It began as an adobe under dim light then changed into bright tangerine. As visibility improved, one could see the tempestuous winds blowing some snow off the tips, almost subliming the snow into a puff of gas. This plume would expand and form a cloud. And for some reason, it seemed to remain still. If you focused on it long enough, it would appear that time had come to a standstill.

Mountain Sunrise.

Mountain Sunrise.

Those clouds...

Those clouds…

The bell rang (Sanjuji banged a spoon against a steel plate), signaling breakfast and I was brought down from the clouds, back to reality. Long day ahead. Nearly 14-15 kms to go. We covered some more bugiyals and post lunch, navigated one of the toughest climbs so far. We gained nearly 400 meters in 1.5-2 hours to reach Kalua Vinayak, a small temple located at ~14,000 feet. This pic with Paddy summarized our predicament towards the end of a long, windy and excruciating day (conch blown).

The Uttarakhand Trip (286)



Fortunately, after the temple, the last 3 kms were downhill. For some reason, I decided to move ahead of the gang with Sanjuji (confession: I can’t stop->trek->stop->trek. I need to keep moving. I suffer from restlessness. Also known as enthu pattani (overenthusiastic) syndrome). What I didn’t realize was that Sanjuji was pretty good at Mathematics. After walking for a bit on the conventional, visible pathway towards Bugiyal basa, Sanjiuji located out tents somewhere down in the valley. This made him apply the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The hell with the long winded conventional path, hurray to tumbling like a sack of potatoes down the rocky valley to reach our camp a.s.a.p.

Sanjuji was pretty good at math and defying physics.

Sanjuji was pretty good at math and defying physics. Also seen in the pic is his characteristic cowboy hat that stayed on him at all times.

Actually Sanjuji started running so fast, if ASAP were a human, it would have grabbed him by the collar and asked him to take it a little easy. The path was quite rugged and I could have injured, twisted, bumped, thumped, thudded, and crashed into various objects in several factorial ways. Fortunately, none of that happened and I ended up covering the distance in a mere 25 minutes. This translated into a velocity 8.4 km/hr. A 1986 model Premier Padmini on 1st gear could run faster than that but on that day, I felt like a sub atomic particle thundering at a rapidity of 1/(√(1-v2/c2) with my velocity v approaching c (speed of light). You know, about 128 million times faster than how fast I was actually running. Funny what the thin mountain air could do to you.

Once we reached the camp, I helped the crew with the tents. Once the rest of the gang joined us (about 45 mins later), we decided to relax inside the common tent. Grond had particularly struggled on that day. As we were leisurely sipping some tea, we heard a noise that resembled a top storey resident’s trash (when emptied surreptitiously without paying attention to the trajectory of the contents) landing on someone’s balcony instead of the street. Turns out, mountain folks do not live in apartments and it was just raining. In the next 10 mins, the rain drops became hail that looked like sago. And within the next 5 mins, the hail turned into snow. This was an ominous sign, as Rajuji would express his concern by telling us that if visibility were to be hindered on the following day, Roopkund might have to be postponed by an entire day. While we were in love with the mountains, the thought of camping on the ground at sub zero temperatures in the same clothes we’ve been wearing for 3 days, coupled with the lethargy with which your body demanded you to stay put and sealed like a mummy inside the sleeping bag, thereby putting all calls from mother nature on hold, sounded more ominous than trekking under poor visibility. Rajuji told us if Sanjuji woke us up at 4:30 a.m. on the following day with bed tea, Roopkund was on. Otherwise…sigh.

Unexpected and unwanted visitor...snow.

Unexpected and unwanted visitor…snow.

I had never prayed for a 4:30 a.m. wake up call so badly. Also, thanks to mother nature deciding to change the state of ambient water from liquid to solid, the temperature went to -3C at night so it was quite brutal. The next day, all of us were supremely ecstatic when Sanjuji woke us up at 4:30 a.m. with a loud “Chaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiii”! But when we stepped outside our tents, the enormity of the task hit us. The valley we had climbed down was now covered with a good amount of snow, which meant we could slip. We took off around 6 a.m. to Roopkund. Rajuji and I set out in front (while I regret doing this on a regular basis during the trek, unfortunately, that is how my mind plays games with my body).

Uphill climb.

Uphill climb.

Almost there.

Almost there.

The difficult final stretch.

The difficult final stretch.

The last 45 minutes of climb were quite brutal. But the destination was in sight and we kept pushing along. And then,  a few minutes, no 3.5 days later, actually 8 months later, finally…



Sheer euphoria! We made it! I was standing at the highest altitude in my life. I was mildly disappointed that Roopkund looked more like a frozen puddle but the part about the cursed lake with plenty of bones and skulls was true. We were spent but the adrenaline rush from conquering Roopkund gave us the strength to take a few pics and do a quick pooja at the small temple near the lake. I’ll cherish this group photo dearly. Special kudos to Grond for not only recovering but maintaining a great rhythm on that day.

Skulls and bones at Roopkund.

Skulls and bones at Roopkund.

We did it!

We did it!

After Roopkund, we started climbing down. During this, another unfortunate development took place. Mahesh started complaining of irritation in his right eye. It struck us then, that it was the same eye as Chuck and given that Mahesh was handling Chuck’s camera, it must be the same infection. The first thing we did was to quarantine the camera. We hoped that Mahesh’s predicament wouldn’t get as bad as Chuck’s. We urged him not to rub/itch his eyes. Mahesh showed great discipline in adhering to that rule. We retraced the path back from Roopkund up to Pathar Nachuni, and then went towards Deldunga. The long day ended on the most spectacular note. We were greeted to (in my opinion) the best view of the trek. We saw a mountain sunset, where the peaks were lit in scorching ember, as the sun was setting. We could actually see the moon peek out and rise entirely from the other side in a matter of just one minute! I will never forget that sight. And those beautiful mountains ahead of us. The varying hues of green, brown, amber and then pristine white peaks. All in one mammoth monolith. I was speechless.

Amazing scene at Deldunga I.

Amazing scene at Deldunga I.

Those mountains...

Those mountains…

The sunset (and simultaneous moon rise) I'll never forget.

The sunset (and simultaneous moon rise) I’ll never forget.

Day 7 & Day 8: Deldunga->Sitel->Joshimath

Mahesh’s condition had gotten worse. By the time we reached Kanol on the next day, one of his eyes was almost shut and he had developed significant irritation in the second eye. We had received news that Chuck (and sadly, Pun too) had contracted conjunctivitis. We had about 8 kms to go to Sitel. Mohan suggested that Mahesh, I and Bhattji run to Sitel and get some medical attention for Mahesh. We did just that. We virtually sprinted our way to Sitel. Hats off to Mahesh for sticking along and running while being in a state of drugged stupor thanks to paracetamol and antibiotics. It’s amazing how desperate times make you reach for that seemingly nonexistent  quantum of energy and propel you further. The climb down was difficult because you were rolling with gravity and it was hard, especially on your knees, to control and maintain your balance. We passed some villages, a bridge, a stretch where there was no defined path as it looked like King Kong and Godzilla might have had a serious difference of opinion, resulting in a landslide. We had to hop over rocks and one slip could have caused us to fall down a good 200 feet. We reached Sitel in 2 hours and 15 minutes (it took about 4.5 hrs for rest of the folks). Sitel is a town of 90 folks. My apartment complex has three towers and each tower has nearly 100 folks. We reached a pharmacy store and the owner of that store was the doctor du jour. He took a look at Mahesh and after deep consternation and searching his inventory, prescribed the only available eye drop at the facility. Not only that, he took a pair of scissors (we thought he was going to cut a piece of paper with it and create his business card for us for future correspondence), spread the ends and with a strong stabbing motion, poked a hole in the bottle. Apparently, he had convinced the microorganisms on the surface of the scissors to STFU and not invade the pharmaceutical formulation that was packed with great care under sterile conditions. One way to look at it was to focus on the lack of his knowhow. But I took solace under the fact that he didn’t use his teeth and go all Mike Tyson on the bottle. Mahesh seemed to feel better. In the meantime, I observed that in a town of 90, about 7 people were running for the post of Zila Parishad member. That meant no more than 13 votes per person. Even N Srinivasan would have found it hard to rig this Zila Parishad League. Once everybody arrived, we checked out the buzzing downtown of Sitel, which consisted of precise one Main street, about 100 meters long, including a 40 meter bridge. The most hardcore partying activity we did was buying a packet of Kurkure as SoBoD and I felt like eating something chatpata.

We drove to Joshimath on the following day, picking up Chuck and Pun en route. We were really happy to see each other (although I think Pun would have been happier crowd surfing on the armada of sheep that she and Chuck encountered during their journey). Somehow, when Chuck and Pun sat next to me, my PJ radar started working just like Jaya Bachchan’s “SRK mera beta” sensor in K3G that became paranormally alert when SRK was within a 500km radius of Jaya in three dimensional space. Once we reached Joshimath, we stayed in a bungalow that belonged to the Birlas. We also re-discovered an application of water that we had forgotten, having lived in tents like refugees for the past 4 days. In conjunction with a surfactant, it could be used to remove grease from your body! I don’t know about the trek, but I think I might have shed a pound or two after taking a nice, hot shower.

On that evening, we had some of the best time of the trek. We played some dumb charades. There is no point in describing a lot of inside jokes, but it suffices to say that Chuck’s giggles, Paddy’s vibrations (corrected for wind resistance), Mo’s imitating skills, my tendency to get frustrated when someone couldn’t guess the obvious, only fueling others to deliberately keep guessing wrong just to see my face, Arundhati’s SHUSHING, Pun’s complex concepts, SoBoD staying in Ananthapadmanabhaswamy pose throughout the evening and not acting a single movie, Mahesh’s sharp acting and Sriram’s sharp guessing (except Hindi words) stole the show. And Oh, Harshal’s list. The list that had truly wonderful movies like Murde ki Jaan Khatre mein, Jal Bin Machli Nritya Bin Bijli, Son of Hercules and Sone Ka Dil Lohe ka Haath to name a few. This is the most carefully curated collection of movies I had seen since my personal stash of audio cassettes (yes I belong to that era) that featured Raja Babu, Rakshak, Dalaal, Yeh Dillagi and Aao Pyar Karein. Any guesses into my  age at this point might create a Bosskar’s constant (= Paddy’s constant/2).

The most unforgettable, most hilarious dumbC.

We slept around 11 p.m., all charged up for the next leg – Pangarchula. Unfortunately, Grond decided not to risk his legs and stay back. So it’d be the nine of us for the next leg of the journey.

Part II. Trekking and some fun.

Day 2: Drive from Rishikesh to Loharjung

We took off at 7 a.m. after grabbing some breakfast at the lodge. During this journey, Professor Chuck, under the tutelage of Mohan, briefed everyone on Twitter 101 for the benefit of the normal human beings who weren’t on Twitter. Namely Paddy, Arundhati and SoBoD. Thanks to the last person on the list, the average age of that list was brought down dramatically or else we’d be stuck with the negative stereotype that Twitter is not comprehended properly by the geriatrically gifted. But what is more surprising, is that SoBoD missed the memo on the most powerful medium, that has proselytized human beings contributing meaningfully to the society, into armchair critics and Wikipedia subject matter experts, who scorn those with a different point of view, often with embellished vocabulary. (mild #meta). I guess she was too nice for this 😉 We passed Devprayag and Karnaprayag en route. At Loharjung, we had dinner and dozed off.

Devprayag. Where Ganga originates.

Devprayag. Where Ganga originates.

Day 3 Loharjung to Didina

5.30 a.m. Sanjuji greeted us with his most effervescent smile and offered us bed tea. This would become a regular feature throughout the trip and deserves a special mention. How on earth could someone be so darn cheerful at 5:00 a.m (on one of the days, we had to get up at 3:30 a.m. but that didn’t deter his enthusiasm one bit). Either he was sent by Pharrell to enact his anthem in our daily lives or he had access to the highest quality of cannabis that the mountains had to offer.  His joyful “Chaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiii” would become our alarm to get up and get cracking.

I didn’t have the best of sleep, probably in anticipation and excitement mixed with some apprehension. I somehow managed to get myself out of the coziest spot (the blankets at the lodge were so good, once you wrapped them around you like a swiss roll, you could stay warm even under liquid nitrogen) and get ready.

6:30 a.m. Breakfast Excellent spread of cereals, eggs, toast, jam and porridge. It became clear that one of my biggest worries over the trip (food) would become the least of my worries. Kalamji, Sanjuji, Bhattji and Chhotu (Chander…more about him later) would take extremely good care of us. Mohan and Paddy would meticulously take care of filling PowerAde/Gatorade and water in bottles and put exactly 1 vitamin-B and 2 vitamin C tablets on everyone’s plate. In addition, a bag of scroggins was also given to everyone. The packet had about 8-10 almonds, an apricot, a fig and 2 instant energy tablets for normal days and power gels for more excruciating days. The steel mugs for tea and coffee reminded me of “Havankund maston ka jhund…” from Bhaag Milkha bhaag. I was tempted to sing aloud but realized that there were no mules nearby to make my voice sound better by comparison so I decided against it.

7 a.m. Locked and loaded. Day pack with water, PowerAde, clothes etc. Check. Larger (70L) bag packed and tucked inside the read Grand Adventures bag. Check. Heartbeat. Check. We took off on time.

The first hour or so was either downward or flat. We were told by Rajuji that we were quite fortunate to have seen the mighty Trishul mountains from such a long distance. Weather gods were being kind to us by giving us such clear skies with superb visibility. I was tempted to tell him I live in a city where weather gods are always nice but realized Raju wasn’t from Chennai or Mumbai so it would not have had the same impact. I decided to enjoy the fascinating sights around me. Rugged trail, lush greenery all around, gentle streams of water every now and then, odd stone cottage moss covered rocks and the Trishul mountains that kept an eye on us. We took several breaks to attend nature’s calls and smartphone camera’s calls alike.

Trishul Mountain on a clear day.

Trishul Mountain on a clear day.

Serious trekking.

Serious trekking.

10:30 a.m. Suddenly, We reached a bit of an upward climb, at which point, Raju declared that we’d have lunch. While the thought of the lunch being served too early did cross people’s minds, but the fact that our legs would get some rest took over everything else and we decided to take a long-ish break. All lunches began with juice, typically lemon or orange. After that, on day 1, we had pasta, perk, beans and egg for lunch. I have to say that it didn’t feel like we were trekking at 2000 meters. It felt like some three course meal at a decent restaurant. But only for a brief moment because when you got up to get rid of your plate, your calves and glutes reminded you of the painful reality.

There is always time for a group photo.

There is always time for a group photo.

Post lunch session: We navigated a pretty stiff climb, making way for the mules, more ragged terrain along forests, leading to some villages and after 2-3 hours, there it was: Didina. The staff had pitched our tents already. The view was brilliant! We stretched (Colonel Mohan Krishnamoorthy made sure we stretched every day after trekking). Typically hands first and then our legs. We essentially rewarded our efforts by exercising the sorest muscles even further. It was like getting “no pain, no gain” tattooed on our muscles all day, only to take an oxyacetylene torch called stretching and scorching them just to make sure you remembered which ones suffered the most.  Thanks Mo. But on a serious note, it is extremely important to stretch after any exercise otherwise the muscles could get stiff (more likely in cold weather) and you could feel quite brittle on the following day.



View (on an average) from our tents ;)

View (on an average) from our tents 😉

Just chilling.

Just chilling.

Evening: We enjoyed the view around our tents, walked around and found a clear, cool stream and dunked our legs in it. We also played some board games that Mohan had bought. While the games were named differently like “sell houses to random people” or “prevent someone from forming sets in card based games” but Mohan was really nice about giving us a simple mantra to understand all games in one go. It was “The anti-Law of conservation of rules”.

“Rules can be created or destroyed at any point in time and transferred from one game to another as per Mohan’s whims and fancies. Your objective is to battle for the second position after Mohan wins the gold medal”.

I loved how Professor Mo simplified things for us like that. We made another inroad into Paddy’s age. He quoted a figure of 48. Several attempts to probe into incidents and putting a

View late in the afternoon.

View late in the afternoon.

timeline on them resulted in severely anachronistic responses from him. He shivered at times but we weren’t sure if it was because of the questioning or the cold or him exhibiting his normal behavior on account of approaching his true age, which could be a couple of yottaseconds away from the tender figure of 48 years. But he remained steadfast on 48. We decided to add “scientific” as a prefix to this expedition and coined 48 yrs as Paddy’s constant.

We had a three course dinner (and banana fritters for dessert) at 7 p.m. Even folks (originally) from Chennai started complaining that the eating schedule was too early even by their standards. Also, I couldn’t help but point and laugh at the Bengali folks (with a different agency) eating Maggi with their hands in a dhonnai. Of course, I laughed in my mind as I was cognizant of the fact that had I laughed at them literally, they were perfectly capable of calling BongsForHire at 1800-CHOLBE-NA and stage a strike or dharna in front of our tents at any time. And for all you know, Arundhati would have joined them.

View early in the morning (next day).

View early in the morning (next day).

The day ended with a not so peaceful sleep and the knowledge that in case of snoring (particularly by Sriram, Mohan, Paddy and Harshal), the sound waves never interfered destructively and caused the amplitudes to cancel. Huygens didn’t think through clearly before formulating his wave principles.

A word on nature’s call. There were two separate tents (M and F). One would have to get inside, zip them shut, take a seat (modified stool, no pun intended) do the business, take a shovel and bury all the evidence. Who said perfect crimes weren’t possible? The kind staff even provided toilet paper. Also, I hope it is clear on why I insisted on carrying copious amounts of hand sanitizer. You’d have to pick up the toast with the same hands on the following day, after all.

Day 4: Didina to Bedini Bhugiyal

We took off at 7 a.m. sharp. A word about the crew here. They had to clean the vessels, fix lunch, wrap up all the tents, load stuff on the mules, overtake us, wait for lunch and reach the destination well in advance to pitch the tents and greet us with tea. They started at least an hour later than us and reached the destination with mules about an hour ahead of us. In other words, LOL at you marathon running, lyrebird stair training, stair climbing, biking 200 km city slickers. And Rajuji, who walked with us all day. He was the epitome of fitness. You could use him to calibrate a body fat analyzer as a standard specimen with zero fat content. Even his cheeks looked chiseled and devoid of any cherub. He walked with two walking sticks, with a characteristic gliding gait, as if he were skiing on land. Effortless. I have never heard him gasp for breath. It’s like he had some kind of catalytic converters, for converting fat into oxygen to power him all day, instead of lungs.

Tola Pani forest.

Tola Pani forest.

Ali bugiyal.

Ali bugiyal.

We passed the Tola Pani forest and traversed bugiyals (meaning meadows in local language). I’ll let the pictures do the talking. We got a bit of an unpleasant surprise after reaching Bedini Bugiyal. Chuck started complaining of some disturbance in his eye. He thought some insect might have got into his eye. We tried to apply small heat packs (with a cloth) and washing it repeatedly but the eye swelled a lot over the next two hours. If it was an insect wreaking the havoc, it had managed to get into Chuck’s right eye and dig up an entire Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. His eye was secreting gooey mass that would cause his eyes to shut if it dried. Chuck and Pun had to take a tough call and head back to the nearest village (Ghat) for some immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, they’d have to do it on foot (about 15-18km journey). Kalamji was asked to guide them. Chuck gave his DSLR camera to Mahesh, who would resume taking pics with them. In short, we would miss Chuck and Pun dearly for the remainder of the first leg of the trek until Roopkund. Turns out, they walked for almost 12-13 hours and then drove for a short while to get to ghat. Hats off to them.

Some thoughts on our trek to Roopkund and Pangarchula. Part – I: Cast and Crew.

As I sit and try to take stock of things that have transpired over the last 16 days and attempt to put them down in a coherent manner, I realize that it has been quite overwhelming. Just like the mountains. Layer after layer. Different sizes, different textures, different terrains. Endless. They have the ability to entice you with their pristine pulchritude. But if you develop the hubris to think they’d be easy to scale, they’ll engulf you with their towering presence.

For me, it all started when I read this post by my ‘guruji’ (good example of praising by mild age-based trolling) Mohan Krishnamoorthy in Jan 2014. I was fascinated by the idea of subjecting myself to travails and ordeals under somewhat extreme conditions. The silver lining would be that there would be a group of like-minded zany folks who would risk their lives for a selfie at 15, 000 feet. So I got in touch with Mohan and expressed my desire to join him on one of his treks/expeditions (they are two different terms as it’ll become clearer in a bit). He was aware that I ran a little bit so he suggested a program that would be challenging enough, but not make me think of trekking the way I think of papaya or custard apple (i.e. repulsive). The program would be Roopkund lake (trek) and Pangarchula (expedition) over a period of 2 weeks. Over the next month or so, he managed to rope in a few more folks {Chuck, Pun, Divya Murthy (nicknamed SoBoD during this journey), Mahesh, Grond, Paddy, Arundhati and Sriram} to form a sizable group.

The Cast.

The first thing we did as responsible 21st century folks embarking on anything related to real life, as a team, was to form a Whatsapp group. Little did we know that this would soon become the “Mohan giving us exercises and workout plans to transform us from Homo Sapiens into some kind of Felis Concolor” group. But jokes apart, stuff like climbing 150-200 floors of stairs, strengthening your core, going for trial treks, exercising regularly etc really helped in building strength and stamina. I ended up expending every ounce of energy in my body during the trek/expedition and then some. Some sartorial advice was also dispensed, namely dry fit clothing, good quality jackets and gloves, so on and so forth. Things were looking good for the impending odyssey on Oct 2nd. On a day dedicated to non violence, we’d embark on a journey of self-flagellation. Brilliant.

Fast forward to second week of September, 2014. Like any other engineering student, I naturally postponed procuring all the necessary items till the last minute and therefore had to make several frenetic trips to Decathlon. Combined with booking my flight tickets, this resulted in a significant dip in my EBITDA.

Bare necessities:

Clothes (for ~10-12 days)

  1. Thermal innerwear (top and bottom). As they say, change begins from within.
  2. Regular Innerwear, 4-5 pairs.
  3. 3-4 dry fit trek pants
  4. 3-4 dry fit vests
  5. Gloves (stop hunting for gloves that’d let you use your mobile phone for god’s sake. It’s a trek. Not some Instagramepdition! But some folks (*cough* Mo *cough*) managed to Instagram with immaculate frequency and celerity.
  6. 1 Down jacket (preferably where the brand name matches the store name).
  7. 1 half sleeve jacket, could be fleece
  8. 1 rain jacket
  9. Balaclava (I didn’t get this and suffered a bit).
  10. Another jacket in case weather decided to change suddenly from freezer mode to dry ice mode.
  11. 1-2 Beanies
  12. Monkey cap, supply of paruppu and other assorted powders and thokkus from grand sweets
  13. Separate case of homemade snacks and homemade ghee laden dry fruit laddoos that add unnecessary weight and shouldn’t be lugged (but the resident Gujju would ignore this anyway).
  14. 2 microfleece or quick dry towels
  15. Earmuffs are a good idea in case your ears are sensitive to cold winds
  16. 5-6 pairs of thick, ankle length socks

Gear & other stuff

  1. Trekking boots, preferably with ankle support
  2. A pair of sandals/floaters
  3. Head light with extra batteries.
  4. 30-40L day backpack
  5. 70-90L bag for remaining supplies (and for post trek shopping).
  6. Walking stick (get a good one with adjustable height).
  7. First aid kit.
  8. Sun screen lotion and moisturizing lotion.
  9. Sunglasses for trekking (although the 100 Rs Ray Ban (with an additional RB insignia inscribed somewhere) that I bought at Rishikesh also worked to a decent extent).
  10. Medicine kit (make sure to have something for the eyes. E.g. TobaStar eye drops. This was one of the biggest learning from this trip as one could contract conjunctivitis).
  11. Hand sanitizer (copious amounts).
  12. Trash bags (black ones, medium size), about 15-20. Bags because you need to separate the filthier used clothes/items from filthy, unused clothes/items (as they remain stuffed in your larger duffel bag for days). And black because it is the color that absorbs all wavelengths of light, thereby shielding yours and others’ eyes from the visual appeal they acquire as a result of being used, scratched with and rubbed against several unimaginable and unmentionable regions over a period of several days. In summary, the exact opposite of soil erosion. They accumulate stuff.

Optional items such as solar chargers, additional batteries for charging your phones, toe warmers (it seems to be a SoBo thing), ankle and knee supports, board games, pack of cards, foam roller for stretching (seems to be a posh Aussie thing), lip balm, sleeping bag liners (for the hygienic types), wet wipes, so on and so forth would make your journey (especially nights) more comfortable. You could also carry some portable speakers. Yours truly gave a fascinating dance performance to the beats of Shehar ki Ladki, scarring many, but doing a great service to the sacred art of dancing by setting a nadir for reference.

Day 1: Compadres assemble at Rishikesh on October 2nd

I had arrived the night before so I decided to spend the morning taking a stroll to Ram and Laxman jhoolas. The lazy elegance of the ghats by the Ganga was only accentuated by the ochre tinge of the sunlight on the buildings. After walking for about 7-8 kms, I decided to stop by Chotiwala, a popular joint for a bite. I had the Navratra thali which had Kuttu poori, kuttu pakode, aaloo raita, kaddu ki sabzi and a lassi that was so thick, it had to be eaten towards the end.

Once I reached the hotel, I first met SoBoD. I think we may have crossed paths in Rishikesh at some point in time, not knowing each other. I saw this suave, urban type girl with a cool looking backpack, filmy style sunglasses and a mild “what am I doing in this village without any Zara and Salvatore Ferragamo outlets?” look and wondered if she was part of our gang (turns out I was right!). She lives in south Mumbai and has the educational qualifications to sue your rear end if you committed the chutzpah of saying something outlandish. But soon she came to know that with me, she was dealing with the bottom of the financial and social pyramid (a.k.a research scientists) so there was no point in exercising her legal prowess. She had come with her mother for some sightseeing before joining us for the trek. She is a totally bindaas Mumbai girl but so p0sh she once said “Platinum Mall is next to my house” (and not the other way around).

 At ~2 p.m., the rest of the gang arrived. Chuck greeted me with a grin and “So, you are the Ajit Bhaskar, progenitor of poor jokes”, which made me think “Finally, someone who gets me”. Chuck and Pun seemed like a fun couple (as confirmed later). I couldn’t gather much about Pun but that’s because there weren’t any four legged creatures around us within a 100 micron radius (more on that later). I then got introduced to the >6ft and athletically built Mahesh. He didn’t look like he was in his early 40s. I was truly inspired to see Paddy, Adundhati and Sriram (all in their 50s). The precise determination of their ages was and continues to be an enigma. The primary reason being any inquiry into their ages would result in a response referring to Mohan’s age, which also appears to somewhere in the 50s. Further probing turned them into Yetis so we decided not to pursue the matter further as we had enough mountain related challenges to tackle. Let’s just say some mysteries are better left unsolved. But I would draw quite a bit of inspiration from their grit and perseverance throughout the trek. And their sense of humor. Mahesh, Paddy, Aruna and Sriram had traveled all the way from Australia.

You don’t really need to see Paddy to know how he looked. Just imagine Al Pacino with a slight stubble and speaking in Tamil. That and if Al Pacino were hooked to a vial shaker (more on that later…again). Severe #sameguy, as they say on Twitter.

Arundhati is a teacher in Australia. What she teaches and her work hours are a matter of debate as the rest of the Aussie blokes claim that she goes to school, only to disagree with some policy and participate in strikes/protests and chitchat during the rest of the time. Arundhati denies these charges vehemently. I almost asked if PSBB had opened a branch in Australia, but realized that the “protest” part didn’t add up as nobody would dare to mess with the fireball called YGP. Sriram (Arundhati’s less better half) is a laid back ambi mama dude who endured all the high quality humor dished out during the trip and contributed several quips of his own.

Then I met Harshal (a.k.a Grond). He was (mostly) in charge of keeping track of financial transactions or the who owed whom and how much aspect of the trip. For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the fundamentals of financial operations, it is sufficient to know that Harshal is a Guajarati.  I also had the distinct privilege of rooming with Grond. He had this incredible gift of slipping into deep torpor within 5 minutes of hitting the sack. I think Mohan should have made that a key skill to develop as part of our training regime because on that night, there was a wedding at the hotel lawn, which extended close to 1130 p.m. While I am not against weddings, having subjected myself to one, I am not in favor of inflicting the denizen around the venue with bioterrorism in the form of bhotiya songs on autotune. After listening to some, I could clearly understand why certain folks approve of waterboarding. These songs are clearly worse. In fact, listening to a few hours’ worth of these songs should tantamount to climbing the Everest. For those interested in exploring this most fascinating form of  (music) (lulz) torture, here is a sample playlist:

  1. Lollypop lagelu:
  2. Chappan Lakh ki Choli:
  3. Sujit Kumar Tiger:

There are several more but I will add items to this list after registering my name with the Limca book of records for enduring the most number of bhotiya/bhojpuri songs on autotune while researching on a literary article.

And finally, Mohan. I won’t sing his paeans because this is a blog post and not a Steig Larson novel with font size 3nm and 700 pages. Even that space would be insufficient. And his motivational and influential skills are exceptional. He convinced folks from Australia to join, persuaded me to challenge myself, helped Grond train for this mammoth task in mere four months, converted Chuck into a disciple, made him defoliate his northern hemisphere and adopt his coiffure, the list is practically endless. Just like the mountains that we were about to explore. What a portent. But yes, a truly inspirational figure.

P.S: I intend to inflict you with a 3 to (max) 4 part series as there are several stories to tell (trekking and otherwise) and while I tried my best to write seriously, I couldn’t help but use (pitiful) humor to express my thoughts best.

The 100 Foot Journey.

There is a scene where Mr. Kadam (Om Puri) bellows at Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) “French cannot become Indian and Indian cannot become French”. This is when Mallory wants Hassan to work in her kitchen after she has looked down upon his cooking skills with abject condescension. On a previous occasion, the movie also invokes the French national anthem, which is filled with numerous references to blood, war and tyrants. Yet. Yet, when it comes to getting Hassan, Mallory chooses to just sit inside Maison Mumbai, a humble, cheesy restaurant opened by the Kadams, and wait for, in her own words “Hassan Kadam or death, whichever comes first”. There is something very Gandhian, or, Indian about this. Om Puri is forced to put a blanket over a tired, shivering Madame Mallory and allow Hassan to work with her.

As for the Indians, Hassan manages to convince Madame Mallory by modifying a 200 year old French recipe by adding coriander and fenugreek. He masters the five core French sauces (veloute, béchamel, hollandaise, tomato and espagnol). He even nails the pigeon in truffle sauce for the minister (that Madame Mallory throws in the dust bin but is later shown to acknowledge as being exquisite).

It is this amalgamation of French becoming Indian and Indians becoming French through food is what makes this movie a fun watch. It’s Madame Mallory, who prided herself in French cooking with all the subtlety of flavors, touching red chili powder with her bare hands and adding chopped coriander to an omelette. It’s Papa Kadam, whose food was as loud as the music he blared and refused to turn both down, appreciating beef bourgignon. When goons set the Kadams’ hotel in Mumbai on fire, they flee to London in a horrifying series of events. But when Jean Pierre arranges for the Kadams’ restaurant in France to be set ablaze, not only do they stay put, but rebuild from the ashes. This is where Le Saule Pleureur and Maison Mumbai, located right across the street from each other, start to (metaphorically) get closer to each other. I guess you can’t cook something without a fire…

The plot is simple and somewhat predictable. You could see several things developing and culminating the way you’d imagine. But somehow, you couldn’t help but drag yourself to the edge of your seat as Madame Mallory is about to announce her verdict on Hassan’s Omelette and hope she approves it. You wanted Madame Mallory’s restaurant to get the Michelin stars after Hassan took over the kitchen. You wanted Marguerite to accept Hassan’s love, in spite of her living in denial for the most part. You wanted Hassan to come back to that village in France, where he found the “soul” in his food.

But the soul of this movie is food and the love for cooking. It’s amazing how people are still stirring cauldrons in spite of knowing their restaurant is on fire (in the opening scene). It’s incredible how the Kadams try to open a barbeque covered with a sheet of plastic tied to a few wooden posts to protect it from rain. In spite of airplanes from Heathrow causing enough vibrations to topple the sheet and douse the food every single time.

The essence is captured very well when Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) removes a piece of leaf from Hassan’s (Manish Dayal) hair. Hassan then proceeds to remove something (imaginary) on Marguerite’s face and kisses her. Marguerite suggests it was not a good idea for two chefs to be in love. Hassan immediately pounces on the apparent compliment and exclaims “Oh but you DO think of me as a chef?” (And not a “cook”). He loved Marguerite but even at that time, he chose his love for cooking.

Do watch the movie. If not anything, I think when Hassan and Madame Mallory are done making an Omelette, as Madame Mallory is folding it, I couldn’t help but notice that the space between my tongue and lower jaw was filled with sweet saliva that gushed out as I folded my tongue inwards. Not only did I want that Omelette, but also to be in a village in France, cooking and enjoying food.