Trekking to Kalsubai

I’m not a fighter. Not anymore at least. When you realize that most of your life has been spent fighting for the wrong things, and for the wrong reasons, you find yourself questioning if anything really is worth fighting for. If the scars are all that remain, then why bother, right?

But Life is strange. It sometimes gets you to do things without you realizing what it is you’re doing. You just throw the punch, you just keep walking, you just refuse to stop and you never realize – you were actually fighting. And what’s more – that you chose to fight. Trekking to Kalsubai is one such fight – one that you never realize you’re in while it’s happening – only when it’s done, and only once you’ve won.

We climbed the highest peak in Maharashtra on New Year’s Eve. To be precise it was actually New Year’s Day, because we started climbing at 12:30 AM on January 1. It was a night trek organized by Mumbai Travellers. The aim was to see the first sunrise of the year from the highest point in the entire state. Sounds pretty dramatic, I know. It’s why there were 70 of us on that trek. Everyone loves drama.

And action. Kalsubai is not easy, regardless of what some trekkers (and the organizers) might tell you.It’s 5400 feet of sheer climbing. The terrain is rocky and steep, and in patches so steep that you need ladders to continue the climb.

blog 2The entire climb takes around 3.5 – 4 hours – in the night. In the day, with the sun bearing down on you, and the sight of the terrain wearing you down – I would assume it takes much longer.

We also happened to go on the coldest night of the year, or at least what seemed to be the coldest. It didn’t seem so bad when we started off for Kasara, or even when we traveled to Bari – the base village – from Kasara. But once you’re in the village, and the lights of the city have all but vanished, and the air is free from the heat of the pollution, the cold gets to you. As you start to climb, you start to pant, and with every breath you suck in more and more of the chilly night air until the cold is in your belly, spreading it’s icy tentacles inside you slowly. It’s not so bad when you’re climbing, because the heat in your body keeps it at bay; but the moment you stop, you freeze. This is probably the only drawback of climbing in the night. You’re miserable when you walk, you’re miserable when you stop.

However, the vista surrounding you as you climb does leave you with a happy, warm feeling, even when the wind gives you goosebumps. A million stars give you company. Bright yellow dots suspended against a black nothingness remind you of warm houses. When you look down at the trekkers behind you, you see a line of torch lights draped upon the mountainside like lights on a Christmas tree. Even in the pitch blackness of the night, you glow. Or maybe it’s just the sweat.

But Kalsubai is a kind mountain. It gives you ample patches to rest in. A small temple about 1/3rd way to the top. Another grassy patch halfway. This patch is particularly beautiful, as it offers you a panoramic, unobstructed view of the night sky and the mountains around. It’s hard not to forget about the trek (and everything else) and just stay there. You could almost doze off into a little snooze if it weren’t for the biting cold and a local villager narrating the legend of Kalsubai. It’s almost killing us to get up and start walking again. And well, this would be the second drawback of trekking on a cold night – when you start climbing after a break, you feel even more miserable than before.

To be honest, there were umpteen times on that 4-hour climb when I wholeheartedly wished that I’d just gone to some stupid new year’s party and gotten bored instead of subjecting myself to this ordeal. And I’m pretty sure a lot of other people felt the same way, at some point on that night. That my husband kept reminding me whose idea this was didn’t do much to soothe my frayed nerves, aching muscles and runny nose. However, climbing at night had the single biggest advantage of ignorance. Except for the next rock you had to step on, we had no idea what we were climbing. We couldn’t see the terrain, we couldn’t see the summit, we couldn’t see each other. We were completely in the dark, literally. All we focused on was the next big rock, the next stepping stone. We had absolutely no idea what we had actually gotten ourselves into, except that if we kept going long enough, we’d eventually get there.

When you are doing a trek like Kalsubai, not seeing the mountain of a task in front of you is really comforting. I’m pretty sure a lot of people including me would’ve given up half way if we could actually see what we were climbing. And therefore, if you’re going to do Kalsubai, do it in the night. That sounds very weird. Anyway, do it in the night, and do it with Mumbai Travellers. Getting 70 people to climb the highest summit in Maharashtra, many of them first-timers, is not an easy task. But they managed it effortlessly. No one was left behind, no matter how tired or slow they were. The organizers were extremely skilled climbers, but more importantly, were incredibly efficient and managed the entire trip without any glitches.

If you’re lucky, at the base of the summit, there will be a villager making kanda bhaji and chai in a little hut, at 4 AM. Yes. You read that right. And if you’re really lucky there will not be a group of rowdy, loud boys playing mafia at the top of their voices outside that hut as if their lives depended on it. Obviously we weren’t really lucky. All we got were the bhajjis and chai. But the rest of our group was worse off. All the way to the top you are relentlessly whipped by the wind which is hell bent on skimming the skin off your bones. As you near the summit there are many patches that are on the leeward side, and hence will protect you from this onslaught. This is where you should wait to rest. Our group did not. Our group chose the most windy spot you could find to start a bonfire. Now, I’m one of the most sensitive people when it comes to cold that I have ever met. I was wearing five layers and was still shivering. The chai and bhajji had not helped. The hut hadn’t helped either. In hindsight, brandy may have, but I didn’t have the foresight to carry any. There was no way I was sitting  out in the cold, so me and the hubby opted to stay in the hut. I’m sad to say that did not help either. I shivered for a whole hour sitting next to that stove.

An hour later, we were jerked out of our stupor by someone who said the rest of our group was on their way to the summit (we were parked some 100 feet below it) to see the sunrise. It was around 5:00 AM. In a maddening hurry we managed to align our creaking bones with our stiff muscles and stumbled out of the hut, scrambling in twilight over the last 100 feet in an attempt to catch up with the rest of the torches.

I want you to take a minute to let this seep in. This is my first trek in 3 years. I can barely run for 5 mins without panting. Both my knees are on fire. I’m shivering through the 5 layers. I can’t feel my hands or feet. We haven’t slept in 24 hours and have climbed 5200 feet in 3 of those hours, 3 coldest hours. And now just when we were finally beginning to rest, we had to climb some more. Those last 100 feet – the very last of those hand-hewn stone steps were torture – pure and simple. I stopped in my tracks, and cried. I cried. And told my husband I wanted to go home. I’d had enough. My husband, who’s is the most resilient of people, too was on edge. He looked at me and said, “Mini, there’s really no where else for us to go.”

That’s when I knew, I was fighting. More importantly, that’s when I knew I wanted to win. I didn’t really know whether we would see a sunrise through the fog and clouds around us. I didn’t care. I would make it to the top. I would climb this damned mountain. And then I would die in peace.

When I would go to dance classes, my teacher would often say, “Just give in to the pain. Don’t resist it” while we moaned and groaned in the prone position for 30 counts. I never really understood what that meant up until that morning. For the kind of pain I was in (my knee problem is a little serious for a 26 year old) I have no recollection of how I climbed the rest of the 100 feet. Throughout the trek I’d waited for every small break and devoured it – because that’s when the pain stopped. Now, I just didn’t care for it anymore, not even for it to stop. It was going to hurt. Period. And I was going to climb. Perioder.

Far scarier than it looks

We climbed over 4 really poorly constructed ladders on this trek. We had to climb the fourth and last ladder right now, which would take us to the top. This one was over the steepest part. I remember climbing it with such disdain and hope. Disdain that there was one more step to climb. Hope that I had climbed one more. When I finally set foot at the top, I could have fallen down on my knees and kissed the ground, but it was too cold.

The freezing gale blowing at the summit could have swept one off the cliff. And it looked like it had, because our group wasn’t there. What we’d seen were villagers making their way to the temple on the summit for the morning aarti. One of them kindly lit us a small fire and we tried to warm ourselves while waiting for the promised sun.

I don’t know how many of you have seen a sunrise. It kinda sneaks up on you. One minute the sky is blue, then it turns purple, then pink,then orange, and then finally yellow-white.

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It’s an amazing feeling. You don’t really notice the colours – all you realize is that things around you get clearer and clearer. It was still a very foggy winter morning, and I began to think that we might not be able to see the sun after all. I went back to the fire just as the aarti was about to end. The villagers started with ‘Ghalin Lotangan’ – the customary aarti to end all aartis (and also one of my favourites), and that’s when we saw it.

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A bright ball of Orange. The brightest orange you could ever see. Like a glowing ember suspended amidst dark clouds. At first we could only see the uppermost rim and slowly, as the chants of the men grew louder, as the sanskrit words began, the ones that praise the Almighty for being everything, the parent and the brother, the friend and the teacher, the alpha and the omega, the eternal and the infinite, it appeared, its entire form slowly emerging. And as the final chants of Hare Rama and Hare Krishna resounded, it glowed brilliantly, having now ‘risen’ completely. And having witnessed it like I did, I felt like it had risen for me alone.

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It was the most spell-binding moment of my life. I had not slept the whole night, but I awakened then. It had been the most befitting end to my struggle. For the first time, in a long time, I had fought for something – that I knew, with utmost certainty – had been worth the fight. And I had won. I felt redeemed. I felt humbled.

It wasn’t over yet though. There was still the journey downhill – but it didn’t matter. Actually, nothing mattered anymore. Climbing down that ladder was nerve-wracking to say the least, particularly because you had to descend it facing downwards. The rest of the descent was surreal, to say the least. We were now actually ‘seeing’ what we climbed over last night. Everywhere we turned were vistas of the Western Ghats, and we looked down upon the mountain tops, from the highest among them. We saw the valleys and the slopes, the mountain forms and the roads – all with a wondrous feeling of – ‘Did we really climb all this in the night?! HOW did we DO THIS?!’. Had we climbed during the day, our fatigue would have definitely not let us enjoy any of this. And while I’ve trekked down many mountains before, trekking down the Kalsubai gives you a view like no other.

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It was exactly 24 hours later that we were on a local again, to Mumbai. A lot can happen in a day, they say. But what can you do in a day? You could go to work. You could travel to a new country. You could meet someone. You could get married. Or you could climb a mountain. The highest in the state, just for kicks. If that’s possible in one day, imagine what’s possible in 365.

(The images on this post are courtesy of fellow trekker Pratik Koli. You can view the original images here: http://goo.gl/gT6jXA)

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Train to Life

This kid keeps climbing up and down the seats, like he’s on some kind of eternal, endless and exciting treasure hunt.He pauses to look at me from time to time, as if he knows I’m writing about him.  He’s climbed the same bench 5 times now.

He climbs with his entire being. He probably doesn’t get get much to nourish that apology of a body, definitely not enough to match the appetite of his curiosity, but that’s not stopping him. Single-minded dedication towards the aim getting the right leg up, after the left. He lies prostate, belly down, on the bench for about 3 seconds after he’s up; summoning strength, or perhaps deciding upon the best strategy possisble to tackle his next objective or maybe just to bask in the glory of a task successfully completed. And then he climbs down. This entire process is repeated 8 odd times, before he’s found a loose screw somewhere.

My heart skips a beat as he reaches out and fondles it. I want to grab him and pull him back; and explain to him in some form of baby-talk that he’s not to touch the big, bad screw. But I know the effort would be futile. There’s no deterring a kid who’s got his mind set on something.

I look around, hoping his mother is around somewhere, so that I might catch her eye. But on second thoughts, (and the hundredth look) I know this kid has been through worse; and, more importantly, survived.

For sometime he disappears from my sight, seemingly to conquer another innocent bench. 5 minutes later, he emerges from under mine, mildly astonishing me. He pauses to look at my rather attractive pink, frilly umbrella. For a minute, I think he’s going to latch onto it, and we’re going to have a grand old tug-o-war, right here in the middle of the train compartment. Thankfully, my umbrella is nowhere as exciting to him as the bench.

Finally the mother appears. I heave a sigh of relief. Unattended children climbing benches in fast-moving trains make me uncomfortable. Lost childhoods holding onto innocence in an attempt to feign reality, even moreso.

Clad in her burkha, the woman seemed every bit as experienced as the child. Thankfully, she’s at least smiling as she picks him up. He doesn’t seem too happy about leaving his beloved bench, that he has so eagerly conquered about 10 times in a row by now; but thankfully, he doesn’t cry. The train stops. They get off.

I’ve seen so many such kids on trains, so many times. They are almost a part of the utility – like the ticket windows, the subways, the skywalks, the tracks – omnipresent & inconspicuous. In sight but out of mind. Everywhere and yet, nowhere.

So why this kid?

Most of these kids die within the first few years in the system. What’s left is just a zombie. A hollow shell. An emtpy glass, broken long before it could ever hold anything. They lose before the fight could begin.

This kid was different. He was not lost, not broken. He was going to climb every other hurdle with as much gusto as he climbed the benches. He wasn’t going to lose. This was just his playground, his training camp. and he wasn’t done yet.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

I witnessed something quite pleasantly, amusingly, poignant today.

I was standing outside of Bandra Stn, right outside the arches, at 2 o’clock. I need not add exactly how hot it was, but I should add how pissed I was, at the fact that it WAS so hot, that my bus seemed nowhere in sight, that the traffic and the honking seemed endless and annoying, and especially at the fact that for some reason, a good 50 odd Muslim men seemed to want to stand at exactly that same place at the time.

No, I’m not talking about the Muslims (sigh)

I generally get pissed at any congregation of men anywhere, simply because seldom do they congregate for the right kind of reasons. It means I have to be over cautious and get overtly stared at. Yet, the crowd here seemed quite on their civil behaviour, possibly brought on by the hawaldar bandobast. 

It seems they had gathered to offer namaaz. They were chattering away, the whole lot, some praying, some kneeling, some doing something that was a mixture of all three. Every now and then a slightly older man wearing a pathan-like turban would come around and tell everyone to get in place. People kept getting in place and getting out. Basically there was a lot happening, and people like me who were waiting for the bus kept waiting for something else to happen too.

Then, as expected, the azaan rang out, and the men heeded. All of a sudden everyone got in their place and then, everything went  shush. It was as if someone turned off a switch. I have never in my life seen Bandra station this quite. I was too absorbed looking at what they were doing, so I’m not sure, but I do think even traffic stopped moving for a while. Understandably, the men were engrossed with what they were doing, but even those of us who didn’t have anything to do with this, went quiet. There was no honking, no hawking, no yelling on the phone, no yelling at the hawker, nothing. There was just some annoying banter by the hawaldars (because they just have to ruin a perfectly great moment) – but other than that, it seemed like the whole of Bandra station had joined the men.

It was one of those moments that are filmed and edited to an audio of the National Anthem or Vande Mataram. For the five minutes that the namaaz lasted, pin-drop silence ruled the air. It was almost as if, despite the rush that we are in, despite how impatient we are, how irritated we get with crowds, how we regard the faithful of a different kind – despite all of this, each individual (running, walking, standing, sitting, eating, drinking, texting) knew that this was a moment not to be disturbed. This was moment to be looked at with some respect. This was a moment to feel something. This was a moment to be, even for a moment, a little better, even in the littlest way possible. Of course the hawaldars are an exception.

When it was over, Bandra station resumed its usual poise and grace. The men went to feast and the hawaldars, to fleece. I finally saw my bus snaking its way through the traffic (which had miraculously just started). But this moment lingered. Not because someone was praying. But because someone else decided to let someone pray in peace.