The Diminishing Marginal Utility of the anti-Modi Rant, or Why my Vote goes to Modi

The law of diminishing marginal utility states that the marginal utility of a product or service decreases with each successive unit of consumption, up to a point where additional consumption creates dis-utility or dissatisfaction.

2002

The unanimous condemnation of the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat—in both national and international media—was instrumental in creating a ritual disgust for Narendra Modi in my mind. For the first time in India, communal riots were captured in real time, with a barrage of damning evidence all over the media, in print, through photographs, and video footage running 24*7 on every news channel.

I was 19, studying for my board exams that February, when the news of the Sangh Parivar activists commemorating the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya was doing the rounds. Thousands of devout Ram-bhakts from all over the country were assembling in Ayodhya to do their bit to build their temple. I knew there would be trouble, and I detested the Sangh Parivar for its rabble-rousing antics. About three years ago, some men associated with the Sangh Parivar had burnt to death a Christian missionary along with his entire family in Odisha for allegedly carrying out mass conversions in lieu of money. Not surprisingly, it became a hot topic of discussion amongst friends in my Christian missionary school. My Christian friends were not complaining, not because they weren’t bothered but because, I guess, they did not want to embarrass us—the Hindus—who denounced, unanimously, with no prior planning, the dastardly act of those goons. For the first time in my life I felt embarrassed at being a Hindu—not because the immediate people around me did or said something to cause embarrassment—but because I shared my faith with those goons, I sensed that in the non-Hindu mind I was perhaps equally capable of harbouring similar thoughts. Hence, my (in fact, our) loud denouncement of the murder of G.S. Staines.

I wasn’t religious. At 19, I called myself an atheist, and much as I tried to understand the religious motivations of people fighting over mosques and temples, all I could make out, unconvincingly though, was that they were all uneducated ruffians—and the group with the larger number won. Nevertheless, I carried my secret guilt of being a Hindu in a Hindu-majority country like an albatross round my neck. And therefore I was also staunchly secular.

The above premise—I’d still like to think—was the result of my own mental gymnastics. However, it gave me immense confidence that the line of thought propagated by the majority of English language news channels was similar. My favourite channel was the newly launched NDTV and Barkha Dutt, then my favourite anchor. She was dynamic, fearless, and was the first woman to cover the Indo-Pak war of 1999 from the war-zone of Kargil. I admired her, secretly hoped to become a journalist like her, and in retrospect, I think I was far too influenced by her style to be able to distinguish between reporting and value-judgement.

Day after day, I watched homes burning on TV, blood splattered on the streets, and a steady stream of pictures of half-burnt, naked, mutilated human bodies on almost every page of the two newspapers we subscribed to. The death toll increased each day as news reporters spoke with survivors, mostly Muslims, who recounted their horror at watching their people being raped and butchered by Hindu mobs.

At breaking point, I decided to stop watching the riot coverage altogether. I was disconsolate and the images of the burning riots made it impossible for me to concentrate on my studies. I promised myself that I will read up on this later and buried myself in text books. But by then my opinion of Modi as a maut ka saudagar (“dealer of death” as alleged by the Congress president Sonia Gandhi) was cemented. I did keep my promise though. Soon after I started college in Kolkata, I bought a documentary on the Gujarat riots as compiled by some leading intellectuals from the Left Front government ruling Bengal at that time. I read it without looking at the pictures inside.

2003

My college was a hotbed of political activism. The students’ wing of the Left Front (then in government in Bengal) lost the elections and made way for a parti-coloured coalition of sorts to gain control of the students’ union. Legend has it that what happens in this college ripples out and shapes the events outside, particularly in the Vidhan Sabha.

This was also the year in which the US started its invasion of Iraq, carpet bombing what it believed to be secret installations of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and killing a million people in its wake. This was the American “war against terror” in response to the tragedy that struck on September 11, 2001. In a rare show of solidarity, all the parties in my college got together and organised a protest march against the American invasion of Iraq, which we believed had more to do with oil than with WMDs. I joined this march because I thought it was important, and helped create one of those traffic snarls that Kolkata is known for.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2004

In the general elections I voted for the Congress, believing them to be the best available option because, well, a party that harbours the likes of Modi—despite it’s good handling of economic policies and record of development—can’t be voted to power. Sonia Gandhi of the Congress was almost crowned as the prime minister, when that was botched by one Subramanium Swamy of the BJP, citing a clause of reciprocity in the Constitution. Therefore Manmohan Singh is nominated as the Congress-led UPA’s prime minister.

There’s no question of changing my opinion of Modi.

2006

A series of 7 bombs went off in quick succession in several busy railway stations in Mumbai on July 11. Over 200 people were killed and 700 left injured, and while the government and police went into a tailspin fixing blame and managing the disaster, the mainstream media sang paeans to the resilient spirit of Mumbaikars who went back to work the very next day using the same railway lines. This was suspiciously in sync with the timing of another grenade attack by terrorists in Kashmir.

A Pakistan-based terrorist group claimed responsibility and said that this was done in response to the Gujarat riots of 2002.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2007

Bengal had been simmering with frequent outbreaks of violence between the two rival political parties. The incumbent Left Front had been in government for over thirty years—too long for a single party to rule uninterrupted but too short to see the fall of every industrial institution in the state. The incumbent chief minister went against his party’s hardline Leftist ideology and met with several investors in the hope of reviving the economy. This failed, and some of the credit for scuttling an industrial resuscitation goes to Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the opposition party.

Banerjee’s party worked relentlessly to apprise the poor farmers about the government’s plans of acquiring land for industries. This fomented trouble in several areas where the farmers refused to part with their land.

In Nandigram, the farmers feared that the chemical plant planned on their lands would sully the waters and the soil and they would be left without adequate compensation. They dug up every road that led to their village and kept a round-the-clock vigil to prevent any government vehicle from entering. A large police contingent was deployed to break the farmers’ resistance. Unable to negotiate, on March 14, the police opened fire, killing 14 people, mostly women and children. The chief minister claimed that the police acted without his orders, yet it was but a matter of time before his party would lose to Banerjee’s in 2011.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2008

Ajmal Kasab and company arrived in Mumbai on a boat from Pakistan and opened fire on people. The firing wasn’t completely indiscriminate: They chose to spray bullets in a specialty hospital, a 5 star hotel frequented by the rich and foreign, a busy railway station, and a Jewish prayer house.They killed over 200 people, and continued to fight until all but one were killed.

They claimed that this was their way of meting out justice for the injustice wrought on Indian Muslims during the Gujarat riots of 2002.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged.

2009

After Greg Chappell’s disastrous coaching of India’s cricket team, not many in India would praise Australia. However, the sudden spurt of physical violence on Indian students in Australia created a diplomatic face-off. From the Australian authorities there was denial, followed by a grudging acknowledgement of a racist undercurrent, and finally followed by reassurances.

In 2010, after a long public discourse on immigration control, Australia tightened its immigration rules in favor of English speakers and professionals, saying the country has been attracting “too many hairdressers and cooks and too few doctors and engineers”.

My opinion of Modi remained unchanged. Obviously, what’s immigration got to do with Modi, would you ask?

2011

I had moved to Maharashtra by this time and lived in Pune. I had stayed for a while in Mumbai too, in 2007, and loved the city. A couple of seemingly unrelated incidents resulted in an unbelievable case of rioting in Azad Maidan in Mumbai.

  1. A sustained communal clash between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar raised communal passions in India.
  2. As a result, within a few weeks, clashes broke out between the mostly Hindu Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims in Assam. Tensions had been simmering over the steady infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh across the porous border, and the clashes snowballed into a full-fledged riot after 4 Bodo youths were killed. In the ensuing violence more than 80 people lost their lives and 4 lakh rendered homeless.

Unhappy with the clashes in Assam, a Muslim group held a protest rally in the heart of Mumbai. The police permission for the rally estimated 1500 people—however, more than 15000 turned up, many of them armed with batons, cans of petrol, etc. In response to some speeches and photographs, this crowd turned restive and started beating up the already heavily outnumbered police personnel and set fire to cars, buses, and destroyed the Amar Jawan (Martyr’s) memorial.

A Facebook conversation with a Muslim friend on this turned sour, following his meandering slimy soft-pedalling of Jehadi elements holding the nation at ransom. The sourness also arose from the fact that he’s a journalist—and capable of selling his BS thanks to his Press card—and I can’t do anything about it. However, I did do something: I cast off the metaphorical albatross of Hindu guilt I had been wearing around my neck. That conversation was an eye-opener for me as to the futility of having pious sentiments like vicarious guilt in a land where ruffians murder and their well-read alter-egos justify murder.

Shortly after the Azad Maidan incident, some electronic messages and videos were spread warning people from the north-east of India of physical harm in retaliation to the Assam riots. As unbelievable as it may sound, it triggered a massive exodus of people of the north-east from cities like Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune—and went on for several days.

The Indian government cracked down on social networking sites to control this kind of rumour mongering. It was during this time that I found my blog domain blocked—without any information—and a potentially dangerous idea being floated by Kapil Sibal, the Congress minister in charge of IT and Telecommunications, that all content on the Internet including social networking sites should be monitored by the government.

The minister later denied making that statement—but going by the fact that the idea was successfully planted in public discourse, does it make you re-think the magnitude of the American NSA programme?

There’s no question of changing my opinion on Modi, though.

2012

By this time, India’s economic growth had collapsed to what it was twenty years ago before we liberalised our Soviet model of economy to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in for rapid development.

One scam after another began to unfold before the public—thanks largely to an overzealous civil movement called India Against Corruption and castigation from regulatory bodies like the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

Taking advantage of our troubled house, our friendly neighbours on both sides resorted to regular violation of ceasefire and land-grabbing.

It also emerged by this time that the Congress-led UPA at the centre was preparing for a hattrick win in election 2014 riding pillion with two proposed legislations—the Food Security Bill and the Communal Violence Bill.

Food security sounds nice in a country which boasts of a nuclear arsenal and yet people die of hunger. This bill, which is now an Act, seeks to provide a minimum quantity of food grain to about 800 million people at a heavily subsidized fixed rate—estimated to reach upto Rs 124,747 crore annually.

However, it’s important to read the fine print. Food Security was pre-empted by a direct-cash-for-food scheme that replaced the previous public distribution system (PDS). The government defended its direct cash transfer scheme as one that is likely to have the least leakage—in contrast to the PDS—while as a taxpaying citizen it’s difficult for me to digest this given the fact that Rs 8000 crore of taxpayer money was siphoned off in repeated cheques to the same vendor in what’s know as the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam.

Just to give a sense of proportion: India’s much celebrated Mars mission cost only Rs 450 crore. Had the Rs 8000 crore not been lost in corrupt government deals for the CWG, how many such missions or Food Security Acts would have been possible?

The strange case of the Communal Violence Bill defies all logic. Against all established principles of law, this proposed legislation seeks to hold the majority community guilty of either criminal act or criminal intent, in any case of communal conflagration. Which effectively means that a Hindu man in Bengal, which has a Hindu majority, will be held criminal until proven innocent in the event of a communal clash. The Bill doesn’t address the case of clashes between minority communities such as the one in Assam.

Well, that sounds creepy, doesn’t it? Why would a government priding itself with a host of lawyer-turned-ministers and an Oxbridge educated economist prime minister think of such a crappy legislation? It does sound like turning the state machinery against its own people, even if I were to discount the random theft of national assets and taxpayer money. Who are they trying to protect by posturing with this clearly flawed Bill? Clearly, this government is up to no good and needs to be kicked out.

This is the time to take a fresh look at Modi. If his detractors are this bad, what moral authority do they have to call him communal?

If one takes exception to the events of 2002, then the events of 1984 can’t be shrugged off either. After all, 3000 people died in 3 days of unchecked violence at a time when the home minister could deploy the army immediately to take control—he chose not to. And this home minister—PV Narasimha Rao—went on to become a prime minster later on, and nobody demonised him as a mass murderer. Interesting!

Compare Modi with the man who decided to carpet bomb another country, killing millions, and embezzling taxpayer money in restructuring what he destroyed—and Modi comes off looking better.

Compare Modi with a cultured bespectacled soft-spoken erudite man who has read all the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez but did not know that his police were about to open fire on unarmed women and children—and Modi comes off looking much better.

A mass murderer is someone like a Kasab, a Hitler, or a Indira Gandhi—who killed people according to their whims and fancies. Remember compulsory sterilization, Emergency, Operation Blue Star? A mass murderer shows no remorse—unlike Modi.

2013

In one of those oft-repeated-scant-regarded incidents of Pakistan violating the ceasefire in Kashmir, 5 Indian soldiers lost their lives. It was later reported that they were beheaded and their mutilated bodies returned to India. Heeding the public outrage that followed, our prime minister went on to say—rather uncharacteristically—that there could be no “business as usual” with Pakistan after this.

This was quickly followed by allegations of the government coming to a secret understanding on the disputed Siachen glaciar with Pakistan, under the watch of the US. The allegations came from highly placed military sources, and yet the government neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

Another piece of planned legislation—the FDI in Multi-Brand Retail—did not see the light of day owing to the BJP-led opposition’s strong objections to it. The FDI in Multi-Brand Retail seeks to enable venture capitalists like the British Lynn de Rothschild to invest copiously in India, focusing on agriculture and streamlining supply-chain dynamics—which is widely understood to be detrimental to the interests of the small Indian farmers.

Later this year, communal clashes broke out between Muslims and Hindu Jats at Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. The riots resulted in almost 50 deaths and several thousand rendered homeless. In another macabre twist to the narrative, the chief minister instructed the beneficiaries of compensation to not move back into their homes because, well, they were compensated for!

In the mean time, where’s Gujarat?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading up on Gujarat. Not only has this state developed at a faster rate than the rest of India for the last decade, its government has also won several accolades—one of which includes a United Nations award for creativity in public service.

And all this happened under the watch of a hostile central government.

In all the media blitzkrieg around the unfortunate events of 2002, everybody forgot the devastating earthquake of 2001that left 20,000 dead and over 400,000 homes reduced to rubble in Gujarat.

How did Narendra Modi manage to salvage his state after that earthquake, and following the riots that shattered investor confidence in Gujarat? How could Modi transform Gujarat into what’s today called a “model state” when the Left-liberal intellectuals running my state of Bengal have reduced it to a national joke—begging for tax redemption, begging for investments, and having nothing but the pretence of cultural superiority to bask in?

Most importantly, Narendra Modi’s Gujarat hasn’t witnessed any communal violence despite there being a long legacy of tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Contrast this to the shabby handling of communal relations and riots in the past few years by every other government—and not a single chief minister or prime minister is named for his inability to save people’s lives in riots. Not a single chief minister except Narendra Modi has ever been subjected to a decade long judicial inquiry and come out of it unscathed. Despite the best efforts of Congress and its allies, not a single accusation of money laundering could be made against Narendra Modi—I guess that leaves out only his wife to be the easiest target.

The question that must be asked is: Why demonise only Modi?

As this writer points out, India has witnessed several riots after independence—some of them far worse than Gujarat 2002 and mostly in Congress-ruled states—yet why do we not know the names of the chief ministers of the states in which they happened?

How do I make the people in media account for their hate literature that has shaped my views, and likewise, the views of millions of others? Why does the media that is so quick to condemn Modi and insinuate at his alleged role in the Gujarat riots assume this cryptic silence when referring to the role of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs?

I believe there is more to the sustained hate-Modi campaign than ideology or economics. I believe there are vested interests that will find it difficult to survive in a Modi-led regime because clearly, Modi is not a status-quoist. Luckily for me, the hate-Modi industry has had its full course and I can’t take anymore of that. I find moralistic sermonising along party lines abominable—and immoral—when disguised in the language of journalism.

A three-time winner of state elections who has inspired a sustainable industry of hate literature that oils the wheels of engines like NDTV must be really, really gifted. My vote goes to him.

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Posted in Questions

For the Love of a River

There is something about a river that draws me to it. I yearn to be by the side of a river somewhere, anywhere. To stare into its glittering evanescence, always changing and yet always its same fluid self—gives me a perspective of life in a way that whilst being a part of me is immeasurably beyond my finite self.

Varanasi

Varanasi

To be with a river is for me to commune with the life force that animates us all, with all of life’s beauty and horror, its moments of entitlement and those of matchless surrender. I lose myself in its constant flow, and that’s perhaps why I love to be by a river.

A river gives life, and in itself personifies life. I have seen rivers at their source and at their widest, grandest promenade. Nothing—not the milling crowds, nor the boats, the winds, the rocks, nor the immense silence enveloping the darkest night drowns the sighs of a river touching its shore.

Time slows when I’m with a river. As I listen to the lapping waters and see the swirling lives of generations pass by, I know I’m the one that’s passing—the river is here to stay. If I were to come back, I would find my river after all have passed away. How can someone not love a river?

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Posted in Flotsam

Idle Thoughts at the End of a Pleasure Trip

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip of Rajasthan. Travelled across three cities and the Thar in five days by road, on ramshackle buses, checking into hotels just to spend the night.

Sunset on the Thar Desert

Sunset on the Thar Desert

The most memorable part of our itinerary was a night in the desert, putting up in a tent and participating in a concocted version of Rajasthani folk music and dance recital, while being served tea and pakoras around a cheerful bonfire. It’s a great hit with tourists, judging from the many foreign nationals joining us in what is sold as the “desert safari”.

Several of us danced, barring me, along with the two girls who ushered us in and broke into an impromptu jig in traditional Rajasthani attire of ghaagra, choli, and dupatta. Another joined them later to perform with a queue of handis on her head. Two very drunk men lingered on the dance floor well after the recital was over and the camp guys began playing a DJ mix on their stereo system to keep spirits up.

I’m not only a lousy dancer but also too self-conscious about it; hence I sat and watched. Something bothered me, but I wasn’t sure if that was because I was missing out on the fun despite wanting to be part of it or something else. The desert sky was magical, and the warmth of the fire cast a spell on the otherwise chilly surroundings.

Later on, as we were returning from dinner, I saw one of the girls sitting alone near the fire. I smiled and asked her name. “Kamli” she said. She told me that she lived nearby, in Jaisalmer, about half an hour from the camp. (Yes, in India we do measure distance by time.) It was already 11 PM, pretty late for that place, so I asked how she would go home. “I’m waiting for the car to arrive, and it will drop me at my place,” she said. I prodded further and she said that she was married.

I didn’t ask her anything more. I thought I’d already asked her too many questions and it was becoming a discomfiting, one-sided conversation. But as I went back, I wondered if it was a job she had chosen of her own free will. With my limited knowledge, it’s hard to believe that a married woman from a Rajasthani village would willingly “work” in the evenings to dance and entertain (drunk) guests.

It’s one of those things I shall never know.

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Posted in Flotsam

Random

Midday and billowing curtains, faded yellow and crimson. Numbness on the fingers. The mails go unchecked. Weighing on my eyes are half dreams, half memories. Doors sliding. Drawers shutting. Deospray. Fading footsteps. Such things overwhelm me. As if I were an ancient Adam, just launched into the wilderness, arms flailing for the lost home. How would one paint this? Wave after wave of crimson fills my palette. Like sin. Like raging anger. Like relentless love. But for now, let me sleep. There was a time of awakening. And there will be a time for sleeplessness too. But for now, I will sleep.

Posted in Flotsam

A Tryst with Ladakh

When I decided to join my friends on their trip to Leh-Ladakh, I had only the faintest idea of what I was going in for. I was badly in need of a break; for the longest time, my life seemed like an epic battle against odds, roughshod, scarred, mangy, and all those things that render a vacation absolutely necessary. Little did I know then how transformational it would be.

So I set off, thanks to a very generous boss at work, and my friends who had advance bookings for the entire trip.

I flew from New Delhi to Srinagar, where I reached in the evening and joined my friends. We spent the night in a hotel opposite the Dal Lake. It was the day of Id-ul-Fitr, the biggest festival of Muslim-majority Srinagar. All the shops were closed; hordes of people thronged the streets; rowdy boys drove by in cars with some of them sitting on the bonnet and waving at people as they sped past. And it was hot. After spending some time by the lake amongst the milling crowds, we realized that we were fairly disappointed by the lack of novelty it offered us. We were tourists—tropical creatures that came to Kashmir in search of the proverbial paradise on earth—and here we were, jostling by a crowded lake on a hot evening and wondering if we were too cynical or others were too generous.

The next morning we drove by car to Kargil via Drass across the Zojila Pass. Kargil and Drass are at the centre of the Indo-Pakistan conflict, and have a strong army presence. Armed guards in military uniforms shadowed every curb, every yet-to-be-opened shop, and almost every innocuous crag jutting out of the high mountains. And everywhere, stone slabs, about a foot high, jutted out of the mountain sides too—memorials to soldiers killed in enemy firing.

We noticed how older people dressed conservatively in long flowing kurtas held together with a tight sash, pyjamas, and turbans. Many were shepherds; they spoke a local language amongst themselves, similar to Pushtu (spoken in Afghanistan) although they were fluent in Hindi as well. Most of the people we saw on the high mountain sides of the Zojila were hardy men, with their skin tanned a copper hue by the scorching mountain sun. In their eyes, I saw years of strife, perhaps hatred, and a barely masked condescension for city folks like us touring their war-torn land in fancy cars. They filled me with a strange sense of foreboding and admiration—for I was born and raised in the shady environs of a sleepy industrial town—and I had no idea of what life was like for them.

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An Old Kashmiri Shepherd at the Foot of the Zojila Pass

The owners of the bakery we stopped at for tea in Drass couldn’t believe that we had come to see the mountains. They looked around emptily at the mountains and said, “Yeh dekhney aye aap?” (“You came to see this?”). When I nodded, one of them mentioned the annual Amarnath yatra: “Aap yatra karney aye honge” (“You must have come for the yatra”). I had to explain to them that I had never seen snow-capped peaks before in my entire life, and that even the most pedestrian things for them were quite thrilling to me.  That’s when their expressions changed. They practically sympathized with me. “Humarey bachhe toh snow mein aise hi kheltey rehtey hai”, they laughed (“Our kids are always playing in the snow”) and they told me I had to go further up to find snow.

We spent the evening strolling in the streets of Kargil and remarking on the grim atmosphere that the insidious war with Pakistan had created. The next day we set off early in the morning for Leh.

The Himalayas got increasingly barren and craggy as we progressed from the lush Kashmir valleys towards Leh. The difference between “hills” and “mountains” struck home as we watched with open-mouthed wonder the shimmering grey, green, and brown expanse of the towering rocks. Even this was going to be a prelude to what lay ahead of us, I realized in retrospect.

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Skies and mountains – somewhere in Ladakh

We reached Leh in the evening, just after sundown. We were slightly jaded, but the cold wet winds fired us. After a brief visit to the local market, we decided to call it a day, for we had to start early the next day for our maiden visit to the monasteries.

I woke up at 6 am the next morning and immediately set out to explore the town on foot. Prayer bells in a nearby Stupa had caught my attention the previous night, and I marched towards it. I stopped frequently to stare at the unfamiliar sights and sounds. A little rivulet tumbled along its swift course through rounded, worn-out pebbles by the road. Walls of mud-bricks lined every house and garden on the street. In one barricaded field, women in traditional Ladakhi dresses worked on the plants. I could not tell what they were up to, hence just stared at them. Nearby was a little raised platform with a prayer wheel that features the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. A dog slept on its steps. The road went straight ahead, upwards into the nearest mountain, where two white pillars marked the way to the Stupa. The sun was already up, shining brightly, and the sky a brilliant blue. I breathed mouthfuls of the pure morning air. Looking around, I could already see part of the Leh town like little doll houses in the valley below—and the brown, grey and blue Himalayas rising above it and beyond it till it reached the clouds. I felt slightly light-headed; I think I felt very, very happy. I realized that happiness like this is a hopelessly lonely experience. You can probably never transliterate it.

Over the next six days, we visited several monasteries—at Lamayuru, Thiksay, Hemis, Dikset, and Sumur and the most notable palaces at Stok and Shey that housed the Ladakhi dynasts of yore. We also visited the cold desert in the beautiful Nubra valley and the two lakes “Pangong Tso” and “Tso Moriri”, where we spent the nights in tents. I experienced the first snow fall of my life on the Khardung La, which also happens to be the highest motorable road in the world.

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The Thiksay Monastery

The Ladakh landscape is mostly barren save for some of the valleys by the side of flowing rivulets. The mountains rise one on top of another in unforgiving precision, across a stark blue sky—the monotony broken only by towering cumulus clouds or hoards of sheep or yaks grazing on mountainsides. The wind roars into your ears and if you stop anywhere, you can tell it’s summer by the soft chortling sounds of some little rivulet flowing nearby. Ladakh makes you feel insignificant. It commands a kind of surrender that I would imagine a lost sailor in the high seas or an astronaut plunging to his death would experience. Often in the middle of a long ride, I’d dream of ancient human beings fighting the impossible winds and the primordial mountain terrain to mark the first frail human imprint on Ladakh. And immediately I’d open my eyes wide open and gaze at the unending emptiness around; the blue from the skies would enter me and I’d feel like I could almost melt into the dust and wind billowing around me. Speech seems like an aberration in the midst of such grandeur.

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Somewhere in the Nubra Valley – Ladakh

Everywhere we went the landscape was dotted with rounded brick and lime structures like Stupas. We learnt that these were “chortens” or memorials that housed the cremated remains of deceased Lamas. There were several rules for identifying the site for a chorten, usually found in a straight line along a ridge close to a monastery. But there were chortens in the most unexpected places too—at the centre of a village, by the roadside, where little children played and women sat together and spent their evenings. Death—it seemed to me—was not magnified as sorrowful, transcendental, or fearful. Death—signified by the ubiquitous chortens—appeared to be a commonplace feature; something that little babies played with as they grew up.

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A Chorten

What kind of people should inhabit a terrain as difficult and sparse as Ladakh? I have a very unscientific formula for transposing the geographical and environmental features of a place onto the characters of the people living there. Therefore, according to this formula, the English naturally cultivate a stiff upper lip owing to their everlasting struggle against inclement weather; the Swiss don’t give a shit ‘coz they have all it takes and they have everyone’s black money too; the Americans are hard-working because, well, someone has to do some work; and people in the hills have small eyes owing to their having been squinting at the burning mountain sun for centuries. And so, according to this formula, I imagined that the Ladakhis would be tough, sombre, and slightly haughty people, obviously drawing inspiration from the landscape around. I think I got it only slightly correct.

Most of the people I interacted with were friendly, painfully shy, and very well groomed. Interestingly, for all its harsh weather and lack of industrial resources, Ladakh does not have the kind of grinding poverty that we see in the rest of India. People are indeed very hard-working—they work all summer, raising crops, conducting tourists across the mountains, stacking firewood and foodstock—and prepare for the long white winter that covers it in a pall of dormant gloom.

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Her smile was so infectious, I begged for a photo op

However, my Ladakh story would be incomplete without a sketch of our cabbie, Namgyal. He is everything that unsettles my pretty formula for creating character stereotypes. Bright, eccentric, very talkative and a consummate lover-boy—Namgyal is a writer’s delight and a tourist’s best companion. We started the journey from Kargil addressing him with the generic “bhaiyya” (brother), and somewhere in the middle switched to calling him by his name. Namgyal regaled us with his off-tune singing; his regular wisecracks; and his terrifying habit of looking back to speak with us while still negotiating a turn on the road. You simply could not start a conversation with Namgyal and hope to end it in a way you think you’re good at, for he would always find a way to make you stray, and then laugh about it. However, he was very helpful and honest. Apparently, he gave up plans to join the military after he witnessed too many dead soldiers in one of the bigger Indo-Pak skirmishes in 1999. Not quite the tough, sombre, and haughty Ladakhi I had initially set out to typecast—nevertheless quite unputdownable.

When it was time to leave, Namgyal asked me if I had clicked any photos of him. Intending a safe and irrefutable answer, I said “Yes, we’ve all taken your pictures and there are some videos as well.” He looked satisfied by the answer, and replied, just as he neared the police check-post at the airport, “I have also taken your pictures, so we’re even.” He did not fail to look back and flash a smile at the expression on my face.

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A Snapshot

That's me.

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