Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

FeaturedYour dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Step 1 : Buy the land.

Look at land options and finalize one. After that falls through at the last minute, find another. Clinch that and do the registration. Within six months someone will file a legal case against you. That person will claim to own the land you bought. This will happen despite your most thorough background checks and clean papers. Hire a lawyer and fight the case. Assuming a stay is not issued, proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Design the house.

Scour the internet, which will offer wonderful mountain home ideas, most of which will not be doable by the local building talent. Talk to local pahadi architects who are practical and will ensure you have a structurally solid house. But these folks are conservative and will insist on small windows. Unsatisfied with these architects, send your land survey files to architects all over the world (the Dutch are the current favourite). Over skype, you find their thinking resonant with yours. They will send you amazing designs which look brilliant in 3D renditions. They will, of course, do this without actually visiting your land. Do not discuss these designs with local people or you may discover that these designs are utterly impractical. They may also be insensitive to the ecology and to the local people, but thankfully you will never find out. Proceed with the most awesome architect at dollar rates.

Step 3 : Hire a contractor.

Look for a decent contractor. Talk to four pahadi contractors. Realize that they all seem rather shaky and imprecise in their quotations and work style, and offer no references. Look further for a “professional contractor”. Realize that evolution hasn’t created that species yet – except the Parsis who produced Hafeez Contractor. But he is actually an architect. Go figure. Hire the contractor who seems the best of the lot. Tell him (They’re all men) that your expectations are very high. Set milestones and link them to payment. Pay the advance. Start the project.

Step 4: Follow-up.

Call the contractor regularly. He will assure you that all is going well. Be shocked at the slow progress on your six-monthly visit of 1.27 days (average). Realize that the contractor cannot read the drawings, so he does his best based on what he could guess from the lines on the page. Be patient and civilized with the contractor. Increase your visit frequency to every 4 months, and extend each visit duration to 2.27 days (average). Start flying in on a rental helicopter to be more efficient. After the contractor misses the first 3 milestones, realize that things are not going as per your plan and the structure looks nothing like the glitzy 3D image you saw. Give the contractor a last deadline. He will miss it. The distressed look you wanted on your furniture is now on your face.

Step 5 : Fire the contractor.

After you fire him, you have three options.

A, Look for another contractor. All the best. They’re all equally bad.

B. Decide to do the project yourself. You might as well buy that chopper now instead of renting it.

C. Abandon the project. Take solace in the fact that the mountains are littered with half-finished dream-turned-nightmare projects.

Picture credit : Boulevard of broken dreams

With option A, loop back to steps 3-5. With option B, move to step 6. The best is Option C as you cut your losses.

Step 6: Become the contractor yourself.

Look for workmen in the mountains, sitting in the city. You will need people for civil work, carpentry, electric, plumbing, stone work, Metal work, Tile work, painting, solar, windmill and other myriad things. You curse the Dutch and drop the windmill from the grand plan.  Masons, carpenters and everyone else will promise you dates and times, and not show up. This will happen repeatedly as your hair thins, and the little that remains turns grey.  When they do turn up, they will give you lists of things to get, which you will duly order. Then they will tell you that they forgot one critical thing without which the work cannot proceed. Nothing is available locally, so you will lose 2 of your planned 2.27 days trying to get the missing bits. You will also be surprised at the contractor’s (Let’s call him your Ex – after all he screwed you) bad business sense. You discover that the margins are over 150%! Why would your Ex walk away? Check Linkedin for your Ex’s profile to see if he earlier worked at Fortis, Max or some other private hospital chain. Realize that your Ex is not on Linkedin.

Step 7: The house is finished. And so are you.

After some weeks as the travelling contractor, you have found some decent craftsmen in the mountains, and a good psychologist in the city. The psychologist is US returned and charges dollar rates. As the months pass you reduce your trips to the mountains and increase your visits to your shrink. She (they’re all women) says you should rest and advises against travel. You have developed a strange fear of heights. You now choose to take your 2.27 day vacations (average) by the sea. You put your mountain structure-thingy on the market and hope to sell it, and kiss your mountain-home dream goodbye. But you now have the bragging rights. At dinner parties you boast of the house you own in the Himalayas without making eye contact. Sometimes you throw up while doing so. People assume you have mixed your drinks.

Epilogue: After 4 years, your incomplete house still hasn’t sold, because rich, delusional city-dwellers all want to build their own dream house and not buy something half finished. Although they have no time to live in such homes, leave alone build them. You take a morphine prescription and visit the area again. The shell of your dreams is still standing, now over-run by creepers, weeds and algae. You stay at a nearby resort, paying a pittance for a lovely, well finished room with a grand view. The resort has great food, but somehow the taste in your mouth stays bitter. You try not to think about the return you would have got from putting the 0.37 Gazillion which your non-house cost into the stock market or bitcoins. You leave out the psychologist’s fees – subconsciously. You also try and not think about all the vacation time (n*2.27 days) you lost on the futile project.

Note : The above steps are based on a true story. Actually, many of them. I promised to tell you how to build a house. I never said you would actually live in it.

 

About the author : Chetan Mahajan* is a full-time writer and blogger who has been renting a house in the Himalayas for the last 3 years. He has also bought land and built his own house there over the last 2 years. At the time of going to press, he had just sacked his contractor. He still hasn’t moved in. Late at night, he sometimes applies Maybelline lipstick on his lips and whispers “because you’re worth it” to himself in the mirror. And pouts. His wife is a US licensed clinical psychologist who has a thriving in-house practice.

*Chetan also hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Planning to Work from Mountains? 11 critical checks for your Workation.

Planning to Work from Mountains? 11 critical checks for your Workation.

Working from Mountains at a Workation in, say, Uttarakhand? It brings to mind fantastic views, cool weather and snow-capped peaks – your work turns into pure joy. But if you’re working remotely, such beauty can be fragile. All it takes is a bad wi-fi connection or a power failure, and your dream Uttarakhand Workation can turn into a disaster.

As a Himalayan Migrant for 6+ years (we moved to Satkhol Village near Mukteshwar in March 2015, waaay before the current fad), I have spent much time working remotely.

Initially, I worked as a consultant with deadlines and teams to manage. Then I worked as an entrepreneur setting up my own boutique training business powered mainly by the internet. I started this blog and won a writing award. Since Covid arrived, I have also been conducting workshops and training programs over zoom.

My wife, a clinical psychologist, does all her counselling sessions over skype and zoom. The internet has enabled our employment while living in the mountains for over six years.

Oh, and I think Himachal is overhyped, while Uttarakhand – especially Kumaun (Nainital and North of it) – is a hidden gem. So, I am assuming your workation is in Uttarakhand. I’ll keep repeating that. Please don’t let it bug you 😊.

My wife and I now also run our own Uttarakhand workation homestay in the Kumaon Himalayas. It is called the Quiet Place. I’ve travelled the Himalayas extensively, and we chose Kumaon as our home because it is as easily accessible and has better views and greenery right from the foothills. Moreover, a Shatabdi train from Delhi brings you within 70 km of our place.

We’ve had much experience “workationing” – both as remote workers ourselves, and with our guests. We wanted to share what we’ve learnt.

Asking these eleven questions before you put your money down may save you some serious heartburn. And help you keep your job.

Connectivity : Wi-Fi + phone

The first and foremost element of your Uttarakhand workation is connectivity. You can deal with everything, but not a patchy connection. For this, asking the host for a speed-test screen-shot is not a bad idea. If the host takes offence and says you have to trust them, ditch it. Like they say, “Trust is nice, control is better”.

You would much rather be 100% certain of what you’ll get. For example, we have a 50 MBPS Fibre-optic line coming into our place, but we still promise only 95% uptime. One zoom call with 49 participants takes upto 4 MBPS, so in theory we can host 12 Zoom calls in parallel. In theory. But we don’t promise 100% uptime because we are in the mountains.  Stuff goes wrong. Trees fall and pull down cables. Technical faults happen. And repairing these can take time.

What do you do in such instances? Ensure there is backup. For example, on most of our property, Jio provides data good enough for zoom calls. So, if your work is mission critical (i.e., you have to be online at specific times otherwise your company loses millions of dollars, and you lose your job) don’t come. Stay in the city where the connectivity is better. At least, don’t come to our place. We can only promise so much.

However, if your work is doable with a decent connection + a backup, by all means make it here. We had the VP – HR of a major bank stay with us for 10 weeks while she worked full time and she survived.   

Electricity & Power Backup

Okay, so you found a place with great connectivity, but what is the power situation? Does the power fail often? That not only means your connection itself may fail, but also that you can only work as long as your device battery lasts. If your laptop / dongle / phone battery is low, then the work time remaining maybe just minutes.

The longest power outages we’ve seen are 3 days, but that was once in the past six years. One-day outages, however, are common.  In that scenario, the devices may go out, and it may become impossible to work. I used to ration the battery on my laptop to be able to check email once a day.

That is a grim, worst case scenario. And this is why we got a solar inverter. A regular inverter lasts 3-4 hours and needs power supply to get recharged. A solar inverter can get recharged from the sun, so that at least devices and modems continue to work during daylight hours. Of course, you need good sunlight, but that is mostly not a problem.

If your Uttarakhand Workation host has a generator, that beats a solar inverter. We don’t have a generator yet, but we’re considering getting one. If the generator can run even 2-3 times a day, that will be enough to ensure your devices can be juiced up and work well.  

Cost of your Uttarakhand Workation

Cost varies, obviously. You can get a very basic room, some with access to a common kitchen/attached kitchenette, for as low as 15k a month. The food cost would be extra but cheap. Such a place may have limited/no connectivity, but can definitely have it’s own charm. If you’re living with village folk – and if they are nice (mostly true, especially in Kumaon) – there is much to learn from them, and the simplicity of their life can be an inspiration. However, finding such places can be a challenge as they tend to be obscure and the hosts are not very tech savvy.

At the other end, the super-rich can afford to stay at “Ananda in the Himalayas” for a month and not flinch. But for the happy medium, keeping a budget of between 50k to a lakh for a month is realistic. When you consider a workation, remember to read the fine-print because you don’t want the taxes or the food cost to be a rude shock at the end of your stay.

I recommend that you try not to skimp, and get a place which is responsive and has help at hand. Cutting corners and then getting stuck or letting your work suffer would be a bad idea. You would much rather be in a place where you enjoy your stay and your work. Good reviews should help you pick a good place.

Distance & Access of your Himalayan home-office

Number four after connectivity, power and cost is the question of Distance and access. Finding a place which you can easily travel to and from can be a factor in many professions. If you can get called back to your office at short notice, then you should look at co-working spaces close by. If you will have 2-3 days notice for your travel, then you can choose something further afield.

Access is another issue. Some places are bang on the road while others maybe a 5-10 minute walk down or up from the nearest roadhead.

At our place, for example, one has to walk downhill for about 150 yards on a mountain path. The rooms are also spread out, and some are away from the dining lounge and so there is some walking around involved. The recommended footwear is sneakers, not high heels. That may not work for everyone.

In terms of travel, from Delhi we’re easy to reach. If you’re coming in from Bombay or Bangalore, then you may have to plan for upto 12 hours of travel (two flights + a four hour cab ride) or longer, if you take the train from Delhi. For how to reach us, click here.

The space and people at your Uttarakhand Workation

You didn’t travel all this way just to sit in a dark room and work, did you? Look for a place which has a lot of open sitouts (ideally with plug points). Hammocks would be a bonus. Also check if the wi-fi reaches everywhere.

Outdoor workplaces are a delight to have, especially when the weather is good. However, they shouldn’t have ten people crowding around and taking calls. You want silence and few people, not crowds and noise. You want a place which is low on people, and spread out. A busy “hotel style” place with rooms opening into a corridor isn’t fun. You might as well be in a city.

A place away from the road, which is spread out with lots of work-spaces (even if shared) and which has plug points and wi-fi in these common areas is ideal.

Having learnt from experience, we also request our guests to take calls from their rooms or from places where they won’t intrude. That way our guests don’t impose their decibels on each other. When you’re not on the phone, by all means hang out in the common areas.

So, when considering your workation, ask your potential host how big and / or crowded the space is, and if the rooms are spread out, or all crowded in one place.

Also, make sure the work from Mountains destination in not in the middle of a town or a market. That again will mean crowds, traffic and honking – exactly the things you’re trying to escape. You ideally want to be in a place away from too many people, but with easy access to daily amenities or a small market.

We had one guest who was really fond of Polo (the mint, not the game). Fortunately, our neighbourhood store (300 m walk from our place) is well stocked and caters to many urban migrants in the surrounding villages. So, she found not just Polo, but Mentos, Fuse, Bournville and much more.  

Food at your Uttarakhand Workation

If you’re going to be living in your “Workation Uttarakhand” destination for weeks if not months, you don’t want to be eating restaurant style food 24 X 7. Some workations may come with a kitchen. If you’re fond of cooking – perfect. Just make sure getting provisions is easy.

If you would rather not have to deal with cooking, look for a place which offers food. Make sure you read the reviews of the food. If people talk about enough quality and variety that you can eat it everyday, you should be good.

Weather and Gear

If your Uttarakhand workation is at an altitude of less than 6000 ft above sea level, it could get warm. You will probably need fans in the afternoons between April and September. Check the weather with your host, and also the altitude of the specific place.

If your workation is low altitude, make sure they have fans / ACs. Alternatively, time your Uttarakhand Workation for a cooler time.

The Quiet place is at 6500 ft above sea level, and we don’t need fans. However, the converse is that it can get quite chilly in the winters. The sun shines bright here during daylight hours, and for the rest we have a lounge which is heated by a wood burning Bukhari (room heater). We also provide guests hot water bags in their beds at night. However, if you’re not used to cold weather, it can take some getting used to and you may want to avoid peak winter at our place.

Whenever and wherever you travel, check ahead about the weather and plan for contingencies (things getting wet, a shoe giving way). Also looking up local resources is not a bad idea. We tell everyone to look at the Mukteshwar climate map on wikipedia to get an idea of what to expect at our place. Mukteshwar is higher than our village and so is a couple of degrees colder, but it is still a good proxy, and gives viistors an idea of the range of temperature and rain to expect.

The company at your work from mountain destination

This is an often an ignored element of Work from Mountain destinations. It may sound very romantic to rent a place and be on your own every night. By the fourth night you’ll be talking to yourself.

In your ideal work from mountains destination – your dream Uttarakhand workation – you’ll want someone more than a caretaker to talk to. You want the option of having a conversation with someone like-minded. If the hosts are people with whom you can have a conversation, that is always nice. If not, then maybe having a few other fellow Himalayan co-workers would be nice.

The easiest solution could be or take the company along: travel with a friend.

A Work Desk

I know this maybe a little old world for some, but there is something to be said for a work desk, even if it is a small one. Sure, a dining table can be a substitute, but only if you’re the only one using it.

If it doesn’t matter, ignore this point. But if it does, then make sure there is a table and chair handy.

Covid Safety when working from mountain

Safety with respect to Covid cannot be taken for granted, and is not negotiable anymore. Both Uttarakhand and Himachal have seen a large number of cases and casualties. One cannot assume anyplace is safe. The basics of wearing masks, washing hands, and ensuring there are no crowds is critical to your own safety. If your Uttarakhand workation host insists on you getting tested before arrival, consider that a good sign.  

Many such places don’t even have a hospital for miles around. To be safe – especially if you’re vulnerable and have co-morbidities – check the distance from the nearest decent healthcare centre.

The Aarohi healthcare centre is 5 km from our place. They can handle basic emergencies. They are professional (mostly ex-military) and provide good advice and basic medication. They have all of 3 beds, but don’t have ventilators (they have concentrators), and cannot test for Covid. For that the nearest places are Almora (30km) or Haldwani (70km). I, of course, would trust my life with the folks at Aarohi, as shared in this blog.

Personal Safety – especially for single women

The mountains are safe in general – even for single women (read this blog from 2016). However, it is better to be in a place which has a reputation for women having visited and stayed alone multiple times. Again, reviews should tell you. Also, it is important what kind of people share the co-working space with you. Having a lady host on the premises, or a history of many single female visitors is a good sign.

When evaluating a place for your Uttarakhand Workation based on reviews, remember they can be gamed. It is not very common, but we’ve seen in happen. So don’t just go by ratings – read the reviews in depth. You can usually tell fake reviews quite easily because they lack in detail or specifics, and tend to be repetitive.  

With all these tips, we hope you can plan a good and successful work from mountains experience. If you would consider staying with us, please do call me at 97176-15666, or email me at chetanyum@hotmail.com. Our website is at www.quietplace.in .

Air pollution is good for your marriage

Air pollution is good for your marriage

“It’s terrible, man.” said Anil. He was sitting at the wheel of his humongous diesel SUV as we were leaving the air pollution protest in Leisure Valley, Gurgaon.

“I was speaking to Meeta and we’re both really worried about the pollution.”

In the eight years I had known Anil, this was the first time he had mentioned Meeta and him agreeing on anything.

“There has to be something good in this.” I said to myself.

As a child I was always told “Look for the silver lining.” or “There’s always a bright side.”

Anil’s words were a clue. So I started researching what air pollution does to a marriage. I was shocked at what I found. Air pollution is the fount of conjugal and familial happiness!

The Centre for Research and Action on Marriage and Promiscuity (CRAMP) has done extensive research into the subject. Their research shows that Gurgaon has the nation’s highest rate of extra-marital affairs. Evidently, this is because everybody wants more than what they have, and everyone is stressed. Mumbai and Bangalore were a distant 2nd and 3rd after Gurgaon.

CRAMP focused their Air Quality Index – Marriage Quality Index  (AQI-MQI) research on Gurgaon because it has extra-marital action and bad air. (CRAMP considers extra-marital affairs the most measurable indicator of an unhappy marriage.)

The research found that pollution forces couples to worry about the same things. Men in the survey reported spending most time thinking about their next car followed by their promotion & raise. The Gurgaon women’s list was topped by what they would wear at the weekend party. The second spot for women was a tie between “next dress to buy” and “the rising cost of getting eyebrows done”.

But pollution unites spouses – they worry about the same thing. Consequently, they talk more and find more common ground to feel unsatisfied together. That is a sound basis for a stronger marriage.

The feeling of economic well-being that pollution brings about also helps marriages. Pollution is great for the economy and the stock-market. Industries such as healthcare and pharma are booming. With nebulizers, air purifiers, pollution masks etc. going through the roof, it is no wonder that the Sensex has climbed to an all-time high. The chart below shows the rising AQI and its disproportionate impact on the Sensex.

This unexpected boom makes couples feel wealthier. They are happy spending and in general feel well-off. The television anchors on the money channels talk about the resistance levels in the stock market – not in the human body. That further enhances the feel-good vibe.

This glee results in more conjugal action also leading to increased sales of contraceptives. For Pharma, it’s a win-win.

Pollution also helps spouses rediscover hidden love. CRAMP found that because of masks, low visibility and watering eyes, spouses were found frequently hitting on each other. When the masks come off, true love would sprout again. We interviewed Deepali, one of the survey participants.

“I was so overcome and surprised when Deepak asked me out. He seemed even more surprised when I took off my mask and said yes. We went on a date after five full years.” She said, wiping tears of joy from her eyes.

“Honestly, I mistook Deepali for Leena, but when we went on that date and sat and chatted, it was really wonderful. Like old times again.” Deepak confided in me. He too had tears in his eyes.

(All names have been changed to ensure the marriage stays happy).

Pollution also has a positive impact on families. School holidays, working from home – all this means more time spent together as a family. CRAMP surveyed a sample of families. They reported spending this time sharing original thoughts and rich intellectual content on Whatsapp and TikTok.

So, next time you feel depressed about pollution, seek out your spouse and talk about it. Find common ground. And look at the Sensex. You may be able to peer past the haze and see the bright side of things. Figuratively, of course.

___________

This piece is an outcome of “On the other hand” – a creative writing exercise useful for dealing with writer’s block. We practice it at the Himalayan Writing Retreat, where we help people uncover the writer hidden within. If you’re interested in writing, please visit https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/bootcamp/ .

That free Plastic water bottle on the train?

That free Plastic water bottle on the train?

We start our day with Plastic. I am traveling on the Shatabdi from Delhi to Kathgodam, and I find myself surrounded by the stuff. There is oceans of it waiting to be distributed.  These pictures speak.

But there is a simple, easy way to fight the scourge. A re-usable, refillable water bottle. I’ve owned mine (Picture below) for 13 years. The printing is getting worn out. I’ve used it on treks, while traveling by air, train, car, bus and on long solo motorcycle rides. If on average I use, say, 6 single-use plastic bottles every month, then this bottle has saved 13X12X6 = 936 bottles of water. In rupee terms that is over 10,000 rupees.

Reusable Water Bottle. Genius!

The Return On Investment (ROI) is an easy argument. I bought my water bottle for less than 600 Rupees, and it has paid me back many times over.

My reasons are beyond economic, though. There are 1000 fewer plastic bottle messing up our planet, thanks to this one re-usable bottle.  I am not done with this bottle yet. I intend to use it till it breaks. But it is a high quality bottle – it wont break easily. The printing on it will become illegible and the branding may go. But I don’t buy water bottles for reading.  I buy books for that. As long it holds water safely and is hygienic, I’m going to use it. 

The strangest pressures act on you on a Shatabdi. People insist that I should take that bottle of water because it is “Free”. I patiently explain that the water I carried in my waterbottle from my home is also free. Even more so because it frees me of having to think about how much plastic I am polluting the planet with.

“The attendant will probably sell it” comes the next argument.

Yes I know. But the point is that since I didn’t use it, it has replaced some other bottle which would have sold anyway.

Over the last decade it has become easier to travel with the bottle in India. Earlier I was often unsure about the quality of water I refilled the bottle with. Now the bottle is easily refilled. Airports offer free drinking water in fountains. Even railways stations – at least in some places – offer paid potable drinking water – mostly from an RO machine. Practically all offices have filtered, potable water.

When we travel we often eat out.  Restaurants are required by law to serve potable water free. They don’t tell you that because they want you to buy that plastic bottle of packaged water and add 4 rupees to their profits. But they are required to. In fact I once confronted that attitude at a restaurant in Nainital – a place called Zooby’s. They said they do not serve RO water – only regular water. I created a scene and asked the manager loudly how they got their license. He got into classic Hotel Management crisis management mode, opened the Bisleri bottle and with a genial smile proclaimed that they would not charge for it. I would have shouted at him some more if I hadn’t been gritting my teeth. Some people just don’t get it.

This is the tripadvisor review I wrote for them.

Not surprisingly, they haven’t responded.

Soda bottles are a similar, if smaller, bugbear. The picture is of a sodamaker I use. The plastic bottle is refillable and reusable. I do not buy soda bottles anymore. And on the rare occasion we drink cola it is from cans, which are recyclable. Sure it costs a little more. But the higher cost is offset by all the plastic water bottles I don’t buy. You can buy this “Mr Butler” sodamaker on Amazon. If you consume lots of soda, it will save you money too.

No, I don’t get any commission for pushing this. 🙂

Fact is, it’s easy to switch away from single use bottles. Carry a reusable bottle. An expensive one will help you make sure you don’t lose it (mine is a Nalgene bottle I bought from the US for $15, back when the rupee was 40 to the dollar).  Refill it when convenient. It helps if the bottle fits comfortably in your luggage – like in the bottle sleeve on your backpack. You’ll help save the planet, and save yourself a little money.

I feel good I’ve made a difference. I am happier still that I have instilled the same values and consciousness in my kids, and they too abhor plastic bottles.

They are 11 and 12, and they don’t consume single use plastic bottles. They carry water bottles and refill them as required. Think you can do the same?

Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

“The American writers are coming.” I told my four staff members “We need to do a few things differently.”

Vandita and I discussed the meal schedule with the cook.

“The snacks are quite heavy at 6” he said. “We’ll keep a light dinner?”

“The 6’O clock meal is dinner, Vicky”.

He looked confused.

Raat ka khana 6 baje? Tab tak to andhera bhi nahin hota

(Dinner at 6? It’s not even dark by then.)

I told my staff to put toilet paper in the bathroom before the American writers arrived. When I went to check a pen was dutifully placed with each toilet roll. I inquired.

“Sir, yeh writer log bathroom mein likhte honge. Warna bathroom mein kagaz kyon chahiye?”

(Sir, these writers must write in the bathroom. Otherwise why would they need paper in there?)

We had drilled it into them that we ran a writing retreat. Ergo.

We were paranoid about the hygiene. Wash hands repeatedly. Nothing uncooked on the menu – all salads and cut fruit were gone. Only whole fruit and well cooked meals. Recyclable 20 litre Kegs of bottled water were brought up from Haldwani at an extra cost – we were unwilling to hand out a few hundred single-use plastic bottles.

We prepared hard before their arrival. The guests landed in Delhi and after 2 days in the plains finally reached the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Their first response was love. They loved the décor, the rooms, the cedar-wood smell of the furniture. Then some basic questions came in.

“Why is there a bucket and a tumbler in my bathroom?” one writer asked.

That was explained.

“And that strange shower thingy next to the pot? What’s that for?”

Explaining a health faucet took a little more tact.

One of our staff has the habit of using rather graphic descriptions of our visitors.

“Sir woh moti wali madam garam paani maang rahi hai.”

(Sir the fat lady wants hot water.)

“Sir woh jo junglee baalon wali didi hai – woh ……”

(Sir, that lady with the wild hair, she …..”)

And so on. Indian village folks aren’t exactly famous for their political correctness. I’m glad they spoke in Hindi.

Picking a movie for Bollywood night was another challenge. We needed a masala bollywood film with song, dance and a reasonably illogical plot (Andhadhun was out). Yet it had to be short – less than 2 hour 30 minutes (Sholay was out).

Finally we watched “Jab we met”. It started well but the late hour and impromptu singing and dancing breaks in the story took their toll. Only 2 of the 10 writers made it till the end. The subtitles of the song lyrics had them bewildered.

“My beloved is like lemonade. I will glug him down.”

said the subtitle as Kareena Kapoor gyrated. My guests sought an explanation. I tried,  but how do I explain “Mahi mera sharbat warga. Mahi tainu gat gat pee laan.” In English?

Food was a high point. Only one participant fell sick, and that too just for one day.  Our neighbourhood baker Keith’s range of organic, whole-grain breads were a big hit. The writers picked three dishes they really liked from our menu and we held a cooking class and taught them how to cook those three dishes.

Many other little happinesses peppered the retreat.

The walk through the village resulted in an impromptu concert at the home of one of our staff members. The tall Himalayan peaks turned up in their full majesty, and doing yoga in their shadow every morning gave Yoga itself a whole new meaning. We went hiking and sometimes wrote in the surrounding forests. Meeting a real Sadhu at the Mukteshwar Temple added a layer of Hindu mysticism. Power was a challenge, so the internet was a challenge, but the hardy travelers had done their research and came with low expectations. The writers wrote a lot and seemed very happy with their progress.

We were grateful that everyone had something nice to say in the end.

Click on the above link to see what they had to say.

Before the writers left, we got some great suggestions on how to make things better next time. And next time isn’t too far – just another 5 months. Our next retreat is in the fall – details are at
https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/the-himalayan-fiction-writers-retreat-fall-2019/

Our staff was delighted to have this group over. Not just because they tipped in dollars, but because they were such a great, happy bunch to be around.

We’ve made new friends. We’ve learnt a lot more about writing from the amazing Erika Krouse. Most importantly, I think the retreat has changed all of us. We started off as Americans Writers and Indian villagers. Ten days later we had moved one step closer to being fellow citizens of a single planet.

Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

“Many Happy Returns of the day. Happy Onam.” I type into the comment box of the birthday girl. Sometimes I replace Onam with Easter or something equally inane. Mostly, nobody reads the comment. Sometimes someone may like it. Rarely is it commented upon – even though I may have wished you Happy Moharram on your birthday. If I had 100+ repetitive, predictable comments on my timeline, I would ignore them too. Or mechanically like them. There’s probably an app for that.

So now when Facebook reminds me that it is XYZ’s birthday and “I should help them celebrate by wishing them” I don’t. The “wish people on facebook” has gone beyond farcical into the territory of satire.

More people communicating through Facebook makes Facebook richer. Not me. So I refuse to be a tool to be used by Facebook. Honestly, I don’t care to wish that colleague from the dark ages or the girl-I-met-once-on-vacation a happy birthday. And I really don’t care if they wish me. To me Facebook is a convenient way to keep-in-touch with people far away. Facebook calls it a friendship. I don’t. To check that reality, try borrowing large sums of money from each of your “friends”. That should be fun!

So I changed the privacy settings for my own birthday and made it invisible on Facebook. Yes, you can do that.

Nobody wished me on Facebook this year, and you know what? I feel great.

So how did I celebrate my birthday? What did I do?

I celebrated my birthday by doing the things I enjoy. I’ve wanted to explore the walking path from our home to a village named Lveshal. It is a IMG_20181209_13094740 km round trip by car. On my birthday, my-favourite-person-in-the-world and I packed a little day-pack and we ventured out to find the walking trail. We got lost, discovered a waterfall, had tea and oranges in the forest, then we found a road on which we walked for 4 km. We came across one vehicle in those 4 km and finally reached Lveshal. There we had chai-samosa, got directions to the actual trail and then hiked back on it along a stream. Along the way we also saw some beautiful birds, and found a gorgeous tail-feather almost 12 inches long. The 13k hike took us five hours, so after coming home I took a well-deserved nap. While I slept my-favourite-person-in-the-world – who was equally tired after the walk – baked me a cake. My kids gave me a birthday card which they had made by sticking beads on paper. Good luck buying those – and the feeling which comes with it – in a store. After dark we lit a wood-fire in the bukhari and I cut in the cake to loud singing by the kids. Then we had Chinese food for dinner.

It was my most wonderful birthday ever.

With social media we land up maintaining hundreds of superficial relationships instead of focusing on a few important ones. Instead of doing deep, we go wide. But I would take a few deep relationships over a thousand shallow ones.

If after reading this blog you immediately open up facebook to wish me a belated birthday, you really didn’t get it, did you?

P.s. This doesn’t fit with the article, but wanted to share anyway. I didn’t get a single gift, for which I am grateful. I already have way too much stuff, and way to little space to keep it. I don’t need another bobble-head or another mug with my name on it. The one thing hard to find where we live is decent beer. Everything else, either I already have or I don’t need.

So what is the price of clean air?

So what is the price of clean air?

INR 4,75,200 per day. Or INR 1.42 crores per month. And that is per person.

The math is simple. You can now buy pure Himalayan air @ 550/10 litres (1) . It is bottled from (ahem) the Himalayas of Chamoli, Uttarakhand. The average adult breathes 8640 litres a day (2). Multiply 8640 litres by the price of INR 55 / ltr and you get that 4.75 Lakhs per day.

So by living in the mountains you earn approx 1.42 crores (that is 2 million USD) a month per person. If you’re a family of two adults and two kids (lets round off the two kids to one adult), that means 1.42 X 3 = 4.26 Cr (approx 6 Million USD) for a family.

Another way to work it is to subtract that amount from your monthly income and see how you stack up. So if you’re living in a polluted city and earning less than 4.26 Cr per month, it isn’t worth it. And that is just the air.

We could consider air purifiers, but they don’t work 24X7, and at best they improve your Air Quality Index (AQI). They may reduce the AQI from 400 to 200. But in the himalayas we’re talking about an AQI of 4.

Besides, Air purifiers are cheap. And we’re not. Not anymore, honey.

 

P.s. If you haven’t seen / read The Lorax by Dr Seuss, it is time you did. Because you may be living in Thneedville without knowing it.  Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bHdzTUNw-4 .

Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

“Dad, why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?” Asks R Mahajan, my daughter, a fifth grader at the Chirag School.

“Where did you hear that, R Mahajan?”

“I read it in Calvin & Hobbes.”

“And I’ve heard it in Shin Chan and the other TV serials” chimes in A Mahajan, who also went to Chirag “Getting sent to the Principal’s office seems to be, like, the biggest punishment.”

“Well, there are certain schools where getting sent to the Principal’s office is a bad thing.” I answer.

“How can getting sent to the principals office be a bad thing? Sumit Da is so much fun. How is that punishment?”

“Well, the Principal may scold you.”

R thought for a while “But Principals don’t scold. Sunil Bhaiya or Rinku di never scolded us. And Sumit Da…” she smiled “…I don’t think he can scold. I would love to be sent to Sumit Da’s office. It would be so much fun! So why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?”

“If you did something really bad, the principal may ask for your parents to visit the school.”

“But why is parents visiting the school such a bad thing?”

_____________

(A few days earlier)

“Papa, Hema didi today said that if we are not good and don’t do our work then we will be made to repeat class five.” Says R Mahajan.

“Oh really?” I ask.

“Yes, since then Mansi and Aru and I – actually the whole class has been plotting how to not be good. That way we can all be in Chirag for one more year.”

“But that’s not fair.” wails A Mahajan, who left the school last year. The Chirag school is only till grade 5 after which the kids have to move to other schools. A Mahajan is now being homeschooled. “They never had that at our time. If they had that option when I was in grade 5, I would have repeated 5 and would not have left Chirag.”

_____________

The above are real conversations we have had with our kids. Their school, the rural, hindi-medium Chirag School, truly shows what a “fear free” school should be. And the school delivers fabulous learning, which I wrote about here. The school succeeds because there is no fear. Not despite it’s absence.

To learn more about the Chirag School, and to support it, please visit https://thechiragschool.wordpress.com/ .

______________

“Dad, what’s a report card?” asked R.

I shuddered at the horror the words “report card” still evoked in me. Then I laughed out loud for having spared my children it’s tyranny.

 

Village mein Start-up?

Village mein Start-up?

Pankaj addressed the 100 students in the hall at the ITI, a vocational training institute in Tandi village.

“How many people want to start their own business?”

Only 3 hands went up. The ITI teacher told them “Listen to me, you schmucks. After trying for a job for many years you will then look to start your own business. You should do it right now with their help.” (suitably translated from Hindi)

The teacher was referring to Udhyam’s offer to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financing and mentorship. Udhyam means enterprise in Hindi.  And this Udhyam is an organization that works in the villages to promote entrepreneurship.

The biggest challenge in villages here is poverty. People grow up with financial uncertainty and are vulnerable to things like weather and disease. Their dream is the highly coveted government job with its predictable, high income. Practically all boys want to be soldiers and all girls teachers. To even try for these jobs one needs to have completed school education, and often a lot more.

25% of boys and 20% of girls still do not complete school in Uttarakhand (source website here  ) and college Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at a mere 32%. That means a large proportion of the youth are ineligible for the jobs. Even for those eligible, the competition is extremely tough. Most of the youth land up picking small jobs around here, and many of the young men head to the city.

Seeing all this, Udhyam is working to encourage the youth to get into entrepreneurship.

Udhyam poster 2
Posters like this one, and another featuring Jeevan (cover picture) dotted our landscape. Lalita & Jeevan are both successful entrepreneurs from last year. 

They started with a small pilot last year with just eight businesses financed and mentored. This year the target is to help 40 businesses with cheap loans and also offer mentoring to the ones that need it.

The idea is simple and the impact will be significant, but pulling it off is no easy task. The awesome Udhyam team visited 255 villages, put up 2000 posters, held 70 village meetings, and after all that received 499 calls. All that has been sifted down to 59 shortlisted candidades after the first round of the screening. The first round of screening interviews was on October 28-29 and I was lucky to be invited to be part of the interview panel screening the applicants.

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Udhyam selection Panel meeting

I requested permission for my 11 year old son,  A. Mahajan, to also participate. We are home-schooling him and I could not imagine a better forum to channel his inner entrepreneur. Many interesting dilemmas came up. Should we fund the guy wanting to start a DJ business (given that he will probably blow the neighbourhoods peace to bits?). What about the restauranteur who allows surreptitious drinking? And the goat farmer who will allow free grazing in the forest (which is terrible for the ecology) and may ask his school age kids to graze goats instead of having them attend school? And should women be encouraged even if their business plans seemed iffy?

Some of these were too heavy for Anhad, but I have given below his take on the experience (his English assignment).

But before we go there, I wanted to talk a little about the force behind this movement. Pankaj Wadhwa is an amazing guy. To call him dynamic and high-energy is like calling a cat nimble. He’s a classic example of people who Uncity and bring much benefit and good to the area. His first enterprise was started in 2008 to help rural producers sell their products, and currently supports some 18 NGOs. You may have seen shops named Himjoli if you’ve travelled around Uttarakhand. That’s his baby. And Udhyam is his most recent initiative. Pankaj is more action less talk, so predictably Udhyam doesn’t have a website yet.  And while Himjoli has a website (https://himjoli.org/ ), I was unable to find his name on the site.

Shark Tank* of the village

By A. Mahajan, 11 years

I had lots of fun yesterday and day before yesterday (the 29th and the 28th of October 2018). I liked it because we/I got to interview some interesting people like the photographer and the person who wanted to open/upgrade his Dhaba (which he called his “restaurant”).We also got to see how much money they wanted and how they would spend it and how they would pay it back plus how much risk there is in their businesses and how much can you trust them. I really liked it. It was lots of fun, at least the first day. The first day was in a KMVN in Bhimtal. The KMVN was definitely not the best – not great rooms, food was OK, but the view was great. At least the bathrooms were clean. The first day we had 9 interviews out of that 2 people dropped out, but 7 people did show up. And here were their ideas- mushroom farming, photographer, beauty parlor, clothing shop, herbal tea shop, knitting group and a music & arts school. After all the interviews all of us as in the selection panel met and discussed a little then everybody went home except for us and a few others. Anurag uncle was one of them, and we stayed back at the KMVN and partied – here is what we did. We got chicken pastas and Oreo shakes and ate our dinner while watching Netflix and then we slept. Next morning, we got up early washed up, packed and left, we had breakfast on the way then we went to Almora and did the rest of the interviews. This time we met 6 people and here were their ideas – 2 shop keepers, a restaurant, a tailor, a furniture shop and a cattle farm. And then again after the interviews we (the panel) met and discussed about the interviews chatted about people who we weren’t sure about and after all that we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Here are some of the reasons for rejection: if the applicant doesn’t need the money, capability of returning the money, bad business ideas, serving alcohol without a permit, etc.

And here are some reasons for acceptance: creating employment, benefiting the society, low risk profile, people whose business idea needed the money etc.

_____

*Shark Tank is an American TV series where entrepreneurs make their presentations to a panel of investors. Details here .

The Hindi-medium village school better than Pathways

The Hindi-medium village school better than Pathways

The village school is a stereotype. We expect people from lower income families to send their kids there. The average class size is 40 or 50 kids. The teaching methodology is traditional rote learning so the academic performance is expected to be average at best. A teacher slapping a student raises no eyebrows. We don’t expect any changemakers coming from these schools. We expect future leaders to come out of the big city schools where the rich kids go.

The trouble with stereotypes, of course, is that they are often true.

Here, in our neighbourhood, we have a Hindi-medium village school. The monthly fees of just Rs. 150. As expected, people from lower income strata send their kids there. That is where the stereotype ends. The class size of 18 is smaller than Pathways. The personal attention and involvement with each child is intense. The school follows a fear-free, experiential education methodology which many city schools tout but few deliver. The kids in this school are not scolded. They ask any question they want – their teachers patiently lead the child to the answer or encourage them to find it.  Consequently, the kids are fearless and learn because they still feel a sense of wonder about the world. Their schooling hasn’t taken a toll on their curiosity.

This is the Chirag school – a great example of what schooling can and should be. Many highly-reputed schools in the city started off like this – as alternative schools with a beautiful vision. What kills them is growth – they scale at the expense of that vision. By the time they add that sixth section to grade 2, they have become one-size-fits-all factories.

But Chirag chooses to stay small, with only one section to each class. It is no surprise that the Chirag school has an academic record which stands the stereotype of the village school on its head. Measuring learning is controversial in the least, and a big exam is amongst the worst ways to do it. Unfortunately, it is the method the whole country follows. The kids from Chirag also have to adapt to the “outside world” after grade 5, so they take exams like the Navodaya exam.

While the privileged city kids have never heard of Navodaya, it is a big deal in the village. The Navodaya schools are government-run boarding schools from grades 6-12. They are completely free, including the tuition, boarding and lodging. Admission is based on an entrance test. Rural parents aspire to these schools, but since many kids are first generation learners the parents have no way to prepare the child for such an exam.

That is where the Chirag teachers come in. As I mentioned in my previous blog about the school, the true stars here are not the students, but the teachers. Molded in the Krishnamurti tradition over the past 10 years,

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The rock-star teachers Haren da & Thakur da.

the teachers have commitment levels comparable to, say, a McKinsey consultant. They are as good at their work, but their motivators are different. These teachers are driven by their concern for their students. There is no personal glory or money or growth for doing extra work. But they take amazing pride in their students’ success. Two teachers volunteered to teach the grade 5 students through the one month winter break to ensure they do their best in the Navodaya entrance exam. Here at 6000 feet, winters are bone chilling. But the teachers and students turned up every day through the winter for the extra classes.

The Navodaya entrance exam is tough. For every 100 kids who take the exam, two kids are accepted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawahar_Navodaya_Vidyalaya#Admission). 4 of the 17 fifth-graders who appeared from Chirag were accepted. That is an acceptance rate of 24% against the national average of 2%. The Chirag kids are similar to other kids that take the exam. Only their education differs. Chirag school pulls this off with modest infrastructure but the right philosophy and approach. This result is testament to all that is right with this school.

Another great story is that of Jiya.

Every Independence Day the kids at Chirag put up a play for the community. This year was special because of Jiya (name changed). Jiya is a child who has different needs. She

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Independence day celebration

enrolled in school at age six and hadn’t spoken a word until then. Chirag happily accepted her – “inclusive” is a philosophy here. With persistent support from her teachers and a lot of love and care from her classmates, Jiya slowly started adjusting to school. She spoke her first words after a couple of years of joining school. So imagine the joy Jiya brought when she performed on stage for the first time despite her social anxiety. She nailed all her lines. Most heartwarming was the applause she received backstage from her teachers and friends.

But the Chirag school needs support to survive and grow. If the above stories inspire you, please help. There are two ways in which you can.

  1. The school is partly funded by the Chirag NGO, but depends in large part on the support of well-wishers like you. If you could like to make a contribution to the school, please donate at www.chiragschool.org .
  2. The Principal of the school – Sumit Arora – will be leaving in March of 2019. He is brilliant, down-to-earth, methodical and a leader. He has transformed many aspects of the school. He has brought the morale of his team to a new high. To fill in his shoes, we are looking for candidates who might be interested in leading this outstanding primary school in the beautiful Kumaon Himalayas. This school requires intense work and this should not be seen as a retirement posting. If you know someone who you think may fit the bill, please connect with me at chetan@himalayanwritingretreat.com.

 

(The author, Chetan Mahajan, is the parent of two Chirag students. He was the former chairman of the School Management Committee of Chirag, and continues to be deeply involved with the school. Before moving to the village, he was in leadership roles in various education companies including a Gems group subsidiary. He last role was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has visited some 1000 schools over the last decade.

One reason he left the city was his disillusionment with corporate India, which includes the business of education. He touched upon this in his recent TEDx talk ).

Moonrise Barbeque

Moonrise Barbeque

“There is no love greater than the love of food”

(Quote from Britannia Cafe, Ballard estate, Mumbai)

We had just come off a hectic six week spell of guests and visitors. Then suddenly, there was calm. The last guests checked out*. R’s school went on break.

“A” decided on celebrating the quiet with a “Family day” so we cuddled, played board games and badminton, and generally spent the whole day together. “A” improvised a pretty fancy lunch from leftovers, and gave each of us a “review sheet”. Vandita and R gave him 5 stars + so he complained about unfair parenting when I gave his lunch “only” 4.5 stars.

I also had my own surprise planned for that evening. I intended to grill some chicken for the kids. Fresh chicken isn’t readily available around here, so I called the meat shop in Bhowali (30 km away)  and asked him to hand over 1 kg of chicken to the bus that comes up everyday. 3 hours later we met the bus at it’s usual time, but the driver said no one had given him any chicken. A call to Bhowali confirmed that our supplier had forgotten.

The backup was to check at our big neighbourhood grocer Kapil store – locally referred to as the WalMart. His deep-freezer can be unreliable, so I was delighted that he actually had some frozen chicken available. We proceeded to thaw and marinate the chicken. The grill I have is an ancient Weber from my days in the US, carried back from Chicago only because I was entitled to half a container as part of my transfer to India.

So we lit some coal in the grill and sat out in the balcony. It was windy and getting the fire going was a struggle. Both the kids were willing volunteers helping me with everything. We were out of matches so R repeatedly lit the candle from the gas. A went and found some dry kindling, and so on. (The purist in me refuses to use kerosene or other flammables.) The fire finally caught. We played Uno sitting on a durree on the balcony as we waited for the coals to turn red. The air was nippy and soon blankets were brought out and we sat together snuggled in blankets playing uno under the dim balcony light.

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Moonrise Barbeque

My amateur attempts at grilling meant a delayed dinner. But soon an almost full moon rose over the ridge of the local reserve forest, and things went from beautiful to surreal. A simple dinner of grilled chicken and bread was eaten with much relish as we watched the moon wink it’s way in and out of the clouds. It was another lovely evening.

 

It made me remember the time I served in the city, and all the opportunities we had lost. I don’t remember ever having seen a moonrise, or ever having spent an entire day as a family on an activity list made by the kids.

I was glad to be here, even if a few years late. It made me think about the price we pay for our dreams. Made me wonder about the tradeoff between money & happiness, and the habits we find so hard to break. It also reminded me of a beautiful Lao Tzu quote.

“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I’m glad I did.

_________

* The place referred to here is quietplace.in , a specialty home stay run by the author in the Indian Himalayas.