Star-for-fewer-bucks

Star-for-fewer-bucks

Have you heard of BT Starbucks? BT stands for “Better Than”. The three café’s up here in the Himalayan Mountainside have been christened BT Starbucks, BT Costa and BT Barista. Each serves up one thing neither Starbucks, Costa or Barista can. They serve Simplicity. You go there and sit on the basic wooden bench and order a cup of tea, and that is exactly what you get. If you don’t say otherwise, it automatically comes with sugar.  None of the three has the Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande on the menu. Yes, that’s a real drink at Starbucks. Yes, that is just one drink, not three.

BT Starbucks does only “wood fired” tea because the owner does not use LPG or kerosene. We can discuss how eco-friendly that is. Best to do so in a Café Coffee Day where the Air Conditioning is set to teeth chattering. None of the cafes up here have air-conditioning. Actually, I am not sure they all even have electricity. You see, they close well before dark.

So imagine my shock when I went to a tea shop in the neighbouring village of Reetha, and the shopkeeper asked if we wanted regular or herbal tea. I was with my friend Nitin. I looked at him and found his eyebrows were attempting paragliding as well. We both sat down and agreed to try the herbal tea.

It was lovely. A clear golden-brown color, the rich smell of herbs – all served up in simple steel glasses and cups. The tea was free of sugar – sweetened naturally with a herb called Stevia. One could taste some rather distinct flavours. And the size of the serving was also just right – not an attempt to sink the titanic.

We had to come back to Reetha the next day to meet someone. As happens often in the

IMG_20170825_115046
The man himself – Harinder ji

hills, we had to wait. So we had another round of the herbal tea. It was still great, but a little different from the previous day. The Rosemary was stronger. The sweetness a little less.

 

You see, the owner of tea-shop – a very friendly man named Harinder Singh – is not a barista. He does not have a single definition of perfection which he has decided to foist on all humanity. He said they tried slight variations and something new came up. And their customers enjoyed it.

So we got chatting about how he made the tea. Harinder Singh ji readily showed us all the ingredients – some which he had kept carefully in ziplock packets, some in plastic jars (see slideshow). It was obvious he took joy in growing and drying these herbs. With much pride he explained some trade secrets-

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like mixing Rhododendrnon flowers with the Stevia makes a better sweetener. He enjoyed the appreciation and special attention he got from us.

What made the tea completely unbelievable was the price tag of 10 rupees. So the next time I am travelling to the city and we want to catch up, please don’t ask me to meet at a Starbucks. Where I come from, I can get 29 cups of real herbal tea for the price of one Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande.

And if you frequent Starbucks, come and stay at Reetha for a few days. Your savings on herbal tea will pay for your entire trip.

(Title photo credit : Ek Chidiya Cottage)

About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author who lives in a village in the Kumaon Himalayas. He published his first book with Penguin, and is working on his next one. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .  He also writes and edits this blog.

Who can borrow what from whom?

Who can borrow what from whom?

“Bro, I know it’s a big ask so don’t hesitate to say no.” said Tim.

He had my attention.

“My motorbike’s rear brake has packed up, and I am riding down to Munsiyari with some other bikers. I just rode past your place and was wondering if I could borrow your Himalayan for a couple of days.”

“When are you back?” I asked. My car was limping on a broken shocker, so the bike was our main transport right now. The car repair would wait for when I could find time for the 3 hour drive to the Honda showroom in Haldwani.

“On Saturday. In three days.” he replied

“And your bike is driveable? You’re moving around on it?”

“Yes. The front brake works fine. It’s just that my journey is a rather long one.” I knew Munsiyari was at least a 10 hour drive.

“Okay sure. Come by and pick it up.”

“I just rode past your house. See you in five minutes.”

I had just dug out the bike papers when Tim Subhash Chandra rolled in on his black Himalayan. His real name is Tim Sebastian, but he’s realized that Subhash Chandra is easier for most Indians to say. I’ve known Tim for over a year – I first met him just a few days after he had opened the iHeart cafe down in Bhimtal. It is a great little cafe with a lovely ambience and good food. moreover, it makes a great pit stop on my trips to the plains. And he’s helped me in many ways in pushing my recent baby – the Himalayan Writing Retreats. So he’s not a dear friend but he’s more than an acquaintance.

He hopped off his bike and we chatted. He talked about the possibility of getting the bike fixed in Almora or borrowing my bike. I told him I was happy to lend it and it was entirely his call. As we chatted, he explained his chain of thoughts about whether or not he should call me to borrow the bike

“The guy’s Indian and a village man, so he’ll probably say yes. But he’s lived seven years in Chicago, so that part of him would say no. Heck, let me just call him and ask.” he said.

Now that was an interesting insight. Even as an American, he expected an Indian to lend him something fairly valuable more readily than another American. And if you’re a “rural” Indian, that increased the chances even more.

So what exactly was Tim saying? That a city bred, more urbanized and therefore Individualistic person is less likely to lend something? And the rural person – who probably has a lot less to start with but who is used to living in a community and is more accustomed to sharing things – is more likely to lend you something of value?

Rings true in my experience here so far. And Tim – obviously very tuned into India – clearly seems to think so.

What do you think?

(Image credit : studentsforliberty.org.)

Change your privacy settings – to Himalayan.

Change your privacy settings – to Himalayan.

Contributor  : Vandita Dubey

It had barely been a couple of weeks since we had moved from Gurgaon to our new home in the Kumaon Himalayas. Boxes piled up, unopened. Fitting a four bedroom bungalow worth of stuff into a small two bedroom place seemed like an impossible task. In the midst of this chaos, I also needed to get some writing done for a book deadline that loomed. One morning as I sat down in the verandah converted into a drawing room-cum-study hoping to get some words down as the kids were at school, a most unusual thing happened. The glass door of our house was suddenly pushed open by Aama (old lady/grandmother in Kumaoni) who lives next door. She walked in confidently, though leaning heavily on her wooden stick, and sat down on one of the chairs. She said not a word.

So, I had a visitor in the house who did not feel like a visitor: I did not know what to do. Many years of social training finally kicked in and I stood up, offered an uncertain IMG_20170507_072226“Namaste.” She non-chalantly accepted my greeting and in the same breath told me to continue my work, adding that she would just sit there. Social interactions in the city don’t follow this script and so I felt at a loss about what I should do. Was I actually supposed to carry on with my work? Or, was I supposed to set it aside and pay attention to the visitor? I turned back to my writing as instructed, but my brain wouldn’t work. So, I shut the computer and turned my attention to the lady. “Would you like some tea?” She readily agreed. Cups of tea were made, she wanted to know where we had come from, what I do, etc: Usual getting to know the new neighbour questions. Tea over and some curiosity satisfied, she went on her way. I still did not know what to make of this social interaction.

There is a common perception that Indians do not have as much of a concept of personal space as North Americans or Europeans do. I always thought it was because we are all so tightly packed – such a huge population and such little space, especially in all urban areas, even towns and most villages. But many villages in Kumaon, including the one where we live, have houses set far apart. I have heard that at one time, before city folks started buying second homes and urbanizing this area, people used to actively welcome a family that moved close by. It meant that there would now be more people extending help in case there was an emergency or natural calamity. Aama is someone from that time. She has virtually adopted us and we are grateful for all the help that she and her family have extended to us in the past two years . But quite remarkably they have been able to maintain the fine balance between offering help and interfering or taking over our lives.

We urban folks tend to worry about our privacy and erect tall fences, lock our doors and install door bells. Even in areas where safety is not an issue. Here, village folk regularly walk through each other’s backyards and nobody raises a heckle about trespassing. While people of various nationalities have made this area truly home by integrating themselves in different ways with the local community, others have failed miserably. The most recent incident involved a French & Israeli couple who rented a house and rumours are, wanted to grow marijuana. Now, marijuana is a grass that grows in most people’s backyards and does not catch any attention. This couple, however, erected tall fences around their house, effectively blocking direct access to the houses below. The residents of those houses were forced to walk a long way around, up the hill, to access the road. Soon enough, the villagers made a complaint to the DM about the marijuana crop. The house was raided and the couple arrested.

There is much unlearning we have done since our move here, fortunately without getting arrested. As they say, when in Rome do as Romans do: In Kumaon that may mean changing your definitions of privacy.

 

About the contributor: Dr. Vandita Dubey is a US licensed Psychologist and a permanent Uncity resident. She continues her conselling practice from her village home on phone and skype. The book referred to in this post has since been published by Rupa, and is titled “Parenting in the age of Sexposure : raising the precocious generation. ” She also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreats. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com .

 

Dark spots on the Himalayan sun

Dark spots on the Himalayan sun

Contributor : Vandita Dubey

The dark spots on our bright Himalayan sun began to appear rather suddenly, well over a year after we moved to Kumaon. One instant, everything was idyllic –  the clouds floating in and out of the valleys – and our house – during the monsoons, the snow covered Himalayan ghosts hover in the clear blue winter skies across the horizon. In the aftermath of city life, people of the villages also seemed kinder, gentler, more honest. Then like unwelcome guests, a series of unfortunate incidents in the neighbourhood left us all feeling uncomfortable. The picture is still the same but with the soft, diffused light gone, the sharp, jagged edges have become more obvious.

This year, between the end of summer and beginning of winter, our small community witnessed three unnatural deaths.  A young man from a neighbouring village was found dead with wounds on his body. An amorous couple’s extra marital sex videos made it to the cell phones of a bunch of village folk. And the following day, which happened to be the festival of Rakshabandhan, ended with the wife consuming poison. This resulted in the husband being sent to jail and three teenaged children left to fend for themselves. Diwali eve brought the most heartbreaking news of all – a young 7-year-old boy, an only child who studied in the same school as our kids, was killed instantaneously in an accident. The motorcycle he was riding on with his parents was thrown over the cliff by a pickup truck driven by three drunk youth from the same district who also did not survive this accident. What are the chances that the one vehicle you come across on these empty, winding roads should be the one that takes your life!

All these events have been shocking for us, but are barely news worthy for a big city. I have struggled to make sense of why these incidents have caused us so much distress. We have lived in various big cities in India and abroad and have heard of all kinds of crime, but why do these incidents seem more jarring? Maybe it is because incidents of violence in the city are treated as accepted, expected parts of life – perhaps because the victims are often unknown individuals or exposure to such incidents is so great that one becomes numb towards them. In addition, one is always on guard and watchful so that one does not become a victim oneself. In a small mountain village like our’s however, the same kind of events shake one up. Maybe because they involve individuals who are known or perhaps because one has lowered one’s defences, lulled by the seemingly idyllic, peaceful nature of life. I don’t think it is the end of our innocence: I still don’t feel threatened in any way. What has ended, though, is the apathy and indifference that one learns to wear in the city. There is also an acute awareness that each crime has many victims – multiple lives are affected, not just one.

Our gentle Kumaoni village is not free of crime or sorrow, but here each victim is mourned and each story is heard countless times.

About the contributor :

An urban migrant, Dr. Vandita Dubey is a resident of the Kumaoni village of Satkhol. A US licensed psychologist, she is the author of the book “Parenting in the age of Sexposure”. She also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreats. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com and about the writing retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .

Your money – Black, White or Wheatish?

Your money – Black, White or Wheatish?

Contributor : Navin Pangti.  In this piece Navin – an amazingly independent thinker – walks us through his conversation with a bunch of village kids about demonetization. Their observations offer a simple, insightful reality check on demonetisation. Read the Hindi version (scroll down) to lose nothing in translation.

Like every Sunday, last Sunday too we sat with a few village kids. When I mentioned demonetization, everyone opined that demonetization is a good first step but the needs of the poor were ignored.  Then I asked what is black money? Can it be made white with Fair and Lovely, or does it take more work? Is the money earned by the daily-wage labourer also black money? Is the earning from Charas (Hashish)  black money? They said that the labourer’s earning is not black money because that is earned from hard work even though he does not file a zero tax return, but the earning from Charas is black money. Then I asked – has the Charas earnings in the surrounding villages become waste? They said no. So that means the black money remains. Then I asked – does this mean next year there will be nobody making and selling Charas? They said it will be made and sold. Then my question was did changing the currency notes actually stop the black money?   Or will stopping the Charas trade actually stop the black money?

Was the issue the black money, or the businesses generating it? They seemed to agree that the problem was the businesses generating it. Then we talked about what is barter, what is money, what is business and trade, what is currency, where are notes printed and how, how is the value of the rupee determined etc. During our talk we also understood the English words for these terms. We did not talk any politics or discuss Modiji. For three hours we talked. The gathering of kids ranged from classes 8 – 12. They easily understood all the issues at hand, but it is shocking how our civilized and overeducated society seems to have lost the spectacles of its brain.  They seem unable to see that plastic money and bank access are privileges of the privileged class.

Why is a tiny subsection of India’s population controlling and foisting its ideas on all of society? The sadly funny thing is that those who deal in black money are the ones looking for so-called freedom from it, and they don’t even realize that the people bearing the brunt of their actions do not have any wealth – leave alone black money. Tell me, tomorrow when you do land and property deals in the city will you not make payments in black money? Will you not pay the extra 2% on the registry fees? If you will not, that is great. But if you will then please wake up to yourself … understand the real issue and think about it … the country changes with you.

 

indexAbout Navin Pangti :  Navin is a free-thinker who abandoned the city and now lives on a green hillside above almora. He wears numerous hats which include artisan, farmer, designer, poet, storyteller, entrepreneur and home-schooler. He has also published a collection of his hindi poetry under the title “Dhar kay us paar”.

 

 

हर इतवार की तरह आज भी गाँव के कुछ बच्चों के साथ बैठे. मैंने demonetisation का जिक्र किया तो सबका मानना था की demonetisation अच्छी पहल है पर गरीबों का पक्ष नहीं देखा गया. तब मैंने पूछा कि काला धन क्या होता है? क्या वो fair and lovely से सफेद हो सकता है या मसला कुछ और है? क्या जो देहाड़ी में मजदूर कमाते हैं वो काला धन है? क्या चरस से हुई कमाई काला धन है?  वो बोले मजदूर ही देहाड़ी काला धन नहीं है क्योंकि वो मेहनत की कमाई है यद्यपि मजदूर zero return नहीं भरता पर चरस की कमाई काला धन है. तो मैंने पूछा – क्या आस पास के गाँव के लोगों की चरस की कमाई बेकार हो गई? वो बोले नहीं. तो मतलब काला धन वहीं रहा. फिर मैंने पूछा – तो क्या अगले बरस चरस नहीं बनेगी और बिकेगी. वो बोले बनेगी. तो फिर काला धन केवल नोट बदलने के कहाँ रुका? वो तो चरस के बनने और बिकने से रुकेगा ना?

मुद्दा काले धन का नहीं काले धंधे का है. उनके बात समझ आ गई. फिर हमने बातें करी की वस्तु विनिमय क्या होता है, रूपया क्या होता है, व्यापार क्या होता है, मुद्रा क्या होती है, नोट क्यों और कैसे छपते हैं, रुपये का मूल्य कैसे तय होता है, इत्यादि… इसी बीच हमनें इन शब्दों की अंग्रेजी शब्दावली भी समझी. हमनें मोदीजी या राजनीति की कोई बात नहीं करी. तीन घंटे यूँहीं यही बातें करते रहे. ये बच्चे कक्षा ६ से १२ के थे. वो सहजता से अधिकाँश बातें समझ गए पर अचरज इस बात का है की हमारा सुशील व सुशिक्षित समाज अपनी बुद्धि का चश्मा कहीं खो चुका है. क्यों उन्हें दिखाई नहीं देता की plastic money और bank access एक privileged class का privilege है.

क्यों हिंदुस्तान कि आबादी का एक छोटा सा हिस्सा पूरे समाज पर कुंडली मार कर अपना हक जमा रहा है. मजे की बात है की जो काले धन में खेलता है वो खुद उससे ‘तथाकथित’ मुक्ति चाहता है पर ये नहीं देख पाता की जो उसकी इस चाह में पिस रहा है वो काला धन तो क्या, धन क्या है ये भी नहीं जान पाया है. एक बात बताओ, कल जब जमीन में पूंजी लगाओगे, surplus income से नया फ्लैट खरीदोगे तो क्या ब्लैक में पेमेंट नहीं करोगे, रजिस्ट्री के दो परसेंट नहीं दोगे? अगर हाँ तो बहुत अच्छी बात है पर अगर नहीं तो कृपया जागो… मुद्दे पर आओ और सोचो… देश बदल रहा है

Demonetization in the Village

Demonetization in the Village

Sometimes we dislike an action because we dislike the person doing it. That is hate clouding judgement. The fact is sometimes people we dislike may do smart things. At that time it is gracious to accept.

I don’t write political posts in this blog, but demonetization is well beyond politics. What does it mean to the Kumaoni Villager? In the village the incomes are from agriculture or small trading or jobs. Most people are below the tax bracket anyway. All dealing is cash – little happens in banks. So demonetisation naturally creates big problems here which go well beyond inconvenience. Too many people are unable to get necessities despite owning banknotes. The community always helps here in emergencies. Most people grow at least some food, and that is shared around. Informal (not card based) credit is extended because people know each other.  But even that is a chain – the next link is how much credit the wholesaler will extend to the retailer and so on. Since mandi’s run on cash, so the vegetable and fruit retailer clearly is in pain. The assumption underlying short term informal credit is a quick return to normalcy but no new banknote has reached the SBI in Mukteshwar or the ATM in Sitla, and the banks project another week of a 2K exchange limit. This pain is real, current and impacting livelihoods. The community cushion – in the village people help each other in ways city people cannot imagine – helps, but that too has its limits, especially when everyone is feeling the same pain. To top it, many do not understand why it has been done, or why it is important.

But that is the Micro level. At the Macro level, the benefits of demonetization are game-changing. People with the wrong principles will finally be hurt in the right places. (First imagine having 10 crores in cash. Then imagine all of it catching fire in front of your eyes).  The hard-working people who regularly pay their taxes won’t feel like losers. Paying taxes does have cynicism attached to it in India, but the fact is it should be done equitably. With demonetization, the government revenues will jump in the near term, and hopefully many citizens will start thinking paying taxes is better than dealing with such uncertainty. The world has taken notice – it realizes that India is serious about the cleanup, which gives confidence to the FIIs. With black money turning white, it will seek legit investment destinations. Both these will pump up the stock market.

Back to the villager, though – the only windfalls happen from land sale. The land prices might slide a little but will correct to real levels. The next land deal may have more cheque payment or people will simply convert the cash proceed to gold immediately. But normal life in, say, December will continue largely as before.

So what should the government do, and what should we?

The government should ensure the return to normalcy and liquidity is as quick as possible, in every village. The implementation has been shoddy, and the government needs to catch-up. We were four people who stood in a line for 2 hours today to convert a total of 12k. I think there is a lot of pressure on that front, and that should stay.

And what should we do? Should we oppose this policy or support it? Our sectarian, criticism-sensitive leader has demonstrated leadership in a critical area, and that part of his work at least, we should support. Don’t let hate cloud judgement. I think the move needs our support, because this is a critical battle in the war against corruption. We’re almost there. Backtracking now would be like asking for an abortion after hours of labourc9830ae650b153d2813a88599b44c6b2 pains.

We need to back our side to the hilt. I am reminded of the many posters used in America in the second world war.  Words like perseverance and fortitude were flaunted.  To fight this effort would be to fight change and vote for the status quo – which is what we cry about at all other times. The swastika in this WW2 poster is the status quo. Time to give it some heat.

Leave the city? And ruin the kids future?

Leave the city? And ruin the kids future?

“Hindi medium?” said my city friend, aghast. Eyes wide open. Mouth also. The food was going to fall out, so I quickly said “It’s not that hard. Let me explain.”

She swallowed the food, but not my reasoning. I could see that my logic completely missed the mark. Let me try again here.

The essence of what I told her was that my wife and I were not necessarily looking for a highly competitive school with lots of tests / tuitions / cutting edge technology. Quite the opposite – we were looking for a simple school. One where kids stayed innocent a little longer. A school where our kids would be happy and enjoy the learning process. Both my wife and I remember school as a stressful, unhappy place. But we believe that joy and learning are not contradictory, and should not be.

The last one year has largely borne out our beliefs.

Our two kids moved from a large, urban school to a small rural one*. Both schools follow a similar belief system and methodology – but differed in many other things, including the medium of instruction. Our kids left all their old friends behind, and how quickly they adapted depended a lot on how quickly they made friends.

Our daughter R was not yet seven when we moved. She loved the open green spaces and all the natural beauty of the mountains and she was perfectly at home within the first few days. A was eight, and took longer to adjust and get accustomed to the new set-up.

But they have both adjusted and evolved in their own way.

R has embraced everything around her. Whether it be butterflies, or what the cow eats, and when it gives milk, to how long a pony lives or what a horseshoe does – she is seeking IMG_20160524_063422out knowledge of nature and our surroundings with an amazing curiosity. Her Hindi has improved a lot, and she now speaks two versions of Hindi – one in the house, and the other with her Kumaoni classmates and friends. The difference is drastic. And of course, she is picking up some Kumaoni as well.

A is more reserved, and took longer to make friends. But he has been able to get deeper into things that interest him. The stuff he now chooses to do are driven by an inherent personal interest, rather than the influence of friends or peer pressure. He has developed a deep interest in paper folding which he feeds by teaching himself stuff from the internet. He has also developed an interest in Chess, and plays that with the computer and also some of his classmates.

They are learning about life from the cow next door having a calf. From our pet dog delivering a litter of six pups, taking care of them, and the pain of giving them away. They learn from finding the skull and bones of small carnivorous rodents in the forest, taking them to school and researching them. And learn about life simply from the extreme seasons, and understand what grows and when. They don’t just study the relationship between the seasons, and when fruits ripen – they live it.

One of the most satisfying things for me personally is the interest they have developed in Hiking. We have done two hikes, the last one being a six day hike to Pindari glacier. R rode a mule while A walked 60 kilometres up and down forest trails with small backpacks over 6 days. What surprised me most was that on the last day of the hike A was already planning the next one!

But above all this, the biggest factor is the time I am able to spend with them – be it reading together with them, going on picnics, playing games, plucking fruit or doing small woodworking projects. Being a father in person beats being a father in absentia hands down. And I’ve been both. Since we have left the city I have much more time for them, and they both notice and appreciate the change.

We all love the time we now get to spend together. And that’s hard for even the best school to compete with.

 

*This blogger relocated to the Kumaon Himalayas from Gurgaon, and the fun stuff he does besides trekking, writing this blog, riding the Himalayas, running marathons and contemplating the universe now also includes hosting the Himalayan Writing Retreat https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/retreat/ .