You just never know what life brings

When I went to sleep last night, I was excited about the prospects of the new day. I had no idea that it would turn out to be one of those red letter days that teach you pretty much everything about life. Now that I think of it, it was a good parable for life, and a reminder of how despite our illusions, we are never really in control.

The day started for me very early – at nearly 3 am. It is — in the words of my friend Liam Casey — the jet lag witching hour, when you lie wide awake in the bed, looking at the roof of the room. In my case, I turned and looked outside.

And what I saw was magical. A sky that was wholly adorned with stars. It was the most beautiful night sky I ever saw. I’ve never seen so many stars ever before. Never in California. Never in Death Valley. Never in Iceland. To be honest, never anywhere. It was simply fantastic. Stars were like the sparkling pearls embroidered with abandon into the black velvet that is the universe.

I decided to step outside and enjoy the night. Unfortunately, it was also fantastically cold, maybe minus 10 degrees centigrade — about 14 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t quite know the exact temperature. That was the temperature before my phone ran out of power. Extreme cold kills batteries so fast. But despite the cold, I just stood there. Maybe for five minutes. Or maybe ten. Before getting back into the room, which felt warmer. Only to come back out again. I had left my tripod in the car, and there was no way I was going to walk up the hill in the dark to the car to retrieve it. So the idea of making a long exposure, and shooting the stars went out of the window. Instead, I just sat there watching the beautiful night sky.

As I watched the stars, I could hear the river Suru, its waters moving briskly, like a continually humming machine. The rhythmic sound of water was hypnotic and put me in a trance-like state, in sync with the planet. The twinkle of the stars looked brighter. My mind and body felt more relaxed, and for a few seconds, I could forget the cold.

Of course, the wind, descending from the heavens, snaking its way through the majestic jagged edges of mountains Nun and Kun, rolling over the icy covers of the Nun Kun glacier, would come whooshing, reminding me who was the boss. I would run inside to warm up. But even inside, I could hear the wind making a devilish scratching sound — scary enough to wake even those dead for centuries.

The guard dog who is supposed to warn against incursions (including wild animals) was spooked too. And you could hear him whimper the doggy equivalent of WTF. And then almost as instantly, the wind would stop, and everything would just become silent. This went on for a while. And then clouds started to roll. Slowly first, fast then. The fog came out of nowhere. It began in the distance, covering half the mountains. Then it started hugging the Suru Valley much like how a thin muslin wraps around the body of a maiden on a hot summer night. The wind had stopped howling. It was so quiet. Beautiful quiet. Quiet that comes with fog. As I watched it all play out in front of my eyes, sleep erased from my mind. I wondered if this was all a dream.

Fog is like catnip for me. So I got out — dressed as warmly as I could, with my film camera and hoping that I will get at least a photo or two. It was magical. For the next two hours, I saw the fog get thicker and thicker. Three rolls of film later, the mist just enveloped the mountains, the valley, the house down the road and the river on the edge of the valley. I have no idea how those pictures are going to turn out, but I do know my eyes captured the frames that I will carry forever.

***

We were ready to leave for our next destination. But along the way, we saw a magical interplay between light and shadows, clouds and mountain peaks, glaciers and sunshine. The whole scene unfolding in front of our eyes had an almost divine purity to it. We stopped and walked down the hill, right into the middle of the Suru River, set up the tripod and went to work. There were beautiful vistas all around us. The colors of the valley kept me looking in every direction.

And wherever I looked in the valley, on my back, on my left, on my right, there was this magical interplay between clouds, light, and the land itself. The jagged edge of the mountain peaks lit up by the sun. It was magical. The green slopes, the beautiful blue skies, cyan, green waters of the rivers, brown dried trees, the red lichen moss. Dark green grasses, probably breathing their last. It was perhaps was one of the most intense image making sprints of my life.

Another two rolls gone, but magic, magic, magic everywhere. Just when we were ready to leave, we saw in the distance a Bollywood movie being made. I had never really thought we would be in deep Ladakh, and see a Bollywood movie shoot. Little did I know that my life was going to take a Bollywood turn in a few minutes.

As we started to drive down the road, about 50 meters from the movie shoot, we were stopped in our tracks by a mob — a mob of taxi drivers who basically wouldn’t let us go forward because our taxi was from Leh. There are different unions in different parts of Ladakh. The Leh drivers are not allowed in Kargil. The Kargil drivers are not permitted in Zanskar Valley, which is primarily Buddhist, Nor are they’re not allowed in Leh, which is predominantly Buddhist.

I had a first-hand lesson of how the region’s divisions work and impact daily existence. It was quite an unruly scene. The mob leader took the papers of our driver’s car and basically wouldn’t let us go. And this was right in front of the cops who were whistling Dixie and refused to intervene. The Kargil cab mob wanted me to get into another cab if I wanted to go forward. I would have to find another taxi in Zanskar. I said, no thank you.

And why would I get into a car with a guy who just took papers right from the vehicle, which is essentially theft, I don’t know, why would I trust my life with somebody like that? We decided that our driver will get permission from the union. We would pay the fine, and then decide what we would want to do after that. We went back to the hotel and waited for the next four hours for our driver to sort out the mess.

What had started a magical morning was turning into a disaster. But I didn’t care. I enjoyed a few cups of milky sweet tea, had a lunch of Maggi Noodles and chit chatted with the locals. People were coming from afar to watch the movie, and they were stopping by to say hello to the caretaker and buy some snacks.

And then came these three kids, who were walking back from the movie shoot.

I started talking to them, and they were all very young, very hip. Even though this was middle of bum-fuck nowhere. They all had their big smartphones. No Samsung or Apple insight — it is Xiaomi nation around here. They all had Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram on their phones. We ended up talking about their apps, how the phones were influencing how they experienced the world and how that reshaped their expectations from life.

I felt that because they were more aware of the world at large, they would perhaps become more aspirational citizens of the future, even though in India, the future is always uncertain and unpredictable. One of them wants to be a doctor and access to the phone had made it easy for him to figure out his gameplan. The other two were pretty ambivalent and had we will take what fate brings attitude.

Of course, they all instantly recognized my iPhone XS Max. That in itself was amazing because I have always known that information spreads fast, but to see it make its way so deep into rural parts of India, demonstrated a new reality. Technology, today is so deeply enmeshed in the lives of people who perhaps up until two decades ago were primarily a self-sustaining civilization that didn’t take anything from the world. They lived in their bubble. Fast forward to now, and we have an utterly consumerist society and by extension, technology-driven ideologies right into the heart of rural Ladakh.

During these various conversations with people who stopped by at the resort, I learned quite a bit about the history of the Kargil and gave me a framework to understand the tensions between various groups. A lot of it is not worth repeating.

Then later, the local DSP came by with his wife, and his six-month-old daughter, and his vast entourage of cops. They needed a place to sit and eat. They brought their food. We talked a bit, and I told him about why I was hanging around the resort. He didn’t answer. Well, I guess even big cops don’t mess with taxi driver unions.

Later, our driver came back. He had paid the fines. He had all the permissions granted. We could go forward. But the mob and its thug leader wouldn’t let us go ahead. So instead of picking a fight, we turned around and said goodbye to Kargil. As we drove back and occasionally stopped in many small locations to take photos, often on the side of the freeway. I couldn’t care less if I couldn’t go to Zanskar Valley, because, I was just happy that new vistas were unfolding in front of us. Sure, I could have been upset. But why? Looking back, it felt like a series of coincidences.

 

 

Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. October 9, 2018

Additional Readings

  1. Traveling to Ladakh
  2. The Asynchronous Life
  3. Landscapes of Ladakh: A series of photos

A letter from Om

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