Monday, October 27, 2014

Pangarchula: Appearances can be deceptive

Some mountains, like Pangarchula, just beckon me: "Here I am. Just come on over," they seem to say. But what was surprising to me about Pangarchula was that it isn't a very tall mountain and looked mostly docile and non-threatening. It isn't a high mountain like Nanda Devi or Trishul or Donagiri that leave me with a mixture of awe and trepidation. It isn't like Changabang, a threatening mountain which, with its sharp and cold ridges, instilled a sense of fear in me. In that sense, Pangarchula did not issue a challenge. It just tempted me in an alluring and enticing manner.

The first time I saw Pangarchula was when I went on the Kuari Pass trek. We walked on a path that ran no more than 500 metres from the base of the mountain. And as our guide pointed out the peak to us, I wished we had included a Pangarchula peak climb as part of our trek itinerary. I was drawn then.

In October 2013, I saw Pangarchula again, this time from the top of Kala Khal. This viewing was from a fair distance away, and again, Pangarchula looked totally non-threatening and sedate. Once again, I had a yearning in me to climb the peak. I could not quite understand this.

It isn't even a tall peak. There are mixed reports on how tall Pangarchula actually is. Some record it at 4575m and some, like this one here, record it at 4900m. For the record, when we climbed Pangarchula peak, we recorded it at 4800m. Even then, 4800 metres is not much. On previous treks and expeditions, I have slept at heights greater than that for heaven's sake! So, I wasn't sure what Pangarchula's lure was.

But it certainly was there...


When my friend Ajit Bhaskar wrote to me earlier this year and asked if I would put together an itinerary and go on a Himalaya trek with him, Pangarchula was on my mind immediately even though I had already planned an expedition to the rather tough Kalindi Pass in June with another group. So I was initially a bit reluctant to go on another Himalayan pilgrimage this year. Nevertheless, the pull of Pangarchula meant that I rang Raju Martolia, the guide I normally go with on my Himalaya treks. I told him that I'd like to put together a group of mostly first-time trekkers for a 'simple trek' and asked if we could go to Pangarchula in October 2014. He answered, "Sir Pangarchula is not a trek, but an expedition. It might look easy, but it is actually quite tough especially if you want to do it in October when there isn't any snow. But since it is October, there is enough time to prepare. We can do it." He then advised me to include another trek prior to Pangarchula as a means of acclimatizing and preparing for the Pangarchula climb. After some research, I rang him back and asked if Roopkund-Pangarchula would go well together. He immediately agreed and said that it would work just fine. The Roopkund trek would take 6-7 days and would be perfect preparation (after a day's break in Joshimath) for the 3-4 day Pangarchula expedition. So the plan was set. As the itinerary and the dates were being finalized, I started pulling a group together.

By the end of February, we had a group. Ajit Bhaskar and I were soon joined by Chuck, Pun, Grond and Divya (nicknamed SoBoD on the trek) from Mumbai and Paddy, Arundati (referred to as Lam Lam -- long story), Sriram and Mahesh Krishnan from Melbourne.

We had seven months of lead-time for what was ahead and we needed to start preparing for the trek. We had enough time, although it seemed as though we spent much of that time chatting on the Whatsapp group we created for the trek. And as the departure date drew closer, it seemed as though we had spent much of the interim duration in toughening ourselves not against the rigours of the trek but against the unending onslaught of terrible jokes that would be cracked on the trek. But, looking on the bright side, I guess none of us gagged on the jokes we inflicted on each other on the trek. So perhaps the Whatsapp preparation was spot on!

Preparations commenced with a packing list, a requirements list, a shopping list, and a rigorous exercise routine. Our Whatsapp group was constantly abuzz with updates and questions but I was still quite worried. Most of the questions and discussions focussed on toilet arrangements, shower provisions and food menus than on aerobic conditioning, core strengthening and stretch routines!

My nervousness drove me to write a 12-page pre-trip document in which I tried to list down all the things we would need to know while on the trek. In it, I wrote about acute mountain sickness (AMS); how to recognize it, how to prevent it, how to deal with it. I wrote about sleep deprivation. I wrote about what we could look forward to on each day. I wrote about how people should take turns in moving to the front and the back of the group; the same set of people in the front and back can lead to a somewhat demotivated group. I guess I was a bit nervous about the trek and the group.

You see, I had put the group together. Everyone on this trek was known to me but several people on this didn't know each other at all. I was hopeful that the group would get together, build camaraderie quickly and even support each other on some of the tougher segments of the trek. The last thing we wanted on an already tricky trek-expedition was a fractured and non-functioning group.

The group had a nice age-distribution. We had one person in the mid-20s, four folk in the 30s, one in the 40s and three people in the 50s. The jury is still out on the exact age of Paddy, the tenth person in the group. While he maintained right through that he was no more than 48, conservative estimates and subsequent carbon dating experiments confirmed him at at least 65, if not more!

The group had a good fitness spread to it too. We had two people who were super-fit; they wre the enthu-cutlets of the group. Seven of us were constantly either drained by (or tired of or in awe of) the two enthu-cutlets. And then we had Paddy, who defied his age to demonstrate levels of fitness the rest of us could only dream of.

But the one facet in which we were all harmoniously together on was our ability to crack poor jokes. That was the binding force, Really. Well, that, and the mystery surrounding Paddy's age.

The group came together perfectly. It helped that Chuck ran a wonderful ice-breaking session the day we got together; the day we all met in Rishikesh. He set everyone what seemed like an extraordinarily difficult task: "Say a few words about yourself and a few sentences about what you dislike most about Mohan." However, some 10 hours later, we had to be dragged out of our chairs lest we missed the morning bus to Lohajang, from where our Roopkund trek would commence. If you feel a wave of sympathy coming my way, now is the time to say "awww". The following morning, when I texted my wife and said "The common factor in this group is me and they are all ganging up on me," she replied immediately, "I wish I was there too. I'd have joined in." Yes, you may say "awww" now at least.

By the end of the first day, there was much laughter, much mirth and much banter. I was feeling less nervous about the group dynamics and focussed my nervousness, instead, on the trek itself. 

Despite a few irritations, mainly to the eye of Chuck, Pun and Mahesh, we completed the Roopkund leg of the trek reasonably successfully. I am not going to write much about that leg, because I am sure some of the others will do so. Ajit Bhaskar has already started a serialization of what looks like an epic novel on the trek; here are part-1 and part-2

I will, instead, focus my attention on the Pangarchula expedition.


We had had a day's rest in Joshimath after the first leg of our trek, So we tended to our minor wounds and felt quite rested when we set off for Pangarchula. 

The name Pangarchula itself spells danger. Panga means a "a bladed African tool like a machete" in Kiswahili. These days, in Hindi, the word 'panga' means to "get actively stuck into a messy issue when it could be avoided." And 'chula' is a hot earthen oven in which rotis are made. So essentially, we were "getting into a hot oven, which we could easily avoid"?

I certainly didn't want to avoid it though. After an unsuccessful attempt at Kalindi Pass earlier on in the year (expedition had to be abandoned due to bad weather), I was quite determined to complete a peak climb when I had the opportunity to do so.

We had already lost one member of our group. Grond decided to stay back at Joshimath, and wasn't interested in making it even to Pangarchula base camp. He had had enough and wanted to nurse his aching ankles and knees. I don't blame him at all. The Roopkund trek sucked out all his energies and he probably had nothing more to give.

Forest walk on the way to Pangarchula base camp
So the remaining nine of us trudged up to Pangarchula base camp on a really hot day. 

We drove an hour from Joshimath to a place called Dhak and started our climb to base camp from there. 

We started the climb at approx 1600m and walked constantly uphill all day. The first half of it was through exposed terrain. We had no shelter from the scorching sun that beat down on us mercilessly and almost the entire day was continually and steadily uphill. 

We crossed several streams and several pretty villages too before we reached a thick forest which provided relief from the blistering afternoon sun. The rest of the walk was a bit more bearable because of this forest walk.

When we reached base camp, we had gained nearly 1600m that day and all of us were thoroughly exhausted. 

View of Neelkant from Pangarchula Base Camp
The camp itself was quite pretty. We could see several beautiful mountains all around us (Hathi-Ghoda, Burmal, Neelkant, Donagiri, Changabang and Chaukhamba, to name a few). And the edge of the forest wasn't too far away from the camp. This was useful because we collected logs for a bonfire on both nights we spent at base camp. 

The views of these mountains reminded me of what the famous explorer Eric Shipton once said, “A vision of such beauty is worth a world of striving.” We had worked really hard to get to the base camp and the sights we saw made that effort worthwhile. As a corollary, if visions of such beauty were easily available and accessible, perhaps we would not appreciate it and treasure it as much. All around us, all we could see was layer upon mysterious layer of snow-capped majesty. That vision itself was enough to drive away the aches and pains. 

But all wasn't well with the group. While some of us walked around Pangarchula base camp, busily and chirpily preparing for our peak attempt the following morning, two members in our group were quiet, apprehensive and somewhat down in spirits. I wasn't sure what it was but did not have the energy to ask. I was perhaps too self-absorbed to immerse myself in it. I had my own set of problems to deal with. 

And my problem was that I was becoming obsessed with 'peak bagging' Pangarchula; a feeling I have never had in any of the treks/climbs I have been on. I have only worried about doing the basic things right and have never been concerned with the outcome (climbing to the top). My principle has always been that if I did the basics right, the outcomes take care of themselves. But here, I was obsessed with thought of being on the Pangarchula peak. I worked on limiting and then, erasing that obsession.

We started our Pangarchula peak attempt at 5am the following morning. We were woken up at 4am and after a light breakfast and tea, we were off even before day break.

Our guide, Raju, had informed us in our post-dinner briefing the previous night that the ascent would be tough but quite doable. It would be tough mostly because of the boulders we had to walk on for much of the climb. And unlike the Roopkund trek, the path to the top wouldn't be clearly marked out -- a key difference between a trek and an expedition. But he assured us that he would take us along the most accessible and sensible path. He also said that we would reach the peak by 10am, after a continuous 5-hour climb.

What he didn't tell us was that this was only the second time he had attempted the Pangarchula peak when it wasn't covered in snow! He had underestimated how long it would take us... Underestimated it quite severely! At 10am, the group still had a climb of nearly 700m to get to the peak.

The Pangarchula ascent is basically entirely on moraine, which is basically the debris that is created by glacial melt. The size of the debris varies from silt to large (either well rounded or craggy) boulders of varying sizes. As glaciers melt and advance they create debris, either carved off the valley floor as the melt descends or that which gets scooped off the valley's walls. The debris may either be alongside the glacier or on top of it. 

The Pangarchula debris was all on top of it and in the form of large, craggy, uneven boulders. Most of these boulders were steady, but some were loose and unstable. So leg strength and core stability become quite important as you trudge up.
The climb to Pangarchula peak

Ajit Bhaskar took a pic of the Pangarchula moraine up close as we commenced the second of four moraine segments. Now imagine this sort of a terrain (as seen in the pic) over an approx 800m gain; some of it covered in sleet or fresh snow. Then you get a sense of the difficulty. Oh! And we only had our trekking boots; no crampons and no ropes.

On my previous trek/expedition to Kalindi in June this year, we encountered moraine that was either silt or well-rounded loose boulders. In that expedition, we walked, climbed, slid, fell, crashed and stumbled across and on top of Gangotri, Chaturangi, Tapovan, Sweta glaciers. 

That was tough too. But despite that experience under my belt, I felt that the moraine I encountered on Pangarchula was quite hard.

The Pangarchula moraine climb is divided into four somewhat distinct sections. The first is mostly all rock and, although seemingly unending, is somewhat easy to climb. Two members of our group -- Lam Lam and Sriram -- decided they had had enough at the end of that segment. They just sat down at a point and said they had no desire or ability to go any further. Nine of us had set out from camp along with three guides. Now, seven of us kept climbing and had three guides to help and assist us. I did feel a tinge of sadness that Lam Lam and Sriram stayed back, but up in the mountains, everyone knows their own limits and fends for themselves. They knew what worked best for them and decided that they had had enough. The fact that Sriram and Lam Lam had made it as far as they had already made them heroes. They'd gone further than many others would have.

Sometimes, at altitudes greater than 4000m, every step you take can represent an internal struggle. Headaches, cramps, fatigue, nausea, breathing difficulties and oxygen scarcity have a way of limiting resolve. It is quite likely that each one of us contemplated the ‘Really! Why am I doing this?’ question that day. I know I did. Often, you have the answers and when you don't, you just want to give up and collapse. 

The second stretch of moraine on Pangarchula is an incredibly steep climb. You go up a steep face (without ropes) on mostly solid rocks and get to a reasonably flat stretch with clumps of grass cover. While the grass was better to walk on -- because it provided better foot holds -- it was also a bit slippery because of recent snow fall. Some of these rock surfaces were slippery too, because of sleet formation. So we had to be careful as we hauled ourselves up this slope. 

This is segment in which I was beginning to lose my cool a little bit. Perhaps anxious on account of the time we were consuming on the approach -- we still had some 700m of climbing to do and the time was already 10am -- Raju, our guide, was charging ahead at the rate of knots. The fact that the incredibly fit Ajit Bhaskar was keeping pace with him meant that Raju pressed on at an even faster pace. They were feeding each other in a self-fulfilling loop that seemed to destroy the rest of the group. By then, there was no clearly marked out path. We had to make our own way to the top and had to navigate slippery, ragged boulders along the way. The group was getting separated quite a bit and the growing distance between the lead group and the rest wasn't doing anyone's morale any good. So I requested Ajit to slow things down and not match Raju step for step. We needed as many of us to stick together as possible if we had any chance of making it to the top. This worked a bit. The pace reduced, and we were less separated as a group.  

Sadly, at the top of that second stretch, Chuck and Paddy decided that they had had enough and decided that they would stay back too. I looked back to see if I could encourage them to continue. I could be wrong and I don't remember clearly, but I believe I shouted a word or two of encouragement. But that didn't work. Firstly, we were too far ahead for any words to have had any meaningful impact. Second, I took one look at Paddy's sagging shoulders and I knew immediately that he was spent. One of our guides stayed back with them and took them back to where Lam Lam and Sriram were. 

Now, five of us (Ajit, Mahesh, SoBoD, Pun and I) remained and started what I thought was the third moraine segment. We pressed on with two guides. At this point, Raju, Ajit, Mahesh, SoBoD, and I had moved ahead a fair bit; Pun and Kalam, the other guide were a bit further behind. 

This was getting tougher by the minute. This segment was marked by thin ledges. The presence of recent snow and sleet on some of the rock ledges made it quite dangerous too. There was no relenting the climb though; the more we climbed, the more, it seemed, we had to climb. I kept looking back for Pun, but she seemed to have slipped further and further behind. After a while, we lost sight of her completely. But I was confident she would be ok because she was with Kalam, an excellent guide. It was only much later that I learned that she too had had enough and returned to join the others, along with Kalam. So essentially, it was down to the four of us and Raju. We had no choice. All of us now had to make it to the top.

I wish I'd walked with Pun. I may have dragged her along with me too. I can't say for sure but I just wish I'd stayed closer to her. Still, the fact that Pun and Chuck made it as far as they did made them champions in my eyes. They had to miss much of the Roopkund trek when Chuck contracted conjunctivitis. Pun caught the bug too. They hadn't still recovered from it. So the fact that they even attempted Pangarchula -- forget getting as far up as they did -- made them heroes already.

I was determined that I would not have a Stok Kangri redux happen to me. On that particular expedition, ten of us had set out with four guides. With 600m of climb to go to the peak, we were reduced to four climbers and Raju (the same situation I found myself in on this Pangarchula trek). With 250m to go to the Stok Kangri peak, two members from the group just collapsed with exhaustion. I immediately decided to abandon my own peak attempt and decided to head back with those two. 

I wasn't going to allow that to happen to any of us on this day. So when Mahesh said at one point that he was exhausted and did not have the energy to continue, I pulled out all my energy tablets and stopped short of stuffing it all into his mouth! I was determined to see all of the remaining four of us at the peak and -- although Ajit and SoBoD certainly didn't need any help from me -- would have been happy to drag people to the top if necessary. 

I was particularly keen to see Mahesh reach the top. He had conjunctivitis too... In both eyes! And instead of giving up, he braved the elements and tough terrain to attempt it. We had a true champion in our midst and if anyone had to reach the top, it was this guy!

The time was 12.15pm when we started the fourth moraine segment of the climb. This was incredibly steep and was filled with large boulders with a reasonable amount of snow cover. We were already behind by the best part of two hours and still had at least another hour to go to the peak. We also hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. I had exhausted all my supplies of energy gels, almonds, figs and energy tablets. I was running purely on adrenaline and from their faces, SoBoD and Mahesh looked spent too. Ajit, meanwhile, looked set to run a marathon and Raju continued to radiate energy and fitness! We needed one last determined push to the top. Miraculously, as if on cue, we started egging each other on in that last hour. We had no energy to shout out encouragement to each other (well, apart from Ajit that is, who was now looking set for a Gobi desert crossing, if needed -- and, given his penchant for cooking, I am not talking aloo gobi here). So Mahesh, SoBoD and I whispered encouragement to each other, counted steps and won small victories. We took it in 40-step segments and didn't look too far ahead or up. Every 40 steps, we would stop, gather breath and make the next set of 40 steps. Bit by bit, inch-by-inch, we clawed our way to the top. I just refused to look up at the peak. I knew it was nearing but was only willing to focus on the next 40 steps. Visibility was very poor as clouds had descended on the peak; we could barely see 5m ahead of us.

Selfie at Pangarchula peak...
At 13:15, nearly 3 hours later than planned, Raju had reached the top. Of course, he'd have reached the top much earlier had he been on his own. Two minutes after that, at 13:17, Ajit our 'mountain goat' had also reached the top. He too had been slowed down by the rest of us. His screeches echoed around us as we made the last few metres up to the top. I knew that there wasn't far to go now and afforded a look up to the peak. Ajit kept shouting words of encouragement. And at 13:20, Mahesh, SoBoD and I walked up to the Pangarchula peak and celebrated it with hugs and high-fives. 

And as any self-respecting climber does, we also took a selfie or two (see above).

I stood a few metres short of the 'absolute' peak though. Many years ago, in response to a question I asked Raju about how many peaks he had conquered, he replied (in Hindi): "We garhwali folk never 'conquer' mountains. We just seek permission of the mountain Goddess to climb the mountain. If we allow ourselves to think we have conquered the mountain, our Goddess will knock you down to size on the way down. That's why we always place our feet and our banner/flag a few metres short of the absolute peak." I kept that in mind and stood a metre or two off the absolute peak -- an area that was roughly 2m wide and 5m in length.

After spending no more than 10 minutes at the peak, we commenced the rapid descent to base camp. We saw clouds gathering around us all the time and visibility was diminishing with every passing minute. We didn't want the climb down to be any more treacherous than it already was. While the climb had taken us nearly 8 hours, we were down in at base camp in less than half the time. The climb down was as dangerous as the climb up was difficult; we slipped many times on the ice and snow. Even the seemingly invincible Raju slipped a few times on the way down. But we didn't seem to mind the falls and scrapes too much since our return journey was fueled by a mixture of happiness, relief and a sense of achievement.

And on the way down, I quietly started making plans, as one does, for the next challenge...

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

India in a champagne bottle

This article was first published in DNA online on Friday 9 May 2014 a few days before the results of the Indian general elections were announced on Friday 16 May 2014...

Just a few more days remain before counting commences on May 16 for the 2014 Indian general elections. It has been, by most accounts, a divisive, personality-driven campaign that was mostly bereft of any convincing agenda. What agenda was there lasted a few days before divisiveness and personalities took centre-stage. And all of this came at the end of a decade of some progress, substantial growth and also a discontent that is now difficult to ignore. It has been a decade of lost opportunities, too, perhaps. I strongly believe it is time for a change; perhaps not a change of government as much as a change to the way we do things in India. This change is necessary so that we may realise the immense potential we have as a nation. A country that was poised to overtake all expectations of growth and development has stuttered and faltered like an unsure, immature and irresponsible adolescent on his first date.

One of our failures in the recent past has been a lack of vision at the very top: a vision that enables us to use the significant resources – that have been generated through impressive economic growth – to invest substantially in our rapidly declining social and physical infrastructure. And that is what development must be about. As Chapal Mehra writes in his piece in The Hindu ("What development? For whom?" The Hindu, May 6 2014), “Development in its simplest sense should be the ability of all Indians to realise their true potential without fear or obstacles. Development should address the lack of capabilities, knowledge, financial resources, and opportunity to step out of poverty and deprivation without fear. Development then is as much a process of providing services as of removing obstacles and giving freedom from all sorts of discrimination, exclusion, insufficient opportunities and fear of identity.” 

Growth does not automatically guarantee human development. And that is the change we must seek, so we may invest our significant resources in eradicating fear and building human capital. Despite all the remarkable progress and the possibilities, India has, in the words of Amartya Sen, “fallen behind many countries, including Bangladesh, in terms of quality of life.” We haven’t understood – leave alone invested enough in – education, healthcare and infrastructure to the extent we ought to have.

At a time when we ought to have invested in a future, we instead had India in a champagne bottle.

Yes, I know the stunning figures we could quote as a counter to that view. We have the largest, functioning, pluralistic democracy in the world. We have the largest army, a proliferation of mobile phones and a news readership that is the envy of the free press in much of the world. Even though our growth rate has slipped, many nations around the world would be happy to have such a growth rate as a distant aspiration. We have a middle class that is growing with each passing year. This middle class has greater ambitions for a better tomorrow, an aspiration that makes it work harder and longer, earn more and spend more on everything our parents would never even dream of owning.

We consume news like there is no tomorrow. While newspaper readership is shrinking in much of the developed world, most newspapers in India are doing extremely well and circulation figures are up. The Times of India, Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Malayala Manorama are among the top 12 newspapers in the world by circulation, and probably the only four in that group with subscription growth rates that are on the increase. We consume and read news while we wait in queue for our turn to be served in road-side restaurants, while waiting for our hair to be cut. Our auto-drivers and juice vendors read newspapers. We consume our news in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and all the other languages. Many homes will have a subscription to more than one newspaper, some in different languages as well. We have more all-news TV channels than any other nation in the world.

Our relationship with telephony is charming and absorbing all at once. The journey has been quite stunning for a country that, some 25 years ago, used to ask ordinary middle-class consumers to stand in queue for over a year before a landline telephone connection could be established in their homes. The under-privileged had no hope of getting such connectivity. India effectively leapfrogged an entire generation of technology and went from no connectivity to mobile connectivity. It started with PCO booths that sprung up on almost every street corner, from which we could make local, STD and ISD phone calls. As a people, we got used to talking. Today, we have more mobile phone users in India than anywhere else on the planet. Phone sales are growing at an incredible rate of 15 million mobile phones a month. In other words, there are as many new mobile phones sold in India every month as there are people in The Netherlands. There are some 900 million mobile phone subscribers in India –almost three times the population of the US.

As a result of all of this, there is, today, a real democratisation of information. Everyone in India is connected and is able to consume, use and distribute information in what is an amazing transformation that has taken place in our lifetime.

The information revolution has been undeniable and something we must be proud of. Now hold this up against the backdrop of a government scandal that accelerated this growth, which was as contemptible in its magnitude as it was abominable in its brazenness. Think what might have been if we had achieved this revolution without the stigma of a despicable scam. Is this ‘transaction cost’ – a necessary euphemism for scams perhaps – the cost of progress? Is this the cross we must bear so that we may unravel the story of a modern India, a story of lost opportunities and high ‘transaction costs’? Or is it the story of a champagne bottle?

It is undeniable though that, because of this information revolution, everyone is potentially empowered, from the point of view of participation in the democratic process, from the point of view of participation in informed critical argument and also from the point of view of social and commercial connectivity. Yet, in spite of all of this, most of us get our information through secondary sources. We must lay the blame at the doorstep of under-investment in education.


India has always been a story of education and the pursuit of knowledge that enables and drives social betterment. And that story must not change in India’s narrative, for it is only through informed critical argument that we will be able to banish fear and unleash the potential that exists. Without that, the democratic dividend that we often flaunt is quite meaningless. Only 23% of our children are enrolled in tertiary education – Algeria is at 31%, Albania at 55%, Mongolia at 61%, Chile at 74%, and Slovenia at 86%, just by way of comparison.

We must improve access to and quality of education and also develop skills through vocational training programmes. We aren’t doing enough in these areas. We, instead, have an entire population in a champagne bottle.

Modern India’s story must be one of development. We cannot have the information revolution sit side by side with an undereducated rural mass and malnourished children. As Chapal Mehra says, “The most basic indices of human development for the most vulnerable — being healthy, well-nourished, literate, and having equal opportunity without fear — are dependent on strong local governments, unbiased law enforcement and clean and effective public systems which work without prejudice.” 

Of all countries in the world, India has the maximum number of children suffering from malnutrition. We could attribute this to the lack of national wealth in pre-1990 India. India was poor and though it grated, the fact that malnourished children existed did not grate as much then as it does now. But since 1991, India has seen a 50% increase in GDP, and given this, our failure to address malnutrition is a travesty. Modern India must be more than concrete, connectivity, cinema, cuisine and cricket. We must address the champagne bottle.


I am convinced our progress depends substantially on knowledge creation and innovation, through science and technology, and through our ability to include traditional knowledge in our science and industrial innovation. My belief, also, is that we do this excellently in India. Examples exist of the way we have incorporated traditional, indigenous knowledge in fields such as botany in Ayurvedic medicine.

I am also convinced that India’s future prosperity as a nation will be driven by our ability to generate ideas that convert knowledge into impactful outcomes for public good and commercial success. Innovation is a critical driver not only for increased productivity and commercial success, but also for social causes and for achieving inclusive growth. We do this well, because we are, as a people creative in our approach to either coping with – or solving – the significant challenges facing society; jugaad is part of our everyday vocabulary. And it is through this that we are blessed with a native and innate creativity, one of the key ingredients to innovation. If only the ecosystem around us enabled us to tap into this potential – the story of the champagne bottle – we can achieve the kind of frugal innovation that we have achieved, through science and technology, in our space program.

In the science and technology space, we have been able to develop a space research program that is truly world class. We design satellites, build these and launch them masterfully not only for India but also for the rest of the world. And that is not merely because we are good at it, but because we can achieve impactful outcomes at a fraction of the cost that others require. When India recently launched the Mangalyaan space mission to Mars, what was remarkable – and this is a story that is well-known – was that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) achieved the launch at a total cost of US$75 million. In other words, India launched a space mission to Mars at a quarter of the money it took to make the Hollywood film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. A few days after India launched its Mars probe, NASA launched Maven, its own Mars mission at a total cost of nearly eight times the Mangalyaan mission. We know how to innovate frugally. We also know how to operate, succeed, deliver and thrive in spite of what Dr Ramesh Mashelkar calls “technology denial regimes”, which have assisted our innovations in several sectors including nuclear technology, supercomputing and perhaps even the pharma sector.

So clearly, if we put our mind to it and if we are guided by a national challenge and a goal, just as we have, in other fields, we can build, achieve and sustain a development program that is inclusive and equitable.


India is an idea sustained and nurtured by a pluralism that enables us to tolerate and celebrate differences. Indeed it is this difference that makes us who we are, and gives us the ability to co-exist and yet, thrive. It gives us the ability to be accepting of any contrary idea, because we just do not need to agree on anything at all; my idea is as good as yours, we can agree to disagree on just about anything. However, this compelling story of pluralism is woefully incomplete if we do not agree on the fundamental principles of equality and justice. We live in an unequal India of haves and have-nots where ‘giving’ had to be legislated through a CSR bill. We live in an India where women are not entirely safe. We live in an India where a prime ministerial candidate might get elected to power on the promise of ensuring all houses have a toilet (houses that, I might add, may have a colour TV and a mobile phone).

To everyone who says we have good growth story, I say it is not enough. Yes, we do have growth rate of at least 6%. But why is it not 13%? We have the potential to get there, a potential that is stymied by those that are entrusted with charting our progress.

Today’s India is, to me a champagne bottle. This is a well-worn metaphor, but one that is applicable to the India I embrace, a land of immense opportunity, pluralism and vibrancy. Provided, that is, the cork in the champagne bottle is released, thereby allowing the bubbles to thrive, breathe and contribute.

- Mohan (@mohank)

The author is a cricket tragic, a keen trekker and a mathematician. He tweets at @mohank, and blogs at and

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Email etiquette: On responding to emails and meeting requests

This article was first published in DNA online on Friday 31 January 2014.

When I moved back to India about four years ago, I often got worked up about the fact that not many people responded to an email or a meeting request appropriately. In Australia, where I lived and worked for much of my professional life, responses to email meeting requests were almost always immediate. It might be just a “Yep, you’re on, mate”, or even a “You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’m going to make it to a 7am meeting. Get stuffed”
But I would get a response. 
I wasn’t quite used to the silence and darkness in email communication I observed on a regular basis in India. I wasn’t quite used to following up an email communiqué with at least two or three more emails, in which the energy in the subject being discussed or the urgency of the meeting request progressively increased with every email.
I would get some responses, of course, which were lukewarm, at best. Some of the typical ones were “Aah yes. That time should be ok” or “Yes ok. That time could be ok”. I was never sure what these actually meant. Did the inclusion of the non-committal “would” or “could” mean the meeting was on, or not?
It took me a while to figure out that the presence of would/should/could in response to a meeting request often meant that the person was keeping his/her options open, either for a potential future cancellation, or on the possibility that they might secure better meeting prospects and bail out on me. This made life quite complex for a neurotically fixated, madly organised and fastidiously structured person like me. 
Of course, this was more my problem than theirs. But that is also a significant problem and a striking dysfunctionality in the business (and in the non-professional) landscape here in India – far too many people worry only about their own issues and problems, and seldom put themselves in the shoes of the person they have an implicit obligation towards.
Soon, however, I got used to the lack of responses. I had to ensure each meeting request was sent to the recipient at least three or four times – a debilitating and sapping process of deliberate e-harassment that I detested – before I secured a response. I hated being the harasser, but I was left with no choice. Often, this meant meetings were fixed only at the last moment before an inter-city business trip commenced. And this often meant I had to live with concomitant sub-optimal travel logistics. 
The cost of an airline ticket for such a trip, planned and executed at the very last minute, would be much higher than a trip that I had begun planning three weeks earlier. These last minute arrangements and changes meant that I would often crisscross the locations of my meetings in a highly inefficient manner. Essentially, the transaction costs became much higher than they needed to be; sometimes as much as 20% higher. I am reasonably confident that the transaction cost escalation applies to everyone else in industry as well. So imagine the time and cost savings that could accrue if all of us responded with alacrity to emails and meeting requests. 
Of course, all of this applies as much to personal engagements as it does in the professional space. RSVPs on invites, for instance, are often seen as just a bunch of alphabets that very few people seem to care about. We seldom feel the need to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who depend on us.
But now I have become quite used to this e-silence. It still pains me and disgusts me, but I am now more accepting of this as a way of life. I also got used to this new way of harassing people for meetings within about four months of arriving in Mumbai. And then, about a month later, I was floored by a somewhat unique response to a request: “I think that in all probability that date-time is highly likely to be possibly ok!” Now, I can buy one option on a future cancellation, but there are at least four hedges in that particular form of extreme dithering!
This sort of behaviour is not restricted to meeting requests alone. Many emails tend to go into black holes. We don’t see the need to respond to all emails efficiently and systematically, and this can hurt us in the long run. Of course, we are all, no doubt, constantly deluged by an incessant tsunami of emails. However, we do have an obligation to respond to genuine emails or delegate that task to someone else, even if it is just a holding response. If not, perhaps it gives cause to reflect on our roles, our purpose and on whether we should be occupying the positions we do. 
Responding to professional correspondence – and emails are a very important form of professional correspondence today – is a professional obligation for people in any position in any organisation. It is part of professional hygiene and basic business etiquette that everyone should have; be it CEOs, managers, government officers, clerks or security personnel. Often, an email is responded to simply because the recipient has been badgered by the sender. This is just horribly inefficient. And not responding to emails is not a sign that a person is busy or ultra-important, but actually that they are disorganised and unprofessional.
This is particularly so in the world of research and education, which I inhabit. 
In an article in Current Science, Sharma, A., Malhotra, A. and Sharma, P. (Current Science, 2012, Vol 102, pages 9–10) make the case that Indian students seek internship and higher study opportunities overseas because their emails and other correspondence get responded to promptly and professionally. They conclude that this behaviour possibly hampers our collective progress in science. 
In a long letter to Current Science (Current Science, Vol. 102, No. 10, 25 May 2012), Shubha Tole from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), agrees with the points in the aforementioned article and argues that “students who receive replies to their queries feel encouraged about science, even if the reply is not positive.” 
While our primary role as academics might be to do research or to teach – or in the case of a senior manager in a business enterprise, to run the company effectively – our role in today’s complex world is also to protect and enhance the brand of the organisations we work in. Part of that brand comes from how responsive we are to people who reach out to us.
Tole argues that one possible, albeit cynical reason for our reluctance to reply to emails probably stems from a fear of committing to anything in writing. She says, “If one replies to an e-mail, one can be held accountable for what one says – it is better to express misgivings or agreements verbally. So not replying to e-mails becomes but a symptom of a broader problem that makes our system operate in an unprofessional manner.” A simple response to that point is that if the person cannot do whatever the job requires them to do – that is, to be responsive and accountable – they do have a choice: they can vacate the position and hand over the responsibilities to someone who wants (and is able to do) just that.
Yet another behaviour that amuses me is that of executive or personal assistants. If they do not have the authority to organise their boss’ meetings, I think they become nothing more than gatekeepers. Their capabilities and role as a diary manager is somewhat wasted. Often, I get a “let me talk to the boss and get back to you” response to a meeting request that is gated through the EA. As a boss, if your EA does not know your priorities and does not have the delegation to accept meetings for you, I believe you are stuffed even before you start.
If an email is not a spam, we have to realise and accept that we have an obligation to respond to it, and that by not responding to it, (a) we send a direct message to the sender that they are not important to us and we have deliberately chosen to ignore them, or (b) we are utterly disorganised and unprofessional. 
Now that smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity have pervaded all aspects of our professional lives, we make these choices every time we ignore an email or a meeting request. 
In saying that, I do of course, realise that some emails (and meeting requests) will be more important than others. So, while a delayed response is acceptable, ignoring the communiqué is not. Even if it is a ‘holding response’ it is our obligation to do just that: Respond.
-- Mohan (@mohank)

The idea of a 'back home'

This article was first published in DNA online on Thursday 23 January 2014.

It was the end of a long flight back to Mumbai from Melbourne last year. I was tired and itching to get back to the comfort of my own bed after having been on the road for the best part of the preceding month. The stewards were preparing for landing, and one of them who was going around collecting headsets smiled at me and remarked, “Nice to be back home, I’m sure.”
The question set me off-kilter. I didn’t know what or how to reply. I smiled sheepishly and waveringly, as though the steward had just asked me to explain the principles of general relativity.
I lived in Melbourne for 17 years before moving to Mumbai in 2009 for professional reasons. When the steward asked me that question, I wasn’t sure what “back home” meant anymore.
The irony is that in all my years in Melbourne, I would always refer to India as “back home”. I would talk almost longingly about the vibrancy, the anarchy, the energy and the chaos of life “back home”. I would weave in phrases about life “back home” in many normal conversations. So much so, that my Australian colleagues and friends would often ask if I intended to head “back home” to India some day in the future. “Back home” had become an integral part of my normal lexicon.
The clear empirical evidence there pointed to a reduction that, somehow, my memories, my senses and sensory experiences, directly or indirectly, considered that home wasn’t where I currently was. 
And mine is probably not an isolated experience. It is possibly a diasporic phenomenon.
We move our locations (either across countries or within a country) for a variety of reasons of course, not least because of better – or different – career opportunities, better living standards, safety and (in some extreme cases) fear of persecution.
And when we move, along with our skills, capabilities, expertise and aspirations, we also take with us memories: memories of our childhood; of school or college; of cricket matches we may have played or watched; of football teams we may have supported; of our parents and the values they imparted; of arguments we may have had; of friendships, partnerships and relationships; of movies we watched; of pranks we may have pulled. And more. We also carry with us the values that make us who we are. Most of these are imprinted in us through the early stages of life, when we soak up everything that is around us from our parents, relatives, friends and role models.
In a beautifully written article, The West Indian Front Room: Reflections on a Diasporic Phenomenon, Michael McMillan writes, 
“The front room was a contradictory space, where the efficacy of the display was sometimes more important than the authenticity of the objects, such as artificial flowers, plastic pineapple ice buckets, floral patterned carpet and wallpaper that never matched, and pictures of the scantily clad “Tina” next to The Last Supper. The dressing and maintenance of the front room reveals a form of “impression management,” as in the flexible presentation of self that brings up issues of “good grooming” among people of African descent. It was very much my mother’s room, and as a second-generation, black British person from an aspirant working-class family of Vincentian parentage, I have ambivalent memories of it. I must confess that growing up I was embarrassed about the front room’s aesthetics, as it seemed in “bad taste,” or had no taste at all; in other words, it was “kitsch”—a pejorative social code for working-class culture.”
And I could relate to that completely as I set up home in Melbourne. It was as if around me, I had objects that both validated and reinforced my own memories of “back home”. Moreover, I continually saw objects such as these in almost every home I visited, and these provided more reinforcement of these memories and values. It was hard to escape, or perhaps I did not want to escape them. I was comfortable with the notion of “back home”.
There were other significant behaviours and anchors too that played to the collective memory of “back home”. Though I was constantly striving to integrate – socially, culturally and politically – into the nation I had embraced as my current “home”, I was constantly and acutely aware of my origins; not only by my ‘front room’ but also by the clothes I wore, the way I spoke and the values I held.
Meanwhile, value systems were undergoing a quiet metamorphosis in India – if it is even possible to identify, leave alone quantify something as complex as an average set of values that characterise a society or system. But I held on to the values that I knew and cherished.
I would read the Sydney Morning Herald and The Hindu everyday. I attended and organised Indian classical music concerts, ate Indian food, attended Dandiya nights during Navratri, played cards during Diwali and got together with Indian friends regularly. And when we got together, we would speak in Tamil or Hindi or Telugu or Gujarati. I attended (and helped friends organise) Indian weddings and (sadly) cremations just the way these are conducted “back home”. I would regularly call family and friends “back home”. And I would occasionally send remittances “back home” and helped contribute to India being the country which receives most remittances from diaspora. Our homes became, in Michael McMillan’s words, a “museum of archived memories”. The objects in it become metaphors that constantly reminded us of our memories and values.
So, it was somewhat natural that for many like me, India was “back home” for much of the duration of our stay overseas. During holiday trips “back home” from Australia or the US or Great Britain, we may have despaired at (or criticised) the lack of progress or inadequate resources or lack of hygiene or inadequate facilities as we energetically shopped for more objects for our front rooms.
And then there are those, like me, who chose to return to India to work, after having lived and worked overseas for many years. We may have returned for a variety of reasons: professional, personal, or both. The longer we "returnees” lived overseas, the more difficult it is for us to reintegrate into the home of our origin. The readjustment is not only to a different pace of life but also to a community identity that is shaped by values very different to the ones locked away in our collective memories.
My reintegration was certainly very difficult. But, as I write here, my wife and I wanted to undergo the “returnee” experience mainly for ourselves. It was a decision that was self-imposed, selfish and self-focused. We returned because we wanted to, unlike Sumedh Mungee, whose article inspired my blog post linked above.
As a returnee, I needed to quickly re-emerge from the value time-warp I was in and readjust to a society and a culture that had changed quite dramatically. This was exceedingly difficult for me considering I – like many other returnees – had gained and absorbed an Australian identity even without actually realising it.
I was acutely aware of the common perception that returnees come with an attitude baggage that includes a seemingly never ending series of patronising attitudes. As a returnee, I did feel a sense of cultural alienation but was acutely aware that I did not want to be a passenger, an observer or, even worse, a tourist. This was “back home”, for heaven’s sake!
Without my noticing it however, over the last four years that I have lived in India, I must have realised that “back home” wasn’t really India anymore. Indeed, without my realising it, I hadn’t used the term “home” as often as I had, while I lived in Melbourne. The concept of “back home” itself had become quite alien to me. Certainly India did not resonate anymore as “back home”.
I realised this because the steward’s question completely shook me. After what seemed like an eternity, I answered awkwardly, “No, actually. I’m travelling from home to the city I currently work in.”
I was initially shocked at my own answer. But on reflection, I started to come to terms with that immediate and seemingly knee-jerk assertion.
It isn’t as though I have suddenly developed a sense of dislike for India. It is not as if I have given up on the concept of India or my love for the country. It is not as if I had discovered a new sense of detachment from India and her people. I love my life here in India as much as I did earlier, in my memories of India as a young lad. It is just that, to me, the “back home” question speaks more of the images that get associated with the roots of who and what I am today. For me, home is less about the place where my family resides or one strongly associated with my memories as a child. Nor is it just about the soil of the place I was born in.
Today, home is more about the place I am happiest, where I am most at ease, where I am least awkward, where my friends live, where I can run in peace, where I can laugh at or crack a silly joke without being judged, where I feel the air I breathe travel through my body, where I feel an unstoppable and relentless surge of energy inside me, where I sense and witness a clarity of thought, where I see maximal alignment of my own values with the values of the community I am a part of, where I want to (and feel that I can) contribute and make an impact to the society around me, where I can be who I want to be...
In that sense, home to me had become the place where my mind, body, intellect and soul are in sync with the earth, the environment, the community and the contexts around me. It had become the place where I fashioned for myself a sense of my own, unique identity. I had unwittingly allowed for the possibility that my home might even change with time and that, a few years from now, I might refer to New York or Toronto, say, as “back home”.
It is said that it is only when we step out of our existential comfort zones that we can see with clarity all that is important to us. This is particularly relevant in our world today where it is said that, for a variety of reasons – political, social and economic – over 250 million people live in a country other than the country of their birth, and over 700 million people migrate to a different “home” within their own country (read here).
My stint in India has allowed me to see more clearly that this concept of “back home” is mildly irrelevant in today’s world and that I had used it many a time without thinking about it clearly enough.
As the steward moved away from me, headset in hand, I drew her attention again and said, “No scratch that. I am travelling from what is currently “back home” to the place I currently work. Of course, this could all change next year.”
-- Mohan (@mohank)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mumbai Marathon: People's support makes runners feel like heroes

This article was first published in DNA online on Monday 20 January 2014.

Mumbai Marathon 2014 runners on the Worli Sea Link on January 19. - Swapnil Sakhare/DNA

After having run a few marathons and half marathons around the world, I am quite convinced the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) is one of the best events for the amateur runner. 

The SCMM is an annual event, usually held on the third Sunday in January. And it is the one day in the year when I actually applaud Mumbai’s otherwise stifling, suffocating crowds. On all other days, the throng can be intense, consuming and stressful. Everyone pushes and prods you, and appears to just want to get ahead of everyone else. 

However, every Mumbai Marathon I run – yesterday was my fourth – I look forward to running in the city even more, because the same crowds that jostle you every day, line the streets to cheer and encourage you to complete. For one day, the people of Mumbai make the runners feel like heroes. 

People, men and women, young and old, stand in a chain of humanity along the pavements from the end of the Worli Sea Link all the way to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST station). They applaud and yell encouragement which, I am convinced, sends enough adrenaline rushing through the runners to spur them on for at least the next two kilometres of their run. The feeling that rushes through you as you hear the support is like a drug. 

Unlike last year, I had trained well for my run on Sunday, January 19, 2014. In a weak moment in January last year, I had decided that I would run twelve half marathons in the following year; this was my 12th for the year, so I was well prepared.

The main cry from the sidelines until last year, “Run Mumbai Run”, was replaced this year by “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”. Even the announcers exhorted the participating Milkhas to run harder and faster to the finish line. Many spectators even yelled “Ganpati Bappa Moriya”. The chants of “keep running, there’s not far to go” provided a constant tonic to my exhausted feet; they not only add to the atmosphere, but also relieve the pain of running. Though, I did wonder if “fire on the mountain, run, run, run!” was an entirely appropriate chant!

The entire course was littered with advertisements for products and services. Many runners wore T-Shirts advertising the company they worked for or the charity they were running for, others had tags with the same information pinned to their T-shirts. But the most wonderful message I saw was by a young lad. Except for two words patterned on the back of his head, he had tonsured the rest. His message simply read “donate blood”. I hugged him as I ran past and resolved to book myself in for a blood donation this week.

I spotted a wizened, wispy-grey-haired old gentleman seated in a plastic chair by the side of the road near Jaslok Hospital, the toughest segment of an otherwise easy course. He was probably about 80 years old and, as he applauded enthusiastically and continually, his family members handed out biscuits, lollies, orange peels and water to runners. A metre away, another family had set up a relief-station. They sprayed the weary calves and hamstrings of runners who wanted relief from pain. When I ran past, there were at least 15 discarded relief spray cans around them. Another family had set up an ice-pack station and applied ice cubes wrapped in plastic sachets to the calves of distressed runners. 

I was also constantly inspired by the runners around me. Somewhere close to the finish line, I saw a visually impaired young boy being led on his run by a helper. The sheer joy writ on the face of the boy made me simultaneously cheer and tear up. 

The banner holders, chanters, helpers and runners make the SCMM a truly amazing and wonderful run. 

The Mumbai Marathon is wonderfully organised, but there are a few things the runners and organisers need to look into.

Many runners just dropped their water bottles – or worse, their orange peels and lollies – on the road at their feet immediately after taking a few sips or finishing their drink or biting into their orange peel. This is just poor etiquette, in my view. First, you shouldn’t litter. Second, dropping juice, water and peels will make the road slippery, and the water bottles will act as needless obstacles for the runners, especially the elite runners who run at top speeds. It is best if the litter and half (or completely) empty bottles are dropped into bins or flung to one side of the road.

The SCMM has plenty of water stations, which is certainly a huge positive. The last thing you want as a distance runner is to worry about the non-availability of water. In the Mumbai Marathon, you can be confident you will never be too far from a water station while running. However, it should not be too hard to mark each water station clearly with a banner that makes it easily recognisable from at least 100m away. A blue dot that sticks out on a standee (say) 3m high will mark the station quite clearly and distinctly. Depending on which side of the road the banner is, runners who need the water can line up on that side of the road as they approach the station. The last thing you want is runners cutting across your path from one side of the road to the other the moment they realise they may be about to cross a water station.

Also, as an increasing number of people run the SCMM each year, the finishing area gets more and more chaotic. This year, apart from the fact that mobile reception was incredibly poor (though marginally better than last year), the distribution of medals and refreshment packs for runners took too long. I waited nearly half an hour to collect my race completion medal and, frankly, I had half a mind to just give up and go home. It would be great to see better organisation and crowd dispersion management controls at the finish line. 

Like last year, this year too, I ran for a worthy cause: Vidya. They do some committed and wonderful work, and provide access to education to the underprivileged. My aim was to raise at least ₹1 lakh for them, and though I have more than achieved that aim (thank you to everyone who contributed), I am sure Vidya wouldn’t mind receiving more for the work they do.

But, for me, the Mumbai Marathon is about the people of Mumbai who line up the pavements from Worli to CST. These men, women and children have no reason to be out early on a cool January Sunday morning to enthusiastically encourage runners. But they are there, and I have never seen such heartfelt participation anywhere as I have in Mumbai. This, in my view, is what makes the SCMM one of the very best races in the world.

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The mountains are calling and I must go...

This article was first published in DNA Online on 30 December 2013.

In 1873, John Muir, the famous Scots-born American explorer, botanist, naturalist and author, wrote a letter to his sister, Sarah Muir Galloway, just after returning from his longest and hardest trip to the mountains. He had been away for five weeks, exploring the mountains and glaciers around the Yosemite Valley, and talks about his next trip to Kings River and Lake Tahoe. 

He signs off in a display of deep yearning: “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

Mountains had everything Muir wanted: solace, wildernesses, challenges and the ability to understand nature. Even today, they mean different things to different people. For some, they represent the ability to escape from the mundane, for others they are a pilgrimage. 

Mountains, to me, represent immense beauty, resilience and strength. For a few days a year, they also allow me to exist in an environment where I am not a slave to time. Time is instead a great expanse in which I can walk, talk, climb, read, sleep, cook, gather wood for a fire, sing or listen to music. My sense of time undergoes a significant alteration when I am in the mountains. A day’s trek of eight hours may often seem like an eternity. On other days, I may have walked for 10 hours straight but felt as if I’ve been walking for barely two.  The Himalayas are an escape from my time-bound and transactional life, and I embrace this escape every year.

On my first trip to the Garhwal Himalayas, I struggled a bit and thought it might be my last trek. But I underestimated the lure of the mountains. Ruskin Bond writes in his poem Living with Mountains in A Bond with the Mountains: “Once you have lived with mountains, under the benedictory pines and deodars, near stars and a brighter moon... You will return, you will come back to touch the trees and grass, and climb once more the windswept mountain pass.”

Why: The motivations

There are times on every expedition when I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here?” On my recent trek to Changabang through the Bagini Glacier, there was a particularly steep climb up to Kala Khal, the last pass we crossed on our 12-day trip. As I trudged up this tough mountain, I asked myself that same question.

It is easy to glibly repeat what George Mallory said after climbing the Everest, “Because it is there”. But this answer somehow misses the point, for Antarctica is also ‘there’, and I don’t feel the overwhelming compulsion to visit annually. The Himalayas, on the other hand, draw me every year. 

On a trek, especially at altitudes above 4000m, every day can be a struggle. Many times, my friends and I are exhausted and somewhat irritable. On most days above 4000m, we suffer headaches (and sometimes, nausea too) from the high altitudes and oxygen scarcity. Some climbers and trekkers have to take Diamox, a pill to combat acute mountain sickness (AMS). I have not had to use it yet, but I am acutely sleep deprived at heights over 3500m. On most trek nights, I am on a two-hour sleep cycle, with an hour in between to toss and turn, listen to music and somehow will myself to sleep again. (I carry a solar charger to recharge my iPod and our camera batteries.) There is no water to wash or shower with on a regular basis. A bowl of hot water is all you get every morning. 

Here are a few specific 

Yet, the lure of the Himalayas is immense. The views, the pure air, the quiet, the solitude, the ability to introspect, and the ability to exist in a different sense of time and space have made a trek to the Himalayas an annual necessity. I experience a heightened sense of accomplishment and freedom in the mountains. On most treks, even as we complete one climb, we are already planning the next, one which is invariably higher and more difficult. 

While on a climb, as I contemplate that ‘why’ question, I am essentially addressing an internal conflict: where my irrational fears war with my intellect; where awareness of my capability and weaknesses clashes with misplaced overconfidence; where my ego confronts my conscience, which tells me climbing is not about conquering. It is here that I learn most about myself. 

You can train for a climb, acquire all the physical strength you need, but in the mountains, mere physical strength isn’t enough. Sometimes, just the intellectual strength, drive, passion and motivation isn’t enough either. It’s all about striking a harmonious balance. I cannot be arrogant or self-obsessed enough to think that the climb is just about broadening my understanding of myself. And it is certainly not about conquering peaks. 

My friend and Garhwal mountain guide Raju said to me many years ago, “We Garhwali folk do not conquer mountains. To us, the mountain is a Goddess. We take her permission to use her for our own benefit.” He added unpretentiously, “I have never ever conquered any mountain.” 

Now, Raju is someone who radiates fitness and good health and, in over 30 years of trekking and climbing, has climbed many difficult peaks in the Himalayas. He went on to explain that this was why Garhwali guides would never place a flag at the peak of the mountains they climb. A flag at the peak would suggest that the expedition had ‘conquered’ the mountain. “We always place the flag a few metres short of the peak. If we think we have conquered the mountain, our Goddess has a way of teaching us unpleasant lessons on the way back.” 

This message resonated with my own sense of respect for the mountains, although I could never have articulated my thoughts as beautifully as Raju did. I feel each step on the mountain is an act of devotion and submission. I suspect that this, more than anything else, enables me to endure much more than what my modest physical abilities would otherwise allow me. 

And here is a post on 

The American Alpine Association answers the ‘why’ question quite simply: 
“It takes us to places of incredible beauty, and it challenges us to find untapped reserves of strength and resourcefulness. It’s also just plain fun, if you don’t mind putting out a little effort. For some of us it will be our life’s work; for others it’s a deliberate detour on the way to bigger things.  But it’s a passion that comes naturally to all of us.”

How: The preparation

You have to train to climb mountains and the training is not easy, especially if you want to attempt heights greater than 4000m (about 13,200ft). You have to train physically as well as mentally. You also have to learn to appreciate the risks and dangers, and how to mitigate them. 

Tough pre-trek training always pays off when you are in a particularly difficult position on a climb. You need to know that you have successfully tackled it before and can do so again. You train so that in testing situations in the mountains, your rational intellect can immediately co-exist with the mind, which perceives dangers. That is when the preparation, the daily conditioning, the acclimatization, the experience and the risk awareness come together harmoniously. Fear is replaced by a fabulous sense of calm focus, abundant lucidity and drive. 

My training has been severely compromised – in terms of intensity – in Mumbai, where it is very difficult to find either open spaces or training playgrounds (essentially, easily accessible trekking tracks). I alternate between interval training on a treadmill and stair climbs for 3-4 months prior to a trek. On some weekends I also undertake treks to nearby hills around Mumbai. 

This preparation is crucial. You just cannot attempt a serious trek without the preparation. You have to feel the pain. You have to sweat, run out of breath, feel like you’re about to collapse.

When I begin training before a trek, I try to climb up 25 flights of stairs, starting at four repetitions, and doing as many as 10 repetitions as I get accustomed to the routine. The more you train, the faster, quicker and easier it gets. Often, boredom kicks in. But you just persist because you just have to. On some days, I run up and down 6 flights of stairs to weave in interval training into my stair climb too.

Earlier, when I trained early in the mornings, the cleaners, the newspaper boy or milkman – the only other people I see using the stairs at 5am – would look at me, all covered in sweat, and wonder why I was doing this. I’d often feel silly, smile sheepishly and keep plugging away. I do it because I know that if I hadn’t put in the preparation or if I hadn’t practiced pressure breathing (or forced hyperventilation) I wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – completed the treks and climbs I have undertaken. So every day during my preparation, I will myself to do better or climb more than the previous day’s stair climb. 

If the preparation is wrong, I believe almost everything is compromised and we end up with a thoroughly sub-optimal outcome. I’m a big believer in a sharp focus on daily hygiene factors and if this is accomplished, the outcomes just take care of themselves. 

By the end of my preparation for the recent Changabang trek, I had worked myself into doing eight repetitions of 25 floors reasonably easily – sometimes with weights around my ankles or with a backpack filled with weights. The idea is to simulate the conditions and stresses induced in the mountains. Of course, it is impossible to simulate the cold, thin air. Mumbai does have a high-altitude training centre called Pilates Altitude, started by John Gloster, a former fitness coach of the Indian cricket team, and his partner. Though I haven’t used it yet, I have heard it is a wonderful resource. So far, though, the stairs have worked just fine for me.

I believe preparation and hard work are key to most things in life. This is doubly true when it comes to the mountains, where almost everything is difficult. The weather is the only facet of a climb not in our control. In the months preceding a climb, you need to prepare such that the weather is the only variable and all other aspects are completely under our control.

What: The lessons

The main lesson the mountains have taught me is of the importance of preparation, commitment and balance on a trek. 

Mountain climbs have taught me to not be overconfident. In spite of that, on the recent Changabang trek, an overconfident stride on a boulder resulted in a slip. The resulting cartilage damage to my wrist that has still not healed completely some 12 weeks after the conclusion of that trek.

What worries me more, though, is the lack of confidence that constantly arises in the mountains. Doubts plague you constantly: Will I be able to tackle this ridge? Are the boulders too loose? What if I fall down this crevasse? Is it too steep? Will the scree or loose sand send me crashing down the slope? What if I stop breathing? Why is my heart beating so crazily? Why is the pain in my heel not going away? Why can’t I sleep?

In the silence of the mountain, you can sometimes hear your doubts as they replay in your mind. You cannot let them get you down. You have to learn to convince yourself that your training and your preparation will get you through; that you have done all the hard work; that the only unknown is the weather.

You have to respect the surroundings and constantly strive for a balance between overconfidence and lack of confidence. The latter produces excuses and what is referred to as ‘anticipatory regret’. It is necessary to make more and more of the unknowns known through focus and hard work during preparation. This learning can be carried across to your professional life too, in the workplace and the projects, groups or teams that you lead.

The mountains force you to introspect, and banish your demons and irrational fears. Over time, as we battle through our days in tough and sometimes unpleasant city lives, the mirror that we need to hold to take a deep look at ourselves loses its shine. We are often unable to see who we transform into. In the mountains, when you encounter a particularly tricky ridge or a glacier crossing or a climb, when you are out there on your own, completely vulnerable, you have no choice but to dig deep within and find who you are and what you are made of.  

Sir Edmund Hillary got it right. He said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

These treks have also taught me the values of commitment and persistence, and instilled in me a willingness to work hard. I might hate the laboriousness of daily preparation, but I must do it for two reasons. First, I do it for my own satisfaction. There is nothing worse than a trek you are badly prepared for. It turns into a dreadful experience very quickly. I prepare well because the journey must be enjoyable, and without the preparation, the mountains expose you completely. 

I also put in the hard-yards, for otherwise I would drag down the entire team that treks with me. There is a larger sense of purpose to the battery of training. It is as much about you as it is about the rest of the team, to whom you have a responsibility. The preparation makes the journey pleasant and enjoyable – not only for me, but for everyone else. And that is a significant lesson from the treks I have undertaken. We do not exist as islands; the work we do impacts others too. If we do not prepare well for the work we need to do, it not only affects our work (or enjoyment) but others’ too. Commitment and persistence are vitally important.

As Nik Wallenda, adventure seeker and tightrope walker, said of preparation: “Being on a tightrope is living, rest is waiting.” 

At one point on the recent trek, I slipped, fell and injured myself slightly. We were at a high altitude, so I was totally winded by the fall. Our guide was a bit ahead of me. He rushed back, looked at me and held out his hand. He indicated that he could hold me, assist me and, if needed, drag me up the rest of the way up the peak. Perhaps I saw a lack of belief in his face; perhaps my ego kicked in. I built resolve. I told myself I could do it, I would do it. I instinctively trusted my preparation – and myself. I thanked the guide and said I wanted to complete the climb unassisted. I did. A bit of confidence and self-belief – and occasionally a bit of pride and ego too – does not go awry. Of course, as long you strike a balance.

I realise this may sound clichéd, but on treks and climbs, it really is about the journey and not the destination. The previous year, for a variety of reasons, I could not reach the peak of the Stok Kangri mountain. I decided to abandon the climb some 300m short of the peak. I have absolutely no regrets over that decision. I had thoroughly enjoyed the climb until that point. On every trek, I need to enjoy the journey, and especially the preparation. If I do that, the destination (or the outcome) takes care of itself. 

But the most important lesson is that the Himalayas can elevate the soul even when it tears you up from the inside, emotionally, physically, psychologically, physiologically and mentally.

Just go. And if you do, like John Muir, you too will say, “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

-- Mohan (@mohank)