Slithering between nature’s beautifully sculpted mountains on coffee-colored plateaus. The afternoon hot air was followed. Each rock was like artist’s private property who had chiseled imagination into a masterpiece. After a steady ascent for about 40 minutes, a group of wide-eyed and supremely excited fellas welcomed us with open arms. The mountain monkeys.

“Homely hotel”, “Luxury hotel”, “Peaceful hotel”. These guys advertised their differentiation bang on. I was looking for one that said “Mount Abu Hotel” but none had that USP, so I settled for luxury presuming peace would come free. Maybe English was the problem. Why else would there be a restaurant with a footwear shop board or even a library welcome post over an abandoned plot. Shooting point became sitting point and sightseeing became sight seen. Maybe they were just thinking ahead.  

A charismatic albeit antiquated hill station, Mount Abu was crowded, colourful and chilly. Amongst the loud cacophony of bazaar noises, I immersed myself in everything the streets had to offer. Fruits were sold by the dish, handsome horses were parked next to the parks, and yard carts, advertised as Mercedes, were available for a ride. And even those gave right of way to the cows.
It’s only when you reach your start point back within an hour that you realize just how small the world can be.

The waiting line for our dinner was like waiting for the lottery announcement. If you were the chosen one, those gestures of achievement were priceless to witness: fist air-hammering, voices shrieking, and the most legendary of all, a victorious “YESSS” of the person whose name was called. Food makes people go crazy.

Every now and then, there’d be folks in obscure, lush corners of the town inhaling nature in its purest form and pretend as if meditating when we’d pass by. Maybe that’s why there were no signs of “Beware of pickpockets”. These guys already had their hands full.

But damn, were the people nice! Maybe because they were always high…geographically. I mean the hotel manager apologized for something that wasn’t his fault, a store owner chased us down the street because I paid and forgot to take my shoes, and a tea guy who didn’t have change for 500 put it on the house. I mean if weed does that to people, then screw education, India should make way for cannabis FDI.

And while leaving the mount, I swear I saw a monkey wave back at me. I think the monkey was high.

Because that’s the only explanation. 

When you’re thrilled to see a kaleidoscope of butterflies, you know you’re in trouble.

This wasn’t difficult. I didn’t have to pick a name from Pinterest’s “10 places you must…”. I didn’t have to backpack across one of those exotic lands TripAdiviser advises you. I didn’t have to fork out a year’s reserves and bargain a frugal life for the later months. All I had to do was say yes.

Mapping the calendars of 10 girls, which magically didn’t create the Great Divide, had reserved us this most sought-after, rustic weekend. A tsunami of countless notifications, pictures, links, updates and lists wondrously hushed to silence as our travel began. Hours of unavoidable public transportation that very literally reminded us of the ups and downs of life managed to shake plenty of things. Just not our spirit.

Throughout the journey, velvet green hills adorned with vibrant valleys and delicate waterfalls beautifully hijacked our surroundings. Finally, miles inside unknown trails of lavish foliage, where time echoed inside the solitude of silence – was our humble abode. A quaint cottage as extravagant inside as it was modest outside, greeted us with its off-grid peace.

Unlandscaped. Unmanicured. Unphotoshopped. It was the purest form of nature. The soothing sounds of water streams, mysterious chirps of tiny birds, gentle gush of winds – had shushed the conversations of 10 over-enthusiastic girls. We were at awe. Not because we’d not taken a trip to the great outdoors before but because we had somehow remembered the priceless feeling of being left alone. No signal, no schedules and no selfies. We all spend our time doing the ordinary things; catching butterflies, dipping toes in rocky pools, squatting down to stare at crabs and crickets, dancing in the rains, taking muddy walks and soaking in every bit of this bucolic beauty. We had all forgotten we had cell phones, Instagrams and ADHD in our worlds of obsession, noise and attention. That weekend, we went back to being basic humans.

Of course, along with karaokes, jamming sessions, card and board games, we did flood our cameras, hysterically laughed, heartily drank and merrily danced, but not before truly living each moment first. We’d never done that before.

And somehow towards the end, inside those jungles of no network, we connected with ourselves.

Rampaging through cold stillness, the swift tracks of this animal left no marks behind. As the morning mist broke against its face, it charged ahead to its determined destination, with no looking back. Not yet at least.  

It were as if the NH2 was a bulund darwaza to Delhi’s rural antiquity. The tollbooth darbaans out of uniform, goats flaunting their 4-packs, with their guarding dog off-duty. Sugarcane stalks on their way to meet the footpath ice. And all around, roofs of houses polka-dotted of dung cakes. 

The most familiar of all though was this; a man ever-so-often with a plastic PET on his way to check clear his morning business. And here was my face, scrunched up like used aluminium foil. Thank goodness, I wasn’t keeping count. Or was I?

Sitting inside our more than comfortable car, here I was. Chomping on chips and switching radio channels before every un-peppered song could salt me down. The FM at this A.M had no ads. The sound of music sounded even more musical. 

The entire trip, my mother had smiling  eyes as she played her own travel games. She was identifying each tree down to its cellular level; the fruits, leaves, roots, the stage of photosynthesis. Horticulture. Agriculture. Bacteria culture. She even had a story to what chores may be happening inside that distant shed behind that babool tree. How she knew that was babool from a google maps worth of distance, I didn’t have enough caffeine to comprehend.

Arrey home loans ki kitni chinta hai. Kya hum hamare sapno ka ghar kabhi nahi le payenge?

This wasn’t what my dad said. This was what the FM dad said. The radio ads had started.

And so did my impatience to get to Taj. Okay, Shah Jahan built it. Okay, he cut off the hands of all those workers. Okay, it is one of the world's wonders. Horn Okay Please. Why did trucks continue to slap that on their bums? Anyway, the highway had ended and now it was one mid-construction flyover followed by another followed by another followed by 10, 11, 12 more. Maybe I should have been keeping count of this one.

Each time the tires swiveled up dust, I coughed inside. Each time we stopped for gas, I took out my sanitizer and poured half the bottle on my hands. And each time someone leered inside the window, I became Kangana Ranaut in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.

What? I was on holiday. I could act however I wanted.

Taj was lost in transit. It was blistering hot outside. Or so I am guessing. I was leaning against my push pillow with my AC/DC and drinking diet coke.

Agra’s Best Panchi Petha. The Best Panchi Petha Of Agra. Panchi Petha, The Best of Agra. Shop board after shop board, the same message to the same audience with the same words. The only difference was that by now I wanted to try some.

If only Taj stopped playing so hard to get.

I am a leaf. I am a leaf let loose in the woodlands of consciousness.

You can wrench your head high because you take young morning walks or meditate ascetically, or because you think you admire trees more than others, which makes you a nature-aficionado. But it doesn’t.
I am cemented in ticking time trying to fracture its walls. But in freedom, I fondle the falling mist and nuzzle with dirt.
Each new green-adventure erases my past green-adventures. This trip to the mountains, I saw that rolling hills are shades of shadows and light, mellow with ripe greens of great ups and lows. I saw that forest fog and clouds come close enough to kiss the vapor off of each other and disperse without a trace. I saw that if you whisper to a horse close enough and caress its neck, you can almost fathom how happy he is to be in the plateaus of home.
I am naïve —even if brown. I befriend the wind, the wood, the water and the wildlife. But perish with effluence. Without saying a word.
Velvety lavenders carpeted both sides of the road and ever-so-often a thread of delicate stream sprung down—whistling a white sonnet. The waterfall they all led to was rightfully its mamma—a roaring force of nature and a dangerously beautiful creation. The frigid waters were a reminder to leave no tracks behind but its gracious summoning came to be powerfully endearing.
I am desperate to be a wing of independence but once I’m on my own, I’m weak enough to trust a foe. I look out at the butterflies and the squirrels and cry inside because I can never survive on my own. Not long enough.
The only sanctity of these woods is that they are largely untouched—the self-sustaining, uninterrupted and breath-taking piece of the planet. The prolific soil and the fruiting trees and the hunting deers needed each other and every time one of them fell short because of external dynamics, the cycle was pricked. So I made sure. I came, I saw and I left no trace.
I am wet and loose and have my sides now gnawed out. But I lived a full live. I saw all seasons, I blossomed and fruited, and I contributed back to nature. Sometimes outside my will. It was only when I was snapped-out from my core, I realized that it was not freedom I seeked.

(Bell rings)

Mom: “aayiye”

Two boys, Suraj and Santosh aged 10 and 12, enter the house carrying loaded schoolbags.

Mom (to Santosh, the older one): “Waah. Tumhara bracelet bahaut achha hai”

Suraj: “Yeh bracelet nahi hai. Kutte ka patta hai”

(Bursts of laughter)

This is the only Hindi they speak.

The boys’ mother is the domestic help in our house, Padma, whose monthly income from all her houses is roughly Rs.4000. Her husband, Dharam Singh, is a watchman earning Rs. 5-6000. The sporadic nature of their jobs means that their incomes are as mercurial. And they have four children to feed.

Mom, a committed coaching evangelist, passionately aspires for every child to be in school and to do her part in educating as many children as she can. She’s been doing it for 32 years. 

She teaches these two boys now, all their subjects: Hindi, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, for two hours every day. Sundays are also a part of that.

It was abstruse getting the boys come and study for two extra hours aside from their school, when they could be crafting their per diem-shenanigans.

Santosh was one of those. A rebellious, mischievous boy who was two years behind in school. It took several months of wheedling, patience and a volume-full of care to get him in for a couple days a week. Now, he never misses a day.

His brother Suraj, a smart, polite and ever-smiling boy always had the study germ within him but never had the opportunity to team with right tutelage. He bristled with excitement when he found out that someone would teach him every day, at a home.

This however, was a coarse-sloped trek. The boys, for their age and class, lacked the basics; of each subject.  For a domain that is seething with text and sensible scribbles, theirs was empty. They had no notebooks, no checking of work done anywhere, no words in their diaries. They had no syllabus to share, date-sheet written, or any checked material from school. This was necessary not just to evaluate where they stood in school but to start.

So my mother went to their school; a Hindi-medium, private school. There was no playground, and a room with handful of books; a make-believe motif for a library, that was unlocked only during the external inspection period—and only to inspectors. The principal, a 60+ man who also owned the school, was a crude, crass gent and most unwelcoming of the thought that my mother wanted to speak with him—an outsider.

Throughout the one hour, requested out of great difficulty, there was plenty of discussion. And all of it was disobliging. 

When my mother informed him that she was teaching these boys every day and wanted to see their test results to understand where they stand, the principal grunted and said,

“Aaj kal free mein kaun padhata hai?”

She reminded him that these boys came from a very poor family and have no educational guidance outside school and through some extra hours, they can perform better. He snapped again.

“Free mein kyun koi kuch karega? Mujhe ek hospital batao, ek neta batao jo free mein kuch karta hai. Toh aap kyun karoge? Agar charity ‘charity’ hoti, municipal schools ki haalat toh kya hoti!”

It was like swallowing paper for my mother. Why was money becoming the agenda here? She then told him that the boys did not have the dates of exams or material of what they were supposed to study and she wanted that information for a better assessment.

“Log hamanre system mein interfere karein, humein pasand nahi”

He proudly added that organizations had approached him to contribute free lectures to students and he refused. She was out of question.

“Time wastage hain yeh sab. Bade bade school mein yeh naatak hota hai”

The principal was operating the school on his own terms. Some of his brazen ideologies included children to not have a games period till class 5. They didn’t need to play!

He was only sceptical throughout the talk, presuming that he was under a sting operation and mom may be a reporter. Threatened and truculent, he advised her to not meddle in his school and leave the kids as they are, because they had no future anyway, being a watchman’s sons.

This was the last thing he said and last thing mother wanted to hear.

From a 40-marks paper, where both the boys were failing earlier, getting 5-6 marks, they now get 20-25 marks studying at our home. Santosh, who hated the sight of books, now can’t wait to do math every day. Suraj is bursting with curiosity and always starved to study more.

Of course, they need to be incentivized. Unlike their previous tuition teacher who asked Santosh to knead her legs and buy her vegetables from the market, the incentives now come to the boys. Treats, gifts, clothes are worth their unsullied smiles.

“Bye! See you tomorrow, Aunty!”

And ten minutes later their mother rings the bell.

As your flight from the Mumbai airport upraises into a crest of comfort, you can sight the adjoining public squalor around the runway. And you cower.

Go to Gurgaon’s swish sky-scrapers’ construction sites and right in the middle of the workers’ racks you see a hulking billboard that says “Book your apartment today!”

It’s few of those ironies that bring a different emotion in each wrinkle of your face.  India is a country that is scraped sore with wounding stories that are part of someone’s every day. You don’t need to be associated with an NGO or a governmental organization to see this. You need to want to see this.

My train passes this every day and it makes me want to padlock my eyes but peek through at the same time. This is what I see within those two seconds of pass. There are tin houses and through the creaks of one, is a mother cooking on charcoal and midst of its asphyxiating fumes are two children getting their garbage bags ready for the day. The third is on a cradle made of the same garbage bag.

The scum once seeping down has desiccated and the pipes leak water through its kelp strands. Trash aligns the peripheries of the square footage and flowerpots inline within. The old—a shapeless contour of bodies barely coated with soiled shirts and ripped slacks, push their vegetable carts with their hands that now look like a papier-mâché of veins and skin. Candy stores of the rich is cotton candy here. Laundry is by the hand-pump. Salons are open-air and so is defecation. And temples every few meters.

I see men playing poker outside and their wives drying clothes on the tracks’ separators and I know that this is where it shelters. The inequity. But that is the last of anyone’s worries.

First is vulnerability.

When you are the lovechild of a theist, deist, agnostic AND an atheist, you can’t blame your genes when you are caught in a state of moral abidance and your morale is rolling with your eyes.

Stones are turned sacred with the swoosh of a red paste. The unemployed drape on orange and they become holy avatars. Elderly frown upon you when you wear clothes 3/4th instead of 7/4th.  But let’s not dive into the religious woes that woo the committed and boo the casual. Freedom to follow prevails but what about freedom to not? Why must all devout expect the respect of all those who swear by other things. Why can’t religion be emancipated?

You take the offering every time you are offered because if you don’t you are disrespectful and if you do but you don’t eat you are disrespectful and if you eat but you don’t like you are disrespectful. While chanting slippers are taboo but while ornamenting the place of worship slippers are all right. All gods are equal but if you are a devotee of only one, that’s all right. You need a yellow flower but you can muster an orange one that’s all right. There are exact requirements but substitutes are all right.

Why can’t others wake up and take in cigarette smoke instead of camphor smoke? Why can’t others have a malt instead of milk after meditation? Why can’t others wear ripped jeans instead of khakhi on festive occasions? If there are rights for gays and rights for education, there should be rights for those who are not religious.  Let’s not turn the unbelieving into profane.

Religion is Pareidolia. The hierophany we create in everything living and non-living makes it so easy. Easily found. Easily followed. Maybe that why we stopped looking for God a long time ago. HE makes it into our food.

In an enigma of faulty reassurances and duplicity of faiths, we assure others and re-assure ourselves that religion is mandatory. Denouncing those who breathe non-incense air as nonsense gives us pleasure. But no, we are not mulish!

We are religious.  
Traveling in the Mumbai local is like shopping at the seasonal bridal dress clearance sale in New York.  Merciless.

Before war, all ladies are poised and peaceful and lady-like.  They saunter with sophistication and sporadically peep up to see which people are peeping back at them. Just when you thought that blue-gold dress looked white, you discover the true colors.

As the train arrives, the women on that other side are pulling their purses over their shoulders —looking at the train — looking at you. This means war. Their face is a whole new QR code. Furrowed brows, pursed eyes, gouged gaze and all leered at you. “I’m going to get that seat, bitch”. “Not before I kill you first”. These are actual thoughts. Trust me.

The experienced ones will broadcast back the same glower of power but if you’re a first-timer, get a doula. It’s a morning workout inside. Aerobics without a routine. Interval training with fewer rest periods. Zumba without zest. You twist like a pretzel, jump hurdles, and flex every muscle that can be flexed. Durations differ. The sweat is the same.

You will never hold anything more passionately than you grab the grab handle; your seatbelt for the train. And with every spasm on the wheels, you vacillate like a purple fountain grass on a squally day and struggle to not sail away into the pastures of perspiration.

Other commuters’ moisture will certainly rub off their destiny (or doom) on you. Their hair will spank you. Their bags will sucker-punch your face. And they will commit all types of fouls, and create all news ones unimaginable. You’ve got to parry before you are pounded.

And by the end of the journey, after all the violent footsies and seat wedgies, when the hormones have returned to the hypothalamus and humans have returned to being human, you exit the platform feeling like a week-old package of complimentary peanuts.

Exactly like that.
The depth of dignity we cascade to our heroes is unfortunately more partisan than preferential. When it comes to looking up to or bowing down for, our senses are skewed in such sketchy proportions that we forget—there in fact, is a difference.

Malala Yousafzai. The red riding 18-year-old, who has been smiling through the storms of suppression; has a story that’s trespassed the tankers of Taliban. She is the new-age hero whose cape is wrapped round her face and who has no alternative identity.

But would Malala be Malala if she hadn’t been shot? Evaluating a fight’s merit with the degree of damage it results to, cannot determine sincerity. We wait for bullet-holes and deathbeds to decide whether to bequeath a wreath on a struggle of self-destruction.

In an oligopoly of awards— institutions are eager to baptize Malala with their pious labels and holy cities are pouring honour from their governance grails. A storm of religious and righteous bestowments begins with each new face. Every NGO, International Organization, Foundation, Magazine, Media, City, State and Country has soaked Malala with such grandiose gestures that it is difficult to function without the support of supremacies.

Yes, we need them. Their reserves, resources and references altogether compose a character certificate for public figures. Nobel Peace Prize makes one statement. Appearance on the Ellen show makes another. Hope is selling by TRPs and trophies. Campaigning of this enormity has camouflaged the cause itself. And this incessant necessity materializes a brand ambassador, When what we need, is a foot soldier.  

Alfred Wegener. Gregor Johann Mendel. Henry David Thoreau. Erudite individuals trying to shine truth through the opacity of society and honoured after death. That was then. We’ve gotten better. We now pounce to pronounce people with titles before their final inhalations.

The plinth of recognition has become the plight of expectation. But instead of constellating the doomed stars of wounded champions, we must first, discriminate the significance of a cause away from its casualty.

After 17 years of playing beer pong with coursework, classes and college, dyeing in Monday blues, indulging in food porn, waking up from caffeine comas, and surviving a day full of banter, sarcasm and capitalist hypocrisy, I learnt one thing.

The entire education journey was one, very long video game. The Assassin’s Creed kind. Absolute judgement, fraudulence, teamwork, atonement, ethics divide was all part of the academic package deal. It was the most exhausting, exhilarating encounter. All the needed culture was absorbed through the Greek yogurt, American holidays, British royal baby news, Italian bag and German cars. News wrap-up summed up in tweets, headlines and keeping with the Kardashians. Food was take-out or order in. Chores were an unpaid internship. Holiday was pre-planned and homework was postponed.

But there were prudent moments. Meeting deadlines at their very dead-end; leaving almost visible skid marks, dealing with narking team members either with putting up or pouting out, experimenting with exam studying styles: the chanting, the coping, the copying. We thought we were done with peer pressure and puberty when the pleasures and pressures of dating drama and dealing douchebags to drama duds came to picture.

The more serious times called for silencing phones and shutting the dorm door. I was always a little extreme. Study till the brink of forgetting again, memorize with every trick in the books, study through the nights and through the weathers and expect the best for this unrest. And I succeeded. At the last session of this video game, being pronounced a distinction holder, an MBA topper and a gold medalist, I asked my father, as a joke, if grades matter. My father—the perceived great grades gamer turned to me, smiled and shook a gentle, clandestine, no.