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(Travel piece in the wknd. magazine of Khaleej Times dated 20 Jaunary, 2023)

Among the many fall outs of two years of Covid confinement was a sudden rise in the number of people transiting airports and crisscrossing the world to get the ennui of the pandemic out of their system. It was christened ‘revenge tourism’. Travel plans overflowed with destinations of every kind and all the saved-up money went into getaways, many of them randomly fixed at short notice. The only intention was to blow fresh air into their covid-worn lungs.

People I know rattled off familiar names of places from the far east to the American coasts. They wanted to see places and knock off items from exotic bucket-lists. I too longed to break the monotony that had set in the pandemic years, but not in the manner that most people in the world did. I didn’t want to see the big cities and bring home urban memories. I wanted to do something that wouldn’t be just snazzy insta treats. I wanted the real results – a boost to my psyche, a shift in perspectives, a genuine new path to get out of the morass of death, doom and destruction that the world had sunk into.

I looked out for options to do an off-beat tour to some place the world hadn’t heard about much and I found a little destination no one I knew had ever visited. Pokhri, a town tucked in the folds of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 5900 feet above the sea level, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakand in India. It was as remote as I could realistically get from the noise of the world and be immersed in birdsongs and beautiful mountain views. It wasn’t a tourist spot, per se. It wasn’t a place that people located on Trip Advisor. It was a place that only those with a soul will seek and find.

Spurred by an instinct to escape to a hideaway that will not have many of the tourist trappings, I booked a homestay cottage, Birdsong and Beyond, in the Guniyala village of Pokhri. As per, Guniyala has an estimated population of only 83 people with 15 households. Such anonymity and isolation may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed perfectly tailor-made for me, although it was my first outing of the kind, and I had no clue what to expect from such seclusion from the mainstream.

The place is 210 kms from its nearest airport in Dehradun. Although there are helicopter services that can take us faster to Gauchar, a helipad that is 45 minutes away from Guniyala by road, I arranged a cab from Dehra. My journey would last an estimated six hours, winding through the hills, passing by rivers, crossing many a significant point of interest. An hour into my ride from Jolly Grant airport, I was greeted by the grace of the Ganges in Rishikesh. A pitstop here would have given my impending tour an added impetus, but the thought having 210 kms to cover by road made me shelve the idea.

The next point that I wanted to register in my tourist diary was Devrayag, where the clear, light green Bhagirathi, coming from Gangotri and the muddy brown Alaknanda coming from glaciers beyond Badrinath, merged like two souls in love to give birth to what flowed further down as Ganges. The Sangam of the two rivers symbolized a holy communion. It was solemn moment that I absorbed both into my consciousness and camera for posterity. Pictures may be useful reminders of experiences, but it is what the eyes absorb in the moment that remain etched in the soul.

The sun had nearly set at that point and Guniyala village was still a long way off. Steering up the Kedarnath highway towards a destination about which neither me nor my driver had much clue about, we passed Srinagar and Rudrapayag. Had it been a day drive, Alaknanda would have glistened throughout the journey, but a full moon that shone on it was enough to compensate on that long, lonely drive.

Leaving many miles behind across rough roads and unmanned terrains, I reached my homestay in Guniyala late in the night, two hours behind ETA, where Kamla and her husband, Ramesh waited for me eagerly. They were people I hadn’t met or known previously, but it was for this experience of connecting with the simpler threads of life that I had gone to that place. Nothing could have been more welcoming that a piping hot dinner with rotis, dal and sabji that the caretaker couple served me with such care and love that I knew they were going to be part of my life forever.

A pinewood cottage with French windows was going to be my lodging place for two weeks, and I settled in cozily, eagerly looking forward to daybreak. What vistas waited to present themselves before me outside the windows, I couldn’t say because of the darkness, but I knew it was going to be life changing.

Although not an early riser, a unique birdsong that I had never heard before awoke me around sunrise, and the view that I saw outside wasn’t breath-taking. It was heart stopping. A whole range of the Himalayas clad in snow was emerging into view in the early morning light and the sun slipped out from behind giving me a sparkling solitaire moment to capture on my camera. This bounty is what I woke up to every morning. My evenings were graced by the golden glow of the sun falling on the snow crown of the distant mountains. The time spent between the two spectacles at dawn and dusk were to be to my daily staple for the next two weeks.

As I was sufficiently briefed by the owner of the Birdsong cottage, Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, there was very little to do in the place. I chose not to go trekking, nor did I go to bigger places of tourist interest. I didn’t want to ‘see’ places or tick lists. I merely wanted to experience the present moment in the pristine confines of nature and some naïve hearted people.

I spent my time wandering in the hills aimlessly, meeting the locals, making friends with them and enjoying their love in oodles. The essence of rustic life and its simplicity, the love of the common people, the joy of idling in the mountains and the release of the spirit into nature couldn’t have come to me at a better time.

Kamla, Ramesh and her sons soon became my extended family, and pampered by their home-grown food, love and care, the stay at Birdsong and Beyond turned into more than a holiday. The boys and girls I befriended there became my children, I celebrated Diwali with them, shared stories with Kamla and others and watched a new script for life unfold in front of me. Guniyala, I believe, has now adopted me as its foster child for such is the bond I have formed with it and its people. It is where I will return whenever my spirit needs nourishment. And that, I presume, will be oftener than I think.

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(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 16 January, 2023)

The infamous peegate involving Air India doesn’t seem to recede from the headlines. The case is taking a bizarre turn with the main accused Shankar Mishra claiming in court that the lady urinated on herself, and the Indian media and public are wasting no time to latch on to the sensational details that are trickling in.

A lot of mud has been slung at all parties involved—the accused, the victim, the crew, the airlines management—and the feeding frenzy is far from over. In the midst of it all, I stand slandered as a longtime air traveller whose scruples have been suddenly called into question.

Travelling hasn’t got any easier for us ever since security became paramount post 9/11. As passengers, we haven’t had the smoothest transits with rigorous scrutiny and burgeoning crowds at the airport terminals stretching our patience to the breaking point. We puff and pant, swallow mild expletives when called up to open our bags for a detailed inspection and by the time it is boarding time, we have turned into grumpy cats waiting to purr in defiance at the slightest provocation.

No one denies the terrible toll new age travelling norms take on us, but does that give us the liberty to break the codes of good manners? Should the byzantine modes of modern air travel convert us into perverted passengers, taking away from the joys of a journey that is often designed to make wholesome memories?

What makes us think that paying for the ticket gives us unlimited privileges and when we are in the sky, we are the lords of all that we survey?

I don’t suggest that misdemeanour is standard behaviour among all passengers, but there is a general air of self-importance that we demonstrate; we display a condescending attitude towards the flight attendants, and an unknown streak of arrogance creeps into our behaviour that makes us less considerate than we must ideally be towards fellow travellers. Once again, I must reiterate that it is not typical, but there are instances of aberrations that put the decent and civilized flyers to shame.

It would be presumptuous to conclude that Indian passengers are less sensitized to travel conduct, but for some reason, they have earned more disrepute than others, as observed from my own travel experience and the accounts from flight attendants who often bear the brunt of unruly passengers.

To begin with, we tend to scoff at rules, and when asked to comply, we challenge them by asserting our passenger rights and showcase our blatant disregard for the comfort of other people. Whether one agrees or not, guzzling alcohol that comes free has often to blame for our inflight behavioural lapses. Just because something comes free, we tend to make the most of it by adopting an attitude of ‘finding value for every penny paid’. I will not forget an old instance of a fellow passenger who had spent most of our flying time waxing eloquent about her opulent living in the Gulf, quickly tucking the airline blanket into her hand baggage before deplaning. How petty we can get despite our education is something I still can’t figure out.

The moment we step into the plane, we somehow tend to imagine that the flight attendants are there only to cater to our unending demands and their smallest faults are blown out of proportion just because we consider them obliged to service us for the money we have paid. No doubt, flight attendants are recruited to make our transits easy, but to imagine that they are servers in the sky to be at our beck call is outrageous. Often, it is this callous attitude that makes the attendants respond rudely to passengers who take them for granted and treat them contemptuously.

My inflight experiences have been most cordial because I smile, acknowledge and compliment the flight attendants generously for the services they offer. I make special efforts to address them by their name revealed in their badges. I accept their apologies for a special request as genuine inability to provide it because of constraints. In the end, it is all about being kind and considerate to people who are there to make a living by tending to us, no matter how exalted that job might be.

There is a difference between ignorance and arrogance. When passengers slip up and fail to measure up because of lack of air travel experience, people do cut them some slack. But if the ignorance becomes permanent, or if the impropriety in manners during a flight is initiated by heightened ego, a patronising mindset or downright apathy and inconsideration, then such passengers must be shown their rightful place—the asphalt of tarmac. If passengers must fly, then they must comply. For the sake of their comfort and for those who they accompany in the sky.

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(OPINION column published in Khaleej Times dated 4 January, 2023)

‘Wishing everyone health in the new year. Only health please. The rest will follow’. These words from Indian actress and danseuse, Shobana, on her instagram handle added a new dimension to my New Year outlook that has been a tad uninspiring. There were no personal goals set nor plans mapped out. Things seemed to cruise organically from one calendar year to the next with no prominent finish lines marked out.

The idea of ‘accomplishment’ has become so nebulous that it vexed me to think of setting aspirational targets. It was then that the celebrity post triggered a genuine interest to give myself a motive in the year ahead. Health.

When my husband lost his job in the wake of the pandemic in 2020, what hit us the hardest was the disappearance of medical benefits we used to avail as part of the pay package. As the period of joblessness prolonged, the absence of an insurance card that covered us for almost everything from a minor cold to a root canal became the biggest deprivation of all. We took no time to settle into a frugal living, but it took a long time to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t afford to fall sick frequently; we couldn’t sashay into clinics to take casual medical advice; we couldn’t flash our insurance cards against prescriptions and get medicines that cost an arm and a leg.

Since health insurance is mandatory in this part of the world, post job-loss, we opted for a basic one that had the least drain on our purse. It met the stipulation of having an insurance card, but the provisions and privileges were only a fraction of what he had hitherto enjoyed. A lot of money had to be shelled out from the pocket if we felt under the weather. Thus we began to make informed decisions about health and illnesses. From popping pills randomly because they came free to being rational about whether we needed medicines, our pattern of health care changed drastically.

The focus shifted from darting to the doctor for minor ailments to making sure we did enough to maintain overall health. If home remedies could work, we tried them first before seeking a doctor’s advice. Aches that we amplified in the halcyon days were tended to at home until it became clear that outside intervention was inevitable. The value of exercising became pronounced, and we found ways to get around a patch of passing illness with our own resources. Gone were the days when a sneeze or a sprain would send us scurrying to do tests that were superfluous.

I have always wondered if the ease of access to medical assistance and support has turned us all into hypochondriacs, making us pay undue attention to small matters that may only be a part of aging, weather or undisciplined living. Do we elevate small discomforts to serious levels and pump our bloodstream with chemicals only because they are easily and almost freely available? Are we turning our insurance cards into a license to become compulsively indisposed?

From my experience of the past three years, I must conclude that we are falling victim to what I call ‘sickness syndrome’ and poisoning our body with potions we could well do without.

This is not to say that we must shrug off signs of ill health, especially if they persist, but it would be prudent to know when to load the body with medicines and when to just give it rest in order to restore the ebbing wellness. Merely because the company that has hired us pays the premium to protect our health, we need not be so preemptive and prescription crazy.

My dad says that a cold prolonged for 7 seven days if we took no medicine, but it would leave in a week if we took some tablets. The hidden wisdom in his words has stood me in good stead when most minor symptoms were cured with minimal intake of medicines that I fished out from the kit put together from India.

Falling sick is not a pleasant situation for anyone, regardless of what kind of protection we have from the insurance companies. However, if we become habituated to seeing doctors at the slightest instance just because the money doesn’t go from our pocket, then we are only slighting our body and giving its ability to fight a short shrift.

The last thing our system wants is to be abused by overdose of chemicals. In the new year let us pledge to give our bodies a respite from needless antibiotics by making general health a priority. Our health cards are our safeguards, not a ticket to becoming neurotic about our health and illnesses. Let us use the sentry wisely for our protection and not for mortal combat.

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