Life, Death and Close Shaves in the Himalayas

I don’t follow these things very closely, but I read somewhere that the Queen didn’t like Thatcher very much, and there were a number of reasons for this. One was that Thatcher clearly felt herself to be majesterial material, despite not having much in the way of recent regal DNA, and came out with the infamous and yet evidently sincere “We are a grandmother”, and organised a Welcome Home Victory Parade for Her troops that she had sent off to the Falklands and back, and didn’t think it necessary to suggest that the Head of State might be involved.

Another reason is that while the Queen is apparently a conflict avoider with a sense of humour, Thatcher relished confrontation, without any laughs. Unless scoffing is counted. Laughing at, rather than laughing with.

At the risk of getting binominal – most people are probably somewhere in the grey middle area – there clearly are a lot of people who avoid conflict at all costs. My father was one of them – he would get up and leave the table at the merest hint of anything controversial and pace up and down in the lounge, hurrumphing. I think I take after him. The problem with people like us is that despite a very long fuse, when we finally blow, it tends to be a messy uncontrollable affair, like a pressure cooker valve releasing the contents all over the ceiling.

On the other hand, there are people who apparently need constant conflict in order to feel truly alive – being amenable and agreeable is boring. I know of at least one couple who need to be stuck in an endless loop of antagonism, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (George and Martha) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Top Ten film by the way). For people like me, on the other hand, constant conflict is rather endlessly tiresome and a symptom of too much foolish pride and not enough compassion.

And then there are whole countries where the socio-culturally imposed norm is to be conflict-avoiding or confrontational. Consider the Japanese, at one end of the continuum, and the Indians, at the other. The British, naturally, are sensibly positioned at the centre – someone has to be balanced, after all.

For example:

Typical British interaction:

“Lovely day!”

“Yes, isn’t it? Turned out nice again.”

 

Japanese version:

“Lovely day!”

Slightly pained and confused look, head turned on one side, sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth – could mean anything from ‘Yes, I wholeheartedly agree but don’t want to seem overconfident’ to ‘Actually, I think you’re completely wrong but I don’t want to offend you’ to ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’.

 

Italian version:

“Lovely day!”

“Do you think so? Well. Let’s see. My tomatoes need a good downpour…”

 

Indian version:

“Lovely day!”

“No! You’re wrong! As usual! The weather a week last Tuesday was much better! Please try to understand!”

 

One can’t help thinking of how the national cuisines reinforce the stereotypes: Japanese, as bland and tasteless as it’s possible to imagine – raw fish with nothing added, not even a hint of garlic, plain boiled rice with not even a pinch of salt. The aim seems to be to reduce the eating experience to the bare minimum, to get to the very subtle essence – how can you appreciate the difference between cod and haddock if you plaster it in flavouring? Indian food, in contrast, is smothered, drowned in salt, chilli and every other spice possible – conflict raging in every bite.

And British – a bit of everything. Sausages, toad-in-the-hole, steak and kidney pie, sprouts. Branston pickle, horseradish, mustard, HP sauce, if you want to spice it up a little.

Anyhow, we went shopping last week – a four day event – the nearest shops for items other than the bare necessities are a six hour drive away. It’s like living in London and going to Scotland to go shopping, or vice versa.

We came back with a jeep load of everything imaginable to keep us going until the next trip in three months’ time, plus two puppies, Oscar and Laser, of Labrador extraction, perhaps. Brothers from the same litter, rescued from the streets of Dehradun by Jodie Underhill (the Waste Warrior). Interesting to note their different characters – Oscar, more open, trusting, willing to please, simple(?), invariably follows his brother’s lead. Laser – clearly damaged at an early age (they’re still only about three months), his tail has been docked, for example, which one can’t help thinking was a painful and traumatic experience. Yet, he is the one who works things out, curious, yet guarded. Laser is also bigger and more robust.

They’ve been here a couple of days and have quickly settled in, finding every new experience enticing yet scary – meeting the cows and goats, and chickens, cats, children, adults – who’s in the in crowd, who’s a threat.

Oscar decided to investigate the fish pond, which is at least a metre deep with vertical walls and no way out. He jumped or fell in, couldn’t get out, yelping and splashing, about to drown, no one around, so Laser went and found my wife in the greenhouse in a different part of the farm.

Every morning I let them out of their (leopard proof) bedroom and we go for a little poop walk past the chickens and back up to the cowshed and back. The entrance to the cowshed is guarded by a large no-nonsense goat, on a chain. I can calculate the length and strength of the chain and skip past him and onwards. Laser and Oscar lack such confidence. I deliberately leave them to it to see what happens. Oscar sits, baffled and immobile. Laser works out that he can backtrack past the chickens and by the second day is back on the terrace before I am, docked tail wagging.

We decided to put the surviving cock with the hen – until yesterday they were in two separate runs, close by. The hen had had three chicks, which all died one by one of fowl pox. It was suggested that we should put them together – as John Seymour put it, “Always keep a cock with your hens – chickens like having it off as much as we do”.

However, we were warned by Katie Thear and Dr Alistair Fraser (The Complete Book of Raising Livestock and Poultry) that the cock’s spurs should first be trimmed. Cocks have three fingers and a thumb plus an inch or so up their leg, a spur. This is used when mounting a hen to dig in to her sides and keep her there while he does his business, and according to the above-mentioned book, can seriously damage the hen – the passing on of the DNA evidently more important than the survival of its recipient. So, for once, it was decided to follow the book and trim the cock’s spurs. The book tells you to grab the cock, wrap him in a blanket (so he can’t see), take a leg and a pair of secateurs and snip off the spur. It also mentions that it doesn’t hurt, spurs are like finger nails, and some people burn them off with a soldering iron. What it doesn’t mention is that, unlike finger nails, when you snip a cock’s spur it pumps blood out like a leaking tap. I put my finger over the leak and called for a candle, which we used to cauterise the wound. Took a while. Decided to leave it at just the one trimmed spur. He might fall off to the right but so be it.

Put the cock with the hen in the evening. She was already abed. In the morning she’s still abed. By midday she’s dead, abed, unmoved from the day before.

Don’t seem to have much luck with hens. Nor does the cock. Perhaps we should try rabbits.

For the first 24 hours after our shopping trip there was a constant cheeping from the chimney breast, behind and above the kitchen woodburner. I decided to investigate. Removed the woodburner, the chimney plate, 50 years of soot and other chimney crap, hidden behind a chimney metal flap thing, and eventually grabbed a very disoriented and dehydrated black fledgling the size of a blackbird, but not yet capable of flying. There was a nest at the top of the chimney. All the birds, including the parents, were black to start off with. What to do with the fledgling? With the benefit of hindsight, and next time it happens, the best thing would have been to get a ladder and put it back in its nest. However, we decided to put it on a shelf at the back of the greenhouse with some water and bread, safe from the highly aggressive cat. Thought it might get to the point where it could fly. Within five minutes, it took some water and bread and hopped into the water butt, and drowned.

You live and learn.

By the way, I burned the hen on the rubbish heap, thinking that I didn’t want her illness to be passed on to the dogs. It turned out, however, that rather than burning it, I merely roasted it. The dogs loved it. I like a happy ending.

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…

cleaned bhulaghat

… ask what you can do for your country!” is one of the more memorable lines from that well-known Irishman, J F Kennedy, along with “Ich bin ein Berliner!” and “Same time next week, Marilyn?”

By the way, I learned the other day that “Ich bin ein Berliner” does not translate into “I am a jam doughnut” as has been claimed ever since 1963, especially if said to Berliners. If you’re living in Berlin, a doughnut would just be a normal doughnut (Pfannkuchen) rather than a Berlin doughnut. Much as in Italy you don’t specifically ask for “un’espresso” but “un caffé (normale)”. (On that note, I was curious to discover one Christmas in Turkey that a turkey in Turkish is called a hindi, or an Indian.)

It turns out that when JFK uttered those immortal words, the crowd tittered because his translator translated it and he thanked her in a quiet aside: “I appreciate my interpreter translating my German.”

Anyhow, in the spirit of asking what we can do for our country, or at least our forest, we set off on our latest Forest Clean Up Event yesterday. ‘We’ being my wife and I, our latest workawayer (Portuguese), and six of the farm kids. After a couple of hours, we had transformed the Bhuilaghat forest cricket pitch / general garbage dump into the second cleanest forest cricket pitch in the Western Himalayas, after the one we helped clean up last month in Reoghati up the road. And came away with 20 sacks of bottles for the recycling chap (proceeds to buy chocolates for the kids). Had to take the rear seat out of the jeep to fit them all in, and more to come at our next event (Bhuilaghat, Part Two).

Mention should also be made of the local chap who came to watch the entire proceedings, from a supine position, no doubt to help better spot the broken bottles sticking up through the grass. Thanks, mate. And, no – we weren’t doing it to impress a local government official. Nor were we being paid. And thanks also to his wife, who later joined him on the ground and explained so clearly, forcefully and at some considerable length how they have no time to clean up their crap because they are too busy watching other people do it for them, and anyhow it’s somebody else’s responsibility – the government, for example – and furthermore, next week it’ll all be covered in crap again so why bother? And thanks also to the passing chap who despite being rushed off his feet, with no time for anything constructive, managed to spare a few seconds to explain that he doesn’t mind being surrounded by crap.

Very insightful.

Anyhow, we felt good being finally surrounded by clean grass, tall trees and blue sky, and had a very fine chocolate cake and tea birthday picnic. Looking forward to the next Clean Up. Every second Saturday of the month.

picnic bhuilaghat

There’s the Rub…

DSC_1615

… was a phrase I first became familiar with in 1974, when, having greatly enjoyed Wishbone Ash’s third studio album Argus, many times, I bought There’s the Rub new, rushed home, slipped the freshly-pressed vinyl from its sleeve, carefully placed the needle in the starting lip (is there a word for that?), turned up the volume and loved every second, up to the last bar of the 9 minutes and 33 seconds of F.U.B.B. (an interesting acronym) at the end of Side Two. It is only recently, in fact about half an hour ago, that I learned that the preceding track, Lady Jay, refers to Kitty Jay’s grave on Dartmoor, which we drove past in February. A grave at a crossroads, miles from any house, alone, bleak, windswept, and yet always with fresh cut flowers (for the last 250 years or so), where three parishes meet (Widdecombe, North Bovey and Manaton – I knew you’d want to know). The most popular story is that she was an orphan who got a job at Manaton Manor, got pregnant one way or the other by the master of the house, hanged herself in the barn, thereby making her unfit for a Christian burial, hence buried in no man’s land.

Might also have been a reference to Lady Day (Billie Holiday – whose real name, by the way, was Eleanora Fagan. Might put that one in the end of year test.)

Anyhow, the cover of There’s the Rub is a close-up of a bowler’s crotch as he’s rubbing the cricket ball on the inside of his thigh, leaving a red waxy stain. Cricketers do this, for extra spin, so they say.

The expression, as you’ll no doubt know, actually has little to do with rubbing anything, and not much to do with cricket, but was made immortal by Hamlet is his “To be or not be” soliloquy, where he too is contemplating topping himself:

To die – to sleep.

To sleep – perchance to dream: Ay, there’s the rub!

For in that sleep of death what dreams make come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

 

And is a reference to lawn bowls. When playing bowls, as my grandfather used to do – we still have my grandfather’s balls in Italy, unless George has burned them (inscribed G.C.L. – George Clement) – the surface of the green has to be perfectly smooth, like a billiard table, to allow the inbuilt bias in the bowl to work. If it hits a bump, the ball will veer off course – this bump is called a rub, apparently golfers talk of the ‘rub of the green’. Trump might know. So the rub is the thing that stops things happening the way you’d like them too, the twist of fate, and nowadays mostly used as the dilemma in the Devil and the deep blue sea sense.

We frequently play boules here (Himalayan rules) on the highly rubbery lawn, which I have just mown, the sun setting, the birds chirping, the enormous Griffon circling overhead checking I’m still going, against the magnificent backdrop of the Kalala deodar forest. This forest is, I like to think, becoming even more magnificent in very small part due to our very humble efforts, viz. we put out forest fires every now and then, we report illegal tree-felling and encroachment to the forestry department (with results), and we now run Forest Clean Up days every second Saturday of the month. There are two forest cricket pitches nearby, popular and hence usually covered in litter, plastic, bottles, paper cups, disposable plates etc. We targeted one in June and the second this coming Saturday. We also cleaned up the local beer bottle throwing site just round the corner last week.

In Himachal, virtually all manual work is done by what is referred to as ‘labour’ – unskilled, poorly paid, uneducated, often illiterate, landless, poor, and often seasonal immigrants from Nepal, in which case they are called ‘Gurkhas’. The other evening we were checking out the second litter-strewn forest cricket pitch as the target of our next clean up event when two locals sauntered down the track with their cricket bat and ball. My wife had the bit between her teeth and demanded to know why the place was so filthy.

“Oh yes,” one chap replied, “I asked one of my Gurkhas to clean it up, but he didn’t do a very good job.”

“Never mind the Gurkhas!” my wife replied, “You’re the ones who mess it up, so why don’t you clean up after yourselves?”

And off they went to knock their ball about.

Next to the pitch is the house of a family of Gurkhas whose chickens we have had our eyes on for some time now, so in goes my wife:

“Right. I have two things to talk to you about: one is your chickens, and the other is all this mess around here.”

The reply, to the second point, was along the lines of “Yes, it’s a mess, but we work hard from sunrise to sunset for a pittance, are shagged out, and there is nowhere to put the rubbish, no refuse collection system, we have no car to drive down to the recycling centre 15 kilometres away, so what are we supposed to do?”

Good point, I thought, there’s the rub.

 

 

Giving

One of our rare trips down the mountain

To the dusty dirty towns

We’re told to visit an uncle

Petrol, flour, vegetables, nails

Finally we get there, too late

But lunch is forced upon us – mutton

A rare treat

 

They’re lovely people

And as we leave we spot some plums

A girl is sent to pluck them

She comes back with a bag full

Uncle looks through

And gives the girl the first two

Naturally

She smiles

Next, his grandchildren

Then us

Old Cow

On the road through the woods to the temple

I passed one of India’s holy cows

Old, outcast, her dried up udder

Milked out – she’s on her own now

While the leopards lurk in the deodar

 

She ended her days on the road

Did my headlights lend some protection?

The dust distracted the flies?

She turned her old heavy head a fraction

And her deep dark eyes met mine

 

How many scores drove round her?

Hope gone to walk again

She stretched her neck on the road

Gazed past the oncoming cars

Closing her lids, let the last sigh go

 

The happy dogs and vultures dug in

And now she’s a black ragged bag of tight dry skin

Clung to old white bones

And we raise our noses

And look away

 

Still there

Three weeks on

She says that sacred cows

Have more value

When they’re young

We Hang the Petty Thieves

… and appoint the great ones to public office (Aesop 620 – 560 BCE).

Churchill, voted the Greatest Briton of All Time, was half-American, his mother having been a ‘socialite’, whatever that means – socialist on Tuesdays and every other Friday, perhaps.  He was a Liberal for 20 years. He once said that America and Britain (I doubt he used acronyms) were/are two nations separated by the same language (Ed.: ‘Wrong again – it was George Bernard Shaw’). Anyhow, I am fairly sure Churchill was approached and reproached by a lady who said ‘Sir, you are drunk!’, which was evidently his normal state – apparently his habit during the Blitz was to sit on the roof of Number 10/the War Office finishing off a bottle of brandy, having started the evening with Champagne, enjoying the fireworks. Like Keith Richards – Black Dogs, the pair of them.

‘Madam!’ he is said to have replied, ‘You are ugly, but I shall be sober in the morning!’

What a charmer.

I have to say that I am fast approaching the age when I shall start telling people exactly what I think of their views – no more Mister Nice Guy, conflict avoider.

You’re talking bollocks.

Just warming up.

And here in India, where a form of English is one of the few things that hang the ‘nation’ together (it’s quite definitely not ‘a country’, but several), there are a book’s worth of linguistic differences between ‘Indian English’ and what I consider to be normal, standard, British English. Books have been written, but perhaps writing another one should go on the ‘to do’ list. A man needs a hobby, after all, as someone said. (Ed.: Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest).

White, for example. White, to a British person such as myself, is the colour, or lack of it, that you, dear reader, are now looking at. Here in India it has several variables – I speak from a hardware perspective. ‘White’ gloss paint in India is ‘pale purple’ in UK terms. ‘White’ filler is ‘clear’. How one asks for ‘clear’ filler, I am yet to discover.

About time you learnt some Hindi, I hear you say. Couldn’t agree more, I retort.

Bit of a dull day – not a lot achieved. Put a forest fire out, single-handed, mid-afternoon – a small one. As Luis once said, ‘You know you’re alive up here!’. As I was coming down the mountain side, blackened, smoked, in need of a cuppa tea, I spotted a neighbour on the road, leaning on his stick, grateful for someone to look at. Not a lot happens in our village, that I’m aware of, dramatically speaking. He’s been told by his doctor he should have an evening walk.

I picked up a few discarded whisky bottles on the way down. ‘What do you do with these bottles?’ he asked, evidently genuinely concerned.

‘Recycling,’ I said.

There’s no Hindi word for ‘recycling’.

The Forest Guard came down a couple of days ago. I had found some more illegal tree felling quite close by. We asked about the illegal tree felling up at the pass that we discovered in March, photographed and spread the word as far and wide as possible. The tree fellers have just started their prison sentences – 7 to 10 years. The forest guard responsible for that area has been suspended for six months.

One wonders.

OK – they cut some trees, but 7 – 10 years? What do the rapists get? And the cow killers? And the thugs who kill anyone related to cows?

Our local forest guard, underfunded, no vehicle, no weapon (alone, in the forest, with Black Bears and leopards), no powers of arrest, now has two forest areas to patrol on foot. Rather than suspending a poorly-paid forest guard, a short-sighted, narrow-minded punitive knee-jerk response, how about something more constructive? In Italy, for example, forest guards, reasonably well-paid, have a jeep, always go in twos, have guns, and powers of arrest.

And the forests are protected.

Meanwhile, the Divisional Forest Officers sit in their offices and read the paper. I know. I have been to DFO offices. Half a dozen men reading newspapers. Safe jobs, far away from illegal tree fellers and leopards.

Mealtimes, especially evening dinner, as the day’s work has ended and the dark night is drawing in, are occasions to thank ‘God’ for allowing us to create our small huddles of hopefully like-minded individuals, sharing our space on the planet and to create a home – a place round the fire, with the darkness beyond.

The English language and sociolinguistic culture lacks a decent ‘For what we are about to receive…’ and a post-prandial ‘Bismillah, i rachmaan i rachmiin’. Thanks be to God, the greatest and most merciful.

Which is true up to a point. God / nature / the world is an absolute miracle, and the fact that we are all sitting round this table with its food and wine is the result of a literally incredible series of mind-boggling events, and thanks be to the scientists who are daily discovering more and more about how this miracle works.

On the other hand, as David Attenborough has pointed out, this miraculous ‘God’ life force thing creates nematodes that blind innocent children. ‘It’ has no morals. It just is. And it’s very often amazingly beautiful.

Anyhow, it feels good to at least acknowledge the amazingness of life on earth every now and then, and having just had a lovely dinner – bismillah, i rachmaan, i rachiim

Chick sexing

chciken tail

Thunder and lightning, lashing rain, wind howling, red roses shaking their heads outside the window, and a yellow-white light like a sandstorm in the desert. Seven in the evening, high summer, and the fire has been lit. To cap it all, the hail gun on the hill is booming every five seconds, like Big Bertha at the Somme.

You’ll be relieved to know that we now, finally, have hens, not cocks. Well, one cock remains – the dimmest, and he also gargles: ‘cock-a-doodle-glue’.

We got the hen and three female chicks – there must be an Anglo-Saxon word for that – yesterday at Kokonalla on the way back from the wedding, having spent a luxurious and relaxed day at Raju Mama’s ancestral home in uptown Shimla. Raju because his name is Anil, and Mama because he’s a maternal uncle. Hence I am called Mamu by the farm children, who consider my wife to be ‘Auntie’, although they use the term for a paternal auntie. So work that one out.

Must be a reason.

We pulled up in the jeep by the hovel next to the woodyard where, as you’ll recall, a couple of months ago on a wood mission we spotted the chickens and booked some chicks. The mother is out cutting grass for the cows, leaving four young girls in charge, aged 2 to maybe 12. All of them turn out to be adept at chick sexing. Young, ie. a few days old female chicks, have a little tail pointing downwards, they said (See photo). Male chicks are tailless. Soon, however, things get problematic as the males grow tails, so the upshot is when chicken sexing, don’t hang about.

So now we have a proven mother hen and her three daughters in one pen, while the cock is strutting his stuff next door with a tad more spring in his step than erstwhile.

The next big question is do we dare let them out in the afternoon to brave the local cats and dogs, all of which are normally fed on chapati? It’s like being pater familias with three debutantes and a voracious gang of suitors at the gate who’ve spent the last five years in the Foreign Legion. No-one around here keeps chickens.

Must be a reason.

My current cunning plan is to put the henhouse on stilts above cat-jumping height and not clip their wings.

Watch this space for more life and death scenarios. Who needs soap?

PS How high can a cat jump?

Wheel Nutters Are Not Available

We are on a rare jaunt down the mountain as we have been invited to the wedding of a second cousin to be held in the ‘colonial-style’ Woodville Palace in Shimla – the same place where a few pals joined me for my Stag Afternoon six years ago for a couple of glasses of whisky. There are hunting trophies sticking out from the panelled walls – stuffed moth-eaten heads of severely alarmed-looking tigers, mostly – and some signed photos of 1930s and 40s Hollywood film stars and other notables, few of whom actually stayed at the Woodville, it transpired on gentle probing of the staff. Must have been a job lot.

We’re staying in Solan, which has none of the old-world charm that can still be winkled out of Shimla, and came down the back road – the Rajgarh Road, with its precipitous drops into the gorge below, single track and very little traffic. Where the road crosses the Giri Ganga River (which flows ultimately into the Ganges), we came across the nomadic Gujjars camped out on the flood plain, on their way up and away from the heat and dust below, heading up past our farm to finally set up their summer camp again at Sararu Pass, where they will enjoy the season, free from meddling and outside interference, and with stupendous views of the Great Himalayas in front of them. I rather envy them. At the Giri Ganga crossing we stopped a while and admired their sizable herd of massive water buffalo evidently in watery heaven judging by the deep elephantine moans of pleasure they were emitting, semi-submerged, as if someone were relieving them of a terrific itch in the middle of their backs that they hadn’t been able to get at for several weeks.

We then unloaded the back of the jeep at the recycling ‘centre’ at Ochhghat and received 150 rupees for the latest batch (four crates, 60 kilos) of bottles that the locals regularly fling into the forest across the road from the farm. Really must make a bottle bank there as a matter of urgency.

60 kilos lighter and the jeep started wobbling a bit. I stopped, checked for a flat tyre – no sign – and carried on for a mile or so. It is expected in India that the car behind will honk when it wants to overtake – no-one is expected to use their rear-view mirror and anticipate such a thing. ‘Mirror, signal, manouevre’ is a very long way off. The only indicator that is ever used is the offside, which I was brought up to believe meant ‘I am about to turn right’. In India, if it is used at all, it seems to mean ‘I am about to pull over to the left, and you can overtake’. Why the left-hand indicator is not used for this is yet another mystery among many mysteries. When an Indian driver is genuinely about to turn right, he (or she) merely does so abruptly without signalling or looking in the mirror. It is up to the driver behind to honk if he or she has a problem with this. One wonders, in fact, why Indian cars are fitted with mirrors at all.

So anyway I was not surprised to find a car behind honking and overtaking, but he was doing so rather more than normal, while flashing his headlights, and on passing, the passenger was pointing urgently towards my rear wheel. On stopping and inspecting, I found that of the five wheel nuts, three were missing and one was nearly out. One solitary wheel nut was keeping the wheel from coming off, as in the old song –‘Cherokees, are after me… Burning spears, through my ears…’. Altogether now: ‘But I’m singing a happy song!

So I thanked the passing pointing passenger and took one wheel nut from each of the other three wheels and carried on, four nuts per wheel, until the first tyre-repair shop.

Wheel nuts melengay?’ (Can we get wheel nuts here?).

Nope’.

At least that’s the way I interpreted the peculiarly Indian shrug/head wobble. Sometimes it evidently means ‘Of course – why are you bothering to ask such a stupid question’. Other times, it seems to mean ‘Of course not – why are you bothering to ask such a stupid question’.

Kahan se?’ (Where can we get some?)

Chambaghat’. (Chambaghat)

Thank you’. (Thank you).

I stop at the next tyre shop, well before Chambaghat, for a second opinion. Rule One for anyone visiting India: Always get a second opinion (at least) – no matter how confident / insistent your source of information appears.

‘Namaste,’ I say, ‘Wheels nuts melengay?’ (As above).

Kya?!’ (You what?)

‘Wheel nuts. You know, nuts for wheels..’

Kya?!

I do a little mime of taking wheel nuts off an imaginary wheel from within a real tyre, of which his shop has many.

‘Ah! Wheel nutters!’ he exclaims, and makes a show of fiddling about in a box which quite clearly had not seen a single wheel nut since c.1973. Then says in perfect English: ‘I am sorry. Wheel nutters are not available.’

So then I went to Chambaghat, where there were no wheel nutters either, but there most definitely are, I was earnestly and confidently assured by a large Chambaghat chap, one kilometre down the road, on the right.

There weren’t.

‘Chambaghat’, I was told.

A couple of hours later, or so it seemed, I was in Dhulli, where, contrary to instructions, I couldn’t find a wheel nutter shop, but there was a posh Tata showroom. ‘I don’t want to buy a Tata car,’ I said, ‘I want to know if there is anywhere in Solan where I can buy wheel nuts.’ Several phone calls were made. ‘Nope. You have to go to Shimla’ (two hours’ drive away).

Having decided life was better with only four wheel nuts per wheel anyway – a slight thrill of Russian roulette to spice up an otherwise dull day – I was heading home for a cuppa tea when I spotted the posh Toyota showroom. One last chance, and then I shall formally and possibly forever give up.

I was approached by a quite glamorous young woman and tried my new line: ‘I don’t want to buy a car…’

‘You want to buy a car?’ her eyes lit up.

‘No. No, I don’t. I have a car. It’s over there,’ I said pointing to where I had carefully parked it within easy sight, with this exact scenario in mind. ‘It’s not a Toyota’.

‘It’s not a Toyota?’

‘That’s right. It’s a Force’.

Kya?!

‘Force. It’s an Indian car company. It’s a Gurkha’.

‘A Gurkha?!’

‘Yes. Anyway, I would like to know from someone whether it’s possible to buy wheel nuts in Solan.’

‘Wheel nuts?!’ etc etc. Mime. Etc.

‘Just a moment, sir, please take a seat,’ and I am courteously ushered to a plush mock-leather semi-circular affair with glass table top, amidst several extremely expensive Japanese imported vehicles none of which I have the slightest interest in.

Soon, but not soon enough, another young lady appears, I forget her job title, asking whether I’d like tea, coffee, water, some kind of lemon thing…?

‘Yes, please. Water, thank you.’

A number of people in the background are buzzing about. As I am downing the water, thanks to a third young lady, I am introduced to the shop floor manager, who again asks which beverage I’d prefer. I gargle a negative, and am then immediately introduced to a chap who obviously gets up an hour earlier than most to polish his shoes and manicure, if that’s the right verb, his various moustaches and beard. Like the original Dick Van Dyke.

I think he might have been the service manager.

With the benefit of many years, indeed decades, of hindsight, at this point I should have just done a runner, pulled out, said thank you, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake, and off you go to a future brighter, more real, and generally better destination.

I don’t know. It was like being inducted into the Mormons. It starts off as totally innocent inquiry and before you know it, you’re in there, deep, the doors close behind you, and you’re somehow one of them.

Dick offers me another cup of tea, and asks for my car keys. Strangely, I acquiesce. Before I know it, he’s marching off towards my jeep with my car keys, and then we’re off down into the depths of the Toyota car showroom / workshop – three floors down, with twenty mechanics and other sub-service under-managers all around, instructions are given to remove the wheel. A jack is called for. Ten minutes later it arrives. It doesn’t work. Five minutes later another jack is called for. Five minutes later the second jack arrives. It works. The mechanic is told by Dick Van Dyke to remove all the wheel nuts.

‘What’s the point?’ the mechanic says. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

I am reminded of two things. First, even the simplest thing, a wheel nut for example, has much more to it than at first meets the eye. Some cars have wheel studs with nuts, whereas the Force Gurkha doesn’t – it has one-piece nut and bolt combined.

The mechanic knows this. Dick Van Dyke, who is probably paid ten times as much, has no idea whatsoever, about wheel nuts or quite probably anything else. Apart from beard and moustache maintenance.

The long-suffering mechanic extracts the wheel nut/stud, which Dick ponders from all possible different angles for, let’s say a minute. By this time, I was not merely wondering what I was doing in the bowels of a Toyota showroom in the Himalayas, but indeed what was the purpose of any of us, including nematodes, being as we all are on a tiny speck of semi-molten gravel flying round an extremely minor semi-burnt-out sun in a small corner of the infinite universe.

Secondly, in India, and quite probably in most of the rest of the world, the further you go up the work chain, the less sensible information you are likely to get. The chap down below, who knows what he’s doing because he does it every day, is given the least respect and paid peanuts, and no-one asks his opinion about anything.  The college educated service floor manager never gets his hands dirty and knows F-all, but tells those ‘below’ him what to do.

This is what I see around me every day.

India’s like that. What happens all over the world is totally clear here.

For example, an Indian uncle has run a car garage for the last 20 or 30 years. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘So you must know a fair bit about cars and mechanics, then?’

No, he says, very refreshingly – not much. He just owns and manages the business. Could be any business. It used to be a grocer’s.

God help us all.

I am also reminded tonight that if you fill your ‘comfort zone’ with easily digestible tripe, you might be tempted to feel, if you do it long enough, that you know everything, within that zone. Many people, apparently, watch the same limited nonsense pumped out of their goggle box on a nightly basis. And then, given that severely limited input, feel they are somehow ahead of the game, and on that basis feel they have the right to tell other people what to think, believe, how to act, etc.

Trumpism.

Almost makes you want to go and live up a mountain.

George Orwell. 1984.

Gongs

Not sure whether they were fortunate or unfortunate, but anyhow, circumstances led us to having an Indo-Chinese lunch on the Mall in Shimla yesterday, with a British poet who lives in France, and his Italian partner, who lives in Rome, while the right-wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister of India, Modi, held a rally a couple of hundred metres away, which was helpfully being broadcast semi-live on the restaurant TV, at full volume, while quasi-simultaneously blaring via multiple loudspeakers in through the window.

I have gradually been going off politics in general since meeting my wife, who declared all politicians to be lying blaggards. Or rather, I increasingly associate myself with the likes of the late and much loved and admired Tony Benn, who decided well into his theoretical retirement to stop standing as an MP as he wanted to devote more of his time to politics. Non-party-political politics. Politics in the sense of being concerned about other people, which most politicians, indeed most people, quite clearly aren’t. Unless being somehow related to them happens to be beneficial.

We could hear the warm-up act for the PM very clearly from the car park. Hysterical, screeching chunks of diatribe backed up with vehement chanted well-rehearsed mob response. Berlin, 1936. Orange rather than brown shirts.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve seen for a long while, and a reminder of how easily the mob can be led by the nose to the bloodletting destruction of ‘outsiders’. Like the nomadic pastoralists, for example, who have been passing this farm for decades if not centuries on their way to the summer pastures at the top of our mountain, but who are now physically attacked, and sometimes killed, for including sacred cows in their herds (buffalos, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats are OK) and for not revering the various animalistic gods that the majority Hindus believe in – principally monkeys, elephants, and dogs. Monkeys that damage apple trees, however, cross some kind of deity-worship line and can be shot with moral impunity.

The Indo-Chinese lunch having been rapidly downed, our European guests seen off, we then went to an unusual antique shop called Tomorrow’s Antiques on Lakkar Bazar, the right-wing Hindu nationalist mob having largely dispersed, no doubt in search of a late apolitical lunch.

The owner of Tomorrow’s Antiques is a curious fellow who claims to have lived in Milton Keynes for eight years while being a professor in Belfast and having a house in Harrow. Apparently, the reason his shop is more often closed than open is that he is regularly invited to foreign parts to give gong baths and massage chakras. He was evidently in Germany last week. Ten years ago, Modi stayed with him for a fortnight, and washed his own clothes.

We were intent on acquiring a Tibetan bowl gong thingy. Actually, we were originally attracted into his shop by the dinner gong visible from the street. He has two such gongs in his shop, one ten times the price of the other. When asked why such a discrepancy, he reports that in 1967, when his mother was in charge, Ringo Starr walked in and bought one very similar to the most expensive one. We tried them both out. Remarkably similar tone.

He had several Tibetan gong bowls, and a little online research informed that different tones relate to the different chakras, so you should get the one that most relates to that particular chakra you want to improve most. A difficult choice, especially as I reckon all of mine could do with a refreshing boost. To help me decide, he offered, or rather insisted that I have a five-minute test-drive. All seven chakras, yep – seven, were vibrated by the gong bowl an inch away therefrom.

Sounds great, though – sends you off into semi-silent peaceful mountain-top forests, closer to god, and farther from his (or her) ardent followers.

Forest Fire

Our guests arrived around three after a long drive from Chandigarh. We were admiring the view a few minutes later and noticed smoke billowing out of the forest half a mile away. Himachal Forest Watch sprang into action, in that I ran to the jeep, in which there was a shovel, very hastily nailed a piece of wire mesh to a long pole, and Max and I drove to the scene. (Max is our latest workaway volunteer, 18, from California). The fire had swept up the hillside through the forest from the road below and was now almost at the top road, where I parked. We leapt into action, beating away for all we were worth at the ocean waves of fire sweeping up through the undergrowth, mostly dry grass. The heat and smoke were intense. After ten minutes or so of frenetic beating, Max shouts out “We can’t do it! It’s too much! We’ll have to give up!”

What was the alternative? To let the whole forest burn down? Already one or two mature trees had fire licking at the resin at the bases. Once the fire climbs up the tree above head height, what could we do? We had to carry on.

Roshan and Laikram thankfully now appeared and cut large bouquets of pine branches which they started thrashing at the fire with, very effectively. But still it was overwhelming, and the afternoon anabatic wind was blasting it onwards like a giant bellows in a furnace.

“We can’t do it like this!” Max shouts through the flames. “We need a strategy!”

“Start at the bottom!” I shout back. “And work our way up, cutting it off from below. The top road should act as a fire break!”

So we did. For two hours of solid physical exertion, thrashing, beating, clinging to the hillside, climbing up, sliding down. I was totally wiped out and had to stop for longish panting breaks while the fire swirled around me, incapable of finding the energy to do anything about it.

I wouldn’t use the word ‘panic’, but at times desperation was creeping in. Rather like capsizing a sailing dinghy and then finding it didn’t have enough buoyancy to keep it above the waves on righting it – another story.

Just when we had it 98% under control, a very clean-looking chap in a baseball cap and sneakers appeared, also clutching a bouquet of branches. By this time we looked like the chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops in Mary Poppins, without the singing and dancing. It turned out that he was the Forest Guard, whose job it is to put out forest fires, so he was effusive in his praise and thanks for our doing his job for him.

The fire 99.9% out, we sat by the road, panting. Several cars and a bus had gone by, but only one stopped. The driver introduced himself as the chairman of the local Environmental Protection Committee. He was also very effusive: “You are great!” he said, several times. “Nobody cares,” he said. “What can we do?”

“We care,” I said, “and we can try!”

The next morning he turned up fresh in his full Forest Guard outfit, looking more impressive. He carefully wrote out a report to be submitted to the Block Officer in Kotkhai, with details of all our names, and fathers’ names. Roshan and Laikram seemed a bit unhappy about their names going on anything official involving the authorities, and laughed nervously when I mentioned the illegal tree felling at Sararu Pass. The Guard assured me that he, the Ranger, the Block Officer and the DFO (Divisional Forest Officer?) from Shimla had all been to Sararu Pass in the last few days and action is being taken. Coincidentally, the letter I wrote on the subject a week ago to the media and every Forest Officer I could find received a reply in the morning from the Central Government Forestry Division in Delhi, cc’d to the Himachal Pradesh DFO.

The Forest Guard had us all sign the report, written in Hindi, which my mother-in-law translated. Apparently it thanked us for helping the Guard put the fire out successfully.

Despite this disingenuity, he is a nice chap, newly in his job, and very keen on birdwatching, nature and wildlife in general, and was impressed by our collection of books and guides. He also invited us to visit him at the Government Forest Resthouse, built in the British era, in the Kalala forest a mile or so from here, and show us round inside. A useful chap to have on our side, I feel. I was rather pleased that as we stood on the roadside chatting, he in his uniform, four or five cars drove past, noting our familiarity.

So next time you or I have to tackle a forest fire, I suggest starting at the bottom and methodically making your way to the top. Who knows how many trees we saved? Exhausting but ultimately satisfying, and I have the singed hair to go with it.