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Sunday
Aug142011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part II of II

Every heart is much the same we tell ourselves down here
The same chambers fed by veins the same maze of love and fear
We thought you were a saint but the halo was an eye
It’s hard to see how there could be so much dark inside the light – In the Dark, Josh Ritter

Sunday, July 3, 2011, Lavazza Coffee Shop, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Taking in the scenery at our destination.When I closed the computer last night, paid my bill, and left the Jade Garden Bar and Lounge, the once bustling streets of Karol Bagh were desolate. It looked as if a carnival had swept through town, the vacant streets littered with trash and an unfamiliar feeling that percolated between loneliness, abandonment, and danger. As I walked down the wrong street, from behind dumpsters street dogs lurched with ferocious barks and small groups of the homeless and destitute huddled in doorways and beneath lights. Others moved through the shadows like ghosts or specters. Garbage was strewn about the streets and when a single breeze blew through the corridor of shops, litter and refuse danced and rolled through the streets like tumble weeds somersaulting across the plains of eastern Colorado.

I began the morning with the intent of exploring Karol Bagh, but after stepping outside at 9am and realizing that everything was still closed, not to mention the wall of heat that assaulted me the moment I stepped outside of the air conditioning, I went back into my room. I decided to postpone my exploration to when the shops opened but instead got caught up in a conversation and stayed in my comfortable room until check out.

I checked out of The Rockwell Plaza Hotel and on MC’s recommendation headed to the Likir House, a hidden gem of a guesthouse run by Tibetan’s and owned by Rinchen Chando, the head of the Tibetan’s Nun’s Project. She is the woman I had the privilege of hearing lecture when I was in Dharamsala. The rooms are quaint and comfortable, but more appealing is that they are spotless, something that is hit or miss in Indian hotels and guesthouses.

Who knew that the only place you would find order amidst the chaos in India was in the subway?The Likir House was in the Lajpat Nagar neighborhood, about 9 kilometers away from the Rockwell Plaza Hotel, so being that but both were right next to metro stops, I decided to brave the metro. Braving the metro is a bit of an exaggeration with the exception of the crowds. The metro in Delhi is a world-class transit system and surprisingly and comically, the only place in India where I have found any sense of order or structure. First, passengers must walk into the station and pass a heavily armed soldier safely barricaded behind sandbags. Then they must go through a metal detector, get patted down, and then pass their bags through an x-ray machine. Once at the actual point of embarkation, passengers line up single file behind a yellow line at designated places where the train doors open. There is also a women’s only car, which much to my surprise the men respect. This tells me that the Indians are at least capable of abiding by order, rules, and structure; perhaps they just thrive better in the chaos. Unlike the rest of India, there is not one potato chip wrapper, empty plastic water bottle, or cigarette box on the ground; in fact, because there seems to be a faint layer of dust and grime that covers most things in India, one could argue that comparatively speaking, the Delhi metro system is spotless. 

Since the previous night’s minor exploration was successful, I decided I needed to explore a little more of Delhi, and so by 3pm I was in Rajiv Chowk, the epicenter of New Delhi tourism, otherwise known as Connaught Place. Think of Connaught Place as a dartboard. In the bull’s-eye is a park and around it, moving out in concentric circles, are the shops, roads, and structures that make up the dartboard. Beneath the park exists what I consider to be the Indian version of Dante’s Inferno. It’s called the Palik Bazar.

Palik Bazaar is an underground labyrinth of shops with peddlers hawking everything from jewelry, to electronics, to books, to clothes. It’s dimly lit by neon and halogens and here in the underground peddlers and swindlers feed like sharks in the dark abyss of the ocean. The people coming at you occasionally go so far as to paw at you as if Cerberus, the two-headed hound of hell himself, is trying rip off your flesh. Have I become jaded and cynical? You be the judge. Do I exaggerate? Not much. The Bazaar contains wall-to-wall people through narrow corridors and being a white person, again you are constantly harassed.

“Hey friend, take a look at this belt. You like t-shirt? Where you from? Come have a look. Special price for you. Hello. Hello? Hey friend, over here—hello?” It was funny the first 4,142 times. I have started to answer the question as to where I am from in a variant of two multiples; first, I say, “I’m from Mars,” and I point towards the sky. Or I say, “No hablo Ingles.” On one occasion, much to my surprise the Indian man spoke back to me in Spanish, to which I replied, “OK, you got me. I just don’t want to talk to you.” On another occasion I said something in gibberish, doing my best to give it a hint of Mandarin. Some people laugh and continue pressing you for your name and origin of country, some people step back, and others really don’t know what to make of it. It all depends on my mood, whether I am feeling playful or just outright pissed.  

I was finally pushed to my limit one afternoon when a skinny, little Indian grabbed my arm. In a gut-reaction I did not know I had in me, I grabbed him by his pencil-neck and pinned him to wall. “Don’t you ever fucking touch me again or I will kill you and not think twice.” I had so much adrenalin pumping through me that I had him lifted off the ground and just his toes were dangling to the floor. I held him so tight to the wall that he was grasping for his breath and in his eyes I could see the fear of God. “Get ready to meet your maker you little maggot,” I said, and then released my grip, returning him to the earth and the memory of breath. He scurried away like a cockroach in the light.

***

This of course is the work of fiction and one of many violent fantasies that have played out in my head whereby I inflict bone crushing pain and violence on the offender. In all my travels, I can’t think of a place whose peddlers and beggars are more aggressive than in India. Apparently what I have deduced from the compilation of these facts is that I as I get older my tolerance level for crowds is rapidly diminishing, at least in crowds where I’m a marked man, like Waldo in the children’s picture book, Where’s Waldo.

Just to add insult to the day’s injury, as I write this to you from Lavazza Coffee Shop, I am dealing with a hint of Delhi belly, the symptoms being doubling over pain in my abdomen and the potential loss of bowel control. Ahhh India…Love it or hate it, it’s all part of the experience.

Meanwhile, back in Kashmir

Mughal Gardens, Srinagar, Kashmir.The morning after our excursion on Dal Lake and starting the previous night, starting when his buzzed kicked in, Ayub was not only heavily touting, but pushing a 6-day, 5-night trek “I really want to take you on this trek,” he said as he continued to outline the highlights like Anthony Robbins might give you an overview of how to be a more effective human being. He’s a hell of a salesman that Ayub. I was sold. I’ll drop the $400 or $500 on a once-in-lifetime experience.

When Palla showed up we all made small talk for a while until we got down to business, which is always when the side conversations in Kashmiri begin. Kashmiri, from what I understand is a complicated language. Not even Indians understand it and so they exist in this safe little language cocoon, discussing your weaknesses and how to exploit you right in front of you.

We started talking about the trek and Palla told Ayub that I was his brother, not a tourist or a customer, so he should give me the friend price. Ayub looked off as if calculating the numbers in his head and came back with the quote of $1700, which I recognized he did not say with confidence.

“Are we flying up to the mountain on a magic carpet? Sorry bud, but you must think I’m rich or something. Plus that takes up almost all of my time in Kashmir. I came here to see my friends.”

Some numbers were thrown back and forth, the length of the trip was scaled back, but I said we should settle up our bill from the night before and then I’d think about it. Palla called Gasha and they talked, then Ayub and Gasha talked, and finally we arrived at 2000 rupees for the previous night’s stay on the houseboat.

“OK, well I’m checking out this afternoon after we go for a walk.”

“Why you checking out?” Ayub said. “You’re going to stay in a hotel or guesthouse? You can do that any time. This is Kashmir. You should stay on a houseboat. That’s the whole experience. Come; I take you look at my other houseboat. You can stay here for a thousand a night.” He took me to the houseboat next door. The room was small, stuffy, and dank, and since I had stayed in one of the nicest houseboats, there was no going back for me.

“Well, I’ll think about. I’ll leave my stuff here for now.”

When we walked away and were out of earshot, Palla was worked up and said in a huff, “What are you doing man? I told you he’s going to rip you off in the end. Look, you can stay there if you want and go on that trek and hang out with them. But don’t tell me you came here to hang out with us.” Not that I know Palla all that well, but it felt a little uncharacteristic. Without it being in the forefront of my awareness, I thought that it felt a little off. “These people are very cunning and they talk with a serpent’s tongue. I know houseboat people. You can’t trust them. If you want to stay on a houseboat, my cousin has one, but I don’t trust this guy.”

Palla took me to the Noor Guesthouse where he said I should stay and he could get me a deal on a room. His cousin Latiff was there as well, who—as I write about this and think back—probably overcharged me for something back in McLeod Gange.

I was saying hello to Latiff when Erica from Rishikesh came running down the stairs and hugged me like I had been away at war for years. My jaw dropped and I was quite confused.

When Erica and I left each other in Rishikesh, I told her that if she wanted to meet some people in McLeod, she should look up my friends. Apparently she had found Palla’s cousin Latiff on her own and had gotten what she told me she was looking for; a good looking Indian man to sleep with, in this case, ten years her minor. What’s entertaining is that Latiff had slept with her friend in McLeod, which she knew about, and now she was sleeping with Latiff. For someone like Latiff, or any decent looking local in a tourist town, there is a never ending assembly line of women. At 22, having spent the last seven years in McLeod Gange, which could be one of the most highly traveled mountain towns in India, he is already a pro.

***

The inside of my room at the Noor Guesthouse.Palla and the owner of the Noor Guesthouse, Shaqeel, talked back and forth in Kashmiri negotiating a price for my stay. Palla told me that Shaqeel is a very good man and fair, and he again told Shaqeel that I am a brother, not a tourist. Palla came back to me at 1000 rupees a night, which I thought was odd because Erica was paying 250, granted she didn’t have a bathroom. I probably should have checked my Lonely Planet, being that the price was written in the Lonely Planet.

“Oh, you have the best room in the place and the only one with a canal view,” Palla assured me, “so he wants a thousand.” Who’s going to pay a thousand for this dump? I thought. I guess I am. At that point, I had been unsettled for the previous 48 hours and I just wanted a place to lay my bags and rest my head for more than a few hours. I went back to the houseboat to gather my things and much to my relief, Ayub wasn’t there, so I didn’t have to deal with the pushing and pressuring. His brother gave me the why a guesthouse and not a houseboat? song and dance as well but finally said, “As you wish. Please come by for tea.”

The following day Palla took me to Mughal Gardens, which while beautiful, was another miserable tourist stop. Conversation began the day before with Shaqeel about trekking and we continued to talk about it, Palla justifying the cost and reassuring me again that Shaqeel was a very honest man, as if he had known him for years. When we returned to the Noor Guesthouse, we moved into negotiations and again Palla pitched thehe’s my brother, not a tourist routine; again the side conversations in Kashmiri, right in front of me.

To make a long story short, we settled at 35,000 rupees ($800) for a 4-day, 3-night trek. This included 3 Beasts of Burden, a cook, a guide, tents, food, sleeping materials, and whatever else was needed. In addition, Palla would get to come. He also took it upon himself to invite his friend Pinto. “Pinto is big and not afraid of anybody or anything. He’s in case we get into any trouble.” I didn’t really think too much about any of these statements at the time because I felt safe in the security of my Kashmiri friends. I finally agreed and thought it was awfully nice that Shaqeel is letting them accompany me. Granted, I am paying for an experience they will never otherwise have, but so be it, I thought.

That night Erica and I went to Latiff’s mother’s house. We all hung out on the roof—immediate family and cousins—and drank Kashmiri tea, had biscuits and bread, and played Carrom, an Indian board game. Eventually all of us sat knee to knee in a circle in their tiny kitchen eating a simple yet spicy dinner with our hands made up of rice, dal, mutton, and vegetables. It was a very nice evening, although it ran a little long for my taste. We all went for a walk at one point and I continued to discuss the issue of the trekking and lodging with Palla. “Don’t worry about the price of the guesthouse. I know how to deal with him. We’ll get the price down,” he said.

The following morning I was up before anyone else and working on my computer. Shaqeel came out and said, “You remind me of my best friend, Michael Nixon. He is from the states too and he has a computer just like that,” and he showed me a signed picture of Michael Nixon snowboarding. He later said, “I’ve been watching you. You’re very cautious. You’re so much like my best friend Michael Nixon.” Again with the accent on ‘best.’ Apparently Michael was a professional snowboarder and comes to Kashmir every winter. Shaqeel and I got talking and I told him I was a writer. He asked me how I knew Palla and for how long. I told him how we had met in McLeod Gange and hung out for about two-and-a-half weeks. He just shrugged and said you have to be careful whom you trust in Kashmir.

That afternoon, Palla took me to lunch at his family’s house. In both Latiff and Palla’s house, there was no furniture, just wall-to-wall carpet and a few cushions. Their prize possessions were their family photo albums. I watched Palla thumb through it with such pride and joy. I had never seen him glow like that before. It was a wonderful thing to see, someone who loved his family as much as he did.

Post-meal hookah with Palla's father.I can’t tell you how many people were living in either of the places, but it was a lot. Brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, but they love it—and they wouldn’t have it any other way. After lunch, Palla’s father who was only 2-3 years older than me (more proof that Kashmiris age prematurely) insisted I smoke some tobacco with him. And yes, it really was tobacco. I quite enjoyed it and since I’m not a big smoker it gave me a nice head rush. Who am I to refuse the offering of a post-meal hookah?

That evening, I handed over 36,000 rupees to Shaqeel (about $800), even though I didn’t feel good about it. “You know,” I said, “I’m a writer and I could write an article about your business. I could publish it in the New York Times. Hundreds of thousands of people would know about it.” I was trying to play their game a bit. He thought about it and knocked off a thousand rupees (about $20) or something ridiculously small. He wasn’t budging much and I was merely a rookie in the ring with a weathered pugilist. Once he found out I could possibly help his business, it seemed to change our relationship for the better. It wouldn’t be long before Shaqeel had another best friend. I can see him saying to the next sucker, “You remind me of my best friend Tim.”

Amateur Hour on the Mountain

By the end of the first day of trekking, it was apparent that this was not exactly a reputable trekking outfit. I’m not sure if this is just the way it is in Kashmir or what, but it was about as budget and makeshift as it gets, definitely not the makings and refinement one would expect of $800.

At 6am we left the Noor Guesthouse by Shaqeel’s vehicle and drove to the end of the mountain road where we would begin our trek. The mountains were practically on top of us as we raced up roads that clung to the mountain, moving at speeds which seemed disproportionate to the size of the car and the drop. “Do you see that peak?” Shaqeel said to me, pointing to a jagged peak that towered above us. “That’s Pakistan.” Holy shit, I thought.

Trying to be casual I said, “So uhm, do Pakistanis ever cross over or is it heavily fortified by the military?”

“Oh no,” Shaqeel assured me. “They would be in a lot of trouble if they ever crossed over. Maybe sometimes they get lost, but they would never do it on purpose.”

By 9:30 our gear had been packed and placed on the beasts of burden and we hit the trail. “What about our guides?” I asked Palla. “Where are they?”

“They will be right behind us. I told them I didn’t want to see them while we hiked. It will be better this way.”

We set out with one horse and a few bottles of water, but we hadn’t had any breakfast. That was fine. We had 3 horses full of food and supplies right behind us. They also gave us an extra horse in case we got tired Well that was awfully nice of them to supply an extra horse, I thought. I’m sure that horse had a cost, however, and had come from an extra 10,000 rupees. Not even a quarter of a mile in, I was leading the charge and Pinto was bringing up the rear on the mule. “I hope he doesn’t kill that thing by working it to exhaustion,” I said to Palla. I was not feeling it about Pinto at this point because he was rather stoic and seemed disinterested the first time we shook hands. He didn’t speak English but he turned out to be a valuable member who got things done and was interested in my comfort and happiness after all.

The hike began like the space shuttle taking off from its launch pad. Our trajectory was more or less straight up for three long, hot, and hard hours. I am usually a fast hiker and this was no exception. I am of the opinion that I should get there, and then enjoy myself, as opposed to enjoying myself on the way, but that’s me.

Our horse grazing not far from our camp site.We kept meeting villagers along the path, asking them how far our destination was. The Gujarat people (the local mountain people) would either say it’s not far or that we were nowhere near the final destination, Gangabal Lake. We also kept waiting for our guides. We would wait for 20 minute rests, assuming they would be right behind us but they never showed. Finally, about ¾ of the way up they showed up. I thought Pinto was going to rip their heads off. The cook and the guide were actually scared and asked Palla if he could calm Pinto down. Some food would make things a bit better I thought.

As it turns out, we didn’t have enough food not to mention the guide, an old man, said he didn’t feel well. So Pinto turned him back and told him to return the next morning with more food and chicken.

Speaking of chicken, I heard something that sounded like chirping for most of the way up, but assumed it was one of the cords rubbing against the leather of the saddle. It was at this pit stop that I discovered a chicken strapped to the back of the horse and pleading for its life. That poor bird haunted me the rest of the day as we made his death march towards the gallows, and I wasn’t sure I was actually going to be able to eat him. Turns out when you’re that hungry it’s not even an after thought. I just said, “I don’t want to see that bird anywhere near me. Kill and clean it as far away from me as possible.” I like my chicken and meat packaged, not pleading. This experience caused me to pause and consider scaling back my consumption of animals.

When we finally reached camp 7.5 hours later, I was surprised by a.) the quality of the tent—meaning there was no quality, and b.) that there was only one tent. I was promised, among other things including competence, two tents. Being that I was settling into my role as the client, I felt I had a right to be pissed off. It was indeed visible and Palla and Pinto felt my energy beginning to swirl like an Atlantic storm in September.

Without consulting me and in the name of making me happy, Pinto and Palla sent the cook about a quarter of the way back on horseback to fetch a tent. Luckily Pinto was a good cook so our dinner would not suffer, and if anything, it would be enhanced. I tried to do some fishing while Pinto slaved away over a hot burner but was unsuccessful. A nice Gujarat man humbled me by gaving me the gift of two fresh rainbow trout he had caught (even though I freaked out that I told him I was an American, which meant he and his cronies may come and either make an example out of me or steal everything I had.) Palla assured me it was fine. Darkness began to overtake the land.

When the sun was well behind the glacier and very little light remained in the western sky, a figure appeared on the horizon. The cook returned but his load seemed light. This was due to the fact that there were no more 6-man tents, as if I wanted to sleep in a 6-man tent by myself. 

  1. That would indeed be terrify in the desolate landscape compounded by the uncertainty of whether or not we were actually in friendly territory
  2. Body heat makes a big difference in a tent in the mountains, and being that the sleeping bag might have been sufficient for a rancher in the late 1800’s who slept by the fire, I would have froze to death.
  3. Our camp didn’t have a fire because at 14,000 feet there was no wood, only grassland with grazing sheep and cattle.

The tent was only one small problem, however. While the cook left to fetch the tent, the rest of the horses, still saddled up, had taken off and there was no sign of them. I was told if the horses fell in a ditch they wouldn’t be able to get up or the Gujarat people might steal the saddles. Either way, these were not exactly favorable conditions.

Somewhere in between dusk and night, Palla and the cook departed on foot to find the horses. It was a moonless night and the more you watched the sky, the more the sparkling gems told of the impending darkness as they to popped and twinkled against the receding shades of blue and gray. I pulled myself out of the Category 4 hurricane that was growing within, smoked a cigarette, and forced myself to laugh at the absurdity. I decided I needed to set a precedent.

When Palla and the cook returned without any horses, everyone was on edge because I had been on edge. As the leader and consumer of this situation, I needed to make things right before they spun out of control further.

With a scaled back tone from where I had been an hour prior and with my finger wagging in his face, I said, “Palla, you want me to have a good time right? This is what I need you to do for me to be happy. I need you to tell me everything that is going on at all times. Everything! No more fucking side conversations, you hear me? You translate everything for me and tell me what’s going on at all times. I also need you to think ahead of the situation—think of questions I might ask and answers I may want to know. Think of what’s going to make me happy. Think of what’s going to happen an hour from now. Use the head Allah gave you. If I knew you were sending the cook back for another 6-person tent I never would have had him go back. That’s just plain fucking stupid. When a situation presents itself, and when you have translated what’s going on, and when I have all the information, I will make a decision. Then if I need input I will run it past you and Pinto. You got it?”

I often forget that Palla is only 22.

Sunday
Aug142011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part I of III

"But now she's gone yes she's gone away, a soulful song that would not stay
You see she hides 'cause she is scared, but I don't care I won't be spared."
I Could Have Lied, Red Hot Chili Peppers 

July 2nd, 2011, The Jade Bar, New Delhi

The Delhi train station at 5:30am. Calm before the storm.If you will allow me to be a stater-of-the-obvious for a moment, I would like to make a blanket statement; the thing I hate about India is how much I stand out.

It’s like everywhere I go there is a target on my back that says, approach me, I’m white > that means I’m a tourist > that means I’m rich. Surprisingly, however, tonight for once I blended into the crowd, not because there were other white folk around, but because I was in the midst of an undulating sea of people on Ajmal Kahn Road in the Karol Bagh neighborhood of Delhi. You see I have had this as yet unfounded fear of Delhi. There are endless stories of people being cheated, robbed, taken advantage of, and being taken for a ride—literally. You hear them constantly when you’re traveling through India and even Indian people say the people of Delhi are “bloody shit.” How is that for a graphic term? I like it as an expression, but not when the visual is attached. From what I have gathered, “bloody shit” is the Indian superlative for lying, cheating thieves. And of course, I am not talking about the general citizens of Delhi; I am talking about street vendors and people in the service and transportation industry. Of course I realize an argument could be made that you're going to get these people in any major metropolis but right now these people are on my bloody shit list.

From the countless stories I have heard, even the thought of Delhi has caused a physical reaction in my body. The last two times I stayed or passed through I felt like everyone was out to get me, but tonight, the only people who approached me were a few people selling belts. Granted, if I got too close to a shop some merchant would try to pull me in with, “Hello friend. Where are you from? We make you a special price. No, no, you walk away the price is no more good. I know you want buy now.” In so many words. 

There is definitely not a recession in India. There were so many Indians out tonight looking for ways to spend their money that I moved through the streets with relative ease and mostly unnoticed. It was a refreshing break from Kashmir. You know how after a hard night of drinking you wake up the next morning and it tastes like you ate a shit sandwich? That’s kind of the lingering taste in my mouth from Kashmir. That was the last thing I expected when I arrived at Dal Lake 8 days ago. The beauty and fresh mountain air made me think it was going to be the best part of my trip, and in one way it was, but in another way I feel robbed and cheated. From what I hear of others, however, if you don’t feel like you got taken advantage of, then you really didn’t experience the true Kashmir.

It’s about 9:30pm, July 2nd, and I’m writing to you from the Jade Garden Bar and Lounge on Padam Singh Street, in the Karol Bagh neighborhood of Delhi. I’m sitting in the back-most corner of the restaurant next to a window with a view of the street below, and I'd like to imagine I'm relatively unnoticed except for the glowing Apple logo facing the patrons, and my face, glowing in the computer screen like a ghostly white specter. The Jade Garden has an Asian theme and red globes of light with Japanese images and characters hang from the ceiling. The music is lively, the patrons middle class and happy as they sip on mixed drinks and beers while eating curry, tandoori, and sweet and sour dishes.

The Jade Bar has a bit of an edge to it, like it could be in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle or the East Village in New York City. A plate of Tandoori chicken just arrived at my table and I’m drinking a double Vodka Tonic on the rocks. What separates this place from New York or Seattle, however, is that the Vodka, tonic, ice, and lime juice all come separate. That’s no big deal. But what really irks me is how stingy they are; a single is 30ml of vodka. How am I supposed to have any fun with that? The only redeeming value is that the stirrer in my drink says “Smirnoff” on it, my father’s brand of vodka. It’s a pleasant surprise to have the memory of my father placed right in front of me in an atmosphere where it might not have otherwise arisen.

In the back corner of the Jade Bar, in honor of my parents, I tipped my glass and made a toast to them saying thank you for everything.

Landing in Kashmir

Leading up to rush hour on the lake.If you’ve just joined me recently, I spent my first 2-3 weeks in India in McLeod Gange, which is right next to Dharamsala, home to his Holiness the Dalia Lama. I spent most of my time there with my two Kashmiri friends, Gasha and Palla. They could not speak enough about Kashmir. “It’s like God himself came down and created it,” Gasha said over and over.

After McLeod, since I unexpectedly found myself volunteering in India for an environmental lawyer named MC Mehta, my plans of doing the backpacking thing were waylaid, and so I spent the majority of my time in India basically in a 20-kilometer triangle made up of Rishikesh, Dehradun, and the Swastigram Eco-Ashram, which is in the middle of nowhere, right on the edge of Rajaji National Park. About three weeks ago I decided it was time to see a little bit of India, and since Kashmir was so highly touted, and since two of my closest friends in India were there, I called Gasha and booked a ticket to Srinagar.

It is hard for me to talk to Indians on the phone sometimes, never mind in person. Very often I am on a crappy cell phone with a poor connection and it can feel like I’m swimming up stream as I wade through their accent. MC Mehta—the man who I have probably spent the most time with in India—forget about it. I have no problem in person but for some reason communication on the phone is challenging. I suppose what I am getting at is, while it was a little difficult to cut through Gasha’s accent, what really threw me off was his tone. I expected him to be more excited that I was coming to Kashmir.

We had talked once or twice leading up to my departure, the plan being for him or his brother to pick me up in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. I hadn’t heard from him in a few days so I decided at the airport in Delhi to give him a ring.

“Oh, hello brother,” he said. “I’m glad you called. I couldn’t find your number. I can’t pick you up at the airport. I am at a ceremony for my big brother.” (For some reason Kashmiris always throw in that definitive adjective so that I recgnize that he is either larger or older.)Interior of the houseboat at night. That's Ayub's brother. I took the guitar off the wall and tried to play to break the awkwardness of Ayub relentlessly hitting on the Israeli girl.

“Just take a government taxi to Dal Lake,” he said—I think. Or Dal Gate…Or Gal Date…Something like that. It took about five minutes to get to that detail. Now mind you, this not so little detail was thrown at me about 20 minutes before boarding my flight, and the Lonely Planet I bought in McLeod Gange, which I have never actually cracked open, was packed in my checked baggage. 

(Sidebar: I need to interrupt this blog to let you know thatHard To Say I’m Sorry, by Chicago just came on. {How sweet is that video? And not sweet in the tender, touching way, but in the way that is full of timeless awesomeness.} I thought it was a funny choice until I discovered when the techno kicked in that it was a remix, followed by a remix of YMCA by the Village People. India is really funny sometimes. Now back to your regularly scheduled blogcast.)

Some concerned friends and my surrogate mothers (my sisters) had read the warnings on the U.S. Embassy Web site regarding Americans traveling in Kashmir and did their best to put the fear of God into me, as if I was not aware of the warnings about traveling to Kashmir (granted I did not read any of them until the last possible moment). Anyway, my Kashmiri friends assured me it was safe. But with several people coming at me time and again with the PLEASE be careful warningit gave me a mild case of traveler’s anxiety. This was accentuated before I left MC and Mona. MC told me to trust no one and not let anyone know where i was from and Mona laughed and told me how the Kashmiris do business; they will pull you in as friends and then take you here and there to buy things like rugs, which as it turns out is their friends and they all get a cut of the business.

“Mona,” I said, “You’re just being grouchy and cynical. Have some faith in people! These are my friends!”

“Yeah,” she muttered under her breath in an all-knowing way, “Friends all right. We’ll see.”

The view from the roof of the Lucky Peacock Houseboat.I had Gasha and Palla, my Kashmiri hosts, so I wasn’t too worried. BUT—all of this went to hell when I got the call that no one was picking me up, that I didn’t have a place to stay, and that I didn’t even have a map of the town. The last thing you want to be doing when you’re traveling by yourself is thumbing through a Lonely Planet at the airport in which you’ve just landed, or in the middle of a city where the bus, taxi, or metro just dropped you off. You might as well take a boat to the Great Barrier Reef, throw a bunch of chum in the water, cut yourself a few times, then jump in the water.

What I am trying to say here is that having no one to receive me in Srinagar put me into a bit of a panic and I knew if I didn’t come up with a plan I was shark bait.

(On yet another sidebar, I just want to say: depending on your perspective, I’m either a great traveler or a terrible one. I very often run this question through my mind. When things are clicking I think, ‘Man—I’m good at this!’ And when they’re not, I think—‘Man, how could you be sostupid!?!’ The fact of the matter is, I almost never make a plan and I never do research. I mostly rely on networking, the new friends I make, other people telling me what to do and where to go, or other people arranging my accommodations and transportation. It wouldn’t hurt, however, as I later learned, to at least thumb through my Lonely Planet India. )

As I was queuing up to board the plane with my mind in hyperkinetic manic mode, I received a call from an unknown number. “Hello? Is this Tim? This is Ayub, Gasha’s friend. He says you need a place to stay. I have a houseboat. When you get off the plane, get a government taxi to Dal Gate and I will wait for you.” At least for a moment my chest expanded in breath, but everything was still completely up in the air. Dal Gate? What the hell does that mean? And how do I know this driver isn’t going to take me for a ride? Or that he hates Americans? Or that he’s not going to just take me somewhere and he and his brothers cut my throat for the sport of it and leave me to be ravaged by vultures? OK, the plan is to not let anyone know you’re an American. Time to put your poor man’s Irish brogue to work. That seems like a middle of the road choice, right? Why would Kashmiris have a reason to hate the Irish? Who hates the Irish anyway? What a fun time I had in Galway. Oh wait—the British hate the Irish. Well, probably not all of Britain, but mostly those in Northern Ireland. I can’t even remember what they were fighting over. Man do I love Guinness and U2. The Joshua Tree—that album was flawless. A masterpiece. What I would give to hear In God’s Country right now, the Edge’s screaming guitar overtaking me while I’m drinking a Guinness. At least I can listen to some U2 when I get where I am going. Wait—I have no idea where I’m going. Shit. Fuck!

My Lucky Peacock

The first thing I noticed on the tarmac in Srinagar, the capitol of Kashmir, was the intense security. All of the buildings were painted in camouflage and everywhere you looked there were army men with M-16s. Ever since the Mumbai bombings, security in India has been intense, but this military display was far more intense than anything I had yet seen. You see Kashmir is predominantly Muslim and they want their independence from India. I asked quite a few people about this and the consensus, at least to me, is that the young, uneducated, and those who lack employment want their independence. Those who are earning a good income and are somewhat educated—while they would like their independence, they know they are greatly benefiting from India, and that without India, Kashmir would turn into Afghanistan and there would be no tourism and a lot of people starving. While the situation in Kashmir is not exactly the powder keg say Israel and Palestine is, it is certainly a volatile place where the wrong action by the police or military could cause the place to blow. With that said, it does not seem that the Kashmiris like the Indians, and vice versa.

The view to the right from the Lucky Peacock Houseboat, along with woodwork detail.Because of all the hype, as you know from reading the internal rantings of a manic lunatic (a la me), I was on guard from the outset. After I exited the plane, near baggage claim foreign nationals are required to fill out some paper work. As I was filling out the paperwork, I looked down and noticed a small boy with his hand in my bag, and by small I’m talking probably 5-years-old. I looked down and in a gut reaction I gave him an adult shove that sent him back a few feet and I shouted at him. Much to my surprise, the boy ran behind the counter where I was filling out the paperwork and into his mother’s arms. I don’t think she saw what happened because she smiled at me. If a stranger did to my child what I did to this boy, he might get a bottle cracked over his head. The boy, no doubt, said white man scary. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and so I’m going to assume this kid was just curious, but from the rest of my Kashmir experience, that could have been what his parents taught him, because those Kashmiris, they sure do like the kind of paper you can exchange for goods.

I followed Ayub’s instructions and got a government taxi, which was the nicest public transportation to date that I have traveled in in India. If this was government run, clearly Kashmir was benefiting from the infrastructure Indian taxes were creating, not to mention that the roads in Kashmir were in great condition as well. The car had leather seats, air-conditioning, a CD player, and GPS, which I haven’t seen in India yet. Surprisingly, the driver’s headrest had an American flag on it. Being in the heightened state of awareness I was in, driving through town it felt like every Muslim man with whose eyes met mine caused him to do a double take as they watched me drive off.

A Canal in the middle of Srinagar, Kashmir.When we finally got into Srinagar, it was far and away the most beautiful part of India I have seen yet, granted, I have seen very little of a massively diverse country. In my plush government chariot, we crossed multiple bridges and canals, and streets and promenades lined with trees and gardens. The architecture much to my surprise and appreciation was more wood and brick than the concrete and aluminum, which seems to be the predominent building materials in India. Besides the incessant ubiquitous honking of horns, men in Muslim attire, and women in burkhas, Srinagar felt more like Amsterdam or Switzerland then Delhi or Agra.

***

Sure as bloody shit (as the expression goes), Ayub was waiting for me at the gateway to Dal Lake to take me to The Lucky Peacock, his houseboat. We got in a shikara, the small wooden boat that takes you to the houseboats and made some small talk. I don’t think we had even made it to the houseboat, which was only about a 5-10 minute row, before he let me know he had a Swiss wife and two kids, and that he splits his year between Switzerland and Kashmir. I never did see the wife. He was a handsome man about my age and an easy talker. In fact, I would have to say in general that Kashmiris, both men and woman, are a good-looking group of people, at least in their youth. I think the majority who stay in Kashmir hit a “best if served by” date, however, and they age prematurely due to hard and stressful living. This was later confirmed by Shaqeel, the owner of the Noor Guesthouse, where I would stay the following day. I thought Shaqeel was perhaps 50. While he didn’t know his exact age, he guessed it was around 35. More on him in Part II.

Captain Ayub.Ayub showed me to The Lucky Peacock houseboat and said, “Is this OK for you?” He knew he had product and he knew he had me because my western eyes had never laid eyes on anything quite like it. The woodwork was decadent, the detail exquisite, and each piece was carved from the hands of true artisans; not to mention that the property was floating on a quiet canal full of lily pads, songbirds, and swooping cranes. In the front of the boat there were two great lounging areas with comfortable cushions, perfect to just read or watch the day go by. The only problem was Ayub and his brother were almost always around and always having friends drop by who wanted to chat, or inevitably, take me to their carpet factory to buy Kashmir rugs. “You should really sell these back home. I’ll give you a great deal. No middleman. My best friend owns the factory…” You wouldn't believe the number of best friends Kashmiris have.

“Well how much is this place per night?” I asked Ayub. He showed me some government rate sheet which said 4500 rupees a night (about $100) and I was like, are you fucking kidding me? But he said, “You’re a friend of Gasha so you can just pay what Gasha says.” I heard Mona’s voice in my ear, as if she was standing on my shoulder saying, “Yeah, friends all right.”

Getting to Kashmir

Making our way past the lily pads on our way towards the center of the lake.The previous 24 hours were not as smooth as they were supposed to be. On the overnight train from Dehradun to Delhi, while it was nowhere near the first hellish train ride I had in India, I did not sleep as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, this time my seat was confirmed and I was in 3rd tier AC. I didn’t exactly t know what that meant until I walked into the frigid car. Well, that explains the AC. The 3 tiers means that within each of the perhaps 10-12 small compartments that make up a train car, there are 6 beds stacked to the ceiling, 3 on each side.

I might have gotten 2-3 hours sleep on the 6-hour train ride if I was lucky. One nice unexpected fact was that you are provided clean sheets, blankets, and a pillow, however, I was slightly on edge about falling asleep with my laptop, wallet, passport, iPod and so on, so I did my best to either sleep on it or wrap my arm around the strap. Paranoid? Perhaps. Cautious? Most definitely. You gotta be when you’re the only person watching out for yourself—and of course as many stories as there are about Delhi, there are about being drugged or having bags stolen on trains. Unless you're out of the cities or with locals, it's hard to let your gaurd down in India.

The one fact that was bringing me some relief about arriving in Delhi was that MC’s driver was going to pick me up.

“What train car will you be in? 3B? OK. When you exit the car, just wait right there. My driver will be there,” MC said.

But as things go in India, something came up for the driver. This is the Indian way for a certain class or subsection of Indian society. If they don’t feel like working or showing up, they simply don’t. Getting paid is more of an afterthought to the whimsy of the moment. And so I exited the train and waited. And waited. And waited until I finally called MC.The parlor of the houseboat, looking out towards the water.

“Ah, hello Tim? Are you all right? I’m so glad you called. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all night and I sent you an email. The driver could not make it so you’ll have to get a taxi.” My phone was off all night to conserve my battery. I was low on battery because the Vodaphone service constantly—and I mean constantly—serves advertisements to your phone keeping the display on the phone lit, thus eating through your battery. ie: Delhi XI Quiz: Which of these left arm seamers from India plays for Delhi? Click OK to find out!

No ride meant the twitching and cringing again, the physical response to having to move through Delhi on my own.

From where my train pulled in, I made my way to the taxis. I took a moment to soak in the sunrise then into the hornets nest I descended. Toothless, dirty, disheveled, soulless pariahs came running at me, tugging at me or trying to lead me by my arm as they vied for the rupees in my wallet. But the way they come at you—I swear it feels like they're coming for your soul. I could almost smell the dishonesty on them, but then I realized they were just wearing the aroma of Delhi’s summer heat.

A kind Indian woman guided me toward the government taxi stand. “Don’t ever trust these people,” she said, and so I took a cab to MC’s apartment where I showered, ate breakfast, and we went over some of the issues we needed to cover. I asked the driver to turn on the AC and the bastard said it would cost another 100 rupees.

Before I knew it, I was on The Lucky Peacock in Kashmir. With only a few hours of sleep to my name, Ayub fed me and I fell into my hand carved bed and into a deep, heavy sleep.

***

When I woke I returned to the front of the boat and they asked me if I wanted to take a shikara to see the lake. “How much are they?” I asked.

He quoted me some outrageous price for the covered shikaras and then said about 800 rupees for the regular one (about $17), which is complete and utter bullshit. I am always tentative to spend any money when I have no concept of rates. When I’m traveling, I have no problem paying the value of something, but nothing pisses me off more than when I find out I got ripped off. Of course there is going to be a tourist “tax” on whatever you do, but then to get the white man’s surcharge on top of it is and frustrating and enraging.

“You didn’t come all this way to sit on a boat, did you?”Ayub asked. Well, I guess not, I thought. Kashmiris are slight of hand and masters in the art of suggestion. But I wasn't paying 800 rupees.

Ayub and his friend Farook took me out on the shikara and they asked me if I wanted any beers. “Well sure,” I said, “But I didn’t bring my wallet.”

“No problem. You’re a friend of Gasha’s.” (Mona: “Yeah, friends all right.”)

Farook and I on our way out to the lake. Kids don't smoke. Do as I say, not as I do. Anyway, I don't smoke back in the states. It's vile.Where the waterway opened up from a canal to the lake, Farook jumped off the boat and bought some beers along the waterfront. We drank, smoked cigarettes, laughed, and talked quite a bit about women and their genitalia, mind you—I was not leading the conversation. I was playing the supporting character of dude in agreement number 1.

We paddled to the middle of the lake and the scene lit me up, both on the inside and out. It was simply stunning and nothing like I had imagined Kashmir to be. I thought Kashmir would more akin to poverty and the Stone Age than a hustling and bustling tourist scene, with fountains in the lake, and well paved roads. Its beauty, baked in a clay dish of classic charm with a peppering of modernity, combined with essence-of-dramatic-waterfront, and garnished with the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains cascading down to the lake, could rank it in a second or third tier of the most beautiful waterfronts. Right before the sun sank behind the mountains, everything in the foreground was ablaze in Kashmiri fire, and when the sun sank behind the mountains, if there was ever a Kashmiri impressionist painter, the oils on his brush would have crafted the pastel scene upon which I was floating. I was getting filled with love from the beauty and the beer.

Fountains along the Srinagar waterfront.All the while, Palla and Gasha were on the phone with Ayub back and forth. Ayub kept telling me they were coming to meet us on the lake, but they never showed. Since we were drinking beers he told me if we were caught on shore we would get fined, or worse because I was a tourist, but I don’t know if that was the whole truth. The truth, as you’ll find out in Part II, is highly evasive in Kashmir.

Palla finally rented a Shikara and sailed out to find me, urging me to get on his boat. I was torn between my new hosts who were getting me drunk and going with my old friends, but owning to my allegiance, I jumped on Palla’s boat and both boats headed back to shore.

Palla, Gasha, Ayub and I took a walk along the waterfront while Farook stayed back with the boat. Palla and I kept saying, “I really can’t tell you how great it is to see you.” It was really a fantastic feeling to be reunited with and old,but recent friend.

When the party of four had separated into two parties of two, there was urgency about Palla. He was trying to get me to come with him and I told him about the situation I was in. Eventually he just said, “OK, you party with them tonight, have a good time, and tomorrow I’ll come get you.”

Kashmiri fire at sunset.

On the way home, Ayub and Farook bought me BBQ on the lake. Everything you could want is available on the lake by shikara drivers who row up to your boat selling their goods, from drugs, to corn on the cob, to toilette paper, to Lays Sour Cream and Onion potato chips. It’s quite a scene. Again I thought as I was throwing back spiced mutton skewers, what is this going to cost me, because the Kashmiri way is to not quote a price, then really stick it to you in the end. (If you don’t take my word for it, just read about Houseboat owners in The Lonely Planet.)

After the BBQ, we came across some young Israelis who were staying at Ayub’s sister’s houseboat and followed them home. One of the girls said she hadn’t spoken to her family in about two weeks and needed to tell them she was alive. Ayub used the opportunity to invite her back to his houseboat to use his Internet.

The three of us hung out for a while on his houseboat drinking, smoking, and talking. He told me to put on anything I wanted from his iPod and so I chose Bob Marley. A.) Alphabetically it was the first thing that jumped out at me and B.) Can you really go wrong with Bob Marley? India, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Tanzania—as a general rule, I’d say that Bob is not only universally accepted, but it’s generally welcomed, especially when water, beer, and warm weather is involved.  

Despite the fact that Ayub and I drank the same amount, he seemed drunk and was quite forward with this girl who looked as if she was maybe 20 or 22. When she went to the bathroom, he leaned in and said, “I can get her if I want. Just watch.”

The view of houseboats on our way home from being out on the lake.When she returned from the bathroom she said she needed to go home. Ayub had to row her home on his boat, which was maybe the equivalent of two city blocks. When she turned her head, he gave me the sign to stay behind, as if he was going to get it on with this young thing. However, when he turned his head, she waved me to come with her in urgency.

Again, I was in somewhat of an awkward position, but I decided to accompany the girl home and designate myself as the chaperon. The girl seemed pretty innocent to me, despite Ayub’s opinion of her, so I didn’t really want to leave her alone on a boat in the middle of a body of water with him in the condition he was in.

So I said in my head, fuck him, and I jumped on the boat with them. He gave me the stink eye.

It was quickly becoming apparent that he was not the model business owner, husband, and father that I had imagined him to be when after a few beers I naively said to him, “You seem so familiar to me but I can’t place it.” I bet he is familiar to a lot of people.

The next day the lake shined golden in the morning sun. Ayub looked like shit and his eyes were bloodshot. I Could Have Lied, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers was playing in the background. I said good morning, walked passed him, and laid down on the cushions to soak in the morning's fresh lake air.

Friday
Jul012011

13. Apple products bring the world together

"Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right." –Scarlet Begonias, The Grateful Dead

One of the reasons why I originally disliked Dehradun.The day that everyone left the law camp, I was supposed to go to Rajaji National Park with MC and Myriam, but as it turned out Myriam backed out and MC’s wife and daughter were going as well. Since it was his daughter’s 26th birthday, I thought perhaps they might like to just be together as a family. In addition, because of train and bus schedules, my friend Preetika was the only student who couldn’t leave with everyone else so I felt bad leaving her at the camp all by herself. As it turns out, it sounded like I made the right decision. MC’s jeep got stuck in the mud and almost slid down a cliff. They had to exit the car in tiger and elephant country while the driver tried to get the car out of the mud. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mehta was trying to stay calm because she has a heart condition. India is a stressful country, even for Indians. Even something as leisurely as a drive through a national park can turn the opposite way quite quickly.  

For how much time I’ve spent at the Eco-ashram, it’s fairly pathetic that I haven’t explored too much of its surroundings. So while the Mehta’s were somewhere in Rajaji National Park, Preetika and I went for a walk about two kilometers up the road. I had heard one of the little stores sold eggs, and being that I reached my quotient of rice and dal I asked them to make me two fried eggs and chapatti. I didn’t realize the chapatti had to be made, so they invited us into their house. Dusk was turning to night and they were just about to eat, so the villagers invited us up to the rooftop of their home where they fed us dinner. They were simple, kind people who opened up their home and hearts and wore enthusiastic smiles while asking us about the ashram and MC. They said they had heard a prominent lawyer bought the ashram years back and they wanted to know why he had never held a meeting of the villagers or why he doesn’t teach them law. Preetika translated and tried to explain to them how busy he was but they didn’t quite get it. She went on to tell them how she had attended the law camp and how I was helping MC write grants and whatever else he needed. They told her to say thank you to me for helping India and that it means a lot when a foreigner come to help their country. I think they are giving me a little too much credit, but I’ll take it.

On our walk home, we stopped at a temple devoted to Shiva. We both bowed our heads and said a silent prayer. As we were walking back I said to her, “What do you say when you pray? Do you say thank you? Do you ask for something?”

“Mostly I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just remain still and silent. Shiva knows what I need. I just say hello, how are you doing, and that’s it.” I found it rather beautiful in its simplicity. We could probably all use a little more stillness and quiet in our lives.

Preetika was leaving around 11 that morning, but she insisted we wake up at 5:30am to show me the walk she and some other students discovered. I didn’t realize that the ashram had about 30 acres, and so we walked through the forest as a gentle morning rain accompanied by thunder rolled through the valley. We wound up in a beautiful field next to some mango trees, picked two, and sat in the middle of the field watching the mountains while sunbeams tried to break through the thunderheads. You’re probably saying—why had he never explored the property? I think it was that first conversation I had at the ashram when they mentioned the elephants and leopards.

Plant a garden. It's a good way to get past the blues.Preetika left and for a while I relished in the peace and silence having had almost no time to myself for the entire week. But it didn’t take long for loneliness and the blues to settle in, as happens from time to time when you’re traveling. I lay in bed for quite some time moping and wondering what to do with myself and finally decided I needed to snap out of it. There are not too many better ways to break the blues than to occupy yourself with something that’s not only productive, but empties the mind, and so I planted an herb garden with some of the leftover plants the students purchased. The “shovel” was practically a medieval tool, the result being blisters all over my hands, but it was worth it.

A few days later on June 15th, MC’s driver dropped me off at the Ajanta Continental Hotel in Dehradun. I was excited and relieved to get the same room and the same rate, which I later was told never happens. The only reason I got the rate the first time was because I was gracious, polite, and smiled. Sometimes a smile goes a long way. The owner, Bhuvan, later told me an Indian business man or traveler would never get the rate I got because they are generally rude and a pain in the ass. Once again, what was only supposed to be a few days, I was surprised to learn at check out had turned into a week.

Morning ritual in Dehradun.On Friday evening I needed to email something to MC, plus I wanted to update my computer with the latest software fixes and podcasts, so I went into the business center in the hotel and plugged into the landline. Bhuvan, who at the time I did not know was the owner, asked if I would like tea or a lime soda.

When I was finished with my work I poked my head into his office to say thank you and noticed he had a nice Apple desktop computer. “Nice computer,” I said. “I love Apple products.”

I said the right thing because he began extolling the virtues of Apple products and told me how he had bought iPhones for his whole family and several friends. “Even my Dad is using them. Please, come in. Have a seat.”

We began having a nice chat and I told him a bit about what I had fallen into in India (working for MC) and how it was serendipitous because I had wanted to be involved in some sort of service while in India. “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I’m not Mother Teresa and I’m not looking to take a vow of poverty or anything. I still like my iPod and my MacBook Pro and the ability to eat sushi whenever I want.”

“You like sushi, do you?” he said, putting his hand to his chin. “Hmmm…what are you doing tonight? Would you like to have dinner? I’m having dinner with some friends and you should come along. I’ve been trying to have my friend make sushi for a long time. Maybe she will if it’s not too late. It’s an interesting mix of people and this woman is partly responsible for the organic movement in India.”

“Well actually, I was just about to go to dinner but your invite sounds far more interesting,” I said.

“What do you like to drink?” he asked me. This was one of the best questions any one had asked me in a while.

“I’m pretty easy. Beer, wine, vodka, whiskey.”

“Oh perfect. I was going to grab something from the hotel bar but Mona should have all of that.”

Bhuvan brought some extra food for everyone from the hotel restaurant and we drove about 4 kilometers up the road in a direction of Dehradun I had not yet been.

We wound up at Mona Shwartz’s house, a 75-year-old woman who has been living in India for more than 25 years. Her life story is a wild one, but I’ll get to that more completely in a future podcast.

The evening brought with it an eclectic mix of people; there was Bhuvan and myself, Mona, an architect who was also a Tarot Card reader and energy healer, an Indian woman who had been recently divorced (which is quite taboo in Indian culture), an older Indian couple—the husband of which was a retired high ranking air force officer, and another older gentleman who looked like an Indian version of Ernest Hemingway. I told him what I was doing and whom I was working for, and he replied with hubris and bravado, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing.” His tone gave me the impression that he was scoffing at the idea of environmental law and he went on to command, “What has he done?” The Tarot card reader/architect chimed in that he knew all about MC Mehta, had been following his work for years, and that he was a very impressive man.

I felt there was something hardened about the man who made the remark. Beyond him being a large man, he had a resigned sadness about him—my feeling and sense told me that he had some burden of the soul. I later found out that he had lost two children and as a result had dealt with some pretty serious alcoholism. He had been dry for sometime but had a small glass of wine that night.

I was staring across the table at Mona all night, dying to know what her story was. What was a 75-year-old Jewish woman from the Mainline in Philadelphia doing in India? I tried to talk to her but she is hard of hearing and it was almost impossible to talk across the table, and so my inquiry would have to wait. I sat next to the retired air force officer and chatted with him for a while, and at one point he had the whole table hanging on his every word as he recounted a harrowing tale of how his helicopter suffered mechanical failure and dropped out of the sky from several thousand feet. He walked away from the crash with some cuts and broken bones but he said he received something not a lot of people get to receive—a second chance at life. Had we been in a more intimate setting, I would have loved to ask him how that changed him or if he has lived his life any differently as a result.

When the evening ended, I told Mona I wanted to hear more of her story, and that I would love to come back and interview her. She welcomed the idea.

I was feeling pretty warm on the ride home, my head swimming in a bit of vodka and wine. Serendipity had once again touched down in the form of a conversation over Apple products, but then again, I did write that day in my morning writing exercise that I wanted to have a serendipitous meeting. No joke. When Bhuvan dropped me off, since I had not seen much of Dehradun and I had never been to the hill town Mussoorie, he suggested we go for a trek the following day.

Bhuvan having a moment of contemplation.The next day we met in the hotel lobby around 1:30pm and he had lunches packed for us from the hotel kitchen. We made a stop at his house to collect some things and I saw a part of Dehradun I did not know existed. Of course, like anyone of means in India, he had a wait staff, a chef, a driver, guards, and so on.

After the pit stop, his driver took us up towards Mussoorie. On our way we encountered a very recent car wreck. A car had flown off the side of the road on a turn and hit a tree about ten feet above the ground. It was wrapped around the tree and the windshield was shattered. Almost no one wears seat belts in India. It was just another humble reminder of the fragility of life and an example of the result of not being careful on the lawless roads in India.

After about an hour-and-a-half we reached our destination and went for a great hike. When we reached the top of the peak, we paid our respect to Shiva at a temple. Later, we walked to the other side of the mountain and sat in silence as we stared in awe at the sunbeams shining down like stage lights on the endless hill of the Himalayas.

Bhuvan is a relatively new to the outdoor scene but a true enthusiast. On the way down the mountain, he wanted to trail blaze to see if we could find our own route. We started walking down some very steep terrain, all the while I was gently persuading him to abandon the plan for what he knew. He quickly realized it might not be the best idea.

We had some great conversations that afternoon about our lives, mediation (he does transcendental meditation twice a day for 20 minutes), and just the places life takes you when your not looking. Each story he told seemed to contain simple wisdoms.

“There is an old story about a woman who was knitting in her house and lost her needle,” he began. He went on to say how a man came by and saw her on the ground outside the house. He offered to help her find her needle but they couldn’t find it.

“Where did you lose it?” he asked her.

“In the house,” she replied.

“Well then why are you searching for your needle out here?”

“Because it’s dark in my house and I’m scared.” He went on to say, “You see Tim, the point of the story is that we all know where to look for the answers, but most of us are afraid to go there.”

“Life happens from here to here,” he said later on down the trail, first pointing at his left temple and then his right. “It all exists in the mind, then it is brought forth into existence through language, and then the world occurs to us as a result of language.”

The previous night he had asked me about my grateful/creation journal and once again expressed an interest in it. I told him how it was an experiment in consciousness, creation, and connection.

We talked about my parents and how what a year can make because almost exactly a year prior my mother had passed away. I told him about my father and gave him some history lessons of World War II. We talked about how we face a whole different set of challenges than our parents. Our parents worked hard to put bread on the table but we have the time and luxury to think about what we want out of our lives, and sometimes that comes with the cost of being lost. Our freedom requires being responsible for the choices we make—and we went on to discuss how our kids and every generation has a whole different set of challenges to address.

I told him how I have more than 40 journals of my life on paper and he asked me if I ever go back and read them.

“How does that make you feel reading them?”

“Well,” I said, “I look back through them very seldom, but when I do, I read them with compassion for the kid who wrote them. It’s almost as if a character in a book lived them. Then at other times the things I read are still as painful as when they occurred.”

“Life is like school,” he said. “You have to keep learning until you get the lesson and graduate on to the next level. And when you don’t get the lesson the first time, you keep repeating the level and each time the lesson gets bigger and harder.”

He said that it sounds like I am sometimes living in anticipation of the next thing in my life, and I agreed and made a generalization how it might be a western tendency.

“You should focus on being in the here and now,” he said.

“Well actually, I have been, and that’s a lot of what this trip is about…I don’t know,” I trailed off.

“No finish that, articulate that, because you need to hear it yourself. The sounds of the words need to resonate within you like a bell.”

“Well, this experience of travel has brought out some of the best parts of me and I love the way that makes me feel. I have found new heights of experience and personal happiness, the kind of happiness that no one can give you but yourself. And I know that when I am feeling happy, the frequency of my vibrations attracts more and more good feeling into my life. I just need to figure out how to stay there.”

“Well, the thing about life is you can’t unless you reach enlightenment, which almost no one achieves. You know how you have compassion for that young boy? Remember these feelings you are feeling, and regarding the pain when you read those journals, don’t beat yourself up over those things. That young boy could not have had the knowledge your current self possesses so you could not have made the decisions you wished you had made. You are here, now, where you are supposed to be. Keep bringing those good feelings into your life because the feelings you push out are like a radio frequencies and in the silence and stillness you pull in the information like a radio antenna.”

This is the time of evening Bhuvan wanted to set out on the second hike, the peak being at least an hour away.When we finished our trek it was getting late and Bhuvan pushed on to summit another mountain so I could see the view from the top. We started on our way but the terrain got somewhat treacherous and once again, I gently talked him out of his impetuousness. He just wanted to share the view, but I didn’t really feel like falling off a mountain.

Later that evening he said, “You know Tim, we went on that beautiful hike and we climbed to the top of the mountain, but we only spent about 20 minutes up there. It was an end point, a goal we reached, but that really wasn’t the purpose of the trek. Where the trek really occurred was during the journey, and that is the beauty of life.”

I agreed and told him about Juliana, whom I met in McLeod Gange, and how she had given voice to something I was wanting to say, and how he was giving voice to some things I wanted to say as well.

“It’s not me who is giving voice. It’s you who is bringing it out in your seeking and conversation.”

The house that Hotel Ajanta built.Bhuvan was quite keen on doing another hike on Sunday so he sent a car for me. When I got to his house he kept throwing out ideas, most of which revolved around challenging hikes. While I was up for anything, nothing really grabbed me. I was essentially a mirror as he talked through options to himself. Finally he said, “You know what? It’s Sunday. Let’s just have a nice leisurely day. We’ll pack a lunch and take my bike about 15 minutes up the road. We can hike up a river and find a nice place to relax and have lunch. How many beers should I bring? I’ll bring some wine as well. Hang tight while I call the hotel and have them deliver our lunches.”

I was a bit tentative about hopping on the back of his Avenger motorcycle, but like most things in life, once you move past the fear and into the experience, you find out you actually love it and you wonder what was holding you back. I was enjoying myself so much I was wishing our destination was further away.

When we arrived, we hiked up through a river valley that in some areas bordered on a canyon. We could have stopped anywhere, but Bhuvan, ever the enthusiast, pushed us onward.

After an hour’s climb up the valley, we found the perfect watering hole and set up camp, popped two Carlsberg beers, and toasted to new friendships and a happy life. His cook had given us the fixings of coleslaw, grated mozzarella cheese, and mouth-watering chicken tikka masala. We put the makings in between two pieces of whole grain bread (“I don’t eat the bread the hotel serves,” he says) and then added a layer of Lays Sour Cream and Onion potato chips to add some texture. I will be replicating this combo.

“Wait,” he said, as I began to devour my second sandwich. “Let’s have some wine. It will be a nice accent to the sandwich.”

Macrobiotic eating. Mona had this made especially for me.The following day I took a Vikram up to Mona’s place. Since she had heard I liked Sushi, she prepared a macrobiotic sushi lunch for me. We talked all afternoon and I interviewed her about her life story. She told me how she has written several drafts to a book about her life.

To compress a very large life into a nutshell, she was sick and dying and was healed through Macrobiotic eating. Since most people come to the Macrobiotic way of eating because they are sick, the motto is “1 and 10,000.” The creed is that you can take any help you want to heal yourself, but once you are free of your illness, you must pay it back 10,000 times. And that is what Mona has been trying to do ever since she began to be healed in her 30s.

“You know,” she said, “You don’t know why you walked in my door today but I have been praying for someone to come for a long time to help me tell my story. Several people have started but not followed through.” It was a daunting statement upon which to be on the receiving end. I told her we could start with the podcast and an article.Another course.

We sat all day long and when I left that afternoon, I said my goodbyes. But there would be three more said before I left Dehradun, because one way or another, I found myself back at her place. Once because I was trying to find The Grand Bakery but the Vikram driver had no idea what I was talking about, and knowing that we had gone too far but that we were near Mona’s house, I stopped by. She invited Bhuvan over that night for dinner and Bhuvan brought a guitar for me to entertain her. Bhuvan wanted to record it and post it on YouTube but I made every excuse why it was a bad idea; the guitar was out of tune, I hadn’t played in a long time, I can’t remember how the songs go, and so on and so on.

“Tim,” he said. “Come on. Share the love.” He won out in the end, and always being in control, he took about ten minutes to set up the lighting.

Over the course of a few days, Mona had shared with me a small chunk of her life story. She did not exactly understand what I was recording it for and at times forgot she was being recorded. 

“You know,” she said, “I’ve never told anybody some of these things.” She later asked me to keep parts of her story off the record, but I said, “Mona, if you’ve never written about this stuff, then what is in your book? You’re book can’t work without your life story, because that is what brought you to macrobiotic eating.”

The result of a day on the river.What I can say about Mona is that she is a woman of immense faith. At a very young age she fell in love with a poor boy, but instead got married to a person of her means and class, a man she never should have married. She very quickly had two children and was under immense stress from the marriage. At one point, her daughter—still under a year—became very sick. She would cry when the mother and father were in the same room, but when they were separate she was fine. Their relationship was that toxic. The marriage didn’t work out so she went to the west coast and began a new life, but years of internal unhappiness and the stress of being a single mother slowly began to destroy her body. Through a serious of auspicious events, she met, was nursed back to life by, and worked for two of the founders of Macrobiotic eating in the United States. “My life just works now. It took 75 years but it works. Everything I need just comes to me.”

Her life reads like an epic, which included being lead by an astrologer to Goa, India, where she was told she would meet certain people that would show her the way. She met them and that is how her life in India began. At one time in the 80s she was one of the only white people living in Kashmir and survived three attacks on her life. Since she had almost lost her life earlier, she did not fear for it, so she said no one was going to scare her or force her from Kashmir. As a precaution, she rounded up a few Gujarat (the mountain people of Kashmir) in case it came down to a fight. And it did.

One day the commander of the area came to her house high on something and told her he was going to kill her. There was a standoff in the house and the commander had a gun to her head. He finally decided he was going to kill her, and as he cocked the pistol the sky went black and a tornado touched down more or less on the house. She was yelling out to her guards to open the windows and the commander was yelling for no one to move. She told him to shut the fuck up and told her people what to do. The house was saved, the commander went running, it was the only place in the area where the tornado touched down—and she was never bothered again. This will all be in her words in the podcast.Working at Mona's.

Her life is too big to tackle here, but she has trained chefs in macrobiotics, now trains boys in her house to cook Macrobiotic, and has started a Sunday farmer’s market in Dehradun. She is a lovely woman to sit and talk to and reminded me of my Aunt Lily, who wasn’t really my Aunt but an old, warm, friendly lady who always had a cigarette in her hand and a drink at happy hour. I can’t exactly say Mona always treats her staff with grace, however.

“No! This spoon doesn’t go with this dish. Are you stupid? Get! Get away!” she might say, slapping the servants hand.

“Mona,” I said. “I love ya, but if I worked for you, I would kill you.”

“No you wouldn’t,” she said. “You wouldn’t take it and you’d walk away. If I was easy on these boys, they wouldn’t become the best.” While they barely speak English, much can be said in tone. But she is Mona and she gets away with it and they put up with it because a.) she is paying them, and b.) they understand she is a demanding old lady and most of the people she has trained have gone on to five star restaurants.

Mona has a strong support system in Bhuvan and many other people. On Monday night a girl that works for her got beaten severely by her husband. She showed up at Mona’s house and Mona called another friend who took her to the hospital. The husband, an abusive alcoholic, had beaten her before but this was the worse than all the others combined. This is a sad reality for many women not only in India, but throughout the world, but it was the first time I had come face to face with it.

By the time she got back from the hospital on Tuesday, Mona and I were knee deep in her closet looking through papers as she searched for versions of her life story and work. For years she had also been clipping out newspaper articles that she found relevant.

“Someone should preserve these,” she said. I had no comment.

I was relieved by the distraction of the girl returning from the hospital because I found it overwhelming to sort through her life and it reminded me of the stacks and stacks of papers that my mother had created when she took up our genealogy as a hobby late in her healthy life. While there seemed to be a methodology or a hierarchy to the work my mother put together, only she knew what that was, and so to us it was only bags and bags of paper, notes, and pictures that were often scattered about on the dining room table.

Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. While I was thinking about her all day and thinking about what I was doing exactly a year prior when I got the phone call, I didn’t really have much time to really think about it; my day was consumed by trying to get back to the Eco-ashram to pack my belongings for Kashmir and then trying to get back to the hotel.

Since MC was busy in the morning I had to hire a Vikram to get out to where he was. The driver had no idea where he was going and we had no communication so every so often we would stop and I would hand him the phone. We spent a good frustrating hour roaming the outskirts of Dehradun. When I reached him, we hopped in his car and went to have lunch at his house where for the third time I got to dine with his wife and daughter.

After lunch was over, MC and his daughter were off somewhere and I told Mrs. Mehta how much I appreciated everything and what the day meant to me.

“I understand,” she said. “I was very close with my mother and had a hard time dealing with her death for a long time afterward.”

“You two would have been fast friends and could probably pass days talking without even noticing the setting and rising sun,” I said.

After lunch, I drove around Dehradun with MC and his daughter getting her application to Cambridge law school notarized, as well as a trip to the bank. She doesn’t want to go, however. Her interest is in theology and she wants to teach. Finally, after a long day, I got dropped off at the hotel and checked back into the room I had checked out of only a few hours earlier. I have grown to love that room and am looking forward to my return.

My plan for the evening was to go out to dinner and then just write, think, and reflect upon my life with my mother. Before I went out I dropped in Bhuvan’s office to say hello and he said, “What are you doing tonight? Shall I call my kitchen at my home and have them make a pizza? What would you like to drink?” There are few questions more satisfying than that in India, because sometimes you just want to have one or two but many places are dry. And so we had pizza, Rum and Cokes, and beer. Bunvan was dissatisfied with the way the kitchen reheated the pizza, so even though we finished almost the whole pie, he ordered Dominoes.

Later in the evening, I finally got around to telling him where I was one year prior and why—which was the El Chupacabre in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle, eating cheap Mexican food and drinking Margaritas with a small group of friends who came out to be with me on the night my mother decided to leave her body, as the Indians would say.

“Well then—let’s raise our glasses,” he said. “To the love she created and to her love that endures.”

On my last day in Dehradun, Bhuvan let me linger in my hotel room until almost 5pm, even though my checkout was noon. On our hike he had told me that he hates receiving gifts because he is so finicky, but I didn’t care. I found a small journal with a great Einstein quote on it about creation, wrapped it in a page of The Times of India, and slipped it under his door. I wrote him a note on the inside thanking him for his generosity and friendship and how he now had to use this gratitude/creation journal every day. He texted me thinking I had left but I was still lingering in the room. When I received his text I went to say goodbye and he was already writing his first entry.

 

Tuesday
Jun212011

12. Law Camp and Indian Justice

"There's a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it cause he knows it's all worthwhile." - Starman, David Bowie

Preparation

A week of scrambling and chaos yields a successful event.“My goodness! What does a man like you eat for breakfast?” one of the students asked me. He had arrived a day early and had been watching me furiously clean plastic chairs. After about 50 or so, he offered to help. In the mean time, huts made of brick and grass were being constructed, storage rooms were being converted into sleeping quarters, a makeshift kitchen was being erected out of bamboo and tin sheeting, sheets were being washed, and beds were being made. The grounds of the Eco-Ashram buzzed with laborers like ants in an ant farm.

This student I speak of arrived a day early, thus he was the first to arrive at what was essentially summer camp for environmental law students; a week of lectures from directors of national parks, leading scientists, judges, and lawyers, and including MC—two Goldman Prize winners (The Goldman Prize is considered by many in Europe and America to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism). The climax of the week was a moot court, trials based on actual cases.

It was Saturday, June 4th, and as I said, for the last several hours I was cleaning chairs that had been in storage for who knows how long. In the room where they had been stored there was a hole in the roof and so the chairs were caked in mud from the previous storms as well as spider webs. I was zoning-out in the rhythm of cleaning the chairs when at one point I felt a bug on my hand and flicked it off. It was only at the last split-second, as my finger was already in the flicking position that I realized it was a baby scorpion. I sent him flying stinger over heels.

MC and Sam, both receivers of the Goldman Prize.It was one of those days where despite being up since 5:30am and operating on very little sleep, I had endless energy - kind of like the first time you run after a long hiatus and you think, I’m not in that bad of shape after all, which of course is just adrenalin. In total I cleaned about 120 chairs. I was told at one point to finish the job the next day, but there was still so much work to be done and in 24 hours, 40 young, rambunctious law students would ascend upon the grounds of the Eco-Ashram.

Since I arrived at the Eco-ashram on May 31st, the place was a flutter with preparation for the 40 law students, several professors, honored guests, and a Swami, who was to lead the dedication of the new Climate Change Center on the first evening. On May 31st, we were a week out, most of the housing was not even nearly complete, and most of the beds were in storage. Plywood and junk seemed to cover everywhere. This was all due to the fact that while I was in Rishikesh, a storm came through and caused massive damage to the grounds, tearing parts of roofs off cottages and collapsing the dining hall.

“You see?” MC said. “These storms are unseasonable. This is nature’s way of saying things are not well.”

I didn’t think it could be done—I didn’t think the place would be ready by the time everyone arrived, but in a week the dining hall was deconstructed and from its remains five thatch-roof huts were created to house an 15 additional students.

When MC would ask me, “What do you think?” I kept my opinion to myself, that being that there was no way in hell this place was going to be ready.

“It’s coming along,” I would say. “It’s really starting to take shape.” And in fact, up until the students went to bed at the end of their first day, we scrambled to add beds and mattresses.

(My favorite part of this long-ish, uncut video is about 1:44 in, where MC is seen running through the background chasing the dogs away with a stick. Can't remember what they were doing but up to no good as usual.)

It doesn’t seem like it should take that much work to create a small hut, but its quite astounding how much effort goes into building one of these shelters properly. The reason why it collapsed in the first place was because the workers were incompetent. I was amazed watching the daily increments of progress as the laborers transformed the land from a weather beaten mess into a campus.

What the student who asked me what does a man like you eat for breakfast did not see was that with the exception of one day, for the previous six days I was sitting around like a sloth, asking for something to do but our managing resources had run too thin. Myriam took point on most projects, but she was one person trying to motivate workers who didn’t really understand what truly cleaning something meant. In most cases we had to redo the work they had done. Some of the workers could be self-directed, but the majority needed someone standing over them, literally showing them exactly what to do. When no one was watching them, productivity dropped off. In the meantime, MC was driving around the district and state trying to find laborers and to replace the ones who said they would show but never did.

The Commander in Chief

The commander-in-chief at the command center.I think it’s impossible not to like MC Mehta, unless of course you are facing him in a court of law. He is full of simple wisdoms that make you pause and think, and then smile. He teaches by his character, that being the fact that his actions are in line with what he fights for. And while he is serious and focused in his will to protect the environment while doing what he can to mitigate climate change, he is always quick to smile, and I bet his laugh could even infect a death row inmate. I can’t really say enough about this man.

Throughout the week it seemed like the place was falling down around him and yet he would just laugh and say in his accent, “What to do?” which is the common Indian way of saying, oh well—what can you do? “

This is India,” he would add. “Tis too much. Tis too much,” and laugh it off. But it was not a nervous laugh. It was a genuine laugh at the absurdity of how much was still to be done, how hard it is to get things done in India, and just how far we were from the finish line.

MC is this brilliant man who is scattered and pulled thin by all of his commitments and by all of the people who are vying for his attention and relying on him for action and change. He is the only hope for many people whose livelihoods or land are being threatened by development or polluting industries. When he is not engaged in conversation or preparation, he sits outside the office on a little concrete patio in his chair immersed in deep thought and contemplation, partially slumped, legs crossed, elbow resting on the arm rest, and chin resting on his hands.

I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know MC the man before I knew about MC the public figure. The more I get to know about his career, the more humbled I am. His cases read like the best episodes of Law & Order and I was amazed and awed that on the first day students held him in such high regards that they tried to bend down to touch his feet, but MC wouldn’t have it.Group photo on the last day.

“Every landmark environmental case in India that has been brought to the court was filed by Mr. Mehta,” one student said. “Every environmental case we study in law school is MC Mehta vs. the State of India, or MC Mehta vs. some polluting industry. And he’s the only one who has been able to beat the government. The first and the last case you study when entering law school is about Mr. Mehta.” What’s even more remarkable is, as far as I understand, he is not paid in these cases. He has fought more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court of India and never lost. At one point a special court was set up every Friday to hear his cases. 5,000 factories along the Ganges River have been directed to install pollution control devices and 300 factories were closed as a result of his actions. Approximately 250 towns and cities in the Ganges Basin have been ordered to set up sewage treatment plants. He has won additional precedent-setting suits against industries that generate hazardous waste and succeeded in obtaining a court order to make lead-free gasoline available. He has also been working to ban intensive shrimp farming and other damaging activities along India's 7,000-kilometer coast. MC has succeeded in getting new environmental policies initiated and has brought environmental protection into India's constitutional framework. He's almost singlehandedly obtained some 40 landmark judgments and numerous orders from the Supreme Court against polluters, a record unequaled by any other environmental lawyer in the world. Countless corporate and government lawyers are getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to fight him, to outwit him, and yet he is an unbeatable, a one-man legal brigade.

The first thing MC does when he arrives at the ashram every day is stop by the temple to pray. This says mountains about the man and from where her gets his stregnth. He is a man of deep faith and conviction. Many people of his stature and accomplishments would be arrogant and rest on their laurels, thinking themselves to be the god and creator of their own universe, but MC is an incredibly honest and humble man. He rarely talks about the past or his accomplishments unless prompted or unless the conversation dictates. Instead, he is focused on the future and what is yet to be done.

On top of all of this, he is funny—damn funny. Several times during the week we laughed so hard he had me in tears. When I did ask him about his cases, in recounting the details he laughs hysterically and slaps his knee as he describes the surreal details, how he outwitted his “very cunning” opponents, or how he used the press and media to his advantage. It is no wonder he is so greatly respected in India, but he has not always been in the favor of the public. As the press often excels at obfuscating facts or picking and choosing an angle to a story, there have been many times when industries that are the target of his wrath have worked hard to disparage him. At one point in the 90’s, 20,000 workers burned images of him in effigy while protesting the lawsuit he brought against the polluting industries that were pitting and staining yellow the Taj Majal’s marble as a result of acid rain. In ten years these industries did more damage to the national landmark than hundreds of years of war. MC has been offered pay-offs to shut up and disappear and has had death threats against him to the point where he needed security.

At one point he was called to the Prime Minister’s residence for a discussion about the development and plans for damns along the Ganges. The two sat outside to have tea while several peacocks, the national bird, ran around the grounds. Almost nothing had been said to each other when a peacock came towards them. Always looking for the simplest way to drive home a point he said, “Can I kill that peacock?”

The Prime Minister’s (apparently an expressionless man) jaw dropped and he nearly fell out of his chair. “What? What are you talking about? Of course you can’t kill that bird! Are you mad?”

“Then how can you allow these dams to be built and kill the Ganges, our national river?” Point well served. His mind is sharp and agile and is always working at this level. To hear him tell this story is fantastic.

One thing he always does as a lawyer and investigator is visit the environmental sites he is working to protect, several times he has had to do this in disguise. He told me of one case in which he was working to close down an industry that was contaminating drinking water for the surrounding villages. People were getting sick, skins of animals were peeling off, trees withered away, and crops were burning up in the fields. As the courtroom drama played out, opposing lawyers worked furiously to defame him. They spoke for an hour to the court how MC was out for publicity and his own self interests. “How could I be out for my own self interests?” He asks me as he recounts the story. “These people will do anything for a dollar and they are very clever.”

MC waited very patiently and when it was time for him to speak, he pulled out a bottle from his bag.

“What is that, rum?” someone joked.

“This is contaminated drinking water from the site. If any of the opposing lawyers will drink this water, I will withdraw the case right now.”

The opposing lawyers knew they had lost the case. The judge asked what do you want? MC asked for clean drinking water, medical relief, compensation for damages, and the industry to be closed down. These were all granted.

“I do not take a case unless I know I can win it,” he says. “Sometimes I wait a long time until the conditions are favorable on the bench or until I have sufficient evidence,” he says, continuing. “In my view, you are fighting on your principles. If you are speaking the truth, if you are guiding the court properly, respectfully, and presenting the facts, even the hardest judges become soft.”

I think like all great men, he is driven by an inner vision, truth, and an ironclad faith, and like all great men who have left their mark upon history, their legacy is not built on the size of their palaces but on the quality of their thoughts. There is nothing that can compromise his values. He is of the rare breed of men whose actions are truly in union with his words. Professionally speaking, whether I move in a new direction charted by my experiences with him or whether I go back to what I was doing before I left on my travels, personally, MC the man is a true inspiration and a model of the greatness I would lke to aspire to.

“MC is perhaps the most important barrister in India since Ghandi, and no one outside India knows who he is. He’s like a John Adams figure,” said Sam Labudde.

Professor Sam

Sam and I pondering what to ponder.Sam Labuddy, an American biologist and has a vendetta against economists. “Economists are the new lawyers,” he said, “And I hate every last one of them.” Then again, he has a vendetta against a lot of people and industries. If you are looking for an opinion regarding the environment, foundations that negligently hand out grants, or some of the NGOs who are “working” to protect the environment, chances are he has an opinion. When you have done what he has done, including won the Goldman Prize in 1991, I suppose you are entitled to that opinion. He can also tell you anything about the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols which he worked upon, two of the biggest environmental global policies in history, yet his crowning achievement was probably getting onto a Mexican fishing boat as a crewmember in order to expose the great secret of the tuna fishing industry.

At some point after WWII with the creation of hydraulics, someone came up with the idea to make a mile wide fishing net to fish for tuna. The thing is, for some reason that no one understands, while dolphins generally are near the surface, tuna shadow them below, so when these massive nets were being hauled up, millions of dolphins—the most intelligent creature of the sea—were being killed for no reason except they were in the way, then simply just discarded back into the sea like trash.

“A woman would never think to do something like this. Only an idea as stupid as this could come from a man,” Sam told the class. "If we came upon dolphins on another planet, we would probably not disturb them, rather study them for their intelligence."

And so Sam worked for several months on a Mexican fishing vessel because he could not get on an American one. To get on an American tuna fishing vessel, because of the dirty secret no one discuess, you had to sign countless non-disclosure agreements and could not bring any video equipment on board. After capturing the footage he needed on the Mexican fishing vessel, however, he left the fishing boat and brought it to the press, essentially shutting down the illegal dolphin killing practice. He also fought to protect the Tigers and created a boycott of Taiwan for selling Tiger parts with to-the-point ads on the back of the first section of the NY Times. His WMD’s have always been a video camera and the press.

For the first day, everyone was worried about what happened to Sam. It was a 6-hour journey from Delhi to the ashram and he was supposed to be picked up at 6am. He didn’t show up until about 5pm that night, because, as it turns out, MC had sent a car for him and the hotel operator lied to the taxi driver, telling him that Sam had left at 5am with someone else. The hotel operator lied to him so he could get the money for the taxi to drive Sam to the ashram, except the driver the hotel hired had no idea where the Eco-Ashram was.

For having slept only a few hours in a few days, Sam was remarkably and impressively on when he arrived, right as the induction ceremony for the climate change center was getting underway. MC asked him to introduce himself and immediately Sam captivated the students.

In bare feet, Sam walked amongst the students and said, “OK, I want you all to stand up.” And so the students stood up.

“Before I berate you and belittle you over the course of the next several days, I’m going to make the bet that you don’t even know who you are. And I want you to think about that over the course of the next few days.”

“Who you are?” He asked. The students nervously looked at each other, wondering if they were going to be called out. “Who you are is 3 billion years of evolution. You are the crown of creation. Do you know what that makes you?”

They looked around again. “A force of nature. As man has evolved in his technology and conquered survival, do you know what he has lost?”

Again blank stares. “Harmony with nature.”

He continued with his opening statements, and then in barefeet walked out into the rain and went to his room.The courtroom and classroom.

And so every time Sam started a session over the next several days, it began with this exercise, the students standing up and he asking them who they were, what that made them, and what they have lost as a result.

For the first few days, I thought Sam was a professor, because he had the uncanny ability to captivate these kids with a combination of science and irreverence. Two minutes into him speaking on the first day I thought, I would have loved to be in one of his classes. You would have thought that he had spent 25 years in the classroom, but at the age of 54, 25 years ago he was only in his second year of college. Sam had left Indiana at the age of 18 and decided he was going to save the world, but after a decade of traveling from Alaska to South America, he realized he didn’t have the knowledge to save the world, and so he entered college at 28. And might I add he has never been a professor.

His central message throughout the week was, “For so long human survival was about overcoming nature, but our victory is going to be incomplete. The same blind momentum we marched forth with in the conquest of nature, with the same zeal and fervor we now fondle machineguns and nuclear weapons. Human society is all about growth and momentum and we have made great strides as human beings, but if we don’t do something now, all the luxuries we’ve created, such as human rights and woman’s liberation, won’t matter. We are nearing a tipping point and unless we begin acting globally, we are going to do irreversible damage that is going to have catastrophic consequences.”

My favorite thing he said during the week, however, was, “Every time I give a talk somewhere, someone says to me, ‘what can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ I tell them, ‘you know how you can make a difference? Pick one issue that drives you mad and that you can’t live with or without—and own that issue. Learn everything you can about it. In the process you will meet people who think the same way you do, and before you know it you're talking about a movement, and right after that you’re talking about strategy and goals—and that’s when real change happens."Outdoor class with Sam.

Students Take Justice Into Their Own Hands

I found it funny to learn around day 2-3 that the students thought I was the disciplinarian. I should have maintained that facade. The fact of the matter was that when students were arriving, I was in the office, and when I came out I didn’t have the energy to make small talk and introduce myself, so I simply walked past them to my room. I think I was just in my own head, because apparently I barely looked at people and didn’t have a smile on my face—at least this is the way it was recounted to me.

Another reason why perhaps they thought I was a disciplinarian was probably because the only thing I couldn’t stand was when they talked through lectures. While I can agree with them that some of the guest lecturers may not have been the most scintillating speakers, I was hoping they would at least have the respect to be still and listen to some of the best minds of India in their respective fields, but many of the students would just talk the entire time through lectures. I was sitting in the front row most of the time and I would turn around and leer at them. Several times I went so far as to mouth “Shut the f#&k up!” (The inflection in my whisper and emphatic body language warranted the exclamation point in this case.) At one point I held up a session to separate two students. I said class wouldn’t go on until he moved. “Come on big fella,” I said, as he was on the more portly side. “We’re not going until you move up. Come on everyone, cheer him on. Encourage him—tell him he can do it! Yeah!” And I began a clap. He looked around mortified and finally moved up. Regardless, he talked through the afternoon session.

The thing that I don’t get is that Indian students, at least Indian law students, don’t understand how to whisper; they just lower their voice and it carries out over the whole class. I discussed this with MC and what we should do about it, but it’s not his personality to be the disciplinarian. He was simply let down by their laziness, entitlement, arrogance, and apparent lack of caring.

It was clear by day 5 that sadly, a good number of the students could not have cared less about being there. The first day, four students left because the conditions were not to their liking and some students confided in me that they thought they were going to be doing outdoor sports the whole time. On the 3rd or 4th night, I was sitting in the dark behind my cottage, the only place on the property where I can get an Internet signal, and one student came up to me and asked me if I liked to party. I was somewhat caught off guard, not to mention blinded in the darkness by my computer screen, and while I didn’t come outright and say anything, I may have alluded to it. Not really a smart move. This student admitted to me that they had been drinking and smoking cigarettes and other things since the first night. It later made sense to me why several people missed a few sessions that afternoon—they were hungover. As a result of this conversation, I went to bed feeling somewhat let down. I was personally expecting so much from these students, these individuals who I had hopes and dreams for being leaders in a new era of environmental litigation and social justice, but instead they were just at the ashram because having MC Mehta’s name on your resume carries a lot of weight.

MC would ask me how things were going and I would tell him it was like herding animals or very young children with very short attention span. I would tell MC that they were like puppies; you could throw a stick and whatever they were doing their attention would be diverted by that stick and off they were running. I also acted this out, which he seemed to appreciate. I like to get a laugh out of him.

I do not want to cast the lot of them into the fiery pits of hell where most people believe the archetype of lawyers came to form. Some of them were quite impressive, self-disciplined, and driven. I would say all of them had the smarts, just not necessarily the drive.

On Wednesday, in the middle of the week, we all went to Rishikesh on an Indian school bus. Just like most Indian buses, we packed in as many as we could. I grabbed a seat on a bench all the way up front thinking I would have space and that I would have a better view of the landscape. Instead, by the time everyone packed on the bus there was no more room. It was standing room only all the way through the bus, so 3 of 5 guests who were from an NGO and observing the happenings packed onto my bench.

“Well,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to have a real Indian experience after all.” The student to my left leaned in and said, “No sir. If it were a real Indian experience we would have several people on the roof as well.”

I think this speaks for itself, or perhaps the next photo tells more of the story.To my left was a student and to my right, the man from the NGO could have been the Indian version ofRico Sauvé. Because of how tight we were packed onto the bench, one person would be leaning back and the other leaning forward. I was leaning back andRico was leaning forward. Since there was no where to stabilize himself as the bus made its way through forest roads, his very dark hand was very comfortably—and might I add somewhat intimately—planted on my very white knee the entire 40 minute drive. He was so relaxed and nonchalant about it you would have thought we had been dating for years. I was not aware of it but my friend Priteeka was watching the whole episode and giggling. I told her afterward that I felt dirty, like I was violated, and that I needed a shower. Now this type of behavior would not be suitable on a bus in Seattle or New York City, but I was in India, so I simply put on my headphones, listened to Eyes of the World, by the Grateful Dead and smiled—I was smiling at the absurdity of it all; how I was in the middle of India going on a field trip to Rishikesh with a bunch of Indian law students; how I was working for argueably one of the most important men in India; how I was on a bus that would probably not be considered road-worthy in the U.S.; how I was supposed to be an authoritarian figure; and how a strange man was taking our non-existent relationship to the next level. And I was smiling at how grateful I was for all of it.Jungle love, predicated upon awkward uneasiness. This is another one of those cases of - when in India...

As I have admitted, while I was friendly with the students, I was very critical of them, and they were certainly testing my patience. But on the bus listening to Eyes of the World, the consummate songs of my adolescence, I got to thinking about myself in college and I realized I was expecting too much from essentially kids—kids doing exactly what kids do—and doing exactly what I did. The fact of the matter is I probably did a lot worse things than these kids will ever do. But in India, they go from high school to law school. Law school is part of college so these weren’t even grad students, as I first thought they were. They were 18-23 year-old kids for the most part.

While I think I would have been more reverent and respectful than many of these kids towards the speakers, I thought how I would have been the leader plotting and planning the party that night. I was the one who probably would have had illicit things in my possession. I certainly had an attitude towards authority figures that I did not agree with, specifically my college soccer coach. On this final note, I will admit that while I put a lot of effort into the classes I was interested in during my college years, I also very nearly lost my full soccer scholarship to college for—let’s just say having too much fun. Guilty as charged, and so I let up on my expectations and let it go. And in the process, my friendship with a lot of these kids blossomed and I developed a new found compassion towards them.

On the way to Rishikesh, the bus stopped at a nursery where each student was instructed to buy a plant for the ashram, which I thought was a wonderful idea. When we got to Rishikesh, Sam and I hung out with a few of the students and then the group broke off and it was just four of us. We had a great time cruising around and shopping, and Sam brought three watermelon and several other fruits for the student body.

Of course, several of the people were late getting back to the bus, causing most of us to wait an hour. They showed no guilt or repentance when they got back on the bus and Sam said something to the effect of, “Maybe next time you're late you could let us all know so we don’t have to come on time.” The message fell on deaf ears and was not even acknowledged.

What the program lacked was structure and enforcement of rules, so as the saying goes, you give an inch, they take a mile; or perhaps over here, you give them a centimeter and they take a kilometer. I guess that is India though, and even the instructors were late most of the time. When we all got home that evening, there was no talk of a curfew or anything of the sorts. Sam and I hung out and smoked cigarettes and drank shitty whiskey and cokes until about midnight, during which time he told me the harrowing details of working as a cook on a fishing boat out of Mexico, how sketchy it was filming these sailors, and how several times he was terrified for his life. It’s not too hard to make someone disappear at sea, after all.

When I went to my room, a large gathering of student had accumulated in the courtyard and they were being quite vociferous. I asked them to go to bed. About 20 minutes later I came out because most of the students had gathered and there was a riff between the schools. One girl said, “Sir, this is between schools and we are sorting it out. Please let us be.” And so I did. But it went on and about 25 minutes later around 1am I opened my door, yelled at them, and slammed my door. I thought my tantrum might have an effect but it didn’t.

A little while later, one of the students came to my room to apologize and to alert me as to what was going on.

“Sir,” he said, “I am very sorry and I am embarrassed that this is all happening, but we will take this matter into our own hands.”

***

I will tell you that I learned an important lesson the first time I kept a blog while traveling through Tanzania. The lesson was this—what was simply reporting to me as I looked for colorful language to entertain and describe events, turned out to be really hurtful to someone I liked and whose friendship I valued. I had forgotten that she was following my blog, and what I had said felt to her like I stabbed her in the back. I was completely oblivious to what I wrote until I read it through her eyes and it struck me hard. I’m sure she has completely forgotten about it, but to this day, five years later, I still feel bad about what happened.

And so in writing this entry I have edited out parts, in fact, throughout all of these chapters I have left quite a few details out (you’re probably saying, thank God—he writes too much as it is). Perhaps if I turn it into something some day all the details will be there, but it’s not my intent to disparage anyone when writing or to be a judge of anyone, although I certainly have an opinion about some of the things that have happened. With that said, being that I don’t know all the details from the parties involved in the incident above, I will just say that some of the students took crime and punishment into their own hands that night. I suppose you could call it the street form of Indian justice.

***

Plaintiffs and defendants. I think...The competition between the Indian law students was intense, but apparently this is the way Indian students are. It’s no wonder with all of these overachievers that India is a surging world power, no doubt poised to pass the United States in many arenas, as several expats who live here have said to me.

Fortunately though, as the week wore on, the group became tighter and the competition seemed to lesson somewhat as new friendships were formed. History was made on the final day during a moot court, where for the first time an American clerk (yours truly) and an American judge (Sam) presided over court, with the assistance of a real High Court judge from Delhi who treated the students as professionals—not as students. In the third and final case, a case in which both sides prepared endlessly, the defense pulled out a clause that said if a similar trial is being conducted, the current trial can not be heard until the similar trial is concluded. The court was adjourned in a matter of five minutes and the students from the palntiff side were incredulous. They could not believe that they had put all that work into the moot court, just to have the trail suspended.

“But this isn’t a real court. Please your honor, this is a moot court. Just hear our case.”

“I’m sorry,” the female judge replied. “The law is the law.” It was a lesson the law students will never forget, which is the point of all of it, right?

After each trial, the judge took her job very seriously and dictated her deliberations to me. I tried to get out of the job but she really liked how fast I typed. The problem was, I had serious trouble understanding her accent so I kind of made it up as I went. All eyes were on my as I pounded the keys furiously. It was probably the most stressful job I've ever had. OK, perhaps I am exaggerating.

On the final afternoon, MC gave some insightful parting words and he asked Sam to say a few words followed by what each student learned.Sam doing his best to be a stern judge.

Sam began his speech like every lecture prior. Stand up, who are you, what makes you that, and what are you missing. The students looked at each other proudly as they recited what Sam had taught them. Then he said, “Who told you that bullshit? You gonna believe everything you’re told?”

Sam then proceeded to give what could rival any of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard. His passion, fears for the future, and hope in this generation that we can do something about the accelerated deterioration of the environment eloquently poured forth from him as if the spirit were moving words through his breath. As he spoke of his love for the environment, he had to catch himself several times as tears welled up in his eyes, and everyone in the room was experiencing the same emotion. It was like Robin Williams’ speech at the end of Dead Poet’s Society, except we didn’t have desks to stand up on.

Next we went around the room and each student, at least the ones who bothered to show up (several were missing) told what they learned, and you could very clearly see a shift had taken place in them from the first day they arrived. Even those who were there just to be there had been touched by the week. Each one had a similar story about how when they arrived they were alarmed by the basic facilities and the fact that they could barely get a cell signal, etc., and yet now most of them didn’t want to leave. One could tell that a few of them had had epiphanies, and that—at least in that moment—they pledged they were going to fight for the environment. Those who said they probably would not take up environmental law did say they have a whole new understanding of the environment, and how they will always take this into account in their cases, and how if given the opportunity they would take pro-bono work for the environment.

I had a million thoughts running through my mind and was quite emotional myself when it was my turn to speak. I tried to lead with a joke, telling MC that maybe next time he should start the week with a grade school teacher teaching the kids how to listen, how to whisper, and how to show up on time.

I’ll never use that one again. That one fell flat.

I don’t even remember exactly what I said, but I started out by thanking them for giving me a new understanding of compassion and for the new friendships we had forged. I told them how the experience of spending time with and learning from MC and Sam over the past week was like a tornado or a tsunami moving through my internal landscape. It had rearranged what was. I tried to tell them a little bit about my journey that began a year ago at my mother’s funeral and about some of the events that had brought me to the point where I stood before them. Fortunately one thing I did noticed midway through was that no one was speaking and I had everyone’s attention, because if they were speaking I would have lost what I wanted to say, but after all many of us had become new friends over the course of the week and so they respected me to listen.

I'm not sure how my speech landed. I think in the long run though, it's not the words of speeches that are remembered, but the sincerity and the emotion behind them, and I hope I delivered on at least those aspects. Of course, afterward I thought about all the things I forgot to say when I was sitting in my seat and composing it in my head. There is a reason why I am a writer and not a speaker, after all. I like the controlled environment of the written word. 

What I tried to express though, was my view of life—that we are all our own creators and that the world is first created in our thoughts, brought forth in language, and then constructed in action. And through this point, I tried to hammer home the fact that that reality conforms to the boldness of our thoughts and to push through their fears. I told them that in my experience the most destructive force in the world is fear. On the macro it’s what causes people and countries to raise arms against one another; on the micro it causes banality and complacency, and it is fear that keeps us from living the inspired lives we dream of living.

Derhadun, June 22nd.

 

Tuesday
Jun212011

12. Law Camp and Indian Justice

"There's a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it cause he knows it's all worthwhile." - Starman, David Bowie

Preparation

A week of scrambling and chaos yields a successful event.“My goodness! What does a man like you eat for breakfast?” one of the students asked me. He had arrived a day early and had been watching me furiously clean plastic chairs. After about 50 or so, he offered to help. In the mean time, huts made of brick and grass were being constructed, storage rooms were being converted into sleeping quarters, a makeshift kitchen was being erected out of bamboo and tin sheeting, sheets were being washed, and beds were being made. The grounds of the Eco-Ashram buzzed with laborers like ants in an ant farm.

This student I speak of arrived a day early, thus he was the first to arrive at what was essentially summer camp for environmental law students; a week of lectures from directors of national parks, leading scientists, judges, and lawyers, and including MC—two Goldman Prize winners (The Goldman Prize is considered by many in Europe and America to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism). The climax of the week was a moot court, trials based on actual cases.

It was Saturday, June 4th, and as I said, for the last several hours I was cleaning chairs that had been in storage for who knows how long. In the room where they had been stored there was a hole in the roof and so the chairs were caked in mud from the previous storms as well as spider webs. I was zoning-out in the rhythm of cleaning the chairs when at one point I felt a bug on my hand and flicked it off. It was only at the last split-second, as my finger was already in the flicking position that I realized it was a baby scorpion. I sent him flying stinger over heels.

MC and Sam, both receivers of the Goldman Prize.It was one of those days where despite being up since 5:30am and operating on very little sleep, I had endless energy - kind of like the first time you run after a long hiatus and you think, I’m not in that bad of shape after all, which of course is just adrenalin. In total I cleaned about 120 chairs. I was told at one point to finish the job the next day, but there was still so much work to be done and in 24 hours, 40 young, rambunctious law students would ascend upon the grounds of the Eco-Ashram.

Since I arrived at the Eco-ashram on May 31st, the place was a flutter with preparation for the 40 law students, several professors, honored guests, and a Swami, who was to lead the dedication of the new Climate Change Center on the first evening. On May 31st, we were a week out, most of the housing was not even nearly complete, and most of the beds were in storage. Plywood and junk seemed to cover everywhere. This was all due to the fact that while I was in Rishikesh, a storm came through and caused massive damage to the grounds, tearing parts of roofs off cottages and collapsing the dining hall.

“You see?” MC said. “These storms are unseasonable. This is nature’s way of saying things are not well.”

I didn’t think it could be done—I didn’t think the place would be ready by the time everyone arrived, but in a week the dining hall was deconstructed and from its remains five thatch-roof huts were created to house an 15 additional students.

When MC would ask me, “What do you think?” I kept my opinion to myself, that being that there was no way in hell this place was going to be ready.

“It’s coming along,” I would say. “It’s really starting to take shape.” And in fact, up until the students went to bed at the end of their first day, we scrambled to add beds and mattresses.

(My favorite part of this long-ish, uncut video is about 1:44 in, where MC is seen running through the background chasing the dogs away with a stick. Can't remember what they were doing but up to no good as usual.)

It doesn’t seem like it should take that much work to create a small hut, but its quite astounding how much effort goes into building one of these shelters properly. The reason why it collapsed in the first place was because the workers were incompetent. I was amazed watching the daily increments of progress as the laborers transformed the land from a weather beaten mess into a campus.

What the student who asked me what does a man like you eat for breakfast did not see was that with the exception of one day, for the previous six days I was sitting around like a sloth, asking for something to do but our managing resources had run too thin. Myriam took point on most projects, but she was one person trying to motivate workers who didn’t really understand what truly cleaning something meant. In most cases we had to redo the work they had done. Some of the workers could be self-directed, but the majority needed someone standing over them, literally showing them exactly what to do. When no one was watching them, productivity dropped off. In the meantime, MC was driving around the district and state trying to find laborers and to replace the ones who said they would show but never did.

The Commander in Chief

The commander-in-chief at the command center.I think it’s impossible not to like MC Mehta, unless of course you are facing him in a court of law. He is full of simple wisdoms that make you pause and think, and then smile. He teaches by his character, that being the fact that his actions are in line with what he fights for. And while he is serious and focused in his will to protect the environment while doing what he can to mitigate climate change, he is always quick to smile, and I bet his laugh could even infect a death row inmate. I can’t really say enough about this man.

Throughout the week it seemed like the place was falling down around him and yet he would just laugh and say in his accent, “What to do?” which is the common Indian way of saying, oh well—what can you do? “

This is India,” he would add. “Tis too much. Tis too much,” and laugh it off. But it was not a nervous laugh. It was a genuine laugh at the absurdity of how much was still to be done, how hard it is to get things done in India, and just how far we were from the finish line.

MC is this brilliant man who is scattered and pulled thin by all of his commitments and by all of the people who are vying for his attention and relying on him for action and change. He is the only hope for many people whose livelihoods or land are being threatened by development or polluting industries. When he is not engaged in conversation or preparation, he sits outside the office on a little concrete patio in his chair immersed in deep thought and contemplation, partially slumped, legs crossed, elbow resting on the arm rest, and chin resting on his hands.

I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know MC the man before I knew about MC the public figure. The more I get to know about his career, the more humbled I am. His cases read like the best episodes of Law & Order and I was amazed and awed that on the first day students held him in such high regards that they tried to bend down to touch his feet, but MC wouldn’t have it.Group photo on the last day.

“Every landmark environmental case in India that has been brought to the court was filed by Mr. Mehta,” one student said. “Every environmental case we study in law school is MC Mehta vs. the State of India, or MC Mehta vs. some polluting industry. And he’s the only one who has been able to beat the government. The first and the last case you study when entering law school is about Mr. Mehta.” What’s even more remarkable is, as far as I understand, he is not paid in these cases. He has fought more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court of India and never lost. At one point a special court was set up every Friday to hear his cases. 5,000 factories along the Ganges River have been directed to install pollution control devices and 300 factories were closed as a result of his actions. Approximately 250 towns and cities in the Ganges Basin have been ordered to set up sewage treatment plants. He has won additional precedent-setting suits against industries that generate hazardous waste and succeeded in obtaining a court order to make lead-free gasoline available. He has also been working to ban intensive shrimp farming and other damaging activities along India's 7,000-kilometer coast. MC has succeeded in getting new environmental policies initiated and has brought environmental protection into India's constitutional framework. He's almost singlehandedly obtained some 40 landmark judgments and numerous orders from the Supreme Court against polluters, a record unequaled by any other environmental lawyer in the world. Countless corporate and government lawyers are getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to fight him, to outwit him, and yet he is an unbeatable, a one-man legal brigade.

The first thing MC does when he arrives at the ashram every day is stop by the temple to pray. This says mountains about the man and from where her gets his stregnth. He is a man of deep faith and conviction. Many people of his stature and accomplishments would be arrogant and rest on their laurels, thinking themselves to be the god and creator of their own universe, but MC is an incredibly honest and humble man. He rarely talks about the past or his accomplishments unless prompted or unless the conversation dictates. Instead, he is focused on the future and what is yet to be done.

On top of all of this, he is funny—damn funny. Several times during the week we laughed so hard he had me in tears. When I did ask him about his cases, in recounting the details he laughs hysterically and slaps his knee as he describes the surreal details, how he outwitted his “very cunning” opponents, or how he used the press and media to his advantage. It is no wonder he is so greatly respected in India, but he has not always been in the favor of the public. As the press often excels at obfuscating facts or picking and choosing an angle to a story, there have been many times when industries that are the target of his wrath have worked hard to disparage him. At one point in the 90’s, 20,000 workers burned images of him in effigy while protesting the lawsuit he brought against the polluting industries that were pitting and staining yellow the Taj Majal’s marble as a result of acid rain. In ten years these industries did more damage to the national landmark than hundreds of years of war. MC has been offered pay-offs to shut up and disappear and has had death threats against him to the point where he needed security.

At one point he was called to the Prime Minister’s residence for a discussion about the development and plans for damns along the Ganges. The two sat outside to have tea while several peacocks, the national bird, ran around the grounds. Almost nothing had been said to each other when a peacock came towards them. Always looking for the simplest way to drive home a point he said, “Can I kill that peacock?”

The Prime Minister’s (apparently an expressionless man) jaw dropped and he nearly fell out of his chair. “What? What are you talking about? Of course you can’t kill that bird! Are you mad?”

“Then how can you allow these dams to be built and kill the Ganges, our national river?” Point well served. His mind is sharp and agile and is always working at this level. To hear him tell this story is fantastic.

One thing he always does as a lawyer and investigator is visit the environmental sites he is working to protect, several times he has had to do this in disguise. He told me of one case in which he was working to close down an industry that was contaminating drinking water for the surrounding villages. People were getting sick, skins of animals were peeling off, trees withered away, and crops were burning up in the fields. As the courtroom drama played out, opposing lawyers worked furiously to defame him. They spoke for an hour to the court how MC was out for publicity and his own self interests. “How could I be out for my own self interests?” He asks me as he recounts the story. “These people will do anything for a dollar and they are very clever.”

MC waited very patiently and when it was time for him to speak, he pulled out a bottle from his bag.

“What is that, rum?” someone joked.

“This is contaminated drinking water from the site. If any of the opposing lawyers will drink this water, I will withdraw the case right now.”

The opposing lawyers knew they had lost the case. The judge asked what do you want? MC asked for clean drinking water, medical relief, compensation for damages, and the industry to be closed down. These were all granted.

“I do not take a case unless I know I can win it,” he says. “Sometimes I wait a long time until the conditions are favorable on the bench or until I have sufficient evidence,” he says, continuing. “In my view, you are fighting on your principles. If you are speaking the truth, if you are guiding the court properly, respectfully, and presenting the facts, even the hardest judges become soft.”

I think like all great men, he is driven by an inner vision, truth, and an ironclad faith, and like all great men who have left their mark upon history, their legacy is not built on the size of their palaces but on the quality of their thoughts. There is nothing that can compromise his values. He is of the rare breed of men whose actions are truly in union with his words. Professionally speaking, whether I move in a new direction charted by my experiences with him or whether I go back to what I was doing before I left on my travels, personally, MC the man is a true inspiration and a model of the greatness I would lke to aspire to.

“MC is perhaps the most important barrister in India since Ghandi, and no one outside India knows who he is. He’s like a John Adams figure,” said Sam Labudde.

Professor Sam

Sam and I pondering what to ponder.Sam Labuddy, an American biologist and has a vendetta against economists. “Economists are the new lawyers,” he said, “And I hate every last one of them.” Then again, he has a vendetta against a lot of people and industries. If you are looking for an opinion regarding the environment, foundations that negligently hand out grants, or some of the NGOs who are “working” to protect the environment, chances are he has an opinion. When you have done what he has done, including won the Goldman Prize in 1991, I suppose you are entitled to that opinion. He can also tell you anything about the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols which he worked upon, two of the biggest environmental global policies in history, yet his crowning achievement was probably getting onto a Mexican fishing boat as a crewmember in order to expose the great secret of the tuna fishing industry.

At some point after WWII with the creation of hydraulics, someone came up with the idea to make a mile wide fishing net to fish for tuna. The thing is, for some reason that no one understands, while dolphins generally are near the surface, tuna shadow them below, so when these massive nets were being hauled up, millions of dolphins—the most intelligent creature of the sea—were being killed for no reason except they were in the way, then simply just discarded back into the sea like trash.

“A woman would never think to do something like this. Only an idea as stupid as this could come from a man,” Sam told the class. "If we came upon dolphins on another planet, we would probably not disturb them, rather study them for their intelligence."

And so Sam worked for several months on a Mexican fishing vessel because he could not get on an American one. To get on an American tuna fishing vessel, because of the dirty secret no one discuess, you had to sign countless non-disclosure agreements and could not bring any video equipment on board. After capturing the footage he needed on the Mexican fishing vessel, however, he left the fishing boat and brought it to the press, essentially shutting down the illegal dolphin killing practice. He also fought to protect the Tigers and created a boycott of Taiwan for selling Tiger parts with to-the-point ads on the back of the first section of the NY Times. His WMD’s have always been a video camera and the press.

For the first day, everyone was worried about what happened to Sam. It was a 6-hour journey from Delhi to the ashram and he was supposed to be picked up at 6am. He didn’t show up until about 5pm that night, because, as it turns out, MC had sent a car for him and the hotel operator lied to the taxi driver, telling him that Sam had left at 5am with someone else. The hotel operator lied to him so he could get the money for the taxi to drive Sam to the ashram, except the driver the hotel hired had no idea where the Eco-Ashram was.

For having slept only a few hours in a few days, Sam was remarkably and impressively on when he arrived, right as the induction ceremony for the climate change center was getting underway. MC asked him to introduce himself and immediately Sam captivated the students.

In bare feet, Sam walked amongst the students and said, “OK, I want you all to stand up.” And so the students stood up.

“Before I berate you and belittle you over the course of the next several days, I’m going to make the bet that you don’t even know who you are. And I want you to think about that over the course of the next few days.”

“Who you are?” He asked. The students nervously looked at each other, wondering if they were going to be called out. “Who you are is 3 billion years of evolution. You are the crown of creation. Do you know what that makes you?”

They looked around again. “A force of nature. As man has evolved in his technology and conquered survival, do you know what he has lost?”

Again blank stares. “Harmony with nature.”

He continued with his opening statements, and then in barefeet walked out into the rain and went to his room.The courtroom and classroom.

And so every time Sam started a session over the next several days, it began with this exercise, the students standing up and he asking them who they were, what that made them, and what they have lost as a result.

For the first few days, I thought Sam was a professor, because he had the uncanny ability to captivate these kids with a combination of science and irreverence. Two minutes into him speaking on the first day I thought, I would have loved to be in one of his classes. You would have thought that he had spent 25 years in the classroom, but at the age of 54, 25 years ago he was only in his second year of college. Sam had left Indiana at the age of 18 and decided he was going to save the world, but after a decade of traveling from Alaska to South America, he realized he didn’t have the knowledge to save the world, and so he entered college at 28. And might I add he has never been a professor.

His central message throughout the week was, “For so long human survival was about overcoming nature, but our victory is going to be incomplete. The same blind momentum we marched forth with in the conquest of nature, with the same zeal and fervor we now fondle machineguns and nuclear weapons. Human society is all about growth and momentum and we have made great strides as human beings, but if we don’t do something now, all the luxuries we’ve created, such as human rights and woman’s liberation, won’t matter. We are nearing a tipping point and unless we begin acting globally, we are going to do irreversible damage that is going to have catastrophic consequences.”

My favorite thing he said during the week, however, was, “Every time I give a talk somewhere, someone says to me, ‘what can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ I tell them, ‘you know how you can make a difference? Pick one issue that drives you mad and that you can’t live with or without—and own that issue. Learn everything you can about it. In the process you will meet people who think the same way you do, and before you know it you're talking about a movement, and right after that you’re talking about strategy and goals—and that’s when real change happens."Outdoor class with Sam.

Students Take Justice Into Their Own Hands

I found it funny to learn around day 2-3 that the students thought I was the disciplinarian. I should have maintained that facade. The fact of the matter was that when students were arriving, I was in the office, and when I came out I didn’t have the energy to make small talk and introduce myself, so I simply walked past them to my room. I think I was just in my own head, because apparently I barely looked at people and didn’t have a smile on my face—at least this is the way it was recounted to me.

Another reason why perhaps they thought I was a disciplinarian was probably because the only thing I couldn’t stand was when they talked through lectures. While I can agree with them that some of the guest lecturers may not have been the most scintillating speakers, I was hoping they would at least have the respect to be still and listen to some of the best minds of India in their respective fields, but many of the students would just talk the entire time through lectures. I was sitting in the front row most of the time and I would turn around and leer at them. Several times I went so far as to mouth “Shut the f#&k up!” (The inflection in my whisper and emphatic body language warranted the exclamation point in this case.) At one point I held up a session to separate two students. I said class wouldn’t go on until he moved. “Come on big fella,” I said, as he was on the more portly side. “We’re not going until you move up. Come on everyone, cheer him on. Encourage him—tell him he can do it! Yeah!” And I began a clap. He looked around mortified and finally moved up. Regardless, he talked through the afternoon session.

The thing that I don’t get is that Indian students, at least Indian law students, don’t understand how to whisper; they just lower their voice and it carries out over the whole class. I discussed this with MC and what we should do about it, but it’s not his personality to be the disciplinarian. He was simply let down by their laziness, entitlement, arrogance, and apparent lack of caring.

It was clear by day 5 that sadly, a good number of the students could not have cared less about being there. The first day, four students left because the conditions were not to their liking and some students confided in me that they thought they were going to be doing outdoor sports the whole time. On the 3rd or 4th night, I was sitting in the dark behind my cottage, the only place on the property where I can get an Internet signal, and one student came up to me and asked me if I liked to party. I was somewhat caught off guard, not to mention blinded in the darkness by my computer screen, and while I didn’t come outright and say anything, I may have alluded to it. Not really a smart move. This student admitted to me that they had been drinking and smoking cigarettes and other things since the first night. It later made sense to me why several people missed a few sessions that afternoon—they were hungover. As a result of this conversation, I went to bed feeling somewhat let down. I was personally expecting so much from these students, these individuals who I had hopes and dreams for being leaders in a new era of environmental litigation and social justice, but instead they were just at the ashram because having MC Mehta’s name on your resume carries a lot of weight.

MC would ask me how things were going and I would tell him it was like herding animals or very young children with very short attention span. I would tell MC that they were like puppies; you could throw a stick and whatever they were doing their attention would be diverted by that stick and off they were running. I also acted this out, which he seemed to appreciate. I like to get a laugh out of him.

I do not want to cast the lot of them into the fiery pits of hell where most people believe the archetype of lawyers came to form. Some of them were quite impressive, self-disciplined, and driven. I would say all of them had the smarts, just not necessarily the drive.

On Wednesday, in the middle of the week, we all went to Rishikesh on an Indian school bus. Just like most Indian buses, we packed in as many as we could. I grabbed a seat on a bench all the way up front thinking I would have space and that I would have a better view of the landscape. Instead, by the time everyone packed on the bus there was no more room. It was standing room only all the way through the bus, so 3 of 5 guests who were from an NGO and observing the happenings packed onto my bench.

“Well,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to have a real Indian experience after all.” The student to my left leaned in and said, “No sir. If it were a real Indian experience we would have several people on the roof as well.”

I think this speaks for itself, or perhaps the next photo tells more of the story.To my left was a student and to my right, the man from the NGO could have been the Indian version ofRico Sauvé. Because of how tight we were packed onto the bench, one person would be leaning back and the other leaning forward. I was leaning back andRico was leaning forward. Since there was no where to stabilize himself as the bus made its way through forest roads, his very dark hand was very comfortably—and might I add somewhat intimately—planted on my very white knee the entire 40 minute drive. He was so relaxed and nonchalant about it you would have thought we had been dating for years. I was not aware of it but my friend Priteeka was watching the whole episode and giggling. I told her afterward that I felt dirty, like I was violated, and that I needed a shower. Now this type of behavior would not be suitable on a bus in Seattle or New York City, but I was in India, so I simply put on my headphones, listened to Eyes of the World, by the Grateful Dead and smiled—I was smiling at the absurdity of it all; how I was in the middle of India going on a field trip to Rishikesh with a bunch of Indian law students; how I was working for argueably one of the most important men in India; how I was on a bus that would probably not be considered road-worthy in the U.S.; how I was supposed to be an authoritarian figure; and how a strange man was taking our non-existent relationship to the next level. And I was smiling at how grateful I was for all of it.Jungle love, predicated upon awkward uneasiness. This is another one of those cases of - when in India...

As I have admitted, while I was friendly with the students, I was very critical of them, and they were certainly testing my patience. But on the bus listening to Eyes of the World, the consummate songs of my adolescence, I got to thinking about myself in college and I realized I was expecting too much from essentially kids—kids doing exactly what kids do—and doing exactly what I did. The fact of the matter is I probably did a lot worse things than these kids will ever do. But in India, they go from high school to law school. Law school is part of college so these weren’t even grad students, as I first thought they were. They were 18-23 year-old kids for the most part.

While I think I would have been more reverent and respectful than many of these kids towards the speakers, I thought how I would have been the leader plotting and planning the party that night. I was the one who probably would have had illicit things in my possession. I certainly had an attitude towards authority figures that I did not agree with, specifically my college soccer coach. On this final note, I will admit that while I put a lot of effort into the classes I was interested in during my college years, I also very nearly lost my full soccer scholarship to college for—let’s just say having too much fun. Guilty as charged, and so I let up on my expectations and let it go. And in the process, my friendship with a lot of these kids blossomed and I developed a new found compassion towards them.

On the way to Rishikesh, the bus stopped at a nursery where each student was instructed to buy a plant for the ashram, which I thought was a wonderful idea. When we got to Rishikesh, Sam and I hung out with a few of the students and then the group broke off and it was just four of us. We had a great time cruising around and shopping, and Sam brought three watermelon and several other fruits for the student body.

Of course, several of the people were late getting back to the bus, causing most of us to wait an hour. They showed no guilt or repentance when they got back on the bus and Sam said something to the effect of, “Maybe next time you're late you could let us all know so we don’t have to come on time.” The message fell on deaf ears and was not even acknowledged.

What the program lacked was structure and enforcement of rules, so as the saying goes, you give an inch, they take a mile; or perhaps over here, you give them a centimeter and they take a kilometer. I guess that is India though, and even the instructors were late most of the time. When we all got home that evening, there was no talk of a curfew or anything of the sorts. Sam and I hung out and smoked cigarettes and drank shitty whiskey and cokes until about midnight, during which time he told me the harrowing details of working as a cook on a fishing boat out of Mexico, how sketchy it was filming these sailors, and how several times he was terrified for his life. It’s not too hard to make someone disappear at sea, after all.

When I went to my room, a large gathering of student had accumulated in the courtyard and they were being quite vociferous. I asked them to go to bed. About 20 minutes later I came out because most of the students had gathered and there was a riff between the schools. One girl said, “Sir, this is between schools and we are sorting it out. Please let us be.” And so I did. But it went on and about 25 minutes later around 1am I opened my door, yelled at them, and slammed my door. I thought my tantrum might have an effect but it didn’t.

A little while later, one of the students came to my room to apologize and to alert me as to what was going on.

“Sir,” he said, “I am very sorry and I am embarrassed that this is all happening, but we will take this matter into our own hands.”

***

I will tell you that I learned an important lesson the first time I kept a blog while traveling through Tanzania. The lesson was this—what was simply reporting to me as I looked for colorful language to entertain and describe events, turned out to be really hurtful to someone I liked and whose friendship I valued. I had forgotten that she was following my blog, and what I had said felt to her like I stabbed her in the back. I was completely oblivious to what I wrote until I read it through her eyes and it struck me hard. I’m sure she has completely forgotten about it, but to this day, five years later, I still feel bad about what happened.

And so in writing this entry I have edited out parts, in fact, throughout all of these chapters I have left quite a few details out (you’re probably saying, thank God—he writes too much as it is). Perhaps if I turn it into something some day all the details will be there, but it’s not my intent to disparage anyone when writing or to be a judge of anyone, although I certainly have an opinion about some of the things that have happened. With that said, being that I don’t know all the details from the parties involved in the incident above, I will just say that some of the students took crime and punishment into their own hands that night. I suppose you could call it the street form of Indian justice.

***

Plaintiffs and defendants. I think...The competition between the Indian law students was intense, but apparently this is the way Indian students are. It’s no wonder with all of these overachievers that India is a surging world power, no doubt poised to pass the United States in many arenas, as several expats who live here have said to me.

Fortunately though, as the week wore on, the group became tighter and the competition seemed to lesson somewhat as new friendships were formed. History was made on the final day during a moot court, where for the first time an American clerk (yours truly) and an American judge (Sam) presided over court, with the assistance of a real High Court judge from Delhi who treated the students as professionals—not as students. In the third and final case, a case in which both sides prepared endlessly, the defense pulled out a clause that said if a similar trial is being conducted, the current trial can not be heard until the similar trial is concluded. The court was adjourned in a matter of five minutes and the students from the palntiff side were incredulous. They could not believe that they had put all that work into the moot court, just to have the trail suspended.

“But this isn’t a real court. Please your honor, this is a moot court. Just hear our case.”

“I’m sorry,” the female judge replied. “The law is the law.” It was a lesson the law students will never forget, which is the point of all of it, right?

After each trial, the judge took her job very seriously and dictated her deliberations to me. I tried to get out of the job but she really liked how fast I typed. The problem was, I had serious trouble understanding her accent so I kind of made it up as I went. All eyes were on my as I pounded the keys furiously. It was probably the most stressful job I've ever had. OK, perhaps I am exaggerating.

On the final afternoon, MC gave some insightful parting words and he asked Sam to say a few words followed by what each student learned.Sam doing his best to be a stern judge.

Sam began his speech like every lecture prior. Stand up, who are you, what makes you that, and what are you missing. The students looked at each other proudly as they recited what Sam had taught them. Then he said, “Who told you that bullshit? You gonna believe everything you’re told?”

Sam then proceeded to give what could rival any of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard. His passion, fears for the future, and hope in this generation that we can do something about the accelerated deterioration of the environment eloquently poured forth from him as if the spirit were moving words through his breath. As he spoke of his love for the environment, he had to catch himself several times as tears welled up in his eyes, and everyone in the room was experiencing the same emotion. It was like Robin Williams’ speech at the end of Dead Poet’s Society, except we didn’t have desks to stand up on.

Next we went around the room and each student, at least the ones who bothered to show up (several were missing) told what they learned, and you could very clearly see a shift had taken place in them from the first day they arrived. Even those who were there just to be there had been touched by the week. Each one had a similar story about how when they arrived they were alarmed by the basic facilities and the fact that they could barely get a cell signal, etc., and yet now most of them didn’t want to leave. One could tell that a few of them had had epiphanies, and that—at least in that moment—they pledged they were going to fight for the environment. Those who said they probably would not take up environmental law did say they have a whole new understanding of the environment, and how they will always take this into account in their cases, and how if given the opportunity they would take pro-bono work for the environment.

I had a million thoughts running through my mind and was quite emotional myself when it was my turn to speak. I tried to lead with a joke, telling MC that maybe next time he should start the week with a grade school teacher teaching the kids how to listen, how to whisper, and how to show up on time.

I’ll never use that one again. That one fell flat.

I don’t even remember exactly what I said, but I started out by thanking them for giving me a new understanding of compassion and for the new friendships we had forged. I told them how the experience of spending time with and learning from MC and Sam over the past week was like a tornado or a tsunami moving through my internal landscape. It had rearranged what was. I tried to tell them a little bit about my journey that began a year ago at my mother’s funeral and about some of the events that had brought me to the point where I stood before them. Fortunately one thing I did noticed midway through was that no one was speaking and I had everyone’s attention, because if they were speaking I would have lost what I wanted to say, but after all many of us had become new friends over the course of the week and so they respected me to listen.

I'm not sure how my speech landed. I think in the long run though, it's not the words of speeches that are remembered, but the sincerity and the emotion behind them, and I hope I delivered on at least those aspects. Of course, afterward I thought about all the things I forgot to say when I was sitting in my seat and composing it in my head. There is a reason why I am a writer and not a speaker, after all. I like the controlled environment of the written word. 

What I tried to express though, was my view of life—that we are all our own creators and that the world is first created in our thoughts, brought forth in language, and then constructed in action. And through this point, I tried to hammer home the fact that that reality conforms to the boldness of our thoughts and to push through their fears. I told them that in my experience the most destructive force in the world is fear. On the macro it’s what causes people and countries to raise arms against one another; on the micro it causes banality and complacency, and it is fear that keeps us from living the inspired lives we dream of living.

Derhadun, June 22nd.