Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A 'short trek' till Shangri-La

Seeing me huffing and puffing an elderly woman who was descending the steps said to her friend, “He’ll be disappointed when he realises the temple is closed. It’s 10 past one.” While this might have deterred others, I was too tired to care. I held on to the red-coloured railing that led to the temple precariously perched on a cliff — a monastery, which after a three-hour trek seemed more of a mirage. I suppose at 10,000 ft when you’re gasping for breath, the mind plays games and reflexes numb. I waved at another group that passed by. I’m not sure if they saw it but I couldn’t care less. The last three hours had been by all means life-changing.

“It’s going to be easy”
“It’s 10 in the morning, the skies are clear and it’s going to be a pleasant walk. It will take two hours to reach the top. Also, we could stop at the cafeteria and if anyone feels tired, they can use the pony,” Nado, our Bhutanese friend, said in his contagious jovial tone. He was doing a great job of egging us on. But he forgot that we were city-bred ‘morning walk’ lads — a walk for him was a hike for us and a hike for him was, well, an impossibly treacherous trek for us.
We started as a group of eight and soon split depending on our speed. In about 20 minutes, I realised it was no cakewalk — my muscles had to work overtime. Twenty minutes later, I convinced myself that there was no dishonour in availing the services of a pony. But it wasn’t a good idea. Ponies, they say, are surefooted and will not fall despite choosing to walk on the ridge of the path. While on one side is the dirt track, the other side is the gaping ravine. A sense of vertigo added to the fear. Better sense prevailed and I soon unburdened the pony off its load.

“You’re almost there”
The Prayer Wheel and cafeteria are located midway to the monastery. In addition to munching on mouth-watering Bhutanese delicacies, one can recline in bamboo chairs, enjoy a massage, sip Bhutanese butter tea, soak the sun and enjoy the view of Taktsang. When seen from there Taktsang (Takt- Tiger, sang- Nest) had a mystic air about it. It was like watching a documentary and having the privilege of the ‘first peek’ at a long-lost monastery. It was a like a castle in a Disney movie.
After a few crackers and some hot tea I thumped my calves and continued walking. The postcard image of Taktsang was playing in my mind. While it helped alleviate my fatigue, the most motivating factor was the encouragement by hikers who were descending. People I’ve never met, and may never will, were saying: “You’re almost there”, “The worst is over...”
To reach the ‘viewpoint’ I crossed one-foot wide ledges, lost my way twice, exhausted my water supply and slipped and fell more than once.

The view from the cliff
The viewpoint is a great example of how nature derives a wicked pleasure in taunting. From there, I could see Taktsang in detail. Yet, it was far, far away. From here one has to descend a flight of steps to the bottom of the mountain, cross over to the other mountain and climb to the height one just descended to reach Taktsang.
The thought of continuing the trek was an ordeal. But the very nature that taunts also encourages. One look at the lush green valley, the black mountain face, the blue skies peppered with white clouds and I knew I shouldn’t give up.
While the descent was challenging, the ascent was even more demanding.

Heaven on earth
Leaning on to the red-coloured railing was not a good idea. On the other side was a ravine that was picturesquely dangerous. I leaned on the rugged mountain instead and continued upwards. Soon on my left was a Damchi, a Tibetan Mastiff. He seemed disinterested in the pity sight of a man out of his breath and wits.
As I reached the temple door the priest was closing it. I cursed my luck and blamed the gods for it. And there were quite a few to blame for here was a Christian, born in West Asia, raised in India standing at a Buddhist monastery. The next 45 minutes were really testing as the winds picked up and the cold was biting my bones.
At two ‘o’clock a monk opened the door. After visiting the different deities in the temple, I walked to the edge from where I could see the entire valley. I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. It was precisely then that it dawned on me why the trek was worth it. There are some moments in life when words seem inappropriate and pictures seem inadequate. This was one of those moments. Maybe this was heaven. If someone asked me how heaven looked like, I would suggest the view from Taktsang. The cold wind was still blowing but I was feeling warm. The air was pristine and all my senses (that were near shutdown earlier) were appreciating nature at its immaculate best. I was looking at Shangri-La. I could have stayed there for ages but that moment alone was enough to keep me going for a long, long time.

A Slimy Nexus That Threatens Fourth Estate

For someone whose job is to talk about others, he is easily the most talked about man in town. Known for the power he wields and the fear he instils, people are in awe at his aura and clout — some respect him, some fear him and some oblige for want of an option. He has got his ‘team’ prowling the streets and threatening both the commoner and elite alike with brash authority. He’s got top politicians and policemen on his speed-dial and the who’s who makes it a point to attend his kitty parties. Politicians use him and he needs them — it’s a slimy symbiotic coexistence. He has decimated others in the business and ‘rules’ the town. His detractors are either threatened or their silence is bought. Then, one fine day, a greenhorn musters the courage to speak against the man and blows his cover. As always it just takes one small charge to start a domino effect. Soon the once feared, once praised ‘entrepreneur’ is an outcaste. Politicians, who until then were singing encomiums, make a beeline to attest the fact that such people are a bad influence on the society. The tables have turned and the man is neck deep in the goo he once threw at others.
While this might be the storyline of many potboilers we have sat through, this is the gist of the crisis that is rocking the Western media. The phone hacking scandal, which started with News of the World hacking into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler after she was reported missing, has grown into a monster that is rocking the House of Commons and has reverberations in the US and Australia. The means adopted by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation-owed newspaper for that extra edge over rival papers has put criminal syndicates to shame. From employing known criminals to gather information (to get information about Gordon Brown’s son’s cystic fibrosis) to being in cahoots with the police and political class, they have done everything that’s not in the book. The ongoing hearing by the Commons Media Committee, which Murdoch, son James and former editor of NOTW Rebekah Brooks will appear, should reveal more details on how the operations were conducted.
What should concern us in India are the repercussions a similar scandal would have on the media here. The media in India is out of its infancy and is growing at an alarming pace, especially considering the fact that globally media (especially newspapers) are in the red. And it would be unfortunate if this promising growth is threatened. The government, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has its task cut out to ensure that while the thin line between freedom of press and invasion of privacy is maintained, it is not crossed. The media houses, in their mission to increase visibility and TRPs, would do well to keep in mind this distinction. They will have to act in a responsible manner. The failure to do so will prompt the government to intervene — something that can lead to undesired results.
While the argument over ‘what is news?’ is an old debate that is done to death with no avail, it is the means adopted to achieve that ‘exclusive’ ‘breaking’ story that needs focus. Investigative journalism and sting operations have brought to light many incidence and the media is only richer, thanks to such bold endeavours. The moment the means is overlooked to justify the end, the foundation of the fourth estate is threatened.
Replace the man mentioned in the beginning with Rupert Murdoch and the picture becomes clear with the potential for a Hollywood blockbuster. But, unlike as in our movies, Sean Hoare, the person who brought to light the dubious deeds in NOTW, was found dead in his apartment on Monday. It is too early to arrive at conclusions, but one cannot be faulted for smelling a rat.

(This has appeared in The New Indian Express on Wednesday 20, July 2011. Link: