Taste of Freedom
Freedom Rider Nightcafe Image
Jerry Pinto spoke of freedom in his session at Jaipur, the joy of getting up in the morning, performing a long angdai, and being able to ask yourself,
“Now what would I like to do this morning?”
For about six years, I did that most mornings, and after a while, my answer was pretty standard, “Nothing”.
Once a month, a tortured groan would accompany my long angdai.
“I have a chore today - what a pain!”
After my second cup of coffee, followed by my first cup of tea, I had to open my cupboard door (in winter this was a stinging reminder of the pile of fresh clothes I hadn’t worn for several days), take out some money, count it, pay the gardener his salary, and record it in the copy book we kept for the purpose. That unaccustomed exertion called for another cup of tea. This time, the gardener could make it. This request had its code language, “Apne liye chai banaa rahe ho, to mere liye bhi banaa lenaa.”*
On our rare visits to Delhi, acquaintances would ask,
“But what do you do there?”
“But you must be doing something”
“I’m a human being, not a human doing!”
The first time my wife overheard me say that (it wasn’t the first time I said it; in fact, I was very proud of the line), she thought it was rude, and arrogant. I was forced to come up with another answer.
“I watch the peaches grow…”
Depending on my mood, I extended that to,
“From bud to flower to fruit, peaches grow really, really slowly.”
Thing is, this was pretty close to the truth.
The major departure from just being was my fortnightly trip to Almora, to draw cash from the bank, check for faxes, stock up on provisions, and buy as many of the old English newspapers as the agent had remembered to keep. In the late 90s, our home in the forest had no telecom links with the outside world, and the newspaper run was the segment of the Almora trip that made the exercise rewarding - for the next few hours at home, I actually had something to do.
Sometimes though, during that long morning angdai, a thought would gather shape -
“Let’s go to Panna for a swim.”
This. This felt like freedom, like the freedom of On The Road, engine revving on the straight stretches along the Kosi, music punching through the speakers, wind snaking through our hair, and if Manoj was in the car, the sweet smell of hashish lingering in the fabric of the car seats. Climbing down to the lakeside chapel, sometimes I’d pose behind it, throw my arms out in the declamatory fashion of a born-again preacher - no instagram then - before diving into the cool waters of Panna Tal, waters so clean and clear, I never thought twice to drink deeply while I swam.
Another morning, another angdai,
“Let’s go visit Dieter and Geeta”
They ran Kalmatia Ashram then, the resort designed by the late Pradeep Sachdeva, he of the soft eyes, and softer smile. By the standards of our rustic home, their property at the north end of Crank’s Ridge spelt European elegance, and we dined off matching crockery, delicately wiped our mouths with laundered napkins, and partook of freshly baked desserts. Before dinner, if we stayed the night, the bukharis would be lit, the stereo turned on, and Dieter’s eclectic collection of blues and rock filled the room with the luxury of indulgence. The next morning’s angdai would not be quite as free; we did have something to do, but driving home, stopping at Tara’s shop for a loaf of whole wheat bread and a natter - that, too, smelled like freedom.
It took two whole angdais to plan a dinner party at home. The first angdai was a short one, and needed us to holler to our neighbour, Sushil, from his gate -
“Come for dinner on Friday, doc.”
The second angdai dictated a letter to Vikram, five kilometers up the hill. Our chowkidar would carry the letter down to the chai stall, from where the postman would pick it up. Vikram’s reply would come back the next evening.
“See you, and I’ll bring meat curry.”
We’d dig around for rare treats like condensed milk, to embellish last summer’s peaches soaked in rum. And if I could tear myself away from watching this year’s peaches grow, I’d actually bake a flan in the tin oven that sat astride the gas ring.
It took a whole sequence of angdais to admit the notion that we really should go to Delhi sometime next week. I didn’t mind the drive, and in summer, there was the dip in the lake on the way down. We’d open our front door to the warmth of family, our apartment above my parents’ home cleaned, our fridge stocked with fruit and milk. A stack of unopened issues of The Economist lay on the coffee table, and tomorrow, there would be books to browse at Midlands, CDs to drool at in Music World, and as we eased into the rhythm of the city, friends to meet, shows to absorb. Next week, we’d return to the forest, to months of waking to long angdais that interrogated our desires of the day.
Eventually, we returned to the clutches of the city; our son went to school, my wife returned to her career. For many months, I guarded my freedom, stayed away from commitments to work or enterprise. But sitting in a couch and watching the paint peel is quite different from slouching in a verandah and watching the peaches grow. I had no mental map of what I should do, so I opened myself up to following the nudges of fate, to doing whatever chance dropped in my lap.
Surely this was not freedom; when I woke up in Delhi, my angdai said, “let’s see what this morning brings”. Whatever it brought, I welcomed. It was a good ten years before I turned down an assignment, or an appeal for help. Surely this blind submission was the very opposite of agency, of freedom. Strangely, I never felt that: there was a romance in not knowing, an adventure in finding new roles, acting with new players - the freedom of not having to choose. For almost two decades, I allowed the twists of fate to lead me through the alleys of the world, to NGOs in Gujarat and Garhwal, to conferences in London and Bali, to theatre stages in Mussoorie and Gwalior, to fund-raising pitches in Mumbai and Bangalore.
Looking back, the freedom of our mountain life, too, was never absolute…even if I rambled the hillsides for hours, there was a child to put to bed, a wife whose concern about prowling leopards was not misplaced. When I led groups on treks deep into the inner Himalaya, the wilderness and liberation of the vast inner spaces was hemmed in by the need to look out for any stragglers. Once, I was seduced by the sight of enormous lammergeiers wheeling in the air currents at 14,000 ft. and lay down in the grass to photograph them as they surveyed the flocks of sheep below. By the time I caught up with my charges, they had found shelter in a shepherd’s hut, and declared the day was over. It wasn’t, the bugyal was still an hour away, and it took me a good fifteen minutes of persuasion to get them back into their hiking boots. That night, we sipped hot cocoa after dinner in the moonless night, the stars arrayed across a billion miles of space.
“A shooting star”, Jo Jo yelped.
“You’re kidding me”
“Another!”, he pointed.
For the next hour, we watched the fireworks of the Perseids play out, the annual display of a speeding comet, which I had neither heard of, nor seen.
The imperative to keep the group marching - of course it was a constraint on my freedom. Without them, I may have observed the lammergeiers for another hour, then marched straight up the ridge to Panwalikantha. But it didn’t feel like a constraint…it was a responsibility I had accepted, joyfully. Like the responsibility of caring for a spouse, or the parenting of a child.
Unless you are a sadhu, an ascetic, freedom is always constrained.
Some mornings, your angdai will mouth the words, “What shit I have to handle today!”
Ask if this will pass, weigh it against the larger picture of your life, the joys of doing, being, and belonging. Look into the days to come. Do you see an endless series of bad-mouthed angdais? If yes, it’s time to move on. Of course it’s tough.
But as Thuycidides said twenty five centuries ago,
"The secret of happiness is liberty, and the secret of liberty is courage."
*If you’re making tea for yourself, might as well get me some, too.
Tehri dam. Akshay Panwar
The scale of the Tehri project is staggering.
From atop the dam, the turquoise waters of the Himalayan reservoir stretched north and west, far into the winter haze. To our right, the rock fill of the embankment sloped steeply down into the Bhagirathi gorge, a careening series of hairpin bends our jeep driver negotiated with the ease of practice. Dropping 260 meters from top to base, the Tehri dam is the highest in India. Its footprint on the valley floor is over a kilometer long, punctured by tunnels that ferry you from the clear light of a Himalayan morning into the working innards of a hydro-electric project.
In the vast machine room, 250 meters long, our guide said with some pride, two of the dam’s four turbines spun out the electric power that is the object of this gargantuan exercise in civil engineering. The ceiling vaulted over our craning necks. Above us, rock and masonry; beyond, the caged waters of the reservoir, waiting to enter concrete tunnels at the base of the lake, to course down dark shafts, to drive the turbines that hummed before us.
The scale of the room was positively Soviet, as Varun observed. Its warmth was a relief from the chill of the damp tunnels.
“Do you think it’s heated?” Varun asked.
“Probably not… it’s the friction from the turbines”, which were turning out just shy of 250 megawatts each.
In the visitor’s room, one poignant photograph showed the top of a temple spire set against a sea of blue-green, the last visible sign of the old town of Tehri being submerged by the reservoir. Building out the project required entire hillsides to be reshaped, and 100,000 people to be displaced. The history of large projects in India is a history of dispossession and the might of the state. We have never managed relocation with compassion or even efficiency. In the three decades from conception to submergence, the Tehri dam project met with determined resistance* from native villagers, environment groups, and human rights activists. Money was raised for litigation, and the Supreme Court approached. But, by 2006, all signs of human life in the bowl of the Tehri dam were submerged.
When the demand for electricity peaks in the Indian summer, the four turbines of the machine room will despatch one thousand megawatts of electricity to turn our fans, and drive the compressors of our air-conditioners, to keep cool the contents of our refrigerators. But, all those square kilometers of lake waters, those millions of tons of displaced earth, those kilometers upon kilometers of tunnels and shafts, those spinning turbines and those humming transformers; above all, those tens of thousands of displaced families, will provide less than one-fifth of the electricity my city of Delhi consumes.
It would take five Tehri projects to feed Delhi’s average consumption of electricity, and another two to cater to its peak demand when the roads sizzle in June. Something about this seems very lopsided to me. I am far from being a Luddite - I celebrate material progress, and know that the links between power consumption and prosperity are strong. But the vast footprint of hydro-electric power plants seems brutal, almost primitive, and the answer to our energy needs must lie elsewhere.
"The Ballad of Doing Nothing" has been fun to absorb! As more of an urban native, I have different peaches to watch growing, but the sheer of joy of ".....so what do I feel like doing today?" over the morning cup...
You found that freedom, too.