Saturday, July 23, 2016

Silver anniversary reunion

(Published on July 23, 2016 in Business Standard) 

Some years ago, an enterprising classmate from my boarding school, Rishi Valley, created a WhatsApp group for our class. It was a high-spirited space. After the first 200,000 messages, I put it on mute. 87,000 silent notifications later, I texted the group admin to say that I was exiting the group, though I still loved everyone. He sent me teary emoticons. I felt guilty.

The trouble is, I was only at this boarding school for two years, while many of my classmates grew up there together, share ionic bonds, and apparently all have Mensa-style memory. They kept reminiscing fondly about what x had said to y at 3.22pm on that Tuesday in Septemper 1986, behind z building, and then so-and-so teacher caught them—remember? I frequently can’t remember my own name, so I thought I’d slip off and do other stuff.

But this year marks 25 years since we graduated. One of our classmates took on the role of reunion architect, and set about persuading, cajoling, threatening, and browbeating everyone in an organised and timely fashion. He phoned me in March.

Hmm, I said, wow, lemme think about it, I’ll definitely try to m—

“I’ve emailed you your air ticket,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

That’s how I found myself boarding a bus in Bangalore with a score of people who look exactly the same as they did a quarter century ago—perhaps a touch more tired, maybe because of staying up nights drinking babies’ blood.

But even the best preserved of us was a little slower. Between beer habits, lunch requirements, and weaker bladders, the three-hour journey from Bangalore somehow took seven hours. But finally we were there. Or were we? It looked as though it should look familiar, but if it hadn’t been for the signboards, I wouldn’t have recognised a thing.

And yet I remembered the feel. Rishi Valley is a looker, tucked between trees and ruddy Andhra earth and boulders and blossoms. What’s not to love about outdoor classes, on stone benches under shady trees? The valley is silent, which is to say, loud with birdsong, insects and the breeze in the trees. The air smells of sap and flowers. I went to school here? Lucky me.

I spent my weekend open-mouthed at all the beauty, trying to remember whether I remembered this walk to the dining hall, or that path to the junior school, or the fact that we had a juice break mid-morning. “Remember this?” people kept saying. “No,” I kept replying. The nice thing about a goldfish-like memory is that the world always seems new and fresh. I daydreamed about teaching here for a term, as so many alumni do. We rambled, chatted, wolfed the excellent cafeteria food and coffee, and capped the weekend with a mass bonding session—think the lovechild of Oprah and an AA meeting—in the middle of an operatic thunderstorm.

Reunions can happen anywhere—it’s the people that matter. But being on campus was very special. A quarter century later, it is much clearer how unusual a school it is, for better or worse. I’m suddenly glad, all over again, to have attended it, even though my lifestyle would make Jiddu Krishnamurti spin in his grave. I am not a sentimental person, but returning to Rishi Valley, with two-thirds of my class, revived a note of sweetness in a world energetically going to shit around us.

The whole thing was so good that I asked to be let back into the WhatsApp group. I’m not an idiot, though—it’s on mute for one year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gorillas in the mist

(Published on July 9, 2016 in Business Standard)

An hour into the climb in Volcanoes National Park, I begged for five minutes’ rest. “Sure,” said the guide, “we’ll stop just ahead at the bench.”

Twenty minutes later, I collapsed on the bench where Dian Fossey used to take a breather on her way up the mountain. Dian Fossey is the madly famous scientist who spent her life studying mountain gorillas, which are found only in the Virunga massif. She is best known for introducing the term ‘dung lobe’ to my vocabulary, as in “The animals simply shift their buttocks slightly to catch the dung lobe in one hand before it contacts the earth. They then bite into the lobe while chewing and smacking their lips with apparent relish.” She’s buried further up the trail, where I imagine she dropped dead after this observation. (I’m joking. She was murdered, totally not funny.)

Lungs straining, faces aflame, we looked out at the lush cool hills of Rwanda piled range upon range; and the little flat potato fields far, far below, which they put there at the start of your walk as a prank, to lull you into a false sense of security. Our porters, who helped us up the trickier bits, watched us with pity. We had no idea that we this had been the easy part of the trek.

A few minutes later we put on gloves and rain jackets and went off-trail, straight through a solid wall of nettles. Mountain gorillas are oddly unmoved by the fact that despite your advanced age you have crawled up to them on one arm and one leg, having given up the pairs to pay for the permit that allows you to spend one hour with them as part of one group of eight visitors each day. You’d think they might meet you halfway, but they just sit in the extremely poky bush, doing unspeakable things with dung lobes.

The trackers beat through the nettles with a machete, and we thrashed, skidded, and swore our way up, ever up, on highly unstable wet vines and vegetation. An eternity later, the tracker began to growl “Mmuh-mmmm,” which is gorilla for ‘I come in peace, everything is cool’. There, a few feet away, sat Giraneza, the silverback—the mature male that dominates the family group.

Silverbacks are romantic heroes—200kgs of solid muscle, and soft brown eyes. They can reputedly crush a coconut with one hand, but are very peaceable as long as you don’t challenge them or mess with their wives and babies. Giraneza’s tearjerker life story, however, features abandonment, social rejection, failed romances, and murdering other silverbacks. His happy home is hard won. He came towards us, speaking gorilla for ‘Know that I can crush you with one hand like a coconut’, and we all dropped to the ground with eyes averted, which is gorilla for ‘I am not worthy of your dung lobe, please don’t kill me’. Having made his point, he ignored us.

We slipped around the poky wet mountainside, tracking and watching the family as they groomed, fed, and slept. One lady-gorilla was cuddling a tiny infant. Baby gorillas look like demented gremlins—hair standing straight up and huge eyes reflecting the sky—and command instant adoration. I would have brought him home, except that his mother was built like a tank.

Too soon our hour was up, and it was time to destroy our knees walking down the mountain. It’s always very special to be allowed into the private space of a wild creature. But when you and that creature share almost all your DNA, looking into its eyes is like encountering a much better version of yourself.

Except for the dung lobe habit.