SIGNALS

It was past ten at night.

Our camp had found a strange peace.

It was trifle cold, windy and in the moonlit night, the tents occupied by the students stood like chunks of grey against the darker backdrop of the hillside. Life is never quiet when teenagers are around. We knew for a fact that the peace was deceptive. Over time the whispered activity inside the tents died down. There were a few last minute rustles as huddles on the sly broke up and people stole back under presumed cover, back to their allotted tents.

It looked like sleep had set in.

A couple of instructors walked past the tents to make sure.

That was when I noticed a small square screen, all lit up and working in stealth mode. Cell phones were not allowed at camp, except with instructors for use in an emergency. They were deemed an intrusion from the urban world interfering with the students’ outdoor experience. It wasn’t hard to figure out the culprit for we had been playing host to three boys desperately seeking return to city life. One of them had valid reason – he seemed to be physically weak; another who was his friend had managed to acquire a weak look that hung unconvincingly on his robust self. The third being neither close friend to the genuinely weak nor capable of feigning weakness for long had become a bag of tricks ranging from sickly appearance to assertive arrogance. He was all itchy to escape back to a world of pizzas and French fries and furious that none of his games were succeeding. Using the phone he had smuggled in, he messaged his mother.

Couple of days later, a man from the city bearing a letter from the camp organizers, arrived to take away the other two boys.

“ What about me?’’ the desperado angrily asked.

I put him on to my senior, the camp chief. He had been firmly told by the boy’s mother on receipt of those nightly text messages that her son required to stay put in wilderness and burn some flab. That was it. The young man had to pack himself off on a multi day trek like everyone else. At one point on the trail, so the accompanying instructor later told me, the boy had threatened to call his rich businessman father.

“ He will send his helicopter,’’ he declared.

“ Fine, tell him,’’ the instructor said.

Slowly the boy noticed where he was – the mountainside, the rock faces, the forest – and realized it was hopeless. Having hiked reluctantly and dreaming of dad’s helicopter, he couldn’t even articulate where he was. How would he then give the co-ordinates for a chopper to land? On the one hand that shut him up. On the other hand, I hope it was an invitation to learn.

He was quiet for the rest of the hike.

??????????????????????????????? The first time my phone calls home got challenged was when I went for my mountaineering course.

The institute had one phone booth from where you could call after training hours. However ten days or so into the program the time came to pack up for training at high altitude and that meant saying goodbye to the phone. All of us in the batch, lined up to make a last call home. Next morning, we pushed off for that glacier by now well known to hundreds of people – Dokriani Bamak.

I don’t quite recall how being away from a phone was but I am certain it focused my attention on the work at hand. It also made me see the people in my batch for like it or not, that was my world for the ensuing weeks. I was happy to reconnect with my people, on return. I went back to Mumbai, fumed over the average grade I got for the mountaineering course and lost myself in newspaper work.

In about a year’s time, my first mountaineering expedition cropped up.

It was a happy, enjoyable experience for notwithstanding the reverses we suffered subsequently on the Barani Glacier it was a fun team. On that 2002 trip to Zanskar, for most matters concerned, Manali was the place for the last phone call home. Slipping in one more call from Keylong would have been tempting but the group was enjoying itself so thoroughly that at least I was not in a mood to look back and linger. I wanted to look ahead. I also wanted to emulate the other climbers who seemed to get better and happier as we disappeared into the mountains. We stopped for tea at Keylong. I kept my urge to call under check. Later, there was a sign board announcing a public phone at Jispa that flashed by. Then I entered radio silence for almost a month. It must have been trying for my people at home. I never asked them. It is pointless to ask and waver for being in the mountains is a conscious decision and once made, the terms are not yours. Nature decides your life.

That trip, particularly the point when we crossed Keylong, was the moment I really learnt to look away from home. I was well into my thirties then. Maybe that boy with a father who had a helicopter fared better, for he was denied signals earlier. But there was a difference in the way in which we were both challenged. I belong to a generation that saw the cell phone enter India. When I did my mountaineering course and went on my first expedition, phone for me, was always a land line. That boy was born into a cell phone wielding culture.

On return to Mumbai from my first expedition, I sank into the daily rat race of being a journalist.

I also bought the device which would soon become part of the human anatomy – the cell phone. I worked it furiously. I had to; journalism was such. By the time of my second mountaineering expedition in 2004, I knew fully what to expect in terms of radio silence. However, weaning me off the phone was a tougher exercise for two reasons – I had grown used to the cell phone and the team was faintly less enjoyable than the first, prompting reluctance to part with the familiar. I said my usual goodbyes at Manali but a missed call that washed up on my cell phone atop Rohtang Pass suddenly made Keylong critical. For proper closure to the matter, I took time off to call a couple of numbers from Keylong, irritating my team mates. Then that old radio silence set in and the geography of Zanskar surrounded me like an impregnable fortress. One month later, at the first return of cell phone signals on the southern slopes of Rohtang, I excitedly dispatched a text message of successful expedition. I had climbed my first peak in the Himalaya.

For years thereafter, the reply of congratulations I got was preserved in my phone.

By the time I reached the Tons Valley on work, I was at home with switched off phones, even seeing the attraction in keeping them switched off for it kept a different world at bay. The comfort in this silence was not wholly an outcome of extended visits to the Himalaya. It had been gathered in small doses in the Sahyadri, for in those days of comparatively early mobile telephony in the country even a day at the climbing crags or a hike of few days away from Mumbai entailed radio silence. Cell phone towers in rural areas and certainly towers in remote mountain villages were a rarity.

All this has changed.

On one commercial trek in the Himalaya, where one of our clients had to make an early exit and we needed to position a car suitably on the closest accessible road, we navigated ourselves to a ridge facing a small village with a tower and bingo! – We had a travel agent at the other end of the line. Nothing had physically changed around us to facilitate that conversation. It was remoteness, snow capped mountains some miles away, a tiny settlement with a lone telecom tower way below – I may hate those gadgets in the hands of students coming to experience the outdoors, but I sure don’t grudge the technology.

Convenience however has other sides.

On the trail to Pindari Glacier in the Kumaon Himalaya, WLL phones had made it as far as the village of Khati (this was some years ago; now cell phones work in Khati). We were on an expedition to attempt a peak called Baljuri. The phone at Khati’s Jai Nanda restaurant appeared attractive opportunity to call home. The phone call faithfully went through save for one major problem; nothing you said could be heard at the other end. As we kept shouting to each other my mother luckily resorted to the best option possible. Realizing that I deserved a peaceful trip with a head cool enough for the mountains, she said loud and clear, “ there is nothing to worry. We are alright.’’

Two months later I passed through Khati for a trek toward the Kafni Glacier and across the Kafni River.

The phone at Jai Nanda was working properly but it authored the following story.

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Bhagwat Singh succumbed to Khati’s phone.

It was nearing late November; my second visit to the village in as many months. We planned to veer off from the main Pindari trail towards the Kafni glacier, wade across the Kafni River and use contour maps to navigate a route over high ridges to the village of Gogina. Third day, late evening, our soft spoken guide gazed anxiously at the sky and generally hung about camp bursting to say something. Finally Bhagwat Singh found his voice, “ I must go home sir. I called up my village and got news that my wife is sick. She has toothache. I will be back early tomorrow.’’

We let him go, not exactly expecting to see him again.

But he returned as promised.

The wife had been treated by the local sorcerer.

In our minds that loomed worse than toothache but Bhagwat Singh stayed confident of recovery through “mantravaad.’’

We took off for wilderness and the biting cold of winter at altitude.

As we proceeded, matching contour line to actual ridge, it became clear that our guide was well versed with terrain, ably stitching up segments on the map using shepherds’ trails. Crucially, he also knew where streams froze last, something vital for winter treks and camps melting snow for water. The crux portion of our route – a feature resembling a high pass – seemed unwise to attempt at close quarters. So at 14,000ft, we postponed that for early summer, altered course and reached Jhuni, Bhagwat Singh’s village.

It was a week since Khati.

Dinner was at Bhagwat Singh’s house. That was when we noticed the wound on his wife’s jaw. It was deep, seemed to go right through to her mouth. Even though I suspected it was externally inflicted, a quack’s remedy for toothache, I was assured the disease had drilled its way out. We started her on a course of antibiotics and cautioned the family as best as we could that a wound to the face was not to be trivialized. Bhagwat Singh must take her to a doctor, which he had many days ago but with neither follow-up nor appreciation for the emergent gravity. The next day at the village festival to Nanda Devi, I came across a man with similar wound, albeit healing. Amidst oracles and dancers in trance, he insisted that the infection had been inside-out. Jhuni’s only doctor seemed the mysterious sorcerer. When his magic failed, the patient was carried in a chair to the primary health center at Supi. “ There is no guarantee that a doctor would be there,’’ Amar Singh, the village pradhan said.

When we walked the route, it took us at least two hours to reach Supi, a good part of that being steep terrain. And what do you do if the doctor is missing? Well, you continue carrying the patient towards wherever the road to hospitals, start. Technically, that road touches Supi but since the last rains and its accompanying landslides, the road lay ruined, as if it wasn’t ever used. Initially, it appeared a case of neglect with small to medium sized boulders and swathes of gray earth as reminder for nature’s fury. Then we encountered portions resembling a moraine, where the climb over boulders went as high as five or six feet. While we explored the unsure road, a group of women wisely followed the mules’ path in the scrub forest above.

It was more than three hours since leaving Jhuni. The sun was now blazing. On clear days in the mountains it is a harsh orb of light, not so much heat. At its heaviest, my rucksack wouldn’t weigh as much as a human being. Imagine carrying a patient this far, for that long. The walk along the blocked road towards its motorable part, continued for another hour. Finally from a thousand feet up, we saw the settlement of Munar, a winding road and two parked jeeps. Needless to say, the descent along the short-cut trail would make any of our regular doctors plotting America and Europe in the head, take flight. Hopefully at Munar, the patient gets a jeep or an ambulance for onward travel to the town of Bageshwar.

No wonder that sorcerer finds business in Jhuni. At Munar as we bid goodbye to Bhagwat Singh, I reminded him to take his wife to the doctor at Bageshwar.

I hope he did.

 In my wilderness experience, there were two instances of bizarre phone calls made.

It wasn’t so much the content of the call as the way you made it that made them bizarre. One of them was at an outdoor camp at Nilshi near Pune. The time I was there cell phone connectivity was vaguely defined bursts of energy that manifested randomly at some corners of the campus and more predictably at one edge of the local water tower. On the ground it was common to find people in frozen postures hurriedly talking on the phone, snapping up a conversation in the seconds between one fidgeting of the body and the next for a millimeter change in body position seemed to alter Mumbai to Madrid on the cell phone map. And when the body held perfectly still, something as diffuse in form as a gentle breeze seemed to blow the signals off track. That’s utterly unscientific but such was room for imagination given the vagaries around. People joked that the signal blew away in the wind!

Then somebody remarked that a point higher up would be better option. That search took us atop the local water tower via a steel ladder on the side. There the signal blessed us with its presence but to avail the blessing you had to stand straight on the edge of the tank, rest your shin bone on the tubular railing and lean forward a bit like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in `Titanic.’ In that position with eyes locked on the dusty horizon and not glimpsing the ground far below, we talked business with head office. Looking at the horizon was required, for despite all my climbing, vertigo and I can occasionally be as close as shadows. So it was quite a challenge to my head standing up that way without climbing’s grammar of three-point contact for comfort. To climb safe, you should have a stance that allows you perch on rock with two hands and one leg or one hand and two legs, leaving one limb free to make the next move. On the edge of the water tank I was standing on, there was nothing for the hands to hold and only a tubular railing barely touching shin between you and Icarus reborn.

Even more bizarre had been a phone call to a taxi driver from a pinnacle called Telbaila. A few of us had arrived to climb this slightly remote rock structure that sat on a hot plateau about an hour and half from Lonavla. We had taken a bus – it plied that route twice a day or so – to come in. Returning in time was crucial for the next day was the day the Union Budget would be tabled in Parliament. As a financial journalist I had a lot of work to do while my climbing partner was then a dealer in the debt market, which like the stock market responds to the budget. A jeep driver in Lonavla had promised to come and pick us up at climb’s end. “ Give me a call,’’ he had said. There was however one problem. None of our cell phones was catching a signal either on the isolated plateau or the base of the pinnacle. There was only one thing to do – run an errand as we climbed. And so from the belay station at the end of the first pitch of the climb, some seventy feet up on rock and a few hundred feet up from the plateau, we tied in to our self anchors and studied our cell phones. They showed adequate connectivity.

We made the call to Lonavla.

Some hours later, an old, battered jeep arrived for the trip back to town.

By 2012, things would be even more different.

I was working with an outdoor backpacking course in Kumaon, when near the village of Sorag, a case for potential evacuation cropped up. The chief instructor required proper medical opinion to back his decision. In the ensuing hours, a conference call was patched through to his cell phone linking him on the field with the student’s father and their family physician.

We soon had a decision and, an evacuation.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A portion of this article was published as an independent story in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)         

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