Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Climbing Arunchala with Oma- Shaizia Jifri

It is difficult to write this piece without giving the woman I am writing about some context. I call her Oma. Which means grandmother in German. She's not my grandmother and we aren't related by blood. Yet she feels like family. Her granddaughter is one of my closest friends. Her son treats me like his adopted daughter and her whole family makes it to my A-list, of people I love and hold dear. Her name is Maya Krishnamurthy. A name she kept from an ex-husband who was her college professor, but not the father of her son. She is the daughter of Aurobindo Bose, who happened to be Subhas Chandra Bose's first cousin. 
Aurobindo Bose was a freedom fighter himself and was imprisoned in the Andamans, from where he escaped in a story not unlike "Shawshank Redemption". He made it to Tamil Nadu in a fishing boat and made his way to Tiruvanamalai. In Tiruvanamalai he acquired a property which is now known as "Bose Compound". Aurobindo Bose was well acquainted with Sri Aurobindo, The Mother and Ramana Maharish. Ramana is said to have spent much time at "Bose Compound". 
Today Oma owns "Bose Compound". It is a sprawling property just down the road from the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvanamalai. It sits at the base of Arunachala and for me is the place where I learnt to let go of a lot of fear and face many of my own inner demons. 
There is a forest of trees on "Bose Compound", mostly planted by Oma over the years. Various cottages peek out from the trees each one with a special name. Oma mostly stays at "Nirvan", which is a big airy bungalow at the back. 
In 2007 I felt like I needed to get away somewhere and sort out my life. Thanks to her son Aaron, I ended up working for Oma at "Bose Compound" in Tiruvanamalai. I lived in a cottage called "Peace", while I ran six rooms in various little cottages as a guesthouse. We also re-built and ran a restaurant called "Kafé Ram". Together with Oma and Aaron and a team of three men we put together Kafé Ram brick by brick and then painted and thatched things ourselves. When the men wouldn't let me do heavy lifting work, I would spend long hours raking leaves and cleaning out the compound and the various rooms that had been locked. 
Oma is also fondly referred to as "Sarge" by her son. She has worked at the library and mental institute of the US army where she learnt to drive big heavy duty trucks, at some point in her life. Till very recently she used to ride her Java motorbike between Bangalore and Tiruvanamalai. She really is made of tough stuff. The fact that I drive long distance alone and don't shirk at manual labor gained me her approval. She is the sort of lady who doesn't care for either fluffiness or anything airy in someone's personality.
Once we opened Kafé Ram, Oma, Aaron and myself decided that it should be the sort of place where people of all walks of life should come and eat and feel welcome. We had a wall dedicated to saints, spirituality, spiritual sayings and religious symbols. Sathya Sai stood tall in the centre of the wall, at the end we had St Francis staring down from a large antique print. Sayings by Aldous Huxley flanked a photo of "Hugging Amma". Soon our customers started coming up and adding little things of their own to this wall. It really gave Kafé Ram a feeling of harmony and unity. 
The food at Kafé Ram was simple. South Indian "tiffin" in the morning. South Indian "meals" in the afternoon followed by vegetarian specials like Gobi Manchurian and Veg Fried Rice or Palak Paneer and Rotis in the evening. The menu changed according to what we had in the kitchen and the mood of our cook Anand.
Tiruvanamalai is a small town with some small town problems. When our modest restaurant started doing well, people got jealous. I started to have problems with the power going out every evening when business was picking up, while every other place near us still had lights. Finally Oma figured out that someone was cutting our power line. She happened to know the ex-commissioner of the town and called him up to tell him what was happening. Within a week our power problems vanished and the lights shone brightly at Kafé Ram all evening long.
Oma decided that we needed to thank the ex-commissioner and said I should go with her. She fished out a box of chocolates that she had brought down from Bangalore and we walked across town to his house with it. Only his son was home so we left the box of chocolates with a message and made our way back. As we were walking back we happened to cross the entry point to the main route up Arunachala. At that point Oma turned to me and said "Shez have you been to the top of the Mountain yet?" 
The truth was I hadn't been to the top. I had climbed up, but always stopped somewhere along the way and never really felt like finishing the climb. I told her this.
"Well you only climb to the top of Arunachala when you are ready and I think you are ready and need to climb it today" replied Oma.
I tried to begin an argument with her and tell her it was 5pm and would be dark soon. Not the best time to be climbing up. Now the thing with Oma is, once she decides something, you really can't argue with her. So we started climbing. As we began we came across a little boy selling bananas. We picked up a bunch of six bananas and Oma had a pack of Charms cigarettes with six cigarettes in it. We had no water and no torch. Also I happened to be in a sleeveless kurta with rubber chappals on. Not the best gear for a hike up Arunachala.
At first the going was easy we chatted and it felt like we would get up fairly easily. After all Arunachala, just about classifies as a mountain and in my head wasn't that high.
Then night fell. At that point Oma asked me to walk in front of her because she really couldn't see. I asked her what she could see and she told me she could make out my white pyjama bottoms. So I hiked my kurta around my waist so she could see my pyjamas clearly and walked in front of her. It was very slow going because I would take a step and literally wait for her to shuffle her feet in behind me. The climb started to get steeper and it was hard going for both of us. We stopped a few times and ate bananas and smoked cigarettes just to keep our spirits up. Soon we only had two of each left.
At some point we both began to sense that the top of the mountain was close and just then clouds descended. What ever visibility I had vanished and  from then on it really was the blind leading the blind. I gingerly felt my way up as Oma shuffled behind me. When I really was in doubt I sparingly put on my old Nokia cell phone which gave me enough light to find a hand or foothold. 
Finally we made it to the top. By this time the clouds had settled in thick over Arunachala's crown and visibility was zero. But we both felt a sense of achievement of finally making it to the top. We squatted on a couple of rocks and smoked our last two cigarettes, with a deep sense of satisfaction. At this point Oma turned and told me "You know Shez, I think I was hallucinating while climbing up. I kept seeing a wall on both sides of me and a white light at the end of a tunnel in front of me." When she told me this I was truly worried. I couldn't help thinking of all those stories of people having experiences of tunnels and white light while they are in comas or when they lose consciousness completely. Did Oma just drag me up for her very last climb to pop it on me at the top of Arunachala?!! Later I figured out that we had climbed on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She had been thinking about that during the day. The white light happened to be the back of my pyjamas, guiding her failing eyes through the darkness.
Oma on the other hand didn't seem worried at all. In fact she actually made me call her son and granddaughter to tell them we were on the top of Arunachala. Her granddaughter worried me more by telling me to look after Oma and make sure nothing happened to her.
Oma was showing no signs of concern. Instead she turned to me and said "Come on, let's find a place to sleep." 
I managed to find a small shelf just down from the top of the mountain that gave us a bit of shelter from the wind, that had started to blow quite strongly at this point. Oma curled up with a rock as a pillow and suggested I did the same. She was soon snoring gently, like she was sleeping on a comfortable bed. I was not as peaceful. At this point I was shivering and also wrought with worry about her. I kept waking up to check on her and the night dragged slowly on as I fretted about waking up to find her dead beside me. She was after all over 80 and not as invincible as she used to be.
Dawn finally came and it was spectacular. It literally felt like the world was unfolding in front of us. Oma and I ate our last bananas and started on our descent down the mountain. Now climbing up was difficult, but going down was just as hard. We had no water and the sun had started to beat down hard on the mountain. There is vary little shade on Arunachala and dehydration was getting to both of us. "This is how it should be" said Oma "When you climb Arunachala you shouldn't drink water. This is how I always do it." 
Then the sun really started getting to us. A couple of climbers were coming up and they offered us a drink of water. I happily accepted. Oma refused. She was adamant about finishing her descent without drinking a single drop of water. Finally we got to a stunted frangipani tree. I made her sit in its shade. 
"Go on without me!" She started yelling at me. "I am slowing you down!"
"Listen you crazy old goat!" I yelled back "I am not sending a hearse to come collect your body from the body the bottom of this mountain! So just keep going with me!" 
We launched into a full blown argument where she began insisting that she wanted to finish the climb alone and I was more likely to make her fall if I stayed because she sensed some expectation from me. I told her she was being ridiculous and I would just settle into whatever pace she chose. At some point she changed her tune and insisted that she wanted to just sit under the frangipani tree for some time and would only move when she was ready. She then screamed at me to leave her alone and just go ahead without her. I finally relented. 
In my head I thought that she was making me go because she was ready to quit completely. I had promised her son and granddaughter that I wouldn't let anything happen to her. I am not much of an athlete, but that day my feet grew wings. I raced down the mountain and  at the base I managed to flag an auto to take me to Bose Compound. On the compound lives a man called Raja. He has known Oma since he was a boy and apart from doing all kinds of odd jobs around the property for her, he is also her friend. He knows how to deal with her and is as stubborn as she is if he wants to be.
I found Raja gave him a bottle of water and told him to go and get her down. For three hours I sat in my room in 'Peace' and worried about her. At 2pm my phone rang.
"Come to 'Nirvan'!"chirped Oma on the other side "I have beer and biryani for you!"
I ran across the compound to 'Nirvan' to find her happily drinking beer and smoking her Charms cigarettes.
"Come on you!" she said with a big grin "We have lots to celebrate....and you have lots of catching up to do."

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