The tourists that helped me discover my love for the mountains

The year is 2011. I’m way thinner, in my second year in University, and my bachelor’s course is going about as terribly as a dumpster truck on fire going downhill, moments before the brakes fail.

The JP university, like a million others of its kind, cropped up taking advantage of the herd mentality in India, of parents putting their children in “good courses”, while actively and deliberately neglecting their individual talents, a plague which I feel started way before my time, and sadly still infests the country.

A few professions are chosen by society, and like shepherds whipping their animals in line, parents rush to send their children into a narrow group of universities which are fiercely competing against each other, at scoring digital labour jobs for their graduates (albeit jobs they’ll hate in 5 years, and quit to get an MBA in finance, but sorry, I digress!)

Hostel view

The university buildings, with their textured walls and ridiculously orange guard rails, stood tall and mighty, and looked unlike anything else I had ever seen anywhere in the state. Absolutely beautiful, and no shy of modern art. Like Jeremy Clarkson’s description of the Alfa Romeo 8C, there is no beauty that doesn’t have some oddness to it. The buildings almost looked imbalanced, unreal, and frankly a little unnerving the first time I saw them, and that last feeling never really went away. Always gave me vertigo.

View from the top

For reasons inexplicable to me, almost all of the friends I made at the time were older than me, and I quickly became part of a group, “joint family” as they called themselves, for literal reasons as I later discovered. My new friends were from different parts of the country, and all had something in common.

Their love for my state, Himachal.

You see, Himachal is the hill state. It’s the high-altitude heaven with nausea-inducing twisty roads that only the brave survive. In the early 2010’s at least, the air was clean, and water-borne diseases were only killing a couple of dozen people per year. Fresh out of the capital city (Shimla) in fact, I don’t recall ever drinking water straight from the tap. Varun Dhir, an excellent drummer and (I’m laughing hysterically while typing this) Joint Family “veteran“, was so bemused by this fact when he found out, that he immediately got up, walked to the nearest tap, filled up a bottle, and presented it to me.

Varun Dhir, in Taranda Dhank, the world’s most dangerous road

Peer pressure perhaps, I had no option but to drink!

I have to hand it to him, the water tasted great. Credit where it’s due, that has actually been my experience with a lot of joint family’s commodities.

The more time I spent with these guys the more I began to appreciate the things that they appreciated. As tourists, they were fascinated by Himachal. I had travelled the state as a native, but never for the sheer pleasure of it, I mean why would I?
I would just… go to school and not call it hiking up a mountain; visit my ancestral home in Kotgarh and be nearly indifferent to the way in which the landscape changes; take a bus ride through Narkanda while several meters of snow on either side of the road would thrill me, true, but not in any way register in my head as novel.


Don’t get me wrong, even as a child I was aware that all this was beautiful, but I was never compelled to think about it quite so clearly.

While (to my dismay) trance music was very much “in” in 2011, so was another thing in the Joint Family.
Appreciation.


For every aspect of the mountains. The simplicity of the life there, the profoundly intimidating mountains, the cool pulsing air that wasn’t motivated enough to lift the clouds up higher than the hills, the sheer and violent ferocity of rivers like the Parvati, and the genre of music that I consider my personal salvation: Prog Rock.

I didn’t care for the trance (still don’t actually), but more often than not prog-rock would play, uninterrupted for hours, while a few dudes chilled out, in the very definition of a hippy’s version of “peace”.

Looking back, I wasn’t sure if it lasted a couple of hours or a year, but I distinctly remember that the profound bouts of peace were only seldom interrupted, typically with someone blurting out an absurdly low temperature in Sangla at the time, or how much snow had fallen in Kalpa the previous night. We were obsessed with every tiny detail about the mountains, details that previously didn’t qualify as novel in my life.

We travelled the mountains together listening to Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree in varying states of consciousness, and quite a bit of that natural high came from the view. You see, to you, Steven Wilson’s “Anaesthetize” and “Arriving somewhere but not here” may very well be just great bits of music, but to me (and I suspect to at least 4 of my JF friends), it’s a bit of road connecting District Kinnaur to District Shimla on a memorable drive returning from an epic journey to the literal end of the road in Chitkul. Through their eyes, I saw Himachal for what it has always been, an infinite inspiration. The most beautiful place on earth.

Shimla, in the fog

Nearly a decade later, the novelty of mountains still hasn’t worn off! While I live in a different continent now, every time I’m around mountains with my friends here, I take my Joint Family friends with me in spirit, and that spirit apparently rubs off on my friends here too!

Arthur Spielmann, follow his journey here

A couple of weeks ago my friend and colleague Arthur Spielmann, (an inventor, engineer, and producer) who was one of the driving forces as a production engineer in my new series “Brahmand“, called me while driving back from Riezlern, an alpine region in Austria which we had previously visited together on the first day filming for Brahmand.

“It’s not the same without you, but I had you with me in spirit”, he put across, very thoughtfully in his phone call.

“Welcome to the Joint Family”, I said.

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