140: Bullet Journal, hey!

One day back in May, extreme fundae maven, tasteful item-number maverick, and #1 reason why mothers are naming their child so, Aadisht, asked what the big deal was about Bullet Journals.

I accidentally kinda sorta answered this on Instagram Stories (instagram login needed!), so I’m schlepping it here too. Here we go!

(Extremely) simply put, BuJos break calendar years down into manageable timelines –

  • To help you plan and put goals and tasks into their appropriate buckets (yearly, monthly, weekly, daily goals)
  • To offer you retrospection with different lenses (what happened today, what happened this week, this month – though this leg tends to be heavily skewed to the daily)

The information is compacted using bullets instead of running sentences, and codes tracked with an index.

It’s not uncommon to see beautifully brush-lettered, watercoloured, carefully art-directed layouts of BuJos on Instagram. They’re used to track just about anything from finances to water intake to TV watched to circulation of salad dressing. There’s a tonne of gorg. stationery taking cue too (par exemple: this coffee journal, sketch journal, travel journal). But overall, there seems to be a super-creative, artsy and craftsy, expensive, heavily key/legend-ed *look* to BuJos that could come across as intimidating.

Just like the path to knowledge, god, or that other obvious analogy, there is more than one way to do this.

Before I get into that, let me get something pressing out of the way. I hate the nifty, smarmy coinage, BuJo; it has the cult-vibe of OPOS and smacks of AoL yuckery.

So Bullet Journals, hmm?

  • They’re quick
  • …also because the idea is to keep them with you wherever you go
  • They’re super-flexible and customisable — usually a stumbling block in standard diaries
  • They’re focussed: you want some sort of direction in/template for what to keep track of everyday
  • This isn’t a priority for everybody – but just like old school diaries, they can be made pwuddy and treated like a creative exercise too.

I devised a retrospective system of my own using the parts of the Bullet Journal system that I found most beneficial.

I have some creative chops, but painting and lettering isn’t something I want to do everyday. I recognise that if I mandate it to everyday, it is going to be a hurdle. The creativity in this for me, is in devising the system itself and breaking a complex question into simple, measurable parts.

The result?

Treating my days like a data set answers questions for me in this fashion:


A few questions came by. And yes, I couple this monthly tracker with a to-do list, and a daily bullet-style summary.


A part of this exercise for me is that it’s an excuse for me to work with stationery after a day of screens. You could do this on Git. You could just as easily do this on Excel and spin them pivot tables, you Spreadsheet Jockey you.

And now, some words of …discouragement:

  • You’re going to fail a few times. In the beginning, in the middle, in the end.
    • when you lose interest
    • when you get a hit of accomplishment (like quitting smoking for about a month: nice to know you had it in you after all)
    • or, best case scenario: when you’ve found closure on all the tabs you wanted to keep
  • It is going to frustrate you:
    • Bending the timeline to suit your cause is going to be gnarly
    • You may start too ambitious – it only means you have to make it more basic
  • It will take some of your time and attention – but ONLY at first, it gets almost reflexive if you let it. I’m venturing a guess that it’s a bit like growing a beard.
  • It is going to be MESSY at first, so start in a notebook you aren’t too attached to (you know, Canara Bank type diary, or that glittery flowery notebook someone gifted you three years ago), or start on loose sheets of paper that you can stick into a more favoured diary
  • Have extremely basic expectations:
    • Admit to yourself this IS a commitment for it to be meaningful in any way
    • Just start with wanting to make this a part of your everyday – then go pedal-to-the-metal
    • Make the system really easy and intuitive for you – like I said: recognise what your hurdles could be and simplify it for yourself
    • Finally, be honest, nobody has to know what you’re measuring, nobody cares if you’re failing at your goals
  • Social Media can somewhat be your friend
    • If you run on validation fuel*, share your progress: a week of table conquered is such a high – acknowledge this and applaud yourself!
    • Repeating myself – don’t fudge your data because you don’t want people to know you suck at restraint or discipline
  • You won’t find *answers* here:
    • At least, not most obviously
    • Getting to the right question will take trial and error. Lots of error.
    • Any which way, be prepared to be *surprised* by your data; like any data, it will give you insights
  • This is not a sign that you have it together
    • It is, however, a route to get there
  • It’s ok to ditch this altogether and do something more worthwhile with your time: I mean, in ten minutes, you can watch half a Brooklyn 99 episode.

In concluuuusion: this has proved helpful for me. It’s well-suited to my attention-incapacitated, stationery-hungry, colour-fueled upstairs. In especially dark periods when I ~feel~ I haven’t accomplished jack, this has q. visibly demonstrated otherwise, or has simply been proof of life.

* I actually tracked this for a month, but I needed to rephrase the question and metric.

# My apologies for the less than ideal image grids; my blog’s layout favours text.
^ Of course you’re welcome to share the contents of this post, but please link back and credit me!

139: The Haunting

I constantly want to have it all, haunted by all my lives unlived. It’s difficult for me to accept that there’s only one job one can work in, one city one can live in, one experience one can have at a time. I fear this tendency may affect the big life decisions to come. Thoughts?

Atulaa K

Hi Atulaa!

First, thank you for your wonderful, tender question. It has given me cause to reflect on my own feelings about this — which means that I’m now going to expound theories by presenting personal anecdotes and limited life experience as data, and the best I can hope to offer is warmth by way of commiseration, some perspective, and a bit more accurately, a suitable delusion or two that you could try on for size.

I believe this is a struggle for many of us. I hate to call what you describe FOMO, because I despise the casual, empty-of-nuance, vapid dismissal our age renders this impasse. (Or maybe I’m just a batty old lady who’s skeptical about its ironic use.) But dear Atulaa, take heart, because your haunting is the curse of imagination, the ache of optimism, and the weight that dreamers carry. I am certain this has plagued the human condition for centuries now, and was probably what drove explorers to discover entire new continents, new schools of thought and philosophy, and generally dream of happier times. I understand its intensity too. It is likely that this dilemma – both yours and mine, beeteedubs – just seems more inescapable in our documentation-obsessed times.

I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t, well, singular enough.

So, the first: how many lives can you stuff into your one life?

I’m not very good at Maths, but in your question alone, I have counted more than one.

You see, each of the things that you say you have resigned yourself to, that you deem as “just one”, is really each a parallel life. Your one job occupies a part of you that your one city does not engage with and that varies from the each one part of you that experiences each one of the things that you put yourself through. And that’s just all the ones you’ve framed in your question.

You’re (hopefully still reading, and) thinking, “But A, sure, these are each individual choices I have made. How do I know they’re the right ones? What about the choices I have eliminated?”

I suspect you know this already, but I don’t think we ever know about the choices we have not taken. We have never known. We will never know. And I find that a bit reassuring. You see, the question doesn’t always stop at, “What if?” Sometimes, the whole question is, “What if… I hadn’t done this? That means I wouldn’t have done << insert every. favourite. thing. ever. >>”

Look back at the deepest details of your history, and pause in wonder of how your imagination could not have possibly conjured all that you have witnessed and endured. It’s true. It’s real. You’ve made all of this happen. You fashioned it out of will and circumstance. Will – pretty much the only certainty you brought to the table. Circumstance – the shit you had zero control over. In every decision you’ve taken, there has been, best case, 50% certainty of outcome. Again, I’m not good at Maths, but as an estimate, that looks like you’ve pretty much winged things all the time. No matter how big the question, you prepped the best you could, ate your nails for lunch, and you made the decision — an event that was both relieving and… surprisingly empty — and what came after the decision was a Republic Day float titled Ad Fucking Hoc. It featured a few things kicking your ass, you emerging victor, and mid-braggadocious dance, you falling off the float, giving it chase, and inadvertently making yourself and that hyper Hindi commentator an internet sensation.

My point here is that every one of your decisions, big or small, has been a direction you took part-blindly, but has led to a colourful collection of surprisingly original minutiae. Yup. Every decision. You chose curtains with sheer panels for your bedroom window because you wanted to wake up to soft morning light every day. And then, one windy afternoon, you see sunlight dancing in white lines along your walls — a simple pleasure that you had never accounted for, and one that you now look forward to.

You have, largely, never seen much of life coming. And by that logic – you can actually never have an idea of what you’re missing out on. The haunting is a ghost who also does not know Maths, and so is unable to count neither what you have, nor what you can’t.

Now that you have your retrospection glasses on, you’re (hopefully still reading and) thinking, “Okay. I’m counting. Three in my mind, two on my fingers. Oh, wait. What am I counting, again? Does what I’m counting… count?”

This brings us to the next stop: the idea of how singular our lives are.

Let’s look at the opposite of that first. Just how similar are our lives?

Since we participate in a society and are a community-oriented species, we’re bound by several (rightfully heavily debated) coda – economical, social, moral, you name it – that dictate that our lives follow a systematic template for the betterment of our pack at large. While we have the choice to identify ourselves solely by our place in this society, it isn’t where we look for our individual-ness. (Though hey, this unit-of-the-pack you is yet another life that you have stuffed into your one big life.)

The reason the human species stands apart from most any other species on the planet – especially AI and the AI-is-the-future bros that come free with it – is sentience: intelligence that includes a steadily growing awareness of one’s self, and one’s individuality. And the same intelligence that kindles in each unit of our pack the, well, arrogance, hubris, and vanity that the unit is indeed one heck-of-an individual with free will, hot damn.

The good news is, this is the same preloaded human feature that gives you you. You, with your own idea of your personal history. You, with your passion and pride. You, with the most tender things you find endearing about the world. You, with your shame that you trust with nobody. You, with your very you shower-setting. You, with your contradictions that surprise you. You, the you you throw into everything even if you didn’t want to in the first place.

Having (hopefully) read my paean to ad f. hoc, you can probably guess I’m a *big* fan of this part of individualism. It is true, and I mean it in the most sincere, un-mocking fashion I can muster: everybody *is* singular, everybody *is* unique.

I can afford to make such a claim because I have not seen enough of the world, or met enough people, and I know I won’t ever cover all of humanity stationed in every corner of inhabitation – so even if the numbers (yup, still bad at them) suggest otherwise, I do not and will not ever know of two people who have the *exact* same personal histories, passion, pride, endearments, shame, shower-setting, contradictions… motivations, mental health, preference of GSM of paper, levels of personal hygiene — you get the drift.

This is what makes other people interesting to us: how they fill the gaps and lacunae of our blessedly limited life experiences. Other people are so wonderfully weird – because they are nothing like us, and offer us a chance at empathy, at multitude, at breaking the singularness that is our beings, bound to our bones. It is true – everybody else has led a vastly more interesting life than our own, because we can never have an accurate, full idea of the contents of their life. My flatmate, for example, has soaked some sort of alcohol with bhoot jholokia, and has adorably marked the steel flask’s head with a Sharpie-drawn skull and crossbones – to me, at every turn, a blatant display of how wonderfully her own her mind is. We are right in having a sense of envy that we are not capable of everybody else’s brilliance alongside our own. But it is important to remember – we are, umm, shucks, a bit brilliant too.

Really. Invert that sense of wonder onto yourself – that no matter how much you’d like to pigeonhole yourself, you are nothing like anybody else. Your life is, and never could be, like anybody else’s.

I’d said I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t singular enough.

I call your attention to, if I may, the truest crux of your haunting here: the word, enough.

You are enough. You have been enough. And you will be enough. Believe in this a little more, and your choices will do what they should for you: enough.

I wish you my share of luck with Maths, and I wish you well with everything else too.

Much, much warmth,
Me.

P.S.: If you’re still wondering how to pick stuff – try inky-pinky-ponky. When ponky falls on the final choice, and you realise that is not the choice you were hoping for, there you have it – what you really, truly want.

137: Paying It Forward

A shamefully long time ago, girlfriend Babushka (urf Babaloobie, aka Babs) very kindly tagged me on this really nice get-to-know, that I obviously put off because one of the things I *excel* at, is procrastination. And today, since I have about two tonnes of bread-butter work to do, I decided it was the perfect time to potter about, guzzle a few litres of iced tea, do the fandango with my to-do list, and write out this fun meme as I inhale stacks of Reese’s peanut butter cups and relish an unusually hot day in my Work From Home best.

YES, dear reader, all one-and-a-half of you (hi ma!), it is a PAY IT FORWARD THINGY.

Babs has custom-made this questionnaire about life and what we squander it on, in her classic really-thoughtful style. And I promise to do a sincere, decent, not-flippant job of answering it. I may be making up some of the answers, but think of that as a nod to Elena Ferrante.

Thank you Babs, for thinking of me. Here we go!

What does writing mean to you?
What a cheater-cock question, catching me off-guard like that. It’s a toughie, so I’m going to reach out for some very excellent help that’s readily at hand. A legend has said this, and it captures what I prize the most in writing:

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

― Stephen King (who else), The Body | Different Seasons: Four Novellas

Writing, to me, is bridging this gap. And my wanting to be a better writer, is just me wanting to be a better bricklayer.

How do you break a writer’s block down?
I can’t. So, I don’t. I let it come and I let it pass, all on its own terms. I do the dishes. I take long walks. I let YouTube autoplay out its recommendations (which somehow always lands up at Sia wailing?) It doesn’t frustrate me if I’m not writing good material as often as I should. While I can be ambitious about writing often, I can’t be ambitious about writing good stuff often. So that voice simmers to a gentle nagging at the back of my brain. But when the block has passed, things come back just as quietly too. They simply show up like a really late friend, sheepish and really insistent on giving me a gift – a shimmering first line.

What is your idea of a good piece of writing?
Anything written earnestly. There is no greater magic than reading something written with a clarity of ache. I think of all the labours of writing, the one I appreciate most is a writer’s commitment to the exactitude of her feelings.

What are some of the things you look out for when you travel?
Open spaces. Fallen leaves. Spots to lie down and contemplate the colour of the sky. Trails for long, long walks. Thoughtful things to give friends or take back home. Cake. Friendly pets. Ancient, crumbly buildings. Clean loos.

What is/who is your favourite/best travel companion?
Curiosity. Spontaneity. Money. Never leave home without any of them.

When was the last time you were mesmerized, and by what?
I have so many answers for this one. But in the interest of brevity (heh) —

When I visit a gallery, I’m always overwhelmed. Like a hyper-child, I’m privy to so much wealth, my eyes glaze over in a super-excited stupor, and it takes me a while, in increments, for me to gracefully get over just the simple things: the awe of being in the presence of a tangible artwork by an artist, the fact that I’m standing in the middle something that made more than a dent in history, all that actual mastery that I want to break down and take away as some half-ass theory… And then, there is always this one piece that surpasses all of these trivialities and just rings at my bones.

This happened when I met this innocuous painting called Undergrowth on the third floor of the Van Gogh Museum. It dates back to Van Gogh’s term at the St. Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy. In a place where he had limited access to subjects, he paints this lush undergrowth with a force that lingers like a presence. Something about its meditation, its urgency moved me to tears. Up close, the canvas looks like a mess made with fingers. And yet. And yet. As I passed painting after haunting painting on that floor, I couldn’t help but turn back to Undergrowth, and take it in with new eyes across several distances. As some of the literature that I read about his work said, “Van Gogh’s genius is not that he painted because of his insanity. It’s that he painted inspite of it.”

Describe happiness in a picture.
Opening your front door for the first time in three days, and being greeted by a double rainbow.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I could remember things more, and I wish I could remember things better.

If you could give one thing about yourself to someone, what would it be?
My slay abilities at thinking of and giving gifts. This, of course, is not innocent of motive.

What is your go-to stress-buster?
Making stuff with my hands. Lonnnng hot showers full of nice-smelling things.

Where do you go to to find peace?
Long walks or runs along not-oft-visited roads. My grandfather’s old sweatshirts. Sometimes, chocolate.

I don’t know many bloggers personally that I can pose these questions to, but since Babs was looking for new blogs, here’s some inspiring stuff that I’d love to share, because they’re beautifully made, they say brave and important things, and I find myself going through these time and again:

https://deep-dark-fears.tumblr.com/
https://www.incidentalcomics.com/
https://www.instagram.com/lastnightsreading/
https://diaries.turmericdesign.com/archive
https://thealiporepost.wordpress.com/  (but of course!)
https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk/wp/poem/
https://www.youtube.com/user/schooloflifechannel

I hope this has been fun for you as much as it has been for me! If you too would like to do this meme, leave me a note in the comments. Or simply just write the answers, and link me back – I’d love to read your responses.

Much love, peas, and potatoes.

My favourite picture of me.

Me, about 5 years old.
This is my favourite picture of me. I am about 5 years old in this, and I have no memory of this photograph being taken. It was taken in the corridor of our first-floor house in Hanumanthanagar. Judging by my expression, I gather that my grandfather has taken this picture.

My grandfather had a very strict idea of how portraits should be shot: dead center compositions
against humble backgrounds. He’d order his subjects to offer a small smile that wouldn’t alter the general structure of the face, and he wasn’t big on goofy grins. My stance here (even to this day) is my general understanding of formalness.

At home, photo-shooting meant an occasion of dignified behaviour. Photographs were expensive and we were allowed just one chance at committing something to forever. So it called for us to make it a picture that we – both photographer, and photographe-e – could cherish. Given I am wearing my favourite plastic-pearls necklace and a stone-encrusted sticker bottu, there was probably a small-scale festival (not a Gowri-Ganesha; perhaps an Ayudha Pooja) in progress.

I love this picture for the details of me that it includes in its confines, and outside of it.

Details

I have never been comfortable being photographed. From a very young age, I knew that a photograph was some moment of truth that had been frozen forever – and so my face, my expressions, my demeanor in them were all very true things, and I was accountable for them all. Growing up, I entertained the rationalization that my moments were moments, fleeting, and to dignify them with the gift of eternity, as with a photograph, was somewhat pointless. Not much of what I do, and what we are doing, deserves a photograph.

And yet, this is a photograph of me. A photograph I love, because it conveys to me the absolute trust that I had surrendered to the able hands and eye of my grandfather. That as always, he knew what he was doing. He knew what wealth he was saving. And I was right.

For today, this photograph is not just a picture of little me, but a hoarding of forgotten details that this older me finds valuable.
me-02

I savour old pictures of me, my family, friends, even strangers. But what I enjoy even more, is asking
questions about the details in them. Is the suit you’re wearing in it, yours? Did your mother knit you that sweater? Was there a fight before this picture? Why are you standing in height order? Do you also remember how the straw mat you’re sitting on would leave itchy imprints on your bottom and on your thighs?

Because of this picture, I remember a tiny me filling up a medium-sized bucket, leaning over to one side to counter its weight, carrying it carefully, without splashing, a mug bobbing inside, and pouring a measure of water into each pot in this garden here. I remember dribbling drops, like a libation, over the heads of money plant creepers. I remember the hiss of thirsty earth leaching water, and me gripping my toes against the resistance of wet rubber slippers. I remember this being my duty before I bounded off to go and play.

I don’t know if my grandfather wanted to capture all of this. But I’m grateful he captured whatever he did.

We are seldom the heroes of our youngest photographs. We had no say in who we were in them. And yet, years later when we look at them, we find our own versions of us in there, lurking in unlikely places. Maybe in the things that the photographer chose to leave out. Maybe still in the frame, just out of focus.

For example, there is enough in here to remind me just how much I hate crotons.

134

On days I am unsure, I take heart in certain certainties: the gratification of popping open a vacuum-sealed bottle. The feel of my toes in my bedtime socks. The openness of a good-natured dog. Morning light on my carpets. Ghee and steaming rice and salt.

This past year, I have been frequently unsure. Of my shoe size. Of what exactly a cooking instruction has meant. Of whether “this past year” covers the time frame I have in mind. Of if I feel like pizza, crackers, or nothing for dinner. Of where the time goes between mornings, and if my shirts have gotten too big for me.

Unsure of whether I had read this story or that, and what I’d felt about each. Unsure: about feelings being things worth feeling sure about.

But, there are certain certainties, and sure sureties. The shock of tabebuias and the thrill of double rainbows. The ache of unsent letters and ungiven gifts. The shriek of the first breath I will draw in a cold swimming pool. 06:30 in Ode to a Sunny Day. Butterflies before reaching the airport. Figs and Feta cheese. Dirty blue jeans. “That’s all?” when I see my savings. My name, written in somebody else’s hand. A delicious first line. That I will fail at love, at least once a day. That my lip will tremble when Amelie turns to her tinkling curtains to find only her cat. That every day, there is nothing more useful to carry than a thimble of grace.

That so often, certainty is surprise.

133

Habitat:

A billowing of curtain
A bloom of tissues
A breeze of newspapers
A dock of dishes

The babble of kettle
A whistle of window pane
Eddies of fallen hair
A gurgling washing machine

A clap of laughter
A meadow of books
Crags of peeling paint
A thicket of socks

A tree of tired jackets
A sunset of dust
A marsh of spent tea-leaves
An autumn of pizza crust.

132

I sat beside an old, old man on the train.

His face was a careful collection of lines: big, ragged brackets mounted on top of each other. The entire time, he sat with an indulgent smile, his shining cheeks prodding his eyes to shut and truly savour his joy a little longer — because before him, stood his apple-faced granddaughter. He held a delicate sweater in his large, shaking hands, perhaps amused by how impossibly small it seemed, perhaps afraid of how fragile the moment was. He eased the little girl’s arms in with elaborate care, patiently coaxing her spread eagled fingers through the sleeves. He paused to inspect her dew-drop fingernails. His thick fingers took great pleasure in their struggle to needle the pomegranate-seed buttons in their eye-holes; one by one, station after station, dreading the fast-approaching last button.

The Ways We Leave

You know you have left only when you come home again.

You are greeted by the smell of garlic in hot oil. Of the smell of your mother’s Sunday henna ritual. The smell of your grandmother’s evening flowers gently nagging your grandfather’s morning aftershave. You are warmed, welcomed, then shocked by the smell of your home, a smell that you had never known or noticed but now feel with a pang in your alien chest, a sensation that tingles your nose, with either the threat of tears or just the feeling of a new stimulus — for your nose is now the nose of a bird that has left the nest it was hatched in.

You are conscious of the space you take. Your fingers take a pulse longer to place the switch to the tube light. Your bed does not remember your shape. Your plate is at the back of the shelf. Your toothbrush is now used to clean your father’s shoes. You find sentiment in coincidence: how, just like you, your mother brushes the crown of her head with the back of her hand when she kneads dough for chapatis, or how, just like you, your grandfather tsks and disciplines a wayward newspaper. The couch feels plush and delicious, and you can swear your grandmother’s hands have grown softer when they weave your hair.

Everything is predictable, yet nothing is the same.

You find new things: new rubber bands, new dupattas, new blankets on newly drawn washing lines. New brands of shampoo, new pamphlets for new insurances against new diseases. The kin of new house-help in their new but your old clothes, new phone numbers on new post-it notes. New whites in hair, new wrinkles in hands, new nicks on chin.

The things you have taken away have left discoloured spaces and these spaces now wear a patina of dust, a cataract of finely ground finality, a veneer as thin as new skin that aches all the way to your core. This was you. This is now you. The story has moved on in a way that feels like a gasp of air in a swell of oil. The suitcase you wheeled out held your earthly possessions, and also the sum of your molecules that make you you, wheeling that suitcase. You moved away your things, and you; at once Fed-Exed everything to your future, and everything to the past, and now what is here is you, holding your toothbrush that you brought from what you call home, mouthing the ghost of a feeling you call home.

Home is where you feel homesick.

New White Rain

A version of this appeared in Mint Lounge on July 19th, 2014. Do click through for more deets on planning your own trip there!

I was 27 years, one month, and three days old when I touched snow for the first time.

It had been a long wait. I had taken an overnight bus from Bangalore to Hyderabad, a day-and-a-half-long train to Kolkata, an overnight train to New Jalpaiguri, and a-day-and-a-half long bumpy drive along a mud-and-rock-road into North Sikkim. 2660km, four days, and six halves of the antiemetic tablet Avomine later, I had come far enough to see my dreams of snow crystallize into the here and now. I was standing along the snow-choked Gurudongmar Road in Sikkim, worried that my tears would freeze to ice.

The friends that I was traveling with and I had one thing in common: none of us had seen snow before. We – two Malayalees, two Kodavas, one Chennaiite, and one Bangalorean (me) – had all dutifully gone on Kullu-Manali/Darjeeling holidays with families over the years. We had been content to look at far off snow-capped peaks without ever touching or seeing snow up close. And so, our mission on this trip was to travel to Sikkim’s famed Lake Gurudongmar – the country’s second highest fresh water lake, at an altitude of 17,100ft. in the Kanchendzonga range of the Himalayas, frozen over this early in the year – to claim an ultimate glittering prize that had eluded us all these years.

About 105km from Gangtok, we reached the Lachen checkpost in pitch-dark, at 10pm. The guards granted us permission to stay the night at Lachen, but warned us that the road further up was snowed in. They said it was highly unlikely that our jeep could take us far on the snow-jammed roads, and that proceeding by foot would be… (meaningful pause). We fell silent. We wouldn’t be seeing what we had come so far to see. Sensing our disappointment, the guards told us that we could go as far as our jeep would go the next morning, but (firmly) suggested that we not take undue risks.

At 6:30AM, the AccuWeather app on my smartphone read 2°C. I paced the balcony of our homestay with a cup of yak tea, taking in more than what was in my cup. Just meters away, row upon unruly row of sugar-dusted pines defied gravity to stand at attention on mountain slopes. A road traced its way around the mountain, wound like buntings on a Christmas Tree.

I swallowed another half of Avomine.

Fortified with two t-shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, and a couple of scarves, I joined the others as we bundled ourselves into the jeep. Each of us sighed, lost in private fantasies of what the near-missed frozen lake would’ve looked like. We would’ve stayed in our worlds, if it weren’t for the view.

Gurudongmar Road ribboned together mountain after snow-heaped mountain. Scraggy arms of oak reached out to the sky, proffering white soot. Pinecones drooped, heavy with icicles. Blades of grass wore diamonds for dew. In the gorge far below, the slate-emerald river Teesta winked in the soft sunlight. The snow on the road ahead went from muddy to sullied by occasional tyre-tread to plush white duvet. At about 40km from the lake, our jeep began to fishtail. The driver killed the ignition and looked out the window, thoroughly bored – the universal sign for “This is it. We aren’t going any further.”

Snow, I soon found, does not crunch.

“Crunchy” is an adjective apt for wafers and chips. But here was a softer, more wholesome sound. This was something buoyant and light, like Soufflé, or sponge cake. Every descriptor I could think of was in relation to food, because my first impulse on seeing real snow was exactly the impulse I’d had as a six year old seeing it in National Geographic photographs: I wanted to eat it. The early March sun’s warmth touched my ears and told me this spectacle of white was a daily miracle; a transient one that was melting soon, and so I must grab this newness with both hands – hands that I promptly de-gloved and plunged into this inviting blanket of cake-icing. Every substitute I had made do with in my playing years, soap suds, cotton, foam, crystal salt, bubbles of thermocol, all failed as points of reference to process this new, bewildering texture. I didn’t know where the snow-flake ended, or where the flurry began. I threw a handful up in the air and watched it disintegrate and fall and catch at my hair and eyelashes. 

What was I, as Kamala Das says in her poem, An Introduction, “South Indian, very brown”, unworldly in the ways of snow, going to do with it? Every snow-centric activity I could think of I had gleaned from popular culture: snowball fights, sledding, skiing, making a snowman with a carrot nose, fashioning a snow angel, Olympic figure-skating. Was there an Indian way of playing with snow? A snowball lagori, a snow cricket? An actual ice-spice?

How familiar is the rest of India with snow? What is Indian snow like? Is it as mercurial as its sibling, the Indian rain? What does snow mean to those of us so far away from the Himalayas? I thought of the word for snow in my mother tongue, Kannada, which borrows the Sanskrit word, hima. Hima, which is the root of the word, himalaya, had now become the derivative of it. It was how my grandmother likes to say, “Hima is what you would find on the Himalayas”.

Reaching snow anywhere in the subcontinent takes considerable effort. Snow dictates its appointments; who it meets, when, where, and how. Snow is found almost only in the six Indo-Himalayan states – Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, the northernmost wedge of West Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh. And only March favours snow-tourism. Too early, and half the roads and viewpoints are shut. Too late, and the snow has thinned or melted. Perhaps this inaccessibility, this whimsical nature of snow is why it is perceived with some exoticism far down the country. Informing friends and family of trips to these northern states usually invites an, “Oh! So did you see snow?”

Down South, snow has a “foreign” status that’s usually reserved for travelling abroad. It is so far removed from our understanding, that until online shopping, looking for snow-gear was an expedition in itself. (Bangalore, for instance, had only Commercial Street’s Eastern, and eventually, Western Stores to turn to.) For couples of a generation, snow was a special aspect of honeymoons. And now, snow calls forth associations with grueling mountaineering, and increasingly, Bullet rides. Having seen snow was once an accomplishment, much like having travelled by air before the 90s. Now, having seen snow is a sign of being well-travelled, of being possessed by modern-day wanderlust.

Back at the jeep, dusting snow off my elbows and my knees, I struggled with how to articulate, translate, and internalize this quick-melting poem in my hands. A cold breeze tugged at a few snow-heavy branches overhead and stirred a pitter-patter. This was it: my first, private snowfall. And I found myself humming Vairamuthu’s words, scored by AR Rahman for the 1992 film, Roja.

Pudhu Vellai Mazhai.

New white rain.