I have been born a few times in my life. First of course, when I made my physical presence felt by pushing relentlessly for many an hour against my mother’s resisting body to finally emerge one evening in a Calcutta (Kolkata, the current name, to me is different place) hospital that had to its name the distinction of having invented the vaccine for malaria during the second great war. It was an Army hospital then and it was an Army hospital when I came about. Not anymore though. I suspect they decided to stop bringing babies into the world after I emerged, knowing that there could have been a travesty of justice in an otherwise intended noble scheme of things. Anyway, I was the first born to my parents. And that was my first birth.
Subsequently, as I grew up, I went through various phases of my life, as is bound to happen, and I moved from one phase to the next, thinking (erroneously?) that I was growing as an individual. Not too many other people quite agreed with my growth curve, but I went on growing anyway.
School was fun and I was a relatively good student … when I deigned to study. Sports almost always got in the way of studies and my score sheets could probably have been more magnanimous had I spent more time with a book in my hand, rather than a football at my feet. College became disastrous, though I made up for it during my MBA days.
The outdoors was always my thing. Whether sports, games or the wilderness. I could not do anything about it, it was in my genes. My dad was a sportsman and excelled in virtually every sport he touched. He went on to play soccer for the country for a few years and missed out being a member of the 1960 Rome Olympics by a whisker. His interest in competitive sports fizzled out like a candle in the wind, got married, I emerged a couple of years later, and he gave it all to his career in the Army. He became a Commando and jungle warfare expert and then went on to retire as the second senior most officer, as his Course mate went on to become the Chief of Army Staff. The Chief unfortunately died while still in office. However, had he expired a few months before he did, my father would have gone on to become the Chief. That wasn’t to be though, and he died four years after he hung up his uniform.
I joined the advertising industry and was quite good at my job, even though I say so myself. It was about reaching my level of incompetence while employed at one of two largest agencies in the country (the debate about who is bigger rages on), when I got a call from an old friend and colleague to join a start-up agency and head their Delhi set-up. The money was good, as it was bound to be, to attract someone from a large, reputed agency to a start-up with an uncharted future. The job title was lofty and I would be able to put my experience and learnings to the test. By this time I considered myself the cat’s whiskers, and then some!
The agency was backed by a large industrial group and money was fortunately not a problem. Lack of funds is why many start-ups do not go too far beyond hanging their nameplate on the door. Money did not run out and the agency expanded and did quite well, with a pretty decent roster of clients. And then the proverbial shit hit the fan, there was some misunderstanding between the owners and the management and suddenly the locks were on the door and I was out of a job.
That is the day I was born a second time.
My dad was one of six brothers and two sisters and among all the progeny these eight people produced (remember these were the days before family planning became fashionable), I was the first to be employed in what used to be derogatorily called the private sector. Children grew up to be Government servants and if they were not good enough intellectually to become a member of the esteemed Civil Services, they would go on to become either a doctor or an engineer, post which they would be employed by the Government – Central was certainly the preferred option, but even employment in the State Government would do.
Well, I had no hope at this stage of my life to become a Government servant, having had the taste of life in the private sector, and neither could I go back to school to become a doctor or an engineer. Life was at a stand still for a few hours (may a couple of days) before I decided to take a leap of faith. I started my own advertising agency, with members of the agency that had just shut down, who like me, did not have a job. With some three thousand bucks in the bank, one client and a dozen odd people.
Life went on well for some time. Clients were added, we did some really good work, added on some people, rented an office, did quite well for ourselves. And then we decided to expand from being a strategic and creative agency to one that also released advertisements in the media for our clients. A few million bucks worth of additional billing made a lot of sense and I had faith in my clients. What I did not realise was that I would be responsible for 100% of the billing of which 90% would be owed to the media organisation. I would be making a mere 10% or less. Big mistake.
A couple of defaults down the line and I was looking at bankruptcy. Money dried up, work suffered, we lost a couple of big pitches which would have pushed us over the wall, the credit card fellows started hounding me (I had ended up paying salaries on my card), and one day (a few weeks too late) I decided to shut shop. A whole lot of liabilities had piled up and with no income in sight, I did not know what the future held in store.
Those were awful days. I accepted the circumstance since I had brought it upon myself. What was difficult to bear was the effect it was having on my family. It was awful. My mother had lived a secure and protected life, being the wife of a respected senior Army officer. My wife had been a homemaker all her life, and a pretty good one at that. My two precious bundles of joy were just stepping into an existence of recognition and understanding – they were still in the single digit age group. And here I was suddenly thrown into the deep end, head first, fending for myself, without a job, without any money, working long hours at a job in the day and freelancing through the night to pay off debts. Debtors hounded us … they even came home and heckled anyone that they encountered, it was terrible.
This was my fourth birth.
If you were paying attention to the last few paragraphs, you would have noticed that I missed out on birth number three.
That was when I was running my agency and things were still on an even keel and the storms had not started. Dad was diagnosed with cancer and after suffering for a couple of years he finally succumbed to his condition. The last month was particularly painful for him and the last few days were excruciatingly difficult.
I still have not recovered from being witness to the final hours and I guess I am still going through the pangs that this third birth of mine subjected me to. I think I will go to my grave carrying the burden of this birth. I also think that there is some cosmic connection between the death of my father and the direction my life took on thereafter. It was a steady slide downhill for a while and then things would settle down for a bit, and then the slide would commence again. Quite opposite to the Midas touch, everything I touched turned to dust. Nothing I attempted came to fruition, things were steadily going South and they have never really settled down.
The one thing that I was really glad about was that my father did not live to see the ignominious days me and the family went through, after the agency I had so lovingly started with so much of hope, closed down. Thank God for small mercies.
It took me a few years to pay off every single rupee of debt. Bar one. There was an employee who was pretty close to me. He and me had a lot of wonderful discussions together coming up with advertising concepts. When the agency shut down, he threatened to take me to Court to recover his dues. That cheesed me off no end and he is the only person I have not paid. That still rankles and something tells me that I should have been the bigger person and paid him off as well, but then he was kicking me when I was down, and frustration and rancour took over my brain and he was left holding his hat without any money in it.
It seemed like forever, but I finally paid off my debts and one day decided to give up the corporate life and head off into the wilderness. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges one night, I decided that enough was enough, and I would henceforth live the life of an adventurer, starting coming Monday. And that is what I did. I started adventuring with a vengeance, and travelling. A couple of friends came into my life at that time, and over a bottle of rum we decided that we would motorcycle around the country. And off we went for the next couple of months, travelling all over India, sleeping in roadside shacks, enjoying the bounty the country had to offer and seeing things that others only wish they could. We had taken the plunge and decided to travel and we did. It was a very satisfying journey.
A couple of months later, ten of us decided to take a ride to the Mecca of all motorcycle riders from around the world … a ride to Leh. And again, we did. Ten rookies managed to spend some wonderful time riding in the folds of the high Himalayas.
I rode, mostly solo, across the Himalayas. From the Kashmir Valley to the incredibly beautiful Ladakh region, to Sikkim, and to Bhutan. Each ride better than the last, each more adventurous, each with non-existent funds.
I had hoped that this vagabond lifestyle would encourage brands to associate with me. That alas did not happen to the extent desired or even a fraction of it, but somehow I managed to get a percentage of my travel costs subsidised. Largely through friends and acquaintances who wanted me to be their travel guide to Ladakh.
Travelling really opens up the mind and widens the horizon of what the soul can experience. I do not particularly like spending money on hotels, since in my limited thinking, I would rather use that money to put gas in the tank to travel a few extra miles in exchange of a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed, with the attached toilet casting its amber glow through the half open door. I enjoy sleeping out in the open, wherever I find myself at the end of the day. I like the view of the star spangled night sky as I doze off to a satisfying sleep. That is not always possible when I am passing through cities and towns, and even then, I look for the cheapest option available. All to ride a few extra kilometres with the money saved. Life is good out on the road.
During one of my rides to Sikkim, I met up with a person who subsequently became a friend. An American, he is a traveller and had by then (he was about 25 years old at the time) travelled to more than 50 countries. Boy, did I envy him. We travelled around Sikkim together and then met up once again when he came down to India a year or so later. We decided to do a trip around Rajasthan together. It was a great ride and the day we were heading back to Delhi, one winter night in January 2006, I was born for the fifth time.
I had an unfortunate encounter with a cow. It was a dark night, a dark road, a black cow and a fatigued me. Contact was established in a hurry. The cow screamed and I yelled. The cow was probably surprised at the sudden encounter while I was yelling in sheer pain. My knee was shattered and my collar bone was broken. Lying on the road for a couple of hours, I somehow managed to get to a hospital a few miles away, got a plaster on the knee to stabilise it and was evacuated to Delhi for major surgery a couple of days later. It was a bad accident and there was nothing left of the knee. It had to be carefully reconstructed with bone cement and an assortment of screws and I knew, lying on the hospital bed, that my motorcycling days were probably over for good, probably even my adventuring days. But over the next few months I did manage to get up and start walking. That was a serious question in the initial days when even amputation was an option! But I never did manage to feel comfortable on a motorcycle again, though I did manage to ride one to get over my mental inhibition. I have never been comfortable on a motorcycle ever again. But I do miss it terribly.
And then I turned 50.
A lot of people say that life begins at 50. Their reasons might be different. People start to retire at around that age and start to enjoy the fruits of their labour by travelling around the world. But for me, 50 was just another milestone and I decided to turn that into my sixth birth.
Over the last fifty plus years, I have been born six times. I am hoping that by the time my next birth comes around, it will be one to celebrate my journey into the next realm of infinite possibilities. Meanwhile my days of adventure and exploration continue.
My interests these days revolve around water. I wanted to learn the sport of stand-up paddleboarding, but thanks to my busted and reconstituted knee which prevents me from kneeling, did not turn out too well. I am now thinking of modifying the paddleboard into a kind of sit-on-top kayak by adding a seat to it. It will certainly be a more stable ride and put me right on the surface of the water, lowering the centre of gravity, reducing quite drastically, the possibility of unintended swims. Someday I will learn to read the white waters of a churning river and gather enough courage to venture down the rapids. Till then, it will have to be lakes, ponds and flat water rivers.
With stand up paddleboarding floating away into the future, I have moved to canoeing into the here and now. This is a much better option for multi-day expeditions because of the sheer amount of gear one can pack into a canoe. It is a boat after all, with all the protection and space a boat provides. A kayak or a SUP does not have the possibility to pack in as much gear and equipment for multi-day expeditions. Not as easily anyway.
Another advantage as far as my canoe is concerned, is it is an inflatable. When inflated, it is sixteen feet long and almost three feet wide, but when deflated can be packed into a largish backpack making it extremely convenient to transport … and check it in an aircraft when travelling to other places. This is very difficult with hardshell canoes. My SUP too is an inflatable and the inflatable canoe adds to my river running possibilities.
We are all born in water in a mother’s womb, and it is probably providential that my new found interest, in the time I am living through my latest birth, I find myself getting interested in water sports. I am as stubborn as a mule, and the fact that I knew nothing about the chores a river guide is called upon to execute, I decided to go down the Ganges. Not for a few kilometres, not for a couple of days, but almost from source to sea. A 2,500 km journey that would likely last more than two months. A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES is now over, and the film and the books seems to be receiving pretty decent accolades, both of which attempt to recollect the journey, the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows, the experiences and the misadventures, that I have been exposed to. Often times the journey did not adhere to the timetable, at other times I was witness to the many wonders of this beautiful country that is India.
Well, we live and learn. Meanwhile, I have had six births and I think that should be quite enough for one lifetime.
Is this expedition my seventh birth? I do not think so. It is the most ambitious project I have ever undertaken, but it still does not rise to be a watershed event that can qualify as a new birth. Maybe a major accident on the river would have made it so. Thankfully, the journey went off largely peacefully, without any major mishap, but a load of wonderful memories.