Sunday, 26 February 2017

Balraj Bahri Malhotra - the bookman

Exactly one month after he died, I went down teary-eyed to my grandmother who told me that this pain I was feeling would reoccur every month. Of this, she was certain. “First it is days, that turn into weeks, that become months and soon, it be years that he would have left us. This will happen because time doesn’t wait or stop.” And so it has been one year, one year to the day today that my grandfather passed away. 
It happened because of loss of breathe - water, mucus and other fluids filled his lungs, preventing him from breathing. Preventing breathe from coming in or going out. Exactly one year ago at this time in the afternoon, I was sitting with him talking about a session of the Rajya Sabha. I remember we were laughing and then in a grave voice, he told me, “There is a box for you at home. A box full of my old books in Urdu, English and Hindi. Find it and keep it.” I brushed off the comment by telling him that when he came home, he could give it to me himself. There was no need to mete out his possessions just yet.
 Later that evening, the team of doctors and their assistants were to suction out the fluids from his lungs, providing him relief and allowing him to breathe again. But let me say something that I have never said before, something that I have absolutely feared saying out loud till today. But there is no longer anything to hide or deny, because this is fact- my grandfather, months before he actually died, had lost the will to live.
He went along his day-to-day, going to the bookshop, tending to customers as per usual, playing cards with my grandmother to pass the time, eating and even indulging in the occasional glass of whiskey, but the zeal for life has dissolved completely. What remained was a very thick, hardened shell of a man, holding on until he absolutely had to. Three weeks before he died, when it was he and I in the car, coming back from Bahrisons in Saket, he proclaimed out loud- not to me, but to the air around us, in general- that he had lived his fill of life. He had lived all the years he had to live and he wondered whose years he was living now, kya pata ab kiska hissa jee rahe hain.
So it was on the evening of February 26, 2016 that Balraj Bahri, aged 87, founder of Bahrisons Booksellers, and a refugee who had come from Malakwal in 1947 as the patriarch of his family- his father having been taken off the train and kept in Mandi Bahauddin for a few months to initiate Muslim employees into the processes of running the local bank – died in his hospital bed. If I think back to that moment, I am still able to clearly put together a chronology of events. The extraction of the fluid was to happen and we were asked- my grandmother and me- to step out of the room. My aunt remained inside. The process began and within moments, his vitals fell. I know this not because of the beeping of machines inside the room, but because my aunt called out to him in a voice that was laden with alarm, beginning loudly and becoming progressively smaller.
“Papa!” she said, “Papa! Papa? Papa…?!”
Then for a moment, there was only quiet except for the faint buzzing of hospital machinery, and in a small voice, my grandmother, whose palms I held tightly within my own, said, “Woh toh gaye, he has gone.” There were no tears in her eyes then, but a calmness that was unusual for the situation. She knew it was over, the worst had happened, and though she remained calm until we walked up to the room, when she entered, she became a different person. Crossing the threshold from the hallway into the hospital room caused her heart to break, for lying there, lifeless, was the love of her life.
In a voice that was not her own and in a pitch I wasn’t aware that any voice could reach, she howled, “You promised you would never leave, you promised. Take me with you, take me with you.” They had been together for 60 long years, from the refugee life at Kingsway Camp to the life of comfort today, they had been together. They had endured penury, set up the bookshop, had three children, and eight grandchildren. But this was an abrupt and unexpected rupture in their togetherness. She held onto the hospital bed and she wept, kissing his face, his hands and his feet. But he did not reciprocate, he could not, and for the first time after a long life of only giving, Balraj Bahri took. He took in his wife’s love, her tears, her sadness, her heartbreak, her pain and her helplessness. He absorbed it into himself completely, not moving even at inch. 
I sat there on the small bench next to the wall, tears flowing down my face. My aunt stood next to his bed, her eyes red and puffy. I am ashamed to admit this now, but when my grandmother was crying, my first instinct was to record that voice, and I did. I feel sick as I admit this for in my phone, still lies an unheard recording labeled ‘February 26’ that I just can’t get myself to hear or delete, just as I couldn’t help myself from recording it that evening.
That pain could be manifested in such a visceral, audible way was a notion I had never experienced. How did that pain feel, how did a voice seem to envelope the room with such a heartbreaking and dense sadness? Like an arrow, my grandmother’s howl struck not just my heart, but shook my entire body. My shame disables me from listening to that recording ever, but the feeling of living through the sound never leaves me.
The process after that was as it is with any death, clinical and concise. The formalities were taken care, the bills were paid, the body was taken home, the rest of the family was notified and the last rites began.
That night, as I lay in bed, I thought back to how he had died. Before I knew it, I was crying and within moments, I became breathless. Because I was choking on my own tears, I found it difficult to breath and then suddenly, a thought hit me. That night, while I was crying, my breathing became heavy, my nose blocked, my whining nasal. I gasped to catch my breath in a way that my grandfather never could at the end of his life. He died due to loss of oxygen, and here I was breathing. How was that fair? All I wanted that night was to feel lighter, to feel transient, to unpack this heaviness clinging onto me, this viscous feeling of breathlessness, discard it and feel light again.
That I should continue living when a man as great and foresighted as my grandfather should die is beyond me. And again, I know I am being unfair when I say this, I know we all meet the end of our lives at some point or the other, regardless of age, but this is how I feel. I am angry at him for having left us, left me. I am angry for the way he left. I am angry at the sadness he caused my grandmother, the ‘he’ shaped void he left behind in their room, his closet, the armchair, the dining table and in her heart. I am angry because it took her weeks to stop taking out two cups with the flask of chai every morning. I am angry because I cannot alleviate her pain. I am angry because I cannot throw away his things- the old magnifying glass, the push pins, the maroon ink pen, the writing pads, the hisaab journals- I cannot. I am angry because death is never easy. I am angry because I am hurt, because my family is hurt.
Anne Carson once wrote these words that have become the epitome of the feeling pressing against the inside of my body.
“Why does tragedy exist?” she asks, “Because you are full of rage.”I am, I repeat as I read her out loud.
“Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”I take a sharp breath in, close my eyes and let her words resound in my head. I am.
And so, slowly and gradually, as the year has passed, it has dawned on me that my anger is not anger in a vindictive or violent way, it is actually simply a mask for sadness. I am angry because I am sad.
I think sometimes that I should listen to my grandmother when she talks of the healing quality of time. For if she can believe it, then so can I, I suppose. Time envelopes everything within it. And though it does not alleviate the pain, it does make it easier to bear the loss, she claims. Time and writing, writing has helped me in a way I could never imagine. Writing about this pain has made me excavate it, so that it has no longer remained intangible, but has become a very physical and tactile entity. One year of sifting through its sedimentary layers has made me a reader of sadness. My anger is no longer manifested through tears, but mostly through silence. My sadness is swallowed and explored quietly, my pain has fueled my work. And this is not a uniquely singular experience, for so many people before me have felt such loss and so many people after me will feel it again, and I will too, many many more times in the future. But this is now and this is me, and I can only speak for me.
So I wonder now, as someone living thinking about the dead, how long can I hold onto these memories? How long can I carry this pain with me? How long until I stop remembering what that howl sounded like, what those puffy eyes looked like? When is it that I will begin to forget this feeling, this sadness, this density, this acute sense of remembrance, this need to hold on. And if and when I do forget, then what will remain, what will grow in its place, what will fill the ‘he’ shaped void?

From the Hiatus project
tales of familiar spaces by
Aanchal Malhotra

Monday, 13 February 2017 polar exploration

 ...let the Reckless come

             The centenary of Roald Amundsen’s party reaching the South Geographic Pole.

Ernest Shackleton (left), Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen meet in Philadelphia, USA, 1913. Ed Webster collection/

On 14 December 1911 Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting and their remaining 16 huskies crossed the final stretch of what they called King Haakon VII’s Plateau to reach Polheim, ‘Home of the Pole’, the South Geographic Pole. Amundsen’s team was the first to set foot at this hallowed juncture of longitudes, fully 35 days ahead of a British expedition led by Robert Scott. The Norwegians sledged southwards from their winter base, Framheim, at near sea level on the Ross Sea barrier. They drove huskies across the Ross Ice Shelf, (making use of depots laid the previous autumn) before gaining height up the Axel Heiberg Glacier that carves through the Queen Maud Range. Once through this crevassed section of the Transantarctic Mountains Amundsen pushed on southwards across King Haakon VII Plateau to cross a high point of 3376 metres (now called Titan Dome). Though hindered at times by sastrugi, (ridges of wind-compacted snow) they generally made good time across a firm surface, gradually descending to the South Pole itself at 2835 metres. Amundsen’s men spent several days camped at the Pole, resting and skiing out in four directions, taking sun shots to make sure they were at precisely 90〫South. Leaving a tent behind with a note for Scott to deliver to the Norwegian king in case they failed to get back, they set off home, reaching Framheim with 11 dogs on 25 January 1912 - a return journey of 1600 n.m. (nautical miles) in 99 days, one day short of their original estimate. Wednesday, 12 October 2011 < previous next > Hedgehog House Roald Amundsen - polar explorer Norwegian flag, Longyearbyen, Svalbard Photo: Colin Monteath Cover of Roald Amundsen’s original Norwegian edition Sydpolen - The South Pole. Hedgehog House archive

 “ Stumbling wide at the limits of the compass 
Fur and canvas in the wilderness of pain 
You can lose your mind in the panic of snow blindness
Icy winds strike you deaf and numb - at the midnight sun. 
 None but cowards seek badges of courage
Only fools seek the trappings of fame 
There’s no conquest, just an endless striving
There’s no glory, just a restless flame.
No man’s land, white desert, ice mountains 
Beyond the pole, let the reckless come 
Bathed in light, an infinity of silence 
Cleanse the soul, leave the senses stunned - at the midnight sun.” 

Australian band Red Gum song Midnight Sun The British, meanwhile, had set out from Cape Evans, Ross Island, on 1 November 1911. In various combinations, they employed dogs, tractors, and Manchurian ponies as well as a support party of men to cross the Ross Ice Shelf on a route pioneered by Scott in 1902. Scott’s Pole party then ascended the highly crevassed and wind-polished ice of the Beardmore Glacier (discovered and traversed by Ernest Shackleton’s British Nimrod expedition in 1908) before finally reaching the South Pole on 17 January 1912. Utterly dejected at finding Amundsen’s tent and fully aware of what the loss of priority at the Pole meant for themselves and the British Empire, they set off homeward facing grim prospects. Injury, gradual starvation and a deep penetrating cold were constant companions. All five perished on the Ross Ice Shelf during February and March 1912, the final trio including Scott himself dying in their tent 11 n.m short of a depot. By then, Amundsen was in the warmth of Australia giving lectures. Over the past 100 years there has been a near-constant analysis of what is often called the ‘race to the Pole’, comparing Scott’s seemingly flawed planning with the clinical efficiency displayed by Amundsen. Whatever one’s views on the merits of relying primarily on ponies instead of huskies to travel across what can be nightmarishly soft snow on the Ross Ice Shelf, it is indisputable that dogs can be fed to dogs to keep going (Amundsen’s plan) while all the food for ponies must be carried on sledges. (In 1910 the efficiency of the tractor engine left much to be desired - although now vehicles powered by internal combustion engines make most polar journeys). Amundsen’s use of huskies and his method of travel with them proved masterful. As a great many Norwegians spend their entire youth perfecting the most refined aspects of skiing, Amundsen’s carefully selected team was able to glide almost effortlessly beside the dogs. Skiing for hour after hour was a vital skill on a journey (skis 244 cm long - extra length to help spread weight when crossing small crevasses), as it took the body weight of five men off the sledges. (Scott’s men didnt ride their sledges either but they coudn’t glide on skis as they had to constantly pull the full weight of the sledges from the front.)

 Captain Scott’s 1910-12 Cape Evans base, windcloud over Mt Erebus behind , Ross Island. Photo: Colin Monteath / 

 In addition to the energy-saving nature of skiing, Amundsen’s success hinged on his reliance on wearing loose-fitting, windproof fur clothing. Heat generated by the work of skiing is retained inside fur garments and crucially, given the constant brutal cold of the Polar Plateau, excess sweating can be kept to a minimum. (Amundsen did make the mistake of depoting his crampons which could have been a costly error given the large areas of hard bare ice in Antarctica). Conversely, the British were more traditionally clad in woolens and gabardine windproofs. Outfitted this way, Scott’s party was weakened on the return leg by various factors including less and less calorific intake, in part a result of inadequate rations. There was also a lack of fuel due to leaking fuel cans which added enormous stress to the process of melting snow for hydration and cooking what food they had. Amazingly, when death stared them in the face, they failed to lighten the sledges by depoting their rock samples. This all added up to being beaten by the cold. It was prophetic that during the previous winter at Cape Evans, Scott’s right hand man, surgeon and artist Edward Wilson, painted a scene depicting the polar party - five men hauling a sledge, each wearing skis. This painting was done months before Scott made the last-minute decision to increase his party from four to five, in spite of the planned food and fuel being calculated to support four. Somehow, circumstance dictated that, for a party of five, they only took four pairs of skis. Antarctica does not forgive mistakes like that. Scott’s men achieved much in Antarctica including superb exploratory forays into the Transantarctic Mountains, ground-breaking scientific observation around Ross Island and, later, a treasure-trove of quality scientific and geographic literature with comprehensive maps. But when it came to the actual Pole journey itself, some of Scott’s thinking has to be considered muddled. Despite two winters in Antarctica and hard lessons learned on the 1901 Discovery Expedition Scott remained a ambitious Royal Navy officer without a significant aptitude or affinity for dealing with polar terrain. One of Scott’s men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who later wrote the time-honoured classic The Worst Journey in the World, described the Pole party as ‘They were an Epic’. Manhauling sledges in the polar regions can be surprisingly efficient but it can also be brutally hard work, especially with heavy sledges, poor snow conditions or battling into strong winds.

To read more, go to Colin Monteath's website and to view his wonderful photographs.