Monday, November 5, 2007

Memories of a foolish teenager

The BBC documentary Planet Earth is just breathtakingly beautiful. The imagery is nothing like one has seen before. It is beyond description. The visuals just blow you away. Yet, like a bad tenant who just won't vacate your house, one scene has occupied (temporarily I hope) a corner of my brain since the last few days - 2 male mountain goats fighting each other for mating rights on a very steep slope somewhere in the mountain ranges of the Himalayas. What was absolutely amazing was that their battlefield was almost vertical. Why a goat in his right mind would choose such a dangerous place to fight was beyond my comprehension for a little while, until my brain spitefully unhid a long forgotten memory from its dark crevices and exposed my hypocrisy to myself. About 15 or 16 years ago, I was in a similar situation. Not exactly fighting a goat on the Himalayan slopes for mating rights, but doing something even more stupid. As a person who is not all that comfortable with heights, I was doing something foolishly dangerous.

In Bombay, every year during the monsoon season, the 'Krishna Janmashtami' festival (Krishna's birth) is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm. One of the traditions is to form a human pyramid and break a clay pot called 'Dahi Handi' which is tied to a rope and suspended above the ground. The pot is usually filled with with yogurt , one coconut (both mandatory items), fruits and cash. The heights at which the clay pot is suspended varies and so do the amounts of cash. There are a few professional teams who practise making pyramids throughout the year and they travel around and try to break the tallest handis which are usually the ones with the most cash and prestige. Then there are the impromptu set of people who just gather below the local handi which they have themselves put up and try breaking it. Most of the handis in the city are of the latter type.

One such year, I was asked to be one of the members of this pyramid. I was a very wildly enthusiastic participant, until I realised that I would not be in the second tier which is ideal because not only does it give you adequate exposure and brings you to the notice of that divine girl in the blue dress you have a huge crush on, the dangers of breaking your bones are almost zero since you are just a few feet away from the ground. Even the third tier is somewhat ok if not ideal, because you still are not that far from the ground and you have someone to hold onto in your tier. Anything above that is just dangerous. The top is the worst. People should only be asked to go up there as a punishment. And unfortunately, that was where I realised I was headed to as I climbed the mass of human bodies stopping at each tier until the goading from the people below to go up one more tier became too much to avoid. I must say that these goaders cheerfully made the most of this opportunity to play architect/civil engineer and I can't really blame them because they had just a few hours in an entire year to do this. Of course, I could not refuse to go up. What would heavenly-girl-in-blue-dress think? That I am a coward? That was definitely unthinkable! Though I was uneasy and my brain was trying to weigh my options, it was no match against millions of years of evolution. My male instinct to impress my potential mate kicked in and I made my way to the top.

All this time I was focussed on getting my hands and feet in the correct places to reach the top but once at the top, I had to break the pot which meant standing up to my full height with only my legs for support and then looking up to see if I could reach the pot. As soon as I looked up, I realised how high I was because I could see the balconies of the 3rd floor (4th floor in the US ) of the buildings on either side, right next to me. I instinctively looked down and that was a huge, huge mistake. I was debating on whether to try standing up and reaching the pot, leaving the relative comfort of holding the shoulder of the guy below me. For what seemed like an eternity to me, I just froze there, half-sitting, half-rising, trying to give an impression to the people gathered that I was going to go for it. I could hear the voices of the people gathered below shouting in anticipation, the thick rain drops falling on my face as I looked up. I knew that I could never pursue blue-dress girl if I chickened out. Finally I just stood up and I tried to reach for the pot but to my utter relief, it was about 3 or 4 feet away from my reach. That meant we would need one more tier with someone shorter than me at the top or the same number of tiers with someone taller than me at the top. Either way, I would never be at the top. Just as the happiness of the situation hit me, something else, most probably the pain of bearing the weight of the people above, hit one of the members of the second tier and they caved in and down, we all came crashing. No bones were broken because the trick is to fall into the centre like an implosion, so that your fall is always broken by the others who are falling below you. And also you can count on the 'architects' and other unsung heroes on the ground to catch you most of the time. But that is not to say that people don't get injured. A friend, who works as an X-ray technician in a major hospital of the city, invariably works overtime the evening of the festival and the day after.

Anyway, my little flirtation with height did not help me in my flirtation with my crush at all. I was completely unsuccessful in making her my girlfriend. So I was worse-off than the goats since atleast one of them got a mate. I wish I had known then before I did my little stunt what I know now . Navjot Singh Sidhu (a decent cricketer-turned-annoying-commentator) once said, 'experience is a comb which life gives you when you have gone bald'. Well, I have not gone bald yet. I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.