*Pink Rubbers and Male Bonding at Kempty Falls

A Riot of Masculinity and Colors, II @ Kempty Falls, Mussoorie.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

A Riot of Masculinity and Colors, II @ Kempty Falls, Mussoorie. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

Masculinity and Pink Rubbers I, Kempty Falls, Mussoorie.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Masculinity and Pink Rubbers I, Kempty Falls, Mussoorie. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

Kempty Falls is the star tourist attraction at Mussoorie. Anilji, who runs one of the restaurants at Char Dukan, assured us of its worthiness as a tourist destination, and for good measure he added that none of the other nearby waterfalls shown on the maps have a sufficient volume of water, or a dramatic fall, to qualify as a ‘waterfall’. Nevertheless, I could not rid myself of the suspicion that this visit would be a largely wasted effort. Kempty Falls, I was certain, belongs to a class of tourist attractions in India characterized by the fact that they are frequented either by the lower middle class or, at the other end, by well-to-do NRIs. The affluent Indian middle class is seldom to be seen at such sites: at the lower end of that spectrum they are to be seen at the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb, and other (in the frequently encountered jargon of the day) ‘world class’ sites, while at the upper end of that spectrum, and among the truly rich, the holiday destinations are overseas – or at hill and ocean resorts which are intended to convey to the affluent Indian the feeling that he or she is a properly certified member of the civilized consuming class.

What I scarcely expected at Kempty Falls was a spectacular display of male bonding. Perhaps a T. E. Lawrence might have been tempted into thinking that he had chanced upon scenes of homoeroticism. But, before my eyes could witness all this, I had to contend with a more predictably banal world. The signs that one has arrived at one’s tourist destination are those invariably encountered at such sites: the path is paved with restaurants and shops selling trinkets, religious paraphernalia, toys, winter clothing, and more. These are the sorts of stalls where one might find a monkey cap, that remarkable insignia of Bengali bhadralok life, or nylon – always nylon, in a land known for its cotton textiles — frocks with generous frills for little girls. And, as at the equally acclaimed Jog Falls in Karnataka, the long winding path that led to the bottom of Kempty Falls was amply, indeed copiously, littered with trash. Apparently the easy solution to the unchecked problem of waste is to dump garbage on the hillside. The phrase, ‘mountain of rubbish’, was evidently not coined in jest, if the garbage heaps into which many hillside places in India have been transformed are any kind of reliable testimony.

The winding path from the roadside, down the hill, brings one to the pool at the bottom of the falls and to a variety of shops offering ‘sweaming costomes’ and lockers for rent. For a moment, I was wondering what might be meant by a sweating costume – something akin to a smoking jacket, perhaps, to weed out the sweating types from the non-sweating types? But there was more screaming fun ahead: the spectacle at the pool was nothing short of dazzling. There were some 15-20 people, including a few women in salwar kameez and long tee-shirts. But the bulk of those frolicking in the water were bulky Punjabi men. These sturdy specimens of the male race, lionized by the British as one of India’s martial races, were floating around in pink, green and blue rubber tubes. I watched with intense curiosity as two turbaned men held aloft a pink tyre-tube, weighing a lofty 100 grams, much as people might hold aloft a prized or fragile object while wading through a dense crowd. The water didn’t even reach their swimming shorts, and yet these men seemed preoccupied with keeping their ‘life jackets’ properly inflated for the storm ahead. Gazing at these men, my mind went back to the pranks of school days and to the bonds of that much celebrated item of Hindi cinema, dosti yaari. For all his masculinity, perhaps the Punjabi male is not so fully entrapped in his manliness – and perhaps the oppressiveness of ‘pink is to girls as blue is to boys’ has, thankfully, not become yet another emblem of a purportedly universal culture.

*Devis at the Mountain-top

Late yesterday afternoon my family and I were at the temple of Surkhanda Devi, less than 10 kilometers from Dhanaulti and about 30 kilometers from Mussoorie. The mountains are said to be the abode of the devis, but devis do not seem to be in short supply anywhere else either. Our taxi driver said the temple would be less than 2 kilometers from Kaddukhal, on the main road, where he dropped us, but he did not adequately warn us about the steep climb in front of us. There are ponies to take the faithful who are weak in flesh if strong in spirit to the mountain-top.

Why, my ten-year old daughter and eight-year old son asked me, are Hindu temples so often on the top of a hill or a mountain? The temple of Surkhanda Devi is at an elevation of 9000 feet and from the main road it is an arduous ascent of not less than 2000 feet. The experience of god, mystics have said, is a heady experience, and devotees lend their support to others with the words, ‘Jai Mata Di’. How much longer is to the top, we asked someone coming down the path every five minutes; and, as we made our way down an hour later, now armed with the experience of the mountain-top, we in turn felt like veterans and responded to queries with as accurate an assessment as we could furnish of the time it might take to scale the heights. It was a cloudy day, and the mandir could barely be seen, even when we were less than 100 feet away; the clouds drifted in and out, and, for my part, I might have come as close to a mystical experience as I am capable of as we walked through clouds. The experience of god, even to the most exalted devotee or mystic, must be at best a fleeting one – an impression most justly conveyed by the magisterial play of the clouds.

The mountains are the abode of Shiva. But, to return to the earlier question, why are temples so often on the top of the hill? An impression may have been conveyed by some strands of popular Hinduism that gods are very forgiving, or rather that one’s sins may be cleansed, for example, with a ritual bath in a purified body of water, but obviously one must labor to reach god. And if the ascent to Surkhanda Devi is a telling illustration, one must not scoff at such labor. From the mountain-top, the gods survey the landscape before them – though perhaps the analogy of a spiritual panopticon is not quite apt. But there may be many other respects in which the mountains are the natural abode of the gods and goddesses. Whatever they share with humans, and if the evidence of the puranas is reliable testimony the common ground is vast, gods and goddesses are also above humans.