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Postcards from Himalayas

If there ever could be such a place as Heaven on Earth, it would have to be in the Himalayas… to be there is to feel a “presence” far greater, far more sublime than ever experienced. Magical, mystical, mesmerizing.

I was planning to write a blog on what I felt there in the shadow of the highest mountain in the world, but I thought for starters let me write on what I saw there, lest the photographs remain mere “pretty pictures” with their significance, or what they are, being guessed. For sure, the next post will be on what I felt. I usually don’t do this, write a sort of travelogue or photo-essay, but this time I will. The Himalayas literally mean “abode of snow”, and geologically are the massive mountain system that additionally includes the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and other lesser ranges that extend out from the Pamir Knot. Some of the world’s major river systems arise there, and their combined drainage basins are home to some 3 billion people (almost half of the Earth’s population). The Himalayas have also profoundly shaped the cultures of South Asia, with many Himalayan peaks sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Overall, the Himalayan mountain system is the world’s highest, and is home to the world’s highest peaks, the 14 “Eight-thousanders”. Putting this enormous scale into perspective, Aconcagua, in the Andes, at 6,962 metres (22,841 feet), is the highest peak outside Asia, whereas the Himalayan system includes over 100 mountains exceeding 7,200 metres (23,622 feet)!

Much has been written on the trip into the Everest region, but what I found conspicuously absent were photographs that could even remotely do justice to what I would see in the Khumbu. So when I headed there, one of my objectives was to set this right and return with a few thousand pictures (which I did). And now using just a few of these, let me narrate my story. Well actually it’s not so much of a story as a few photographs which I think epitomize the sights of Khumbu…

After a hair-raising flight into Lukla from Kathmandu, I started walking northwards and after about three hours I reached Phakding just across the Dudh Kosi. As aviators would say, this part of the journey was “straight and level”.

After Phakding comes Monjo, and then the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, which is when the real climb begins – almost vertical leading straight up with steps hewn into the mountains. The ascent brings you to the “Lord of the Rings” suspension bridge in the misty mountains at a dizzying height above the Dudh Kosi after which is another climb to Namche Bazar. This part was the toughest climb: five hours up, up, and up without a pause from 2800 m to 3540 m!

Just above Namche Bazaar is Chhorkung; this is the view of the Great Himalayas from there: Thamserku to the left, Everest in the centre, its 8848 m peak shrouded in clouds, and Ama Dablam to the right of the frame.

Here is another photograph of Ama Dablam – by far one of the most beautiful mountains of the Great Himalayas of Eastern Nepal. The main peak is 6,812 metres (22,349 ft), the lower western peak is 5,563 metres (18,251 ft). Ama Dablam literally means “Mother’s Necklace”; the long ridges on each side like the arms of a mother (“ama”) protecting her child, and the hanging glacier thought of as the “dablam”, the traditional double-pendant containing pictures of the gods, worn by Sherpa women. For several days, Ama Dablam dominates the eastern sky for anyone trekking to Mount Everest basecamp.

And now this is the first view of Everest from Namche Bazaar just before sunrise, with the unpredictable jetstream to the right.

This is a “dzopkyo” – most of the so-called “yaks” around the Khumbu are actually dzopkyo (male) or dzum (female), the offspring of pure-blood yaks and cows or Tibetan bulls. And by the way, a yak is a male, a female is a nak; so actually there isn’t any yak cheese, it’s a misnomer – there is only nak cheese. But then, what’s in a name really?

And a wild horse…

This is a photograph of the natural amphitheatre of Namche Bazaar as seen from Chhorkung, a few hundred metres above it.

Mani stone – these are stone plates, rocks and/or pebbles, inscribed with the six syllabled mantra of Avalokiteshvara (Om mani padme hum, hence the name “Mani stone”), as a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. Mani stones may also be used in a loose sense to refer to stones on which any mantra or devotional designs are inscribed.

Above Namche and Chhorkung is Khumjung at an elevation of 3,970 metres. A monastery here houses a purported Yeti scalp. This is a photograph of the Khumjung school, built courtesy Sir Edmund Hillary. It took me about two hours to get here from Chhorkung, above Namche Bazaar, and would have probably taken the same time heading down. And young children from Namche come here to study daily making the trip up and down 45 minutes each way!

After this the next stop was Tengboche for which I first needed to descend to  this point at Phunki Thenga, cross a river and then another two-and-half hours to Tengboche – straight up.

All the climbing up and down is worth it for a sight such as this: framed by the valleys of the lower Khumbu, Everest is to the left with the fourth highest peak in the world – Lhotse, to the right as seen from Tengboche.

This is Tengboche Monastery with Machermo behind it. It is also known as Dongak Choling Gompa, and is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Sherpa community. Situated at 3,867 metres (12,687 feet), the monastery is the largest gompa in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

After Tengoche, the next stop is Pangboche. This is the kani (or a stupa-shaped arch over a trail, usually with paintings or murals towards the inside) at the entrance of Pangboche.

After Pangboche comes Pheriche via Orsho – this is looking at the Imja Khola from Orsho.

And here comes the mist rolling in along the ground…

I was almost at 4000 metres now and the only thing that can be cultivated at this altitude is the hardy potato – believe it or not, even potatoes taste different between villages!

Next halt after Pheriche is Dughla: again a climb that literally leaves you breathless…straight up on unbalanced rocks and moraine. This is a photograph made at Dughla of Ama Dablam at sunrise framed by the prayers flags – possibly amongst my favorites of the thousand-plus that I came back with. What beautiful shades of blue.

From Dughla onwards to Lobuche: this is looking down the valley.

En route to Lobuche is this memorial to Babu Chiri Sherpa (June 22, 1965 – April 29, 2001) at the crest of the spur between Dughla and Lobuche – Chiri was a Sherpa mountaineer from Nepal. He was a legendary guide who reached the summit of Mount Everest ten times. He held two world records on Everest. He spent 21 hours on the summit of Everest without auxiliary oxygen, and he made the fastest ascent of Everest in 16 hours and 56 minutes. Such memorials are all along the trail to Everest…ample testimony to the dangers of the mountains.

And this was while I was lying down on the trail from Lobuche to Gorak Shep for this shot…it was freezing cold, but of course well worth it.  It’s really tough walking on a trail which is moraine and boulder strewn – a twisted ankle or knee might end the journey right there! And oh yes, there is no hospital anywhere near.

This was en route from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp – what an absolutely spectacular sight! What beautiful, brilliant colors contrasting with the terrain of the moon! Sadly I’m not a botanist and so can’t tell you the name…

The mighty and majestic Himalayas… all natural colors of the dawn breaking over the horizon: ethereal really.

I was hanging off the edge of the mountain to lean down and create this photograph of glacial lakes…at almost 6000 metres, a tumble from here is certainly not advisable.

And now this is Tabuche at sunrise – it almost seems as if the mountain is on fire with the rays of dawn.  I can’t even explain the feelings that overwhelm you when you witness such a sight, as night changes into day and this magical moment appears…

And finally, up close and personal with Mt. Everest in English, Chomolungma in Tibetan or Sagarmatha in Nepali.

My next post will be on what I felt there. These were just a few:

Postcards from Himalayas.

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No Man Is An Island

A few days back I stepped out to photograph one of those ubiquitous construction sites mushrooming all around Delhi to make a few B&W portraits. I had crossed this particular site quite a few times and for some strange reason I wanted to go there even though there wasn’t anything really “special” about it. Just before this I’d gone to Nizamuddin Dargah at Delhi when I made this photograph of an old man, a shopkeeper just outside the mosque there.

And I made this other photograph there as well, of a butcher with gentle eyes. It reminded me of a paradox – blood-stained hands and kohl-lined eyes…

Now getting back to the construction site – I spent a few hours there chatting with the workers and laborers and doing some photography. I photographed children. And then when I got back home and as I started processing my photographs, I began to think, why did I go there almost mechanically without much thought? Why not elsewhere, some other place classically beautiful? Why am I so intrigued and fascinated by people whom we call poor? I do it ever so often, as I did at Nizamuddin and then here. Here is one of the photographs I made of a young child who was washing his clothes in barely a trickle of water…

And here is another one of a baby in arms whose mother dutifully rubbed her face with powder just before I photographed her (just as I’m sure my mother got me ready for a photograph too)…

The answer to why I go to such places kept eluding me till I had my Eureka moment this morning when my aunt commented on a photograph that it made her cry. And someone else wrote to me and said that my images were Steve McCurry-esque. Now don’t misunderstand me, this is not self-adulation, I’m just stating what happened. I’ve also had people tell me what I write is tripe and trash which too is fine. And of course, I’ve had someone say to me (without knowing me) that I am being hypocritical when I write. That also is fine. Unfortunately these aren’t comments, but emails – if they were comments, I’d approve those too.

So yes, the answer came to me. I do it because these people have affected me within the deepest recesses of my heart. If I were unmoved by them, I wouldn’t ever have been able to create a photograph than can move someone to tears or for that matter compare my photographs to Steve McCurry, however distant a dream his art and craft is for me. These are people I am attracted to; they move me within, they affect a part of me which somewhere along the way had accepted that I will never be able to make a difference in their lives – how wrong I was! I love the stories that I hear from them – of trials and tribulations, of their daily grind, of how they treasure what we take for granted. I put my arms around them because they are no different from me and they need to know I care. I love sharing a meal with them sitting in the dust. I spend time with them because I would rather be there than with superficial people who can only discuss how comfortable the spring-collection Ferragamo loafers or Jimmy Choo’s are, while being blind to those walking barefoot on a tar road on an Indian summer day. I photograph them because this keeps me in touch with reality as it exists, not how I would wish it to be. I create images of them because it makes me more sensitive to their angst and pain, something we tend to ignore.

As I was photographing them, someone said about my camera that these are rich people’s toys. Well, yes I am rich in compare, but more often I think that those who don’t have what we possess in material terms are far richer than us. Can you see his toys?

But beyond his toys, what he has in his eyes are happiness and contentment – these really can’t be bought with cash in a shopping mall.

I repeat their stories to myself almost each day without fail, I relive those times whenever I see these photographs. What they want is recognition. What they need is empathy, not sympathy. What they desire is dignity. What they treasure is respect. These are the mantras I remember. And if in all of this, you hear their stories from me and you pause even for a moment and reflect and feel, then my photographs mean something else, and take on a different dimension entirely. Because then I am not only a photographer, but also a storyteller. And to complete this story that I am narrating now, let me use these words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own,
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know,
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The world will be a much better place if you remember that those bells toll for thee as:

No man is an island.

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A wayside sacrament

I must confess I have some other thoughts in my mind which I’m going to write about later, but as I was trying to place everything buzzing around in my head into some semblance of coherent order, I thought about beauty. And this blog isn’t so much about what I have to say, but on what I’m thinking at the moment. Why is it so difficult for us to find beauty? Why do we need to look in all those hidden corners other than right in front of our eyes to see beauty? Why is it impossible to recognize beauty in all that we call “ordinary”?

I don’t ever remember opening a dictionary to see the meaning of beauty – well, I did just now. I don’t even remember ever using the words and “ugly” and “hate”. And before you think I’m being holier-than-thou, I can use language that would make a salty sailor blush.

beau·ty n. pl. beau·ties

– The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

– A quality or feature that is most effective, gratifying, or telling.

– An outstanding or conspicuous example.

With photography an indelible focus of mine, I have learnt that the only way to recognize beauty in each and every form is to slow down in life, pause and stare unabashedly. What other people find boring, I find interesting, what other people ignore, I find intriguing, what other people pass by, I stop at. Because now I see beauty in truthfulness, a representation of what really exists, as the Lord created. For that you have to scratch the surface, sometimes deep below. And it works the same way in relationships – we hasten to judge. I have. Think about it.

I discovered beauty in these trees as I walked the Himalayas, and I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s words when he said: “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with it fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” So the obvious isn’t necessarily the most important. Sometimes what lies beneath is even more so. 

As those other thoughts of what I should actually be writing on overwhelm my mind, all I want to remind myself is to slow down. And listen carefully to Ralph Waldo Emerson words: “Never lose the opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.”

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The Perfect Exposure

I never expected my photography and blog to be in the shape and form in which they are today. When I started writing here a few months back, I didn’t expect such heartfelt and honest comments and notes and emails from people. Those took me by surprise and continue to do so. Just a few days back, someone wrote a really nice mail to me and requested me to write every day. It touched me for sure, it made me happy and I said so as well to the person who wrote to me. Apropos the request to write each day,  I could have easily said “yes, I’ll do it”, but in all honesty I said, “I can’t because then it won’t be from my heart, it won’t be the real me, it’ll only be perfunctory.” I’ll then be doing it for all the wrong reasons – I’ll be writing for someone else, and not writing for myself which is what I always do. I photograph and write for myself because then they give me serenity and peace, and those feelings are then what I can reflect in turn. Is this being selfish? There is no easy answer to this, and it all depends on how you look at it, which is what this blog is about – what is the truth?

My writing has changed across the last three months since I started here – you can see the earlier posts if you want. And I’ll confess that some don’t really touch me the way they did when I wrote them. Sure I can edit them and make those “better” by any standards or even delete them but I don’t. On similar lines all my photographs are on Facebook, not just the better ones. I can’t, I won’t, I don’t even want to wish them away. But I let them just be there. They happened because of me. I am the cause. I am the reason.  This is just the way I can’t wish my past away, all the mistakes that I made, all the people I hurt. Is every photograph and word embarrassing, everything of my past regrettable? Not at all in the least – but we tend to live with the guilt of our follies and foibles carrying this burdensome crucifix for ages. So you see, we need to let it be, but we also need to let it go. The past “was” real, the present “is” the reality, the truth.

But again what is the truth? I made these two photographs of butter-lamps at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. I’ve described the scene before, but let me try and recreate it. When I made the images of the lamps, I was standing alone in a darkened sanctum sanctorum, the windows of which were covered in soot, the air heavy with the fragrance of incense and oil, the sound of monks chanting their prayers in my ears. It wasn’t cold but I shivered, and I had goose bumps, as God came to my mind and I felt “faith”. I cannot help but quote Rumi who said: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

On a more prosaic note, both these images might “appear” to be the same at the first superficial glance –but they actually aren’t. Appearances are not reality. As Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother: “One may have a blazing hearth in his soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.”

Yes, these were made at the same place, almost the same time, with the same light, yet these are different. Without meaning to get into the technicalities of photography which you know I don’t get into, the difference in them lies in the settings of the shutter speed, aperture (or how much the lens is opened or stopped down) and ISO (or film sensitivity) which form what is called the “exposure triangle”.  I can juggle these into myriad combinations to create different photographs, but as photographers would tell you, only one combination is the “perfect exposure”.  Again perfect for whom?

As an analogy, I’d interpret these terms to be the pace at which we see things around us, how much we open our eyes to observe and not merely see, and how sensitive we are to that which we observe. An imbalance in any of these settings results in a “not so good photograph”, a distortion of reality, a misinterpretation of the truth. So we need to slow down in life, observe deeply and with more sensitivity. Coming back to where we were, again both images are real, you might like one, and I the other.  Having said that, in all these unique combinations of speed, aperture and sensitivity there will be one that comes closest to reality, on which both you and I will agree. The problem lies in reaching that agreement. We are unwilling to let go of our positions, of our dominant (predominant?) ego. Remember how difficult it is to say with absolute brutal honesty: “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I didn’t understand you. Please forgive me.”

I might not agree with you but I must recognize and realize that your perspective is real as well. On my “About” page, I wrote this: “In the continuum of time and space, intermediate finite moments shape our being and our perception, our mental prisms. After passing through our own prisms of perception, each refraction of reality contains only some pure essence of the light, only an incomplete part. So we will always experience some aspect of reality, of the truth, but only from our perspectives. None will see the whole, complete light. These are musings from my own refraction.”

Photography for me is a passion, but it is also spiritual. Just as my writing is. I can’t photograph or write at the speed of my thoughts. So I slow down to think and speak aloud as I type, observing carefully the tumult within me subside, as I become more sensitive to who I really am. And as I’ve said before, I don’t edit, I don’t rearrange. I photograph and write with honesty each time – and by doing that every time with honesty, it becomes easier for me to express the truth, and for me to be me. Rhonda Byrne called it “The Secret” – you can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, psychologists can call it auto-suggestion, I merely say this is the truth. Or if you’d prefer to, you can just call it:

The Perfect Exposure.

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The Photographer’s Heart

Michael Freeman is a great photographer and also the author of many books including “The Photographer’s Eye”, “The Photographer’s Mind” and “The Photographer’s Vision”. Since he hasn’t copyrighted “The Photographer’s Heart”, I’m using it for this blog.

This will (I think) be a longish blog (and as a caveat, this blog is for everyone, not for photographers only).  I’ll also break my own rule and name people in this – after all, it is my rule and my blog. I just realized that I’ve written about lessons for life that people I’ve met and photographed on my travels have taught me, but I’ve never said a word on the lessons for life I’ve learnt from those who taught (and continue to teach) me photography. This is my attempt to set that right.

Flashback two years – I’d just purchased my camera and happened to be chatting with Willy Foo (www.willyfoo.com), quite easily among the best photographers in Singapore.  In response to a question of mine on a photograph of his, Willy proceeded to explain to me in absolute depth and complete detail, the story and the technicalities behind it. This was quite surprising for me – the photography equivalent of the “cat out of the bag”. So I said to Willy: “How is it that you’re telling me everything?” I don’t remember his exact words in response, but in effect he said that he was not only a photographer, but also a teacher and this was his duty. In these two years I met many others – I disturbed them at odd hours, all sorts of times, requested unedited files to see how those are prior to processing, compared edited photographs, asked for critiques, wanted them to teach and help me, and not once did I hear a “no” in response. Some, of course, have had significant influence on my craft – Laxmi Kaul showed me the beauty of monochrome and of the portrait, a debt I shall never be able to repay. Recently I’ve connected with many immensely talented photographers because of my photo-blog (in no particular order): Glenn Capers (wingedoracle.1x.com), Heidger Marx (heidgermarx.com), Chris Faust (chrisfaustphoto.com), Bruno Chalifour (brunochalifour.com), Matthew Pace (matthewpace.photoshelter.com), Greg Buck (winkandblinkphotography.com.au), Roy Money (rwmj.smugmug.com), Kim Ayres (kimayres.co.uk) Panta Astiazaran (panta-astiazaran.smugmug.com), Marcus Thomas (marcthomasphotography.com), Laura Kaczmarek (atgimages.zenfolio.com), and many others, none lesser than those named. The reason I’ve added their websites is rather simple – when you see their photographs, you’ll soon realize that in comparison to theirs, my images are a child’s “crayon-on-the-wall” drawing compared to a Matisse. But all of them, without fail, made time for me. So who said the world is different today and we don’t have time for each other? And the amazing bit is that other than Willy and Laxmi, for the rest I am just a LinkedIN or Facebook profile. Yet they showed me the way – for which I am, and shall always be, grateful.

Lesson for life #1: Give. The most precious thing you have is your time – give some of it, more if you can, to another. Sometimes your time is more valuable to them than to you. Lesson for life #2: Help. Help however, with whatever you can. You never know how much of a difference it makes to the other. Lesson for life #3: Teach. The greatest gift you can give someone is knowledge. Sow its seeds and watch people blossom. You will never get a better reward ever. Lesson for life #4: Share. Let your experience and wisdom be free. And here the mathematicians will squirm (or turn in their graves) – when you share, you don’t divide – you multiply.

And to the naysayer mathematicians, let me narrate from the Bible, Matthew 14:15-21 (Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand):

“As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

So these are lessons for life that photographers have taught me. But we aren’t any different from anyone else, which is why I said this blog is for everyone.  We have just the same insecurities as any of those I’ve made portraits of, the same pain, the same fear. We’re also just as good as our last image. Perhaps the only difference that I can think of is that we see things with a difference. Therein lies the paradox, the irony – in that difference that we see, is also our likeness.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Khalil Gibran)

“Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean,” said the little old man.” (Shel Silverstein)

“In times of grief and sorrow I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry I cry and when you hurt I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods to tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life.” (Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook)

Have you never felt these emotions? There is no difference between me and the people I photograph, but for a fraction of a second, and the side of the frame that we’re at.  When I see them up close and personal through my lens, I am reminded that all I can do always is to love, and love unconditionally. Yes, at times it hurts, but that doesn’t mean I stop loving.

Mother Teresa once said: “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” I’ll rephrase that and say: “I am a little pixel in the hand of a creating God who is sending a picture postcard to the world.” This is what I have to say. This is from:

The Photographer’s Heart.

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A non-zero sum game

I travel. I travel extensively. I photograph. I photograph extensively. I read. I read extensively.  I write. I write extensively.  Nothing about me happens in moderation. And yes, that also means I love deep, and it also means I hurt bad. I am emotional, sentimental and sensitive. That’s just the way I am, the way I am built.

I meet many people on my travels; I talk to many of them, and with almost all I create photographs of. But sometimes even without a conversation in words, we can speak the language of the heart. Each conversation, in words or silence, is a revelation, a story for me of their lives. I come back with many lessons, most of which I call my lessons for life. With this man I needed no words… all I needed to do was smile, and this is what I got in return. Much more than what I gave.

So you see I always come back richer than what I was before.

He reminded me of Cassandra Clare’s words in the “City of Glass”:  And he said, “You could have had anything else in the world, and yet you asked for me.” She smiled up at him. Filthy as he was, covered in blood and dirt, he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “But I don’t want anything else in the world”, she replied.

A few days later on the same trip in Himachal, I was heading up to the summit of a mountain when I met another shepherd (one of the many with whom fortuitously my paths crossed) who was lying in his tent, or should I say, just an open tarp. For those who have been following my blogs, this was not Dighli Ram as you’d see, but another shepherd. I was fascinated by how he was – an open tent in that cold weather, tired eyes, chapped lips, wearing his patched coat, covered with a blanket, his life’s belongings strewn around, embers of the night’s fire still glowing and smoking. I stopped to chat with him and make a few photographs. I was mesmerized.

As I lay down that night in my tent, I tossed and turned, not because I wasn’t comfortable in my 900+ down sleeping bag, but I was uncomfortable with how I’d been that morning with my shepherd friend. Sure I’d chatted with him for about 15 minutes and spoken to him about what he does, where he is from, his family, his children, but all the while when I was talking to him, my thoughts kept wandering to the summit of the mountain and I didn’t spend as much time with him as I should have – which means to my heart’s content. I followed my head, not my heart. I’d been selfish. I “did” barely enough so that I could photograph him, and nothing more. Our meeting had become transactional, a bargain for me. This happened to me after many years. Even now this bothers me.

And that is when my thoughts wandered – to the innumerable, regrettable times I have done such things in my life in the past, perhaps even worse; to the times I never held an old lady’s hand to help her cross the road because I thought her hand was dirty, to how I’ve only offered a seat in the bus or the tube to those I consider “worthy” of my place, to how I’ve never even given a second glance to that bare-bodied, skeleton of a man pulling a hand-cart in the oppressive heat of an Indian summer, to how I’ve never had any remorse about not finishing the food on my plate without thinking of those scavenging in garbage bins for a few morsels. Yes, I’ve done all that and more, but I’m honest enough to admit it openly. Somewhere along the way, I realized all this, my unfounded arrogance, my selfishness and I resolved to change, and change I did, which is why I still feel guilty about spending maybe five or ten minutes less with my shepherd friend. When there are aberrations of self-centeredness like this, I feel miserable and castigate myself – you could call this blog my confession.

But what is the connection between meeting the shepherd and my past? Lots actually. In all of these instances, I allowed myself to be the center of my thoughts. It would have been no biggie had I spent some more time with him – maybe shared a cup of tea. We could have laughed some more together, I could have allowed him to use my camera – he would have been thrilled. Sure I can still turn around and say “Oh well, next time maybe”, but there is no next time. These moments past will never come back. I need to remember carpe diem. I need to remember that there is a purpose even in why I write this today. I need to remember to thank the Lord for all my blessings. I need to thank Him for something as “taken-for-granted” that I can read, write and express myself here, and there are many who understand where I am coming from. I need to thank Him for all of you, my friends. So thank you God. I need to remember to make you and others all my reasons.

These words “all my reasons” reminds me of the final scene in the film “A Beautiful Mind” when John Nash, (played by Russell Crowe) during the Nobel Prize ceremony, says this to his wife: “I’ve always believed in numbers and that equations and logics lead to reason and after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask what truly is logic, who decides reason. My question has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back and I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I am only here because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”

This wasn’t planned – strange how this blog has ended with John Nash. It reminds me of the Nash Equilibrium and Game Theory. So I also need to remember that my life needs to be:

A non-zero sum game.

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The Lord is my Shepherd

In our high-speed and high-tech world, walking has sadly and unfortunately fallen out of favor.  “Pedestrian” is almost derogatory – a euphemism for something prosaic, rather ordinary and commonplace. Yet, walking with intention, walking for a purpose has deep roots. Australia’s aborigines walk during rites of passage, while Native Americans conduct vision quests in the wilderness; for many centuries, millenia perhaps, people have walked the Camino de Santiago, which spans across the breadth of Spain. I recollect having read someplace: All these pilgrims place one foot firmly in front of the other, to fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts. As one foot walks, the other rests. The fact of doing and being comes into balance. Remember “The Pilgrim’s Progress” written by John Bunyan?

I am one such pedestrian, one such pilgrim, and I am just back from walking in the Himalayas across a week and more, where I met another pedestrian, albeit slightly different. This is the story of Dighti Ram, a shepherd. At about sunset, I saw him standing in front of his dilapidated stone wall-and-tin roof shed staring out at the pasture; having nothing left to do but settle into my tent for the night, I walked up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few photographs with him. As I usually always do with the people I photograph, I chatted with him for a while even before I pressed the shutter. Why do I talk to people before I photograph them? One for reasons of photography: it puts them at ease and makes for more natural portraits, and two for selfish, personal reasons: always, each and every time without fail, I have walked away from such conversations with “so-called ordinary” people having (re)learnt invaluable, indelible lessons of life.

Dighli Ram is a 69 year old man who has tended to his goats and sheep across the last six decades in the sometimes verdant, mostly freezing, but always beautiful mountains of the Dhauladhar, the outermost fringe of the Himalayas. He has about 300 goats and 400 sheep, large tracts of farmland, and a house leased to a company, bringing his net worth to $120,000, wealthy by any standards in India. But this isn’t about Dighti Ram’s balance sheet or his assets – I’m just putting elements into context.  As we got conversing, I questioned if he ever got tired of doing the same thing day-after-day, walking the same stretch of land for sixty years, or for that matter did he compel himself to do it so that he could get more wealth, more property? His answer was to quote the Bhagavad Gita: “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.” Lesson #1.

He invited me into his shed to share a cup of tea, and later made me promise to come and stay at his farm whenever I am there next – a promise I shall abide by. Now Dighti Ram didn’t invite me because he assessed me by my business card, my professional network on LinkedIN or my salary. His innate simplicity allowed him to invite me without questioning: “What’s in it for me?” Most of us believe that to give, we first need to have something to give. This is paradoxical and the trouble with that is, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” We have forgotten how to value things which don’t have a price tag – things (or feelings) such as empathy and care and compassion and love.  When I’m reminded of this, I realize that true generosity doesn’t start when I have something to give, but rather when there’s nothing in me that’s trying to take.  The more I am with such people, the more I learn to love unconditionally. In our dominant paradigm, Hollywood has insidiously co-opted the word, but the love I’m talking about here is the kind of love that only knows one thing – to give with no strings attached. Purely. Selflessly. Lesson #2.

His face lit up as he, the proud father, told me of his sons – one a shepherd like him and the other a TV-and-radio technician. Then with a forlorn, longing, faraway expression he told me of his wife who tends to the farm and harvest all alone, as he roams with the herd in search of pastures and how he misses her whenever he is away even at this age (which of course was utterly romantic). It reminded me of Kuan Tao-Sheng’s evocative and expressive words: “ You and I have so much love, That it burns like a fire, In which we bake a lump of clay, Molded into a figure of you and a figure of me. Then we take both of them and break them into pieces, And mix the pieces with water, And mold again a figure of you and a figure of me. I am in your clay, You are in my clay. In life we share a single quilt. In death we will share one coffin.” Yes, for all of us, our love, our happiness, our pride is alike; we share the same fears, cry the same tears. The more I spoke with him, the more I became convinced how in the tangle and weave, warp and weft of the Universe, we are all different yet just the same. Lesson #3.

Somewhere down the line in the course of our conversation, we started talking about wildlife in the mountains and he told me of the number of times he had sighted bears and leopards. So I asked if his herd had ever targeted by wild animals to which he said: “Yes, but I am safe as I have a rifle” upon which he proudly brought out a battered and bruised worn-leather rifle case, assembled his rifle and posed with it.

My smartass attitude got the better of me and I said: “But do you really think this small-caliber, muzzle-loading rifle is good enough to protect you against mountain bears or leopards?” – to that he just smiled at my ignorance, looked down at the ground briefly and then to the sky for a bit, and said softly almost in a whisper, “But He is always there for me.” Which is when the 23rd Psalm of the Old Testament came to my mind:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

So thank you Mr. Shepherd, for reminding me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd”.

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If Buddha taught photography

I am not religious. Spiritual yes, but not religious. If you ask this pseudo-Brahmin to recite a single mantra, he won’t be able to. But that to me means nothing. As I’ve said so myself, I am an iconoclast, but yet I believe there is a Divine Power that brings method to this madness. I’ve read a lot on religion, and deeply respect all of them. But for many reasons, too many to detail here, Buddhism has influenced me deeply, yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I am also a photographer. Just this morning as I was reading “In the Buddha’s words”, an anthology of discourses from the Pali canon, I concluded that if Buddha taught photography, his one and only lesson would consist of two words: “Yoniso maniskara”.

Without claiming to be an expert in theology (just as I don’t claim to be an expert in photography), if I were to distill the teachings of the Buddha, it would, in the final analysis, stem down to these two words. Buddha’s discourses begin by calling us to develop this faculty yoniso maniskara, which has many meanings and many interpretations in Pali, but the one most commonly accepted is “careful attention”. Buddha tells us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives, but instead pay careful attention to the simple truths that are everywhere available to us. If I were to put this in even more simple words, I would only use the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on the principles of mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are”.

For me, this is what photography is all about – careful attention. I’ve changed with the years, evolved maybe in some way, hopefully for the better as there always was a lot of room for improvement in me. With time (a euphemism for growing old(er)), I’ve realized that the best way in life is to be is in the moment. “The Power of Now” as Eckhart Tolle called it. I have an advantage – I can’t multitask, so I have no choice. Yet that didn’t stop me in many years to live in la-la land. But now, I am more conscious. I stare in awe even at the most mundane of things, I am aware, I feel. The only solution I have found to be in the “now” is to slow down. I live that moment. If I am talking to you, I am only there, while I am saying these words aloud as I type. If I am creating photographs, I am only doing that.

But the happiest times of my life are when it’s just the Three Musketeers in blissful solitude out of “civilization” as we know it, and the camera. We have no BlackBerry, no laptop, no internet, no newspaper to distract us. It is just the three of us – I, me, and myself. And the closer we three get, the more content we are. We live that moment – it’s called the joie de vivre. And when you live that moment, you see differently. And since this is about the Buddha, the single word that comes to my mind when I think of Him and reflect on His teachings is “compassion”.  Sure I can make a photograph with His face, as I so often have (in fact, you’ll find them on here too), but compassion can even be expressed through these images, which I made at the Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh, when I saw and felt it differently.

William Blake’s words from the “Auguries of Innocence” came to mind when I made this photograph: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, And Eternity in an Hour.”

I love to quote because like there are many more photographers better than me, so are there many more writers. This image reminded me of some more words that I believe in deep within my heart. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Yes, I do. Whatever I am, is You and Yours alone.

I stared unabashedly at the obvious, the Buddha’s compassionate eyes, feeling the serenity radiate, but from there, I went lower to his lips, always curved in that all knowing half-smile, amused and bewildered at our foolishness, yearning for either the past or the future, forgetting the present.

By the way, yoniso also means, literally, “to the womb”. The meaning is, getting to the core or essence of the matter, doing something with understanding of the pith and substance, understanding cause and effect, and maniskara simply means to keep something in mind. I interpret this to see and feel everything with childlike innocence and wonder and awe. Try it. You’ll feel the difference. You’ll live that moment. And when you live, you’ll create.

Tomorrow I am again off to the Himalayas again. I live, don’t exist. I am alive, not living. I am attentive, not absent. May my epitaph never read “He lived as if he were never going to die; he died as if he never lived”. I know now what He would have said. You know now what He would have said.

If Buddha taught photography.

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The Bridges of Madison County

Ecstasy. Not the pill. The feeling. If I could sing, I would – maybe Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the ceiling” would be the right choice; but sadly, my baritone doesn’t permit me. So I’ll write instead. I am this week’s featured member on Photocrati (www.photocrati.com), the people who power my website. And what a bunch of wonderful people they are! Each time I have had a glitch (all thanks to my non-geeky brain) they’ve been most understanding, not to mention patient. By the way, with a spot of immodesty perhaps, Photocrati provides WordPress solutions to 12,000+ photographers, and so for me, an amateur, to find his way there in just a month of being a member, is mind-blowing. Here’s the link: http://www.photocrati.com/featured-member-debesh-sharma/

Now while completing my profile for their website, I had to say who or what inspires me. Yes, Steve McCurry and David duChemin found their way there, but so did “The Bridges of Madison County”. This 1992 best-selling novel tells the story of a National Geographic photographer who visits Madison County to create a photo-essay on bridges in the area and discovers love while there. Of course, this never happened to me but the book, and later the film, did fuel an incurable romantic’s passion for photography.  Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep helped. My favorite part of the book is this:

“The night went on and the great spiral dance continued. He discarded all sense of anything linear and moved to a part of himself that dealt with only shape and sound and shadow. Down the paths of the old ways he went, finding his direction by candles of sunlit frost melting upon the grass of summer and the red leaves of autumn.

And he heard the words he whispered to her, as if a voice other than his own were saying them. Fragments of a Rilke poem, “around the ancient tower…I have been circling for a thousand years.” The lines to a Navajo sun chant. He whispered to her of the visions she brought to him – of blowing sand and magenta winds and brown pelicans riding the backs of dolphins moving north along the coast of Africa.

And he knew finally the meaning of all the small footprints on all the deserted beaches he had ever walked, of all the secret cargoes carried by ships that had never sailed, of all the curtained faces that had watched him pass down winding streets of twilight cities. And like a great hunter of old who has traveled distant miles and now sees the light of his home campfires, his loneliness dissolved. At last. At last. He had come so far…unalterably complete in his love for her. At last.

Toward morning, he raised himself slightly and said, looking straight into her eyes, “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all of those years, I have been falling toward you.”

For me, when I see whatever I see within my frame, I remember these words, I feel this way. My loneliness dissolves.  There is no “her”. There is only what is framed that I am falling toward.  I could’ve said this to these children whom I photographed in the Khumbu on my way to Everest:

Or I could say this to the mountains aloud hearing my echo along the valley:

Or I could whisper this to the clouds:

I have finally discovered that elusive feeling of happiness – it comes when I have the camera in my hands, and with the sound of the shutter, creating what I always was falling toward but never knew. I know the meaning now. I am free. I am home.

In these few words, you just read the story of my life:

“The Bridges of Madison County”.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

I am overawed, yet humbled. I’ve had almost 8000 hits on my photo blog since it went live on 15th April, and I was just wondering how and why did this happen in just one month? Not that I’m complaining, but I’m curious. Of course, many (or most) of my friends have done more than their fair share in creating a buzz about my website, for which I’m grateful.

But seriously, this is beyond all my expectations. I don’t write for anyone; I only write because it helps me think about the hows and whys and ifs and buts of my photography, and might help some others in the same boat as me, but that’s an adjunct. Though I did mention in my last post that I speak while I write, and for those of you who know me personally, you’d agree that I do love the sound of my own voice! So that’s another benefit.

Many people have spoken and written to me across the last month about my website – and in those conversations some recurrent critiques have been that I am very personal in my writing, too intimate, expose myself more than what is needed, serious more often than not, and of course, last but not the least (pun intended) too long.

Quite some years ago, I decided to make my life an open book. It’s easier that way. Whatever you ask me, you’ll get an answer. There are no boundaries, no limits. I broke those walls down. I am now more open and I feel happier. So yes, my blog will be personal, it will be intimate, because if I can’t be honest to myself which is whom I am writing for, then I’m not being true.  As the geeks in Silicon Valley would say, “WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get”.

I am serious. There is perhaps a carefully crafted veneer of self-deprecating frivolity around me, but scratch the surface and you’ll find intensity.  That’s the real me. Maybe I have this mask just to see who’ll bother to wait awhile and know the real me. But forget psychology.

Yes, I write long. I write the way I speak, just how I think. I ramble, I wander and I jump from topic to topic because at any one time, I have a million thoughts buzzing in my head.  I’ll go from one subject to another, which is a complete non sequitur, in just a second. Don’t tell me you weren’t warned. Perhaps that is why I have quintessential wanderlust, but yet can be comfortably alone in my solitude.

Without being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I am a sum of opposites, of contradictions, of yin and yang. I suppose all of us are in some way or the other. But I am honest enough to admit it, and my personality is reflected in the images I create, and in my words. I made both these photographs at Shanghai while strolling through the French Concession. This photograph is of an upmarket pseudo-French fine-dining restaurant; as I stood thinking of my composition, I couldn’t help but wonder as how we all at some point of time or the other, try and become what we’re not. Sino-French cuisine anyone?

Just across the street, not more than 100 feet from this restaurant, was this shikumen belonging to the old Shanghai.

So you see I saw both these sights, diametrically opposite, literally and figuratively, in equal measure and framed them, I daresay as they ought to be for what they represent, the meaning that they convey. The façade of the restaurant, its architecture, the gleaming glass windows, the chalk-and-blackboard imitation of a French street café menu is the China of today. The stark, imposing, cloistered, bare stone shikumen with closed windows and a barren tree complete the picture of yesterday’s China.

Opposites – coexisting, same as within me. I don’t know which of these opposites is better, and I don’t want to know either. They’re just different, and both yearn to be recognized and understood. And if you’re wondering how long did it take for me to ramble on from when I started writing to where I am now, about 30 minutes. I don’t edit, I just type while I speak. I do a spell-check though.  This is just the way I make photographs – without thinking too much, but with instinct, and with minimal editing. And since things happen to be working out just fine till now, I only need to remember:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

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