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A Crackerjack Life

Biographies & Autobiographies | 30 Chapters

Author: Rajiv Tyagi

11.21 K Views

These are memoirs of my life as a fighter pilot, a mountain trekker, a bon vivant and a lover...“Rajiv still flies with his keyboard. He writes with a fighter pilot’s swagger and attention to detail. Fighter pilots like old hunters, have a reputation for tall tales. Rajiv tells short ones, with aplomb and gusto. He writes with felicity and a sense of irony and wit, so rare these days.”- Mohan Guruswamy“This is that rare kind of book, that....

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This beautifully crafted memoir is an excellent example of how great storytelling can turn ordinary life experiences into compelling reading. Rajiv makes one want to follow him anywhere, from his early years in Meerut, to his formative years at the National Defence Academy, to his life as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, to his role as an indulgent lover-husband and doting father, to his meaningful new life as an entrepreneur after retiring from the Indian Air Force, to his regular trekking journeys in the Himalayas. Rajiv’s writing is intimate, funny and alive – an ideal companion for a long trip inward. Written in a spare, sparkling style, A Crackerjack Life feels less like a gushing confessional and more like a collection of wonderful poetic experiences of life celebrating itself in different hues. It is a refreshing mixture of memoir and biography that defies classification. Don’t let the occasional quirkiness and nonconformity of some premises in the book deter you, as that is what Rajiv Tyagi is all about. Rajiv effortlessly weaves history and memory together into a completely unique whole. It is that rare kind of book that slowly consumes your senses, and then suddenly overwhelms you with cinematic swell, leaving a smile on your face and joy in your heart. This book is many things: a quest narrative, an atmospheric travel book, and a record of one’s personal journey of transformation.

Sanjiv Bhatt, IPS
sanjivbhatt@gmail.com

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1. Pahadi Women

During a weekend with my wife, in the environs of Ranikhet, in the Kumaon Hills, within the folds of the Lesser Himalayas, on a breezy Sunday afternoon, we went shopping for local wares and the inevitable tub-load of glass bangles that my wife will buy from every place she visits. While buying trinkets for the maids who work at our home and in her school, she chanced upon mangal sutras with a bright, neon-blue thread, hanging along with traditional mangal sutras with a black thread. She reached for the blue mangal sutras, only to be told by the shop-keeper that those were not meant for her and were meant to be worn only by widows. We wondered on the sociological significance of a widow wearing a mangal sutra in a bright, neon blue colour, till my experience of trekking in the Kumaon and Garhwal hills provided us with a plausible answer.

Hill women are generally more emancipated than their urban and plains sisters, free to talk and mingle with men, even strangers. There is no purdah and while trekking in the hills, I have often asked women for permission to take their pictures, which they readily agree to, even calling out to their friends to join in. In such a social milieu, it might have made sense for men and women to have worked out a socially acceptable but subtle system for signalling the availability of a woman.

Once, several years ago, while trekking alone in the mountains of Kumaon, I chanced upon a solitary abandoned hut, evidenced by the rusted lock on the door. It overlooked a descending slope which terminated, if you were inclined to follow it, at a stream, which later served as a soak-pool to cool in, in warmer weather. Our nearest neighbour, Mahender Singh, the wealthiest in the area, for he had solar power that could run a colour TV, lived a fifteen minutes’ walk away – his wealth sourced from his profession as ‘agent’ outside the RTO Office in Almora. Having fallen in love with the place, I asked a person I came across along the forest trail, for the whereabouts of the owner. This person accompanied me to the owner, who lived in a village about forty minutes away. On asking, the owner immediately assured me that the hut belonged exclusively to me! And that I could live in it whenever I wanted to. An outstretched hand held out a bunch of keys to me, which I gratefully accepted, after having eaten a hearty meal of some pahadi vegetables and a dal which I had savoured for the very first time.

I trekked back to the hut, despatched my porter, climbed to the first floor room and laid out my sleeping bag over a rubber mat, in a room with floor and walls plastered with mud. With night approaching fast, I lit an LED lamp and proceeded to fix a rum-paani to battle the chilling cold that would creep in soon. A solitary window in the room, opened to a pollution-free sky awash with so many stars, that it appeared as if the inky-blue fabric of the sky had been rent apart, showing the light beyond…

Into my second drink, I heard the crackle of twigs snapping and leaves crackling underfoot, to the cadence of a human walk. A forest path passed through the stone paved compound of the hut, turning the hut into a landmark and a thoroughfare, while walking down the mountain path, on one’s way ahead, to other villages. Soon a female voice called out from below, “so gaye kya?” (“have you gone to sleep?”) “Nahin. Abhi aaya” (“No. I’ll just join you”) I replied, pulling on my sandals and unlatching the door. I saw her standing in the paved courtyard below, a quick wave of the torch revealing a pahadi woman, decked out in a saree, wearing a black threaded mangalsutra, carrying a satchel crossed over her shoulders, rubber flip-flops on her feet.

Mera naam Meera hai” (my name is Meera), she said. “Mujhe panditji ne bataya yahaan koi Kaptaan sahib aye hain rehne ko” (Panditji told me that some Captain Sahib is staying here)… I marvelled at the speed at which information travelled in a densely forested area, where no wheels could reach, panditji being a priest in the Golu Devta mandir, about a thousand five hundred feet up, on the Almora-Jageshwar Highway; and Kaptaan sahib being me the fauji (soldier), a provenance not difficult to guess, from the camouflage combat trousers I wear while trekking, a habit I got into after my friend Kapil Chand once got a pair stitched for me by his Brigade tailor. Golu Devta is a much revered demi-god in Kumaon, and is a one-legged aspect of Golla, a commander in the armies of the Chand kings who ruled over the Kumaon region.

Ek glass logi?” (will you have a drink?) I asked Meera, raising my glass of rum-paani in query. “Laga do… abhi ek saheli se milke aa rahi hoon…” (Fix one… I’m just returning from meeting a friend) she added, by way of explanation as to what she was doing on a forest pagdandi (forest track) after dark, and sat down on the stone parapet of the paved courtyard. I fixed a glass of rum-paani (rum with water) for her, having always carried a pair of glass tumblers on a trek, one of the luxuries I allow myself on what must necessarily be very spartan living conditions while trekking, for every gram of weight is weight I have to carry myself, most of the time.

Between sips of rum, under a full moon and the sky awash with stars, Meera told me about her family and how she was related to the owner of the hut I was living in. She carried on to tell me that her son was in First Year of college and that after he graduated, she would enroll him in a Govt. factory nearby, where people who joined along with her errant husband, who was now a mendicant, were earning a princely salary of fifteen thousand rupees a month. Whereupon I asked her how and why her husband became a mendicant. That, she said, with a matter-of-fact wave of a hand, was all ‘auraton ka chakkar’ – “ghat-ghat auraton ke chakkar mein baba bana ghumta hai”. (He moves from place to place as a mendicant, seeking women)

Another drink or two later, Meera rose with nary a trace in her carriage, of the liquor she had ingested, wished me namaste with folded hands and carried on with her journey of another forty minutes, to her destination.

What memories a neon blue threaded mangal sutra can trigger…

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Biographies & Autobiographies | 30 Chapters

Author: Rajiv Tyagi

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A Crackerjack Life

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