To Poke A Mountain

Posted on 28/10/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation

Rohtang La Simar Preet Kaur

to like (verb): find agreeable, enjoyable, or satisfactory

Seventy-eight friends like the image he uploaded less than 20 minutes ago. He scrolls down the Facebook page while waiting for a traffic jam to clear. His clients – a family from Tamil Nadu out on vacation – wait in the taxi, having taken mandatory snapshots of each other against the alpine backdrop while the young driver attends phone calls. He’s standing at the edge of the road: beyond him is a drop of several thousand feet. The road disappears completely into the misty cloud cover that clings to Rohtang La – the Himalayan pass every vehicle is attempting to ascend or descend. Rohtang’s glacial top is 13,050 feet above sea level, but the traffic is clogged at 10,600 due to a landslide.

Once upon a time the Himalayas were treasured as a natural barrier protecting Indian kingdoms. Their wild isolation demanded reverence. Today, the same barrier has acquired a negative connotation – that of obstructing network signals. Land slides down with rain, forests block line of sight, floods damage towers – the mountains now pose a nettling inconvenience despite their panoramic beauty. There are fewer towers here than on the plains and they must reckon with sturdy 400-year-old deodar cedars as they disperse signals, which might bounce off cliffs and take some time getting to the nearest wood-and-stone cottage where the new-age pahari (mountain dweller) sits by the tandoor holding a smartphone.

to share (verb): use, occupy or enjoy (something) jointly with another or others

In Abbas Kiarostami’s film The Wind Will Carry Us, the protagonist drops everything and drives up to a hilltop cemetery each time he has to receive signal on a phone. Himachal Pradesh, the north Indian mountain state, demanded rigorous climbing excursions for connectivity when I first visited 17 years ago. At the time it seemed like the paharis needed telepathy to communicate with the rest of the world, such was the scale of the lofty mountains that surrounded and insulated them.

I first came across a PC with Internet connectivity about a decade ago. It sat solitary on a steel desk surrounded by mounds of colourful wool, inside a weaving workshop. Contemporary travellers arrived in Himachal with a persistent desire for the world wide web: locals translated that into a string of cyber cafes offering essentials like Skype calls and Hebrew keyboards. By the time I moved home to the mountains, bits and bytes were blowing in the wind, palm-sized screens in Himachalis’ hands.

I set up home in Kullu Valley – Rohtang La presiding over – three years ago, during apple season. Piles of fruit stacked high could be seen in orchards. Incidentally, it was also the time I noticed the number of Apple gadgets resting on low tables common in traditional mountain homes. Left behind as tips by generous tourists – routines in the valley follow the tourist industry’s rhythms – they flicker to life to serve a multiplicity of rather specific purposes. These include watching local pop and folk song sequences on Youtube, keeping tabs on the neighbours’ kids’ progress at school through Facebook, calling on Google translation services to chat with international tourists and flirting with neighbourhood belles on Whatsapp. The interactions are steeped in miscommunication, owing to the mysteries of the Queen’s language. But the first icon clicked is a browser, the first website opened is Facebook, and often the final intent is the promotion of tourism. In an ironic reversal of roles, the local transforms into a tourist, photographing every sunset, every cloud, every dinner, for social media updates.

India is purportedly home to the world’s third-largest Internet user-base. As of 2014 the number was estimated by Boston Consulting Group to be 205 million. (It took me close to 50 minutes to pull that statistic from a 1.25 MB report, using a sluggish mountain connection). In the confused landscape of Indian rural tourism, Internet imposes its urgency on a sedate pace of life.

A charming smile is no more a good sales pitch but a web page is. Earlier, business for a guesthouse owner in Manali – the valley’s prime tourist destination – was hinged on his ability to convince tourists (freshly deposited at the bus stand) of his property’s overall congeniality using conversational skills and a basic knowledge of the tourist’s native language. The current process is somewhat different.  He no longer needs the culturally specific smile – redundant in the booking process – but he must possess a new range of skills, encompassing gadgets, social media, photography, a foreign language and the intangible etiquette that virtual reality takes for granted. For him and for dhaba cooks, school students, taxi drivers and forest officers alike, Facebook is the first standard step towards modernisation, and it is connecting, disconnecting and amusing villagers throughout the mountains.

It’s a cherished connection. During winter, when the weight of snow snaps cables, disrupting connectivity for days, collective sighs echo across villages. Onslaught of weather aside, occasionally cables are stolen for nobler causes such as securing fodder for cows (I report this from personal experience). If the connection drops, someone from the village has to go fetch a ‘mechanic’ and it could be several days before the router beeps green again. My neighbour, exhausted by the sheer effort of salvaging his smartphone from nasty viruses, decided to ditch the mechanic for a more reliable alternative – he dunked the handset into a pot of water from the holy river Ganga.

to comment (verb): express an opinion or reaction in speech or writing

The air was saturated with jubilation when mobile phone towers were first installed at Everest Base Camp in 2010. It meant Sherpas could access immediate assistance and mountaineers could finally discard bulky satellite phones. But veteran climbers reminisced about days when they relied on their own survival skills for backup. The debate that followed was wearily familiar: about the perceived benefits of infrastructural changes in the mountains, which have arrived in selective instalments. The argument is always the same – ‘the locals need it for development’ – but it ignores the immediate side-effects of technology, the small joys and big confusions that will go unnoticed once Internet has established itself firmly in the psyche of mountain folks.“We claim to be driving to Rohtang while sitting in a chai shop in Kullu; the mobile phone taught us how to lie”, say the elderly, blaming the ubiquitous contraptions for corrupting their daily truths.

While the world shrinks into a ‘global village’, villagers seek the globalisation of their backyards. There is a government sponsored dream doing the rounds of the country, one that promises a Digital India and manifests itself in blue fibre cables being laid furiously across the countryside. The dream takes on an ambitious significance in the Himalayas – a terrain known for challenging and threatening any form of connectivity. The evolution of communication in these mountains has been orchestrated by nature’s moods, but the restive need for technology in our times overlooks the need for knowing how to navigate it.

to unlike (a verb popularised by Facebook): to cease to like

The bazaar of Leh, situated deep in the trans-Himalayas, wore a forlorn look throughout last summer. A river overflowed 300 km away. This was followed by a cloudburst, which resulted in damage to the Internet cables that wire the town’s cyber cafes. Tourists complained and locals suffered, as they stared into disconnected LCD monitors, remorseful despite their recent association with technology. Manali, situated at a lower altitude, has fared better – it recently had its main street declared a free Wifi zone. Happier tourists, busier tour guides, peppier youth, idler postmen – the possibilities are endless.

I live at safe distance away, in a village that offers speeds (via a data card I bought at a utensil shop) that swing between 40 kbps on days when the signal is robust and 0.53 kbps on stormy evenings. It drops altogether when ice pellets lash the mountainside. At such times, the Internet’s elevated status as panacea plummets, making space for calmer activities such as extended storytelling around the tandoor and saunters through woods that block out the sun and signal altogether. The smartphone stays in a pocket, leaving the hands free to touch the trees once again, and the mind free to contemplate an overused verb – ‘to connect’.

Leh_Simar Preet Kaur (2)
All photos by Simar Preet Kaur
Simar Preet Kaur

Simar Preet KaurSimar Preet Kaur started out as a travel writer. Over a decade in Mumbai, she worked as the Editor of in-flight travel magazine JetWings, and wrote for a number of publications including National Geographic Traveler, COLORS and Papercuts. She moved to the mountains 3 years ago and is now working on a work of fiction set in the Himalayas.