TODAY -

Iih - The lone foot traveller from Nepal

S Balakrishnan *



Probably Mr Iih, the lone footloose traveler from Nepal, took Rabindranath Tagore's poetry line "Ekla cholo re" as if penned with forethought keeping only Iih in mind. Because Iih has been travelling travelling alone and traveling alone on foot! I am sure he was bitten by the travel bug, like the Hollywood superhero Spiderman, for he has been travelling since his 16th year.

This youth from Kathmandu has crisscrossed his own country to reach every nook and corner of that Himalayan Kingdom ...oops! For a moment I was taken back to 1986 when I visited Nepal from Sikkim where I was posted. Nepal then was a Hindu Kingdom, the world's only and the last Hindu Kingdom that was lost in the Red Revolution of Maoists and is now a democratic republic country.

He was shocked that I completed the nine-day Nepal trip on a shoestring budget of 955 INR (1625.50 Nepali rupees). "What a different time !" Iih repeatedly exclaimed, unable to believe my words. I showed him the expenditure statement of that trip that I had maintained and he took a snap of it with his mobile but he was still unconvinced.

'Kathmandu Valley has changed so much that you will not recognize it', he told me and showed a few shots of the sprawling city. It showed a conglomeration of multi-storeyed buildings all the way to the horizon.

Because of the tough times during the revolution, people from the villages - both the rich and the poor - migrated to Kathmandu valley; caught between the army and the rebels, they all shifted to Kathmandu to safeguard their riches and for bare existence, respectively. So, now, the fields around Kathmandu have all turned into crowded living places, he narrated those troubled times.

Well, Iih was at our house in Chennai after a footloose travel in Sri Lanka. You might wonder if Iih as well walked over from Sri Lanka to India across the Sethu Bridge built by Lord Ram's vanara sena (moneky army). Definitely he would have had not the Sethu Bridge submerged (as revealed by NASA's satellite image; it is called Adam's Bridge).

He was to reach the previous evening but landed only the next morning. We were really worried because of the explosive situation in Sri Lanka due to economic crisis.

But Iih explained that the situation there was almost normal and curfew has also been lifted; even though services and supplies are abnormally costlier but when converted into INR they seem normal for that situation. Curious to know more about that Nation we probed him like sleuths to gather as much information as possible.

He showed a few of his clicks of that beautiful island country which though I would never visit because of ill-treatment of the minority Tamil population there.

The Tamil spoken there is quite different from that in Tamil Nadu, he said; with a laughter he added that for that matter even within Tamil Nadu State itself the dialect differed so much from district to district that, exhausted, he had given up learning Tamil ! Iih presented a pack of special Sri Lankan tea. Unfailingly we served him a cup of that aromatic tea the next morning.

We welcomed him with a cotton shawl (bombastically called 'ponnadai', i.e., golden shawl), similar to the 'khada' cloth piece in trans-Himalayan belt, including Nepal.

I made sure, like the publicity-hungry politicians, to have a snap of that moment, knowing very well that the piece of ponnadai is a useless cloth piece, only adding up to his luggage. But tradition is tradition, no ? It is the same with khada also.

For dinner we treated him with mini idlis soaked in special 'idli sambhar', plain idlis with chutney and 'gun powder' (a 'spicy' powder of red chilli, urad dhal, etc.; hence the British named it gun powder!), and chapathi & kuruma, in case he missed the 'rotis' in Sri Lanka. He relished the mini idlis soaked in 'idli sambhar' and the chutney.

It was a memorable dinner for us the hosts, as it was on the terrace with the Buddha Poornima moon watching us host Iih from the Land of Buddha! I wanted to surprise him with my Nepali language knowledge that I had picked up in Sikkim but in the excitement I forgot to utter even a word. How stupid of me ! Iih had given international recognition to my wife's culinary expertise! Of course, 30% of that credit goes to me, her kitchen assistant.

Iih was limping with swelled feet but his next target was Bangladesh, another SAARC Nation. He hopes to touch the Indian metropolitan cities this time; from Chennai he would proceed to Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Kolkata from where he would enter sonar Bangladesh. He felt it would be unfair not to visit the cities if he were to get a wholesome idea about India, because he had not touched the cities in his Kargil-Kanyakumari foot travel, earlier. As he had already covered India on foot, now he would give rest to his sore feet.

What ? K to K journey! ? We got quite excited. 'Only 30% of my travel was through National Highways; the rest was through inner roads', Iih went on. 'I carry only just a backpack with a load of mere 5 kgs or even less, not even drinking water', he amazed us, recalling Indian Railways' advice 'Less luggage, more comfort'. 'Except for rare occasions, the quality of drinking water has not been an issue.

Plus, my gut bacteria probably evolved to accommodate as I walked on', was Iih's reply to my concern about drinking water. Rural India was very friendly and sharing. While in North India he had the hospitality of Gurudwaras (both lodging & boarding), no such facility in South India, he lamented. Instagram friends and their friends help him in L&B, wherever possible.

While he roamed around Nepal with just a pair of slippers, which mistake now he regrets, he now puts on proper walking shoes to ease the stress on his feet; he changes the pair once in 1 1/2 months or so. Any mugging on the way? I asked a nasty question. (Un)fortunately not so far, he smiled. Luckily the Covid pandemic also did not hamper his health and travel plans. He is conscious to avoid any branding even on his backpack. Indeed a rare breed in this commercial world!

Ever since our daughter (Iih's insta friend) announced his arrival, I was dying to know more about his queer name rather than about his travel passion & personality. I have not come across such a strange name as Iih among Nepalis. No such name among Tibetans/Bhutias either; then, could he be of Chinese origin, I wondered.

Our daughter warned me not to be so nosy but I could not bear the suspense; so I indirectly asked him if Iih was his nickname/pet name. Yes, my friends call me so, he ended the mystery and I was relieved. My next question was to know the meaning of Iih. 'It is inherently meaningless, just a universal vowel sound without caste or creed associations', the soft-spoken Iih resolved the mystery. Great, indeed !

As a parent of two youngsters I could not help wondering about the state of mind of Iih's parents living in Kathmandu. Don't they bother you to find a decent job with fat salary, marry and settle down in life? I asked him. 'Oh, well, they were pestering me but now they are fed up and have given me up as a hopeless case', he burst into laughter.

He hoped his younger brother might meet their worldly aspirations while he followed his heavenly walking. 'I talk to them once a week while on move', he casually told me; I could not help empathizing with Iih's parents. But Iih had been so since his school days; a school drop-out, he took to travel at the age of 16 itself. He has brought out a compilation of his travel experiences in Nepal and is planning one on K-to-K travel.

He is also a social activist; he led a successful protest for better management of Covid crisis by the Nepal Government and even went on fast for 12+23 days in all.

Iih's poor legs were begging for rest but the lone foot soldier would not rest. The old man that I am, I felt so envious of the travel-lust Iih; yet I wished him deep from my heart "safe and happy journeys ahead!"

'People like Iih are born, not made', I philosophized, cozily curling up in my armchair like a lazy kitten, reminiscing about my own footloose travels during my happy bachelorhood days, 35 years ago.
Sigh!

You can follow Iih on his Instagram page https://instagram.com/iihgram-igshid+YmMyMTA2M2Y= that has interesting factual stories along with striking images. One interesting encounter of Iih was with a Nepali man who had married a Tamil lady and settled down here; he has two sons - one carries his Tamil mother's gene and the other, his Nepali father's.


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on May 27 2022.



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