Life Writing

I always find life writing difficult.  I think this is because I feel too emotionally involved so sometimes it is difficult for me to be honest.    Here is a piece I wrote for one of my OU assignments that is very close to my heart.


I needed to be on my own.  Pulling my pink fleecy hat further down over my ears I trudged on, my boots crunching on the snow.  Breathing heavily, I stared back at the tents.  The orange and blue domes stood out against an expanse of white.  From this distance they looked like giant tortoises clinging to the ground as the biting wind threatened to blow them over.  The square cubicle that was the loo tent stood a little way off to the right.  I shuddered as I thought of the horrors of this tented utility; it was far better to find a discreet rock if you could.  We had spent two nights up here at 3,300 metres where it had been minus 5 degrees at night and had aptly nicknamed the place Camp Desolation.  I could see heads poking out of tents as people began to stir and go about their morning ablutions.  Finding a rock, I sat down and felt the cold penetrating through my thermal layers.  Nanda Devi stretched away in the distance, the dawn light blazing orange across the jagged snowy peaks. 
Yesterday we had reached the highest point of the trek.  It should have been an easy walk, but our lungs had strained with the effort and I had had a thumping headache from the altitude.  Today we were heading down to warmer climes and the group was in an upbeat mood.  I wasn’t.  It was the day of my mum’s operation.  Of course, we hadn’t known this when my husband had booked the holiday as a surprise for my 40th birthday.  The Himalayas was a place I had always wanted to visit and I had been itching to get here ever since Richard had told me.  As I stared at the view I thought of my mum lying in an operating theatre, my dad and sisters pacing along some anonymous sterile corridor as they waited.  I should be there, not here.

For all my life Mum had battled constantly with her weight.   In recent years her obesity had led her to become almost housebound and Dad had given up work to become her carer.  As Mum’s health deteriorated, she decided that a gastric bypass was her only option for a normal life.  The operation wasn’t without risks, but Mum was prepared to take a chance.  As she saw it, there was little choice left.  I was the one who always asked questions of the medical staff.  My dad and sisters were like timid mice when confronted by the medical profession, too polite or scared to question.  I guess I could be described as the bossy one of the family.  How would they cope without me?

I wrapped my arms around me and tried to think positive thoughts.  A shout from below heralded breakfast.  Reluctant to leave my moment of solitude I headed back down the boulder strewn path.
We sat slurping hot tea and tucking into our porridge, which the smiling Mr Singh produced, in a seemingly effortlessly way, each morning.  This would be our last meal in Camp Desolation.  In previous camps the mess tent had been a sociable and welcoming haven.  Camp Desolation was different.  The concrete shelter precluded the need for the mess tent.  In fact there was nowhere to erect it on the steep icy ground.  So we had eaten, shivering in a grey concrete room, surrounded by walls, which were sprayed with graffiti.  The icy wind whistled through gaping windows long devoid of glass, fanning the odour of urine that wafted up from the mud floor.  I don’t think any of us were sad to be leaving.
The muleteers huddled in blankets on the side of the hill in the early morning sunshine.  They looked pinched with cold as they waited for us to pack.  The feisty mules seemed happy enough as they nibbled at the sparse vegetation.  Breaking camp was a tedious affair.  It was always a challenge to cram everything back into the relevant receptacles.  The kit bag never seemed big enough.  You had to be quick otherwise the porters would dismantle the tent with you still in it.  Belongings safely stowed, we gathered around our trek leader to hear the instructions for the day.  Everyone was keen to get walking in order to feel warm again.  Chris told us that Niraj would be our guide for the day and Chris would be the back marker.  As usual, we could walk at our own pace between the two.  Niraj was a proud looking young man with a long face and a squat nose.  His features were almost oriental.  His tattered jacket was unzipped and I could see he wore a sky-blue T-shirt with the slogan “Free Tibet” emblazoned in black across the front.  He walked at a good pace and the group fell into line behind him. 
“How are you doing?”  Richard asked as we strode along, concern etching his features.
“Well I’m worried of course, but there’s nothing I can do from here.”
“I’m sure she will be OK,” he said, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze.
I smiled back, hoping he was right. 
As we descended, the clouds cleared and the vegetation changed from arid rockiness to an abundant verdant green.  In the distance, fields of millet added a splash of magenta to the landscape.  I was feeling fit and, as we began a short climb up to a rocky pass, I found myself in the lead, together with Niraj.  As we neared the top I could hear fluttering and saw a line of flags flapping in the breeze, a kaleidoscope of reds, pinks and blues.  A sweet musky smell filled the air.
“What is that?”  I asked Niraj
“It’s a Hindu shrine.  It is normal to find them at high passes on important trade routes through the mountains.  It is tradition to light an incense stick and wish for a safe onward journey,” he explained. 
I watched him as he struck a match and lit a stick. 
“Would I be able to light one?”  I said shyly.  “You see my mum is having a big operation in hospital today.” 
“Of course,” he said, handing me the match.
My hand shook as I lit the incense stick.  I watched the flame catch and a thin plume of smoke began to drift up into the air.  I thought of Mum.
Standing back I studied the shrine.  It was a simple structure built out of a large rock.  The smouldering incense sticks were stuck in grooves and resembled porcupine spines.  The tattered prayer flags hung above the rocky shrine together with a string of gaudy blue tinsel.  It was a peaceful spot.
“What is wrong with your Mum?”  Niraj asked breaking the silence.
“Stomach problems.” I said, all the while thinking, “I don’t even know if she is alive.”  I hastily wiped my eyes and saw Niraj shift uneasily.
I was relieved to hear the shouts and conversation of the group as they joined us at the top.  The sun was shining and birdsong filled the air as we walked through the pass and down into a wooded valley. 
We arrived at our campsite by mid-afternoon.  Mr Singh had what he called “hot juice” waiting for us.  It was really hot orange squash, but the sweetness was welcome and helped to restore energy levels.  The campsite was by a stream and couldn’t have been more different from Camp Desolation.  With an abundance of water it was bliss to wash my hair after a week of not doing so.  We sat on warm rocks, enjoying the heat of the afternoon sun, before it disappeared behind the craggy hills.  That night we were back in the mess tent for dinner.  Precariously perched on camping stalls and puffed out in our down jackets we chattered easily.  We had been companions for the last week and, although we were from many different backgrounds, we had all got on well together.  Mr Singh dished up tomato soup and the spices made our lips tingle.  For the first time, the muleteers had made a camp fire and soon, we were drawn to the crackle and the warmth.  We cupped our steaming mugs of soup in our hands and stared at the flames as we sat under the stars.  The muleteers joined us by the fire, bringing with them a couple of battered paraffin containers, which they used as makeshift drums.  They began singing traditional songs, their voices drifting through the still night air.  I gazed up at the inky night sky.  I knew that tomorrow we would be heading over the next ridge where there nestled a village with a connection to the outside world.  Here I would find out for better or worse what the future would hold. 

1,467 words

I would have liked to show the characteristics of the other people in our trek group, but I was restricted by the 1,500 word limit so decided to focus on that particular day of the trek. 
I wanted to use the different campsites as a metaphor for despair and hope.   
It was a challenge to “show” the fact that I was enjoying this once in a lifetime holiday, but at the same time feeling guilty for not being with my mum and family. 
 I also introduced more dialogue between myself and Niraj to show what I was feeling.  I embellished some of this dialogue e.g. I imagined what my response would have been if Niraj had asked me what was wrong with Mum.  I wasn’t in a talkative mood that day!

The following is another piece I wrote as part of my OU course.  It is based on a moment when I witnessed a man being beaten, so it is not a particularly nice read.  Although based on a true event, I have fictionalised the story in places.  


It all happened so quickly.  One moment I was savouring the flavour of curried bindhi and fragrant dhal, the delicate spices making my tongue tingle, when moments later a man was being beaten in front of my eyes. 
I had seen the man creep in.  He had paused in the doorway, his dark sunken eyes darting around the room.  His coal-black, wiry hair was unkempt, his face streaked with grime and snot.  The man was small and skinny, almost naked apart from the grubby dhoti he wore tied around his middle.  It was a freezing night and we were at an altitude of 6,600 feet.  He scuttled to a wash basin that was set in the corner of the room, where he bent his head and greedily gulped water from the tap.  I noticed that his puny legs were caked in dried mud and his back was covered in angry scars.  We were in the communal dining room at the Khali Estate high up in the Binsar Hills.  Our host, Ajay was telling us about the history of the Estate, how it had been founded by Sir Henry Ramsay, who had been the commissioner of Kumaun from 1856 to 1884.  Ajay was a tall broad man with cold arrogant eyes and a colonial English accent.  He looked up and as his eyes fell upon the man he stopped speaking mid-sentence.  Abruptly he left the table, his chair falling back and cluttering onto the wooden floor.  He strode towards the man shouting at him in Hindi.  The man looked up, fear in his eyes as he cowered, trying to shrink and blend into the wall.  Ajay continued to bark at the man.  The cook came to see what all the fuss was about and soon a small crowd had gathered.  The security guard came running.  In his hand he carried a thick wooden truncheon or lathi.  He thrust the lathi towards the cringing figure and brought it crashing down.  I heard the hollow thwack as it made contact with its target.  The poor man crouched, arms raised, trying to fend off the blows to his body.  Repeatedly the lathi was raised and lowered.  He yelped like an injured animal.
We had just been enjoying our first traditional meal in the mountains.  Our trekking party of fourteen had not yet had the time to get to know one another or establish a pecking order.  We shifted uncomfortably in our seats avoiding eye contact as we wondered how we could stop this dreadful scene.  Time stood still.  I closed my eyes, but I could still hear.  In the end I could stand it no longer. 
‘Ian can’t you stop this?’ I hissed to our trek leader. 
Slowly, Ian got up and approached Ajay.  Words were exchanged and reluctantly the gang dragged the man outside, his bare muddy soles sliding on the wooden floor.  Through the open doorway we glimpsed the mob and it was obvious the beating carried on, but not in front of our delicate eyes.
‘He is what is known as an Untouchable or Dalit,’ Ian explained, rejoining us at the table.
‘All he wanted was a drink of water,’ I ventured.
‘Apparently he has also been accused of theft.’  Ian said.  ‘Look, I know it is difficult for us to understand, but the people here have their own way of exerting justice and it is important for us to respect the local way of doing things.  I’m sorry it had to happen on your first night in the mountains.’
We sat in silence digesting this information.  The rest of the food lay untouched, a greasy film congealing on the surface.  It had taken 24 hours to get here from Delhi and now I would rather be anywhere else. 
There was no sign of our host or the beaten man as we made our way to bed.  I had been savouring my last night in a proper bed, as the next ten nights would be in a tent but, as I lay on the bed, all I could think about was the scene that we had witnessed.
I reached for my guide book, determined to learn more about the Indian caste system.  I read that there were four main castes:  Brahmins – priests and teachers, Kshatriyas – rulers and soldiers, Vaisyas – merchants and traders, and Sudras – labourers and servants.  The Untouchables or Dalits as they are known fall beneath this caste structure and are considered less than human.  I learnt that the word “Dalit” literally means “ground", "suppressed", "crushed", or "broken to pieces".  I shuddered, as I thought how appropriate this was, for the man we had seen would literally be crushed after his beating.  I went on to read that, historically the caste structure provided a system of mutual interdependence through a division of labour, which created security within a community. This was especially important in rural villages.  Suddenly, I was in darkness as a power cut put paid to any more reading. 

After a fretful night I woke to the sound of birdsong and sunlight streaming through the dark wooden interior of my room.  I paused on my way to breakfast to take in the view.  The Khali Estate was set in 26 acres of pine and oak forest, located in the Binsar Wild Life Sanctuary near the village of Ayarpani in the Almora district of Uttranchal.  The soothing silence was interrupted only by bird calls.  In the distance the whole of the Himalayan range from Nanda Devi to Trishul was visible, the majestic snow clad peaks beckoning.
Whilst we ate our breakfast, the group mused over the frightful scene we had witnessed in the dining room.  Our host had yet to show his face and I hoped he felt suitably embarrassed over the previous night’s events. 
Ian had told us on our way here from Delhi that he had lived in India for a number of years.  As a seasoned trek leader he was also familiar with the rural areas and the customs that were practiced there.  I asked him what he thought about the caste system. 
‘As usual, it is always difficult with politics,’ he sighed.  ‘In spite of attempts to end the caste system, it remains deeply ingrained in daily culture.  In addition, things are always slower to change in rural villages where the caste system can be relied upon to instil order.’ He took a sip of his tea and continued.  ‘In traditional Hindu society, Dalits did the jobs that were regarded as unhealthy or impure, such as the removal of rubbish or waste.  It is commonly thought that people working in such areas become contaminated and that this contamination is contagious.  I know that in some rural villages Dalits are still forbidden access to communal areas such as eating places, schools, temples and water sources.’
‘So the poor man did just want a drink of water,’ I replied huffily.
‘Yes, that may have been the case as they did seem keen to stop him from drinking the water,’ he sighed.  ‘I can only reiterate what I said last night, it is important that we respect local customs.  Overtime I hope things will change.’
I concluded that the story about the man being a thief was pure fabrication.  I felt cross that we had witnessed such an event without being able to stop it.  Ajay appeared just as we were getting ready to leave.  
‘Ajay, I hope you don’t mind, but the group and I were wondering what happened to the man that was here last night.  I have also been trying to explain to the group what I understand about the caste system.’
Ajay shuffled his feet and refused to meet our gaze. 
‘I thought it would be helpful to hear your views,’ Ian added.
Ajay cleared his throat and staring at a spot above our heads said, ‘The caste system runs strongly here and the man you saw last night was a Dalit.  He is unwelcome and has been forbidden to set foot on the estate.  He has been farming land illegally, land that was stolen from my family.  The government thought they were helping by giving land to these people, but these people don’t know how to farm.  They are Dalits and are not fit to set foot on my land, let alone farm it.  The land has been in my family for generations.’  He thumped a nearby table top with his fist.  His face was screwed up with rage.
‘Surely he has not stolen your land if the government has given it to him,’ Ian said calmly.
Ajay chose to ignore this remark and instead replied, ‘Things have gone missing from here. The man is trouble and it was right that he was punished.  With respect sir, you and your group are visitors to this country and you must understand that we need to maintain law and order.  I am running a mountain lodge and can’t allow the security of our guests to be compromised.’  His voice dropped to a whisper as he added, ‘He knew not to come here, and he had been warned what would happen to him if he did.’
As we hoisted our ruck sacks onto our shoulders I think we were all happy to leave the Khali Estate that morning.  Ajay had regained his composure and was the smiling host once again as he stood in the doorway waving farewell.  I made a point of ignoring him.   No way was I going to give him a friendly goodbye.
We snaked through the village eager to be on our way to the mountains.  The village didn’t consist of much, a few one-storey houses strung along the roadside and a village shop outside of which hung a rusty Coca-Cola sign swaying in the breeze.  A battered truck, piled high with plastic waste went by, belching diesel fumes.  With a screech it came to a standstill and we watched, open mouthed, as its load was tipped down the hillside, the plastic pouring out like a grotesque toxic waterfall. 
Groups of school children hurried by.  They gave us a cheery wave and shouted “namaste.”  Three girls, about eight years old and dressed in immaculate school uniforms of green and white checks, caught my eye.  They smiled shyly and instead of walking past, fell into step beside me.  Giggling, one of them stroked my arm as if for a dare. 
‘Pen please,’ she whispered. 
I fumbled in my ruck-sack; luckily I had come prepared with a supply. 
‘Here you go.’  I said holding out three multi-coloured felt-tipped pens. 
‘Thank you.  Namaste,’ they said grinning and displaying perfect white teeth.
Gleefully they clutched their bounty and skipped ahead, green satin ribbons bobbing in their hair.  It was good to see education playing an important role in village life.  The girls stopped and pointed to something on the side of the road and then crossed over to avoid the heap that was blocking their path.  The heap turned out to be the man from last night.  He sat hunched over, a piece of old coir sacking draped around his shoulders.  As we drew nearer I could see that his face was bloody and his eyes were swollen.  Ian dropped a water bottle by his side and we continued walking, eyes ahead.  My cheeks burned with shame.  I knew there were some things in India I would never understand or be able to change.

1,914 words


For my piece I concentrated on a snapshot of a trip to the Indian Himalayas.  I realise that, although the beating of a man was an awful event to witness, I had been given an insight to rural life in the Indian Himalaya.  This event moved me and I wanted to highlight the plight of the Dalits in the hope that it would move other people too.    

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