21 July 2009
Kempty Falls is the star tourist attraction at Mussoorie. Anilji, who runs one of the restaurants at Char Dukan, assured us of its worthiness as a tourist destination, and for good measure he added that none of the other nearby waterfalls shown on the maps have a sufficient volume of water, or a dramatic fall, to qualify as a ‘waterfall’. Nevertheless, I could not rid myself of the suspicion that this visit would be a largely wasted effort. Kempty Falls, I was certain, belongs to a class of tourist attractions in India characterized by the fact that they are frequented either by the lower middle class or, at the other end, by well-to-do NRIs. The affluent Indian middle class is seldom to be seen at such sites: at the lower end of that spectrum they are to be seen at the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb, and other (in the frequently encountered jargon of the day) ‘world class’ sites, while at the upper end of that spectrum, and among the truly rich, the holiday destinations are overseas – or at hill and ocean resorts which are intended to convey to the affluent Indian the feeling that he or she is a properly certified member of the civilized consuming class.
What I scarcely expected at Kempty Falls was a spectacular display of male bonding. Perhaps a T. E. Lawrence might have been tempted into thinking that he had chanced upon scenes of homoeroticism. But, before my eyes could witness all this, I had to contend with a more predictably banal world. The signs that one has arrived at one’s tourist destination are those invariably encountered at such sites: the path is paved with restaurants and shops selling trinkets, religious paraphernalia, toys, winter clothing, and more. These are the sorts of stalls where one might find a monkey cap, that remarkable insignia of Bengali bhadralok life, or nylon – always nylon, in a land known for its cotton textiles — frocks with generous frills for little girls. And, as at the equally acclaimed Jog Falls in Karnataka, the long winding path that led to the bottom of Kempty Falls was amply, indeed copiously, littered with trash. Apparently the easy solution to the unchecked problem of waste is to dump garbage on the hillside. The phrase, ‘mountain of rubbish’, was evidently not coined in jest, if the garbage heaps into which many hillside places in India have been transformed are any kind of reliable testimony.
The winding path from the roadside, down the hill, brings one to the pool at the bottom of the falls and to a variety of shops offering ‘sweaming costomes’ and lockers for rent. For a moment, I was wondering what might be meant by a sweating costume – something akin to a smoking jacket, perhaps, to weed out the sweating types from the non-sweating types? But there was more screaming fun ahead: the spectacle at the pool was nothing short of dazzling. There were some 15-20 people, including a few women in salwar kameez and long tee-shirts. But the bulk of those frolicking in the water were bulky Punjabi men. These sturdy specimens of the male race, lionized by the British as one of India’s martial races, were floating around in pink, green and blue rubber tubes. I watched with intense curiosity as two turbaned men held aloft a pink tyre-tube, weighing a lofty 100 grams, much as people might hold aloft a prized or fragile object while wading through a dense crowd. The water didn’t even reach their swimming shorts, and yet these men seemed preoccupied with keeping their ‘life jackets’ properly inflated for the storm ahead. Gazing at these men, my mind went back to the pranks of school days and to the bonds of that much celebrated item of Hindi cinema, dosti yaari. For all his masculinity, perhaps the Punjabi male is not so fully entrapped in his manliness – and perhaps the oppressiveness of ‘pink is to girls as blue is to boys’ has, thankfully, not become yet another emblem of a purportedly universal culture.