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Show the bird the bird

Dreaming of flying is apparently a sign of good tidings. Though I do not know any dream analyst to verify I will go with it. I have been dreaming of flying since I was five and all the good things – at least those I remember – happened afterwards: first glass of beer (age eight), first kiss (soon after), first shoe brand of my choice (Lotto), school expulsions which meant more sympathetic (read pliant) girls. Okay but seriously it was in 1980 – the year my mom packed us kids, canes, pressure cooker and rice and my dad his knives and Reader’s Digests and we took off to Africa – the year the movie Ithikkara Pakki released and my need to fly took wings. It was my last outing in vernacular feature for a long time to come.

In it the hero, Prem Nazir, driven up a coconut tree by cops on his tail cuts off two fronds and makes a flapping getaway. Movie over I began asking dad related questions and being a zoology professor he gave me avian-sort of answers. The knife Nazir used, I pointed out excitedly, was similar to one in his collection. Not much later he gave me an illustrated book on the history of human flying. It, I remember, had stories of many people jumping off cliffs and towers from early days with bird feathers plastered over them; some also held on tightly to decapitated bird wings. All of them took off successfully but landing was a bitch – a few escaped with broken back and limbs, most lost their lives.

Coming back to the dream it’d be brutal if the analysis discounted reveurs. Once everyone was out of the house I would jump from the roof and hit layers of mattresses faster than I could say Icarus. Outed by an accident soon enough I moved on. Besides growing older in a liberal land also meant growing options in flying. Over the years I have watched Pakki in his short flight many times over and laughed hard. But it was essentially the same thing the Spaniard Ibn Firnas did over a millennia ago – albeit with wings proper. The only problem here too was in the landing – Firnas overlooked that minor role tails play in birds’ landing and didn’t kit himself with one. He was injured but not before ‘going faster than the phoenix’ as documented. My hero Pakki sorted this minor oversight by landing in water. More recently Dutch engineer Jarno Smeets observed the albatross and made an automaton whipping which he took off, just like that. The validity of his video has been disputed by professional pilots. But the important thing is that this race of ours does not give up the obsession to fly.

A quest in Leh which I had been planning for a while had to be abandoned for later for lack of time. I headed to Bir village instead in Himachal Pradesh, a little over 500 km from Delhi. Bir is one of the earliest Tibetan settlements in the country with picturesque Buddhist monasteries and stately stupas, charitable societies, learning centres and eateries. The settlement itself known simply as ‘colony’ has a somnolent square with a minor arterial road of bone-white concrete passing through. Dandy Tibetans with spiked, streaked hair zip past on flashy motorbikes with foreigners perched on the pillion seat at cannonball-man angles. Older Tibetans sit by the roadside pushing back beads on Bodhi malas with permanently bemused expressions. Everyone is restful and cordial; those wearing purple cinctures around orange robes walk with bowed heads and purpose.

“That they eat different, live different, pray different, we have come to accept,” said Mohan my cabbie, a local Hindu. “My business partner is a Buddhist and my best friend is Christian.”

To prove he pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the Angel Gabriel tattoo that covered most of his forearm. I hired Mohan to go to the local ‘wine shop’ to buy whiskey – my first outing among the birds had to be celebrated. After all, I’d been dreaming of it since I first saw Pakki three-and-half decades ago. Bir, along with Billing 14 km away, is the paragliding hotspot of the country. Billing at an elevation of 2430 metres is the take off point, the level fields of Bir is the landing. The canopied flights last anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour.

Rate card

Price per flight: Rs 2000 (Tandem leaps.)

Cab charges from Bir to Billing: Rs 500 (Alternately hike up: a nice climb, 4 – 5 hours.)

GoPro camera hire (If you want to film your flight from take off to landing.): Rs 500 (Or use your own, but hold on hard. Real hard.)

Landing site photos by Ajit: Rs 200 (You have to ask him if you want; preferably if you’ve had a perfect landing. I didn’t.)

Getting a licensed pilot: Priceless.

The drive

Palampur is a good place to be in: it is 35 km to Dharamshala and 30 km to Bir, scenic drive both ways. There are many budget accommodations and some boutique ones are coming up. The people are a settled lot, quite literally too – you see the same set of them hanging around crossroads or squatting on abutments different times of the day. After you pass the pilgrim town of Baijnath a little over midway, get off the highway for a spot of mountain driving towards the village of Keori / Sherabling Monastery. Serenaded by lofty, grassy knolls and tucked away villages, the drive is the paradise that takes you to heaven. Weathered, beatific faces give a perfunctory gaze and revert to minding sheep and cattle. A far cry from the bloodshed and butchery-strewn history of the hill rajas in the days of a not too distant past. The road is not that bad either – city cars can do it without a glitch. Just be ready to swerve for argots sunning on the road.

The flight

Once you reach Billing you are surrounded by polite queries of ‘pilot mila kya?’ Got a pilot? Reply in affirmative and you are left alone; if you haven’t, most probably the asker himself will offer to fly you. The downside is that there are many unlicensed persons who do not / cannot explain properly the basics: Like you launch running but land sitting. Or there is a reserve parachute, just in case. Losing out on the instructions I landed on my knees. The second bit was totally missing which otherwise would have put me in a lot of ease. I, on my part, tried to sort the lack of information exchange by asking the pilot whether he has disentangled the numerous lines before we took off. Guess this pissed him off through the rest of the flight. But in all fairness ‘keep your hands away from the karabiner,’ was repeatedly hammered into me though. Just after I was buckled into my harness I was told that at 93 kilos I was a heavy bird. Without pausing I was told to run and I ran like my life depended on it.

Soon there was a jolt backward and my legs were sprinting in the air; it took a while for me to realise that I was airborne. The craggy slope which was the take off zone disappeared into a vertical viridian abyss. The first thing I did was look around for birds: there were some who kept a safe distance from the whoopee ones. I suspected spearing spiteful looks from them for appropriating their pastoral views. I looked down and there was earth far, far below. The scene was one of jumbled prettiness – red, green and white rooftops fell over each other, trees had been cleared away in large aphyllous swathes for construction and irrigation but crowded around close to shiny, snaking rivulets. We got just low enough to make out the crenellated patterns marking terrace cultivation and the lonely shepherd and some crumbling huts when we were hit by a thermal. It was like invisible hands yanking me upward. We soared higher than Billing for a while before my pilot manoeuvred around the core and circled his way down to terra firma.

Right after me was a pretty thing in fluttering culotte shorts vying for the landing zone photographer Ajit’s attention. Both Ajit and I were happy to ignore me – a good thing because I tried to land running. ‘Keep your legs straight at landing,’ my pilot had told me. He had meant horizontal straight and not vertical straight. Despite a minor landing incident I will say this:

Everyone must fly!


Profile photo of Thommen Jose

After taking a master degree in communication and journalism, Thommen Jose tried to sit behind a desk as a sub editor with a national newsweekly but did not last very long. An avid adventurer and distance biker, he soon discovered that he has to hit the road quite often to keep going. Currently based out of Delhi, he develops communication collaterals for the development sector, has scripted and directed a travel series on Tibet and Nepal, writes travelogues for newspapers and recently wrote and photographed a travel guide, ‘Experience Agra and around on the road’ which was published by the Times of India. is his blog, travelogues from which find their way into national and international newspapers, magazines and travel websites.

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