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How did it all begin?
In the 1980s, we were a group of six friends who were into mountaineering. But India lacked good equipment at the time and the foreign brands were prohibitively expensive. So we collected technical books from abroad and got hold of an old sewing machine that belonged to the mother of our friend Arpan Mukherjee. The first rucksack we made was strong and technically sound. But it looked a bit decrepit, so we called it Bhikhari Sahib. Within three years, we were making all our expedition gear, including our ice axes.
In July 1992, my partner Partha Chakraborty and I started Ubac in Kolkata. In those days, we did everything ourselves—from designing to cutting and stitching. Yet within a few months, our products had found takers.
From among the original six, two went on to become doctors, one is a geologist and another a professional brewer. Why did you decide to stick to it?
Before Ubac, I had held a senior position in an Indo-Italian company with a coat-tie culture and fat salaries. But I felt I was short-selling my time. There was a world out there that I was missing out on.
But a business has its own demands, surely?
Well, we like to keep things modest. We don’t want the outfit to grow into something so big that the partners no longer find time for themselves. As long as we can pay staff salaries and the partners can profit enough to run their families well, we’re all right. In fact, this approach allows me to travel for six or seven months every year.
Is that why you also started the other wings of Ubac… What do they do?
The Ubac Mountaineering Association (UMC) started soon after our commercial venture. And today UMC has 157 members across ages, from school-going to retired affiliates. We go for treks and expeditions, discover new routes, celebrate mountains and nature. Over the years, resilient relationships have been forged, which is why our office is usually full of chatter and laughter. Our birdwatching and motorbiking groups are active too. So is our group, Khete Khete Adda (snack while you chat), where every month, members go on walking tours of the city and try the street food in the area. Soon, there will be a mountain biking community…
What are your pet spots in the Himalaya?
The upper reaches of Kumaon and Garhwal are old favourites. And then there are the lesser-known trails through the Neora Valley Sanctuary in the Darjeeling hills and some of the forest treks around Ravangla in Sikkim… I can never tire of the Eastern Himalaya. I often travel to the Dooars in North Bengal too.
A train route there cuts through five national parks. It’s exciting, but tragic, since rushing trains have killed scores of elephants…
We only know of elephants getting killed because of their size. The only way to stop this is to restrict the increasing footprint of man. A WWF reports says that every day 517 acres of cultivable land gets converted for industrial or other uses in India. Nobody realises that everything we put into our mouth comes from the soil and man can’t eat plastic yet. We need to balance things.
Can travel bring about change?
Once I had taken a group of forty students from a college in Kolkata for a weeklong trek to the Singalila Ridge. We didn’t know it at the time, but a notorious group of seven students from the college union had sneaked into the group too. Even before the journey began, at the railway station, their leader pressed a knife in my back to assert his authority. Seven days later, when we were about to part, he hugged me and wept like a child. That’s the power of nature and the great outdoors. So yes, perhaps, it will.
Rana Roy, Partner, Ubac Mountaineering Equipment, Kolkata 033-23607970, 9038278434; [email protected]
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