1:47 PM

MacLeodGanj And The Monk of the Himalayas..

After the Kashmir jaunt, there was another itinerary on my list and I was not going to miss it - Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, and not too far from Amritsar. The abode of the Most Holy Dalai Lama!
So one Saturday when I was off work I proceeded to the Amristar Inter State Bus terminal. I had enquired earlier, and the bearded Sikh had informed me that there was just one direct bus to Dharamshala from Amritsar and it was a Himachal State Transport bus that departed daily evening.
I noted that the Amritsar Inter State Bus stop was sanitised like the bus stands in my home state, a far cry away from dirty, infested bus terminals of North India usually packed with beggars. The Golden Temple effect I guessed. I recoiled at the memory of the dirty, heavily congested bus stops that I had experienced till then, especially the one at Jammu.
While on the bus I noticed there were two foreign couple seated some seats behind me, en route to the same destination.
One was a young man - woman hippy couple. The brunette was short and slightly built, with very curly dark hair spoke fluent English, though she she seemed more European than American or British, while her bespectacled companion kept mostly to himself; and the other was a pair of well built, sun tanned young men who looked Spanish, but seemed to have travelled from Australia. They were travelling all over the world picking up temporary janitorial jobs as they moved, to handle their daily expenses, I came to know from their idle banter.
One of the hippy men asked the brunette if the companion was her husband, but the woman replied matter of fact that they were not, but that is what they posing as to avoid being lynched by the "moral police", she added with a laugh!
Their talked moved to their experience in India, and the brunette remarked that India was so many countries rolled into one - with deserts, beaches, snow capped mountain peaks, forests, dense cities, backwaters, palaces and temples. To me that seemed to make sense and I agreed how true that was!
When we reached Dharamshala a good eight hours or so later, it was pretty dark. I came to learn that Dharamshala was actually a commercial centre while the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers actually resided a couple of kilometres on the upper reaches of Dharamshala near the foothills of the Himalayas, a hill station with the anglicised name of MacLeodGanj.
Since it was pretty late, I decided to put up at a hotel and leave the sight seeing for the next day. From Dharamshala I took a cab and asked the driver to take me to a not too expensive hotel. After a twenty minute ride we pulled up in front of a modern building that was built on a cliff overlooking the valley below. Two young locals arranged a single room for me from where I had a breathtaking view the twinkling lights of MacLeodGanj, the deep valley below and a snow covered peak rising above it.
I was feeling cold and got one of the young chaps to get me a bottle of gin from nearby bar. I got a little drunk and then faced a unique problem. I was smoking heavily and to keep the air moving and prevent being suffocated with the cigarette smoke, I had opened the ventilators above the windows, and when that didn't make it any better, put on the overhead fan as well.
The temperature outside was sub-zero and after a wash in the lukewarm tap water in the bath, I was literally freezing. Having heard of hypothermia and frost bite, I was not willing to take any chances. I put on two shirts and my jacket over it and slept with my socks and pants on. That make me warmer and I dozed off. A sight for sore eyes!
The next day I walked from the hotel up a steep incline towards MacLeodGanj town, which was literally nothing much but a few shanty buildings on either side of the road, with old wizened Tibetan women sitting outside, knitting woollen sweaters and socks, the men selling Buddhist mementos in improvised stalls. I noted one particular seedy building with a sign outside "Massage Parlour". Aware of the real purpose of massage parlours in Nepal and Thailand, I was a bit intrigued by the sign but didn't allow my curiosity to get the better of me and I moved on.
As it was already lunch time I decided to have lunch at a Tibetan eatery a ordered some soup and an unpronounceable  dish whose name I didn't grasp. It was nothing to write home about except that it was heavily laced with herbs and spices with floating boiled chicken morsels that reminded me more of medical tonic than food. Guessed it kept the Tibetan warm in the cold weather.
Since I had nothing much to do I decided to walk up the few kilometres up a steep incline towards what was Upper Dharamshala. I enjoyed the crisp cool fresh air as I walked up and decided to have  a quick omelette and noodles at a small wayside eatery intriguingly called "By Mistake". Well, it was "by mistake" that I had come across it in the first place! I noticed the same foreign couple who I had met in the bus walking up the mountain track behind me and the young woman who seemed to recognise me, smiled and yelled a "Hallo". I waved back.
It was there I met a young fellow traveller who accompanied me all the way up the the way up to upper Dharamshala. I welcomed his company and we started chatting about nothing in particular. It seemed he was originally from Himachal Pradesh but worked as a dairy engineer in Maharashtra, and every once in a year returned to Dharamshala and MacLeodGanj to have a walk up this very same mountain path,
As we made our way up, he relented to my request of couple of snaps of me against the breathtaking background of pine trees and the valley below. At one point we came across an old Buddhist monk with a walking stick trudging the way down. The old monk was taken aback when I asked him if I could take a snap of him with me. Nevertheless he nodded, and my friend took snaps and I reciprocated in kind. The monk understood English and we said our Thank You's before moving on.
As we made our way to the end of the trail, I noticed a couple of brand new cars parked on either side along the way, in the middle of nowhere and gathering dust. Seemed like some people had decided to visit but then decided to stay on, taken away by the rustic charm of MacLeodGanj!
At the summit we had our reward of hot piping tea and my companion decided to part ways with me as he had made up his mind to climb the forbidding hill that lay ahead with no visible way up. He pointed to a small temple at the top with a fluttering saffron flag atop. My friend said he was going to climb up all the way and take blessings of the gods. He was already breathing heavily but he had made up his mind to climb all the way up.
When I returned to MacLeodGanj, I did the usual tourist thing and visited the Dalai Lama's Buddhist monastery, the de facto capital of the Tibetan government in exile.
Prayer time was over and I entered the heavily guarded monastery teeming with Tibetan monks after a careful body check by Tibetan security. Nothing much to remark except I noticed that the sanctum sanctorum had piles and piles of Swiss chocolates and sweets neatly arranged into small mountains untouched by man or animal. Enough for the monks to survive a siege for months in case there was one! The chocolates were gifts by foreign well wishers and some even had unmoved tags saying "Gift from Germany by ..." etc. The Tibetan cause seemed to be popular across the world, cutting across nationalities.

On my way back to Dharamshala by bus to Amritsar via Pathankot, I was caught by the irony of Kashmir and MacLeodGanj, just a few hundred kilometres from each other - one, where a people complained of being subjugated by their government, and the other where refugees subjugated by their own government, had decided to call home!

1:54 AM

Socialist, Secular and Democratic Any More?

When I was in Kuwait several years back, I wrote an email to a friend with the following content. I came across it recently and thought it would be fun to retrospect on it. However it made me think about something else too.

Every expatriate in Kuwait has some grouse against their Kuwaiti masters. They summarize:

Belief: Islamic countries have very tough laws. Arabs are very self disciplined.
Expatriate's interpretation: Kuwait's laws are made for expatriates, to protect Kuwaitis. The Kuwaitis have no law unto themselves. The more things come under the ban the more they thrive in secret.

Belief: Islamic law comes down heavily on those who pursue the three vices.
Expatriate's opinion who spent some time in a Bahrain office: That makes places like Bahrain and Nepal all the more a favorite getaway for the rich Arab where all three vices are take place with the knowledge of their Islam patrons back  home.

Belief: Kuwait being very rich can afford to provide a lot of free public services.
Expatriate's interpretation: Everything is designed keeping in mind the welfare of the Kuwaiti. Land phones which Arab locals frequent are free. Mobiles which are more of utility to the expat are too expensive to keep; even incoming calls to mobiles are charged.

Belief: Since there is no politics in Kuwait and political parties are banned and the power of the State is supreme, there is no place for corruption.
Expatriate's Interpretation: The vice of corruption is practiced by individuals under a system called "vaastha" or influence. For example, if an influential Arab has powerful links in the government power structure, he can manipulate them to suit his needs.

Whitewash: Kuwait is a lot more freer in than many other Islamic countries.
Expatriate's opinion: Expats can own utilities such as taxis or visa sponsorship only under the patronage of a Kuwaiti. The Kuwaiti gains by every entrepreneurial move of the expat.

The English daily, The Kuwait Times that I used to frequent (it is free) reveals how self indulgent the Kuwaitis are. Editorial headlines scream such silly questions like: What would we do without our Chicken? (they eat it for breakfast, lunch and supper) What would we do without our housemaids? (Housemaids are the most exploited lot in Gulf countries, working almost 24 X 7 hours and cater to the whimsical needs of lazy Arabs who practically do no work and plead stressful lives as an excuse)

Germany too has some things in common with Kuwait. Both are very ethnocentric and cannot comprehend an alien culture and are more of a closed society. But while Germany thrives on its technical expertise and skilled manpower sources, Kuwait exploits some silly black liquid deep under it's soil.

Belief: Ramadan is a period of penance and of self cleansing for the Muslim Arab.
Expatriate's interpretation: The spirit of Ramadan is self-restraint. But when they do not want others to drink or eat during the ROJA, that very spirit is broken.

That makes me think, if our government says a certain item is holy to a section and others who don't feel that way too have to bow to the diktat, are we in any way better than these Arab nations known to be among the most uncivilized and undemocratic? I am not asking any questions, nor giving any answers to any questions. But can we call our nation democratic per Se? 

3:37 PM

Party Yuh Hi Chaalegi!

I had reached Srinagar by air, but I decided that my return trip would be by land to Amritsar via Jammu and Pathankot. I had decided to travel overnight. The journey turned out to be more interesting and dangerous than I had bargained for!
When I reached the Tourist Center, from where all state run buses run to Jammu, I was dismayed to find they ran only during the day. But as somebody pointed out there were plenty of private vehicles that would take me to Jammu for half the fare. There were all sorts of vehicles from Srinagar to Jammu - Tata Sumo, taxis, SUVs - and Tempo Travellers (a cross between an SUV and a van). They ran on a share basis, which meant that you shared even the taxis with other fellow passengers.
I decided not to take the Sumo or taxi, which I felt would be very uncomfortable if jammed with passengers. Instead I decided to take a Tempo Traveller. It would leave in another half an hour at 7 pm, and reach Jammu at dawn said the young driver who was incessantly hollering "Jammu! Jammu!". And the fare was reasonable. I preferred the Tempo Traveller since it's impossible to cram it with more than 11 people and the seats were comfortable so that you could doze off at night with the vibrations minimal.
As soon as we got the mandated 11 people and I handed a couple of 500 rupee notes to the driver, we were off. I noticed that the Kashmiri driver was very young, who just seemed to have got his driver's license, but watching him navigate left me no doubt of his driving prowess. It soon got dark and outside it was pitch darkness. Among our passengers was a young Sardarji who wore a baseball cap over his patka. The Sardarji was a jovial type and he kept the rest of us passengers entertained and had us in splits with his offhand jokes. He even had a mock conversation with his girlfriend on his mobile and made a public parody of their love talk. There was a long conversation with her on the topic of mobile phones and prepaid cards. When he told her over the phone that he had always believed her father was a doctor, but not of the veterinary kind, he had all the  passengers laughing till they were literally ROFL.
The driver was playing Hindi and Urdu songs on the inbuilt music player for quite some time now. I recalled some of them from two decades back- played by Muslim paan thela wallahs in rural Maharashtra. The van picked up a few travelers en route, including some people who seemed to be apple merchants and the Traveller was properly packed to capacity.
The young driver picked up his first cigarette and was soon merrily puffing away and began chain smoking. Just a few hours later we were stopped by some army men. The driver was asked for his identification papers and driving license which he nervously handed over to the army man. A torch was shone into each of our faces through the driver window, and sensing trouble I too kept my identification papers ready. But I guessed some money changed hands and soon we were off. Since Srinagar was far behind us, I thought the rest of the travel would be untoward. How wrong I was!
After this adventure, the young Kashmiri driver, again chain smoking, had the music player back again at full blast. The Sardarji got restless and shouted to no one in particular to stop smoking. Sardarjis as a rule don't smoke and their abstinence has religious intonations. The driver paid no heed. It was my turn to complain. I asked the driver to lower the volume since the incessant music was blasting my eardrums. He lowered it for a few minutes but put it to full blast again. All of us passengers who were desperately trying to catch some sleep but were hapless.
At around two in the night I got up to find that the vehicle had stopped and the driver was having a heated conversation with somebody. It turned out that they were policemen who had stopped the vehicle. A long line of truck laded with goods were parked all along the road. The driver got restless and the conversation got more heated as I could hear the policeman cursing as he almost hit the driver. No good. The Tempo Traveller we were told, was not going anywhere till dawn.
We were informed that the local DGP of Police had put enacted a new decree that vehicles could move from Srinagar to Jammu only during day hours starting from 6 am. I got off the vehicle, since there was nothing else to do. I pulled out a cigarette and noted that one side of the road descended into a deep ravine and far far down I could see lights from a hydroelectric project in progress. It was then that I truly appreciated the driver's driving skills. One wrong move and we would be hurtling down that precipice and find mention in some news item as one more accident, that so often happens in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand. Particularly when the tar on the roads disintegrates into potholes around treacherous bends.
I was joined by a young Kashmiri co-traveler who also lit a cigarette and asked me whether I knew someone called Ram Singh. It seemed this Ram Singh had to be feared and respected and only an ignoramus would not have heard of Ram Singh. The young guy informed me that Ram Singh was the DGP, and what Ram Singh says is the rule. No vehicles to Jammu till morning! Police were the law here.
We walked toward the police check-post and found a huge log obstructing the road preventing vehicles from barging ahead.
The apple merchant was having an animated conversation with the young Kashmiri driver.
"You don't know how to deal with these people", he was admonishing the driver. If the driver couldn't deal with the police, he said he would. He was contemplating giving a bribe. The driver protested that he didn't have enough money to bribe off all these policemen. An hour later, a hundred rupees was collected from each passenger, seemingly a bribe was paid, yet the vehicle was not allowed to proceed!
I returned to the warmth of the Traveller since it was pretty cold outside and I was shivering in the near zero temperature in spite of my jacket.
An hour later, the driver returned to the Traveller, and said there was no option but to return to Srinagar and start off in the morning again. When we were halfway to Jammu! The passengers protested. One of the passengers said he knew an alternate route and they could give it a try. After some thought, the driver decided not to, reason being that road too was probably blocked. The driver talked to someone over his mobile and informed us that one of his friends who was updated on exactly which bases were covered by the police was on the same route, so they would wait it out for his advice. True to his words, soon a Tata Sumo joined the long queue of vehicles at the road block. Our driver had some quick words with the his driver friend and returned to his seat. He said there was an alternate route they could take where he bet that we would be let through.
So the Tempo Traveller followed the Sumo till we reached a road barrier, which was lifted after a friendly conversation with some plainclothes men and we were on our way to Jammu! We had been stuck up for nearly one hour!
The music was blaring again and the driver was heavily smoking again in-spite of protests from both me and the Sardarji. The driver told us half apologetically that he was just trying to ward off sleep and the music helped him stay awake.
One particular song was being played incessantly in a loop at full volume. From the song, I could catch the words of a a male baritone voice mouthing"Aunty Police Bulayeegi.. Party Yuh Hi Chaalegi!" I found the reference to "police" and "party" funny. The party seemed to be us rag-tag group of passengers!
In-spite of the din, I soon fell asleep.
It was dawn when we reached Jammu. The driver had indeed made up for lost time.
I noticed that Jammu was much warmer almost hot, even at that early hour. Seemed like India after all.
I could hardly see any of the Kashmiri types around - the ones in the long black cloaks or Muslim women in black. However there seemed to be plenty of Sardarjis and lots of North India types, some obviously on pilgrimage. Jammu seemed to be more modern with flyovers and was the standard concrete jungle that any Indian capital is.
Now I now had to locate a bus to Pathankot in Punjab. That was some journey! The party finally dispersed!

3:25 PM

The Guide

My initial desire was to describe my North Indian jaunt in a sequence, especially the Kashmir part. But I find that some incidents are noteworthy than the rest and hence demand attention.
I got up late in the afternoon that day. The hotel had Kashimiri pulao and Kashmiri rice on the menu. Since both were Kashmiri, I guessed they would be cheaper, so I ordered them both, with gravy. The rice turned out to be soggy, short grained and looked overcooked,  but on eating I found that it actually tasted good. The pulao was nothing out of the ordinary, but nonetheless eatable, but oily. I had wondered how rice grew on the rocky, snow covered, cold terrain of Kashmir, but later found that this variety of rice grows on low lying areas surrounding Dal Lake, that lies in the middle of Srinagar.
After brunch, I asked the elderly gentleman who ran the lodge how I could make it to Gulmarg- "The path of Roses (in Kashmiri)" where I planned to take a gondola ride and if luck permitted, experience snow for the first time. He explained that if I planned to take public transport (run down private vans) I would have to change vehicles thrice, which didn't look too appealing.

It was Deepavali, which the whole nation was at that moment celebrating with gusto, but Srinagar was shut down at the behest of some local leaders who were protesting the meager aid provided to Kashmir by the Center, post-flooding of the Jhelum that ran through the center of Srinagar. The streets were empty and all you saw was gun toting army-men, armored vehicles and a few locals on bikes and a few cars, and the aforesaid rickety vans crammed with ill dressed people. Even the J&K Bank ATMs that were usually reliable, were out of cash and everything was plunged in deep gloom literally, after the day-night power blackout.

I happened to find a tourist agency near Dal Lake, where I could hire a chauffeured car to Gulmarg for a couple of thousand rupees, which happened to be less since it was off-season.
Soon the driver with a bushy beard and shaved mustache wearing the traditional black winter cloak that looked more like a blanket wrapped around him, was driving me all the way to Gulmarg on scenic roads. He occasionally withdrew his hands from the sleeves letting them loosely hand around his shoulder giving him a ghost like look which unnerved me. He was in a mood talkative mood and seemed to be at ease with outsiders. I thought he was trying to probe my religious tendencies when he asked me whether I had been to the Shankaracharya Mutt temple on the banks of the Jhelum. He said he had luckily parked his car below the temple, and his vehicle was saved from the ravages of the flood since the Mutt was at a higher altitude. He went on to describe how many and how badly vehicles were damaged due to the Jhelum floods, leaving almost nothing untouched in it's wake.
I told him I was not a Hindu.
"Then, are you a Muslim?", he asked, surprised a bit.
"Neither",said I, "I am a Christian."
Taking this in his stride, he then told me that then I must definitely visit the antique Church on the foothills of Gulmarg, which had been built during the British times.
The driver en route, stopped to have a hookah and when he spoke with locals in Kashmiri, it felt more like Arabic or Persian to me than Urdu, but in fact Kashmiri is more of a mixture of Urdu, Pharisee, Arabic and English and is usually written in the Urdu script. English is part of Kashmiri today, the driver told me with a grin, when I inquired inquisitively.
What happened next after that was the usual tourist thing, up the gondola ,the horse ride to Gulmarg Phase I; Phase II being closed due to heavy snow and windy weather, and the trip back to our waiting taxi.
One more person had joined us before the trip to Gulmarg, a young man in his thirties who was a government recognized guide, mandatory for the trip up, I was told. I noted his piercing, shifty eyes, rugged features, and his quiet demeanor, who seemed to be bored with the guide routine. There was a sense of  foreboding about him that seemed to give him a troubled look, so it seemed.
The guide seemed to be familiar with a locals and many of them waved to him in greeting which he acknowledged with a few gruff words. When we reached the taxi park, back from the climb up the snow clad mountain, we found that our driver had not yet returned from his namaz, which he had said he would be performing at the Jama Mazjid nearby, as was his practice on all his trips to Gulmarg. As I was hungry I decided to have vegetable noodles at a small shack with tea, while the guide preferred to have just biscuits.
Leaning towards me on the table where we sat he said. "You know Kashmir is a mistake. When the British partitioned United India, they made Hindustan and Pakistan. But they forgot Kashmir. Kashmir neither part of India, nor of Pakistan, was left out. They forgot Kashmir. And that is where all the trouble lies and where all the mess started."
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
"You see", he said, "I have taken many Western tourists on this route many a thousand times and I have asked them the same very thing, and you know what they say? The West just does business. They don't care or bother if it is India or Pakistan. They sell deadly weapons to both parties and make money. That's how they work."
He went on. "When Raja Hari Singh pleaded India to save Kashmir from the marauding Pakistani troops, Gandhiji sent the Indian army. The army came and they never went back. Why? Why did this happen to Kashmir?", he repeated softly. There was deep feeling in his voice. It was as if he was talking of an unwanted orphan. Not an object of desire for two warring nations.
He leaned towards me conspiratorially. "Do you know there are more army-men in Kashmir than Kashmiris? And how many Kashmiris have been killed since?" I did not venture to reply,

I had seen the many Indian army-men stationed all over Srinagar including Lal Chowk where I had put up. I had actually seen them randomly stopping cars and bike riders, and letting them go after a cursory body-search and identification check. It was as if every Kashimiri was a suspect.
I had also seen a random group of young Kashmiri gathered near a defunct ATM, men smelling of expensive perfume, chanting slogans to the affect of "Louto! Louto!" meaning "Go back!" obviously to the long men in the queue at the ATM, but could be a message for the army as well. At Lal Chowk there was a sudden flurry of activity as a group of young men rushed to an old rickety building for some reasons know only to them, followed by clueless unorderly gun toting army militia. I has seen banners of Arafat and Khomenei all over Srinagar. Spray painted slogans saying "Death to Israel!" just as I had seen "Leave Tibet!" slogans in Dharamshala. This seemed to be another part of the world. Kashmiri youth, I felt, were more politically aware than any Indian state I know except perhaps Kerala.

I thought over and reminded the guide that it was not Gandhiji, but Menon, at the behest of Nehru and Patel who had sent the army. He acknowledged this with some thought.
"Raja Hari Singh was a traitor", he reiterated. "Hari Singh sold Kashmir and his countrymen."
To him, it seemed, Kashmir or Kashmiris had not yet assimilated into India after all those years of protests, strife, army presence and international notoriety at the behest of Pakistan amid the continuing low key war all along the Kashmir border with Pakistan. There was still a long way to go before men like him would be convinced that Kashmir had a part to play in the planned scheme of things. At that point I told him as a matter of fact that Hari Singh wanted an independent Kashmir which was not practical since Kashmir did not have any natural resources such as minerals or any other noteworthy source of  natural wealth, except for its scenic beauty. The guide paused and considered this. I was glad that my bookish knowledge was at least pushing this one sided conversation forward.
I didn't dare another opinion, so the guide continued "I have been to the forbidden land - POK- Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. I have relatives there and I went to visit them", he explained.
"The people in POK are twenty years behind us", he informed me."Uncivilized nomadic tribal shepherds who live in shanty huts."
At that point of time our driver returned from his namaz and the talk turned to currency - whether it was Indian or Pakistani currency that was stronger. As it turned out, they used a wrong yardstick to measure this - the equivalence to the dollar. The driver was of the opinion that the Indian rupee was stronger since you got more dollars for a rupee than a Pakistani rupee. But the guide disagreed.
On the way back, the driver continued with another of his lengthy talks and told me "You have visited Kashmir in the winter. But anyone who visits Kashmir returns three more times - once for each season. You have to come back again in Summer, Spring and Winter to be bewitched by its natural beauty, now that you have visited it in Autumn!"
I doubted this very much, noting how Kashimir had become a cesspool of political and civil violence and unrest.

4:56 PM

Mission Kashmir - Part I

At Amritsar, Punjab, we all got a week off from work, after a successful deployment. I decided Kashmir was not too far off to warrant a quick visit. The same evening after work, I packed my bags and flew off to Srinagar. I chose air travel to reduce the journey time and fatigue, as I figured out anyway I would be travelling by land on my way back.
The journey was uneventful, except that foreigners alighting at Srinagar airport had to go through a separate procedure and made to sign a a register and other formalities in spite of having checked in at an Indian airport earlier. No chances being taken I guess, in this disturbed land.
As soon as I alighted from the airport complex I was greeted by a light chill and a gust of fresh air that smelled of pine trees.
I was surprised to find that I was not badgered at the airport by the usual crowd of taxi drivers you usually find at international airports. It was November and off season for the tourism industry and not many people were visiting after the devastating floods caused by the overfilling of the Jhelum river that runs through the middle of Srinagar city.
I quickly located a run down rickety state transport owned van parked discreetly in a corner just outside the airport gates. I was lucky to not having to hire a taxi (who as usual charge exorbitant rates at airports), but the bus fare was still very high, almost double the normal rate. I argued with the conductor but he showed me the stamped bus ticket endorsed by J&K Public Transport. "Get down anywhere...", he said. "Same fare".
I had no clue where to get down to search for decent boarding, so I asked a Sardarji, probably an inter-state businessman, sitting opposite me if he had any clue as to where I could spend the night without spending a fortune. He recommended getting down at Lal Chowk, just before the last stop.
"Plenty of hotels there", he said. "So you might find what you are looking for".
"By the way", he added."I noticed there were not many people on the flight from Amritsar.. right?"
I nodded.
As the early morning sun rose, warming the air a tad bit, I noticed  young Kashmiri women on the street. Their famed beauty of fair skin and rosy cheeks was evident but what surprised we that they being Muslim, they still did not adhere to the hijab or the purdah. Modern Muslims, I guessed.
The other thing that I noticed was that Srinagar seemed to be living in another age, a larger copy of what I had seen at hill stations such as Mussoorie and later at Dharamashala. The buildings were very modest, some built of wood and no notable structures that struck out as modern. Was the rustic charm being preserved for tourists?
The evidence that all was not well in Kashmir was the presence of Indian Army soldiers. They were everywhere, toting machine guns, eyeing everybody and everything suspiciously. But they paid no heed to our bus. Tourists didn't figure in their list of  people to be questioned, especially one just out of the airport to the government run Tourist Center? Among those uniformed militia I could recognize some hefty men from my native Kerala, with bushy mustaches and beer induced ruddy cheeks.
I got down at Lal Chowk, when the bus driver called out the stop aloud.
I got down and made my way to one of the better looking hotels that didn't look too expensive. Lal Chowk wore  a look of utter destruction and desolation. There was hardly anybody on the streets, except for a few businessmen selling cheap jackets to a bunch of young Kashmiri men who were probably preparing for the harsh winter ahead.
There were huge piles of trash and flotsam on the streets, reminders of the earlier floods, still not yet cleared after nearly a month; and repair work was in progress in most of the shops, especially the basements which were completely destroyed along with the stored merchandise by the flood waters from the Jhelum river. The frustration was evident when I met a couple of Kashmiris later on my trip. Srinagar was already a city under siege and the flooding of the Jhelum had only added salt to the festering wounds. . Lal Chowk would be famous a few months later for the arbitrary search and detain operations by army men of youth residing in and around Lal Chowk,
I noticed temporary structures around street corners where lone army men were on the lookout. It seemed the army men outnumbered the locals, which was something echoed later by many of the Kashmiris I met later.
I decided to have a cuppa tea, I bought some cigarettes, found a cheap tea stall in an alley and had tea with sweet Kashmiri bread. I was a bit apprehensive about so many militiamen on the streets, so before lighting the cigarette, I asked the cigarette seller whether it was safe to smoke on the streets. "Of course!", he replied, and I noticed he was doing brisk business as it was Diwali day, all government offices were closed and most other business was at a standstill.
My next trip was to Dal Lake, since it is bang in the middle of Srinagar. I will leave that for another post, to talk not about the Shikara (traditional Kashmiri row boat operated by a single boats man- the Shikarawallah) ride, but what the Shikarawallah had to say on the one and half hour ride.

12:46 PM

Of Love, Greed And Revenge - A True Life Story

Preeth and Preethi met each other by fluke of chance at a cafe inside a Technology park in Bangalore where they both worked in different software companies. They were soon blindly in love.
They were as unlike each other as a peahen is to a peacock. Preethi was practical, logical and a go-getter with a calm demeanor. Preeth was boisterous, temperamental, impulsive and prone to wild moods. Preethi fell for Preeth for his wildly care free attitude and typical north Indian good looks, while she herself was short, diminutive and a little short of pretty.
A year after their marriage, their relationship floundered. Preeth got a placement in the Noida offshoot of his parent MNC company, while Preethi continued her job at Bangalore. Preeth was still in love with Preethi, this time with an eye on the lucrative salary that she drew as assistant manager at a mediocre company, in-spite of having just a year's experience in the field. To him she was a source of easy money, in addition to the hefty salary that he himself drew. When Preethi brought her parents to Bangalore to look after her toddler daughter and to keep her company in an increasingly alienated world, Preeth fell all the more spurned. He called her many a times a day trying to  persuade her to join him in Noida and warned her in no uncertain terms to keep away from her parents. To him, they were the devil incarnate. Torn between the vows of marriage and her comparatively happy life at Bangalore, Preethi managed to take a month's emergency leave from her company and flew to Noida to join Preeth, leaving her daughter in the care of her aging parents.
When she arrived at Noida, she was surprised to be met by repeated, sometimes threatening demands from Preeth to mutually subscribe to a one crore flat in Noida payable over a period of twenty years. Being the rational and thoughtful person she was, Preethi refused. Firstly, she didn't want to stay at Noida, and secondly to her the idea was foolish, their married life still being in infancy. After a stormy month together, she returned to Noida with her parents. She rejoined her company and the status of her communicator at office read - "Finally glad to be at my workplace".
Her co-workers noticed she was subdued and frequently late at work, which was not her norm. The reason was she had late night calls from Preeth and they argued heatedly into the late night hours.
Preeth, at Noida, was meanwhile undergoing a metamorphosis. He was on the verge of paranoia. His hatred for Preeth and her parents, who to him were mere parasites, reached unbearable levels. The only thought on his mind now, day and night, was Preethi and her parents and an unexplained urge for revenge.
One night, a day prior to the festival of lights, he packed his bag and a kirpan (a Sikh ceremonial dagger) that he found in his father's collection of memorabilia. He was not a Sikh, but at that moment, that was the only weapon he could get hands on at short notice, that could destruct . He felt the edge of the kirpan, and satisfactorily noted that it was still sharp since the last time his father had got it polished.
Preethi meanwhile was just returning from office with a heart shaped mud oil lamp painted a deep red, in her purse, that her friends had gifted her that day, along with ceremonial Diwali sweets. Early morning that day she had adorned her hands with the deep reddish brown "mehndi", the temporary tattoo that Indian women decorate their hands prior to an auspicious event. She was not to realize that the red fetish she had was going to have ominous overtones that night.
That same night Preeth was on the 3 am flight to Bangalore, a place which now he loathed, which to him was now Preethi's new home. He arrived at Preethi's rented flat at dawn. He was greeted by Preethi's parents, but they felt something was amiss when they looked at Preeth's blood red, sleepless eyes. Preeth barged in without a word, found Preethi at the kitchen and a loud altercation followed. Preethi's parents sensed something was amiss and carried the toddler kid to the open garden four flats below.
Preethi was stabbed five times in her stomach with the kirpan. Preeth had lost all sense and rationality. He just wanted to finish his torment and tormentors once and for all. Preethi screamed and lay bleeding. Preeth, felt a strange mixture of nausea and relief sweep him and he calmly waited for the police to arrive, to turn himself in.
"Education does not make an educated man...", the old man commented, to no one in particular. He was a Bangalore old-timer and had just read the Preethi Arora murder story in the next day's morning newspaper. "Well, these things happen all the time," commented his wife. "Especially with these software people".
"Yes that's true", said the old man and soon forgot the sordid news story he had just read and turned to page 3 to glance at the day's TV schedule for the Friday night Bollywood blockbuster.

1:29 PM

Nehru's Tryst With Destiny

I recently completed reading "Freedom At Midnight" by Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins. I must say I discovered a lot of things absolutely not mentioned in the history books right from third standard to the tenth. Our history books seem to have been written by people with selective amnesia which goes to show how much our education system has degraded. The book is not totally without flaws since it is written by a Frenchman and an Australian two decades back. They have been more than a bit patronizing in the way they have written the book, but can be forgiven for that, as Europeans and Australians can write only the way they think - as Europeans and Australians.
The book tells a lot about what happened during partition and the inner story which finds just a mention in our history books as a line or two.
The saddening part is that after nearly 65 years, India is still fighting the maladies that has plagued it for centuries - communal riots, poverty, illiteracy and a newer malady - corruption.
Why do Indians deserve this? After being guided through the earlier years by visionaries such as Gandhi, Nehru, Menon and Sardar Patel does it still have to be known to the world as a nation of illiterates, of religious bigots and where literary authors have to sell their books by depicting India's poverty in all its glory?
I do agree that Nehru's and Gandhi's ideas might not hold much water in a modern world and Indians have indeed taken mostly wise decisions throughout the years, post independence, but still the old demons remain.
India is the world's largest democracy, but are our elections just a token public relations exercise as one wiki leaks cable pointed out?
Do Indians really benefit from this independence and has it done them any real good? Why are politicians still elected based on caste, class and religion and not on their individual merit? Is independence and democracy just buzz words that has no meaning to the ordinary man out on the farms, out in rural India?
Gandhi had preached that every Indian politician and bureaucrat should first learn the ropes of his  trade in the villages of rural India. This might not sound very realistic in a modern world but it is true that most of our doctors and engineers live in the cities and the farmers in rural India have improved their lifestyle just a tad bit, migrating to cities where they believe their future lies.
Rahul Gandhi and few of our politicians have lived with villagers in villages for a day or two in what might be a lesson out of Gandhi's book, but was this nothing more than a PR exercise? Has it really benefited the villagers or Rahul Gandhi?
India did have it's white revolution(milk), green revolution(food self sufficiency) and technology revolution in the recent years and it's growth rate is enviable.
But why can't we still end our past maladies after 65 years - those of communal riots, rural poverty and corruption?
And why are basic infrastructure such as quality education, basic sanitation, quality medical care, human rights and rural jobs still a precious luxury for the vast majority of Indians? Gandhi talked about these seventy years back but sad to say our politicians are involved in their own private games and hobbies and know as much of Indian history as an Italian does.
Our politicians are the modern day maharajahs - who Nehru and Patel hated so much in their heydays.