Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dream come true

The bus ride on the way home was... pleasant. It had been three days of not having talked to anyone at work. It was peaceful, not having to worry about making conversation. As the bus stop arrived I put away what I was reading and made my way to the exit. It was eleven in the night, and the stopped bus caused a traffic jam. I got down and made my way along the footpath avoiding the numerous cockroaches that had come out to feed. I tried to count them, but got bored after 60. I was half asleep. The pavement was crowded with people having a late supper from the many roadside food stalls. It was dark, with a few dim street lights here and there. And the warm glow from the stoves of the food stalls. I walked. A decorative string of lights on a closed shop cast a multicoloured glow on the wet pavement. Water flowed from a broken drain pipe, and I didn't care. I stepped through it. A smell wafted into the air. A smell of week old fish frying in month old oil.

I longed for my bed and the warm recycled air blown around by the ceiling fan. I kept one foot in front of the other. And I walked. Standing in the lift, I warily eyed my fellow passenger. A cockroach covering in the corner. The doors opened, and I stumbled forward fumbling for the keys. I unlocked the door and headed straight to sleep. In my sleep I dreamed. And in my dream, I slept. For the last time.

The apartment is eerily silent as I watch myself lying in peace. With cotton buds stuffed into my nostrils and ears. It comes as no surprise to me that I live in an apartment. I hear a sound of muted anguish from beside where I lie. My wife? Perhaps. I tried to put a face on her, but it is difficult to put a face on a person you haven't yet met. But the surprise is the girl who is comforting her. Her daughter? My daughter? The doorbell rings, and one by one people came in to say their goodbyes and comfort those I leave behind. I see a few familiar faces. Old friends, from a time long past. I realise that many of my friends have managed to outlive me, but for a few notable exceptions. The entrance to the crematorium on the banks of Kempambudi lake seems to invite a sense of finality. Or is it Dharmambudi lake? I forget. The final rituals are in progress, rituals that are supposed to bring peace to my soul. I try to get a better look at the people gathered to say their final goodbyes. But I feel myself being drawn away from there, and the faces of the people get dimmer. I am placed on the belt that feeds the ever hungry maw of the electric crematorium, and I slowly disappear from view.

I see myself go up in smoke. I feel free. But it is not freedom. It somehow feels that I am running away from responsibility. That I am leaving behind a job only half finished. But there is nothing I can do about it. I see the ones who have come to wish me goodbye slowly drift away to their homes, to their lives. I watch the only two souls waiting to collect my ashes. I long to reach out and comfort them, but I am slowly drifting away. Reality is calling. That call that can not be refused. The sunshine spilled into the room in all it's warmth at precisely seven in the morning. And the alarm gave it company. I woke up with a smile on my face and the knowledge that all I dreamed would come true one day. I couldn't wait.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A departure from the normal

As I sat in the corner of a sort of shady place in Bylakuppe slurping much sought after thukpa, I tried to recall how I had ended up at this place. The original plan was to end up about 500km east of there. In Pondicherry. But a combination of nature's fury and abject spinelessness had interfered. And so it was, that at literally the last minute, 7am on a drizzly Friday morning, we turned the two cars around and headed west from Bangalore. The first destination was to be a much raved about café on Mysore road. The website for that place claimed it open 24/7. Filled with a sense of a good beginning, and a wonder for what lay ahead, we set off at a good pace towards Ramanagara. But, the café had other things on its mind. It was closed. After much cursing at both the café and the guy who suggested the place, we proceeded towards Mysore. At the entrance to Mysore, an idea. Let's go to Bylakuppe, and the Tibetan settlement there. And why not, it was not as if we actually had a plan. Turning onto SH88, we the travellers, Veena and Kalpana, me, DS (Rahul), P (Vivekanand), Shravi (Shravan) and Monty (that's his real name) looked forward to the drive on the brilliantly twisty road that would eventually lead to Madikeri.

The drizzle, barely noticeable, came in bursts. With fellow driving aficionado, P, drooling at the wheel at the prospect of hitting the apex on every curve, we arrived at Bylakuppe in good time. A peek at the Namdroling monastery and a satisfying meal of momos and thukpa followed. Refreshed and satiated, and with me back at the wheel, we hit the road to Madikeri. It seemed like the logical next stop. The road was just exhilarating. Sharp twisting curves, smooth tarmac, and a close and thick canopy of trees on either side. A light drizzle, just enough to wet the road and colour it a dark shade of grey; a colour made for an evening drive through the mountains, with the bright green of the foliage and the shimmering golden-yellow of the setting sun providing a mind cleansing backdrop. With crash barriers on either side of the road filling me with confidence on these curvy mountain roads, I let go. DS in the back got to work on the music, and started to play a song by Shubha Mudgal and Swaratma. As Shubha Mudgal opened her voice, I opened the taps and left the cares of the world behind.

Finding a place to stay near Madikeri involved us calling every home-stay whose billboards we we saw on the road and asking if they were available. On the 30th of December, our hopes were slim, and we surrendered to a tough search. But Veena came through. After calling several home-stays, and getting more contacts from them, she finally managed to locate a place a few kilometres from Madikeri. A place in the middle of a coffee plantation, and far away from "civilisation". What followed next may best be described as cultured debauchery. A proverbial round table conference. With two confirmed sort-of-sober people who could drive the next day morning, the rest of us discarded all responsibilities. But, there was a catch. This place was available only for that night. We had to clear out the next day. We decided to worry about that the next morning. But morning came much quicker than expected. But, unfortunately not for me. My troubled dreams were filled with sounds of diesel locomotives at full speed. After breakfast the next day, we had to set off. But to where?

DS suggested Mangalore, and I suggested a route via Kasargod. I wanted to avoid NH48 at all costs. With P at the wheel in one car, again drooling at the curvy roads, and me in a state not quite awake, the road provided a very exciting drive. But at places. In other places, the road proved to be some sort of hell. But P certainly enjoyed hitting the apex on every bend. I took the wheel back at a town called Jalsoor, much to P's dismay, as I had heard of the brilliant road that lay ahead. And that was not an exaggeration. Driving on that road gave me goose bumps. And Kasargod came too soon for my liking. After a lunch of the most delectable prawn curry at a place called Hotel Metro in Kasargod, and binging on cheap petrol, we set off on the death trap also known as NH17. We thankfully reached Mangalore before dark. After a brief circus when DS's car refused to start, we stopped off at an ice-cream place called Cherry Square for some much needed refreshments. But accommodation for that night proved to be elusive. As we had nothing to lose, DS asked the owner if he knew of any available place.

He did know of a place which was available. It was his own serviced apartment, not two streets from Cherry Square. We lucked out. Again. After dumping our stuff at the apartment, and a mild refreshment later, we arrived at a pub called Froth on Top. This pub holds fond memories from my college days, and I still believe this is the best pub I have ever had the pleasure to drink at. That I was to spend new year's at this place was just beyond belief. Beer arrived. And it was drunk hungrily. More beer arrived. True we had to drive about 400km the next day via difficult and untested roads over the Charmadi ghats to get to Bangalore. But at that moment it didn't seem to matter. The clock ticked ever so surely towards zero hour. And we waited, glasses in hand. Fireworks started going off around the pub, and revellers on the street drove by, horns blaring. The clock ticked closer. And we raised our glasses. Zero hour dawned, and as we drank MESCOM joined in the celebrations. With a power cut.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Trucks, buses and aeroplanes

A slim crescent of the moon was visible just over the top of the nearby mountains. And a countless number of stars in the clear black sky. It was cold outside. So very cold. The mountains were just silhouettes against the ever so slowly brightening sky. Just jagged lines to your eyes, telling you where the land ended and the sky began. The patches of snow that weren't blown away by the gale of the previous night seemed like ghostly patches on the mountains, glowing faintly in the moonlight. A chilly wind blew unceasing, and my scarf was not up to the job. I tried to keep my nose and mouth covered and breathe through the scarf. Which ended up fogging my glasses. In an attempt to keep warm, I started to walk up and down the road desperately hoping for the sun to come up soon. The crunch of previous night's ice under my shoes while pacing on the road was soothing, but otherwise not of much help. The shivering came in bursts. And I pulled my jacket tighter. The wind seemed to find every patch of uncovered skin and chill it senseless. I seemed defenceless, and the wait hopeless. The sky seemed to brighten imperceptibly to an inky dark blue. A pale pink glow was just visible to the east. Hope dawned, though the day had yet to. The mountainside brightened to a barely visible yellow, and the patches of snow seemed to glow. Daybreak. The stars disappeared one by one, and lengthy shadows appeared. The tops of the mountains seemed like golden crowns on their massive shadowy bodies. But the sun wasn't yet seen. And neither was the bus.

The bus was supposed to have left Kargil at five. And It was supposed to be in Mulbek by six. The bus was a half an hour late. And I had been standing on the frozen road for well over an hour. I looked longingly down the road, and saw to my surprise a distant light. Headlights! Of a passing car. And yet no bus. I waited. A few minutes later, another pair of headlights. But this time of a passing truck. I could make out the outline of the truck from a long way off, and I stepped onto the side of the road to make room for it. The truck sped by, and screeched to a halt a short distance later. The driver called out, and I was surprised as I had made no sign of wanting a lift. Where are you headed, he asked. Leh, I said, and I am waiting for the bus. He laughed. The bus? he asked. Yes, the bus that left Kargil at five in the morning and expected in Mulbek anytime soon. Do you really want to place your hopes on the bus, he asked. And even if it did come, it would be full to the brim. He dismissed with a wave of his hand whatever I said afterwards, and asked me to hop on. Well, the driver's cabin would be much better than the cold of the outside, I rationalised, and hopped on. He said that he too was on his way to Leh, and offered to drop me off there. I sat on the seat in the cabin, and it was warmer. Though not for long. As the truck gathered speed, I realised that the cabin wasn't exactly insulated. Wind streamed in through the multiple holes and chilled me to the bone. Though not much warmer than the outside, I was definitely making progress towards Leh. And that was infinitely better.

The wind picked up and blew in the dust. But we didn't mind. As Bilal vigorously turned the steering wheel to take the truck round a bend, a surprising view. Perhaps the blackest mountain I had ever seen. And next to it was perhaps the reddest one. Dry parched earth appeared to come in a rainbow of colours. A few wild goats were to be seen now and then, feeding on the sparse vegetation. All around us were tall peaks, casting a pattern of light and shadow on the valley floor. The truck passed from light to shadow to light. And as soon as the truck entered the shadow, the cabin grew cold. Only to warm up in an instant as the truck passed into the light. I felt like a rat in a maze, being conditioned to follow the sun.

We probably wouldn't have noticed the little village of Khaltse, expect that about 24km from there, the highway was closed. Blasting work, said the man at the detour. And what a detour. The road was terribly narrow and mostly unpaved. The road descended steeply down the mountainside, and with a grand total of about 18 hairpin turns in the span of a couple of kilometres, the driving appeared terrifying. The truck on average had no more that three wheels on the road. And when a small car came in the opposite direction up the road, the manoeuvres had to millimetre precise. Bilal wondered how he would climb up this road on his return with a 15 ton load. Luckily for him, the road was set to open the next day. Back on the main highway, the road curved along with the pale blue Indus river. We reached Leh with little incident, and I got in touch with a travel agent who happened to be the uncle of a friend of a friend. I was put up in a very comfortable guest house, a small distance from the main town.

I was recommended a visit  to the monastery at Hemis. A bus for which would leave Leh at about eight in the morning. Reaching the bus stand a half hour early, I failed to find the bus to Hemis. I, though, found a bus going to Karu, a town on the way to Hemis. I was told that getting shared taxis to Hemis from Karu would be easy. I climbed in, mostly to shelter from the cold outside. The windows were closed, and it was comfortably warm inside. I bought a ticket to Karu, and as the bus started on its way, the gentle rocking of the bus lulled me. I felt warm and cosy, and killed time staring at the unfolding scenery as the bus made its way to Karu. The monastery at Thiksey looked very imposing, and I made it a point to visit it on the way back. A little while later, I received a poke on my arm. It was the guy issuing the tickets in the bus. I looked up and he appeared very curious. Weren't you going to get down at Karu, he asked me. I replied yes and asked him why. We passed Karu an hour back was his reply. I had fallen asleep. And as I realised that, a chorus of giggles. Apparently the others in the bus had realised that too.

I asked where the bus was actually going. Sakti, he replied. Does this bus return to Leh, I asked. Yes, at three in the afternoon from Sakti was the reply. I told him I would pay for the ticket all the way to Sakti. The lone monastery at Sakti was closed, only to open at five in the evening. I couldn't wait that long. I took a walk to the village, and on the way passed a small glimpse of a winter wonderland. A small stream flowed merrily, and along its edges, tiny icicles. The stream was lined on both sides with trees sporting a pale yellow foliage. Apart form the gurgling of the water, no other sound was to be heard. Perhaps just the rustle of the leaves in the pleasant breeze. I entered the village and spied a vigorous game of cards in progress. I decided to be a spectator, and at a nearby tea shop ordered a bowl of Maggi and sat down to watch the game. After two bowls of Maggi, and a well earned reputation as a fearsome chilli eater, I boarded the bus back to Leh. I made it a point to stay awake, if only to see the scenery unfold in the afternoon sun.

With all passes over the Himalayas snowed in, an aeroplane offered the only exit from Leh. And the airlines were very well aware of the fact. Having paid an obscene amount of money for the ticket to Delhi, I arrived at the airport, and killed time sitting in the sun outside the terminals. After some time, news drifted in that the flight to Delhi would be delayed, and by a considerable amount of time. There was nothing else to do, but wait it out. As I roamed the grounds outside the terminal, I came upon an elderly British fellow hawking his kingdom for an aeroplane. Talk about inflation. A kingdom was once available for a donkey. A little trickery by the airline reduced the delay by a couple of hours, and a good three hours after the scheduled departure of the flight, I was issued my boarding pass. I was homeward bound. And I wasn't looking forward to it. I sat at the exit of the terminal, and a cold wind nipped at my face. I said my goodbyes to a life on the move. It was time to accept my return to still life.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Mountains and roads

You have just crossed the Jogila pass and as the cold wind drives the chill right through to your bones, you look around. To your right are rows upon unending rows of snow covered mountains. With snow so thick that not a patch of bare rock or soil is visible. The mountains stretch gleaming white as far as the eyes can see. As you turn around, to your left are mountains so barren, that the small shrubs seen clinging to precarious perches seem a physical impossibility. Not one patch of snow, no matter how small, can be seen on those mountains. Just the unending browns and the dark reds of dry parched earth. Then you hear a tiny gurgling sound. To you right, just beside the road, bubbles a small stream. The water is the clearest and brightest blue, and you are tempted to dip your hands into the stream just for a sip of the pure mountain water. Reflected in the little puddles by the side of the stream is the clearest, bluest sky you have ever seen. Not even a wisp of cloud. And a blue so intense, that you wonder if any other blues were actually possible. A blue is no blue if not the blue of that sky. Eventually you tear your eyes from the stunning vistas surrounding you and look to the road. A road so smooth and so clear that it invites you to step on the accelerator and leave the cares of the world behind, and you do. Welcome to motoring wonderland.

The four wheel drive seemed pointless. The taxi had the worrying knack of going sideways just at the bends in the road where the drop to the valley floor was the deepest. The ice on the road didn't help either. And when the taxi skidded to an undignified halt in Drass, a small town some 40km from Kargil, I desperately stumbled out and blindly made my way to the nearest tea shack. Having had nothing to eat since the previous day afternoon, and seeing a kind of bun on sale, I gobbled it down. It was surprisingly tasty. Unexpectedly found in the second coldest permanently inhabited place on this planet. I hurriedly gobbled some five of the tasty buns and bundled myself into the taxi. It was far too cold outside. Slowly, the little stream by the side of the road turned into a strong gushing torrent, and little by little, the snow covered mountains disappeared. The sandy browns of the barren mountains became the dominant colour, the deep blue sky providing the only relief for the eyes. The taxi eventually came upon an ancient steel bridge over the Suru river, crossed it and entered Kargil. I requested to be dropped off at the JKTDC office. Which was a kilometre up a steep hill from where the taxi actually dropped me off. As I entered the compound of what appeared to a small collection of rooms high above the actual town of Kargil, I found no office. Only a lone and weather beaten caretaker. He pointed to a distant building a couple of kilometres down the hillside, saying that I had to book rooms there and come back with the receipt. All this carrying my bag on my back.

The tourist officer was a quiet man. As I went in, preparation was in full swing for the imminent visit by a local minister. He looked up from his busy work and asked my why I had chosen to come to Kargil in the winter. He told me that all the water pipes had frozen up and there would be no running water in Kargil till spring. Satisfied that I was prepared to put up with these discomforts, he asked me what my plans were. I said I planned to stay in Kargil for a couple of days, spend one day heading up the Suru valley and maybe visit Mulbek. The chamba, or the statue of Buddha, in Mulbek was described as being carved with "esoteric Shivite symbolism". On reading that description, there was no way that I could not visit it. After which I planned on going to Leh. The officer thought for a moment and suggested that I spend just that day in Kargil, take the drive up the Suru valley early the next day and head to Mulbek directly. There was a tourist bungalow there, where I could stay, and catch the only bus to Leh the day after at an early six in the morning. It seemed like the perfect plan. Dumping my bag in the room, I headed to the bazaar in search of a taxi to drive me as far up the Suru valley as possible. I finally found a driver willing to take me as far as Sankoo, and drop me off at Mulbek by around three in the afternoon. The only catch was that we had to depart before six in the morning. Having agreed on a price and the time to leave, I headed up the road leading away from Kargil. On the way I passed by a huge tear in the hillside through which the floods of August had entered Kargil and caused much damage. As I climbed higher, the town slowly came into view. A tiny town clustered around a bend in the Suru river, surrounded by the mighty and beautifully desiccated mountains. I was hungry again.

Wanting a local delicacy, it was the thukpa I was after. I asked the caretaker of the bungalow where I would get good thukpa. He gave directions to a sort of shady place near the councillor’s office where he promised I would get good thukpa. I reached the place and found two hotels matching his description. I entered the first one, and asked for a thukpa. He said he didn't have it. I went to the next place and saw in the back the noodles for the thukpa getting prepared. I asked the fellow, when it would be ready. He said it would take time, and recommended that I come tomorrow. But I was headed to Mulbek tomorrow, I replied. He thought for a while and said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours. He promised. Very well. I went back to the room, put on more layers of clothing and killed time watching the sun set over the mountains. After exactly two hours, with the freezing temperatures outside, I walked down the steep kilometre from the room and went to the hotel where the thukpa was waiting for me. I arrived at the place and found it dark. It was then I realised that though he had said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours, he never said anything about hotel being open so that I could eat it. The hotel was shut tight and padlocked. I had to settle for dal and rice at a nearby place.

The taxi the next day was driven by a very talkative Mr Rizvi. The drive in the early morning sunshine was perhaps the best so far. We stopped first at the imambara in Tresporne, which was conveniently closed. I had seen the interiors of the place in some photos and wanted to take a look myself. As it turned out, the caretaker had left for the week to a village about 20km from Tresporne. We headed on. Stopping now and then to take pictures, we eventually ended up at Sankoo, where the chamba was precariously located. And trying to get a good look, I tripped and fell into a freezing stream that flowed beneath it. Which was uncomfortable. And my shoes were thoroughly soaked. At about midday, Rizvi invited me to his home and fed me a very tasty combination of naan and tea. Rizvi's grandfather was preparing for a trip to Karbala in Iraq, and the the whole household was busy making preparations. We left as the afternoon approached and after a dusty drive, arrived at Mulbek. The tourist bungalow was a small building located at the end of the village. And it appeared I was the only guest in a few months. Rizvi and me exchanged byes and I headed off to take stock of the "esoteric Shivite symbolism" of the chamba there. Finding it esoteric enough, I decided to take a small hike up the surrounding mountains. From the very top, I could see far down the road leading all the way to Leh.

Friday, March 04, 2011

A welcome of empty streets

The crowded taxi sped on towards Banihal. The road snaked its way though a large construction site. Half built pillars leading to a big hole in the mountain side. The beginning of a long tunnel. The taxi lurched to a sudden halt in front of a check point. And another gaping hole in the mountain side. The tunnel under the Pir Panjal, the road into the valley. The road stretched out in front of us, sparsely lit by yellow lights, dark and strangely quiet. Now and then, the rush of a passing truck would fill the tunnel with noise, and then the quite would return. Greeted by sunshine after a good fifteen minutes, the valley beckoned.

Getting down at Anantnag, I asked around for the railway station. People I asked wondered why. To ride the train! I said. But the trains aren't running, they said. And with the tracks being damaged during protests near Baramulla, they haven't been running for over a month. With no other option left, I got into a shared taxi on its way to Srinagar and beyond. As the taxi stopped now and then to let off people, I wondered where I had to go. I had no idea where the taxi was actually headed. Just that it would be passing via Srinagar. Eventually, the driver asked where I needed to go. Not knowing the first thing about the city, I asked to be dropped off at the bus stand, hoping there would be a main bus stand. Unprepared as I was, the driver then asked me which bus stand. For want of a better answer, I asked for the bus stand from where buses to Kargil departed. He immediately came to a halt, pointed to a street, and told me that the bus stand was a few minutes down that road. The chill creeped into my sparse clothes as I stepped out onto the street. The area was surprisingly quiet. I saw not one car or bike on the street. The few pedestrians walked quickly huddled in thick winter garments. After a slow amble of a few minutes, I reached the bus stand. Probably the only central bus stand I have been to where I could hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind.

The owner of the houseboat was a bit of a grouch. With a very unnerving way of getting straight to the point. After being paid for the two days I wanted to stay, he left me in the company of his son Wasim and his droll humour. Wasim ran the boat and looked after the guests. The surrounding Dal lake was covered in a wispy layer of mist gathering slowly in the late afternoon sunshine. As the wind picked up, I realised the inadequacy of the warm clothing I had packed. I went inside and, in the comparably warm interior of the boat, started to root around in the bag for something resembling a warm jacket. Finding none, I settled for multiple layers of clothing. The boat was very well appointed, and quite a bargain given that winters in Kashmir were not exactly peak tourist seasons. Feeling really chilly, I asked for a hot bath, and Wasim opened the tap in the tiny bathroom for the cold water to run out. The hot water would begin to pour out of the tap in a few minutes, he told me. After a good wait of a fifteen minutes, and not finding any hot water in the tap, I turned it off and went back to the porch. A few minutes later, Wasim returned to tell me that supper would be served at around eight. He asked if the water was warm enough. There was no hot water, I replied, and I closed the tap instead of wasting so much water. He laughed. There is no shortage of water in Kashmir, he said. Since there is nothing much else left in Kashmir anyway, we might as well use the water before that too runs out.

Finding transportation in the middle of a general strike was hard. And it was a perfectly beautiful day outside, with the sun just rising above the mist shrouded mountains. After a very comfortable sleep the previous night, and wanting to stretch my legs, I decided to take a walk. The six kilometre hike up the hill to Shankaracharya was filled with spectacular views of early morning Srinagar. The road, lined with trees sporting their brightly coloured autumn foliage, did not feel tiring. Though my camera was taken away from me at the top by the security. My wish to take pictures of the city from the very top remained unfulfilled. Walking down, my next destination was the Moghul gardens. A good five kilometres away atleast. But, the streets were empty, and the pace leisurely. After roaming the gardens, I realised that the walk to the gardens along the peaceful tree lined avenues of Srinagar was more enjoyable. The road along the banks of the Dal lake especially. With early evening approaching, I walked towards the city, towards Lal Chowk and onwards to Hazratbal. Before I left in the morning, Wasim had pointedly warned me to avoid Lal Chowk in the morning. Evening would be better he had said. Lal Chowk was deserted. All the shops were closed and with very few people in the streets. Hazratbal though, was filled to the brim. And with my camera having been taken away by the security even before I approached the main entrance, I had to satisfy myself with staring at the shrine from outside. Tired after a long day, and planning to take an early morning shared taxi to Kargil, I decided to head back to the boat. A very tasty supper awaited me.

The taxis have all left, the man said. And there would be no more for the day. Waking up unreasonably early and walking to the taxi stand had been a waste. With the strike showing no sign of being lifted, I decided to go to Gulmarg. After a small lunch at a hotel in which I was the only guest, I hiked for a few hours among the silent pine forests of Gulmarg. I had to be back in the village before three in the afternoon to catch the last taxi back to Srinagar, which left me plenty of time for a small nap in the forest. The taxi back was driven a pleasant fellow named Mushtaq. Who shattered the pleasantness of the drive by narrating a gruesome tale involving nine terrorists, the army and villagers caught in the middle. A story which ended with a man being dismembered and his body parts strewn along the main road. Back in Srinagar, I decided to stay at the JKTDC hotel by the main bus stand. The next morning, in my hurry to catch the lone taxi to Kargil at six in the morning, I forgot my towel back in the room. As the taxi sped away from Srinagar, the prospect of a bath in the cold of Kargil seemed remote. The towel wasn't missed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Northward bound

The first thing I noticed as I crossed Pathankot on the way to Jammu was that my phone stopped working. The phone itself was working just fine, it was just that there was no usable network. Which was unexpected. As it turns out, pre-paid connections issued outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir don't work in Jammu and Kashmir. It just meant that I had to rely on internet cafes and public phones. A minor hiccup. But a discomforting one. The highway though offered unexpected treats. One among them was small roadside dhaba where the bus stopped for lunch. I don't remember the name, but I'll always remember the dal which I had there. It was probably the best dal that I had ever tasted. I hope to taste it again soon. As the bus made its unhurried way to Jammu, the river Tawi slowly came into view. Truth be told, I was expecting Jammu to be a bit more hilly. At about two in the afternoon, the bus finally reached the main bus stand in Jammu.

The second thing I noticed as I got into an auto rickshaw in Jammu was the more than normal presence of security. At all major traffic junctions pillboxes surrounded by sand bags and concertina barbed wire were manned by armed soldiers. And once in a while a car or bike would be stopped and thoroughly checked. I managed to locate a decent yet budget place to stay close to the old city with help from the auto driver. And on the way there, the third thing I noticed was that all autos had doors. Without exception. I asked the driver why and joked about doors preventing people from escaping surprise security checks. The driver laughed it off, instead giving a reason of protecting passengers from the dust. Given that most doors were just waist high, that seemed implausible. Also, since when have auto drivers thought of their passengers' comfort. Before I could say so to the driver, the hotel arrived. A room with no view awaited me.

The Mubarak Mandi, situated atop a small hill surrounded by the cheek-by-jowl gullies of the old city, would have been spectacular. Except I chose to visit it at the time of massive restoration. Navigating through the construction debris, there was a sense of long faded grandeur waiting to be revealed. Hidden just behind a thick layer of grime and disuse, waiting the expert hands of the ASI to bring it to the fore. All the buildings of the old palace complex that once made up Mubarak Mandi were now government offices, expect for a lone museum which was closed. It showed no sign of having ever been open. I wished to linger in the courtyard, to gaze at the buildings surrounding me, but hunger drove me to find a place to eat. As I passed through the imposing arched doorway, I made it a point to visit again. If the restoration goes as I hope, it will be a rewarding experience.

As I made my way through the narrow streets, I decided to lunch at a place called the Paras Ram dabha. I had heard a lot about the place, but very little about where it was located. All I knew was that it was near an area called Panjtirthi. I determined to hunt it down. I arrived at Panjtirthi, and started to roam the streets, looking for the place. After a good one and half hours of searching, I could find no place that called itself Paras Ram dabha. I could not even find a board or sign that said Paras Ram anything. Asking around for Paras Ram dabha, I finally managed to narrow the search down to a single stretch of road. After roaming the street a few times with no luck, I stopped at a small kiosk to pick up a cola. As a final attempt, I asked the shopkeeper about Paras Ram dabha. He pointed across the street to a nondescript blue building with a huge crowd outside and said that that was it. All I could see of the small grimy building was a couple of small doorways with people pouring out of it and a small board hung above one of them proclaiming the office of one Wazir Lakhpathrai Charitable Trust.

In hindsight, the crowd should have given me a clue. I decided to wait a bit more for the crowd to go away. As I stood there waiting, with hunger gnawing me, I thought about what I could eat. After a wait of about half an hour, enough place became available for me to get inside. What I saw could be best described as two small rooms with closely placed tables connected by a narrow, dark passage in the back. I settled on a place, and as the guy came to take the order, I decided to play it safe and order roti with the chicken curry on offer. A quick minute later, a plate piled with two rotis and a bowl of curry, several pieces of chicken in a questionable brown gravy, arrived. By then, I was too hungry to care. But, one bite, and I was taken aback. It was simply brilliant. The search, the wait, the hunger, all had been totally worth it. After a full meal, I decided to walk down the Circular road, a hilly, tree-lined road descending to the banks of the Tawi river. After a long walk and a contented wade in the river, and a long lingering tour of the old market area, I decided it was a worthwhile visit to Jammu.

With the usual tourist stop overs at the Bagh-e-Bahu and the Amar Mahal palace done with the previous day, a train to Udhampur awaited. Getting up at an early six in the morning to catch the DMU to Udhampur, the first leg of the most awaited Kashmir railway, was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for the shiny new train, but instead I had to settle for an old and much beaten one. Not really much of a set back. For I could ride to my heart's content the shiny new ones from Anantnag to Baramulla, which I planned to do for a whole day, back and forth. I had dreamed of this for a whole year, ever since I got to know of the railway line being built in Kashmir. A wait of just one more day did not seem that long.

A surprising detour

The bottle of beer arrived, chilled to the perfect temperature. But we had to order quickly, for it was close to three in the afternoon and the kitchen was closing. And I was quite hungry. I hadn't had anything substantial the whole day, most of which was occupied by the time wasted at Arunachal Bhavan trying to get an inner-line permit. That I never used the permit now makes the time wasted there all the more missed. I ordered the first thing I spied on the menu and Vaibhav said that he was not very hungry. I first met Vaibhav when I moved to Nodia after college. We worked together at the same place for about a year, before I returned to Bangalore. That it had been close to two years since I had last spoken to him, seemed at that moment immaterial. It was like as though I had never left Noida. And eventually, it was time for Vaibhav to return to work, and me to head back to Delhi. As we waited for the bill to arrive, Vaibhav asked me where I planned to go next. Jammu, I said, but there was no plan as such. And then he proposed a plan. He and a couple of his friends were headed to McLeodgunj for the weekend. If I had no plan, I was welcome to join them. They were driving out there in a friend's car and there was place for one more. I nodded. And we planned to meet up the evening next day at the bus stand at Kashmiri gate in Delhi.

I arrived at Kashmiri gate on the last train only to see a message from Vaibhav that he and his friends would be there in ten minutes. Ten minutes later, with me comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Hyundai, we set off. An hour into the drive on the highway to Chandigarh, we stopped at a roadside dabha where I passed on the most tempting meal I had ever laid eyes on. Golden roasted makki roti and saag. With a more than generous helping of soft melting butter heaped on top. I did not want an upset stomach ruining the drive. After dinner, with Vaibhav back at the wheel, we set off. And it would have been all the more enjoyable if only I hadn't been thoroughly scared for my life during the whole drive to Chandigarh. For behind the wheel was Vaibhav; mild mannered techie by day, feared long distance driver by night.

Desperately hoping to fall asleep to spare myself from checking if the seat belt was thoroughly fastened every ten minutes, I closed my eyes tight. But that did not work. Every so often, we would pass by a fully loaded lorry blaring its horn like there would be no tomorrow. And the dust kicked up by the lorries, which flowed into the car uninterrupted did not help matters. Vaibhav keeping his window open to prevent him from falling asleep more than succeeded. And the wind chilled me to the bone. Being too scared to unbuckle my seat belt to reach for the jacket in the back, I braved the chilly wind and the copious dust. Which ended with me catching a severe cold before we reached Chandigarh. As we crossed into Himachal Pradesh, the winding roads on the way to Dharamsala were a brilliant way to welcome a new dawn. As the car climbed higher, this little detour seemed all the more exiting. Vaibhav, Gaurav, Shubam and me were set for a little camping trip to Thrund, a mountain village on the foothills of the Himalayas.

After a night of merry making, we woke up the next morning at an early five and set off with our guide on the trail to Thrund where a tent and other facilities were conveniently arranged in advance. Gaurav, having been thoroughly spooked by my coughing, had been afraid that I might not last the night. He later told me that it sounded like a death rattle. Hiking up the mountain trail, in the thin air with an unstoppable running nose was not a pleasant experience. But the views on the way were spectacular. When we stopped half way up the trail, the panoramic view of Dharamsala, complete with the shiny new cricket stadium was better than any refreshment. At the top, with full views of peaks covered with freshly fallen snow, we sipped tea and and relaxed on the bright green grass. As we gazed at the sun set slowly behind the hills, a merry little fire was started and the food was being passed around. Having had our full, and passing the late evening by the camp fire, we retired to the tents. I hoped to catch some long needed sleep despite the clogged nose that refused to let me breathe.

We set off down the mountain early the next day. I planned to stay the day at Dharamsala to do nothing but drink hot water and sleep off the cold. The others headed back to Delhi having dropped me off at the bazaar in Dharamsala. I got a room at the first hotel I found, downed a jug to steaming hot water and promptly passed out. Late that evening, having inquired around for buses to Jammu, I had a small supper at a roadside eatery. The bus would leave the next morning at nine. I made sure that I would wake up early with plenty of time to catch the bus, downed another jug of steaming hot water and surrendered to the warmth of the thick quilt on that chilly winter night.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The thirteenth to the twenty-first

The tourist card is a brilliant way to travel around Delhi. For 300 rupees, unlimited rides on the metro for three days. And I made sure I made full use of it. In fact, when I returned it, it was after riding on the last train on the last day, and running to the counter as it was closing. And I even got a Rs 50 refund. I wish I could have attempted the Metro Challenge though. Pass through all the stations in the metro on all the lines at least once and see how long it takes. Thought I managed to cover four lines in their entirety, the new fifth one remained elusive. Well, the line is going nowhere, and there will always be another opportunity to visit Delhi. And it is the only consolation I can offer myself. And the trains were definitely much more crowded than I remembered. Maybe now that the metro actually covers a considerable amount of the Delhi NCR area, an even larger number of people find it useful. But, the truth is this. No matter how many times we ride the metro, how many times we walk in and out of the stations without giving them a second glance, the shock of stepping out of the station at Chawri Bazaar, and stepping right into the middle of Bazaar Lal Kuan road in the middle old Delhi in simply unmatched. And it happens every time, irrespective of how jaded a metro traveller you are.

And it is near this station, in the Hauz Qazi area, in a small, well hidden gully off a busy street leading from the Gate No. 1 of the Juma Masjid, that the Hotel Karim is in. But directions are unnecessary. All one needs to do is to close their eyes and follow their nose, a nose led by the aroma originating from the seekh kababs slowly cooking over charcoal fires. And while you hang around the place waiting for a table to begin gorging, take a little time to study the menu. And order immediately when the fellow comes down to take your order. For there are other hapless souls waiting. Being cruelly tempted by the aroma wafting through the whole courtyard. And when it was finally my turn to choose, I could not but go for a combination of the seekh kabab and the mutton biryani. The spice of the kebab to tickle, and the warm subtle taste of the biryani to soothe the tongue and leave it demanding more. Stepping outside, the streets beckoned. And I followed. In search of an old mosque I had once seen in a painting, in a picture book bought on a whim at the Delhi book fair.

Though there was nothing black about it, it was the Kala Masjid to anyone I asked for directions. In the painting I had seen, the Kalan Masjid was a tall building next to a few hutments surrounded by large fields. The present day path to it led through ever narrowing streets. I wondered whether I would even recognise it. But as soon as I laid my eyes on the long flight of stairs leading to the main doorway, I knew I had arrived. But it was only the stairs that were visible. The rest of the building was hidden behind the houses that had sprouted since. A little game of cricket was progressing in full spirit at the bottom of the stairs with one kid studiously ignoring the demands by his mother to come home and finish his homework. Homework could wait. They were more interested in getting me to convince the muezzin to unlock the roof. The roof? I asked. Yes, the roof, they said. They wanted to play on it and they were seldom allowed on it. The roof seemed to offer an intriguing prospect. The roof was, as I remembered from the painting, was a neat arrangement of small white domes that offered interesting opportunities for taking pictures.

The muezzin was a short, jolly fellow. With a quiet voice and an infectious smile. I asked whether I could take pictures inside, and he gladly said yes and proceeded to tell me stories of the mosque. The neighbourhood kids, meanwhile seeing that the muezzin was busy talking to me, tried to sneak up onto the roof. One by one. A game of hide-and-seek followed. And as more kids were chased out, more came back in again. Finally, the muezzin gave up and asked if I wanted to take a look at the roof. The opportunity I had waited for and, I had the sneaky suspicion, so had the kids. I went up to the roof, and so did the game of hide-and-seek, with the kids now being chased away from the roof. Their game of cricket forgotten for now. As I stepped out, the sun was low in the sky. The outside scene had changed with vegetable vendors loudly hawking their wares. As I turned a corner, the Kalan Masjid seemed to be a piece of Old Delhi preserved in a snow globe. A living snow globe. The best sort there is.

It was fun to be a tourist in Delhi again. And this time I had made it a point to go to all the places that I never had during my stay there. The Khan market, Safdarjung's tomb. And Gurgaon. Just to see what all the talk was about. With one more day of stay in Delhi left, which I had reserved to meet a few old friends, I could finally proceed northwards. To Jammu and further. I had, in a corner of my mind, a vague feeling that I would somehow end up in J&K during this trip. It was looking like it was going to come true. And the cold looked very inviting.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Comfort food

Strange thoughts on a train are only natural. They are the perfect complement to each other. Like dal and roti, like curds and rice, like ... And very helpful for passing the time slowly rolling by in the fog covered early morning county-side. And in that moment, surrounded by perfect strangers, whom you are guaranteed never to see again, you can be yourself. Free from having to put up appearances, from having to build just the right impression, free to be just for the sake of your own enjoyment. Whimsical and care-free. Just because you felt like it. And so what if you seemed a bit stupid to others, it was not like their paths and yours were likely to cross again. And even if they did, would they really remember you. First impressions can be built again. Eventually, the rising sun clears away the fog and your misconception along with it. The urge to conform increases as the first warm rays of the sun awaken your fellow passengers. The desire to be whimsical was just as wispy. Easily dispelled by societal conditioning, as the fog in the bright morning sunshine.

With Hazartganj completely dug-up, I suffered my first traffic jam in Lucknow. Previously unheard of. It took a crawling hour from the railway station to meet an old friend of mine, Sudiptho, who studied at the IIM there. I was back in familiar surroundings. And memories weren't far behind. I always found it difficult to explain what exactly about this city called me back again and again. But it filled me with a satisfaction, a satisfaction of visiting a familiar home after a long bout of homesickness, to answer that call. Time and again. A funny thing about this city. Whenever I chose to visit it, I always had a close friend to welcome me. Maybe it was the city sending me a subtle message. After spending a week in a strange land hoping to make it a little more familiar, I was back in a familiar land, hoping to make it a little closer to my heart.

The campus was picture card pretty, to be truly experienced in misty late night walks with just your thoughts to keep you company. A little intoxicant may be of help. And walking down the quiet roads, you come to the realisiation that these are the roads to real life. Behind the glamour, behind the name and fame and just beside the feeling of having arrived against heavy odds, there lies the epiphany that this is just the beginning. A beginning that will make the difference between being a suit in the middle floors of a large corporate edifice and a chance to begin something new. As I returned to the hostels along with Sudiptho, who looked determined to sieze the opportunity offered by the college, I was slightly disturbed by the long slog of a couple of years that lay ahead of him. I guess this is a place only for those prepared to face it head on. Though the late night parties by the bare flagpole out amidst the acedemic buildings might help. A soothing balm, perhaps. In a place where there are precious few.

The longing had been with me for quite some time now. And now that I was in Lucknow, I couldn't leave without having eaten copious food at Dastarkhwan, a little roadside restaurant near Qaiserbagh. All my memories of Lucknow are tied, inexplicably to the tandoori chicken at that place. Eating which I realised that this could perhaps be the best preparation of tandoori chicken ever devised by man. Leaving Lucknow without eating here appeared profane, an act I could not bring myself to commit. On arriving at there, I was confronted by a huge crowd and a significant wait. I decided to roam around the place for some more time and come back a while later. There was a collection of buildings in that area, the Makhbara Imam Zaidi, that I wanted to take pictures of. Camera in hand, at late in the evening, I roamed about the place taking pictures in every angle that I pleased. Satisfied, I decided to rest myself on the lawn where the evening's dew had just begun to settle. Staring at the buildings, I failed to notice the policeman who had appeared behind me. He seemed suspicious. He enquired about my purpose. What was I doing here at this time. Where was I from, and where in Lucknow I stayed. Partially convinced by my answers, he recommended that I leave immediately. This appeared strange. I didn't look like the type to cause trouble, or so I thought. And as I looked around, I saw the shadiness of the characters that had assembled on the lawns. I was the odd man out. Or atleast, I would like to think so, just to feel better. Thus convincing myself, I left for Dastarkhwan, and consumed the most amount of food I ever had in my life.

As Sudiptho immersed himself in his work, I was left with a free run of the place. Having spent a memorable three days in Lucknow, it was time to make up my mind about where to head to from here. Delhi seemed the obvious choice. Old friends waited for me there and so did old memories. From a part in my life in which I had experienced true independence for the first time. It was a memory that I wanted to revisit, and one that I wanted to strengthen. And it was just an overnight train ride away.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Between a lake and the deep sea

The sea played peek-a-boo. It hid behind the thicket of trees just when you wanted to gaze at it. As the bus moved on, and you thought that the sea was never to be seen again, it revealed itself in all its beauty. Golden sands that stretched for ever, the greyish blue water that invited you to dive in on that sultry morning, and sounds of the waves breaking on the beach. A tiny moment to take it all in as the sea, once more, hid behind the trees. As the road passed a bend, paddy fields in all their greenery was a sight to behold. It was not like the fields I had seen before. Irregular patches of young shoots, unlike the orderly squares of elsewhere. Like a lush grassland that naturally grew there untouched by man. And in the middle of the field, a square stone lined pond. A tiny pond fringed by tall coconut trees with little steps leading to the shimmering water. Like a little gem set amid the bright green paddy. A sight to put you at complete peace. And while the bus sped its way along the road to Puri, the picture of the sea coyly hiding behind the trees remained in my mind.

The route to Satapada was set among lush paddy fields punctuated by little villages, where the bus stopped to let off the school kids returning home. It was a warm afternoon, a pleasant kind of warmth, with a gentle breeze that left you craving for more. One could spend whole lives in such afternoons and not desire for more. As we neared Satapada, a little bunch of shrimp farms began to be seen amid the paddy. The farms grew more frequent as the bus headed on. It was difficult to tell where the paddy fields ended and the shrimp farms began. They seemed to blend into each other. As the paddy completely disappeared, I knew we had arrived. At the northern shore of the Chilika lake. Satapada, where the room at the OTDC Panthanivas, opened onto an enormous balcony on the first floor. Where the vast expanse of the water lay in front of my eyes. It was time to feast on some shrimp.

The restaurant below was where I ate every possible prawn dish they prepared. And it was good. When I went to pay, I asked them if there was any place around to swim in. The fellow thought for a second and directed me to talk to the forest range officer whose office happened to be just across the street. The officer was a pleasant fellow, who offered me tea on the lawn outside. It was always a pleasure to welcome people from outside he said. A little chat about the local dolphins and birds later, he asked me how long I intended to stay. I told him I had no plans as such but my booking at the OTDC was for two days, and that I could stay for longer if I liked. He then presented a plan. I could head out to Bharampur island on the Cilika, where there were a few forest lodges with no electricity, stay there for the night and head the next day to Rajhans island, spend the morning there and head back to Satapada. And possibly sight a few dolphins along the way. I was in. I asked him about the ways to get there. He then informed me that one of the department guys was coming up to pick up fuel and that he was heading to Bharampur island. I could go along if I liked. Excellent. Also, there was one officer who was heading to Rajhans island from there the next day morning and I could tag along. From Rajhans island, I could find one of the many private vessels that ply to Satapada. This was turning out to be brilliant. I agreed and was told to expect to leave by eight in the evening. I went back to the room, packed a smaller bag for the day ahead and killed time staring at the sun set slowly over the lake.

Riding a boat in the complete darkness, with only faint and distant lights to tell you that land is not far off, with the rush of the water by the side of the boat being the only sounds, and the cold air chilling you in the warm evening. An experience that will not be soon forgotten. We reached Bharampur at about nine in the evening, and all the light that greeted me was a lonely bulb near the kitchen. Food was being prepared. On the menu was a local fish called a shorda. It tasted very similar to egg whites, and very addictive. When I took one bite, I couldn't stop. Four of those fish were cleaned to the bones before I looked up. What followed was rice and yet more fish. Stuffed to the throat, I decided to roam around the island a bit till I felt too sleepy to move. I would head out to Rajhans island early the next day. I couldn't wait.

We reached Rajhans island at about eight in the morning and I headed immediately to the sea. This island is like a sandbar, very long and very narrow. On its west lay the Chilika lake and on the east lay the expanse of the Bay of Bengal. I was all alone on this vast stretch of shining golden sand for the next four hours. As the sands slowly heated up, it was time to plunge into the inviting waters of the Bay. And return to bake on the sand when the water got too cold. And plunge into the water when the sand got too hot. And so on. I was feeling quite hungry at this point, and since I had no food with me, it was time to head back to Satapada to find something to eat. I headed to the jetty on the lake to spy out some boat willing to go to Satapada. As I was waiting, one of the locals, named Tapanjane, with whom I had become pally with told me that all the boats had been hired by the tourists and I would have to wait till three in the afternoon. My stomach was growling by then, and I had no other choice but to wait. But he came up with a plan. One of his cousins, who owned a boat was coming to Rajhans with some tourists and he would head back to Satapada in an hour taking the tourists with him. I could go along with them if I wished. My stomach stopped growling, and I said I could do that. A wait of an hour later, as the tourist boat was about to leave, Tapanjane talked to the cousin, and sent me on the boat. I had the feeling that the tourists thought I was working with the forest department, and hence did not object to me coming on board. Well, I was nobody to correct them.

At five in the morning the next day, it was time to catch the first bus to Puri. There was a train at ten to Lucknow, and I was headed there. The bus slowly made its way towards Puri giving me plenty of time to take in the green Orissa countryside. It was a sight that makes you return again and again. I'm happy to oblige. This visit to Orissa was brief, and there was much left to see, do and taste. I shall be back I told myself. And as I waited at the platform in the railway station at Puri, it was the last opportunity to eat dahi vada before I jumped into the general compartment for the 20 hour journey that lay ahead. It tasted good.