Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Magician


"Dhyaan dibin dada, mayjik dakhabo!" - shouts the boy in an attempt to attract attention.

The second class air conditioned chair car feels a bit too cold in these winter temperatures. The train had left Calcutta a little over 30 minutes ago, and is chugging westwards into the mainland. The people - mostly sleepy, induced by a post lunch departure time and the last 30 minutes of train's sweet lullaby - are well sprawled into their seats with backs pushed as far back as possible. For most of them, this is meant to be a 4 hours of journey to meet their loved ones during the upcoming festivities.

Some of them look up with a faint, vague sort of interest at this teenage boy who has just announced his arrival. Old tattered shirt with faded broad check prints, a pair of grey jeans rugged through years of constant use, old but prominent sneakers which might have been discarded by someone after they had lost their prime, and a tattered black bag made of cheap rexine and cotton - the boy's appearance, in both form and expression, bears no resemblance to a magician. The only extra item he has added to his decor is a silk handkerchief tied near his jeans pockets - an odd piece of cloth hung there probably to provide a semblance of oddity, if nothing more; so that he doesn't pass off as just another kid selling magazines or tea or spiced puffed-rice popular in these areas.

He must have taken a calculated risk in entering this reserved coach - the ticket checker, after doing his job within the first 30 minutes of train departure shouldn't be returning anytime soon, and the next station is at least another 60 minutes away - he shouldn't be thrown out prematurely, before he has demonstrated his magic, and collected some coins from those who shall spare any change.

He starts with simple tricks which are sold to curious kids in numerous fun-fairs organized in various parts of the country during celebratory days of the Goddess Durga or the Lord Ganesha - the ones where yellow feathers turn red and blue after being wrapped up in a newspaper, or a rope keeps taut even when held up, or things disappear in small velvet bags with round openings. His incessant narration of what's next up his sleeves is so well rehearsed with overuse, and hence so monotonous, that it has lost the sense of surprise normally associated with this art. The newspaper he uses seems shredded with excessively repeated demonstrations across different trains, the rope has smudge marks all over due to persistent rubbing of his rough, dirty hands, and the velvet has almost lost its sheen and furs, displaying marks of age and tolerance. His small bag is the repository of all this material useful for the performances - bloated with the numerous objects and torn at corners, the bag looks too old to bear this weight beyond a few more months. 

He moves on to probably his harder tricks. A bottle of coke comes out of the bag and is placed in a hollow wooden tube. A few 'leaves' made of the glossy, confetti material paper cut into flowery shapes have been woven into rings, and many such rings are combined into sort of a shining, almost gaudy bouquet of red, blue and green coloured paper; but with too many folds and crumples marked across it. This bouquet is used to cover the tube, and after a flipping into the air, the beverage bottle disappears from inside the tube.

As the boy places his bouquet back into the bag, he is stopped by a man who holds his hand and says - "show that to me!" The boy seems a little petrified at first - the expressions on the man's face are serious, sort of petulant, and his voice has both a commanding, as well as a winning tone. The boy hurries, and his hands seem shaky now - with trembling fingers he pushes the bouquet and other stuff into the non-accepting bag faster, and responds timidly - "after a while, when I'm done I will." The man doesn't seem discouraged and persists - "no, I want to see that now," and the boy repeats his line. The air around the boy seems uncomfortable now, probably he has already self-accused, and self-sentenced himself for this 'cheating' which was almost caught. The man's face is grim, mixed with a slight hint of arrogant satisfaction.

The boy has either ended his performance, or has decided to end it prematurely - one can't be too sure - and walks down the aisle asking for "dada, puroskaar kichhu". He tries to be fast, unsure of himself. After a few coins and currency notes have been spared in the next few seconds, he quickly takes his bag and moves to the next compartment, without looking back.

He had dropped one of his shiny paper rings on the floor, red in colour - probably in the haste of shoving them in his bag.

When the train stops at the next station, activity resumes in the so far lull train compartment. Sleepy people are awake - some of them get down to buy their evening snacks and get bottles of water, or just to stretch themselves. There is a fresh breath of air inside the cold compartment with the opening and closing of doors. People walk in the aisles, and the boy's paper ring slowly gets pushed to a corner near the door, after being tromped by many shoes.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dance of Democracy


The entire stretch of Asaf Ali Road between Kamla Market and Daryaganj is dotted with people in pink turbans. Clad mostly in kurtas and dhotis, this mass of humanity is almost continuous – it's difficult to discern individual pieces in that seemingly aimless flow. For a change, vehicles are lined on both sides of the road; pompously displaying their red beacons, VVIP signages, and occasional sirens and pressure horns helping them crawl; and the teeming populace occupies the center stage – rustling and bustling against each other, most of them also have their packed bags with them. Toting a camera, and donning a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, I might easily be overlooked as a journalist hungry for a bite in the evening editions.

Amidst the jostling crowd, occasionally I pass through groups of men of probably higher importance than others – the ones who are also carrying placards about the maha-rally today – a show of strength by the nation's ruling party. That's when I also notice that all the walls around, the ones still visible through the sea of people, have posters asking people to gather in large numbers at the Ramlila Grounds for the vishal jan-sabha.

This crowd is largely composed of farmers sourced from nearby states, as is apparent from their accent and travel bags. Smoking beedis, and occasionally marijuana, every individual seems engrossed with his own little world composed of friends from the same village, but still very much a part of the troupe. Most of them would've come here because they would have had nothing better to do in their villages anyway, or would have been promised an afternoon meal. They probably wouldn't know why they are here either, except for the fact that they would get to watch and listen to the powerful people who appear on TV channels regularly – they would also run a stampede to touch these 'celebrities' by hand, or just get a view up close, without knowing the reason why they are doing so.

There are two Indias. This is the India which breathes. And that's the only resource which it consumes more than the first India (one could argue about land, but without data to substantiate, it can still be safely presumed that in terms of real value, it does not). This is the India which comes only in statistics, the one which is classified and reclassified with different measures of dispersions, which is calculated by econometrics and humanities, but is somehow hidden out of view despite its size. This India is incomprehensible by the first India – the one which shines; whose claim to fame, the IT industry, consists of about 30-90 lakh people, depending on who is counting. Agriculture employs 25 crore people – that's about 25-80 times of everyone in IT – a magnitude which simply can't be comprehended in terms of real people.

Eight months ago, the Planning Commission lowered India's poverty line, in an attempt to better identify the poorest of the poor. That number stands at about 35 crore people – on an average, half of them are sleeping tonight without any food during the day. That number is incomprehensible in magnitude too – in our India, we don't 'see' it. It oozes out inconveniently, like purulence from festered wounds, at traffic signals and railway stations and sometimes, most inconveniently, in temples and mosques and churches. There are numerous more stats – on hunger, on poverty, on unemployment, on malnutrition, on quality of life, on urabanization, on slums, on diseases, on drinking water, even on manual scavenging (2 crore people live solely by cleaning excreta). That India is a huge swarm – the one which cannot think about Solon, Draco or Plato's works on democracy, the one which does not have time for education, and for which 'demanding rights' is an alien concept. It bothers about survival.

The first India, on the other hand, attends offices, reads papers, has an online presence, uses resources, and frets about city traffic. This is the India which might know the GDP stats, cry foul about Rs. 32 poverty line, but would largely be unaware of which five-year plan the country is running in. This is the India which feels disgusted at the classes in power, which hates bureaucracy, which even discusses the national issues in forums and conferences and blogs, occasionally rises up behind people like Kejriwal to do its bit for the country, and forms a sympathetic opinion of the second India through the lenses of camera channels or bollywood movies – as far as they realistically go.

The second India votes – for money, or food, or alcohol, or caste, or just because it wants to be alive. The first India votes too, without reading party manifestos, maybe in much lower percentages, which becomes further insignificant because of its size. Amidst this classic divide, the dance of democracy comes alive in full view – obscenely flashing itself from altars in Ramlila Grounds – persisting through decades by keeping the second India just the way it is, denying it with everything, and balancing off its destitution with belied human hopes in smooth murderous perfection.

I wriggle myself out of this sea, walk past the Delite Cinema towards my destination, the Daryaganj Sunday book market, and find the footpaths empty. "Aaj baazaar nahi laga hai sir, rally hai na," a paanwala informs me. Realizing the relative importance of the two things, I get back home.




Thursday, October 11, 2012

दिल्ली


राजधानी दिल्ली में हमारा आगमन जीवन के उस पड़ाव पर हुआ, जिसकी व्याख्या "अनिश्चितकाल" नामक संज्ञा देकर मोटे तौर पर की जा सकती है। और मोटे तौर पर अगर कुछ भी सिद्ध हो सकता हो, तो हमारे देश की प्राचीन परम्परानुसार उसकी वैधता, बिना हो-हल्ला मचाये, किसी भी वैज्ञानिक प्रयोग से अधिक मानी जानी चाहिये। मसलन ‒ भगवान एक है और उसके रूप अनेक, कर्म के हिसाब से जीवनोपरांत स्वर्ग और नरक मिलते हैं, सबसे बड़ा रुपइया ‒ ये सब कुछ मोटे तौर पर सिद्ध किये जा सकने वाले भाववाचक सिद्धांत हैं, और इसलिये इनका प्रयोग किसी भी बुद्धिजीवी परिचर्चा में बेहिचक करना पूर्णतः वैध है।

ख़ैर। हमारे जीवन का अनिश्चित पड़ाव इसलिये, क्यूँकि विशिष्ट रूप से इस पड़ाव पर अतीत, भविष्य, और उमर ‒ तीनों अनिश्चित होते हैं। जिस प्रकार उच्चतर शिक्षा के कुपोषण के शिकार किसी भी दर्दनाक अतीत को अँग्रेज़ी व्याकरण के क्लिष्ट शब्दों से चेपकर गरिमामय और रंगीन बनाया जा सकता है, उसी प्रकार किसी सड़ियल कोने में झख मार रहे वर्तमान पर चमकीला लेप लगा कर सुनहरे भविष्य का प्रचार आराम से किया जा सकता है। और इन दोनों अनिश्चितताओं के बीच उमर भी ५-१० साल इधर-उधर खिसककर, थोड़ी-बहुत अनिश्चितता और फ़ेसबुक पर लगे दार्शनिक चित्रों के बनिस्पत मोटे तौर पर एक छोटी सँख्या पर आकर अपरिहार्य कारणों से स्थगित हो जाती है।

इन सबके बीच, अपने अनिश्चितवें जन्मदिवस पर खा-पीकर डकार लेने के कुछ ही दिनों बाद हमने परदादाओं के ज़माने की कहावत "नौकरी हो तो सरकारी, नहीं तो बेचो तरकारी" को चरितार्थ करने का बीड़ा उठाया, और इसी उद्देश्य से निज़ामों की सुशिष्ट नगरी हैदराबाद छोड़कर राष्ट्रीय राजधानी क्षेत्र की ओर निकल पड़े। यहाँ की अक्खड़ वास्तविकता से हमारा आमना-सामना सबसे पहले गुड़गाँव में तब हुआ, जब हमने ट्रांसपोर्ट की ट्रकों पर भारतीय राजमार्गों से जूझकर लायी गयी अपनी चरचकिया गाड़ी को चलाकर घर लाने का प्रयास किया।

स्पष्ट है कि गुरू द्रोणाचार्य ने जब यहाँ गुरू-ग्राम (भूतपूर्व गुड़गाँव) की स्थापना की, तो जीवन-यापन के कुछ मूलभूत सिद्धांत भी छोड़े, जैसे अकूट प्रतिस्पर्धा, अनुशासन, शिष्टाचार, इत्यादि। इस क्षेत्र की प्रतिस्पर्धात्मक संस्कृति का थोड़ा-बहुत बोध वाहन चालन में होने वाली वर्चस्व की लड़ाई से किया जा सकता है। कभी पीछे न हटने की इस परम्परा के बीच शिष्टाचार के नाते प्रयोग किये जाने वाले माँओं और बहनों संबंधित प्रतीकात्मक शब्द अनुशासन बनाये रखने में सहायक हैं। धड़ल्ले से हॉर्न बजाकर चिल्ल-पौं से सुसज्जित किये गये इस माहौल में एक अलग ही भारत की पहचान छुपी है जिसका वर्णन दर्शनशास्त्र की किसी थ्योरी से शायद मोटे तौर पर किया जा सके।

धूल मिट्टी के रोमांचक कोहरे और शरद ऋतु के तपते सूरज के बीच वाहन चालन में हमें भूमि से जुड़े होने की सुखद अनुभूति प्राप्त हुई। इसी बीच सड़क की दाहिनी ओर निश्चिंतता से खड़ी, सम्भवतः इसी सुख को मध्यरात्रि के अलाव की तरह सेंकती हुई एक गाड़ी का पिछला दरवाज़ा जम्हाई की तरह खुला, और हमारे पीछे देखने के प्रयोग में आने वाले शीशे पर प्राणघातक तमाचा जड़ गया। दरवाज़े से एक अधेड़ उम्र की महिला अवतरित हुईं, और सामने से एक श्रीमान। हमारे पास आकर गम्भीर मुद्रा में बोले ‒ "सौरी, हम-लोग यहीं रहते हैं और रोज़ ही इस टाईम पर आते हैं। जॅनरली इधर कोई गाड़ी नहीं आती, इसलिये पीछे देखा नहीं।" विदित है कि यहाँ के प्रतिस्पर्धात्मक सांस्कृतिक परिप्रेक्ष्य में इस प्रकार का मनुहारी संवाद केवल अतिथि सत्कार के लिये सुरक्षित है, और इसलिये मोटे तौर पर इस घटना को स्थानीय निवासियों की सहिष्णुता का परिचायक माना जा सकता है।

सेक्टर चालीस नामक इस मुहल्ले में हमारा डेरा श्री एवँ श्रीमति सिंह के घर जमा। श्री सिंह ‒ बड़े ही सज्जन आदमी ‒ "कबीरा खड़ा बाजार में सबकी माँगे खैर, ना काहू से दोस्ती ना काहू से बैर।" श्रीमति सिंह ‒ राष्ट्रीय दैनिकों में आने वाले "सुंदर-सुशील-शिक्षित-गृहकार्यों-में-दक्ष" सरीखे विज्ञापनों की साक्षात् अभिव्यक्त्ति। इस परिवार के निर्बाध प्रेम के बीच सहजता से भाँति-भाँति के व्यँजन तोड़ते हुए लगभग दो सप्ताहों में हमने मुहल्ले की गतिविधियों को आत्मसात करने का प्रयास किया। जैसे मुहल्ले की सुदृढ़ संचार प्रणाली ‒ जिसके द्वारा अगल-बगल लगी इमारतों के बरामदों से श्रीमतियों द्वारा सूचनाओं, गालियों, एवँ चुगलियों का, तथा कभी-कभी नवजात शिशुओं का आदान-प्रदान होता है, मुहल्ले में सुबह-सुबह आने वाला गौ-ग्रास रथ ‒ जिसको एक रुपए और एक रोटी देकर छोटे-मोटे पापों से छुटकारा प्राप्त किया जा सकता है, रात्रि के दूसरे-तीसरे पहर में सक्रिय होने वाले लावारिस कुत्ते ‒ जिनके होने भर से मुहल्ले की परिसीमा अंतर्राष्ट्रीय सीमारेखाओं की तरह सुरक्षित रहती है, तथा मुहल्ले के पास स्थित सेक्टर चालीस बाज़ार ‒ जिसके ईर्द-गिर्द गोधूली बेला में मँडराकर इस क्षेत्र की सांस्कृतिक विविधता और भौगोलिक समृद्धि का अवलोकन किया जा सकता है।

इन्हीं दो सप्ताहों के अंतराल में हमने निजी प्रयोग हेतु एक घर ढूँढने का भी बीड़ा उठाया और इंटरनॅट पर बहुतायत में उपलब्ध "फ़्लैटमेट रिक्वायर्ड" सरीखे विज्ञापनों से दिग्भ्रमित हुए बिना एक "वन प्लस वन" परिसर किराए पर लेने का निश्चय किया।

इस क्रम में हमारा प्रथम पड़ाव था जैन साहब का कार्यालय। जैन साहब ‒ हमारे कॉलेज के दिनों के घनिष्ठ मित्र और आजकल दिल्ली में उद्यमी; लगे हाथों दक्षिणी दिल्ली में ज़मीन-जायदाद के क्रय-विक्रय और पट्टेदारी में भी दिलचस्पी। जैन साहब ने हमारे मामले में स्वयँ रूचि ली, और तपाक से अपने एक कर्मचारी को हमारा केस सौंपा। कर्मचारी ने अपनी गाड़ी की चाभी को उँगलियों पर घुमाया, आत्मविश्वास का चूरन मुँह में दबाया, पूरी तन्मयता झलकाते हुए मामले की जाँच-पड़ताल की जिससे ऐसा प्रतीत हुआ कि हमारी आवश्यकताओं का एक सचित्र ख़ाका उनके मानस पटल पर गाढ़ी स्याही से छप गया हो, और अंत में आशावादी स्वर में बोले ‒ "ओ कोई गल नई जी, हो जाएगा! अभी आपको ले चलते हैं विज़िट पे - एक तो यहीं ग्रेटर कैलाश में है प्रौपर्टी, सिंगल रूम विथ स्मौल बाथरूम ऐंड किचन, बैड-ऐलसीड्डी-टीवी वगैरह भी हैं, फ़ुल्ली फ़र्निश्ड। एकदम फिट आपके लिए, अकेले ही रहना है आपको तो। इसके अलावा दो और हैं लाजपत नगर में, मेन मार्केट, आपका ऑफ़िस तो सीपी में है ना, बिलकुल बगल में।" इस आश्वासन के साथ हमारा मनोबल बढ़ाकर अपनी गाड़ी की चाभी को उँगलियों से निकालकर गाड़ी में घुमाया, और किसी अंतर्मुखी आनंद द्वारा बाहर की ओर धकेली गई विशुद्ध मुस्कान को मुखमण्डल पर धारण करते हुए बोले ‒ "चलिये!"

ग्रेटर कैलाश का मकान दरअसल तीसरे तल्ले पर बना एक कमरा था, जिसपर लोहे की गोल सीढ़ियों द्वारा हाथ-पैर समेटते हुए चढ़कर पहुँचा जा सकता था। कमरे का विस्तार इस इलाके की किसी भी छोले-कुलचे की दुकान की तरह सीमित था, परंतु कमरे के दो कोने, छोले-कुलचे की दुकान के कोनों की तरह ही सामरिक महत्व रखते थे, और अत्यंत उपयोगी थे। एक कोने पर लकड़ी की एक मेज़ थी, जो कक्षा से बाहर निकाले गए किसी छात्र की तरह उकड़ू बैठाकर छोड़ दी गई थी। इसी मेज़ की सतह पर दाहिने कोने में एक गड्ढा बनाकर स्टील का एक बेसिन जड़ दिया गया था जो विवशता से मुँह फाड़े कमरे की छत को ताक रहा था। कमरे के दूसरे कोने पर एल्यूमीनियम की पट्टियों और प्लाईवुड वाले तख़्तों से एक शौचालय निर्मित था, जिसे संभवतः हवादार रखने के लिये ऊपर की ओर खुला छोड़ा गया था। इस पूरी संरचना में किसी आधुनिक वास्तुशिल्पी का चातुर्य निहित था, और शायद उसी चातुर्य से प्रभावित होकर, उसे स्पष्ट करने की मंशा से हमारे साथ वाले श्रीमान हमारी ओर मुख़ातिब होकर बोले ‒ "है ना फ़र्स्ट क्लास, एक आदमी के लिए? और चूँकि आप जैन साहब को जानते हैं, इसलिए आपके लिए हमने मात्र अठारह हज़ार रुपए में बात भी कर ली है! कहिये।" हम सकुचाए ‒ किराया, मकान की परिस्थिति पर विचार किये बिना, हमारे निर्धारित बजट से बाहर था। गले तक उभरती पीड़ा को थूक से निगलकर हमने टूटे शब्दों में कहा ‒ "जी वो… थोड़ा छोटा है। एक बार लाजपत नगर वाला भी देख लें?"

लाजपत नगर का पहला मकान लगभग पचपन वर्षीय एक पंजाबी सज्जन का था, जो प्रत्येक वर्ष लगभग आधा समय "अब्रौड" बिताते थे। मकान के नीचे चाईनीज़ बल्बों से जगमगाती दुकानें किराये पर लगा दी गयीं थीं, जो अगल बगल की दुकानों से केवल व्यावसायिक ही नहीं, अपितु सामने की सड़क पर सामान एवँ गाड़ियाँ रखने की भी प्रतिस्पर्धा करतीं थीं। ऊपर सरदारजी स्वयँ रहते थे, तथा छत पर दो कमरे, अलग-अलग किरायेदारों के लिये निर्मित थे। कमरा दिखने में प्रागैतिहासिक सा था, परंतु चकाचौंध वाले बाज़ार के बीचोबीच होने से आधुनिक युग में बेची जाने वाली "रेट्रो" चीज़ों की तरह एक प्रकार से महत्वपूर्ण था। कमरे के मध्य में लगभग दस इंच ऊँची, आठ-बटा-छः की लोहे की सफ़ेद पलँग रखी थी जो मुग़ल-ए-आज़म के नये रँगीन प्रिण्ट के कुछ दृश्यों की याद दिलाती थी। पलँग ने कमरे के एक बड़े हिस्से पर अतिक्रमण कर रखा था, और बचे हिस्सों में एक छोटा सा रसोईघर, और एक गुसलखाना अटाया गया था। कमरा दिखाने के बाद सरदारजी ने हमें अपने घर पर बिठाया, और मित्रवत शैली में बोले ‒ "और, क्या करते हो?" हमने भी मुस्कुराते हुए उत्तर दिया ‒ "जी दिल्ली में नया आया हूँ, अभी तक नौकरी शुरू नहीं की। इससे पहले हैदराबाद में था।" इसपर तपाक से स्वयँ को सम्भवतः कोई जुझारु हास्य अभिनेता समझते हुए बोले ‒ "तो हैदराबाद छोड़कर यहाँ आ गये? और गर्लफ़्रेण्ड?" हम सकुचाये, और इस वार्तालाप में रूचि न होने की सी मुद्रा बनाकर बोले ‒ "जी कभी थी ही नहीं।" सरदारजी नहीं माने, एवँ "हमारे ज़माने में…" से शुरू करते हुये अतीत की झलक दिखाकर संवाद की भूमिका बाँधी। तत्पश्चात असली मुद्दे पर आए और उसी शैली में बोले ‒ "कोई दिक्कत नहीं होगी यहाँ, मैं तो वैसे भी छः महीने यहाँ रहता नहीं। गाड़ी वगैरह लगानी हो तो नीचे पूरी सड़क आपकी ही है, आठ बजे दुकानें बंद होते ही ये जितनी भीड़ दिख रही है, सब खाली हो जायेगी, जहाँ मर्ज़ी लगाओ। ऊपर कमरे के बाहर भी काफ़ी जगह है, हवा खाओ जब मन आए! क्या?" हमने गम्भीर मुद्रा बनाकर निर्णय टालने के प्रयास से कहा ‒ "जी सोचकर बताता हूँ एक-दो दिन में!" इसपर उन्होंने कहा ‒ "क्या सोचना है?" हम निरुत्तर सी मुद्रा में उन्हें देखते हुए बोले ‒ "जी?" बिना हतोत्साहित हुए उन्होंने दोहराया ‒ "हाँ मतलब क्या सोचने वाले हो?" हमें उलझन हुई - सवाल गहरा था - क्या सोचने वाले हो। हम अब भी निरुत्तर थे और मरियल कछुए की तरह सिर्फ़ ताक रहे थे। हमारी वेदना समझते हुए, सम्भवतः अपने कई वर्षों के अनुभव को निचोड़ते हुए वे फिर हास्य-मिश्रित शब्दों में बोले ‒ "बेटा, ज़्यादा सोचना नहीं चाहिये, कर देना चाहिये। जैसे हम सरदार - सोचते नहीं बस कर देते हैं। हमारे मनमोहन सिंह को देख लो, पहले कर देता है, सोचता बाद में है।" वार्तालाप पुनः किसी और दिशा में जा रहा था, और हमने परिस्थिति भाँपते हुए अपने साथ आये श्रीमान की ओर आशापूर्वक नेत्रों से देखा। श्रीमान चलने को अग्रसर तो हुए, परंतु तब तक चर्चा शहर में ज़मीन-जायदाद की वर्तमान अर्थव्यवस्था पर आ चुकी थी, और हम झेंपते हुए बैठे रहे। बाहर आकर श्रीमान ने हमसे कहा ‒ "थोड़े मज़ाकिया हैं अँकल, ख़ैर ‒ दूसरा घर भी देख लें? यहीं पास में है, और अँकल का ही है।"

दूसरा मकान भी कुछ विशेष उत्साहवर्धक नहीं था, तथा इस इलाके की बाकी इमारतों की तरह संकरी सड़कों के बीच बीमारू सी मुँह बाये खड़ी एक इमारत के अँदर साँसें गिन रहा था। हम निराश होकर बाहर आये, तथा श्रीमान से बोले ‒ "ऐसा करते हैं, एक बार मयूर विहार वाले इलाके में भी घूम लेते हैं।" श्रीमान ने मयूर विहार का नाम सुनकर घृणा और तिरस्कार की लगभग बराबर मात्रा में मिश्रित दृष्टि से हमें देखा, थोड़ा खँखारे, फिर एक क्षण कुछ सोचा, शायद हमारे नये होने का आँकड़ा अपने समीकरण में बिठाया, और परिणामस्वरूप उभरकर आयी सहानुभूति के वशीभूत होकर बोले ‒ "मयूर विहार वगैरह बेकार है, नौएडा वौएडा में पड़ता है, ऑलमोस्ट दिल्ली से बाहर है। क्या करोगे वहाँ जाकर? देखो, रहना है, तो साउथ डैल्ही में ही रहो - द ऐड्रेस। दिल्ली में यही एक हैप्पेनिंग जगह है, और कहीं का सोचो भी मत! पर मन है, तो देख आओ - अपनी तसल्ली कर लो, फिर हम तो यहाँ हैं ही।"

मयूर विहार का इलाका दिल्ली के पूर्वी क्षेत्र में, यमुना के उस पार पड़ता है। दिल्ली के अनगिनत कारखानों द्वारा उगले गए लाखों टन कचड़े को धकेल कर ताजमहल एवँ उसके उपरांत पहुँचाने में यमुना के इस हिस्से का अमूल्य योगदान है। "सर्वजन हिताय, सर्वजन सुखाय" को चरितार्थ करती इस प्राकृतिक प्रक्रिया द्वारा निरर्थक नदी को नाले में परिवर्तित करने से राष्ट्रीय राजधानी क्षेत्र की स्वच्छता एवँ निर्मलता बनी रहती है।

मयूर विहार में पहला मकान हमने श्रीमति सिंह की अनुशंसा का सहारा लेकर जुगाड़ा। श्रीमति सिंह ने हमारी सिफ़ारिश अपने फूफा श्री सिंह से की, जिन्होंने हमारा केस "प्रौपर्टी डीलर" श्री चौहान को सौंपा, जिन्होंने हमें श्री सच्चर के पास भेजा, जो हमें डीoडीoएo द्वारा निर्मित एक मकान का स्वामित्व रखने वाले एक गुजराती परिवार के पास लेकर गए। मकान के दूसरे तल्ले पर यह परिवार स्वयँ रहता था, तथा तीसरे तल्ले पर दो कमरों का एक खण्ड किराए हेतु था। ऊपर चढ़ने के लिये निर्मित सीढ़ियाँ दूसरे तल्ले के दरवाज़े के ठीक सामने से जाती थीं, तथा घर की औरतों एवँ बच्चों को हर आगंतुक के ऊपर-नीचे जाने का सिलसिलेवार ब्यौरा मुफ़्त में मनोरंजन स्वरूप प्रदान करती थीं। श्री सच्चर ने इस परिवार के प्रतिनिधि को हमारा परिचय अत्यंत भाव-विह्वल कर देने वाले तरीके से दिया ‒ "बहुत पढ़ा-लिखा लड़का है। चौहान साहब ने भेजा है, और आप समझ लो कि इसकी पूरी गारण्टी मेरी। आजकल इस तरह आराम से सीधे बैचलर्स मिलते ही कहाँ हैं। एजुकेटेड, अच्छी-खासी जॉब, कोई इधर-उधर का झमेला नहीं।" फिर अचानक से कुछ स्मरण किया, और हमारी ओर मुड़कर बोले ‒ "बेटा इनकी एक ही शर्त है, नॉन वेज खाने वाले नहीं होने चहिए।" प्रतिनिधि ने भी इस बिंदु पर विशेष प्रभाव डालने की दृष्टि से दो शब्द जोड़े ‒ "हाँ जी, आप नॉन वेज वगैरह तो नहीं खाते हैं?" हमने ना में सर हिलाया, और इसके बाद अगल-बगल ताक-झाँक करके इस मुहल्ले की गतिविधियों का जायज़ा लिया। अंत में और एक-दो मकान देखने का विचार करते हुए सच्चर साहब से कहा ‒ "अँकल एक-दो दिन में डिसाइड करके आपको कॉल करता हूँ।"

तत्पश्चात कुछ और निराशाओं तथा पूर्वी दिल्ली के अलग अलग इलाकों के दलालों को निर्भयता से झेलने के बाद हमने अंततः बिना लिफ़्ट की एक इमारत में चौथे तल्ले का एक परिसर लेना सुनिश्चित किया, तथा अपने गृह-अनुसंधान यज्ञ का समापन किया। सड़क के उस पार एक छोटे से बाज़ार में मिलने वाले पनीर टिक्के, इमारत के बगल लगे एक विस्तृत उद्यान में प्रातःकाल टीवी पर मशहूर बाबाओं द्वारा सिखाई गई क्रियाएँ करते वृद्धजन, बिना पालतू कुत्तों को साथ चिपकाये घूमने वाले लोग, तथा "बनाना शेक" में बिन माँगे मस्ती में एक चम्मच आईसक्रीम डालने वाले दुकानदारों के बीच यह आवास हमारी "दिल्लीवासी" बनने की अनिश्चित प्रक्रिया को मोटे तौर पर प्रोत्साहित करता है।




Saturday, August 18, 2012

Epilogue: Reflections on Kashmir

[Part 7 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


It was the day of jumme-ki-namaaz yesterday – a big day, considering it was the last jumma in the holy maah-e-ramzaan of this year. Evening traffic from Ganderbal to Srinagar, and everywhere else in the city, was filled with large and small buses and Sumos (they call it "Somu" here) shouting Dargaah-Dargaah to attract the attention of devotees who would want to offer this namaaz at Hazratbal. I was in the shikara of Ghulam Mohammad, an 85 year old man who got me back on the shore when it was time to open his Roza – I paid him more than he had asked for, and got a heartfelt "dua karoonga khuda aapko salaamat rakhe." Walking by the lake at this hour, you could witness numerous people drinking glasses of milk offered free outside various shops across the entire stretch – the first drop of liquid after a day-long fast.

Abdul, the guy at my hotel, left for his home this morning – a place near Pahalgam, with a beautiful name called Aish-muqaam – where he intends to spend Eid with his family. If the moon is sighted this evening, Eid will be celebrated tomorrow itself, else he'll have to wait one more day, fasting. I gave him a tip when he was leaving, and got a sincere "shukriya janaab, meherbaani."

I have an afternoon flight, and I spend the next few hours by the lake. I recall my dad's words, when I had told him I'm going to Kashmir alone. He had said – "Oh go ahead! Paryatan apne aap mein ek adhyayan hai (travel is a study in itself)." He has this knack of saying important things, diluting their intensity with a background smile – when I was a kid, he used to tell me the most simple of things, and add up their priority by a passing remark "Dhyaan rakhna, chhoti kintu mahatwapoorna baatein! (remember, small but important things in life)."

I reflect back on the things I learnt over the last week.

About the forbearing of Kashmir's suffering masses under the dual bane of poverty and militarization. About the utter simplicity of soul and the collective spirit of faith which unites them into a people who live seemingly unimportant lives in silence. About Islam, a religion so powerful that it has survived through centuries without adulterations even when the world kept altering, unites populations across the entire globe, and can still be condensed in just one holy book.

About the beauty of nature. About the 'stationary' valleys and mountains and rivers and trees which are more 'living' than the moving human creatures deluding themselves as the creators of a 'free world'. About the purity and power of rains, skies and earth in making you feel the insignificance of rushing through a few decades of existence, with a worthless purpose largely composed of outrunning each other.

About my own self. About being called a tourist, a journalist, an adventurer, or an idiot at various points of time during my travel. About thinking a little bit more, a little bit beyond. About ilm, amal and akhlaq (theory, practice, and virtues). About writing. About missing people. About meeting people and trying cuisines. About getting tips on riding a horse, which never worked. About feeling an adrenaline. About dropping my guard and doing different things in life. About being inspired.


I boarded my flight at Srinagar around 2:30 PM after going through at least 4 layers of security screening – the Srinagar airport is a fortress, and getting past it includes rules such as no handbags on-board, and identifying your check-in luggage by actually going inside the luggage loading area: your luggage isn't loaded into the place until you have physically identified it as yours. I had asked for a window seat today. As the plane takes off, the valley below me starts receding into a beautiful panorama once again. A smile crosses my lips – a stray thought says "I was there." Parting from Kashmir is tough, and I promise myself to come back again, within this lifetime.

They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. Sitting at the Delhi airport, I am looking at the numerous pictures I clicked during my trip. Visiting Kashmir on a 14.1" LCD screen seems to be a gross injustice – after all, a thousand words for Kashmir are like a drop in the ocean.

Kashmir is like love. It doesn't have a 'summary' or a 'conclusion'.




Friday, August 17, 2012

Sonamarg

[Part 6 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


An old adage says that the journey is often more important than the destination. In Kashmir, a lot of times, it's hard to distinguish between the two.

Visiting Sonamarg is a journey to the Himalayas, through the Himalayas themselves; and after a little while of embarking on this journey, you wouldn't really care what the destination was. Traveling to Sonamarg is like floating into the most simplest forms of human dream – brightened, spaced out and easy, non-engaging, non-involving, but silently rustling through the heart – one that leaves a pleasant, prolonged aftertaste even when you've woken up.



It is said that the snow-capped Himalayan peaks reflect a golden sparkle in the sun, earning this place its name which translates to "Meadow of Gold". I didn't have the good fortune of witnessing this, but well, the destination simply didn't matter. The first 25 Kms from Srinagar to Ganderbal is a traffic heavy, dry sort-of route. Beyond Ganderbal, there are 60 more Kms of narrow roads through the mountains all the way to Sonamarg. It is this particular distance on which you play hide and seek at every turn, that makes actually reaching Sonamarg a non-event.

Ganderbal to Kangan is around 20 Kms of journey through thick vegetation – the Himalayan foothills with their rich flora lay down a canopy of trees covering the road in a dreamy shade for almost the entire stretch. Beyond Kangan, you start climbing up towards Sonamarg, which lies at about 8,900 ft. above MSL – the climb isn't like a standard circular road going up towards a mountain peak; here, the Himalayas have spread themselves lazily, but authoritatively, across a span as wide as eyes can see, and numerous mountain peaks stand side-by-side, in their own introverted pride. You drive through multiple mountains, and it seems like you do this without reaching anywhere in particular – this world consisting of mountains as high as 5000 meters doesn't seem to know words like competition, stature, winning, and outlasting. The only fitting words here would probably be discovery, seeking, sharing, and happiness.

The river Sindh, which later becomes a tributary of the Jhelum, originates at one of the glaciers in these mountains, and accompanies you with its sweet chirpy music of water sliding and crashing on rocks all through the 60 Kms stretch between Ganderbal and Sonamarg. Numerous streams from different mountains come and join Sindh, and you can trace the path of these thin streams all the way from the glacier at the top, down to the river flowing besides you. Surprisingly, none of these things surprise you – after spending only a little time in this world, such incredible ensemble of beauty just seems natural. Nature here is almost generously infectious; it takes no time in making you an extension of itself.

My stay at Sonamarg was very brief – the onwards journey was a little too tardy, given the local buses I had to take and vehicles I had to change at a couple of places after J&KSRTC had disappointed me once again in the morning. At Sonamarg, there are ponies which can take you to the top and show you glaciers up close – I didn't have enough time to do that, but it didn't matter at all; this place is like an abundance all around, and the concepts of 'more' or 'less' of something had already ceased.

After a return journey equally affluent, the mind was still lingering on with the valley's aftertaste, and I let myself float once again in one of the shikaras at Dal. 

Tomorrow, I am leaving Kashmir, and this aftertaste is strong enough to last for a lifetime.



Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gulmarg

[Part 5 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


There goes a saying: when Salim Nuruddin Jahangir, the famous Mughal emperor, was asked about his greatest desire on his deathbed, he said – "Kashmir, the rest is worthless."

Gulmarg might just be Kashmir at its best. 

Perched at a height of 8,700 ft. above MSL, this small town of spectacular beauty is an experience so pure, that it has the power to cleanse the mind and soul. Spending time at Gulmarg could be a freedom from the earthly vicissitudes for few, a spiritual awakening for some, and probably the best physical and mental liberation for many. Writing about Gulmarg is as much an exercise in vain, as trying to describe 'love' in writing. Maybe that explains why Kashmir inspires poetry – a higher form of writing, and when written in Persian / Urdu, probably the highest.

Situated at around 50 Kms west of Srinagar right in the lap of Pir Panjal Range, this "Meadow of Flowers" literally touches the clouds. Getting to Gulmarg from Srinagar needs going a bit north via National Highway 1-A, and then taking a left turn to Gulmarg road. Government buses have a service directly from Srinagar to Gulmarg, though I had to take a different 'local route' – the J&K State Road Transport office told me that the buses don't ply unless there are at least 10-12 passengers; today morning, I seemed to be the only one trying to get to Gulmarg. My journey included finding a city bus to the extreme west corner of Srinagar called Batmaloo, then getting on one of the local Sumo vehicles to Tangmarg (a place which also serves as the 'base' for Gulmarg's skiers during winter months), and then riding another small local bus uphill to Gulmarg. The free travel tips were from a chai-wallah a little away from the TRC, after I was told with a straight face that the only other way to get to Gulmarg is by hiring a taxi (and spending a bomb).

The road to Gulmarg has nothing of note as long as you are on NH 1-A. Once you head west, there are chunks of paddy plantations on both sides upto Magam, followed by some apple, cherry, almond and walnut orchards upto Tangmarg. From here to Gulmarg is about a 14 Kms ride uphill through numerous hairpin bends, blind curves and narrow, valley roads. The drive is lined by fur, pine, chinar and papyrus trees, and there is a wonderful view of the valley down below as you climb up the mountains. The temperature starts to drop as you go up, and once I got out of the bus, I was somewhere in the range of 15 degrees C. Spotting my t-shirt while serving tea in the morning, Abdul had asked me to keep something warm in addition to the umbrella I was carrying, and I had decided to trust him more than the weather forecasts which always hovered around 25 degrees C – a simple sweatshirt I had did turn out to be much useful.



The setting at Gulmarg looks exactly like a hilly landscape painting (or let's say, it's the other way round) – mountains all around, clouds floating at low levels, carpet of green as far as the eyes can see, interspersed with small wooden cottages with slanting, tin roofs, horses grazing in the field, and everything coated with a varnish of fresh mountain air and shining wet by the wandering clouds. The name "Gulmarg" gets justified when you look around a bit carefully at this picturesque setting – there are small white flowers all over just like in paintings (or the other way round), and a local horseman tells me that this place has natural blooms, with different colours of flowers naturally growing during different times of the year; during these months it's white.

The Gulmarg experience has only begun.

From Gulmarg, there runs the highest cable car in the world called the "Gulmarg Gondola", which takes you first to Kongdori (10,000 ft. above MSL), a small bowl-shaped valley amidst the hills, and then to Affarwat (13,000 ft. above MSL), one of the mountain peaks in the Pir Panjal Range. 

The Gondola ride in itself is a journey which does not seem to be of this world. The cable cars operate on towers around 25 ft. high, which implies that the rider floats over the hills through the clouds and rains, in between the trees. As one moves up, the valley continuously seems to recede below, gets hazy, and finally disappears into the clouds – if someone ever built a staircase to heaven in those Hindu mythological literature, it might feel like this. There are points in the ride when the car might stop for a few seconds to about a minute: that usually happens when the cable motors are temporarily stopped for loading construction materials on one of the cars in the boarding area. At one point, I found myself hanging in the sky for a minute, with no visibility around except pure white clouds, and with a gentle swaying of the car in the slight wind – words fail me here.

The first stop, Kongdori, feels like a liberation. It's a small, almost flat terrain in the mountain inhabited by some nomadic tribes during summers – these are the people who can be found grazing numerous sheep in this area, and living in thatched huts covered with yellow plastics. There are a few eateries around a region called 'the seven springs' here, and I decide to munch on a plate of Kashmiri Pulav, washing it off with a Kahwa. The silence here is pure, the calm is more than blissful, and the beauty doesn't have even an iota of artificiality built into it – sitting here, I wasn't thinking ahead, or into the past; the liberation did have its full sanctity and purpose established without authority.

The second stop, Affarwat, is where you feel an adrenaline, a sudden purpose, almost an ambition. Stepping out of the cable car shelter, you are greeted by rocks, boulders, some ice on one side of the hill, heavy clouds, all mixed with intermittent rains and a gentle wind. The ice portion is encroached and almost labelled as the tourist area with sledges going up and down, and the rest of this place is like a crossover between the earth and the sky. Down below, there are clouds, and it feels like you are standing on an edge of the planet, while above, the peak which is still quite far up, is only slightly visible within this uniform blanket of white. Something inside me wants to climb up, higher, into the clouds. It isn't very cold here, and my sweatshirt is enough to keep me suitably warm. I start negotiating my way on the rocks and boulders; the air is thin and tires you easily, and running shoes aren't the best bet even for a mild hike – I slip at places and that does make it scary here. I get to the top and I am panting profusely by now. And suddenly, everything so far in life seems worth it, just because it could cause this tiniest sense of purpose here which was for, and by, me – and all of it was achieved through pure adrenaline.

A signboard here says "Restricted area, trespassers will be prosecuted". This, as I get to know later, is the Indo-Pak LOC, and the no-man's land begins at that signboard.

I walk down a little more carefully, have a cup of tea near the cable car shelter, and get on the ride back to Gulmarg. I feel slightly dizzy, probably with heavier than normal exertions on self in that thin air and just one meal during this long day which is already clocking evening hours. But it all seems to go away with a single view of the valley again.

Kashmir can heal you.




Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Independence Day?

[Part 4 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


The beauty of the Jhelum is enhanced today – it has been raining incessantly since last night, and the river looks swelled up a bit, with a renewed energy in its generally tardy flow. The mountains in the backdrop are barely visible – greyish white fluffy clouds, which almost seem to be touching the brownish green earth far ahead, allow only a silhouette of the peaks of those Himalayan Ranges to pass through them, more prominent visibility being granted only to the foothills. There is no rainbow, but the freshly washed houseboats and shikaras dotting the banks seem to radiate enough colours to the sky compensating for any apparent lack of them. The rains have been reduced to moderate showers, and the tiny droplets fall softly and clumsily, narrating the fact that the sky is tired by now, and this downpour isn't going to last much longer. There is no wind, but the smell of green, wet trees and chinars soaked overnight and standing lazily fills the air – it's everywhere, and a breeze isn't really needed to carry that smell around. The surroundings are characteristically quiet, and peace seems to be more than normal. Mentally, I classify this as a beautiful day.

I am taking a longer route to the Lal Chowk today. It's past 11 in the morning, and after watching Delhi's flag hoisting on Doordarshan and listening to the compressed versions of fake promises and thoroughly useless speeches from the two highest offices in India (one guy who is generally mute, reads out neat Hindi passages with no touch of inspiration from this important podium, the other guy who used to be the 'troubleshooter' in North Block until few days ago, reads out boring English passages in his own accent apparently from an electronic display besides the TV camera), I decide to rather get on with my more-or-less indifferent life. I walk by the river, through the Jhelum View Park, soaking in the beauty around on a lethargic day in my Kashmir trip, hoping to buy a cup of Kahwa in this weather as I reach the marketplace. With an open umbrella above my head, khaki coloured shorts, a plain t-shirt, hawai chappals, and a characteristically "North Indian" face (after all, Kashmir isn't North India), I probably look like a walking confusion between a localite and a tourist.

As I reach the Zero Bridge of Rajbagh, I observe the surroundings more carefully. There are no private vehicles crossing the bridge, but after every few minutes, a cavalcade of Flying Squads, Vajra Vaahans, J&K Police buses, Ambassador cars with red beacons and Jeeps with square openings on top and armed men looking out, crosses by. On both sides of the bridge, and onwards, there are numerous men in uniform toting guns – apparently automatics, which look like capable of firing multiple rounds on the slightest touch to their triggers. As I reach the marketplace around noon, I am greeted by deserted roads, closed shutters, and of course, no tricolors anywhere – what I was classifying as peace on a beautiful day, now seems like a mourning, and the whole valley in the rains seems to be crying at its fate in silence. This is the stark reality of Kashmir.

What went wrong with the land which inspired countless poets, writers, painters and artists for centuries? As I walk back to the hotel, and ask Abdul to cook paranthas and some curry, I wonder at the people who thought about firing a bullet in this paradise on earth. The very idea of driving tankers and carrying firearms amidst this beauty is violent, actually using them is probably as criminal as throwing acid on the pretty face of a 12 year old girl. It all might have started with the selective greed of certain men, transpiring into a collective suffering for the masses. To this day, the whole of Kashmir region is devoid of basic progress compared to the rest of the country. You wouldn't find modern cars, branded clothing, retail chains, extended electronics, comprehensive bookstores – people everywhere have aspirations and Kashmiris have them too, and they are denied. There are very few banks or ATMs outside of Srinagar, prepaid cellphones aren't allowed by law, and I'm surprised at the number of people who ask me what time it is when I walk on the roads – the people are basically poor, largely due to stymied trade which could develop markets and an economy.

The "Kashmir problem" is purely political, of course. And probably the solution is simple – let Kashmir be. I wonder if a referendum means anything either. People like Abdul, the guy who struggles with less than 20% occupancy of his hotel even in summer months, or the shikara owner, who hardly gets his ends to meet by manually navigating boats (it's real hardwork, I can tell you by experience) with dwindling traffic, or Irshad, the guy who climbs up and down the hills and doesn't understand education beyond "graduation" which he hopes to do someday, or Amarjeet, the 55 year old man who runs a 1-room shabby dhaba slightly away from the touristy area in Pahalgam and manages two meals a day with difficulty – I wonder if any of those people would care about their nationality, identity, faith, or anything beyond letting them be at peace.

Kashmir is an "issue" which select people wouldn't want to kill. And collectively, what we are doing to the mother nature in its most beautiful form can be described by the filthiest of words - gangrape.

Abdul tells me that the markets will open up in the evening by 4:30 - 5:00, and I decide to go back again, shop a bit, and spend a lazy evening by the lake. Buses will be operational again tomorrow, and people here will move on with their lives, thanking that the "Independence Day" is over.


[Addendum]

The markets didn't open up in the evening either, but the medical shops, sweet shops and restaurants opened – the latter, probably to cater to the Roza keepers. I ended up at Aadoo's, another restaurant in the recommendation list, and tried the Mirchi Qurma (I had Gushtaba on my mind, but the waiter suggested against it.)  Goes without saying, I ended up stuffing myself yet again, and couldn't resist the temptation to eat another phirni either. It's just so damn delicious!




Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Srinagar

[Part 3 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


It's a cloudy day in Srinagar, literally, the 'venerable city'. I have woken up quite late, and am ready to get out only by 10:30 AM. Weather forecasts tell me a 50% chance of rains until 2 PM, and I interpret it as one of the best days to walk around the city. Arming myself with the college day attire of a pair of jeans, bright coloured kurta, and a pair of hawai chappals, I set off on foot following the detailed map which I'd got from the TRC.

My first stop is for food. A concoction of hunger pangs, detailed descriptions of Kashmiri cuisine which I've been reading up on, and an unmistakable smell of spices I've been subjecting myself to over last two days, deserve an immediate consumption of a delectable brunch. I walk to the Mughal Darbar, a heavily recommended restaurant on the Residency Road in old city, and ask for a Rogan Josh with rice (being in Kashmir and not eating meat is like going for a movie without popcorn – don't ask any further disturbing questions.) The food is so much, and tastes so good, that I stuff myself up to the brim, with no space for dessert, and promise myself a serving of phirni for dinner.

Resisting the temptation of going back to the hotel and sleeping off for a while after eating that much, I prod along towards Lal Chowk. Apart from being a central marketplace, this city square has been the hallmark of political activities for a long time. One of the key events in the history of this place dates back to 1948, when an open referendum on the political fate of Kashmir was promised to the Kashmiri populace by Jawaharlal Nehru in an inspiring speech standing beside Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent leader in Kashmir who was a proponent of the region's self-rule, and who had led the agitation against Maharaja Hari Singh, the reigning monarch of Kashmir from 1925 till India's independence. The promised referendum never happened, and the valley forever remained a disputed land. Two years ago, the security forces banned hoisting of the tricolour at Lal Chowk to prevent needless provocation of the separatist and extremist elements in the area.

Political history kept aside, Lal Chowk and the nearby areas, including Maharaja Bajar, is a teeming marketplace. The labyrinthine alleys and even the wider roads are almost completely claimed by roadside vendors, and walking in this mass of humanity in itself is an experience. The streets are filled with sellers of small artefacts, toys, spices, clothes, jewellery etc. and the place has a typical Central Asian air to it.

I walk further along the river Vitasta, present day Jhelum, which flows through the city. A number of Hindu temples and Muslim shrines and mosques dot the banks of the river. Traditional Kashmiri mosques are known for their characteristic architecture – they do not have a dome made of stones, but are rather wooden, and have a pagoda-like shape with a steeple. This is particularly noticeable when I get to the Shah Hamdan Mosque, a little north of Lal Chowk.

From here, I take an auto-rickshaw to Hazratbal, around 15 Kms up north from Lal Chowk. Riding auto-rickshaws in Srinagar is no fun, as I discover. All rickshaws comply with a law which mandates 'doors' on both sides of the rear seat meant for passengers. The right door fully covers the entire open area, while the left one has around half of a feet opening at the top. Sitting in this space reminds me of those cyber-cafes popular 10 years ago with private computer cabins like this. Disappointed at the limited view of the old city roads and the Nagin Lake on our way, we reach the Dargah in another 30-40 minutes.


The Hazratbal shrine – also known as Madina-i-sani, or the second Madina, and dargah-i-sharif – is a tall white marble complex on the West of the Dal lake. It's one of the most sacred Muslim shrines of Kashmir, and is believed to contain a sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammad's beard. Hazratbal shrine originally had the traditional pagoda-shaped structure similar to other mosques, but the structure was dismantled in 1968 to build a marble mosque with a dome and a minaret similar to Madina's holy mosque. The shrine is flanked by the Kashmir University campus on the north and the NIT Srinagar campus on its south, providing a serene calm to the whole region – quieter than what is normally observed in Islamic mosques. I get inside the mosque with a handkerchief on the head (instructions on the gate ask you to cover your head), and after someone prompts me, carry my chappals in hand. It's probably the time for namaaz, and I'm asked to wait for 15 minutes by a security guard before I can get in (I am using the entrance made for men – women aren't allowed in this central part of the shrine, and have a separate entrance to a portion of the mosque on the other end). There is a small instruction pasted inside, asking non-Muslim visitors to walk around only in the galleries encircling the shrine, rather than cutting through the main shrine – quite a helpful tip for naive camera-toting tourists to prevent them from disturbing people praying in the center. The whole place has a divine serenity, and sitting inside the shrine is probably the spiritual equivalent of watching the Kashmir Valley itself.

After a few minutes of sitting inside and soaking-in the calmness, I walk out to the backside of the complex which opens up to the Dal lake. It is here that one realizes the enormity of this lake. The tourist-heavy portion of Dal's south tip near the Boulevard probably covers only a tiny fraction of the whole lake. The north and center portions of the lake are enormous in size, and from Hazratbal's Wuzu area in the back, one can see a beautiful view of the city and the mountains around the lake. A complete round of the lake is around 35 Kms in length, with some of the best views located in the northern portions.

From Hazratbal, I use another auto to go around Dal's northern ring, and witness those numerous waterways around the lake which earn the occasionally used name "Venice of the East" for Srinagar as well. One can see the locals carrying lotus plantations on small boats along these waterways, which are still safe from tourist encroachments.

My next stop is the Shalimar Bagh – a Mughal garden built in the early 17th century by Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan. The garden stretches to more than half a kilometer in length and around 250 meters in breadth, and has an elaborate architecture split in four terraces. A central canal lined with polished stones runs through the middle of the garden, feeding water to each of the terraces in succession, finally going into the Dal. The black pavilion in the top terrace of the garden has the famous inscription by the Persian poet Jami –
"Gar Firdaus rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast."
(If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.)

There are two more Mughal gardens in the city which I decide to give a pass – the Nishat Bagh designed by Noor Jahan's brother, and the Chashma Shahi built by Shah Jahan. All these gardens provide picturesque views of the Zabarwan Range or the Himalayan Range.

I decide to call off a day, and visit the TRC once again in the evening, trying to figure out a to-do for tomorrow. The lady disappoints me - "Tomorrow is 15th August, and the TRC, as well as all government buses will be non-operational. You can hire private vehicles to get out of the city, but I'll advise you to rather stay back in your hotel, and just visit the Dal lake on foot, if you want to get out." I immediately ask her about Gulmarg the following day, and she happily gets me advance tickets for a Gondola ride in Gulmarg for Thursday.

I have a free day tomorrow, and hence I decide to stuff myself with a second and last meal for the day. I walk to another recommended restaurant called De Linz on Residency Road, and try the Rista – another Kashmiri delicacy. The waiter asks me if I'm keeping the Roza – the restaurant is serving complimentary phirni to people who are fasting. Looking at my puppy-dog eyes buried in a disappointed face, he decides to offer me a free serving anyway, and another day in Kashmir ends on a sweet note.




Monday, August 13, 2012

Pahalgam

[Part 2 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


"Buses to anywhere at this time?" is the question I ask at the TRC at about 8:30 in the morning. "Gulmarg and Pahalgam, the one to Pahalgam about to leave" is the reply I get. The decision for the day is made.

Pahalgam is a small village in the Lidder Valley at the foothills of the Greater Himalayan Range. The 98 Km journey to Pahalgam from Srinagar looks rather interesting on a map. The bus takes you south on National Highway 1-A via Pampore and Awantipora, to Anantnag – which is almost the mid-point of the journey – and then up north again through a mountaineous terrain to Pahalgam. Further north into the Himalayas are the Amarnath Caves, for which Pahalgam also serves as the base camp. The road is heavy on traffic till you are on the National Highway upto Anantnag ("Nag", by the way, is the local name for various springs found in Kashmir. Vasaknag, located in the Kund Valley near the northern foothills of the Pir Panjal Range in Anantnag district itself is one of the most beautiful springs on my 'hopefully-to-be-covered' list).

As the bus turns left at Anantnag into the Himalayan terrain, there is a sudden change in the scenary around. The road becomes narrower and curvy with sharp bends, truck-heavy traffic gives way to small local buses and SUVs, the Himalayan Range comes into view, and the beautiful white stream of river Lidder flowing noisily on a rocky bed accompanies the road throughout the journey uphill. The air has a pleasant smell largely due to saffron plantations on a large chunk of land along the way, in addition to many other spices which are grown in the valley. The region is known for the production of world's best saffron, walnut, varieties of dry fruits, and apples.

After almost three and a half hours of journey, the bus reaches Pahalgam. The stream of Lidder has broadened into a small river with clear waters, and as I disembark the bus, the sheer might of the Himalayan panorama strikes me with awe. There is a breathtaking view of Kashmir Valley on the west side of the road, while the Himalayan Range lies on the east. Here, one can hire one of the numerous horses which take you further up the hills to Dabian and Baisaran. Lake Tulian – with its famous yellow coloured waters – lies almost at the top of the mountain, and can be explored by trekkers. These summer green, cloud capped Himalayan peaks are hammered with as much as 10 feet of snow during winter months, and Pahalgam then converts into a skiing destination with sledge-carts going up and down the hills.



I rent a horse named Veeru by its owners, and my guide is Irshad, a small and thin, but apparently strong young man living in a nearby village. The horse takes me up the hill, while Irshad walks by, navigating the animal. It takes a little while to adjust to a horse-ride – the tracks ahead made up of large boulders, swamps, water streams, trees, and inclines of as much as 75 degrees look non-negotiable even on foot, and the horse trodding on such narrow paths and steep inclines almost scares me. I wonder at the built of people like Irshad, who climb up and down these hills multiple times during the day. When we get to Dabian, Irshad shows me a better view of the Kashmir Valley and tells me about the local plantation consisting of walnuts, apples, and on further prodding, of cannabis – a plant whose resin is used to make charas. The production of charas flourishes secretively in the valley with the greasing of all relevant hands, and is an important cash crop.

Further up the hill, we reach Baisaran, a flat portion of the mountain which the locals affectionately call "mini-Switzerland". There's hardly anything Swiss about the alpine trees and the carpet of grass around, but the place is pristine in its calm beauty. Small shops sell some eatables in this area developed as a park, and I spend some time lazing around and munching a plate of maggi served hot. On our journey downhill, I chat with Irshad further about the local occupation. I learn about certain nomadic tribes living on these hills, the locals with small businesses in various nearby markets, and the plantation owners. Irshad himself is the youngest of three sons of a tailor ("darzi master", as he calls him) who owns this horse. The locals use horses for their day-to-day chores as well as for hunting ("Rooz" is a cat-like animal with highly energetic meat, hunted on these hills), and during summers, they also serve as rides for tourists. Riding down the hills is scarier than the uphill ride – the almost vertical inclines give you a feeling that the horse is going to skid at any time. Irshad gives me a helpful tip – look at the mountains around, rather than looking down at the horse, and you won't be scared.

The sun is slowly coming down as we reach the base, and I note the letters "Welcome to the Heavenly Lidder Valley" on a signboard for tourists. The noise of the Lidder is more prominent now, and I take a power nap on the grass in a small park by the river, before getting on the bus back to Srinagar. The bus once again drives along the river, the white waters now show a reflection of the mountains in the orange light of the sun, and I again think of just how much beauty this place has, free to be absorbed.




Sunday, August 12, 2012

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

[Part 1 of 7 writings on Kashmir]


"Is this Kashmir?", the 4-year old girl animatedly exclaims to her mother in a heavy American accent, looking out of the window. The pilot had just announced a descent to Srinagar, and the plane is turning sharply through the clouds towards Sheikh ul Alam Airport. I smile at her from my aisle seat, craning my neck, and secretly hoping she would reduce her coverage of the window surface area so that I can also have an eyeful view of the magnificence I've only read about in poetry and essays. My mute wishes go unheard, as she follows up with "Are you serious?" even when her mom said "Yes sweetheart, it is!". The smile on the lips of her mother blatantly gives away the fact of the lady's local upbringing in the valley, even with her Michael Kors handbag and Tag Heur watch of her apparently foreign living. She looks amused, struck by a heavy nostalgia so much so that she must've stopped breathing for those few seconds. This is the point when I get a look outside, and in an instant second, thank myself for this solo-journey almost everyone had discouraged me about.

The town of Srinagar is at a relatively lower elevation, and is almost in the center of the Kashmir Valley lying between the Greater Himalayan Range on the East and the Pir Panjal Range on the West. This keeps the town fairly warm (at almost 25-30 degrees C) during these summer months. The summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, at first encounter, appears to be a small, almost a typical touristy place, but doesn't really seem to be teeming with as many visitors as I was expecting. "The month of Ramzan isn't really a peak season here", a local explained to me, trying to hide the prevalent disappointment of the once-booming tourism industry which progressively declined with Kashmir's increased militarisation over the past several decades.

The driver of the taxi (taxis here are mostly SUVs – a car like Toyota Innova carries you around, unless you find cheaper modes of travel) I hired from the airport took me straight to the Boulevard – the prominent stretch around Dal Lake which is the center of all tourism activities in the region. The stretch is lined by numerous hotels, houseboat directions, souvenir shops, and restaurants with kitsch signboards, and I realize that this is not the kind of location I can afford when I don't know how long I have to stay. The taxi driver senses my expression, and offers me an advice without asking – "Ye tourist-area hai sir, mehenga milega sab kuchh" (this is a tourist-area, and everything will be expensive). He then takes me to the Rajbagh area, around 3 Kms. from the Boulevard, where I manage to find a cheap hotel which rents me a fairly clean room with a small table fan, a bathroom with hot water, and a TV which doesn't seem to have a working cable connection. With a bargained deal of INR 400/- a night, I am satisfied with this dwelling for next several days I might spend here.

Abdul Rahman, the caretaker of the property is a nice little fellow with that Pashtun kind of accent, just like most Kashmiris I have talked to so far. The local dialect is Kashmiri, which is a sweet, soft-spoken tongue and makes me wonder about the kind of music which might exist in these areas. Abdul shows me the slightly shorter way to get to the lake on foot, and after a few hours of afternoon nap, I set off for the Boulevard again. The government has setup a Tourist Reception Center, which is one of the best ways to get local information and buy tickets on government buses plying to various destinations. I wait at the Center for officials – they're out for the evening namaaz – and after a while, get hold of a man who seems well rehearsed in guiding tourists on everything touristy in and around Srinagar. He asks me "How many days you've got?" as the first question, based on which he could've decided my itinerary on my behalf. Seemingly disappointed at my non-definite answer, he tells me about all places I can visit, and advices me to use the buses, as I am traveling alone, and taxis will be simply exorbitant. I buy a local map from him, and get a sense of places within Srinagar, and destinations outside.



The sun is almost at level with the horizon, and casts a beautiful reflection of the orange sky into the lake below. I hire a shikara, at this golden hour between the day that was, and the night which shall slowly envelope the valley in silence. My boatman takes me on a ride through a series of houseboats decorated with bright lamps, the breathtakingly beautiful golden lake, the lotus plantations, and the lakeside markets. As the boat floats on the few inches of water visible above the strikingly viridian plantation throughout the lake below, the mind takes a break from soaking the beauty around and battles with contradictory emotions – freedom and loneliness, love and despair, excitement and fear, liberation and belonging-ness – the feeble happiness triumphs, and I start walking back towards my hotel.

It's past 8 PM, the town seems to have closed down all at once, and the only people visible are a few streetside vendors grilling sheekh-kababs. I spot a still open restaurant, and calm down my hunger with a delicious dhimpauk style nawabi biryani on the waiter's recommendation. Abdul spots me at the gate of the hotel, looks honestly relieved at once, and says "Where were you? I was worried if you lost your way or something. It isn't really dangerous out there, but I was feeling sorry I forgot to give you the address of this place when you were walking out." I ask him for a cup of tea, spend sometime chatting and sipping on the tea, get back to my room and decide to sleep after a bit of writing. I am glad I have to wake up with no timetable for tomorrow.




Saturday, February 11, 2012

On "mind, body, and soul" and related flimsiness


I feel pain. Of the kind which doesn't tell which part of the body it's coming from - but it hurts; cruelly, tediously, steadily marauding your brain to your heart to your soul. It's invisible, like a disease, or like nostalgia; it creeps into every iota of your existence, rendering you worthless, devoid of rationality, reasons, wisdom; occasionally showing its physical presence through moist eyes or choked throat which only the finest of people around can detect. It wriggles you inside out, exposing your self to yourself shamelessly when you are the most vulnerable, and you can witness your own spirit writhing around, tormented, wasted.

I feel agony. I try to shake myself out of this irrational slumber of the ego. I jerk every body part, in an attempt to wake them up, to let them feel some blood flow, to free each of these tangibles from the lost struggle against intangible, but more powerful randomness of brainwaves. I decide to stand up, and physical laws of nature almost slap me, reminding the absence of food / energy / sleep somewhere over last several hours. The pain still does not show up anywhere physically, it has managed to remain invisible somewhere, basking in the shiny embers of a burnt soul.

I start to walk. The sun hasn't set yet, and the air has a slight bit of warmth which could have been described as a gentle breeze with healing properties on mundane days. I walk straight on a road which initially didn't seem to go anywhere, the kind of road which gets half built for some anticipated future usage, but then gets abandoned and left clamoring for resurrection amidst the tramples of occasional passers-by; dejected, like people in a plague stricken town left to die with mute wishes and stoned hopes. I walk, and the pain becomes more prominent, probably getting fueled by the meanderings of a now hyperactive brain, and circulated with renewed ferocity alongside blood, pumped and thrusted involuntarily into every corner of the body by a battered heart.

Judging by the twilight, I think I've walked for an hour. The half-built road had ended into a mud track a while ago, and the chappals stained in dirt tell the story of the graveled track they've recently braved. The pain has started getting substituted with consciousness now - of this strange surrounding composed of shrubs, rocks and absence of humanity. I walk further, in an attempt to complete this quest over pain, to win my own consciousness back. I walk till I get to a railway track, and I feel fully aware of myself. It is getting dark now, and the air has developed a strange, unpleasant, almost repugnant chill. The heart is pumping faster, and after a long time I feel physical realities rather than the metaphysical randomness of past several hours.

I feel fear. Turning around, I start walking again - this time the gravels and the dirt are more prominent, the air isn't completely indifferent, and the reducing brightness outside is complementing the hightened sense of consciousness. As it grows darker, I get more scared. Each sound of a slithering reptile or screeching insect, each rustle of a dried leaf, each sight of flying bats, even the view of the stars in the open sky which could have been described with romantic adjectives on mundane days, instills and emboldens more fear. I start walking faster.

I feel ache. The feet, the back, the shoulders and the head are now suddenly real, and the pain so much visible in all of them. Things are seemingly rational again - I am 'comfortably' back to the physical world which had unceremoniously kicked me out to the realms of soul, the world described largely only on paper, the world which showed me all the agonies of existence and set me 'free'. I am walking faster, amidst fear, angst, ache and those returning torments of the soul.

The old pain is back with a vengeance as I step into my place again. Old thoughts are all back to once again claim my existence, walk all over rationality, and invade my conscience.

But in the last few hours, how successfully I manipulated my emotions through varying intensities of experience. How surreptitiously I do this everyday, at home or work, through experiences of much less intensity. How beautifully the whole of humanity exists amidst this paradox of manipulative reality and incessant pain.