Monday, 26 November 2018

# Enchanting East Europe

Exploring the Dalmatian coast

A visit to Europe was a dream and even now sometimes I am still in disbelief whether it’s really been fulfilled or if it was some beautiful dream. The plan started almost six months back. Finally the day arrived on Dussehra early morning. After a long wait at Delhi airport, we boarded the plane to Helsinki, Finland. I, husband and sonny were smiling ear to ear as all through we have been very hush-hush about the plan; we were very superstitious, in case it gets cancelled.

I was little unwell but the moment I landed, I forgot everything. The surroundings outside was like a painting.  We had a long wait at the airport for our next flight to Budapest, Hungary. Now we feel we could have spent some time at Helsinki city, but we will definitely do it next time. What’s the harm in dreaming?

We reached Budapest at midnight and our hotel car was waiting for us at the airport. On our way to the hotel, we had a night view of the city — glittering in what looked like tiny sparkling lights from a distance. We were already in love with the city and were just waiting for the sun to rise so that we could explore the beautiful place. So excited we were that we had no signs of jetlag. 

We had an elaborate breakfast in the hotel and the first thing we experienced was a cruise on the Danube River on a chilly, windy but sunny morning, which gave us a river’s eye glimpse of the city from the blue waters. Though the city was new to us, it was not at all tough to locate a hop-on hop-off tourist bus and we went around the city admiring the picturesque locations. The best part was we could avail of the bus facility the next day too with the same tickets as they were valid for 48 hours. For lunch, we opted for Hungarian cuisine and we loved it.

As the day turned dusky, and we were just strolling in the markets, we heard a familiar tune. As we turned, we saw a group of ISKCON followers singing and dancing Hare Krishna Hare Rama that too in Indian attire — saris and dhoti kurtas.  Mini India in Hungary! We had a smile on our faces and I felt like dancing with them but then stopped myself, thinking not to experiment too much in a foreign land. Nobody was bothered about what others were doing and that is what I liked the most. In two days, we saw the Danube River, Parliament, Chain Bridge, Synagogue (Jewish worship place), Heroes’ Square, City Park, Citadella at Gellert Hill, Buda Castle (from a distance), Szechenyi Burda (thermal bath), St. Stephens Basilica, et al. 

Just in two days, the city had become familiar to us and we already knew where to catch bus, where to find food and how to take a taxi back to the hotel. But it was time to bid adieu to the city as the next day we had a flight to Split, Croatia, via Bonn, Germany.  As we waited at the Cologne Bonne airport, we observed different people of different nationalities all moving from one country to another, and the thought that came to my mind was — wow the world is so small.

As we flew to Split, we could view the beautiful Swiss Alps from above. We were mesmerised by the snow-clad mountains and started planning our Switzerland visit already — at least once in this lifetime. As we neared our destination, we could see perfectly blue seas and green islands and the view was breath-taking — just like a picture postcard. My sonny was kind enough to give me the window seat for some time as he saw I was busy clicking pictures from the middle seat itself, and maybe he was disturbed by mommy too. I was so occupied looking down for quite long that I started feeling dizzy but luckily the plane landed soon and all went well. At the Split airport, we had a long interview with the immigration officials as we were on a Schengen visa and Croatia didn’t fall under it, though it allowed entry on that visa. One of the questions was, “Is this your beba (son or maybe baby she meant)?”, pointing at our son. I and my husband almost echoed together, “Yes”. Of course, didn’t want to lose sonny, never. She said, “Sorry, part of our job” at the end, with a smile. It was finally over and by the time we reached the conveyer’s belt, only our luggage was left. Our apartment driver, a young girl, was waiting for us outside and seemed little restless but was okay when she got to know the reason behind the delay. She was quite friendly and I found her face familiar with our Bollywood’s Kalki Koechlin. 

The drive was long and we discussed various topics, even India’s population and the job scenario as she felt there were not many industries in Split so there was not much scope for growth. We felt, ‘wow no industry’ and that is what we wanted to enjoy, no industrial pollution — away from the choked air of Delhi.  After about half an hour, we reached our apartment and there was a smile on my son’s face as it was a duplex and there was a narrow staircase inside to reach the bedroom. It was a cosy apartment and we loved it. Our host, after giving a description of the apartment and the map of the place, left us on our own and the apartment was ours for the next three days. The feeling was good to have a temporary home in an alien country. We had hot coffee and some readymade snacks we had carried from India, got ready and was outside to explore the new place. 

Our apartment was at a slope and we had to go down to reach the main market and the sea. We were lucky to have got an apartment in the old town; the moment we saw the dark blue seas, we were all smiles. There were tourists from different countries — some were strolling, some just sitting and enjoying the sunset. And we did what we loved the most, clicked pictures. We got to know that a one-hour cruise-like-boat ride was available and our itinerary for the next day was fixed. Saw multiples of sea ducks and sea gulls flying down on the sea for a good meal of sea fishes. We found a small food joint and packed our dinner which we customised with some familiar ingredients of veggies and chicken. We shopped some breakfast essentials from a neighbourhood shop.

After a good night sleep, the next day the first thing we did in the morning was to go for the boat ride.  We went to the top of the boat and took the seats that had been tied with ropes to the iron grille. After some time, we got to know the secret of the ropes. The sea was choppy. Some parts of the ride were scary because of the huge waves. But we forgot everything as the view was spectacular — blue sea, blue sky, green and brown hills. The guide gave us a description of the places and also told us how at regular intervals the sea water is taken to test how clean it is. On way, we saw some daredevil climbers negotiating the flat rocks on the shore with bare hands. Others were kayaking amid the dancing waves.

In the evening, we had a round of the local market and found a bakery. After a pizza lunch, we were really hungry and relished on pastries and potato pie. My husband found the potato filling similar to our samosa. What else do we need to survive? We would settle ourselves on a bench and observe how tourists came to holiday with their dogs of different breeds as they were like their family; many aged people even came on wheelchairs to relax, after all if one is a traveller at heart, age is no bar. We still remember the camaraderie of a white couple who adopted three Asian girls. We also saw a lot of couples of different nationalities. The next morning, we decided we should look for a beach as till that time we could not get down on the water. And after 3-4km walk, we found one. And what beach it was. Spotlessly clean. White sand. Just a couple of tourists. A cool breeze. Bright sun. Green and white mountains in the backdrop. The Adriatic Sea looking just pristine — Italy on the other side. Giant ship liners cruising at a far distance. Felt like settling there forever. I even thought of a business idea. Selling coffee and snacks to tourists. But life is not so easy. Since it was quite far from the old town, there were very few people there, only a few mad ones like us who are always on a lookout for an exclusive place. We got down, walked on the water but it was chilly so decided to sit on the shore. Even my 10-year-old kept on looking at the sea blankly like a philosopher. There was a park nearby and he played to his heart’s content as there were very few kids to fight for the rides. In three days, we felt we belonged to that city but every good thing comes to an end and it was time for us to visit our next place — Dubrovnik. 

We took a bus to Dubrovnik and on our way crossed Neum, a tiny town of around 4,000 people in Bosnia, nestled beside an inland extension of the Adriatic Sea. The landscape was equally beautiful, especially the orange orchards, orange-roofed similar-looking even houses and the blue sea moving with us all the way. We thought if the bus stopped for some time, we could have a closer look. It did, but only for passport check and a snack break and we had to click pictures from inside. By late afternoon, we reached Dubrovnik — the gigantic cabled-stayed Franjo Tuđman bridge, similar to the one inaugurated in Delhi sometime back, and massive cruise liners, welcoming us to the mystical hilly town that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

From the bus stand, we took a taxi to our apartment, a short distance. As we got down and were looking for our apartment number, I heard a very welcoming voice, “Please come, I am waiting for you!” She was our new host. And I would say, this apartment was better and bigger. In the back lawns behind the kitchen window, there were pomegranates, lemons, oranges hanging from the trees. Felt like plucking but just like the forbidden apple, we stopped ourselves. The host offered some handmade snacks and they were yummy. By then, it was evening and we asked our host if it was safe to roam out and she was like, “of course”. After a short chat, she left us on our own for the next three days. We ventured out and opted to walk to the old town as our host told us it was just 10-minute walk. But it was not so near as we found out. After about half an hour of walking through neat roads and beautiful houses, we reached the fortress housing the castle town, the place where parts of Game of Thrones were shot. Quite a few musicians were playing different instruments on the sideways — projecting a touch and feel of a Bollywood background score as we were exploring the new city, almost like giving us a royal welcome.
We were starved after the long walk and started looking out for some good food. By then we were already missing our rice and roti and Indian food. Where ever we looked, there was bread, pizza, burger, pasta and we were like “NO.” And somewhere in between, I had a glimpse of a poster that said, ‘Incredible India’. We were in disbelief. A few Bollywood dialogues instantly came to my mind: ‘If you want something from heart, you definitely get it.’ We ordered butter chicken and roti and we almost devoured it like we hadn’t eaten in ages. Though the food was not that good, there was a feeling of content.

Next morning, we went for the famous Zicara, the ropeway/cable-car point to climb to the top of a hill from where we could have a panoramic view of the city and it was worth visiting. By then, we had become veteran walkers, including our 10-year-old. In fact he took the lead to show off that he knows the way quite well. We again visited the old castle and this time on the side of the sea. We saw huge boats waiting for passengers and without any second thought; we took the ride to the Lokrum Island — a Nature Reserve and a Special Forest Vegetation Reserve, which is home to a variety of flora and fauna and castles. We would have missed an experience if we hadn’t visited the island. There was loads of greenery with multiple green species, peacocks, rabbits, all roaming here and there. We also passed a graveyard but left the ghosts undisturbed, if any still there. We sat on the rocks admiring the sea leisurely as the last boat to return to the mainland was 5 pm and we had ample time in hand. We were on biscuits and chocolates almost the whole day but we were okay as it was a lifetime experience.

After coming back to the old town, my husband was adventurous enough to climb to the top of the castle and walked the entire city wall, which must be about 2-4 km. I and sonny waited down watching multiple tourists and listening to them. Though we didn’t understand what they said, the excitement was clear in their voice, specially the Japanese tourists.

We had dinner at 6pm, which was evening snacks time back home, and this time we went for an Italian restaurant. The chicken risotto, chicken salad and grilled chicken were luscious. I would say chicken just saved us as most of the dishes had beef on it, so we were very choosy. Though my husband was ready to experiment, I and my sonny were happy with our chicken delicacies. On our way back home, my husband went to a department store and bought eggs, milk, bread, cheese for breakfast the next day.

My husband was too excited to cook something in the beautiful kitchen and served us some hot spaghetti, cheese scrambled eggs with coffee and bread. We started a little late and went in search for a beach location and found one after a half-an-hour walk. I and sonny get mad to soak our feet in water but my husband needs a little push. After some time, we made ourselves comfortable on a wooden platform and let sonny play in the water. We saw a couple, must be 60 plus. They went for a swim and it was too cute to watch them romancing in the water and teasing each other. Ageing together in love! We went inside the castle city again in search for food. We also had the opportunity to see a wedding inside. And most tourists like us were waiting to see the bride and the groom and the moment they came outside hand in hand, everybody started clapping. After all, it’s always a treat to see newlyweds and everybody says ‘God bless’ automatically in their minds. These things are the same everywhere, and what a wonderful feeling. One day, the newlyweds will share their story of marriage to their grandchildren that they got married at the same location where Game of Thrones was shot.

The next morning was October 28, when we would fly to capital Zagreb in the afternoon. My husband started waking me up as it was 7 am. But when I checked my mobile, it was 6 am. The confusion ended when we searched the internet and found that from that day, every year, the clocks are set back by an hour in Europe as winter had set in. Thank God, we didn’t have any flight to catch in the morning. The weather was very windy and chilly and later we got to know that a very bad storm had hit the other side of the sea in Italy. We spent some time beside the old town, having a last glimpse of the sea. God knows if we would ever return. We hurried back to the apartment as we didn’t want to be stuck in rain and storm. Our host requested us to take her neighbour’s car and we readily agreed and understood the reason when we saw the old man who drove us to the airport — maybe she wanted him to earn a few bucks.

It was raining heavily and the flight got late by over an hour. By the time we reached the hotel in Zagreb, it was quite late and after a quick dinner at a fine dine restaurant in the Capitol Square, we went to bed. The next morning we went to explore the nearby places as we had a flight to Vienna in the evening. What we loved most was the local market with lot of flowers, cheese, fresh vegetables, fruits, et al. The old town with gigantic churches and buildings with Gothic architecture and tram lines running somewhat resembled Budapest. We would have loved to explore more but it started raining. We had a quick snack lunch and hurried back. We had shopping bags in our hand and we covered our heads with them. Though a few kids laughed at us, after some time we saw people copying us as they also had no umbrellas — this is called Indian jugaad.   

Our return flight to Delhi was via Vienna, where we had a four-hour stopover. We were surprised to see the size of the tiny two-by-two seater plane to Vienna and doubted if it would take off. But it did and we reached safely after a short flight. When we were about to land in Vienna, the dazzling city looked beautiful from above. Again we regretted, thinking that we could have stayed there for a day at least. But we had a flight to catch at night for Delhi. When we were waiting at the airport, we saw a lot of Indian faces after days and felt good. It was a jumbo plane — the Air India dream liner — and boarding started almost one and half hours early. I saw a group of European tourists who seemed a little worried as their guide was scaring them by telling not-so-good things about India. Though I didn’t understand their language, I could clearly read the fear in their faces. On board, I killed time by watching two Bollywood new movies. And finally the next morning, we reached our very own Delhi. Everything seemed familiar now. Suddenly I saw the same European tourists standing in a corner of the airport. I approached them and said, “Welcome to India. India is a beautiful country and the people are good. Don’t be scared. Enjoy!” And they smiled at me. I felt I am just back from their place and had a beautiful experience and this was the least I could do to bring a smile on their faces. After all, we belong to incredible India and there are lot of good things here too.

Friday, 30 June 2017

#Kashmir and Kashmiris made a special place in my heart

#Kashmir, where heaven meets earth

I was introduced to Kashmir through my books when I was a child. Since then, it was my dream to visit the paradise on earth. Whenever I saw anything on television related to Kashmir there was only one question in mind, ‘will I ever be able to visit the beautiful place’? But as it is said when you wish something from your heart, it happens in real.

When my husband asked if I want to go to Kashmir, I was in awe and asked, ‘really?’ We booked our tickets and suddenly some untoward incident happened and a bandh was declared in Kashmir. And it continued for two days. And again we were in a dilemma whether to go or not. On the third day, when life started getting back to normal at the valley we decided to take risk and listen to our hearts and just go no matter what comes our way.

Finally the day arrived and we were waiting at the Delhi airport waiting for our flight announcement to Srinagar. I still couldn’t believe that I was actually going and WhatsApped one of my friends who had visited Kashmir a few years back. She replied, ‘Just go and enjoy, it’s heaven!’ Our hotel driver Maqbool called, ‘I will pick you from the airport’. It was just one hour and a few minutes flight from Delhi. We could make out the difference that we are going to have an amazing experience. Suddenly the atmosphere changed and we could see clouds and white mountains, which we are not used to at all in and around Delhi. But it reminded me of the north-east, especially Meghalaya (abode of clouds). And the passengers at the window seats felt lucky that they could have the first glance of heaven.

The moment we landed, Maqbool called again ‘Have you landed, I am here for you’. It sounded like a relief amidst tight security of the airport. Soon we were on our way to the hotel and I could see women fully dressed with their heads covered and security presence every half a km or even less. We reached the hotel just opposite the famous Dal Lake and chose a room facing it. We rested for some time and Maqbool was already waiting for us at the lobby for local sight-seeing. At one place, we also had to get down from our car and walk past the security post and it was considered a regular check.  Though we arrived at our dream destination, there was a strange feeling inside whether we took the right decision but the moment we arrived at the first tourist spot, all our fears vanished. There were a lot of smiling tourists with kids and life seemed to be normal again and we were smiling from ear to ear. We visited Pari Mahal, Chasme Shahi, Mughal Garden, Botanical Garden and a few more gardens. When we reached Hazratbal Dargah Sharif, it was namaz time and we were little hesitant whether to visit or not. But Maqbool encouraged us ‘jao jao… koi baat nahi’ (please go, it’s okay) and we followed suit. We felt they are very normal people like us, very simple and peace-loving. Though women were traditionally dressed with heads always covered, there was a sense of independence as we saw a lot of women driving and roaming about on the roads on their own and it felt good.

For lunch, we had Kashmiri rogan josh and it was just lip-smacking. We also did a little shopping at a wholesale shop. When we reached the hotel, our shikara wala was waiting for us. After some time, we were on the Dal Lake for a shikara ride. The first thing the boatman told us was, “Look at my face, could you recognise me. I am the same person riding the shikara behind Vinod Khanna and Simi Garewal during the shooting of the song Wada karle sajna tere bina main na rahu…in the movie Hath ki safai. At that time I was young.” We smiled and after coming back to Delhi, we checked the video on Youtube.

We felt the Dal Lake was a moving economy with lot of people earning their livelihood – by selling handicrafts, shawls, dry fruits, clicking photographs, running mini eating joints, water sports and what not. There was also a meena bazar where shops of all kinds were available. We had delicious chicken tikka with walnut chutney from a boat shop and thought the ride should never end. There were a lot of house boats parked on the lake side with amazing names like Mission Kashmir, Mobile House, Golu Palace, Sunflower, Fairy Queen, et al. But we somehow felt life would be restricted staying in a houseboat so we opted out.

We were curious to know what wood they used for the house boats and shops that they last for so long in water and prompt came the reply from our shikara man. This is deodar wood, ‘yeh pani mai kharab nahi hota’ (It’s deodar wood it remains intact in water). But we felt a little worried that the lake is so precious for the local people and for tourism to flourish but it is getting dirty and cleanliness is the need of the hour.

As dusk set in, we sat by the side of the lake on raised platforms and observed the lively city. It was the holy month of Ramzan and people were breaking fasts and having ice-creams. Sound of holy songs from the mosques echoed all around. Our day one was a pleasant one, much more than we expected.

According to Maqbool’s instructions, we got ready by 7 am the next day and we were off to Sonmarg, our first point outside Srinagar. As we moved upwards we could see the beautiful landscape on the sides of the river Sind, green hills and then we could see the white mountains in the background. Seeing the beautiful river, I could not resist myself and got down for a few clicks. I so wanted to touch the white and bluish water and soak my foot on it but it was not a slow moving river but Maqbool promised that I would get the opportunity to do that the next day. We reached Sonmarg and could see a few tourists enjoying horse riding on the green valley. But the moment we heard about Zero Point, snow and reaching halfway to Kargil, we just couldn’t say no. After a little bargaining with the local taxiwala, we were off to experience snow. As we advanced higher we crossed the high Zojila Pass and the road getting treacherous. At some points, only one vehicle could pass. It was dangerous and later after reaching Delhi, we got to know that it is one of the dangerous roads in the world and felt a sense of pride that we overcame it.

Our guide showed us the Amarnath yatra base camp at Baltal and huts erected for pilgrims (as the yatra would start in a month). We also saw the point till where Pakistan had made intrusions before they were shooed away by our Army during the Kargil war in the late 90s. Some Pakistani bunkers were still lying vacant, the ones not yet destroyed by snow. The respect for our Indian Army was always there but for the first time witnessed what a tough job they are doing. Salute to the Indian Army!

Some stretches were so dangerous that our driver double-checked before moving ahead as landslides are very common there. Huge snow patches were melting and it was a very dangerous point. We were told almost everyday accidents happen in this area and it was scary indeed, our heart was almost in our mouth. Snow clearing operations were still going on with huge machines. But nothing could stop the mad traveling instinct in us.

Finally we reached the Zero Point and our eyes just couldn’t believe the amount of snow we saw all around. Everything was crystal white and it was difficult for us to see without our glares as the sun was strong and it was reflecting against the white mountains. We geared up with our hired fur jackets and boots looking like aliens as if we landed in a different planet straight from boiling Delhi. We could see the tip of the white clad mountain so near below the dark blue sky. Sledge pullers started to lure us and finally we agreed. But when we saw they had to pull us up, we got down. We felt bad as we saw humans pulling humans for their livelihood. Life is very difficult in the mountains. We walked up and had the sledge experience while coming down the slope and it was fun. We were instructed again and again to be careful with our valuables as if anything falls in the snow it’s impossible to track them. We had Maggie and Kashmiri kahwa (tea) and it was amazing. We just couldn’t stop taking clicks as it was a once-in-a-life time experience. My husband smiled, saying it will be tough to select pictures to post on social media as everything was so beautiful there. One could close the eyes and just click click click and not a single shot would be missed!

Though we didn’t want to come back, we remembered the rough path back and had to return before sunset. After reaching Sonmarg, our guide showed us a few local points but after the experience at Zero Point, nothing seemed impressive.

We reached the hotel, rested and went out for our evening stroll by the side of the Dal. As mobile internet was banned, there was nothing to check on mobile and for a change we liked it—a technology-free life after a long, long time.

On day three, we headed towards Pahalgam and on the way Maqbool showed us saffron fields and walnut trees. We also stopped at a shop and bought saffron, walnut, black berries, cranberries. The shop owners have their own plantations of saffron, walnut, apples, fennel seeds and showed us some trees at the backyard. The simplicity of the people was very contagious and felt like our own people. They told us how the soil of Kashmir is so rich that everything grows very easily and so they consider Kashmir as the heart of India. The next stopover was a restaurant with an apple orchard in the background. We had our breakfast sitting under apple trees. The apples were still tender and a few were lying on the ground and my son excitedly started playing with them. But plucking apple from trees was strictly prohibited. Maqbool showing off his contacts told us ‘just call me if you need apples’. We also saw rows and rows of factories with huge stacks of little wooden planks that would become cricket bats, which an aspiring Sachin or Kohli would play.

Finally after a few hours, we reached Pahalgam and after some bargaining we were on our horses with guides along. The names of the horses were very interesting like Raja Hindustani, Badal, Dil Khush, Mastani, Lalu. Some parts of the roads were smooth, some rocky, some stiff and after a few instructions, we felt we were veteran horse riders as we had no option but to trust our horses. We saw Kashmir valley, mini Switzerland, waterfall point and saw locals waiting with sheep, rabbit, to click pictures with tourists to get bakshish (tip). Shawl sellers were after us at every point, and everywhere we felt how tough it was for villagers to earn their livelihood. Everywhere at the end, the guides would ask us “Khush?” (Happy) And we would smile. While returning we had our lunch sitting at a restaurant beside the river Lidder and the view was just breath-taking. We realised the highway restaurants were quite cheap unlike near Delhi.

On day four, my son was very excited as he heard that he will be able to have a ropeway ride to the mountains at Gulmarg, his first experience. Gulmarg is a place where tourists can experience everything if they have short time in hand. Horse riding, sledge ride, snow bike ride, skiing experience, et all. Two phases are available through ropeway. And from Phase II, one can have a skiing experience in the snow and have a glance of the LOC border. We opted for phase I as there was much more variety there. Our guide told us there was much less snow in Gulmarg compared to Zero Point near Kargil. And after the amount of snow experience we had at Zero Point, we thought to give it a miss as there was both snow and waterfall at phase I. We felt a little restless and short of breath as we reached high altitude all of a sudden on the ropeway but were okay once outside. After the horse-riding experience at Pahalgam, we were quite at ease on horseback. Here we enjoyed the high-speed snow bike ride the most with a guide of course. Though we were tempted to ride on our own, it was risky in the snow stiff slopes so we played safe. We also saw Kashmir valley, seven-point spring and Khilanmarg at phase I. While returning, Maqbool took us to a restaurant where we tasted Kashmiri wazwan chicken and it was luscious. The India-Pakistan cricket match was going on and most of the people there came to enjoy the match rather than having food as it was Ramzan month. In the evening when we returned, we felt we were all sun burnt as we were under the sun for three to four hours but the experience was worth it.

Later, we took an auto and went to wholesale market. We were so impressed by the sincerity of the auto driver, very unlike what we experience in Delhi. When we asked about the fare, he said Rs 20 and both ways it’s Rs 40 and if we give him Rs 50, he would wait for us while we shop. My husband asked if it’s per person. He said no he was saying the total fare and he doesn’t want to charge the kid. Then suddenly he stopped and started drinking water and said it’s iftar time. Realising that he was on fast, we asked him to have something but he said it’s okay and that he would have something while he waits for us at the market. The market was empty and we were little hesitant. Suddenly we saw people serving sherbet to everyone as it was iftar time and they offered us also. We felt so good in an unknown place in a lonely street. In fact, I felt safer than Delhi and thought it was worth mentioning in my article, especially our soft-spoken auto driver. We went to the shop he showed us and did shopping without any hassle and the rates were quite reasonable. Our auto-driver was waiting for us and got to know that they have a business in Delhi also and in the tourist season, he drives auto in Srinagar. He left us outside our hotel and bid adieu though I felt like chatting with him more and know more about his people and his place.

That evening we sat by the side of the Dal lake a little longer as it was our last evening in Srinagar and wanted time to stop there. We also spent time in our hotel garden and walked on the cool green grass. Finally the last day came and we thought of relaxing at the hotel just watching the Dal lake through our huge glass window as we were tired of travelling constantly for four days. Maqbool told us not to have lunch at the hotel and that he would take us to an amazing restaurant and he kept his promise like the last four days on the last day also. After reaching the airport, we realised the security check was very tight and the airport was looking like a fort. We and our luggage were checked several times and finally we were also asked to recheck our check-in luggage but the process was smooth and fast. While we were in Kashmir, something or the other was going on in the borders, especially in south Kashmir but we didn’t feel anything and our trip went smoothly. What we understood is if one wants to go to Kashmir, one just needs to go without checking the news, the state has the most amazing people. And if we get a chance, we will visit the state again and this time in winter to witness snowfall.

We reached Delhi in the night amid loo, pollution and traffic jams and were gearing ourselves for work the next day. But then we consoled ourselves that this is our regular life and we can go for our next holiday only when we work hard for the next few months. But Kashmir and Kashmiris had made a permanent place in our hearts and we would love if we get an opportunity to visit the paradise on earth again.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

A trip to #Ganapatipule

Soaked in rains and greens in Ganapatipule
For the last two years, we had been heading towards sea destinations for our summer holidays -- Goa and then Kerala. So, this year, we thought we would go somewhere near the hills but then we were not 100 per cent sure. So we tried of checking the availability of train tickets, as a train journey is the best when one wants to enjoy the abundance of nature. After some permutations and combinations, we realised the sea was beckoning us again. In the next 10 minutes, we got confirmed tickets to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra and from there we decided to go to Ganapatipule – a quiet but exotic seaside destination.
For the third time, we would be heading to the sea. I, my husband and my eight-year-old son were smiling ear to ear as we are all in love with the sea and that too in the monsoons. The first things to pack were umbrellas, raincoats and crocs– even though we knew we would be drenched to the bone and that we would love it. We applied for leave and after one month, we were in the train heading to our monsoon destination. We crossed tunnels, hills, plateaus, waterfalls, streams and we were glued to the windows to enjoy each second as we will miss such views at least for the next six months.
After a 28-hour journey by Rajdhani, we reached Ratnagiri, and after one-and-half-hour auto drive we reached Ganapatipule. The auto drive through the winding road and meadows was just amazing. In between the hills and village settlements, the view of the roaring and rocking sea from the top was just breath-taking.
We had booked a cottage in an MTDC resort in advance. We were amazed to see the huge campus with a walking track, a children’s park and space to sit. Down a few stairs was the sea beach. Our room faced the sea with a huge balcony. There were lines of coconut trees in between and then the endless sea. The constant sound of the waves was like magic to the ears – washing all our tension away.
We freshened up and went for lunch at the campus restaurant and had an amazing Maharashtrian fish thali. After satiating our taste buds, we could not wait to go down to the beach. There was hardly any crowd and there were rocks to sit and about a km away we could see the famous Ganapati temple after which the place was christened Ganapatipule.
That evening there was heavy rain and the moment it slowed, we took out our umbrellas and went out to explore the locality. There were lines of lounges and restaurants nearby and that night we had delicious vegetarian dinner with the amazing aroma of Konkani and Malwani masala.

Every morning and evening, our routine for those four days was go to the beach, stroll, enjoy the waves and just sit and sit on the rocks -- doing nothing. My son enjoyed getting wet and playing with the sand. We clicked pictures and selfies like we went crazy. The rains were so unpredictable there, when we went down to the beach the sky was clear and suddenly a few dark clouds would come from nowhere and pour like cats and dogs. But we went to enjoy the monsoon and we did every bit of it. Every day, we were soaked to our bones but we went back again and again. We had to switch on our room fan and AC to dry our clothes. And we had a blanket to warm ourselves.
We found a panchkarma massage centre within the campus. My husband relaxed with a body massage and I experienced shirodhara (head massage). The aroma and the warmth of the ayurvedic oil pouring drop by drop on my forehead was so relaxing, I felt all my stress vanishing. I would live there forever and never return to a polluted city like Delhi if I could. But that is why it is said holidays are short lived. It is always good to wait for holidays because once it arrives, it ends too soon.

On our last day, we visited the Ganapati temple. Due to the heavy downpour, there were very few devotees. There was no queue and we had our darshan and experienced the aura of peace in the temple campus. The laddoo prasad was divine. My son clicked pictures with the huge elephant and rat. When I told my sonny he can wish whatever he wants in rat’s ears, he immediately complied. We bought two torans as a memento of Ganapatiple from the temple lane for our home mandir entrance.
Even if we didn’t want to leave the place, we had to bid adieu to the astounding place. On our way back to the Ratnagiri station, we got down from the auto and clicked pictures from the hill top, which had amazing view of the sea below. We knew the holidays were over and we had to join office the next day but that could not stop us from planning our next holiday and that again brought smiles in our faces. This is what life is all about -- plan beautiful holidays and get charged to work for the next six months!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Why are celebrities vulnerable

Why is it that every time Bollywood celebrities, mostly the three Khans, comment on any serious issue, it’s always blown out of proportion and they are hounded like crazy by the media and the cyber citizens as if they had done blasphemy?
In a star crazy nation like India where people are interested in knowing everything about their favourite stars, the media seizes the opportunity to raise their ratings and circulation. On the other hand, the general people go hammer and tongs against them on the social media, some questioning their integrity and patriotism and others simply posting distasteful comments.
While everybody has a right to make a comment or feeling publicly as guaranteed by our constitution, why is it that actors are targeted? Nobody has any issue when they talk about their affairs or rivalry with other actors. Is it simply because they are vulnerable and cannot strike back hard as they cannot afford to lose their fan following or antagonise the media on which they are heavily dependent for publicity?
The latest on the target list is Aamir Khan after his comment on the intolerance issue, “As an individual, as a citizen I have also been alarmed, I can’t deny it, by a number of incidents…for the first time Kiran said should we move out of India. That’s a disastrous and big statement for her to make.”
It became a front page headline and there were comments all over social media. Some defended him, arguing that he never said that he would leave India. Others slammed him, saying how could he make such comments for India which made him a star. There were heavy security outside his house and the media was after him for a reaction. Shiv Sena announced a reward for slapping him.
Anupam Kher was critical in his tweet, Dear @aamir_khan. Did you ask Kiran which country would she like to move out to? Did you tell her that this country has made you… But Ram Gopal Verma tweeted positively, “If Aamir, Sharuk and Salman the three biggest stars of the Hindu country “India” are Muslims, I don’t understand where the intolerance is.”  
This is not the first time Aamir came under the media’s scanner. He came under the spotlight when he commented after the Vadodara riots, “I want the people of India to see that here is a political party that does not believe in democracy…”
He also came into focus when he joined the Narmada dam issue with Medha Patkar who was on a hunger strike in Delhi. Though he had not made any political comment and just met her at the venue, the media and many people had dismissed it as a publicity stunt. He also came under attack from doctors after he highlighted malpractice in the medical profession in his programme Satyameva Jayate.
Aamir Khan is not alone to be targeted. Earlier also on several occasions, celebrities had to apologise or take back their comments. Before Aamir, Shah Rukh Khan added his voice to the protest against the 'climate of intolerance' and said that there was "extreme intolerance" in the country, hitting the headline. Then followed the same cycle -- media hounding, social media leaving everything aside to target him and protests by political elements.
BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya had painted the actor as "anti-nationalist" and said his "soul" is in Pakistan though he lives in India. He, however, withdrew his controversial remarks but he refused to apologise. Several others follow suit. But this time the otherwise vociferous Shiv Sena, came out in full support of the Bollywood actor and said the superstar should not be targeted only because he is a Muslim and that the minority community in India is "tolerant".
Shah Rukh Khan had earlier entered into a controversy when he said, “I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India. … Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my ‘original homeland.”
In another instance, Shahrukh Khan's mention of the Prophet in a quote led to a huge backlash from the Muslim clergy. When he was asked by a magazine, “According to you who is the most impressive figure in history?” he replied, “There are lots of them, some negative ones like Hitler, Napoleon, Winston Churchill and if I can call it history, then Prophet Mohammed and from recent time Nelson Mandela.” “And there are nice ones like Gandhiji and Mother Teresa.”
Later he said, “Obviously, I think there is no figure in history more important than Prophet Mohammed. Also, being a Muslim and standing up for the tenets of Islam is my most important agenda… and if they have seen my interviews, etc on TV about Islam, then the people who are objecting, should realise that what has appeared is a writing error not a thought or view that I believe in. Prophet Mohammed is the most important positive figure in Islam… and anyone who questions my view on that, is doing it just to create a controversy.”
Salman Khan is the media’s favourite because of his court cases. He is also infamous for his controversial comments. On the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, he had commented, “Everybody knows that the Pakistan government was not behind 26/11 attack and it was a terrorist attack.” Later when hell broke loose on his comment all over the media, he said, “Next time main apne sab interview khud bhi record karunga… taki yeh sab controversies na ho…”
Salman Khan also got into trouble when he commented after Yakub Menon’s conviction, “Get tiger (Tiger Memon), hang him. Parade him not his brother. Later he apologised, “I would like to unconditionally apologise for any misunderstanding.” Even his father Salim Khan spoke against him, fearing the ‘anti-national’ backlash. “Whatever Salman has written is ridiculous and meaningless. Salman is ignorant of the issue and people should not take him seriously.”
Salman Khan even faced flak for flying kite with Narendra Modi when he was still campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls and for his association with Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Even Saif Ali Khan had miffed quite a few in Pakistan with his statement, “I have lost faith in Pakistan”. This he said after his film ‘Phantom’ had been banned in the Islamic Republic, following its controversial trailer depicting Pakistan as a hub for terrorists had been released. Some years ago, actress Khushboo came under attack from religious groups and activists over her comments on pre-martial sex, forcing her to issue a clarification. 
While there can be a healthy debate on what they said is right or wrong, what they said cannot surely become news of the day or take half of front pages and prime time slots on TV just because they are celebrities. And nobody for that matter should be shocked when they comment on a serious matter. They are all flesh and blood like us and have every right to make their feelings public. After all the beauty of Indian democracy is that it allows us all to speak aloud. But personal and press liberty shouldn’t become go to the extent that it becomes a vilifying or smear campaign. 


Wednesday, 18 November 2015

#Peepli Live redux --- Published in #The Hoot

The media blame politicians for exploiting social issues for political mileage but are the media any different with their feeding frenzies around tragedies, as the Dadri coverage showed?
Remember Peepli Live, the acclaimed film about a poor farmer in a drought-hit area who unwittingly became the centre of controversy and how he was caught in a battle between media houses for TRPs and politicians for political mileage?
That was a movie but don’t we have Peepli Lives playing out almost every day, whether it’s over a minor topic or a major issue? In the form of 24/7 running commentary in print, online and television media? In netas cashing in on any controversy? In the reckless and uncontrolled social media where radicalised minds spread poison and tend to trivialise the most important news?
The Dadri tragedy shows once again how the media are feeding off tragedies and from dubious motives. Is it because they really believe the news to be important or is it because a mob lynching lends itself to hysterical reporting and shrill debates which is what they need for their ratings? The same applies to politicians: is that they really care about Akhlaq and the issues the lynching threw up or are they exploiting the murder for their votebanks?
In Peepli Live, politicians and journalists competed for TRPs. They were there again at Dadri. This time we had the social media to give them company. The media were quick to accuse politicians of being vultures but were they any different?
Controversial BJP politicians and leaders from other parties lined up at the village to make provocative statements in their attempts to polarise ordinary people and politicise the issue in a bid to grab the headlines.
These politicians and journalists hung around for so long after the incident that the villagers stopped anyone else from entering because they were so angry at being exploited. The media failed to learn a lesson.
Is it possible that the media and the political class are making a bad situation even worse with their behaviour, that they are exacerbating social tensions because of their insanely aggressive conduct at such times?  If the villagers had been left alone after the gruesome murder and after the initial reporting, it’s possible that the social fabric of the village might have been only slightly, or temporarily, damaged and Hindus and Muslims might have been able to resume living together as they had earlier. Instead, as the days passed, differences hardened.
For Akhlaq’s family, the continuous glare of cameras was certainly not something they wanted at this moment of grief when Danish was still in hospital. Surely the media can show more sensitivity and judgement on such occasions and balance the insatiable need of the beast for news and updates with some  consideration for the family’s need? Instead, the headlines kept coming:
Mohammad Akhlaq's Son Shifted to Delhi Army Hospital -  NDTV
Mohammad Akhlaq's family moves to New Delhi - India Today
Akhlaq’s brother says family will not leave the village —
Kin return to village one last time – Times of India
‘Danish doesn’t want to remember that night’ - Hindustan Times
The cameras continued to chase the family for a byte or two even when Sartaj, the victim’s elder son, visited the village for the first time after the incident.
Negative, positive, analytical, sensational, the issue hogged the headlines for a good two weeks:
Right-wing groups behind Akhlaq killing: Cong - Times of India.
Dadri lynching: Akhlaq's last call was to his Hindu childhood friend for help -  Times of India
'I'll become Hindu, but don't hurt my family': Dadri Muslim -
 ‘Bisada has become a dangerous word’ - Indian Express’
Dadri: Not just another issue, Bhainsko danda? - edit page, Times of India
Was the Dadri lynching really about eating beef -
Dadri incident a well-planned conspiracy - The Hindu
The Dadri effect: Killing beef-eaters will not win elections - Times of India
'Grand Alliance' Trying to Divert Attention by Raising Dadri Incident: Venkaiah Naidu - NDTV
Dadri incident being used for gains in Bihar polls: Sanjay Raut - CNN -IBN
Adding to the pandemonium was the social media, which has become a loose cannon of sorts. It behaved very irresponsibly with people posting hate comments and inflammatory pictures. A photo of raw flesh was circulated with the claim that it was the beef found in Akhlaq’s house. The police haven’t been able to trace the people who started these chain messages. However, the  ‘once-bitten, twice-shy’ UP police quickly managed to zero in on a Facebook user for posting videos of a Dalit couple who stripped at a police station in nearby Dankaur.
After the Dadri incident, there was a string of rumours over ‘cow carcasses being found all over UP’. In Mainpuri, two butchers were beaten up over rumours of cow slaughter. Even in Bisada, the carcass of an animal led to fresh tension days after the lynching. Hate messages spread on the social media and messaging apps were largely responsible for such incidents.
And now politics has started over the decision of many writers to return their Sahitya Akademi awards to protest against the growing intolerance in the country. The government has termed it a ‘manufactured’ protest and the opposition has taken the government head-on. Here we go again..yet another controversy, yet another high-decibel ruckus. Where will it end? The mind boggles.  

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Living on the edge

Living on the edge
  Today when I went to the pathological lab for a simple blood test, I saw a small boy, a dengue patient, waiting for his turn. The small boy, I heard, was coming twice a day to check his platelet count. The tired and worried parents were eagerly waiting for the report. I could relate to their tension as I also have a son of the same age.
The kid was suffering from dengue, a disease that has wreaked havoc in Delhi-NCR this year. This year, a vast majority of those affected, including the victims, are children. Experts say the outbreak is only likely to intensify in by mid-October.
I wonder, aren’t we living on the edge year after year. Are we paying the price of living in a big city? With the onset of monsoon every year, dengue raises its ugly head and people live in fear with each passing day. We start taking precautions by not opening doors and windows even in day hours as the dengue mosquito bites in the morning and during day time. This year, a circular was sent from my son’s school, asking them to wear full sleeves shirt and long trousers in summer time; most of big schools are air-conditioned and so sending them fully covered wouldn’t be a problem for those studying there. But what about kids in government schools where there is no guarantee that the rickety fan would work. Wouldn’t they sweat just because the government is trying to cover up its own failure to check mosquito-breeding than the kids?
In the evening again, I cannot stop him from going to the park so cover him in this humid September to protect him from that nasty bite.
Recently, the swimming pool of our society was closed after two children had dengue fever. Only then, reality struck our management members that dengue mosquito breeds in clean water. Every year dengue is at its peak in October, the festival season. And there is no respite till Diwali night when smoke from crackers stops these tiny killers. But is this a healthy solution?
But are these protections enough? Come winter and again another fear will start worrying us -- swine flu. In peak summer when people from other places dread to come to the national capital, we feel safe as the hot sun protects us at least from these diseases.
Then there is the constant fear of air pollution; it is said after 10 years Delhi will be counted among the most polluted cities in the world. I think it is already there. If these killer diseases are taking toll year after year why doesn’t the government take precautions beforehand? Simple steps like cleaning drains, cutting unnecessary hedges and bushes, stopping dumping of garbage here and there, conducting fumigation drives across all places not only in the posh areas, covering areas where stagnant water accumulates. These are enough to restrict disease from spreading.
The common people must also take responsibility to keep their surroundings clean along with their houses. Instead, our political parties are busy in a blame game. When in power, their term gets over before taking any sincere step and when in opposition their only task is to blame the ruling party. This year, the unofficial death toll is already nearing 50. Delhi had witnessed a large number of dengue cases in 2010, with over 6,200 cases.
This year, the death of a seven-year- old dengue patient followed by his parents’ suicide was shocking. Every year we read, we feel bad and then we forget until a similar story hits the headlines next year. We think this can happen to others and not us.
In such emergency situations, why can’t private hospitals open their doors for the poor at nominal rates so that they don’t have to run from pillar to post? Sometimes they are shown the door saying no beds are available, sometimes they are told treatment not possible there. Initiatives to improve the conditions of the government hospitals will help in controlling such diseases in the long run. Till then, living on the edge will become a routine affair and part of our daily lives.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Soap opera of the absurd

Soap opera of the absurd
  I was surfing the television channels the other day, searching for something to ‘pass time’, as they say. While I could not find a single serial worthwhile to even stand for a few minutes, I was dumbstruck with the quality of what is shown on the idiot box in the name of entertainment.
Regressive, I thought, are today’s serials. But then, regressive would be a tame word I guess. These are atrocious, lousy and diabolical – a throwback to the loud and bad Hindi movies of the ’80s – and do justify the tag ‘idiot box’ given to television.
In this 21st century when we are all standing up against superstition, here was a TV serial showing the protagonist challenging a daiin (witch) and taking on a nagin before that. Absolutely ridiculous! My seven-year-old son who was watching innocently asked. “Mamma, does this happen in real life also?” Even he understood that this can’t be real. I replied, “No they are just doing theatre just like you do in your theatre class.”
Then there was another serial in which a young widow is made to follow all the rules of a rigid conservative Hindu society. And we all thought widow remarriage is no big deal these days and the focus is on economic self-reliance of women.
In another serial, the lead character married so many times that even viewers lost count. Once while my mother-in-law was watching that serial and a marriage sequence was going on, my husband asked who was getting married. She replied the lead character, to which he said “Oh no, Not again!” and there were bouts of laughter.
One soap is about a girl who is the subject of ridicule day in and day out. The reason -- believe it or not – is her stammering. The whole world right from her neighbours to her office colleagues to her in-laws is after her to make her life hell. They insult her again and again, calling her ruk ruk ke bolne wali. I wonder if anybody behaves like that today.
In many serials, the mom-in law is shown plotting against the daughter-in-law and the later doesn’t utter a word. I don’t think today’s girls are so dumb and so tolerant. Why can’t they focus on not tolerating such behaviour and lodging complaints against domestic violence? In our self-defence classes with Delhi Police, we were told even emotional torture is a crime and action would be taken if complaint is lodged. Or will they wait for the daughter-in-law to die and take rebirth for revenge? Going by our present day stories, even that is possible.
In yet another story, the father-in-law is the hell breaker in the household and makes the lives of all the women in the house like jail inmates. They are not allowed to go out and even wear a saree of their choice. My, my, isn’t that a bit too much?
All this reminds of our childhood days when DD was the only channel and cable network was yet to enter our lives. The serials came once a week and we used to wait for a whole week to know what would happen next. The storylines were simple and real and we would instantly connect with them. The characters were so like us and we would laugh and cry with them and understand their feelings. The stories had a logical ending. Serials like Humlog, Buniyaad, Katha Sagar, Ye jo hai zindegi, Rajni, etc., that we can never forget. Serials that were so popular and even today people talk about them. May be that is why when Zindagi channel entered our homes, it instantly struck a chord with the viewers as they found its storylines similar with the old DD days.
Even today some serials start with a good theme but under the daily pressure, they lose track. Writers are forced to stretch the storyline to such an extent that it becomes boring and people lose interest. They bring twists and turns every now and then by entry of a vamp or rebirth angle or double role and even plastic surgery. Even actors start quitting the shows and serial makers have to replace them with new faces, confusing the viewers all the more.
Serial makers often reason that they add masala to the soaps to attract housewives. Please give me a break. Today’s homemakers are educated so why feed them with such stories? If people stop watching such shows, TRPs will automatically go down and the channels will be bound to pull the plug on these serials.
But I also feel there must be are a lot of viewers who regularly watch such serials. Even I failed to convince my mom-in-law not to watch such serials. Her logic is “what else do I watch?”
Isn’t it time for serial makers to give us something worthwhile and tell the world that TV is more than just an idiot box?