Friday, June 29, 2007

Barnstorm Kashmir III

We need to find God and
He cannot be found in noise and restlessness.
God is the friend of silence. See how nature grows in silence;
see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.
We need silence to be able to touch souls.
~ Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa

I have perhaps been in love with nature ever since I can remember. Apart from my closest friends and my immediate family, the only time I think of Kashmir is when I remember the riot of a million tipsy tulips in summers. I also miss the slow waltz of snowflakes in winters. Our trip to Kashmir -- this time – was packed with a nature trail.

On a particular crisp blue morning we set off for -- a car trek -- up the mountains of Pahalgam. The name Pahalgam is comprised of two Kashmiri words: Pahal – which means Shepherd – and gam – that stands for village. It has been a little virgin valley of herdsmen for centuries. Perched in the lap of burnt sienna mountains, this God’s glen is beautifully tucked away from the daily bustle of humankind.

We – my mates and me – played soulful music, stopped over to snaffle the roadside snacks and took turns to drive to the Southern most tip of Kashmir. Salus pulled over at a rather pictorial spot on our way. The Lidder river skirts along this secluded, anonymous place. The scent of the pine trees here is absolutely heady. A sudden blessed feeling engulfs you, as you take out your clothes for a quick dip in the brook. Petite pocks of the gentle breeze kindly tease your exposed toes, as does the glacier cold water of Lidder. At an altitude of nearly 7200 feet above sea level – Delhi, for example is only 706 feet above sea level -- you know that joy in comprehending is one of God's most beautiful gifts.

A lonely gun-wielding army man saw us throwing water at each other in the stream. I thought the gentleman was lost in his own private dreams. The sound of water hitting the formless little boulders makes you go soft in the heart. Must have been 22 degree C – at broad afternoon. A prompt smile flickered across his now-poetic, not-the-least soldierly face as we whizzed past. Proximity to nature, perhaps, does that to you. “Why don’t they withdraw troops from Kashmir now, Sam?” Raj asked nonchalantly. Who would wish to tear one-self from this place? I responded in chummy jest.

A quick decision over lunch hovered about what we do next. Rafting – was the unanimous choice. How friends think alike! Pahalgam is a rafter’s delight and even an amateur can catch a raft and glide down the rushing streams. The Lidder has excellent fishing beats for rainbow and brown trout. Imagine rafting in fish-filled waters. Ten people – two couples, two instructors and us – got into a raft. The swirling water in Lidder is especially suited for river rafting, the instructor told me. I wasn’t listening, for once.

Rafting is jollity. Like its ferocity there is also gentleness in Lidder. The beauty of the river is that at places it's so quite. The icy heights of the Himalayas are the source of some of India's mighty rivers. Fed by innumerable streams they race along tortuous boulder strewn beds, cutting deep gorges and breaking into silvery white rapids. Lidder flows through a myriad colours of rocky gorges, forests, flowers and high mountain villages. You just wish to go on. Fish plop as you raft.

We were asked to follow the instructor’s call – Get down – signifying: Jump to floor of the raft -- swiftly -- in case of a very strong current. This helps them negotiate the fast torrents, they explained. A subsequent – Get back – call would be a signal to get back to our places -- along borderline of the raft. Now both couples were a little scared – girls anyways are! – of the rapids. Taking a cue, Wasy -- with his sense of mischief clearly intact -- decided to add to their misery. Many times over he shouted – Get down -- and the poor folks would immediately jump to the floor. They mistook it for the instructor’s call. The instructors seemed to love the prank. It was so much fun.

Driving back on winding roads -- on a clear, starry sky – amid dense forests and pygmy villages with old chimneys happily piping out smoke is the stuff you can only doodle about in any big metropolis. At 706 feet.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rainbow times

There is a beautiful land
Where all your dreams come true

Minutes mosey past me. Life looks like a compact rainbow. Or like a kind ice cream topped with brutish chocolate. It feels so varicolored. Fast and fake. A heavy moth comes and plops down on my heart. It takes off, circles around and sits again. An odd toad croaks in the hailing distance. Cars honk. Another day is gone.

How stupid modern mankind must be? I oft ask myself. How mercilessly we strive to work and get ourselves occupied only to let all our dreams -- with so much of beauty in them -- just slip by. We live a short life, after all. They say the doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.

Silly mechanical lives – laden with doors that open to cards and not to the gentle push. Walls that have dollars painted across their broadness, clocks that give us time zones of faraway latitudes. We feel internationalized, globalized. And tend to talk in funny accents and think we have mastered a universal language, which we don’t understand brass tacks about.

Whatever happened to nobility? To uniqueness. To love. To life. To friendship. A lovely poem I chanced across last night might make it a little axiomatic.

Red is the color of a lot of lollipops,
Orange is any orange on a tree.
Yellow's the color of a bag of lemon drops,
Green is a piece of seaweed in the sea.

Blue is the color of the sky in summertime
Indigo is a Siamese cat's eyes.
Violet's the color of a flow'r in wintertime.
These are the colors of the rainbow skies.

There is a beautiful land
Where all your dreams come true;
It's all tied up in a rainbow,
All shiny and new;
But it's not easy to find
No matter what you do.

It's not on top of a mountain
Or beneath the deep blue sea
Or in London zoo or in Timbuktoo,
Or in Timbuckthree.

And if you traveled the world
From China to Peru,
There's no beautiful land on the chart.
An explorer could not begin
To discover its origin
For the beautiful land is in your heart.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Barnstorm Kashmir-II

The ghostly tales

Kingdom in a Lake. That is where we left last time. Human minds invariably get interested in such kooky poppycock. Suess, the American humorist gets it bang right when he says, I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. So during this summer vacation -- back in the land of the unexplained -- every morning we would get up to hear the latest lowdown about Abdullah, the ghost in our neighbor’s newly built home. My sis would religiously narrate the Jinn’s slate of activities from the previous day. She would in turn get the dope straight from the horse’s mouth – that is – lady of the haunted house.

Anyone who visited my neighbors' home would ostensibly find his/her shoes/sandals/floaters instantly thrown out of the place. The Jinn – they named him Abdullah -- seemed to harbor some kind of a strong revulsion for the footwear, I was told. In my characteristic style, I tried to rubbish the supernatural claims till my neighbor himself confided in me about the strange paranormal occurrence. He even invited me to witness the spectacle – shoes flying off – which I politely declined. On a personal note, I am a little scared of these phantoms, which tease at will.

A significant part of our idle talk invariably used to center around Abdullah, the boot hater. My pals -- Wasy, Raj and Salus -- were all curious, like me for the latest ghostly update. Stories like the Jinn swinging doors at odd hours or digging up the lawn at midnight or talking in eerie voices continued to come. Frankly I’d get goose bumps. The last I’ve heard -- on phone -- is that Abdullah has started talking in some exotic language and he still continues to chuck shoes out of the beautiful one-storey house of my good neighbor.

Ever heard of a spick and span spook! Happens in Kashmir, only.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Hamas gets Noble prize

So finally Hamas has done the unthinkable. You could have never guessed it, right? It has lifted the coveted Nobel peace prize for 2007. Right now the ordinary foot soldiers of the once-dreaded outfit are playing with the medallion. Being a party of the masses, the world’s best-known prize has gone to just the right kind of people. Reports suggest that Hamas buccaneers are affectionately tossing the coin-like insignia and throwing it at each other. Abu-Mazin aka Mehmud Abbas, the Palestinian Prez is seething with anger in his West Bank Office. Oh, I forgot to add, the Fatah (headed by Abu) and Hamas do not get along very well. Israel is fuming but watching the latest development with a keen interest. The west, they say, is shell-shocked. Hamas is, after all, on the terror list of a dozen odd countries -- including the US.

For those who came in late, let me rewind the tale a little. Ah – How I hate to explain things that only I follow? Palestine – as we know – the jolly old holy place is the scene of a bloody conflict for 40, 45, 50…. I don’t remember how many…Let’s say many many years now. Don’t ask me what are they fighting for? I can tell you though, that it is the world’s most intense, passionate, well-entrenched, funded, supported, hated, divisive, gruesome continuous conflict. The Palestinian side has been lead by Fatah (commanded by the legendary Yasir Arafat for more than 40 years till his death in 2004). Arafat (popularly called Abu Ammar) was succeeded by the affable doctor of law Mehmud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Just for record, the Israelis have been represented by a spate of smug-looking prime ministers that includes the likes of Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin,Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and co. Mr Sharon is in some kind of a strange medical condition – called Coma – since 2006. His critics – both ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims – think he is under a curse. Both have different reasons for it?

Not straying too much from our main theme, The Hamas Nobel peace price for 2007. In 1987 -- exactly 20 years before it finally laid its hands on the prestigious award -- Hamas was founded by a wheel chair bound man. It is a vehemently anti-Israel organization and has used violence extensively – in the past -- in order to achieve its political goals. Feared outside Palestine for its notorious suicide bombings, rants and radicalism, Hamas swept to power – riding a popular support -- in early 2006. Since then it has been fighting an endless power struggle with Fatah, who despite having the Prez chair suddenly feel relegated to the margins.

The internecine battle between Fatah -- that controls the west bank -- and Hamas, which holds sway in Gaza, has given a very unusual character to the Palestinian struggle. Hundreds have been killed, many more arrested, and we have witnessed some military style executions of the Fatah cadre by Hamas. Due to their fighting acumen and more disciplined combatants, Hamas has prevailed and successfully over-ran the Fatah facilities, destroying them fully. Last week, Hamas secured the Gaza city completely. At almost the same time, the Nobel peace prize came.

Surprised. Why should Hamas get the Nobel peace prize? How could the Norwegian Parliament, which appoints the Norwegian Nobel Committee that in turn gives the prize, choose Hamas? Well don’t scratch your heads too much. The distinction isn’t that difficult to achieve. All you got to do is this: You are Hamas. You have to look grim. Very grim. Blast Yasir Arafat’s home in Gaza. Instantly kill the chaps on guard. Raid the empty house of the supreme Palestinian leader, who bagged the original Nobel peace prize in 1994. Break into his vault. Take his military uniform. The famous headscarf. His letters. His personal belongings (which any world museum will give a fortune to have). Take away the Nobel Peace prize. Scoot. No don’t even scoot. Display the prize. Toss it around. Get lost. So simple! Pity.



Friday, June 15, 2007

Barnstorm Kashmir-I

A beautiful mizzle greeted me as I slowly ambled across the little distance from the Boeing to a pine wooded arrival lounge at the Srinagar airport. Must have been 1300 hours on June 2 but I had no ways to know. I didn’t have a watch on me and my cell was purposely switched off. It felt timeless, anyways. A curious look towards the wispy sky filled me with everything I had left behind – the famous nip in the air, blush of hollyhocks, the muted silhouette of the elderly mountains. It all came rushing back.

The rain wiper in -- my buddy -- Salus’ car was furiously clearing the view in front of us. An old world charm galloped ahead of us. Simple folks with fair skins. Old men with grey beards. Little children with angelic eyes. Shy damsels with lost eyes. Handsome hawkers shouting their wares. The tall popular trees lined on either side of the turnpike stood in their forever grace. Occasional army men manned the pockmarked road. Life is like a comely action-replay in the valley. This is Kashmir, I thought. Incredulously believable.

Expectedly people were sowing the rice crop. Hip to hip. In sing-song fashion. Heartening. And
Day-2 was again rain. Though it stopped towards the afternoon, the north sky was tenderly overcast. A fiesta awaited us! Kashmir is rich in its gastronomic traditions. The food is fed to spoil you. Twenty-six courses minimum, as Rushdie subtly puts it in Shalimar, the Clown. You indulge in the mastery of the head-chef. You don’t even mind licking your fingers over and over again. It is a thousand calories raised to the power 26 but the crazy Atkins diet can take a guided walk on the greens. In the land of musk deer the senses run wild and you effortlessly absorb the assortment of spices, which give out an aroma to die for.

The local gossip never seems to stop. It comes in regular intervals and everyone seems to have it. With all business establishments closed by 5pm and markets completely shut by 7pm, the juicy gossip-factory is never short of the clothesline. Though you don’t quite relate to it, you still participate. The old wives tales. Familiar biases. Exaggerated accounts. Pauses. Effects. The theatricals. It is hilarious. The most common past time. Sample this: If you look at the Wular lake for a few minutes continuously, you develop suicidal tendencies. That is because the lake is mostly gloomy. It has an ancient kingdom already immersed in it.

The funny chitchat shall continue.


Images from the Dell

Srinagar: A birds-eye view of the Dal lake and Srinagar city

Saffron vale: Raj -- 6ft2 -- and me in the crimson saffron meadows, South Kashmir

Threesome: Salus -- in buff -- me and Wasy near Phalgam, Kashmir

Quick dip: Salus sun-bathing after a dip in the glacier-cold waters of Lidder

Braveheart: Wasy makes a point atop a slippery boulder in Lidder, Countryside Kashmir
[click on the images for a bigger impact]

Thursday, June 14, 2007

White Heat

Imagine being portaged from 77 F to 113 F in less than an hour. That is what happened to me a few days back and I am still trying to adjust to the rude reality. Being in Kashmir has its own advantages – you know that you are in the most enviable clime-zone in India and no matter what you’ll never have to use the AC in your car. The barn swallow gliding in a distance makes you feel -- for once -- flighty. As the plane slowly began its ascent, the chocolate and snow colored mountains appeared whispering to the blobby clouds. Look at those folks; they are going to be slowly sautéed in the plains.

I’ll write about my Kashmir sojourn in the days ahead. Good scoop can always wait. I first wish to share the bad poop. The winds -- they say -- bring in omens. As soon as the leggy airhostess threw open the airplane door, winds from hell blew in. I instantly knew we were in for an especially uncomfortable time. After all 25 C and 45 C is not exactly fair figuring. At my Delhi apartment, a notorious power cut welcomed us. No cold water in the refrigerator. Inverter with low battery. A quick glance at the morn newspaper confirmed my worst fears. 15 hour-cuts in the city. Anachronistic. I let out a hapless slack gasp.

I’ve jotted in some detail – in my earlier posts – the super aversion I harbor for the cruel heat. Indian summers suck. It is sweat, swear, and slow sauté. Though you may try, you just can’t beat it. Instead it beats the hell out of you. I just can’t fathom how people manage. It is one of the many things I don’t bother thinking about. You see blokes working under a scorching sun on half dug-up roads or selling pirated books at traffic signals in abominable afternoons or clung upon electric poles trying to fix or unfix a maze of wires. Still some sleep blissfully in one of the city parks' under -- little shade -- of an outgrown shrub. In 113 F. India confounds me, endlessly.

I am slowly attuning to the clime-change. The AC is working proper. The battery back up is firmly in place. The fridge has stockpiles of ice and juice and cold water in it. I don’t step out in the heat. My office hours are nicely aligned – and inversely proportional to – the temperature outside. The air-conditioning in the car is just fine. I conspired with my colleague Mehak to ask our management to increase the chill factor in the split AC in our office cabin. I don’t eat much outside. Not in this white heat!

Glad tidings to follow.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Adieu pals

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.
~Henry David Thoreau, Poet and Philosopher 1817-1862

I abhor saying Good Byes. It breaks my heart. I hate to tear myself away from the smells I love, the joyful volumes of familiarity I snort, the crisp buzz of good pals. But there are times in life when you have to. It goes on like a golden brocard. Everyone chooses a way.
And even though we find our own place in the world, we all know that when the tears fall or the smile spreads across our face, we'll come to each other because no matter where this crazy world takes us, nothing will ever change so much to the point where we're not all still chums.

I am taking a sabbatical. For a little over one week. I am off to Kashmir – the overrated little dell. Though the place is beautiful, I don’t quite relate to the chicanery about its natives. At least, most of them. At another level I know I can’t unbelong to the place. It is home. It is close to nature. Waking up to the fragrance of a million Hyacinths in bloom is -- any day -- a better idea than opening your eyes to a hot-as-an-oven day in Delhi. And looking out at the woody-stemmed, twining leaflets of the scented violet flowers called Wisteria is like watering your sapped-out soul. Hauntingly calming too. After an exacting journalistic rigour, I reckon it comes as a welcome interlude.

It is also time for the local farmers to sow their rice. Every time I watch them, I find it breathtaking -- neat rows of assiduous men and women, hunched back, strewing little rice plants. They sing songs of love, joy and bounty together. Trousers tucked. Aloud. Hip to hip. Religion can squat at home, or hinge upon mosque knobs. When it comes to survival, co-existence often takes precedence. Little pleasing things continually fascinate me back home. Like the blue-necked cuckoos that just don’t stop purling. Vincent van Gogh once said, Keep your love of nature, for that is the true way to understand art more and more.

Still I felt a deep lump in the throat as I packed my bags this evening. I don’t know why we feel attached to -- Situations. Things. Events. Cavort. Laughter. Intimacy. Gazes. Rides. Friends. My head is slightly reeling. That may be a joint I took tiny drags of. The smoke often makes funny, irregular shapes, which make no sense. One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way. Vincent would agree, I know.

I shall see you soon, mates.


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