Remembrance

What is the greatest disservice one can do to a man? To equate the results of his sweat, blood, tears and sacrifice to merely being a gift of god. To write off all his finest deeds as being merely something he was always meant to do. To attribute far larger meanings to even small actions on his part. And yet,remember him only for his failings.

What is the greatest burden that one can place on a man? It is to be the bearer of Hope, the delicious torment that remained behind in Pandora’s box.

Sachin Tendulkar was and will remain one of those very rare child prodigies who achieved and surpassed the great deeds unfairly foretold of him. Through a major chunk of his career, he was hope personified for a needy people. If you look carefully, hope is not very far from expectation. He was deified and has been made responsible for everything from the national mood to the resurgence of the Indian economy. He has been injudiciously called the “the greatest batsman of all time”.

That is merely one end of the spectrum, At the other end, there are the crucifiers. For some he didnt win enough games. For some he wasn’t dogged or gritty enough and to others not flamboyant enough; to yet others he was selfish, overrated and lesser to other giants of the game. Worst of all, a guest of honour who overstayed his welcome.

We belittle the man by making him a “God” and by making him the reason behind the country’s rise. We embarass his decency by the inglorious spectacle that is being made of his farewell. It must be remembered after all that he was merely indulging in the luxury of playing his favourite game for most of his adult life and getting paid for it.

We belittle his worth by judging it upon the weight of numbers; they are merely incidental to excellence and durability. We show a lack of understanding when we tell him that Dravid was more hardworking, Lara more dazzling, Sehwag more attacking, Steve Waugh more rugged, Ponting more imposing and Kallis more rounded. He was a little bit of all of them and some more. It must be remembered that he has been around forever and is none the worse for it. He was the best batman of his generation, the 90’s and early 2000’s, when fabled creatures called great bowlers still prowled and cricket pitches still lived.

Remember that there was a time when he was our “boy who stood on the burning deck, when all around him had fled”. Remember the goosebumps and that thrilling, rising swell of noise when he came out to bat. When it felt as though, he was going out to bat for us. Remember that he has always been Sachin, not Tendulkar.

When he makes a final bow sometime in the next few days, let us not embarass him with vulgar demonstrations of devotion nor diminish his memory with unwarranted criticism. His job was to entertain and to spread cheer; to give us a reason to play. Let us just thank a sincere man who did his job really well for a bloody long time.

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“The Open Sky Paradox”

A fortnight back, I woke at 3 in the morning. On a sand dune in Bikaner. For a change, it was not the whirring fan and gray ceiling of my room that I saw. It was an old love instead. The open sky, black satin with shimmering sequins, that stretched endlessly. The last time it was that way, it had inspired my first blog!

The sky does a lot of things to us. Other than showing us our insignificant place in the great scheme of things, it is an infinite source of hope and calm. I do not know why this is so, but that is why we always look to the ‘heavens’ in times of despair.

Only last evening, my 3 companions and I had been bitterly disappointed by..mmm… how the desert looked. It was not the romantic rolling, swirling dunes of reddish sand marked by wind with camel caravans silhouetted against the sun. To put it mildly, it didn’t look like what the desert looked on TV. Or in the “English Patient”. It was more an endless stretch of sandy scrub with un-duny sand dunes here and there. To the non-discerning eye, not very different from what you get in dry areas near the coast of Tamil Nadu and Orissa (But then, why will it look different, if as science tells us, this area was all once a sea?). Our guide desperately tried telling us that the rain gods had been too kind this year, with upto 15 days of continuous rain. This had led to scruffy shrubs popping up everywhere, even on the dunes and trees looking rather leafy. Melons and other creepers seemed to be flourishing. Rather unbecoming of a desert. Apparently some of the local crops which are not very used to rain had been adversely affected! Much of our disappointment also stemmed from the fact that by the time we trekked up on camels,it was mostly dark. Whatever they show you on TV, trust me, riding a camel for an hour and a half, is not very romantic. One can hardly romance anything when in constant danger of falling over the creature’s head or tail.

However, a superb fire-cooked meal and a serene nap later, with a lovely view getting clearer, I was at peace. We really were in the desert, sleeping on a sand dune under the open sky. The powers of suggestion of the human mind are incredible 😉 A peaceful mind leads to clear thinking and it got me wondering on something we were discussing the previous evening.

A great number of India’s ‘teeming masses’ are those who are poor beyond what most of us cannot imagine. They sleep in the open facing the vagaries of nature. A lot of their lives are spent, not to mention ostensibly the government’s & NGOs’ & activists, towards having a stable existence. The core sign of this stability being a roof over their heads. And yet, what exactly does a good percentage of people who are assured of a roof and more, increasingly do? They go off on holidays where they take great pleasure in sleeping rough in the open, in the most  unlikely of places! They pay a reasonable price for it  to boot.  Just like me.

This peculiar ‘cycle’ is prevalent in other things we do as well, if we look closely. Trade was built initially on barter of hand-made objects built to the convenience of the person needing it. Then we got civilized and started mass producing things. Civilization moved on though. Leading us to the latest fad. Custom built cars and what not. And they cost much more too.

From coarse grain meals that the ‘poor’ eat, we progressed to fine grains, atta and maida. Yet, those with enough money to spare now eat ‘whole grain cereal’, ‘multi-grain bread’, bajre ka roti etc etc. “Brown sugar” at Barista anyone? Khadi clothes and jute bags…just keep your eyes open and things just keep popping up.

I don’t really have an explanation for all this, other than the fact that it raises another question. What do we really want?? Curiously, I find it reflected in one of those useless theories they teach us in management – ‘Maslow’s Pyramid’ or some such thing.  It starts with the human quest for basic needs and ends with him attaining self actualisation (‘nirvana’?) after going through all the transformations necessary for marketing management to be a subject on its own. A similar parallel may also be drawn to the four stages of life as defined in the Hindu scriptures. Inevitably, even kings are advised to undergo “vanaprastham” to finish with.

On simplified terms, it turns out you end up with what you started out with and are mighty happy about it. Should this be treated as reason enough to abandon all efforts for generating “sustainable livelihoods” & “emancipating the deprived classes”? Maybe we should, if only just to spite our Arundhati Roys. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry a lot about a holocaust or a big war or climate change. We just might enjoy the aftermath and save ourselves!

I do not know what exactly a ‘paradox’ means, but surely this is one and I named it after the muse.

The Nature of Travel

I have this big itch. Every two weeks or so, my brain and body begin to buzz. The only comparable feeling is a sudden craving for Amma-made food. And left untended to, it builds up to an unrelenting helpless restlessness. At first undiagnosed, it soon became clear to me. It was just me telling me, you need to go somewhere. Anywhere. Sometimes I manage to keep a hold on myself for a few days, weeks. Sometimes, I just need to go. The satisfaction derived out of a good scratch on your itchy backside is incomparable.

Why do I love to travel? B’coz I love to? That is too simple an answer. What is the emotion underlying that love? Scratching is perhaps only a temporary medication to an affliction that has worthier patients across the world. The growing intensity of the itch has led me to make an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Travel. Purely from a philanthropic view, much like Adam Smith did.

To travel is to seek. On a basic level, we seek some of the simpler pleasures of life. Solitude. A quiet walk. Birdsong. Sleeping under a starry sky. The list is endless, depending on the seeker. For a seeker, a destination is only an excuse to travel. That is the difference between a seeker and a tourist. A tourist has deadlines, targets and payment schedules to meet. A seeker doesn’t quite know what he is to do or even find. He started off with an excuse and makes up extempore as he moves.

People often talk of travelling to “find oneself”. Its actually quite the opposite. We travel to unfind ourselves. To get rid of the skin that we wear every day to work; to interact with family & friends; even in traffic. That shell is not us, it is what we try to be for others. When travelling we can cast away that skin. No one you meet on the road knows who you are or what you are like. They don’t expect anything from you. They may not even understand your tongue. Travel rejuvenates for this very reason. It scratches away at that shell and scrapes it away. Below is us. Like a snake rubbing itself on rocks. The reptile that emerges in a few days is beautiful & glistening (still a snake though!).

This is why travellers, often unconsiously, look for a difficult journey. Sleeping rough, driving bikes in the summer sun for a few hundred kms and drinking liquids of unknown provenance are all a part of this. On the road you are at the mercy of strangers (chaiwallahs to ‘guides’) and the environment. The secret is to keep moving, keep seeking. This is why we tend to fondly remember journeys which start with the bus breaking down 16 times and end with a dysentry.

Travelling teaches you like no textbook can. People you meet on the road are often those you may be overlooking daily. Friends who travelled with me during the field trip to Orissa will remember Vinod. He ran a ramshackle tea shop at Tikarpara, a forest village beside the Mahanadi inside Satkosia WLS. He cooked roti & dal dinners lovingly for us by firelight. The mere fact that we (to him, rich sophisticates from the city who wouldn’t bother to look twice at his shack) returned to his place even on our return trip, reduced him to tears of happiness. And we gladly returned to him (a guardian angel in a place where we otherwise would have mostly starved) for stories drenched sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in hope and for jalebis fried in fish oil. To this day I can remember his lined, aged beyond years face and the shabby shawl thrown across his shoulders.

Travelling is one of our only remaining ways of touching nature. It may not be what everyone seeks, but to me atleast the pleasure of walking amidst giant trees and watching birds and beasts where they are meant to be cannot be found elsewhere. We are lucky to be in a land of such diversity, stretching from mountains to oceans, from the desert to vast river deltas. The sights and sounds of these places are all reminders to us of what we are and what we have abandoned.

Even the simple act of driving along a deserted highway can give you insights. Though I don’t really know what to do with some of them. Like the fact that cows remember to look right and look left before crossing, only when they are in the middle of the road. Of course, they always decide that the middle is the safest place to be once they do.

Once an agitated middle aged man flagged me down on the Alwar-Jaipur road. He had just hopped out to answer the call of nature when the bus he was in took off without him while his bags continued their onward journey. He wanted me to ‘catch’ the bus. Ordinarily, I coast along at a very relaxed pace on my bike trips, watching the new places, people and birds around. Content to let the SUVs & demented Travel Corp buses roar and lurch their merry way on. This was a particularly fetching piece of the road as it winded its way through classic Aravalli countryside. And I almost never entertain lift seekers. Yet I did that day and am glad I did.

It was quite a chase with my de-bused friend shouting insults at bullock carts that showed the impertinence of slowing us down. Soon we came upon a precariously packed bus throwing itself around corners with people hanging out of windows and others holding on for dear life on the top. We thumped regally past and waved the speeding bus to a screeching halt. I was preparing for receiving a show of profuse gratitude when my friend realised that it was the wrong bus. Too late, a grizzled driver poked his head out and released a torrent of very ugly driverese. Before the passengers could join in, we cleared out with my Old Man showing remarkable reflexes. I kept the chase on, as much to find the ‘sahi’ bus, as to evade the ‘galat’ one. Finally we came upon the right one. To be fair to my unfortunate friend this one was similarly packed and driven eerily similarly. As that ad goes, the price of the ride: missed sights & clogged ears; the price of satisfaction earned: priceless.

You lose something; You find something. Thats the idea.

At the very end, travel seems to me to be a cut and run. An escape from the harsh realities of our personal life to the harsher ones of the world. The monotony of our daily grind wears us out and renders us dull. Travelling sharpens our edge. It is a heightening of the senses. A polishing of the intellect. A broadening of view. An opening of the self. It seems to be motivated by instinct rather than personal preference. Truly, not all those of us who wander are really lost.

So is there a cure for this itch? Even if there is, I think I’ll leave the formulation to better people.

I think I’ll keep scratching…..mmmm…that was good 😉

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P.S: This one is a little too long. Hope others can add their diagnosis on the issue. The itch keeps getting worse you see. It might please my parents to know that my big travel dream has shifted from coaxing Old Man up to to rugged Ladakh (not that I’ll pass on a chance to do that). The new ones are even more attractive. A ride down to Kochi. A trek to the Valley of Flowers. And will someone please show me a tiger in the wild before they are left just in my head ????

Forest Eyes

Amber, Amber Forest Eyes,

Deeper ones never were seen!

In it all the ancient ties,

And the ages that passed unseen;

All giants of the green clan,

And proud and timeless hills;

Clear water that through her ran,

And vales untouched by human tills;

Hunt and flight, that never tire,

Spicy spring and clouded skies;

And flood and famine and forest fire.

How time flies in the amber eyes!

The Way of the Bullet

The course of history as we know it today was decided in many ways by the Enfield Bullet. The venerable R K Pachauri never owned or tried to start a Bullet in his lifetime. Neither did Robert M Persig. And so today we have thousands of scientists, reams of data and sponsored vacations devoted to a supposed “voodoo science”. And we do not have to read a best-seller called “Zen & the Art of Starting a Bullet”.

It can be safely said that there is no more unpredictable, even mystical phenomena known to the human world than the simple act of kick-starting a Bullet to life. All it requires is gas, compression, spark and a kick. However it is a potent mixture that can reduce adult men to tears. And yet when the conditions are right (wonder what they are??), even a toddler or an ultra light female can coax it to life. (As proved amply in the picture below).

There are Enfield bikes now that sport electric push button starts and so on and so forth. However, if a bullet does not want to start, it will not. Currently, the best available technique to get a reluctant engine to get going is to get a cup of tea, take a stroll and try again in 10 minutes.

Once it does get going though, there is no sweeter sound in the automobile world than that distinguished, regal thump. Autos from the 1950s are called vintage; other near obsolete automations antique. The Bullet is neither. It is an anachronism. It is built for thumping unhurriedly on the long road, regardless of hills or potholes and not for swerving and zipping around in traffic. The seats and tires are broad; comfort and not style is the maxim. Its suspension does not “smoothly swallows up the imperfections of the road”, but neither does it tip awkwardly after hitting a pothole. In fact, it would take a lot of effort to fall of a Bullet other than in extraordinary circumstances. And they simply did not have an impending fuel crisis during the 1950s.

Each of these bikes have a unique character of their own and for that reason, the relation between a Bullet and its rider is a lot like that between an elephant and its mahout. You can hug a bullet or  kick and swear at one. You don’t wash  one, you bathe it. Can you imagine doing that to a Hero Honda Splendor? This elephantine quality comes in when you look at the Bullet’s aesthetics too. The individual parts are not perfect (bulbous tank, big round headlight, sluggish brakes, leaky parts etc) , but the whole has a certain large-boned beauty to it. Like an elephant.

A Bullet, like its ad says, lets you ‘leave home’. And gets you into trouble in the most unlikely of places, far from human habitation in the hills and in front of Jal Mahal at midnight on Holi just being two examples.

It lets you connect to strangers on the road like nothing else can. I have had a policeman come over and start my Old Man for me after I had given up; a pump attendant lovingly polish that bulbous tank after topping up; 3 school kids whoop behind me on their way home, Sardars tailing me to advise changing my air filter……the list is endless. You will get admiring glances at traffic lights; but beware, do not for a moment believe they are for you. Do that and the creature below you will show you who the hero is. By shutting down and refusing to start again till you apologise. You get comments too, “Raja gaadi hai saab..” on one side and “Kitna shor karta hai..diesel par chalta hai kya?” on the other. Kipling did not say “North is North and South is South, and never shall the two twains meet” about India, but if there is a common thread that can join hot headed Sardars to the ubiquitous Madrasi, it is the passion for this Raja Gaadi.

Owning a Bullet is in many ways like an Indian marriage. You are compelled to drive one. It teaches you patience, tolerance and endurance. You love it despite its many faults. And because you cannot ride a goat after getting used to an elephant, a divorce is unthinkable. Simply put, whether you like it or not, you are hooked for life.

By owning a Bullet, you do not join a cult. That is for lesser immortals.You adopt a way of life.

Welcome to the Way of the Bullet.

♣          ♣           ♣

P.S: My Old Man sometimes frustrates and sometimes confounds, but is an untiring companion.

A day at Mrs.Patil’s

We called on Mrs. Patil on Saturday. She wasn’t home but was gracious enough to let us have a look around her place. And it made our day.

An old friend Siva, was meeting me after nearly two years and old friends don’t bring stale news. He came armed with passes for a little tour inside Mrs.Patil’s house through an acquaintance of his who works for her.

I have been in front of those humongous gates, at the very crest of broad Vijay Path, before. Each time though only to take a u-turn and head back through Rajpath and down to the common man’s Janpath. The gate didn’t open today either. It turns out they open only for the President and her choicest guests.

We were ushered in  past 4 layers of security before we parked inside. The building is enormous. The forecourt is even more enormous. Mr. Edwin Lutyens obviously spent a lot of time making everything about the place  enormous and grand. Work on the building commenced in 1911-12 after the King and Queen announced Delhi as the new capital with the seat of power at the ‘Viceroy’s House’. Work was stopped when the First World War began and resumed only in 1920-21. When it was finally completed in 1928, it became the single largest building housing any Head of State and remains so to this date. The building is spread over 5 acres, in the backyard is the spectacular Mughal Gardens (15 acres) and the total area of Raisina Hill is 300 odd acres.

I walked down to the gates, just to have a feel of how the world looks like from inside. For all its grandeur, the Rashtrapati Bhawan would seem rather lonely without the imposing presence of North & South Blocks which flank it. Stories abound of clashes of the ego between Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed the ‘twins’. Between the gates and the Bhawan, the Jaipur Column stands proud and tall. It was gifted by the Maharaja of Jaipur (peculiarly titled “Major General”) to commemorate Delhi’s rise to capital-hood. On one side is this inscription, on another the coat of arms of England and on the third, a layout of India Gate and its neighboring areas. The fourth face has the inscription, ‘So May India be Great”. The column is crowned by the “Star of India”, that is also a magnetic compass.

TheGates

A large flight of steps from the forecourt leading into the building and presumably used only by Mrs.Patil passes by a one-eared bronze bull and strangely, unkempt pools of water. We waited in a drab reception room for an hour before gaining entry and found out that on Tuesdays and Saturdays, people who can manage security passes are given guided tours of some parts of the place. We were joined by a couple of Malayali families (small world!). Sadly cameras and mobiles are not allowed beyond the reception room.

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An all-white clad, typically sarkari guide led our impromptu group through huge, arched and darkly lit corridors that give you the impression of walking through some ancient beast’s belly. Our first stop was the Marble Hall, where you can find marble busts and life size canvases of dignitaries of the Empire, including the royal personages. It also has the chairs, that the King and Queen were seated on when declaring Delhi as the new capital in 1911. Next we visited the “Kitchen Museum”, the only one of its kind in the world or so the guide claimed. It has all sorts of cutlery and utensils and knives and what not. My personal favorite was a 3 foot tall coffee filter of brass and steel. There was even a folding picnic box with wooden thermos, plates & glasses!

On our way to the in-house Museum, we met a four-headed, one thousand armed Buddha gifted from Vietnam. The museum itself is really a collection of the gifts that Indian presidents have received from other heads of state. The gifts range from gold leaf crowns from Greece and magnificently carved daggers in ivory sheaths from Malaya to gold embroidered blue-velvet gowns from Kazakhstan. With all due respect to Mr.APJ, it would have been hilarious to seem him wearing these items 😉 Strangely, there was also a gift from Vodafone Essar (gold of course). There is enough gold in that ‘museum’ to buy out a small country.

Next up was the Durbar Hall, which is right underneath the great spherical Chhattri that adorns the building. This is where the country’s highest military and civilian awards are given away. There is a slightly raised dais at the head, which has a 2000-year old Buddha statue. The Buddha is the exact centre of the building and his feet are at exactly the same height as the top of India Gate. From the apex of the dome, a spectacular, gobsmacking chandelier hangs at least 20 feet down. The thing must weigh a few tons. And I thought the 2 foot one in the reception room was pretty.

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Nearby, is the Ashoka Hall. It used to be the ball room prior to 1947. The wooden floors are still retained intact (and from the musty smell and faded look, so too are the maroon carpets). The ceiling is covered, in Sistine Chapel fashion, with beautiful Persian paintings on canvas. I could make out Sorab and Rustom up there. This is the venue where the sports awards and swearing in ceremonies are held.

We walked through a mostly barren Mughal Garden. It is at its finest in February when it is an explosion of colour and fragrances.

Our last stop was the banquet hall. It has a huge table of Burma Teak that can seat 104 in the centre. The walls have life size photographs of former presidents and ancient weapons. The mechanics of handling such a large (usually esteemed too) gathering was demonstrated by our guide.

There is a waiter for every 2nd  guest; so there are 26 on each side of the table. A Head waiter stands at the head to direct operations. Look carefully and just above Venkatraman’s or Giani Zail Singh’s head you’ll notice three little lights (red, blue and green). The Head Waiter controls these lights and the waiters’ eyes are glued to them. When the blue is on, it signals the serving of a course. When the red is flashed, the table is to be cleared and when the green is turned on, the 26 on each flank turn as one and march single-file into the wings. A second flash of the green and they return with the next course and the cycle resumes! Surely, this too is a remnant from the days of the Empire. It seemed very un-Indian to me 🙂

Gracious as Mrs.Patil was in letting us look around, she was a poor host. We were not offered even a cup of tea. Well, I guess that’s too much of an ask but, not a single cooler or dispenser we came across had a drop of potable water in it! To be honest though, the guests at this place don’t drink from coolers.

Besides Mrs.Patil’s residence, the building also houses the President’s secretariat, a cabinet wing and a guests’ wing. The basement floor houses a cinema, kitchen, laundry, bakery, wine cellar and anything else one could think of.

By then we had encroached upon the guide’s lunch hour and we were escorted out for ‘security reasons’. What we saw was but a fraction of the entire complex of 340 rooms and halls, but it was enough to leave us feeling a little overwhelmed and giddy.

Once outside I found myself dealing with one of life’s greatest riddles. I have always wondered why crazy fans brave grave bodily threats like a shoulder charge from Andrew Symonds to run on to the field? What is it that prompts a regular English bulldog to run naked onto Centre Court and skip over the net while Roger giggles?

I had a momentary glimpse into that unique frame of mind in the courtyard. The Old Man had just been coaxed (more like kickboxed) into starting when I had this irresistable urge to drive myself around the forecourt. And in the event make the unique record of being the first Malayali to drive a second-hand Bullet around the President’s courtyard. I had involuntarily started in that general direction, but out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed guards from the Assam Rifles and sanity prevailed. Thank god they carried cannons and not lathis. The surprisingly friendly guards were happy enough though to let me pose for a picture in front of the building (I wonder if that is some kind of a record too?).

This definitely is the best house in town; but how the hell does a person live in a house with 340 rooms?? And worse, how the hell can he move out after getting used to it over 5 years???

Warning: All facts and figures quoted in this post may be erroneous due to their dependence on the guide and my feeble memory.

Mystreakermoment

Her Majesty’s Pilgrims

They say that no one goes of his / her own accord to visit the most celebrated of goddesses in the mountains of India; the lady herself calls them when she wishes it. Well, we got a call from her Friday morning.

It started as an idle conversation between Anil (my roommate) and me on our way to office; one of his friends were going to see “her” that night. I am not sure how things turned out the way it did, but an hour later we had tickets booked on the night train out to Jammu and back. Two others were added to this impromptu party of pilgrims. I must say the lady calls people right out of the blue; the last two members were just asked over phone, “you free this weekend?….book karlu tera bhi?” and that was that.

Our journey started (late by 2 hours) on the historic platform no.18 at Old Delhi. A board proclaiming it to be the exit point for the train to Attari, from where the erstwhile Samjhauta Express took over up to Wagah. Quite appropriately the platform has high metal fencing, not unlike what we see in our cricket grounds. The journey itself was uneventful, other than that we reached Jammu nearly 3.5 hours behind schedule. On the way we passed the River Beas, a muddy stream at best, and lovely green agricultural scapes refreshed by the monsoon.

Jammu was a bit of an anti-climax for the four of us. We madrasis were all probably expecting a snow-bound hill station (being geographically challenged) and were instead faced with a typically bustling, hot & unkempt northern-Indian town. From right outside the Jammu-Tawi station (so called in honour of the River Tawi), we boarded a bus to Katra.

This was arguably the most entertaining phase of our journey. The driver seated us with an assurance that the bus would move in 5 minutes. Half an hour later, we were still cooking inside with the driver refusing to budge without filling his two remaining vacant seats. Soon tempers rose to boiling point and the passengers staged an outraged walkout. The driver and his brother (the cleaner who was driving us crazy by chanting “katra, katra” all the while) ran out and implored us to return (citing their rozi roti, kamai etc etc). Melting at their entreaties we returned to our seats. The cleaner followed, tugging an old couple to fill the two vacant seats and finally the bus trundled out. Barely 500 yards out of the station, a commotion broke out. The reason being that Katra was never the old couple’s destination and they had been forcibly installed in the vacant seats!!

The bus insisted on slowing at every corner for the cleaner to shout out “katra..katra” and it soon became a running joke amongst the passengers. Three times before the city limits were crossed, the bus was subjected to police checking and each time, we took over the “katra..katra” chant from the cleaner, reducing the stern policemen to giggles.

Only when we reached Katra (another small, but bustling town) did our two companions realize what they had been talked into. The majestic Trikuta mountains loomed behind the bus stand; green, dark and imposing. On its heights resides Mata Vaishnodevi, the lady we were seeking.

Despite her earlier urgency in inviting us over, she now decided to play coy. Right after we bid farewell to the triumphant bus which had managed to successfully stretch a 1.5 hr journey into a 4 hr one, it started raining. We looked up at the mountain and saw that she had wrapped herself in a dark swirling veil.

Vaishndevi 002

Not to be daunted, we fed and bathed ourselves and armed with raincoats we began our ascent just as the sun began to go down. These raincoats I must say are extraordinary, for they are to be had locally for just Rs.10 and are practically useless if you try to put them on.

Vaishndevi 011

The ascent to the top, Bhawan, where the lady stays cannot be really called a trek. The paths are well paved and kept, with bright lighting and shelters and shops all along for the devotee. You can find eateries and even dispensaries en route Bhawan. The goddess is a kind hostess. However the distance to be covered (anywhere between 13 – 16 kms one way) and the steep incline is challenging, if you decide to take it by foot.

I have read somewhere that Vaishnodevi is  “intoxicating to the senses” and “spiritually uplifting” and now I will certainly vouch for the first part. The climb, right up to the halfway stage is an assault on your senses. There is an unending stream of shops on either side: those selling ready-made “prasad” ideal for distributing amongst neighbors, CD shops blaring out bhajans that are actually remixed bollywood hits and small eateries selling spurious soft drinks. Mules carrying devotees and donkeys carrying luggage , lurch up and slide drunkenly down the steep paths. Do not be alarmed if you feel someone feeling your backside, its probably just an impatient mule wanting to pass you. These mules are from an exotic breed; they are all rear-wheel drive models with the bridle usually hanging uselessly and the drivers guiding them with clicks of the tongue “tchak tchak” and twists of the tail.

The greatest contribution that these creatures make to the trip, other than fondling your backside, is their dung. The trek is a virtual obstacle course for those on foot, climbing over hills of the stuff or fording rivers of it in case its raining, like we had to. The place smells like, quoting my wild-haired companion Arun, “a circus tent”.

By the time you have covered a few kilometres and been winded, you are never quite sure where you are. It could be the foot overbridge at Ernakulam Junction, the subway market near ICH in Bhopal or of course “The Royal Gemini Circus”. And then to add to your confusion, a mule will bump you onto the glass door of a Cafe Coffee Day. A Cafe Coffee Day! Surely, I am not in Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market on Sunday?? Men in three-fourths and sleeveless tees and girls with “I am still a virgin, please give me a chance..” scrawled across them definitely don’t help matters.

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And yet in between the shops and mules and Cafe Coffee Days you catch sublime glimpses of the rugged, magnificent mountains of the lower Himalayas; stunningly grand vistas cloaked in the eerie dusk glow below you and suddenly its all worth it; the physical effort, the intoxication, even mules fondling your backside.

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At Adhkwari, relief awaits the beleaguered foot pilgrim. This is where the lady sat in meditation before being disturbed by a foolish black magician called “Bhairav”. And we know what happened to him. His head, free of all mortal connections, lies a further 1.5 km above her shrine at Bhawan. Any devotee who might have entertained thoughts of turning back at this point will change his mind immediately. Hell, we know, has no fury like a woman scorned.

From Adhkwari we took the “alternate” road (where no mules are allowed) and soon began congratulating ourselves because it was curiously devoid of crowds. The reason for this peace soon dawned upon us. Every few hundred yards, we came across piles of rock and stone and mud on the path, leaving barely a few yards for trekkers to pass through. The landslides had at places taken away whole fences and entire roofs of the shelters en route. At some corners the sheer rock cliffs curve right over head and at others cool mountain water trickles down on to you. There are signboards warning the tired traveler not to stop, because this is an area of “shooting stones”.

By now the night air was cool and crisp and finally we could listen to the mountains speak. At one point in the journey, we could see below us the glittering jewel like town of Katra and above us, the fiery temple complex at Bhawan. And in the silvery light of the mercury lamps, you could imagine yourselves to be on the mythical middle city of the Asura’s Tripura.

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The last part of the climb passed by in a blur, our untrained bodies well past their physical limits. Only occasional glimpses of Bhawan, restless monkeys jumping on the sheets of the shelters (aah its a landslide!!….bhaaaaaaag!!!) , hot coffees from the occasional Nescafe vendor and bursts of enthusiastic “Jai Mata Di-ing” kept us going.

After a four hour climb we finally reached Bhawan. There we found that there were separate queues for depositing all your items esp. leather ones in lockers, one to get the real prasad and finally one to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Thanks to the odd time that we managed to reach (thank that peculiar bus?) and it being off season we were able to push through the queuing process in less than 3 hours. Of course there was more entertainment and delays along the way, with one of our band remembering at each checkpoint that he hadn’t put his things into the locker (“o my wallet”….”*&*%$#% I still have my wristwatch”…”oh no I forgot to remove my belt”). Despite its 5200 ft elevation, the temple still remains safely within Indian Sovereign territory and so it would be unnecessary to elaborate on the jostling in the queue.

However, the temple authorities are considerate enough to have installed TVs every 500 yards or so on which you can see “live” images of the goddess (three round “pindi” stones covered with yellow silk and each having a crownlet). It is a constant reassurance that “she” is still home, waiting for you.

And finally we arrived at her lady’s sanctum.Vaishnodevi dwells in a deep cave. Legend has it that she came here to sulk when Rama of the Bow declined to wed her. The outside of the cave is like from Jurassic Park, with damp moss and small bushes, and water tricking everywhere. That she is wealthy is without doubt. She has two of the classiest transports going around: a snarling bronze tiger and a grumpy, crouching marble lion.A newly dug tunnel (decorated with white tiles) leads to the sanctum.  A priest drew red tilaks on our foreheads as we moved through the white tunnel.

At last we reached her. She was in a tiny cove in the corner of the tunnel. Just like on TV. A priest offering flowers and an AK-47 wielding policeman stood guard. The man in front of me bent low before passing. I assumed that was the way to do it; bent my aching back low before her and held my pose. And got tonked on the forehead by the policeman (with a curt “hato jaldi” to boot) for my efforts. I guess the fellow in front of me was just peeking around the priest’s belly. As we jostled our way out of the tunnel, we heard the gurgling of a delightful mountain stream that originates from right within that cave. “The Baanganga” as she is called, was born of an arrow shot by Vaishnodevi when one of her disciples felt thirsty.

We had to start immediately back downhill to Katra to be on time to catch our return train in Jammu. We were almost alone  because the other pilgrims stayed back to rest and catch some sleep at Bhawan. A “Dosa Point” we had smelt on the way inspired a rapid descent but it had already closed by the time we reached it.  Instead we had to be content with yesterday’s kadhi-chawal at 2.30 in the morning. Just before reaching base, we were accosted by men who wanted to rub our feet for Rs.10. Since it seemed unseemly to have men pressing our legs, we pressed on. A little later we came to the “massage parlour”. A row of sleek black vibrating chairs sat whirring contentedly in a dimly lit shed. The propreiter gave a demo, strapping himself in, his feet jiggling and bouncing and eyes closed blissfully. Anil was curious enough to want to try this for Rs.50 /15 minutes; admittedly a much better deal than those shady men before. He gave up the idea though when “Tommy” Thammaiah reminded him of what happened to the last cat that got curious. We pressed on..rather pushed on.

Aching bones, pulled muscles and all we reached Katra at 4 am. And had some divine “Meetha tez, adrak wali, badhiya chaai”. And by 630 we were back on our way to Jammu (this time just managing to avoid “The Bus”). It rained heavily and we took a detour to avoid more landslips.

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As we waited on the platform at Jammu, I aimed my camera at some egrets and attracted the attention of a military man. He diligently checked the contents of my camera, because it had been pointing in the general direction of a petrol depot. Another one checked it again on the train at Jalandhar. No doubt after effects of the attack in Srinagar.

Despite the aching body there is a lightness to the spirit even now. I think there is a reason why all of our great pilgrimages are physically arduous ones. I think there is a reason why our all greatest gods are placed where they are: on craggy mountains, in lush valleys, besides rushing rivers and next to the roaring sea. I think it is because that is where our spirit really belongs. And is it not what we really worship?

Another age, another time; without bathroom tiles in a holy cave, without Cafe Coffee Days in a jungle, I would have gone back to see her again a hundred times. But I am glad she called us.

We passed the Beas again. This time she was a red, roaring river, frothing at the mouth and bursting at her banks.

P.S: Those who showed the perseverance to read to the end may be thanking their stars I dont write a blog every time I go somewhere 😉

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