Friday, December 31, 2010

DAY 91 – In Srinagar

Waking up just after 6 am I surveyed the scene outside my bedroom through the windows. It had snowed through the night and was continuing its makeover of the landscape. I was ecstatic about the snow on the trees, the roofs of houses, the ground and everywhere else. It continued to snow without any let up. This is my first experience with continuous snowfall. The predominant concern was that I would not be able to journey back to Jammu tomorrow, especially if it continues to snow the way it is. The other concern was to get down to the car and see if it will start up in this cold and snowy weather. The final concern was that as I am not equipped for the snowy weather I will have to spend the entire day within the Guest House. I had planned to visit the Dal Lake, the Mughal Gardens, etc. I was resigned to sitting in the GH and clicking away all that comes into my sight. I took it to be a Heaven sent opportunity to improve my photography skills. The day did not pan out like that finally.
As I was over worried about the car, I went down from the GH after breakfast to inspect it. Snow had almost fully covered it and the car never looked cleaner since the last servicing. Shoveling some snow away from the car, I managed to get into the car. With a prayer on my lips, I slowly turned the ignition and, voila, the engine sprang to life. I went through the normal routines and slowly inched the car forward, and it moved over the snow. I was dismayed that I had not filled up fuel last afternoon as I was coming into Srinagar. There was less than a quarter tank of fuel. Sudesh told me that the fuel stations would be closed as the underground tanks would be frozen. Anyway, I had got over the concern that the car would be incommoded due to the weather.
Since the snow was continuing to fall strongly, Sudesh suggested that we stock up some provisions to tackle exigencies. When the Jammu-Srinagar highway gets closed, shops run out of provisions. I agreed with Sudesh and asked if I could go with him to the market. He told me to protect my chest, neck and feet adequately before venturing out. I did as instructed and piled on 5 layers of clothing above the waist and four below. The top most layer was a thermal raincoat. A muffler protected the throat and the cap given to me by Khush was adequate protection for the head and ears. Two gloves and two pairs of woolen socks coated the hands and feet. I had picked up a ‘Manipuri’ cap from Aizawl. This was the time to test out if it is really waterproof, as claimed. I took a peep in the mirror to appreciate the ‘robot’. I was ready to go marketing!
Walking on snow requires patience and skill. I was tested the minute I walked out of the GH. The first fall on the ‘iced’ snow was at the gate of the GH, providing the source for loud guffaws and mirthful laughter. One thing about the cold is that you do not feel any pain. I got up in the wink of an eye and resumed my walk to the market. Vehicles plied on the road and they drove at break neck speed. That was further comfort. I did not expect to see anyone in the market as it was still snowing. But in the market, which is in a residential area, people were about their businesses as usual. That’s when I realized that while the snow is new to you it is a normal weather occurrence for the residents. Children were chasing one another with balls of ice in their hands. When an ice ball missed its intended target and hit a person in a store bang on his butt I could not stop laughing. And then I registered my second fall, as the centre of gravity shifted when I laughed! Nobody laughed and none put out a helping hand.
I was running out of cash and needed to visit an ATM. I went into a store and asked a young man if there is an ATM close by. He told me where I could find one, but it was not close by. He also told me that the fuel stations would be open. On return from the market I asked Sudesh to take me to a fuel station and an ATM. As I reversed the car and took it out of the gate I gained in confidence. It was like driving on a dirty, watery road. The fuel station nearest to the GH was functional and I filled up the tank. I had to visit about 5 ATMs before I reached one that worked. As soon as it serviced my requirement this one conked out too! Driving around thus far gave me the confidence to explore some parts of the city. I dropped Sudesh back at the GH and ‘took off’ on an exploration.
All the parks and streets were snowed under and water bodies were frozen over. Large chunks of snow fall off from the branches of trees and awnings of houses and fall to the ground. Many of them crashed on the windshield. It takes some time to adjust to these. In some areas the snow iced on the road and the chance of skidding increases. I took the roads as slowly as I could to take in the icy sights on the way. It was unique and I wanted it to last. I could stop wherever I wanted to and get out of the car for photographs. The vehicular traffic was low and so were the number of tourists. The guys from the Electric Supply Undertaking were about their jobs as the snow plays havoc with transmission. I drove to the Dal Lake and found that the famous boat houses were inches deep in snow. The outline of the ‘Char Chinari’ could be seen in the distance through the snowy haze. The Shikaras were out of business as most parts of the Lake were frozen. I found a Shikara that was half in the frozen lake with its ‘pilot’ staring forlornly into the Lake. He was only worried for the ‘well being’ of his possession and was not so much worried about the absence of customers. Shikaras bring to mind the inimitable Shammi Kapoor and ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’. Who can forget the classic ‘Tareef karoon kya uski...’ and the gyrations of the handsome, macho Kapoor?
I navigated back safely to the confines of the GH and immediately hunger pangs started gnawing at the entrails! To keep it away and also wish the snow away I took a strong shot of ‘Celebrations’. While the hunger pangs were dulled, the snow continued to ‘pour’ out of the sky. I gorged on Dal Makhni and rice and sat down before the TV to watch ‘For Your Eyes Only’. The attempt to keep my eyes open was not successful.
When I woke up a couple of hours later it had stopped snowing. Despite enjoying the snow and the frozen delights in Srinagar I sincerely hope for a break in the weather to get my schedule back on track. Anyway, one thing is for sure. I have to sit out tomorrow in Srinagar as the NH44 is closed.

DAY 90 – Jammu to Srinagar

Having hit the sack only an hour after midnight I targeted a 7 am start. The excitement was too much to sleep over. I was ready to leave by 6, but hit the Highway by a half past. The city roads are very good, but the problem was inadequate road directions to get to the NH44. Once I got to it the NH was a beauty right up to Srinagar, with minor exceptions at landslide locations. The 300 km stretch can be done in about 6 hours of driving time. The excellent views of the valleys, the mountains and the many attractions along the route call for as many stops as you can afford. Winter may not be the time for a visit to Srinagar as the mountains are bare as are the trees, which are ready for the next phase of winter, namely, snow. The mercury has dipped below freezing point beyond Banihal and the strong breeze adds to the biting chill.
I stopped for breakfast of boiled eggs and tea at a small wayside eatery after the Banihal market. After adding to the flow of the stream behind the eatery I made small talk with the owner of the shop when the tea was being made. He was in the traditional winter dress of Fairan, nestling a Kangri on his lap to keep himself warm. The charcoal for the Kangri comes from either the Kikker or the Walnut trees. The charcoal from these trees is ‘sturdy’ and keeps the embers for the whole day. He told me that it would start snowing in the next few days, after which all the shops and businesses in the area would be shut. The snow accumulates to about 10 feet during the peak. The snow in the months of January and February is absolutely crucial for sustenance of farming and cultivation during the rest of the year, as it melts slowly with the onset of summer and provides the requirement over a longer period of time. The snow that falls in March melts fast and is not ‘useful’.
The zigzag road beyond the Baglighar Dam zooms through the Jawahar Tunnel. The west tube, which one goes through to Srinagar, is 2541 meters. A drive through the ill-lit tunnel is eerie and at once enjoyable. There are many possible avalanche locations before and after the tunnel. When heavy snow falls the tunnel remains closed and traffic comes to a complete standstill. The Titanic Viewpoint provides the first view of the Kashmir Valley. The haze that hung around precluded good views. However, standing there I felt proud to call out: “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari India is one”.
When I had come to J&K in 2007, primarily to tour Ladakh, the Sumo I had travelled in had stopped at Quasigund for tea. I ‘discovered’ the Dry Fruits and Kashmir Willow village then. Today a large number of vehicles were parked in front of the row of shops. I sauntered around and entered a shop with a large display of dry fruits and no customers, but with an eager shopkeeper. The local walnut, dry grape, rajma and masala, apricots, dates, badam and saffron found their respective places in my shopping cart. My attention then turned to cricket bats. Those made of Kashmir Willow are much in demand all over the world.  To prove how good they are the ‘expert’ in the shop hammered two bats against each other and there was not a dent or mark on either. He then placed a bat perpendicular on another and stood on it to demonstrate the sturdiness of the handle and the splice of the bats. He brought out another bat with superb balance. He claimed that the bat has a flexible handle and made me stand on it. The onslaught by 110 kgs was effortlessly handled by the flexible handle. I did not want any other proof of it being worth the money spent.
I was keen to see the saffron fields of Pampore, which is about 15 kms short of Srinagar, and is the saffron capital of the country. The quality of saffron from Pampore is supposed to be world class. The plucking season is October and therefore, one can only see the bare fields on either side of the road with the onset of winter. The Chinar trees lining the road to Srinagar are devoid of even a single leaf and these ‘gaunt and severe gentlemen’ await snow to bejewel their branches.
I have completed 90 days on the road and logged 16,000+ kms on date. With J&K I have visited 23 States and their capitals. Left over are 5 States and their capitals and 6 HQs of Zonal Railways, to be done in the next 30 days. The Srinagar weather will keep indoors the less stout of heart. It is cold and freezing. The grey haze adds to the dour environment. I stayed indoors after a late heavy lunch. My neighbors, at the place where I am put up on the road leading to the Raj Bhavan, are Dr Farooq Abdulla and Omar Abdulla. I told the Sudesh Kumar, the cook, to ‘delight’ me with some of the local cuisine favorites.
While awaiting the meal ‘Celebrations’ went down a parched throat. Sudesh barged into the cozy sitting room with the news that the Season’s first snowfall can be enjoyed from the ground floor verandah. It was absolutely delightful. While digitizing the event I nostalgically recalled the magical ‘White Xmas’ I enjoyed in 1995 with my aunt. Lily (my Godmother), my cousin, Josey and their relatives in Newcastle, England. The tie I was presented by my aunt is still a treasured and cherished possession. While enjoying the snowfall I was also concerned about my getaway from Srinagar. I decided to ‘Celebrate’ more and think out the solutions to issues on a clearer mind tomorrow morning. The ‘Hak Saag’ and Dal with roti wound up the proceedings for the day.

DAY 89 – Palampur to Jammu

Despite a wake up alarm I overslept and the departure from Palampur was delayed by nearly an hour. When I passed through Himachal Pradesh on my trip from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh I was concerned about the state of roads in the State, particularly since tourism is its mainstay. My subsequent experience in Himachal corrected this concern; what I experienced then was an aberration. The roads in Himachal are well maintained and even the village roads are surfaced well. The Palampur to Jammu leg can be done in 4 hours behind the wheel. I stopped for a cup of tea at Pathankot and was lost for some time in a reverie, on how my paternal grandfather would have reacted to the ‘modern’ Pathankot. He was posted to the Army station after WWII during peace time, when it was not a family station.
At the Lakhanpur CP, the entry to J&K, I was asked to produce the documents of the car and the DL.  I could not remember where I had placed the documents and had to search for nearly 10 minutes before I located them. By this time suspicions were aroused and I was summoned by the team leader to the car where he was seated. I showed him the papers and he wanted to know what the KL registered car was doing in J&K. When he heard of my journey he offered me tea and a seat in the back of his car. While waiting for the tea as well over it Mr Singh shared with me his concerns about the present generation, especially the lack of respect for elders, the promiscuity among youth and the so-called liberated womenfolk; he confessed that he was accused of being stuck in the past by his relatives, when he shared such views with them. He was also worried about the influence of Madhopur (the adjacent village in Punjab) on the culture of Lakhanpur – he narrated a story of how he came across a mother from the Punjabi village offering the ‘services’ of her daughter in the J&K territory. His posting to the highly corrupt check post, he claimed, has completely transformed it. We parted company on the understanding that I would meet him on my return from Srinagar, on my way to Amritsar.
After settling down in the ORH near the Jammu Tawi railway station, I went to the station to forage for something to eat. I had skipped breakfast and was suitably hungry. I settled for ‘chawal, rajma’ at one of the stalls on the platform. For Rs.20 I had more than square meal which changed the shape of my belly from a round to an ellipse! The simple, hot meal was tasty and nourishing. From the book stall at the station I bought as newspaper and walked to the taxi park, from where I had taken a shared Sumo some years back to Srinagar. The only discernible change at the taxi stand was a TV was fixed in the drivers’ rest shed. I stood around for some time and watched VVS Laxman doing his rescue act. In the meanwhile, I spoke to Khajooria Uncle, who had been DG J&K and was my father’s batch mate. He was on his way back from Delhi and I promised to get in touch with him later in the day. However, in a short while his daughter Seema, who is an advocate in Jammu, got in touch with me and said that she and her husband are on their way to the railway station to pick me up. When they picked me up by 4 pm, abandoning the work left over in their Chambers, I realized what I had done. When Uncle asked me where I am I told him that I am at the railway station, which is where I was at the time of speaking to him. He took it that I was ‘stranded’ and instructed his daughter and husband to pick me up immediately from the station. I felt deeply embarrassed for upsetting the routine of this wonderful couple.
At home with Chandra Shekher, Seema, their lovely daughter and tech savvy son I had a most enjoyable time till Uncle joined us by 10.30 pm. Not for a minute did I feel that I was anyone other than close family. We also discovered some interesting subjects of mutual interest that kept us in constant communication for nearly 6 hours over Pinni, Sundh Panjare, Samosas, roasted cashews and many cups of tea and coffee. I shared with them the concept that ‘group of souls’ travel together in a continuous journey from what I had read in ‘Many Masters, Many Lives’ and my belief that my journey is probably a God sent to discover my ‘group of souls’. I was then shown an episode of a weekly program on NDTV Imagine (Raaz – Pichle Janam Ka), which regresses a volunteer through hypnotic means to delve into their past lives and unravel the reasons for the phobias and fears of their present life. The theme is similar to the sessions described in the book. Shekher narrated his own experiences with the ‘unbelievable’ such as the art of ‘Aag bandh karna’ (tying up the fire, so to say), calling leopards at will and ‘exorcising’ the pain of a scorpion bite. It was fascinating, revealing and thought provoking. The ‘wealth’ of the past and the knowledge of our forbears that we are yet to rediscover saddens the heart and at the same time makes one proud of the rich heritage.
Uncle arrived after an exhausting 15 hour journey by road from Delhi. The respect and love that the Khajooria family has for one another is what is missing in ‘modern’ society. The bonding of the family members is to be seen to be believed. This is the greatest wealth of a family – it is not the material processions. I got an opportunity to know some more about J&K politics and society from Uncle, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I understood the situation obtaining in J&K better after an in depth ‘brain storming session’ with Uncle. Later, while discussing the cold weather, Khajooria Uncle recalled this story concerning Achachan. One cold evening in Mount Abu, where they were probationers together in the Police Academy, Uncle was summoned to his room post haste by Achachan, where he saw a flustered Joseph and his angry orderlie. The latter told Uncle that he had never been asked to do such lowly stuff by any probationer before this. Uncle was confused, knowing that Achachan was not the one to scout for trouble. Achachan told him that he had asked the orderlie to fetch him a few wooden logs to light up in the fireplace and keep the intense cold away, when the orderlie got livid with him and stomped around noisily. The orderlie, on enquiry by Uncle, told him that the ‘Sahib’ had asked him to get him some ‘choti, choti ladkis’ to keep him warm in the room! Uncle sorted out the misunderstanding between the two and Achachan understood the difference between ‘choti, choti ladkis’ and ‘choti, choti lakdis’ from that evening on. With such exceptional knowledge of the language, all his batch mates were sure that Achachan would flunk his Hindi test. He surprised all by getting 30 marks. Some of the flabbergasted colleagues enquired of the Hindi Pundit if “Joseph had got 30 marks out of 50”. The Pundit, rather matter of factly, told them that “Joseph got 30 marks out of pity”!
All good things have to come to an end. Clichéd? Not quite, when you are part of the exhilaration. Chandra Shekher was kind enough to drop me back at the ORH after we called it a day at 1 am.

Monday, December 27, 2010

DAY 88 – In Palampur

88 is always ‘Two Fat Ladies’ in Tambola. This fat man was a bit impatient to open his account of the 88th day by getting some fascinating views of the Dhauladhar Range. Adequately dressed to be out in the cold early in the day I waited for the first rays of the sun to wake up the mountains. Even the bare mountains have something to offer when the sun moves over it.
I was a bit apprehensive about getting the washed clothes dried in the cold weather. Nevertheless, I went ahead and hung them out in the open as the sun was out strong and hot. In less than two hours the deed was done. That’s how hot it becomes during the day. I had ventured out in the morning with four layers of clothing, to snoop around a bit and nothing much to do, and went on de-layering as the day wore on. Last evening when I was in the railways station a constable of the RPF told me that the Sobha Singh Gallery and the Neugal Café are worth a look in. The elaborate directions I had noted from him took me to the Gallery with only one stop for direction. “Keep to the right always, beta”, said the elderly gentleman, possibly also giving me the direction to conduct the rest of my life.
Padma Shri Sobha Singh was known as the ‘Saint Artist’. Born in Gurdaspur, he honed his self taught skills in Amritsar, Lahore and Delhi after his employment with the British Army in Iraq. He moved to Andretta (Kangra Valley) from Lahore just prior to the Partition. He lived and worked there for over 38 years and the Gallery now functions from a portion of the house, where his daughter and family lives. The visits of dignitaries to this humble abode of the Master Artist are well documented. His most famous work is the painting of Sohni Mehiwal, but the most duplicated work is that of Guru Nanak Dev with his hand raised in blessing. The SGPC is reported to have printed and sold a half million copies of this painting. The paintings of Omar Khayyam are divine. His prominent works are those of the Sikh Gurus, Punjabi love lores, prominent personalities and Kangra life. What stuck in my mind as I left the Gallery was the caption on a painting: “Art should be to Refine the Swine and Divine the Refine” (paraphrased). A small shop in front of the Gallery sells reprints, painting material and books on the life and work of the Saint Artist.
“First Deserve, Then Desire” was painted in many languages on the wall of a building on my way to the Neugal Café. This is an excellent doctrine to live by and part of the recipe for contentment. The Neugal Café is run by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department. The location has wonderful close up views of the Himalayan Range. The effect would have been magical with snow on the hills. The chicken fried rice and the chilly chicken (a bit too sweet) went down effortlessly while admiring the hot noon sun beating down mercilessly on the mountain range. One can also get a decent view of the River Beas from near the Café.
I went to the railway station once again and found the place deserted – the train had departed and the next train was not expected soon. I took leave of the Station Master, who is an exceptionally happy person. He, like Harminder who I met at the Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, believes that meeting people who you gel with is not an accident. They believe that it is destined and that the meeting is to find solace from one another. I believe that each meeting is to understand and appreciate the ‘group of souls’ that travel together.

DAY 87 – Shimla to Palampur

I delayed the start from Shimla to experience the magic of the morning sky. It was nothing like what I had experienced yesterday. It is quite something to watch the mountains transforming from being clothed in the darkness of the night to being bathed in warm and glorious sunshine. The variety that Mother Nature can display is stunning. The clear sky made for a very cold morning following the night temperature of 3oC. A hot cup of tea is what I wanted to get the ‘frozen’ fingers moving over the steering wheel. The caretaker of the ORH obliged and I shifted gears by 7.15 am.
I took NH88 to Bilaspur (HP), which is also the route to Manali. Himachal Pradesh is a State with a large number of hydro-electric projects. The River Beas that meanders through Bilaspur is one of the projects. There has been a lot of debate about the pristine cultures and habitats being compromised in the wake of these large hydro-electric projects, even though they are one of the cleanest sources of energy. Short of Bilaspur the NH21 from Chandigarh joined the NH88 and the condition of the road became better.
Just beyond Bilaspur I made a half hour stop for breakfast at the ‘New Punjabi Dhaba’. The owner of the Dhaba was a loquacious young man, who came across as well up on current affairs and curious by nature. He had a lot of questions on Kerala and the places I had visited. All this was done when he was dressing the vegetables for the Aaloo Paratha. In a short while he served me hot parathas with plenty of Amul butter and a bottle of mixed veg pickle. It’s all I needed to layer the blubber around my waist! When I concluded the meal with an omlette and tea I took leave of him. He sounded genuine when he said, “Aap se milkar bahut khushi huyi” (I felt very happy meeting you).
Mandi means market and this town was an important trading intersection on the east-west trade route in the past. Mandi, which reportedly has over 80 temples, is at the confluence of the Beas River and Suketi Khad stream. To its east lies the Kullu valley and Kinnaur and I headed west to Palampur on the Pathankot route. The paragliding locations of Bir and Billing are deviations off the Pathankot road, close to Baijnath. The incarnation of Shiva as the Lord of the Physicians is the reigning deity of the Baijnath Temple. Further up from the busy Baijnath town you pass the Taragarh Palace Luxury Hotel, which was the summer palace of the last Maharajah of J&K.
When I did not see any sign board for the railway station in Palampur I stopped to enquire. The chap asked me incredulously, “Railway station yehan kahan hai?” and said, “Maranda jao, wahan railway station milega”. (Where is the railway station here? Go to Maranda, you will find the railway station there). I was confused, crosschecked the information and was told the same thing once more. I drove further on and came to the ‘Palampur Himachal’ railway station, which is 6 kms away from the Palampur town.
The ORH in Palampur is fabulously located with great close up views of the Himalayas. In keeping with this the ORHs are called Him Darshan and Dhauladhar View. With the season for snow in Himachal moving to January and February the hills are bare now. The railway station is a quaint narrow gauge stopover between Pathankot and Jogindarnagar, the heritage Kangra trail. The Station Master called my attention to the fact that the bus fare to Pathankot is Rs. 129 while the rail fare is just Rs. 20. Hence, the 6 pairs of trains are almost always full.
Being a Sunday the streets were deserted and most of the shops were shut. I asked for some food to be packed from a wayside eatery. While that was being done, a chap came into the shop and started a monologue with great gusto addressing all around, most of it to me. I could not follow anything of what he said, but the nods and the smiles were all that the chap needed to continue with greater energy. As soon as I had paid for the packed food I beamed at the chap and darted to the ORH, afraid that he would pursue his best audience!
As it was too cold to do anything outdoors - three layers of clothing was adequate once between the quilt! - I warmed up indoors with the rest of my travel mate, the trusted Old Monk.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

DAY 86 – in Shimla

I could not have chosen a better place to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. The effect of the rising sun on the sky and the clouds and its ever changing hues made for a magical morning. The numbing cold did not deter me from capturing some of the transient moods on camera. Watching the changing moods I understood another reason why we address Nature as ‘Mother’. It is probably because of the changes that she rings around her in such a short while.
When I was leaving the ORH for the Ridge and the Mall I met the Station Superintendent, Mr Rajput, and another resident of the ORH, who had been to Shimla several times before. They waxed eloquent about the superior administration of the State and the goodness of the people of Himachal. The SS even mentioned that one could find the Chief Minister moving around the Mall Road mixing freely with the people. I took this with a pinch of salt. But I saw this with my own eyes and a ‘Doubting Joseph’ was converted.
After handing over clothes for dry cleaning (express wash to be delivered in the evening) I went to the Christ Church for the Xmas service. Even though the church was full of believers the service itself was disappointing.  I could not stay the whole mass, which was celebrated in Hindi – I could not fight the conflict in me for I had stayed on till the end of the flop show ‘Tees Maar Khan’ yesterday (was it because I had paid for the entrance?) – and left when the sermon started. As I came out of the Church I found a few women police constables, smartly turned out, looking over the Ridge on to the Mall Road, as were many tourists. With nothing in particular to do I joined the crowd to ‘gape’. That’s when I saw Mr. PK Dhumal, the CM of Himachal Pradesh. He had arrived on the Mall Road to inaugurate a blood donation camp to commemorate the birthday of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vehicles are not permitted on the Mall Road and the Ridge, unless it is an emergency. Honoring this, the CM was walking around without any police ‘bandobast’ and the normal tamasha attached to CM’s visits was missing. Nearly 25 ambulances with crew were parked in an orderly manner in the Ridge and I anticipated some function to inaugurate the Emergency Services. I was wandering around the Ridge and appreciating the cleanliness in the Ridge despite a sea of tourists when photographers burst into the small overhang over the Ridge, where I was at the time. I overheard that the CM was expected there. In a short while he walked in to the area where I was standing and spend some time greeting people who had gathered in the Ridge. He later flagged off the ambulances which will provide succor to the needy and save many lives in the future. It is a joint venture of the State Government with GVK and EMIR. To mark this occasion there were no speeches or banners or political flags and posters. Here was a simple ceremony to dedicate services for the benefit of the citizens and not an occasion for political one-upmanship. The CM was among the people for almost two hours and some of the time I was following him around without any security frisking and such like. Such experiences convince you that there is space for good governance in our polity and that citizens appreciate it.
The Gaiety Theatre is an age old institution in Shimla. The Amateur Dramatic Club has been in existence since 1837. The renovated complex had three programs running – an art gallery and show, a Christian Renewal program and a theatre performance, entrance being free to all the three. The Mall Road is where all the shopping happens and the Ridge is where people hang out. On the Ridge photographers entice you with some of their works and I was suckered. I zeroed in on a photographer to frame me in a traditional costume. It took some time for the poor chap to find one that would fit me. He was genuinely thankful when I finally returned the costume to him, as at one stage it looked almost not possible. He delivered the ‘product’ in the promised half hour. While in the midst of the photography session I heard sounds of heavy blowing. I traced the source of the sounds and reached a demonstration of the Korean Energy Treatment. The demonstrators seemed to be blowing some kind of energy into the person receiving the treatment. The treatment is supposed to address Diabetes, Fatigue, Migrane, Sleep disorder, Poor digestion, Hormone imbalance, BP, Stroke, Stress, Back, Hip and Joint Pains, Anxiety and Depression, etc. They claim to heal without operation and chemicals and purely by the use of ‘Universal Energy’. I volunteered, but to be fair, the session was too short for one to feel any difference. They can be reached at 0177-2629479 and 09218719479.
I moved to the Mall Road to scout for suitable eating joints for a luncheon repast. The Mall Road was overflowing with tourists, young and old. While window shopping in one of the shops I stepped on the toes of a youngster standing quite close to me. I apologized and he said, “No problem, Uncle”. I was tempted to step on his toes one more time just to find out how he would address me the next time. I walked into the ‘Sher-e-Punjab’ restaurant for lunch when I saw ‘satisfied’ customers walking out. The Chicken curry and rotis I had there was mouth watering. I had made the right choice. I recommend this place to anyone who wants a good meal in Shimla. I did see a couple of customers walking out after seeing the menu and the tariff against the items. Its good value if you are in a group of four.
The rest of the evening I spent enjoying the colonial buildings; some of them are run down and one was being demolished. Most of the old buildings now house government offices and taking photographs of them is prohibited. The Simla Kali Bari temple was established in 1823 and pilgrims throng here. When I was coming back to the ORH I overheard a tourist make the comment looking hopelessly at the steep road ahead of him: “Yeh bahut tedi jagah hai. Main to mar jaoonga” (This is a difficult place. I will die here). So I was not the only one huffing and puffing in Shimla. Many families rent strollers to push their kids around the Ridge and the Mall. I was tempted to hire one to transport my belly in and relieve stress on the rest of the body
I got back to the ORH after collecting the dry cleaned clothes and am spending time with my travelling companion of the past few days – Old Monk. Cheers and Merry Xmas.

DAY 85 – Chandigarh to Shimla

I had settled the ORH charges yesterday evening knowing that the cold will keep people under the quilt than usual. The promised bed tea also did not arrive. Regardless, I started at 7 am since there was no hint of fog. Chandigarh is one city from where I did not have to seek directions to exit it. The major destinations are prominently signposted and I could beat my path towards Shimla as I had already noted the major intersections en route. When I passed Pinjore and the Yadavindra Gardens my mind went back to the good soul in the Tourism Info Counter at the Chandigarh railway station who wanted me to visit it late evening to appreciate the ‘lightning’. The traffic on the road did not indicate peak season. This was confirmed by Ravi, the owner of the wayside eatery called ‘Shimla View’ (one can get a distant view of the Hill Station from here and which is further up from Solan), where I had a wholesome breakfast of Aaloo Paratha with mixed pickle and Omlette. Ravi said that business is dull this year as it has been bright and sunny in Shimla. Even the weathermen have been unequivocal in proclaiming good weather in the Hill Station. Forget the forecast of snow, even overcast conditions bring Delhiites in droves to Shimla, so I was told!
Instead of taking the direct route to Shimla I took the route via Chail. At 7500 feet it boasts of the highest cricket ground in the world. It is actually a school playground and entry was not permitted when I visited. A couple of other cricket aficionados also returned disappointed at being denied entry into the ground. Chail was set up by the Maharaja of Patiala as his summer capital and the Palace was built in 1891. It was purchased by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department from the royalty in 1972 and converted into a Premium Heritage Hotel. Unless you are a resident of the Hotel you have to shell out Rs. 100 for a round of the premises. The heritage furniture in the Hotel is lovely. A clear day can mean very good views of the KInner Kailash Peak and the Dhauladhar Range from the Palace Hotel.
The route from Chail to Shimla passes through Khufri. If and when it snows Khufri is the place to be in to enjoy the snow and pony rides. Despite the absence of snow Khufri was filled to the gills with tourists. There were countless ponies and horses with cushioned seats and even Yaks to take pictures on. In one corner a couple did brisk business dressing up people in traditional attire for photographs. Tourism spawns innovative entrepreneurship. The road from Khufri is a bit dodgy for some distance. Road widening work is going on. While the direct route from Chandigarh to Shimla is only about 110 kms, the detour via Chail and Khufri is another 60 kms.
Shimla is nearly 200 years old. It was retained by the British as a military outpost and sanatorium after the Gorkha Wars in 1815-16. In 1864 the erstwhile nondescript village became the summer capital of the British – a distinction that continued till 1947. Shimla was also the capital of Punjab, after partition till 1966 when it became the capital of Himachal Pradesh. Shimla has been the epicenter of momentous political decisions, prime among them being the decision on the partition of India in 1947 and the historic ‘Simla Agreement’ with Pakistan in 1972. The colonial era is best represented by the iconic buildings in the city. Among the many heritage buildings what stands out in Shimla is one which is even today known as the ‘Railway Board Building’. This magnificent structure at four levels was built in 1896-97 and is a subject matter of study by budding architects and other technical institutions. The building now houses government institutions like the CPWD, the SP CBI, etc. The other interesting building is the AG’s Office, an imposing Gothic structure.
Even though it was conceived in 1841 the Kalka-Shimla railway line could be completed only in 1903. The centenary of the section and the building was commemorated as can be seen from the plaque at the station. One of the major handicaps at the station is the limited circulating area as it is bang in the town with no scope for expansion. However, the best has been done of the limited space and the upkeep of the station is excellent. The Heritage ORH was built in 1921 and offers super views of the station and the township. The rooms are colonial with modern facilities within.
The 108 feet statue of Hanuman, on Jakhoo Hill, overlooks the Mall Road. A lazy stroll on the Mall Road to soak in the glory of a colonial era and appreciate the changes that have come over it in the recent past was my aim as I laboriously carted my bulk over the steep roads. After visiting the CNI Church, which is one of the most popular destinations for film shooting, I walked further ahead and came across the Regal theatre. I have been longing to see a movie in a cinema hall over the past three months that I have been travelling. Today was the day. I was right in time for the 5 o’clock show of the new Akhsay Kumar-Katrina Kaif release ‘Tees Maar Khan’. To say that I was disappointed is to put it mildly, and I was not the only one to leave the cinema hall with such feelings.
Winter is when you feel awfully hungry. At least that is how I justify my huge, regular intakes. I had a Steak Burger and Pizza for dinner in one of the shops on the Mall. When I was ingesting the calories I forgot the distance I had to walk to the ORH. 30 minutes after the meal I was hungry all over again, with some of the calories burnt up during the walk back to the ORH and a major portion of it ‘stored for a rainy day’ within the self!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

DAY 84 – In Chandigarh

The Chandigarh railway station exhibits some Nek Chand Art at the entrance. I called on the Station Superintendent to seek a testimonial of my visit to Chandigarh, the capital city of both Punjab and Haryana. Having covered Chandigarh I have another 7 State Capitals left – or is it 8 with J&K having separate summer and winter capitals?
I went to the Chandigarh Tourist Information Office at the Station to check if they have some brochures to help me decide on places to visit today. The Sardar manning the counter is the ‘type’ you should have in every such counter across the country. He handed me a few brochures with a flourish, but with finesse. He suggested a half day tour in a hop-on-hop-off bus. When I told him that I have been around some since the last evening he was crestfallen. And when I told him that I am travelling ‘alone’ he genuinely sympathized with me and ‘almost’ mentioned that there is no place to go or anything to be enjoyed alone in Chandigarh! When I asked him if visiting Pinjore would be a good alternative he suggested that it is better visited late evening to enjoy the ‘lightning’! I asked him for directions to go to the Rose Garden. He told me to take the exit road from the Station and take the right turn, all the while gesticulating with his left hand. When I tried to correct him he told me that the direction to take depends on which way you are facing! The genuineness of the man and his friendly demeanor overrode any limitations that one may perceive.
While driving past Sector 17 I spied Mainland China, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Chennai. Despite a huge breakfast the ‘sighting’ of Mainland China stirred hunger pangs such as would be the lot of one starving or on hunger strike. By the time I walked in through the door I had even forgotten when I had had my last meal. I was famished and was impatient to order. The wine menu was dismissed and all attention as on the food menu. The final order was Steamed Chicken Wonton in soy sauce and Mixed Meat Fried Rice. Before the former arrived I started on the Khimchi and sliced cucumber in brine. I was well into my second helping of both when the wontons arrived accompanied by black pepper, mustard and sweet ginger sauces. It was the most delicious wontons I have ever had in this short life of mine! When I asked for second helpings of black pepper and mustard sauces the chap who was waiting on me concluded that there is more to me than what met his eye. The ‘small’ portion of the Mixed Meat Fried Rice was ‘washed’ down with three pots of Chinese Tea and the waiter was convinced that he was interacting with only the tip of the iceberg above the table top! As if that was not enough, I acceded to his suggestion to a sweet dish. The sesame coated caramelized walnut was the right way to wind up the lovely meal. I was given a customer feedback form and it took some time for the bill to be presented, for they were trying to decipher my handwriting!
The Harri Hypermarket is next door to the Mainland China Restaurant and stocks some of the finest spirits for the connoisseur. The 30 year old Glenfidich is priced at Rs. 63,980 and the latest from the Johnny Walker stable is on display as well. I bought some chocolates, dates and biscuits for the journey and reached the checkout gate. I must admit that I was absolutely floored by the speed at which I was serviced. It was one of the best experiences I have had in a store the world over. Rajkumar who manned the counter was responsible for this experience. The express checkout was a combination of good quality barcodes, skills of Rajkumar and the evident pride and obvious delight of Rajkumar in servicing a customer.
The 20 hectare Bougainvillea Park also houses a War Memorial. The Memorial is to keep alive the memory of the soldiers from Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh who gave up their lives, in the wars since independence, to ensure that others live in freedom. The War Memorial was the result of a funds campaign run by the Indian Express Group of Newspapers and the citizens of Chandigarh. The Park has a wide variety of bougainvillea and the double color bougainvilleas are special. While perambulating the Park I came across Dharminder, Arvind and Govind, three young students reading in the 6th and 7th classes. They spend the vacation mostly in the Park – access is free – practicing their ‘stunts’. All three of them harbor dreams of becoming stuntmen as they grow up. They train rigorously to achieve their dream. They were happy to perform a few stunts for my camera. They were thrilled when I played them the videos I had shot. This seemed to have motivated them as they immediately did some amazing cartwheels to show their gratitude.
The Zakir Rose Garden in Sector 16 is spread over 42 hectares. The Garden, named after the former President of India, has over 17000 rose plants of more than 1600 varieties. The thoughts of Ammachi, my mother, were uppermost in my mind as I walked around the Garden. She was ‘crazy’ about roses. She used to maintain a small rose garden in ‘Three Wishes’, our home in Trivandrum. She took all sorts of trouble to get the latest varieties from Bangalore and Chennai. However, a pest attack one year destroyed all the plants and my father took the opportunity to plant paddy as an alternative to the rose plants! Hundreds of workers look after the Garden and the entrance to it is free. The ‘business model’ of the Parks and Gardens is not quite clear. The Garden has well appointed walkways and distances are indicated for serious walkers. The Garden is where youngsters knit their dreams together, families live their dreams together and elders take stock of their dreams together.
The more I saw of Chandigarh the more I fell in love with the city. It is so well organized that I feel that legislation should be enacted to stipulate that new cities follow this model. The roads are wide and well surfaced, the junctions have well maintained roundabouts, parking spaces are adequately provided for, traffic constables are effective, wide open spaces provide enough lung areas, parks and gardens keep the citizens in good trim, noise and emission pollution is minimal, the sectors are symmetrical, the city is green and so on and on. My ‘Bhabhi’ in Delhi used to complain about the congested and disorganised Delhi in the early 80s, when she married my good friend Ujjawal Khanna, as compared to her hometown Chandigarh. It then struck me as something strange as Delhi to me was ‘another planet’ when compared to my hometown Trivandrum. Now I know that she was right. Moral of the story – “There is a distinct possibility of even a lady being correct with the passage of 25 years”!

DAY 83 – Dehra Dun to Chandigarh

Giving due credit to the fog that hung low in the morning I left the Dehra Dun ORH close to 8 am only. I was told that the drive to Chandigarh would take about four hours and that is what it took. As you set out for the first milestone of Paonta Sahib from Dehra Dun you pass the sprawling campus of the Forest Research Institute, built in the 1920s, and the majestic Indian Military Academy. Paonta Sahib, the place where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru, spent his younger days is barely an hour from Dehra Dun. The Gurudwara is on the banks of the Yamuna and is just beyond the Uttarakhand border. The road from the border, right through the Himachal Pradesh territory can rattle the sturdiest bones. It is a wonder how the same NH72, which in the Uttarakhand State was extremely well maintained, deteriorates immediately after the border into Himachal. One would expect the roads in Himachal to be super for it lays so much stress on tourism. I was disappointed. After Narain Garh, in Haryana, the road changes its character once again. The drive to Chandigarh is superb. En route is Panchkula, which prepares you for the superbly laid out city of Chandigarh. As you drive into the city one wonders if this is really part of the normally chaotic and noisy India.
The ORH of the Northern Railway, where my accommodation is arranged, is close to the railway station. The ORH has one of the best maintained gardens among the Railway ORHs I have stayed in so far in the country. The gardeners who tend to them are fiercely proud of the blossoms and carefully tend to them through the day. I had lunch at the ORH and set out to explore the Le Corbusier city.
Chandigarh was chosen as the new capital city of Punjab after the trauma of the partition. And it was decided by the planners of the day, including Pandit Nehru, that it should be a city like no other. The responsibility of converting this idea into reality was placed in the capable hands of Le Corbusier, the Frenchman. He was handed the project after one the original designers died and the other resigned. It is a tribute to him that the city is maintained and expanded in the manner which does him proud. The Sukhna Lake is a prime example of what the founding fathers wanted the city to be like. There is a plaque in the Park there which says that the city fathers intended the lake and the dam to be an escape for the citizens from the humdrum existence of a city and enjoy the beauty of nature. It is a beautiful place to spend time either in solitude or in a group. Lovely walkways are tinged with flower beds and places to relax. There are paddle boats on hire to spend time in the water body and the lake has a lot of geese and ducks, which people feed and take pictures with. The open area also cools the atmosphere and hence, in winter the lakeside is cooler than the rest of the city. The Raj Bhavans of Punjab and Haryana ring the Lake on one side.
The Nek Chand Fantasy Park brings home the fact that waste for one is treasure for another, depending on your creativity, passion and fortitude. A refugee from Pakistan, Nek Chand illegally occupied government land – unobtrusively – and built his jungle junk art. He used to cart the waste generated in the building of the city and fashion the ‘art’ as it occurred to him. When the government came to know of the illegal occupation it was caught on the horns of a dilemma – to destroy or preserve it. Wise counsel prevailed, as the design and administration of the city amply articulates, and the ‘Garden’ was adopted by the city. Broken ceramic ware and bangles, discarded jute bags, stone chips and boulders and everything else he could lay his hands on contributed to the building of the fantasy garden, which is reputed to be visited by over 5000 daily and is the second most visited place after the Taj Mahal – one a fantasy in waste and the other in marble!
The High Court of Punjab and Haryana is located in an iconic building. This was among the first buildings designed and constructed in the new city. The High Court celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009 and the Chief Guest was the 102 year old Mrs. Bhandari, the wife of the first Chief Justice of the High Court, Shri. AN Bhandari. The High Court Museum is a treasure trove of information about the development of the judiciary in the new State Capital. There are many interesting exhibits and photographs too; among them is the handcuffs used on Nathuram Godse, Mahatmaji’s assassin. Till recently, the pen that was used to write the death sentence of Bhagat Singh was also on display in the Museum.
Deepak Chhabra insisted that I should visit Sectors 14 and 17. I was happy to have heeded his suggestion. The Panjab University Campus in Sector 14 is like no other in the country. The well laid out roads in the campus and the university buildings would be the envy of many of its counterparts in the rest of the world. It also has an excellent garden and many walkways to keep your mind and body in good trim. Sector 17 is a shopping centre – I first mistook it for a huge parking centre. Later I realized that Sector 17 is the ‘happening place’ in Chandigarh and it is to this part of the city that people flock to after a hard day’s work. Despite the temptation to sup at one of its many eateries I bought an old favorite to keep me company for the rest of the evening, ‘Old Monk’.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

DAY 82 – In Dehra Dun

All through the beautiful drive to Mussoorie my mind was in a playback mode; the overwhelming flood of nostalgia is difficult to stop when you have strong association with people, places or situations. It is in Mussoorie that I spent three of the most glorious months of my life and I discovered many aspects of my own self that I had not previously known. I stopped at Bhatta and had a cup of tea as that is where, I think, the buses from the Dehra Dun railway station stopped for the probationers to unwind for a while before the rest of the journey to the LBSNAA. I wonder if they do that anymore. When I reached Library Point I thought of the lovely walks I enjoyed from the LBSNAA to the Mall whenever I could tear myself away from the Courts. Those days my friends and I swaggered around as if we owned the place.
Being a clear day the views of the Himalayan Range were spectacular on the road from the Library to the LBSNAA. Every bend in the road looked so familiar. Along the way I saw the off campus residential accommodation used by probationers and ended up in front of the LBSNAA gate, which is very different now with the security arrangements. Just opposite to the entrance, on a high ground, is the Stapleton hostel, where I had stayed for three months. Those days the rooms were damp and cold. All the residences have been redone and they are reported to have all modern facilities in them. New hostels have also been built. The Kateswar Castle has been returned to its owner at his insistence and the residence used by married probationers now serves as the Director’s house. At the gate I was given an entry on the security being told that I was a probationer in the premises from 1st September to 30th November 1981. The KL registration of the car also lent credibility when I told them of my utmost desire to visit my ‘alma mater’. The Ladies Hostel had withstood the fire of 1981, but succumbed to the one in 1984. The Office of the Director, the Admn section and some of the Professors’ Offices are still intact. The Councilor of my group was a senior IAS Officer. In the first session, an IAS probationer told him that he would like to be trained to become a Chief Secretary. Unflustered and with utmost calm he told him that he should try to get that training elsewhere, since they only train probationers in the LBSNAA.
As I walked into the main concourse of the Academy a High Tea session was on. I could make out that senior officers are in the campus. Then I caught sight of Mr. K. Suresh, former Chairman of the Chennai Port Trust, who I knew from my days in South Western Railway. He was absolutely flabbergasted to meet me there. The Phase V of the in service training program comprising IAS officers mainly of the 1982 batch is in progress. Since he is posted in Bhopal I have promised to meet up with him during my visit to the State Capital.
The views of the Himalayan Range are absolutely gorgeous from the LBSNAA. I spent quite some time photographing the spectacle. A metallic legend has also been installed in the ground to identify the peaks. The view of the Neelkanth peak is breathtaking. Thereafter I visited the TRDC department to find out if they could give me a copy of the group photograph of the 1981 batch taken sometime in November 1981, before we dispersed to the various training institutions. Gyan Chandra made a valiant search with one of his colleagues. He has promised to mail it to me as soon as he lays his hands on a copy.
The souvenir shop in the LBSNAA has quite a few things to choose from – T-Shits, riding jacket, key chain, pocket pouch, photo frame, tie pin, Academy tie and cravat. In the building housing the dining hall a hand pulled rickshaw and a requiem for it is placed at a stair landing. One of the first things we were told in the LBSNAA is that we should avoid the use of a hand pulled rickshaw as it demeaned human labor. It is wonderful to know that the sustained efforts of three batches of probationers, between 1993 and 1995, ensured that the rickshaw pullers were given cycle rickshaws and the practice of hand drawn rickshaws ceased for good. The next visit was to the place where communication meant for each of the probationers was placed in pigeon holes during the days when I was there. I think they have changed the means of communicating with the probationers since I did not find it there. I used to get a whole bunch of notes for not attending the morning PT or Yoga classes. I found it such a waste of time as all the exercise I needed I got from the squash and the badminton courts in the evening. Attending these classes also meant waking up early in the morning, which I loathed to do then. I do not recall how, but I got the PT master to exempt me and the notes stopped.
The Happy Valley Sports Complex was where I spent the substantial, and most productive, part of my time in the LBSNAA. I had never played badminton before arriving Mussoorie. I was so glued to cricket that taking up another sport never ever crossed my mind. As I was leaving for the Academy my father gave me a brand new Carlton racquet and told me to try my hand at badminton. I had learnt the nuances of squash in St Stephen’s from a couple of the best in the University. I took to these two sports like a duck takes to water. Along with Dhand, Borwankar and Dube I was among the top four badi players in the Academy. I was third on the squash ladder too. There was a tradition in the Academy that Bunker Roy, of Tilonia fame and a top squash player of his days, would take on the top three squash players after he delivers his customary lecture. He was too good for all of us, but the tips I got from him helped improve my movement and anticipation. I tried my hand at riding too. But I discovered early that horses and I do not mix and hence I used to have rum on the run (on which most of the princely stipend of Rs. 700 was spent) after the strenuous badminton and squash games that lasted the whole evening. There were days when I missed dinner due to the total involvement on the courts and fatigue is not something I felt or thought about. Today when I visited the Sports Complex and climbed back to the Administrative Block, I am sure, people would have mistaken my huffing and puffing for some old steam engine running riot in the Academy.
For almost the entire period of our stay in the Academy the Central Service Officers did not know their service allotment. I consider it very fortunate since probationers mixed freely, without any reservations. There were no walls or boundaries. Just a week prior to completing the Foundation Course the service list was put up. Before reaching Mussoorie it was informally understood that I would, in all probability, get the Indian Postal Service. Keeping that in mind I scanned the Postal service list and found my name missing. Panic. I tried Income Tax and Customs lists too. No luck. Further panic. I thought the worst and abandoned the search. I went to my hostel and slept. At lunch a friend congratulated me on being allotted IRTS. I was overjoyed, for IRTS to me meant Pius Joseph, the legendary Southern Railway officer. The best part was yet to come. Only the railway probationers travelled from Mussoorie to their training institution in a first class railway coach. A friend collected a pass on my behalf from the Principal of the Oak Grove School and we made our reservations to Baroda. That was the talk of the town and the envy of all. It was tough taking leave of all the friends one had made in the Academy. One of the probationers made an insensitive remark that we should have made friends knowing that many of us would be leaving the Academy.
I had lunch at the ‘Whispering Windows’, where we used dine whenever a small surplus of the stipend permitted, which was not often at all. The food used to be good then. The Biriyani I had today was awful. The Mall Road looks much the same except for the ware displayed; it is more contemporary. On the way back from Mussoorie I visited the Oak Grove School. Since a friend had done me the favor of collecting the pass in 1981 I had never once visited the railway-run school. I corrected the record today.

DAY 81 – Corbett NP to Dehra Dun

No one can leave the National Park without a valid authorisation from the KMVN authorities. After a couple of cups of hot tea I presented myself at the Reception to complete the check out formalities and collect the gate pass. Visitors can leave the complex only after 6.30 am. Arshad, who had stayed overnight with one of the staff, was waiting to take me back to the Forest GH in Ramnagar. Since I had told him that I would like to leave Ramnagar by 9, he ignored the speed restriction of 20 kmph inside the Park. By 8.30 I reached the Forest GH and made the payment for the Gypsy. The stay and transport to the National Park cost me about Rs 6000, but was worth it. Travelling with a companion to these places will halve the cost as the accommodation and transport costs can be shared. Arshad is a good contact for visiting the Jim Corbett National Park. He can be contacted on 09927160387. He will complete all the bookings and paperwork prior to picking you up from the appointed place (he is a reasonably decent photographer too). However, it must be said that the best time to visit the Park is in the summer months of March to May. The Park remains closed for 5 months during the monsoon from 15th June. Once it reopens in November, the water sources are many inside the forests. Hence, the cats and the elephants remain mostly hidden from the view of the visitors. I was told that it is not possible to drive through the Park in summer without a few elephant crossings.
I started for Dehra Dun just after 9 am. The hill roads in Uttarakhand are relatively better than in most other States, particularly the North East. However, stretches such as Afzalgarh to Dhampur and Nagina to Najibabad are being worked on. I did the Dehra Dun trip leisurely to let the cold air pinch my face and also enjoy the villages en route. Short of Haridwar I stopped at a Punjabi Dhaba for Roti and Dal Makhni.  The extra Makhan made the side dish doubly tasty. Haridwar was packed. Even at 1 pm pilgrims were many in the bathing ghat. I had visited Haridwar nearly 15 years ago. The traffic arrangements and places to stay have improved considerably since then. Though I considered going to Mussoorie directly I decided to do that tomorrow and drove to the Northern Railway ORH near the Dehra Dun railway station.
My first visit to Dehra Dun was on 1st September 1981 by train from Delhi. I had made some friends on the train who were also due to report to the Lal Bahadur Shastry National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie to begin our lives as Government Servants. After disembarking from the train we were taken by buses to the Academy. So the initial interface was just the walk along the platform. I decided to do just that after depositing the luggage in the ORH. I walked across to the office of the Station Superintendent on the platform and, over a cup of tea, took his testimonial of my visit to Dehra Dun. I then set out to explore the Rajpur road, where Kwalitys was a must visit during those days for the superb pastries on offer. The long walk from the railway station showed me how much the place has changed; naturally it had to in 29 years. However, I did not feel the clutter I used to feel way back then. The roads are lined on both sides with shops and traffic is well regulated despite the heavy density of vehicles. I came across the ‘hairXpresso’ salon and walked in to experience it. For Rs. 100 I got a decent haircut, which would have reduced my weight somewhat. Down the road I saw another salon with computerised hair dressing advertised and was tempted to walk in further weight shedding. What intrigued me most during the walk were ‘Simran Off Vodka’ and ‘Garba Chow Vodka’ in the rate list displayed by a wine shop. I had a huge meal in McDonalds and started back to the ORH. On the way I came to the Indra Market, a centre for bags, hosiery, wollens, leather goods, etc. I walked in to an almost carnival atmosphere. Sales were brisk in most shops. People were buying up for the colder days ahead. I bought some inners (it’s getting seriously cold) and a huge bag to keep the keep the stuff in the car organized.  I will hit the sack after soaking clothes to wash tomorrow and crystallizing the plans for tomorrow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

20th December 2010 - Khushroo Kiash, A Tribute

Khushroo Kiash is no more. He died yesterday morning in a motorcycle accident near Mumbai. He was riding his favorite bike and doing what he liked to do. I came to know Khushroo when DPW acquired P&O Ports in 2006. He was Director Engineering Services and was fabulously good at what he did. His greatest strength was team building; he has left behind one of the strongest teams in DPW, a legacy that will do his memory proud.
Khush, as he was called by everyone – it suited him for he made all around him happy, as he himself was – and I were the only two in the Sub-continent Region of DPW who looked like senior citizens and that made for a special relationship. The great thing about Khush was that he made everyone feel special. So I felt, in his company, that I was special to him. A few instances stand out in support of this strong premise. At a get together in Ganesh Raj’s house in Mumbai I paid handsome compliments to the Pathani suit he was wearing. He asked me for my size and said that he would try to get me one. In a few weeks I had one delivered to me in Cochin. I came to know later that he had it sent from Karachi by Changez, the CEO of our BU there. On one of my visits to the Regional Office in Mumbai I shared some Dal which Khush had got from home. It was lovely and I told him so. From then on, every time I went to the Regional Office, he would get me an extra portion of Dal. On a visit to Cochin he brought me a bottle of it from Mumbai! One of my weaknesses is Falooda and when I told him this on another visit to Mumbai he jumped up from his seat, caught me by my arm and said, in his inimitable Parsi style, “There ko main abhi duniya ke subse badhiya falooda khilata hoon. Aao mere saath” (I will just now get you the world’s best falooda. Come with me). He introduced me to Badshah, near Crawford. I will never forget the parental delight on his face when I polished off three portions in one sitting. Not only did he buy me all that I could eat, he also bought enough for all the staff in the office and made sure that none missed out. Such was the man. When I told him about a trip I had planned to Ladakh he offered to spare his inners (he claimed it was clean!) and a woolen cap (which he reportedly bought in China many years ago when he was sailing). After the trip I returned the inners (as clean as it was received) and the cap. He told me to keep the cap as a memento. Ironically, I was wearing it this morning when I got the message of his untimely demise.
Khush was the life and soul of every party and gathering. The energy and vivacity he exuded, despite the health warnings he had in the past, made guys half his age look bland and lifeless. His raunchy jokes and naughty stories embellished every meeting and interaction. The relationship with his wife was the stuff of dreams, as I understood from colleagues. I know of his love for his daughter and son. He made sure that he spent as much time with them as was possible. Whenever he visited them in Australia he would come back with stories of places he visited with them, how much he enjoyed with them and so on and on. He lived a full life and never once complained about it, even when the chips were down. It was only last year that his daughter hosted a party in Mumbai to celebrate his 60th birthday. Friends from all over the world attended the party; it only underlined the strong relationships he built as he went along. In a few days from now he would have turned 61. That was not to be. He has cast off the ropes of his ship from our shores and set sail for another. ‘The Khush’ has gone out of our lives, but Khush will live in our hearts forever. Fly on free spirit. Cheers mate. 

DAY 80 – Ramnagar to Corbett NP

After waking up early I loaded into the car the bags I would not be taking to the Park. When I was doing this I met an Officer of the Forest Service who had halted in the GH and was headed to Dhikala to meet his boss. Since he is familiar with the entire State I requested him for the best route to go to Dehra Dun tomorrow. He suggested a shorter route which should take me to Dehra Dun in 5 hours. It is extremely cold in Ramnagar. The Forest GH where I stayed is an open area with no tree cover at all and the cold ‘bites and grips’. On account of this, I decided against a bath and started out for the Corbett National Park like a KTP (keen type probationer) before 6.30 am when the booking counter was full of people availing permits and making reservations. As I had done my reservation and approvals last evening I was headed directly to the Park. I left the car with my bags in the Forest GH in Ramnagar.
A Maruti Gypsy had been arranged for me and young Arshad was my driver cum attendant cum guide. The knowledgeable youngster was full of spirit and chatter. My reservation was done at the Dhikala Forest Rest House, which is operated by the KMVN and is 52 kms from the Forest GH in Ramnagar. The entire landscape en route, especially from Dhikuli, is pockmarked by retreats, resorts, spas and lodging to cater to all pockets as well as souvenir shops. There are four entrances to the National Park – Vijrani, Jhirina, Durgadevi and Dhangadi. One has to drive 31 kms from the Dhangadi gate of the National Park to reach the Rest House where I was booked to stay. In the Dhangadi Gate area there are four Rest Houses, namely Sultan, Sarpdhuli, Gairal and Dhikala. Only the last named has electricity and is an ‘Idea’(l) home, as no other service provider has any signal in the premises. You realize the beauty of life without news, of any type. In Dhikala overnight stay is compulsory, day trip is not permitted. The Corbett NP, the first NP in the country, was established in 1936 and is now spread over 1300 sq kms.
During the drive in the National park to the Rest House I found many locations where tiger pug marks were fresh. They were seen mainly in locations which crossed over to the river. The NP, as per the 2007 census, has a population of 164 tigers and 640 elephants. Since the pugmarks were so plentiful, I hoped to sight one of the magnificent cats during my stay here. I read in Corbett’s book that the tigers are not normally man-eaters. They become one when they are unable to hunt game or are wounded; man is easy prey. Corbett also says that the tiger normally starves to death once its hunting days are over. Prior to the 6th Pay Commission a similar situation awaited an honest Government servant upon superannuation.
The Rest House is set in a most glorious environment with a large water body (the Ram Ganga river) separating two parts of the forest. It was not always so. Vehicles used to drive on the river bed to the other part of the forest till the last season. With the building of a bridge downstream the river has been temporarily bunded. Thus, while one can enjoy the beautiful water body, it has also cut a part of the forest off for visits. I presented my papers at the Reception and was told that the room would be ready only by noon. I had two hours to kill. The Reception has a record book that documents every tiger sighting. In the past week the sightings have been frequent. I walked around the Rest House – there are individual houses (like the Old Forest Rest House), single rooms with attached toilets, cottage type accommodation and even a log hut where beds are laid out like in a two tier railway coach. Then I went to the Dining Hall and made up for a missed supper last evening and a late breakfast this morning. Breakfast consisted of an omlette of 4 eggs, 8 toasts, half a plate of poha, 5 puris and baji washed down with two cups of masala tea. I deliberately did not have the porridge, which was part of the buffet, so that I off load the guilt. Wait a minute; I missed lunch! Then I sat at the edge of the water body and soaked in some healthy sunrays.
The Hutment Number 1 was ready, as promised, for occupation by noon. The large room has two beds, two luggage racks, a writing table and an attached modern toilet with geyser. The Rest House uses solar power for almost everything. After carting my luggage to the room I went for a short drive with Arshad to a couple of watch towers to look out for game. The forest is almost full of Saal Trees. It is said that these trees stand on their roots for 100 years, lie on its side for 100 years and takes another 100 years to decompose. The Railways used to make use of this timber for making sleepers due to its keeping quality. The old wooden structures that have survived in these parts of the country have a substantial presence of Saal timber.
After a short rest organsied scouting for wildlife began from 1.30 pm. Arshad had arranged with the best guide in the Park, Shyam Bhist, to accompany me. Every trick in the book was tried and every tracking technique was used to coax a cat into my presence. The cats stayed where they wanted to – the evidence pointing to their presence in two parts of the jungle was definitive. We called off the tour by 5.30 pm after an exciting jeep safari around the NP. I was able to see barking deer (the smallest deer in India), hog deer, chitals and sambars (the largest deer in Asia) in large numbers. Some of them even ‘posed’ for photographs. A croc on the river bed did create a lot of excitement among the tourists. To wildlife buffs, sighting of even an insect in the forest is time for high fives! My guide did spot a leopard cat, but I could not. The Maruti Gypsy is a very facile vehicle for rough terrain and I experienced this during the drive. If Maruti comes out with a diesel version of it, I will buy one for my next adventure.
The Rest House arranged an excellent documentary film on a tiger family that was filmed over a four year period. It was educative and, at the same time, illustrative of the ways of the jungle. For your information, the responsibility of the male tiger towards creating, raising and equipping the next generation is limited to only the act of fertilizing the egg of the female.
On my way to the Dining Hall for dinner I noticed a recording on the board that a male tiger was sighted on the river bed at around 4 pm this evening, which makes it the fifth sighting in a week. I feel sad that I could not see one ‘in person’.
I have completed two thirds of my journey today – 80 of the 120 days are over – and I have logged over 14500 kms. I have visited 18 State capitals and 10 Railway Zonal HQs, for which I have testimonials. In the next 40 days I expect to visit the balance 10 State capitals and 6 Zonal HQs. It is getting colder and the next 30 days are going to be ‘bitingly’ different.

DAY 79 – Lucknow to Ramnagar

Dr Jacob Thomas IAS was the Chairman of the Cochin Port Trust for five years till July 2005. He had demitted office and moved over as Project Officer of the LNG project in the Puthuvype SEZ in Cochin when I joined DP World in Cochin. I had come to know him when I was heading CONCOR in Chennai. In the first instance itself he came across as an honest, well meaning and hard working professional with an abundance of humaneness and goodness of heart. As a new business proposition in CONCOR we worked at handling ‘Less than Container Load’ consignments at the Cochin Port, for which we need allotment of space in the Container Freight Station. The enthusiasm with which he pursued the proposal and made it happen was very unlike the normal ‘government’ response.
Upon my repatriation to the Railways in 2003, after the stint in CONCOR, I lost touch with Dr Jacob Thomas. On 30th March 2005, while working as Chief Freight Transportation Manager in Hubli, I chanced upon a short newspaper report in a leading English daily about the successful signing of the Concession Agreement by Cochin Port Trust with Dubai Port International. The report mentioned Dr Jacob Thomas as the Chairman of the Cochin Port. Having known, to some extent, the passion with which he had worked to award the CA of the International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadam, I thought it right to congratulate him. After the exchange of greetings and the congratulations he chose to treat me to a few choice expletives of the refined variety. He told me that I should be working on the project since DPI was scouting for senior talent. I was skeptical about the lead he gave me as I had no exposure to the functioning of a container terminal nor people who shepherded the fortunes of DPI. However, God dispelled the skepticism and charted a new path for me. I went through a few personal interviews in India and Dubai before being given a proposal to head the DPI Business Unit in Cochin. And thus, I came to work in DPW (the transformation from ‘International’ to ‘World’ came about with a string of global acquisitions) and partner Cochin Port Trust to operate the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal and build the Greenfield ICTT at Vallarpadam between July 2005 and 2010. During the meeting with Mrs and Dr Jacob Thomas at their residence last evening I jogged the latter’s memory on his role in my being part of the corporate world for five years with the opportunity to do something completely different and challenging.
Dr Jacob Thomas hosted me to dinner at the Mahomed Bagh Club, which was established in 1899 and still retains plenty of colonial charm. He also invited his batch mate and Secretary to the Government of UP, Jagan Mathews, to sup with us. Over a few rounds of Spirits and short eats that included Boti Kabab and fish fingers, we discussed and debated a wide range of subjects which also encompassed some that may require a visit to the Confessional before Christmas.
The SH25 via Hardoi to Shahjahanpur was a pleasant 170 km drive. Compared to this the NH24 was poorly maintained and congested. Despite reaching Bareilly in 4 hours I took nearly another 3 to reach Haldwani due to the congestion caused by trucks carrying sugarcane, mostly overloaded. At Haldwani I was tempted to take the Nainital route, which would have taken me to the Kumaoni hill resort. While seeking directions at Kaladungi to Ramnagar I chanced upon the Jim Corbett Museum. The Museum is housed in the winter home of Jim Corbett and his sister, which he built on a large property in 1922. He sold the house in 1947 when he relocated to Kenya. In 1965 the Forest Department bought the house and converted it into a memorial of Jim Corbett. He was revered by the locals who had come to depend on him to save them from the ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’. Corbett had bought 40 hectares and resettled some families on the ‘model village’, which is even today known as Chota Haldwani, the name given to it by Corbett. The land was distributed free of cost to the villagers when Corbett moved to Kenya. The Museum also has a souvenir shop stocked with books, products of Kumaon, etc. Besides acquiring a copy of Corbett’s most famous book I sampled a portion of a Kumaoni sweet dish ‘Singodi’, a milk delicacy wrapped in a special leaf for its aroma.
The vehicles in Uttaranchal are registered under both UA and UK prefixes, which is unique in that all the 19 States that I have been to so far have a single prefix to indicate the State of registration (because the State is known as both Uttaranchal and Uttarakhand, I presume). When I saw the UK prefix I was reminded of an experience in the Administrative Staff College in Nainital, where I had attended an in-service training program in the early 90s. One of the faculty members of the ASC flaunted a degree from ‘UK’. For all the width that we were willing to give him none of us attending the course could fathom how he managed the UK degree. Towards the end of the two week program we prized it out of him that ‘UK’ stood for the ‘University of Kumaon’ and not ‘United Kingdom’! We left the ASC in better humor.
The permission for entry to the Jim Corbett National Park and the reservation for stay in the Park are done in the KMVN Office in Ramnagar. Thanks to Dr Jacob Thomas, I managed accommodation in the Forest GH in Ramnagar. I will be leaving at 6 am tomorrow for the National Park.

DAY 78 – In Lucknow

Lucknow is not what you mentally visualize it to be after you have been to Varanasi and Allahabad. It’s a city that has been transformed over the past few years, if local residents are to be believed. The roads have been widened, water and power supplies have been revamped and improved, the trans-Gomti area has been developed, et al. New Lucknow across the River Gomti transports you into another world. A drive through this area in the night gives you a feel of driving through a city in some other country. The newspaper this morning has reported a review of development works in various cities by the CM and her angst at the delay in execution. The CM is also quoted as having said that there is no shortage of funds and that the errant will face dire consequences. So, it looks as if the other cities will also see better times in the near future. Lucknow is a City of Parks; there are countless of them and they are literally just a stone’s throw away from wherever you are.
The Residency is spread over a vast 33 acres and was constructed to house the British Resident and his staff after the Nawab of Oudh agreed to homing a Resident in his jurisdiction. The capital of Oudh was shifted to Lucknow in 1775 and the Residency gradually grew in size. What I was amazed at was the construction methods and finishes of the day; the brick works are perfect and the manner in which brick columns and slopes are finished is a marvel. This complex withstood a 147 day siege during the First War of India’s Independence in 1857 when it lost more than 2000 men. Many buildings collapsed and the damage sustained by many others can be seen in the ruins of the Residency. The canon and bullet marks on certain buildings, especially the Treasury, are stark reminders of the fierce battle. The cemetery in the Residency has a common grave too, apart from embellished individual ones, including that of their leader Sir Henry Lawrence. Even in ruins the majesty of the Residency cannot be missed.
The pet project of the CM is the Samajik Parivarthan Prateek Sthal. The project is still evolving. I understand that there have been many changes and modifications to the layout and the buildings in the complex. The controversial ‘welcoming elephants’ can only be admired from a distance. The statues installed in the enclaves lining the driveway are guarded by policemen. When completed, the park and the complex will look like a grand Mughal complex. Self aggrandizement is a prominent theme of what is new in Lucknow. It is, however, heartening to see some parts of Old Lucknow like Hazrathganj getting a facelift.
Lucknowi Chikan work is famous all over the country and in the shop I went to I was told that the export orders are difficult to keep pace with. The range of selection is wide depending on the type of material and the needle work. Bargaining is an absolute must. My skills are abject in this area. Tunday Kababi is one of the most popular attractions of Lucknow. I was primed about it by Pradeep and Amritanshu in Gorakhpur. Hence, I fixed up with Badre Alam to have lunch at this joint, which was one of Azhar’s favorites. Just as you enter the shop you can see the kababs being made. The Gelawati Kebab melts in your mouth; there is no time or need to chew. The quality of the mince and the ‘secret formula’ of marination are the twin contributors to the magical kebab. The Mughalai Paratha is the natural accompaniment to the kabab. You have to be starving for a few days to have more than two of the parathas. The Mutton Biriyani at the Dastarkhwan yesterday evening as better than that was served in the Tunday Kababi – each place has its specialties. The special Kheer was the ideal way to bring the fabulous lunch to a close.
La Martinere School, apart from being a prestigious boarding school, which boasts of Sir Cliff Richard as one of its Alumni, is also a tourist attraction. This was designed and built by Major General Claude Martin, a Frenchman, as his residence. This palatial building is an admixture of various styles, Roman and Gothic predominating. The movie going public would be familiar with this building and its premises for certain dramatic sequences of the Bollywood film ‘Gaddar’ were committed to screen here. The complex has a fairly large garden, where a dedicated gardener, proud of his work, has been tending to the blossoms over the past few decades.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had a penchant for music, dance, chess and all that was beautiful. The 365 begums of his harem were housed in different types of accommodation, depending on their importance. The favorites were accommodated in elaborately constructed lodgings. At the centre of the circular harem housing complex is a large Baradari, which was used as a recreation hall. A portion of the Baradari now serves as a theatre, where artists like Anupam Kher proved their mettle.
Having completed all that I wanted to see and do in Lucknow I took leave of Badre Alam, whose company was enriching. I also firmed up the route for the trip to Jim Corbett Park tomorrow morning.

Friday, December 17, 2010

DAY 77 – Allahabad to Lucknow

I struggled for sleep the whole night in the ORH in Allahabad. The ORH is beside the Allahabad railway station and the Parcel Office. It is noisy through the day and night. Add to that the incessant blowing of horns and sleep deserted me. By 4 am I decided not to try anymore and got ready for the trip to Lucknow. At ten to five I was well on my way. The road was more than free; there were just a few trucks on the NH24B. The distance was about 210 kms and the surfacing was adequate to maintain 60km+ speed. Except for some fog and the fact that one could not appreciate the country side, the early morning start was ideal to get a full day in Lucknow. A steady drive deposited me in the Officers’ Rest House of the Indian Railways Institute of Transport Management by 8.30 am.
The arrangement for stay at the IRITM was done by Gopal Mohanty from Calcutta. He has been a solid support to organise the logistics of the journey in the East and now in the North. Often I feel that his enthusiasm for the journey outstrips mine. Sunil Mathur is a dear friend and railway colleague, who is presently Executive Director of IRITM.  He had given me elaborate directions to reach the IRITM, and even revised it with me three times, yesterday evening. I could have reached the campus blindfolded. This is my first visit to the ‘IRTS Institute’ and am happy to see the development of the Institute. The accommodation is arranged in one of the residential quarters used as ORH. I was scheduled to address the IRTS Probationers of the 2009 batch in the afternoon on my experiences in the Railways. As I had reached IRITM early I requested for a morning session so that I could be free to go around the Nawabi town in the afternoon. The request was granted and I completed the interface by 1 pm. The probationers seemed quite concerned about the work load expected of them and the hours they would be expected to put in.
Badre Alam was deputed by the office of Dr Jacob Thomas, Secretary Technical Education, Government of UP. I was fortunate to have him as my ‘guide’. There is not a place he does not know in this town and his knowledge of the various monuments came in handy. I would have been lost for centuries in the Bhul Bhulaiya had it not been for his expert guidance. He first took me to the grand Juma Masjid, a mosque built in 1845. The façade is elaborate and grand with a high, colored entrance doorway. The whole mosque is set on a high platform and is not open to non-Muslims. The next stopover was the Chota Imam Bara, built by Mohammed Ali Shah in 1832, where he and his mother are buried. The entrance gate is in itself a striking structure. The reflection of the main prayer hall and the entrance gate on the water in the rectangular tank in front of it is magical. On either side of the tank are two replicas of the Taj housing the tombs of Shah’s daughter and her husband. The prayer hall has many colorful tazias, numerous chandeliers and golden framed mirrors. The premise also has a Shahi Hammam, the traditional bathing place.
The 65m tall clock tower is the tallest in India and can be seen from all parts of the old city. The ‘Rumi Darwaza’ is one of the access points to the Bada Imam Bara. The Rumi (for ‘Roman’) Darwaza is reputed to be a copy of the entrance gate of Istanbul, which was at the time under Roman control. The gate is magnificent and it prepares you for the grandeur of the Bada Imam Bara, the imposing tomb of Asafu’d-Dawlah. The entrance gates to the complex are enormous and elaborately done. Immediately after passing through the second gate is the stately and attractive mosque on one side and the rather unusual water storage ‘Bouli’. On the opposite end of the second entrance gate is the huge prayer hall, which is considered to be one of the largest vaulted galleries in the world. The ceiling is beautiful, with domes on both sides and a flat roof over the main prayer hall. Many decorated tazias adorn the prayer hall. The tazias are small replicas of the tomb of Imam Hussain and are paraded during the Moharram ceremony. To one side of the central hall is the entrance to the Labyrinth, the Bhul Bhulaiya. This is a complex web of narrow passageways on the upper floors of the tomb and the central hall, which lead to the roof of the building. From one location of the passageway you can see right through the Imam Bara complex and watch over the entrance gates to the complex. There is a saying, “Even walls have ears”. This is demonstrated in the Bhul Bhulaiya, where even the faintest whisper is clearly audible if you put your ear to the wall. A match struck in one corner of the gallery of the central hall can be heard in another, separated by over 100 feet. Navigating alone through the narrow passageways with dummy exits and sudden drops is not meant for the fainthearted and the claustrophobic. Even with a guide I was not too comfortable. While exiting the Imam Bara I took a few tips in photography from Fareed, a young freelancing photographer.
Lucknowi tehzeeb is an experience. The language, the food and the respect for others is like none other in the country. I met Ibrahim, a friend of Badre Alam, before going in to the Chota Imam Bara. He insisted on a cup of tea after the visit and took us to a shop close by. He insisted that I taste the hot ‘carrot halwa’ at the shop - a personal favorite. Ibrahim suggested that I mash the khoa into the halwa and savor the delight. It was heavenly. I asked Badre to take me to sample the traditional food of Lucknow for dinner. He took me to Dastarkhwan where I had the most delectable Shami Kebab, Rogan Josh with chapattis and Mutton Biriyani. The quantities are so large that a half plate of each sufficed to feed two of us and the rates are extremely reasonable too. The aromas wafting from the cooked food are, in themselves, an experience.
I look forward to more kebabs and parathas tomorrow, and maybe I will spend another sleepless night, not due to any lousy disturbances but chewing the cud!

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...