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Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Different World Part I : A Travelogue of Sorts

'Sirji will you take our picture?' a college student asked me. And when I nodded he handed me his camera. There were seven of them. They wanted a picture with the Golden Temple in the background. It was an early December morning and the sun was struggling to break through the clouds and the Punjab morning fog.

Engraving of the Golden Temple by a <span class=
I took off my back-pack and the heavy camera bag and rearranged that group while checking them out through the view-finder for a good angle. This took a few minutes of adjusting, cajoling and coaxing then. When I was ready I snapped three pictures with their cameras.

Then I asked one of them to take our picture. The young man took his time and took our photograph. That picture turned out to be one of the better ones of both of us from that trip. We have it enlarged and framed over the fireplace in the real baithak.

We were then at the tail end of our Indian tour, having arrived at Amritsar early that morning from New Delhi. We checked in our bags at the cloak room and then ordered breakfast in the station restaurant. All other passengers had left the platform by then. There we met Henrik and Jacob. Had crossed paths with them thrice in the past few weeks in Jaisalmer, Delhi and Ratnagiri.

I asked them where they were heading this time.
'Dharamsala, and you?'
'We are crossing Attari to Wagah this morning.'
'You are going to Pakistan?' There was just a hint of incredulity in their tone.
'Afghanistan,' I jokingly replied.
'Good, we will see your pictures in the newspapers.'

Touring all over India in the aftermath of September 11 we had met many foreign tourists. And Indian tourists too, a testimony to the burgeoning middle class in India. Though both the tour operators as well as State Tourism Agency officials bemoaned of the diminishing number of foreign tourists.

As we walked around the Darbar Sahib a kindly and elderly Sikh became our guide, pointing out the highlights. Loudspeakers broadcast the Gurbani Kirtans sung in the upper floor of theHarmandir Sahib, the inner sanctum sanctorum. Peace and tranquility mixed with the morning fog and floated soothingly over the water.

(digression: one of the things I look forward to doing in a new city or country is to visit the oldest house of worship there. I find the peace and calm in those mosques, temples, synagogues, mandirs, gurdwaras very invigorating, calming and overwhelming. Sometimes, the visits produced interesting insights - like the mandir in Port of Spain with pews and the church in Goa or Cochin where we had to take off our shoes. )

After the Golden Temple we stepped back into the bazaar and walked the short distance to Jallianwala Bagh. Paused and paid our respects at the eternal flame in memory of the unarmed civilian Indians who were butchered by General Dyer. There were many families visiting the garden and from their conversation snippets it became apparent they were from Gujarat, Bengal and Tamil Nadu among other places.

It was still early in the morning but we felt hungry after all that walking around. So we searched around for a restaurant and ordered the traditional sarsooN ka saag and makkai ki roti. Then we walked through one of the main bazaars to a central chowk.

It was a typical Indian bazaar scene. Narrow streets, filled with people and cars and scooters and trucks and buses. Crowded, dusty and dirty. Throngs milled about.

I suggested M to look around and absorb the scene very carefully. In a couple of hours we would be crossing over to the other side. (I had experienced this difference before but this was M's first foray into the country).

In the crowded Amritsar bazaar, in addition to men there were old and young women and children. M would soon find this for herself. What set this crowd apart was that the young and old women were driving cars, riding scooters and bicycles and even motorbikes navigating expertly through the crazy Indian traffic. (Forgive me, sometimes I inadvertently judge desi scenes from a non-desi perspective. Attribute it in part to living in the west for so long.)

Women owned stalls and kiosks and thelas. School and College girls also rode bicycles through the traffic.

At the square I bought two copies of the daily newspapers, the Hindustan Times, Times of India, the Hindu, Indian Express and some local papers and magazines. (the second copy was for Lahore friend Feroz.) The Newspaper stall was managed by a retired journalist named Narang. When he saw the newspaper purchase he inquired if we were heading across the divide. And was kind enough to arrange our transportation to the border. While we were waiting for the car to arrive he ordered tea and we had interesting conversation with him. He talked of Bhindrawale days. How he was an outspoken journalist then and his life was under threat. How Indira Gandhi gave him police protection. Our ride arrived and we had to cut short his tales.

We were the only travelers to cross over that day. It was closed to local traffic. This was in the aftermath of the attack on the Parliament in Delhi, and the military deployment was notched up all along the border and LoC. As we entered the customs hall the coolie asked us to wait. Finally a Custom Officer emerged, took our passports and disappeared across the road, Half an hour later, he returned and examined our luggage. Picking out a box of Cuban cigars (again for Feroz) he wanted to levy duty on it.

I asked to see the Superintendent. A petite South Indian Lady with an ear to ear smile came in and was introduced to us as the Asst. Collector. She listened to the Custom Officer and turning to me said I would have to pay the duty. I pointed out the fallacy, this time slightly more forcefully. The Esplendidos were rolled in Cuba, and I had brought them into India and was now taking them out of India, therefore there was no logic in paying any duty or 'export' levies. She understood, smiled and let us go. Simple as that!

We walked through the no-man's land into the Islamic Republic. The Rangers and the Custom Officers were sunning themselves in the foggy afternoon sun. After the passport check they wanted to examine our luggage.

The Custom Officers, two of them, blatantly asked for chai money. M and I exchanged glances. We were now officially in the Islamic Republic. Later as we left the check post there was a lone taxi cab. He would charge us Rs. 1500 for the short ride into Lahore. Knowing the distance I balked at the highway robbery. I told him, "Think once more before you quote me the fare- I will not negotiate." He would not budge. I looked up and saw a local bus. I walked over and asked the driver if he would take us and our bags. Sure if you pay for them. So we made it into Lahore in a public bus.

The Conductor told M 'Aap oodhar baithaiN,' pointing to the caged partition separating the driver and the front section from the rest of the bus. 'Woh tO pinjra hay, hum yaheeN baithaiNgay.' M had spoken. The conductor shook his head and relented.

For the first thirty minutes of the ride into the Islamic Republic, we saw a lot of people and traffic. But, no women. Even in the center of the town across from the ever busy Lahore Railway Station, at what must have been rush hour, there were few women to be seen. There were no women driving scooters, cars or riding bicycles. Later on we did see women driving cars. Maybe we were in the wrong part of the town. No woman behind any stall or thela.

And within two hours of crossing the border M confessed, 'Look at the way these men are staring...as if they are trying to...'

2 Comments:

Blogger karinezkorner said...

An interesting read. Actually, your blogpost took me back to my visit to Lahore years ago. I felt the same thing about women being erased from a landscape which looked almost like India. But a few years after my visit, when I told my Pakistani friends about the absence of women in Lahore, they absolutely rejected my version of 'Lahore' and I had to delete certain stanzas from my blogpost. Anyhow, I really enjoyed reading this post.

July 27, 2013 10:18 AM  
Blogger temporal said...

thanks for your comments.

if you have that poem with the deleted stanzas please email them

July 27, 2013 1:35 PM  

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