Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Kashmir issue

The Himalayas

Dal Lake, Srinagar

I have often been captivated by the beauty of Jammu and Kashmir, those stunning valleys, mountains covered with snow and pristine rivers and lakes. Though I haven’t been to Kashmir, this impression has been formed by friends’ accounts and films, especially Mission Kashmir and Shaurya, which featured a lot of the place. Isn’t it a tragedy then that such a wonderful place is besieged by violence, and we hear more about suicide attacks and bombings than its picturesque beauty and tourism? I often wonder that what it is about beautiful places and violence. It’s as if beauty attracts conflict and violence. So many scenic places in the world are in the throes of civil war and conflict, be it war torn Afghanistan, Lebanon or Chechnya.

As in other regions, it is always the people, the residents of that region, who have to bear the brunt of violence. On one hand they are forced by the terrorists to give them shelter and information, with severe consequences if they don’t, and on the other hand they are accused by the security forces of harbouring terrorists and supporting their cause and often falsely booked under draconian laws, which ironically were made to fight terrorists. There have been umpteen cases where men have been dragged out of their houses and shot dead either by the terrorists for divulging their whereabouts to the army, or by the army for refusing to reveal information. In other words they are caught between the devil and the deep sea, with no escape route. This is the true tragedy of Kashmir, that the rights and liberties of the people of Kashmir are being suppressed, both by the army and the terrorists.

Imagine how wonderful would it have been if Kashmir was undisputed. It would have been a tourist haven, India’s very own Switzerland, earning a lot of foreign exchange and allowing the people of Kashmir to enjoy the benefits of development as the rest of India has. Instead Kashmir has been caught in a time warp since violence began in the valley after 1989. It has seen 5 wars and thousands of minor skirmishes and terrorist attacks.

The Kashmir conflict began in 1947, right after our independence. At that time Kashmir was independent with Maharaja Hari Singh as its ruler. Pakistan attacked Kashmir with the intention of seizing it but India intervened after the maharaja signed a pact with India with made Kashmir a part of India. The next uprising came with the Sino-India war in 1962 with China seizing the Aksai-chin region from India. Then we had the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan and the Kargil conflict in 1999.

As far as a solution to the problem is concerned, there has been a deadlock since a long time and no concrete solution seems to be emerging. A solution will only be feasible once both sides trust each other. But, it is extremely dangerous to trust Pakistan as was shown by the Kargil war where the Pakistani troops attacked Kashmir in May 1999. In doing so, Pakistan reneged on the assurance of peace which was made when the Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had visited Pakistan for the Lahore summit in February 1999. So, currently demilitarization is not an option as Pakistan may again try to usurp our territory as soon as we turn our backs. Another option that has been considered is a plebiscite (vote by the citizens of J&K). This would indeed be a true expression of the voice of the Kashmiris given that it is held in a peaceful and fair manner. Other options include recognition of the LoC as the international border and division along communal lines.

Finally, the governments of both countries owe it to the residents of Kashmir to solve the issue as quickly as possible. They have suffered for far too long and deserve a peaceful existence in their heavenly abode that is J&K.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Tale of two cities

Ok, I’d like to clear out a few things first. This is not one of those clich├ęd Delhi vs Mumbai comparisons. I think that each city has its own distinct character and to compare one great city with another is unfair since it will never be on an even keel. Through this post I just want to give my perspective on living in these two wonderful cities, each with its own peculiarities, cultures and diversity.

To set the record straight, I’m not much of a Delhiite. I’ve just stayed here for 2 yrs, 2003- 2005 completing my 11th and 12th from DPS. True, my parents have been here since 2003 and my holidays have always been spent in Delhi giving me a chance to explore the city but not enough to call myself a pukka Delhiite. On the other hand, this is my fourth year in Mumbai and it’s enough to make me fall in love with it.

The first thing that strikes you when you come to Mumbai for the first time is not its filth, not even the sea, but PEOPLE, lakhs and lakhs of them, rushing at you from every possible direction, making you feel lost in a sea of humanity. Mumbai is perpetually crowded, be it the trains, the roads, the buses, be it 8 a.m. in the morning or midnight, it’s truly the city that never sleeps. But this is also Mumbai’s strength, its cosmopolitan nature, attracting people from all over the country; a land of opportunities where people come with dreams in their hearts and often achieve them.
Delhi attracts people mostly from North India and the East. The majority of the population is Punjabi hence the Punjabi twang in the accent of most Delhiites. On the other hand, Mumbai especially the Andheri- Vile Parle area, where my college is located is majorly populated with Gujaratis. In fact, in spite of being in Maharashtra, it seems that Gujarati is spoken more than Marathi in Mumbai though Hindi is the universal language in both these cities.

I’ve always loved cities by the sea and Mumbai’s no exception. There’s something special about these cities, like the cool, soothing sea breeze that hits you, invigorating and refreshing your mind and body. Going to South Bombay and spending time at Marine drive is something special, something that never be experienced in a land locked city like Delhi.

Another feature of Delhi are its smooth, wide, tree lined roads which make driving a pleasure and now we’ve also got the World class Delhi Metro which promises a comfortable safe and fast ride through the city. But nothing can beat Mumbai’s lifeline, the local trains which despite being dirty and overcrowded, have a legendary reputation of timeliness and reliability. A system working flawlessly without any major accidents since 50 years never ceases to amaze me.
No mention of Delhi can be complete without its food. From Delicious Punjabi fare to mouth watering chats and paranthas, Delhi’s got it all. The heart of the culinary experience is old Delhi with its old bazaars and congested lanes, a complete contrast to the rest of the city and of course Chandni Chowk with its famous paranthe wali gali.

Staying in Mumbai, I do miss Delhi’s winter a lot, those chilly days when the sun didn’t emerge for days together and that white envelope of fog, so thick that sometimes you couldn’t even see the person in front of you!!.
And Mumbai’s unending monsoons. Though I love the rains, the water logging and traffic jams that have become a regular feature since the deluge of 2005 do play spoilsport and dampen the beauty of the rainy season.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review : A Thousand Splendid Suns

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs.
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls”

A story of families being wrecked by bombs, lovers torn apart by fighting and of the gross injustice being meted out to women, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a touching, eye opening account of life in war torn Afghanistan.

The story narrates the tale of two Women, Mariam and Laila born in contrasting backgrounds and brought up in divergent circumstances, who are brought together by fate in the cruelest of ways, being forced to marry the same man who is 30 years elder to them, Mariam by her illegitimate father and some 15 years later, Laila who loses both her parents to the Mujahideen.

It depicts the sorry state of women in Afghanistan, forced to wear the burqa, abused, brutalized, prevented from working and fully at the mercy of their husbands and the law. As Afghanistan slides deeper and deeper into anarchy, from King Zahir Shah’s rule to the Soviet War to the infighting within the mujahideen to the rule of the Taliban, it traces the lives of these women from one setback to the next.

The narration is brilliant with Khaled Hosseini conjuring up some stunning sentences like -
“But Laila knew that her future was no match for her brothers’ past. They had overshadowed her in life. They would obliterate her in death. Mammy was the curator of their lives’ museum and she, Laila was a mere visitor. A receptacle for their myths. A parchment on which Mammy meant to ink their legends on”.

It’s not all grim though, the ending shows that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel, however deep the tunnel might be and that love is eternal and triumphs over all else, whatever the circumstances. Laila finally unites with her childhood sweetheart and settles down in Afghanistan, which is limping back to normalcy after the US invasion.

Travelogue - Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Andaman Islands as a holiday Destination? I was a bit shocked when my dad suggested that we go to the Andaman Islands for a vacation. I mean come on, which are the destinations that come to your mind when you visualize a holiday by the sea? Probably Goa, God’s own Country Kerala and the Maldives. But certainly not an obscure and faraway place likes the Andamans which few people know and fewer people have actually been to. Well, after spending an unforgettable week in those stunning locales, I must say that I’m glad that I’ve been proven wrong!! , the Andamans may not be a very popular holiday destination, but therein lies their beauty; they are exotic, un-spoilt and just the right place to go if you want to take a break from the humdrum of daily life.

But the Andamans have not always been the Paradise that they now are. History’s been unkind to the Andamans, and they’ve always had negative connotations attached to them. During the freedom struggle, they gained notoriety as the “ Kaala Paani “ where freedom fighters were imprisoned in the unforgiving confines of the cellular jail. The British discovered the islands in the 1830’s and soon realized that they could be used for a sinister purpose due to their inaccessibility and distance from India. After the mutiny in 1857, scores of prisoners were transported to cellular jail and held there in inhuman conditions. Also, during World War 2, the islands came briefly under Japanese rule until India attained independence on August 15, 1947.

We set base at Hotel Sentinel at Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar islands and located in the South Andaman Island. Our first day schedule is to visit the North Bay Island and Ross Island. I set my alarm at 6 in the morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of sunrise but viola! The sun’s already halfway across the sky and shining in all its glory. Welcome to the Andamans!!
Port Blair itself has a lot of places of tourist interest. You have the cellular jail that epitomizes the misery and the trials and tribulations of the prisoners who were held here. The jail originally had seven wings radiating out of a central point but today only 3 remain, the rest having been destroyed by an Earthquake in 1942.A light and sound show is held every day for tourists to explain the history of the jail.

There’s also an aquarium where you can view the wide variety of marine life found in the waters around the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

The Andamans are the only place in India where corals can be found. These Corals are rare because they require some peculiar environmental conditions to thrive, like a particular temperature and depth of water. It’s a unique experience, getting up, close and personal with the coral formations, viewing them through a glass bottomed boat specially designed for that particular purpose. Our next stop is Ross Island, which is located at a 20 minute boat ride from Port Blair. Ross Island was the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands during the British Raj and today is maintained by the Navy due to its strategic importance. This place Is teeming with wildlife, especially deer and peacocks, which surprisingly do not show any fear for humans. In fact, one can actually feed them and take pictures with them. Ross Island has a beautiful, untouched virgin beach, Ferar beach where you can sit down on the rocks and enjoy the white sand, with the waves lapping at your feet.
Located around 50 km away from Port Blair is Havelock Island which can be reached by a 4 hr ocean cruise. The cruise offers a panoramic view of the sea and the South Andamans. Observing the enchanting cloud patterns and the sunset and sunrise with the backdrop of the ocean is really a memorable experience and is a must watch for nature lovers. Havelock island has a lovely beach with clear turquoise water and golden sand called Radhanagar beach. Well, coming from Bombay with its dirty and crowded beaches, the beaches in the Andamans were really a sight for sore eyes, with miles and miles of transparent water.

So came to an end our sojourn to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and we left them with a heavy heart and a promise, we will surely visit this mystical, exotic paradise on Earth once more. I’m sure that the Andaman and Nicobar islands can pose a stiff competition to exotic foreign locales like Maldives and Hawaii if developed and marketed properly.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”- Mark Twain.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Train hopping

There is something romantic about train journeys. No, I’m not talking about those claustrophobic Mumbai local trains but those long distance 1000 km+ train journeys, which thanks to the leisurely pace of our trains take anywhere between 16 hrs to a day and sometimes even more.

Train travel, unlike air travel is unhurried, relaxed, even refreshing. As one of my recent co- passengers aptly puts it, trains allow you to take a break from work and unwind which is not true of air travel since it’s just a 2 hr flight and then you have to get back to the grind of daily life.

One of my favourite pastimes is to just observe by the window as the world whizzes by, nature in its myriad forms and shapes, shiny ribbons of water as the train passes over a bridge, pitch dark tunnels and lush green forests, not to forget the dense white blanket of fog which completely envelops the countryside if you visit north India in the winter months.

Mumbai-Pune route

One of the journeys that I recollect most is the Mumbai-Pune one which cuts through the Western Ghats connecting Mumbai on the windward side of the ghats to Pune, on the leeward side. The route passes through one of the most beautiful landscapes in India, weaving its way through innumerable tunnels, some of them more than a kilometer in length, flanked by mountains on both sides and deep valleys covered with trees. In fact, on many occasions, the train track is barely a meter away from the edge of the mountain, beyond which lies a sheer drop, giving panoramic views of the valleys. It is an added treat to take the journey in the monsoons, when you can see waterfalls gushing down the face of the mountains into the forests below. Standing by the door, the rush of air which brushes past me is truly invigorating.

Another journey which I recall is the Mumbai-Delhi one through the central route passing through Ratlam (of Jab We Met fame, remember Hotel Decent), Agra and Mathura. This one is not for the scenery but the culinary delights on the way. This route passes through 7 states and each of them has something different to offer. Ratlam and Bhopal have their poha and kachoris, Agra has its petha and Mathura has its pedas. Its really a treat, getting down at the station and savouring all these delicacies.

Of course there are some unremarkable, boring routes as well. One of them is Jodhpur to Jaipur. Jodhpur is on the fringes of the Thar desert and Jaipur is of course the capital of Rajasthan. The route passes through the endless expanse of the arid desert and a lake called the Sambar lake which is a saltpan and has no water throughout the year (wonder why it’s still called a lake).

Today trains like the Rajdhani express and Shatabdi are redefining the travelling experience, offering fast, comfortable and convenient point to point travel. The Mumbai- Delhi Rajdhani for instance offers wonderful hospitality and service, something not associated with the Indian Railways.

Things are surely changing for the better !!