Magical Kashmir

One of the first things that starts pulling up a happy veil of delight over the whole holiday as the plane approaches Srinagar airport, are the glimpses of white capped peaks ringing  the valley.  The long journey has suddenly become worthwhile dispelling all doubts. Right from Ooty in the deep south at a height of 2240m to Srinagar at a height 1585 m; 3372 km. The heights are important because despite being lower, Srinagar is colder and gets iced over while the most exotic things that hit Ooty are hailstones and Aiswharya Rai.

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The second thing to strike one is the information that prepaid cellphones do not work in Kashmir. This information is delivered by Nazar, deputed by Thomas Cook to deliver our hotel vouchers to us finally, after a week of hassle. Luckily, one person in our party has a postpaid connection.  But , the absence of cellphones only made the holiday better ; we focused more on where we were. Nazar introduces Dilawar to us, who will be our driver for the week.

We are driven to Sunshine Hotel, a small eatery  for masal dosas, our last meal of anything remotely south Indian for a while. But we are already in the euphoria of glimpses of house boats on Dal lake, relatively uncrowded streets and the newness of it all.  There are few bikes and autos. Cars are mostly small. The hills ringing Srinagar, are green and mostly unblemished by man. There are no huge complexes, or billboards. Small boats row us and the luggage across to the houseboat, Queen of Africa. She is richly decorated in carved wood and laid out in red carpets throughout. There is a sitting, rooms, dining room and 4 bedrooms with attached bathrooms. The bedrooms are cosy and the bathrooms better then we expect. Surprisingly  there is  a good supply of hot water.

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In the evening, we go out for the traditional shikara ride . Shikaras are the long boats which crowd Dal lake.  Each boat can seat 4-6 people.   There is a canopy on top, curtains at the side and a large reclining seat on which one can loll feeling rather royal as the boatman oars you placidly. However, this gets rather uncomfortable after a while. We are rowed through a shopping area. Other boats approach selling everything from junk jewellery to flowers to shawls, carved wood, tea. There is a gentle tour of part of the lake and gentle pressure to buy from the vendors.  Later we discover that Dal lake is huge, (3.5km) and this is the most crowded part.  There are other areas where there are fewer houseboats and less nuisance from vendors.

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The next day is a trip to Sonmarg,(meadow of gold)  about 2 hours from Srinagar. A fast rushing river accompanies us for a great part of the way. At places, river rafting is advertised but it looks rather dangerous to our unaccustomed eyes. This is the Nallah Sind river , fed by melting snows which joins the Jhelum. There are checks and military posts.  Further on, we see our first glimpses of snow on both sides of the highway and we are thrilled. We stop to handle it. It is rather crystallish and powdery, not soft. As we reach Sonmarg, the snow now covers the slopes on both sides of the road. We are astounded.  There are people coming down the slopes on sleds.  There are some trudging up. Everyone is wearing thick coats and boots. There is water on the road from the melting snow. There is slush. The roof of the restaurant and bathrooms are covered with ice and snow several feet thick which a   group of men are shoveling away. The whole area feels surreal to us, like we have stepped into a movie set. Something we have seen so often but never expected to be a part of.

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Our driver arranges for a guide to go up the slopes. We have to hire coats and boots.  The guide and a large group of men accompany us. It is rather intimidating. We are not very sure what is happening or what is going to happen. We haggle a bit over the hire. And then much more over the cost of the sled ride. One man pulls each person upward while another pushes from the back. We are mainly paying for their labour. It is hard to walk unaccompanied in the snow, upwards. But the idea of snow, and the sledge ride is so exhilarating that we don’t mind. All of us are pulled upward and we feel a bit guilty. At the top, we get off to take some snaps.

Around us are white slopes and towering peaks. The guides talk of intrepid trekkers who go up there, including Rahul Gandhi. We are reminded of Madhoo, hugging herself and singing ‘puthu vellai malai…’ in the movie Roja. Manirathnam and A RRehman captured the spirit so well of what we feel when we see snow for the first time. There are shops selling tea and snacks. Some people are learning to ski. Of course a professional photographer turns up and we succumb to his badgering too. Our ‘sled coolies’ ask us if we are happy? This is a question we hear again and again in Kashmir. They know tourism is very important to them.

Then we fly down the slope. Sitting behind the man on a sled. It is a wonderful experience.

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My father has been patiently waiting at the bottom. It was his idea to come to Kashmir. We were doubtful about how he would cope but he did survive the trip fairly happily. Of course India is very unfriendly to the elderly and the disabled. There are never any ramps, just steps everywhere. And no one is ever apologetic about it. There is little else to do in Sonmarg except walk around unsteadily in the snow. Or hire a taxi which will take you around for 20 minutes. This is the road to Leh so one cannot go further without permission.

As we drive through the country side we see poorer houses. Houses are small, unpainted and unplastered.  The glass windows have no grills.  In some houses, the windows upstairs do not even have glass panes.  The yards too are bare.  Women and men are dressed simply and roughly in long overcoats. Nearer the towns, there is a lot of new building activity going on. Opening of  tourism recently is bringing in prosperity.

We are in Srinagar by the evening. We have just missed the Tulip show which happens only for a month . We visit one of the smaller Mughal gardens with fountains and neat rows of flowers.  Everywhere in Srinagar, colourful  Kashmiri dresses are for hire, and most people succumb, pose and get their snaps taken.  The photographers are practiced and deftly arrange clothes, accessories and pose  and get a nice looking effect.

Dilawar, the driver, is talkative and friendly. His wife goes in to labour the night we arrive. He drives us anyway, juggling his schedule madly to be with her. The 2 gynecologists in the party give him lots of advice. He brings us a photograph of his good looking son and better looking wife.

Next day we move to Pahalgam. Pahalgam is a beautiful hill station about 4 hours from Srinagar. It is a small town created by the tourism industry, on the banks of the Lidder river, in a beautiful valley. The place is ideal for walks and treks.  Our hotel, Mumtaz,  is just above the river and a 15 minute walk from the town. The next day we hire a taxi (one has to use local transport) and visit three beautiful spots. There are large crowds and traffic jams at these places. But the places are so beautiful that one can overlook the crowds. In the evening we walk to the town to see do a little shopping. We have a kashmiri meal at a restaurant in the town. The kashmiri cuisinDSC00118e is based on meat and kababs. Since people ask me about it, half the group were vegetarians and managed fine.DSC00101

 

 

 

Then we are off to Gulmarg,(meadow
of flowers, height 2690 m)  This is a rather long journey and we are tired when we get there. Gulmarg is a winter sports resort, said to be world class. The main feature is a cable car ride up the slopes . Here one can ski, do some sledging ( there are motorised ones), walk around as much as one can in the snow and generally enjoy the pristine white slopes.

Unfortunately, it has started raining. Dilawar makes us collect coats and boots on the way up to Gulmarg. This is another tourism made town with a strictly male population of 664! But an old town, very famous for winter sports, said to be popular with Jahangir and the British. There is a very strong union of pony or horse keepers here. Once you arrive at your hotel, you can only go out by foot or by pony. It has started raining and the temperature is freezing. The next morning it is still raining rather heavily. Outside the slopes are full of snow. We are reluctant to go to the cable car. The taxis refuse to take us there. The horse people will damage the cars they say. The tickets have already been booked by Thomas cook. We call the cable car office. No changing of times they say.

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So four of us start out with umbrellas borrowed from the hotel. There is a big queue at the cable car shed. Guides press us to hire them. What are they going to show us at the top of the peak? There is a huge queue and because of the pre- booked tickets we are able to get into the gondola fairly quickly. The ride up the mountain over pine trees and white slopes is magical. At the top we get down and stagger out into the snow and rain. The view of the white covered folds, fold after fold is wonderful. People are sledging, trying out skis or just walking around. Up there are more shops. But  it is still raining. Five year old Dhruv starts crying with the cold in a few minutes and his mom  takes him into the shelter. We stay for a little while and go home, exhilarated because we tried instead of giving up. The hotel is warm but it is time to pack our bags and leave.

In a couple of hours we are at Srinagar. This time we do encounter long traffic jams. Srinagar looks like any other small town in the rain, long rows of cars meshed and unable to move, garbage is flushed out and litters the roads. Hotel Pine springs is new , has lifts and comfortable rooms, tv, central heating and plain food. We are happy in its cosy warmth before we leave.

On the roads, we see few women. They are fair and pretty. There are mostly men outside, tall and thin. We never see a fat Kashmiri.

In the bakeries we buy puff pastry rounds which the Kashmiris have with tea in the mornings.  The kashmiri tea, hot water laced with saffron and herbs, is light and delicious. Not so the kebabs which are pure meat and heavy to digest for us.

One town, Anantapur, is lined both sides with shops selling cricket bats, made from willow. The willow trees are droopingly pretty and line river beds. The trees everywhere, especially in Pahalgam are so pretty, in various shades of green and russet. With the snow capped mountains behind, the views are always astounding. Add a rushing rocky mountain stream, and what else could this be but paradise?

On a holiday, one can’t do everything. There are some things you don’t see, some things you don’t eat, some things you don’t get to do . And it is still good.

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Rare Flowers

All of us have certain tasks  in our lives for which we have to fight some internal resistance to start the action. For me, vegetableone such task  is  going to the vegetable market. It is something I keep putting off until the fridge is bare. But once I get to the ulavar santhai, then the sight of the heaps of fresh vegetables is invigorating. I invariably buy more than we can eat in a week and stagger back with loaded bags.

This morning, I made the trip early, by scooter which is the easiest form of transport as Ooty gets busier in summer. And I had two interactions which stayed in the mind.

One was talking to Ibrahim who was selling cauliflower and broccoli. Just finished with his plus two exams, he is working at the market in the holidays. I told him about the program to be conducted by Hotel Sullivan court – a 2 week program of internship at a 3 * hotel, with food, stipend and a certificate. We are finding it hard to get students who want to make us of this opportunity!  Boys would rather wander around with cell phones and taxis driver friends and if possible,  girl friends, than go to work.  And like rare wild flowers we have boys like Ibrahim and Nallendran .  Nallendran, is studying in  the 10th standard. Before and after school, he works in a milk booth where he also sleeps at night.

Then I was buying oranges and I didn’t have the money to pay for them.  The lady vendor, with whom I was not familiar, said pay next time. I was so touched and gladdened.

Passport

As we are so quick to complain, I thought I must appreciate the  new Passport Seva Kendras which have taken over from the government.

They are organised, quick, helpful and efficient. As my father put it, ‘They want to process the passport as opposed to the old government officials who wanted to find reasons to stop you getting one.’

I remember going through the process thrice for Darshini just a couple of years ago. Each time , there was a tiny flaw in the spelling or a dot in the wrong place and her application was rejected.

This time, although the name of the street in my father’s address had been changed thrice over the years, the girl at the counter  was helpful and we managed to find two identity cards with the same address and she passed it.

Getting my 88 year old father ready with his documents was my major battle. He couldn’t decide in which photograph he looked best. Finally, they took the photograph at the Kendra and fingerprints too. Although I landed up in Coimbatore to get his documents processed 24 hours ahead, he would hand them over to me only two hours before ! :-0

My ordinary, non Tatkal passport reached me on the third day after the interview!

Women’s Day

‘What Does It Mean to be a Woman Today to You’

One of 6 speakers,  I was given 5 minutes but it is hard to be brief ! I  wanted to talk about the differences in the lives 1904042_10152343599708833_1255281752_nof my mother, myself and my daughter on a few aspects.

About 30 years ago, when the serial Mahabharata was all the rage and everyone gathered around the TV on Sunday mornings, my mother would get excited too. She would have everything ready and be set to watch it when my father would appear and announce ‘ Im ready to eat’. She would depart very sadly to make breakfast for him. She couldn’t even say ‘ Why don’t you eat before or after?’ Her needs were never considered important enough.

Now I can say that to my husband. And as for  my daughter, my heart stops when she says to her husband on the phone ‘ Hey loose’.

The balances in marriages are changing . There is more equality, friendship and intimacy vs the respect for age. And all for the better.

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That was the way I began and somehow this seems to have touched the hearts of many women there. Many of them came up to me and said rather bitterly, ‘ It ‘s still the same. I have to drop everything when my husband wants to eat’.

zumbaAs this event was organised by the Doc who runs my Fitness class, the talks  were followed by a short  Zumba routine and then a healthier tea than usual 🙂

I had a good feeling about myself later.  Good with the long talk but still short on the Small talk 🙂

Act now!

Why is it so hard to carry on  with routines  when disaster happens to a friend or member of the family?    Even sitting down becomes a little hard. It seems good to pace up and down or better, take some action which most probably, does not help anyone . Talking with other concerned people helps a lot. But the best remedy is to pack a bag and head for the disaster area.

The best remedy for me, I guess 🙂 Probably there are Freudian undertones of importance and ego stroking which I don’t care to explore.

Late last night, after I heard a niece has been admitted in hospital for an ectopic pregnancy, my instincts have been to go; be there in hospital with her and her mother, my sister. My sister probably needs more support. But, we have a meeting today of Our library society  for which I have been planning for a week. After thinking of relative importance on the scales of life, I thought  I would skip the meeting and sent out a message immediately and rescheduled my classes. Immediately, people called to say they would postpone the meet. Then I called my sister who said, there is a period of waiting so its okay if I come a bit a later. So I called back again and rescheduled the meet.

Meanwhile, it is hard to mark time.

Im sure there are many people for whom waiting is as hard. In the movie ‘ Home Alone’, when the Mom finds out her son has been left behind, she catches a series of planes and buses and cars and gets home at the same time as the rest of the family who caught a straight plane home after her. That’s me.

Hospitals and parents

Im in Coimbatore. Its 6 am and still dark outside. I go downstairs and the front doors are wide open, kept ready for me to sail out on my walk. Athai says with a sniff, ‘ what you are just going? I thought you have come back from the walk. ‘ I wonder if the next generation feels as much parental pressure as we do.

My father and his sisters are hardy village folk. Hard working, independent, uncomplaining, undemanding yet demanding in very subtle ways which makes it harder, disciplined,  morally upright and judgemental… they are a little hard to live with. Tick all the opposites and you have my mother’s family.

Chinna athai has been here for two weeks. She came for a wedding from Trichy where she lives alone a

nd is staying on hoping for medical treatment.  We’ve been hoping her son, who lives in the same city will take her but he hasnt. Today is hospital day. There is some discussion about hospitals and doctors. I call my sister in chennai. She promises to fix up with a colleague in Coimbatore.  She calls back. Go before 8.30, otherwise the doctor will leave for rounds. Its 8 a.m. Ten minutes later I have the car out and go to fetch Athai. She has draped a rich maroon pattu saree and looks beautiful.  I tell her that and she glows. She slowly combs her hair, cleans the comb, washes her hands and takes leave of the gods.

We reach the hospital at 8.30. I have no idea of the medical history or her records. My sister has given the wrong name. I give the wrong age. The doctors are going to sigh impatiently and give me loathing looks. Ive been there before.

We get to see the doctor at 9.30, jumping the queue some of who have been here since 7 a.m. and will continue to wait till evening. With a 86 year old woman to take care of, I sit strongly on my moral misgivings. Athai tells of her falls, the blackouts,  the pain in her arm. When we walk out, she can barely stand. We sit down for a while. Why didn’t you tell the doc about the pain in your hip I ask? That is because I havent been very active these last two weeks she says. I can hardly go back to see the doctor.

I call my sister.  She recommends a wheelchair.  Athai refuses. We make our way slowly through a battery of tests. Too bad, she’s eaten, now wait for an hour, says one technician . Ive had a hard time persuading her to eat in the canteen . Too bad, there is oil in her hair. Shampoo and come back says the Eeg technician making it sound like a beauty treatment. With pressure, he unbends after vigorous wiping with a hanky.

A few hours later we go home to wait for results.  Go back and get a couple of xrays for that hip and back orders my sister. Back again in the hospital and then we are in the queue to see the doctor.  There is something wrong in the Eeg and her back is bad. Take these tablets and come back after 15 days. He is dismissive. Do doctors these days stop with such simplistic explanations?  Dont they owe us some more however busy they are?

I go in search of my sister’s friend. She gives more details. At home, my father says with dissatisfaction,  she should have written out her diagnosis.  I retreat to a book. Tomorrow it is going to be a day with the ear doctor and him.

Ah, well, the life of a middle aged woman can be taken only one day at a time.

Feeling The Earth

IMG_2942This is one of my favorite days of the year – the day when we re-pot the plants.  We sit in the sunny garden the whole day and go through a cycle of replenishment  and planning and hope. The pots are emptied, scoured out, washed and then filled with a happy  mix of manure, sand and soil.

We decide which plants should be split and which goes into which pot . We’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, Dhanraj , who came to help as a young teenager and still helps part time, and I. I have the book learning and he has the experience of his years in the fields with him. We’ve both learnt on the job; he to act as if he was bowing down to my superior knowledge and me to trust his green thumb even when he chops the roots rudely and shoves the plant carelessly into the soil.

The pots recall a number of stories. Some of them are from the times long ago, when as a green girl,  I used to go to the market and buy the pots and lug them home anxiously in  a bag.  Some from a time when the house was newly built and money was very tight but a visiting niece persuaded me to buy all, all the pots a vendor was carrying on his head right on our road. A couple of tiny pots from a train ride up north when Laloo Prasad created an outlet for potters by selling tea in terracota  cups on trains. A bunch of small pots used for serving kulfi when my brother in law and sister ran a take away catering service. Some rounded pots used for the children’s wedding ceremonies. A couple painted by my sister and filched from her, when she wasn’t looking.  Some gifted by a friend who was leaving town. It is like looking through  a photo album.

The process usually takes place in January; the feeding of the soil and the planting of new seedlings so it will all burst gloriously into flower in May – the Season. A British relic, of course, that all we Ootyians  embrace.  Some of the more serious gardeners will compete in the Flower show. We have no such ambitions.  Enough if the plants flourish and flower and amaze us and our visitors .Till then we will anxiously water and potter and nourish the garden.

In June, when the rains set in  and we are driven indoors, we let ourselves be enveloped by other concerns and allow Mother Nature to  take over. Slowly , all those boundaries and edges and demarcations disappear  and the garden settles into a green wilderness  which is relaxing and restful. We  make occasional forays into weeding  and pruning but our hearts are not really there. The work will begin once more, truly in January when the compost rots to the perfect pitch in the shed of the cow herd.

Panniyaarum Padminiyum

A good friend who is now touching 70 but still leads  an active working life was talking about his assistant ; the kind of person who says  ‘I will take care of it ‘.   The kind of person we want around as we get older. The assistant has a brother in America who is asking him to come join him. My friend said “I told him, L…….., if you are going, take me with you because I cannot manage here without you “

When our children leave home, the people immediately around us who serve and help us become our family. We become dependent on them to remove the burrs of daily life.  We share more than food and money – day to day happenings, jokes, sad stories.  It becomes more than a paid employer – employee relationship. There is mutual concern and a sense of wellbeing when they are around.

padmini3We see such beautiful relationships in the life of the Pannaiyaar and his wife in debut director –writer Arun Kumar’s movie, Pannaiyarum Padminium . The panniyaar is not the tough macho man of movie style, but   a benevolent, easy going patriarch. He and his wife Chellama treat the whole village as their extended family. The pannaiyaar introduces the village to each modern instrument as a proud father. A radio. A  TV . A toilet. Everyone gathers around to watch in awe, even as he enters the toilet! One day, the Pannaiyaar sees this wonderful thing at the house of a relative – an automobile.  A blue Fiat Padmini.  And he cannot get over it. Seeing his obsession, the relative kindly leaves the car with him when he goes away to visit his daughter. The pannaiyaar gets transformed into a younger man in love.  Watching him as he wipes and cleans and pats and saunters over jauntily to look at the car with love is a treat. But he cannot drive the car. Murugesan, the tractor driver is taken into service. Murugesan too becomes obsessed with the car and regards himself as part owner.  The car becomes part of the life of the village, pressed into service for deliveries and functions and sickness and death. The panniyaar’s wife won’t travel in it unless he drives it himself. Will he learn? How will they cope when the rightful owner turns up to take the car away? If the pannaiyaar learns to drive, will he send away Murugesan?  These are the questions that engage in this gentle, sentimental bit of life in a small, far away village.

Vijay Sethupathi is superb as driver Murugesan, expressing emotions with his eyes and face.  Jayaprakash is the genial  landlord and Tulasi, looking comely and sweet in slightly oversized blouses and cotton sarees is perfect as the loving, feisty  wife . Comedy is light and flows through the movie. There are moments when we laugh out loud like when the boys cover the car in hay so that the rightful owner won’t see it.

The story too flows on peacefully in no hurry.  This is a story that has been expanded from a short film. To fulfill expectations, a romance between Murugesan and village belle Iyshwarya Rajesh has been woven in. He is asked to help with a funeral in her family and he falls in love with the sobbing girl right though a song. Better is the warm love ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????that is outlined between the pannaiyaar and his  wife Chellamma, given shape through the popular  song,  unnakaga  poranthen. There are other characters – the mini bus driver and conductor with whom Murugesan races. The scruffy odd job man, Pidai alias Peruchaali who bestows ill luck on anyone he wishes well, is very comfortable in his role.  Sneha, looking more beautiful than ever makes a guest appearance. The daughter who is mean and avaricious provides the necessary tension.

An unusual story, fine actors who live their roles, the rural background, understatement – all keep us in our seats to the end. The close-ups of the old women crying loudly in dirges, the children of the village, bare-chested and brown, running behind the car, all fit in perfectly. Nowhere does the background or music jar. At times, the story does seem to drag slightly but after the interval, the pace steps up. The feel good feeling keeps you remembering the characters and situations with a smile.