ARC

A little bit of everything


Month: September, 2008

Pilgrim

Pilgrim

August 2008, Mussoorie.

Finally, the rain cleared after two days so we immediately set off for Mussoorie in the morning. The above photo was taken while waiting for the bus to Mussoorie to start. A lot of pilgrims visit the state of Uttarakhand as part of the Char Dham Yatra, one of the most important pilgrimages in Hinduism. The four dhams in the order in which they are supposed to be visited are Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The incredible thing about this ‘yatra’ is that many of the pilgrims actually complete the whole pilgrimage on foot, which is a few hundred kilometers at least, across some of the toughest terrain in the world!

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.) 

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The Case of the Missing Bag

(This is a true story. It really happened. Names have been changed to protect identities. Most of the conversations that form part of the narrative are based upon that most unreliable of friends-memory or from conversations after the fact so some literary license has been taken in narrating the precise sequence of events.)

A fancy red Chevrolet smoothly glided to a stop beside us as we waited for the light to turn green at the Dairy Circle cross in South Bangalore. But it was not the car that attracted our attention; it was the pulsing beat emanating from within it. An unknown song of the techno variety was playing. The bass from it throbbed intensely and seemed to overpower our heartbeats into voluntary synchronicity. It was an excellent sound system. I turned to the auto driver and said as much.

“Kya sound hai na? Mast system hai!”

“Arrey, hamare pass bhi hai boss. Main mera system lagaya tho mera auto bhi dance karne lagega!”

I smiled at the infectious enthusiasm of the driver and his obvious pride over his auto. In fact, it was a most interesting auto. Its interior was festooned with ribbons of glowing, multicolored lights so that it gave you the feeling of being in some dingy dance bar.

I did feel like dancing. What had seemed like a bleak and hopeless case initially turned around in a most dramatic fashion at the end. The many twists and turns tinged the whole week with a cinematic quality. Even now, when I look back, I marvel at the amazing adventure it became in the end.

Saturday

Like most things in life, it started in an innocuous fashion and can be traced back to my insistence to get out of the city for the weekend. I was in Bangalore on a break and was staying with Pavan in his flat, my college friend who was working for a startup and shared the flat with two of his friends, Anand and Vishwas. I was getting bored staying alone in the flat so I kept pestering Anand to plan a weekend trip. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily in light of the events that transpired later, we soon learnt that a couple of our common friends were driving to Mysore for the weekend. They invited us to come along and we quickly decided to follow them there. So the three of us, Pavan, Anand and me took an auto from Pavan’s place to go to Brunton Cross Road to another friend’s place. The plan was to pick up a friend’s car from there and travel in that to Mysore. Pavan was in a hurry. He wanted to be in the car as soon as possible so that he could catch up with our common friends somewhere on the road to Mysore. We quickly packed and started in an auto for Brunton Road. The auto we had taken was one of those old, sputtering and whiny ones. It was going too slow to suit Pavan. So we got down opposite Shopper’s Stop on Bannerghatta Road and quickly took another auto. The auto driver of the first auto saw us take another auto and was not amused. He started cursing us. We were in too much of a hurry to pay much heed to his angry words.

The second auto was new, fast, relatively quiet and smooth. Since we were three people in the auto with two being considerably overweight there was not much space for us to sit comfortably. So Pavan asked me to keep his bag behind us in the luggage space of the auto. His bag contained my Macbook Pro laptop apart from his wallet, cell phone, money, clothes and some documents. I was carrying my camera bag; a constant companion while Anand was carrying his own bag. The rest of the auto ride was uneventful. We braved the horrendous Bangalore traffic and reached our friend’s place on Brunton Cross road. We got off the auto and I started taking out money to pay the fare. In the meantime, Pavan and Anand started asking the auto driver for directions to get to Mysore Road from where we were. The auto driver seemed helpful. I paid him. We then climbed to the second floor flat of our friend to pick up the car keys. We drank some water, checked out the flat, locked it and then climbed down to the garage. We got into the car we had come to pick up. I got into the back seat and Anand, who would be driving, gave me his bag to keep it in the back. Pavan, who was sitting next to him, asked me to keep his bag too in the back.

“What bag?” I asked him.

“My bag re. Don’t you have it?”

“No, I thought you were carrying it.”

Pavan turned to me with a shocked face and cursed in a loud voice.

“Shit! It’s still in the auto man.”

Our lives were not the same after that. We all took a deep breath and considered our options.

“Ok, the auto would not have gone far so let’s go looking for him,” said Pavan.

“Alright, we might have also forgotten it in the flat upstairs so let me go up and check and you two go look for the auto on the road,” I suggested.

Anand and Pavan left in the car while I went upstairs to look for the bag with a thin and already fading hope.

There was no bag in the flat. I went back downstairs and waited for my friends to come back. The laptop was a recent acquisition and as such I should not have had much attachment to it but even though I hated to admit it to myself I had fallen in love with Apple’s sleek design. It was also bought from money that I had saved by foregoing some luxuries and healthy food! And that made the loss acute.

Anand and Pavan returned soon after and one look at their faces told me the full story. We decided to search again over a larger area, as the auto shouldn’t have gone all that far. So I got into the car and we set off. We looked at every auto along the way hoping against hope to find the auto we had taken. As we searched, I asked Pavan to use my phone and call his mobile that was in the bag. There was a chance that the auto driver might hear the phone and answer it. Pavan’s phone kept ringing and ringing for about five minutes before we got the dreaded message. His phone was switched off!

Pavan apparently also had an unknown amount of dollars in the same pocket where his phone was present. We realized that once the auto driver heard the phone ringing in the bag and opened it he must have found the dollars and then the laptop and decided to keep them.

Unfortunately, honesty is in such short supply in contemporary India that whatever little hope we had entertained of the auto driver answering our call shattered in an instant once we heard the message that the phone was switched off.

Still, we searched for the auto all along M.G. Road, Brigade Road and Ashok Nagar but to no avail. We went back to our friend’s place to ask the caretaker of the building if in case the auto driver had returned. The answer was negative.

With a heavy heart we made our way to the nearby Ashok Nagar police station. There we talked to a young Sub Inspector (SI) named Mohan. Mohan listened to our sorry tale and asked us some questions.

“Do you have the auto number?”

“No sir.”

“Do you have the police serial number or DL number of the auto driver?

“No sir.”

“Do you at least have the name and address of the auto driver?”

“Not exactly sir but we remember reading the license display board of the driver and remember his name and the locality he lives in.”

“(Smiling) What is this sir? Without the auto number or police serial number there is no way to trace the auto. You can register a complaint but to be frank I suggest you stop hoping. 99% of the auto drivers in Bangalore are corrupt. It is next to impossible that you will find the bag now. For your satisfaction I’ll ask the constable to send out a wireless message just in case the auto driver has returned the bag at a police station.”

“You know you should change your T-shirt,”
said the SI pointing at Pavan’s t-shirt, which mocked the iPod frenzy at that time with a drawing of a toilet and iPooed printed above it. “These things will happen to you if you wear such sarcastic T-shirts.”

We thanked the SI for his reality check, for stating the obvious and for his gratuitous advice and went and registered our complaint. The constable who registered our complaint was properly shocked upon hearing that we had forgotten our bag in an auto but he also repeated whatever the SI had said and asked us in future to note down the police serial number of any auto we got into or at least take a photo with a cell phone of the license display board. All good advice but which came a little late in the day to help us.

With our hopes slipping by the minute we decided to follow the advice given by a traffic inspector we had met in front of Garuda Mall before coming to the police station to register our complaint. There is a database of all Bangalore auto drivers at the DCP (traffic) East office, Shivaji Nagar Bus Stop. The inspector had suggested that we try our luck there with the limited information we remembered of the auto driver.

So we made our way across town to the DCP office. But by the time we battled through the traffic and made our way there it was already 6 pm, well past closing time. The person who managed the database was long gone. Another person offered to help and with his assistance we managed to narrow our search and get a few addresses based on the auto driver’s name and locality. We were asked to return the next day to seek formal permission from the DCP to resume our search for a needle in a haystack.

I had been harboring some hope still until I saw the sheer size of the auto driver database. There were over one lakh auto drivers in Bangalore at that time! Finding just one in that huge database based on our limited information seemed a Herculean task, an almost impossible exercise in sheer futility. The faces of my friends also bore the same signs of despair as if they were thinking along the same lines.

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Blue Temptation

Blue Temptation

August 2008, Dehradun.

As our plans to visit Mussoorie kept getting put off day after day due to the weather we decided to explore Dehradun. We walked around the center of the city for a while and suddenly found ourself wanting a drink. After talking to a local we were pointed to a pub, a part of which you see in the above photo. Apparently, this was one of only two pubs in town (we ended up going to the second one as well later).

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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FRI II

FRI II

August 2008, Dehradun.

Another one from FRI. As we came earlier than planned to Dehradun we had a lot of time on our hands. So we decided to visit Mussoorie, a popular hillstation about an hour and a half away by bus. But the weather as usual was bad. It was raining almost every day and therefore we cooled our heels in the IMA guest house watching the Beijing Olympics and cheering the few Indians who performed well there.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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FRI

FRI

August 2008, Dehradun.

Upon reaching Dehradun on Independence Day, through my brother’s help (he is in the Indian army), we managed to find accommodation in the impressive Indian Military Academy (IMA) which is an elite military training college that trains officers for the Indian army as well as some officers from ‘friendly’ nations. IMA has been functioning since the days of the Raj and so still retains some traditions from that era. Eating in the Officer’s Mess is quite an experience with stuffed Ibis heads and Tiger skins staring back at you (in fact I had to puchase a set of formal clothes just for eating in the mess as entry into it is not possible while dressed casually).

Unfortunately, photography is not permitted on the IMA campus due to security reasons. But right next door to the IMA is the FRI (Forest Research Institute), another impressive building from the Raj era. As can be seen above it is a mix of a different architectural styles and the whole complex is nicely framed by the mountains behind it.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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Fixing a Tyre

Fixing a Tyre

August 2008, Somewhere between Uttarkashi and Rishikesh.

Sorry for the lack of updates for a long time to the mini-travelogue but there has been no net access at home over a bill dispute with my ISP and to add to my run of bad luck my Mac also crashed! Regular updates should start pretty soon. And now going back to the travelogue…

We left Uttarkashi late afternoon for Rishikesh in a shared taxi. This was not a good idea as ver few travel across the mountains in the night. And this would be an eight hour drive at that. But staying back meant wasting another day so we decided to take the risk. The initial half of the ride was uneventful if a little exciting driving along ghat roads around and across mountains, the complete darkness in front of us only illuminated by the lonely beams of our taxi. Just when I was beginning to nod off we blew a tyre at the halfway stage. It was around 9pm, which is pretty late in the mountains.

Fortunately, this happened as we were passing through a small town and even more fortunately we found a shop that fixed tyres close by. It was closed though and the guy who owned the shop, who was talking to his friends nearby, was not too enthusiastic about reopening his shop in the night. But his resistance crumbled before the pleas of my fellow passengers and he got to work as can be seen in the photo above. Tyre fixed we resumed our journey and reached Rishikesh late in the night. We crashed in a hotel for the night and decided to head for Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, the next day.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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The Indo-US Nuclear Deal – Pre-marital Discord?

The nuclear deal refuses to go off the news. Just when India thought that two of the three key hurdles – defense of the deal in the Indian Parliament, a clean waiver from NSG, and ratification of the deal by the US congress – had been accomplished, came word about the White house letter to a Congressional committee in Jan 2008, and Bush’s covering letter referring the deal for ratification to the Congress. The Bush letter shows, irrespective of its content, the extent to which the US government has gone to get the deal approved, as did the Indian government on its end. Why such hardsell? because the nuclear deal isnt about nuclear fuel supply etc anyways. Given that nuclear non-proliferation has been the biggest irritant in Indo-US ties since the 1990s, this deal was about removing the roadblock to building a strategic partnership with US. The Indian communists were right in what they say the deal entailed. They were wrong in opposing it. Because it’s time india moved out of shadows of the Cold War and took an interests-based approach to foreign policy rather than an ideology-based one.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the Bush letter’s content altogether. After the letter was revealed, people wondered if India had been naive in expecting the US to honor the 123 agreement’s guarantee of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. Under the cover of “interpretation” of the agreement, was the Bush administration trying to have its cake and eating it too?

Actually, both India and the US have displayed some naivete in estimating the other side in this deal. India thought it could get a clean waiver with no strings attached. The US thought India could both be made an ally and a confirmant to non-proliferation laws through the deal. Neither side has achieved much in terms of these expectations.
Trust has always been a difficult element in Indo-US ties. American critics think India’s self-righteous posturing cannot be effaced by strategic benefits from the US and that therefore, India will remain a pain. Witness India’s duplicitous dealings with Iran despite American protests. American diplomats believe in reciprocity – willing to give as long as there is something being given. Indian skeptics on the other hand, say that reciprocity difficult when the odds are so heavily in the Americans’ favor. They also feel that the US will never shed its one-sided, self-centered way of dealing and will walk away from any deal it feels uncomfortable with. Witness the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty with Russia. In other words, Americans sees Indians as Machiavellis while Indians see Americans as Vito Corleones.These perception defects would have to change if the real aim of the 123 agreement viz. strategic relationship, is to be fulfilled. And that can only happen through relentless dialog at all levels between the India and the US. But whether the relationship triumphs is something that only time can tell.

As one of the architects of India’s strategic doctrine put it to me recently, “We’ll have to wait and watch if the relationship works. The US has never had partners, only allies. And India’s never had neither partners nor allies”. In some ways, this deal is like a marriage between a male chauvinist and a feminist. Let’s hope it lasts.

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Untitled-34

Untitled-34

August 2008, Uttarkashi.

The landslides could not be cleared even on the second day and no one knew when exactly the road would be open again. As we were just wasting time and money in Uttarkashi we decided to forget the trek and move on to Dehradun. It was a disappointing decision to say the least but could not be helped under the circumstances. So in the afternoon we set off to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM, one of the premier mountaineering institutes in India, a similar one started by Tenzing Norgay is in Darjeeling) to return some of the camping equipment we had rented from there. It was another steep climb up a hill, across the river, on the other side of town. I tell you the govt. offices in Uttarkashi are involved in a conspiracy to make potential trekkers walk and climb as much as possible by situating their offices in as out of the way places as possible :) This scene was visible on the way to NIM. The mountains are situated behind the town.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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Untitled-33

Untitled-33

August 2008, Uttarkashi.

Our plan was to head to Gangotri from Uttarkashi and from there attempt the 18km trek (one way) to Gaumukh where the actual glacier from which the Ganga starts is located. Only 150 people per day are allowed to trek to the glacier for which permission needs to be taken. When I went to get the permission from the forest dept. (an office which is located on the edge of town, on top of a steep hill, it is as if they want trekkers to test their stamina before an actual trek!) I learnt that there had been major landslides along the route to Gangotri and in one place a section of the road had been completely cut away. Apparently, vehicles had been stopped on either side of the landslide and even people on foot were not being allowed to cross over. Luck was not on our side. We decided to wait for another day and were taking a walk around town when I found this little fella.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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Bhagirathi

Bhagirathi

August 2008, Uttarkashi.

After a seven hour bus ride we made it to Uttarkashi. Uttarkashi is a small town nestled on the valley floor with the Bhagirathi (which later becomes the Ganga further downstream) splitting the town into two parts. It is a also the starting point for many expeditions/treks to the higher reaches of the Himalayas (which was what we also wanted to do, more on that tomorrow). In the evening, we made our way to one of the ghats by the river to marvel at the roaring river flowing past with such force. Hindus believe that taking a dip in the holy river washes away all your sins and even liberates you from the circle of life but I decided to live with my sins for some more time as I did not dare risk getting washed away by the swiftly moving waters! The two in the photo had come to make an offering to the river.

In spite of the immense importance this river has for Hindus and the delicate ecosystem it supports the govt. is going all ahead with projects in Uttarkashi and elsewhere up and down the river that would lead to this powerful river being shackled behind dams. Once the projects are finished and go online the river might not even flow at all for most part of the year! Something that will be unthinkable for thousands of Hindus who travel every year to pilgrimage sites along the river Ganga to take a holy dip. For more on this issue go here.

(To read this mini-travelogue in sequence from the beginning please go here.)

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