Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Travels in Sikkim-3rd Part

Travels in Sikkim-3rd Part



So what is the first thing you do when you hit the north east? You give into the clich├ęs and eat momos right? And of course that’s exactly what we did once we exited Bagdogra airport. But first there was a minor kerfuffle in locating our driver who was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Not having visited the north east before we had to trust travel websites to decide our place of stay and itinerary. Thankfully a friend in Kolkata gave us the contact details of a well-established travel agency conducting tours of the north east and we made the arrangements – even paying the fee upfront for an airport pick up to airport drop trip entire travel experience.

And then when we landed at Bagdogra we couldn’t locate our driver outside the airport. I kept getting calls on my mobile from an unknown number – someone called Pandey (according to true caller) who kept saying something in Hindi, but as the only Hindi I knew was limited to Baba Sehgal singing “aaja mera gaadi mein betja” I couldn’t understand what he wanted me to do. I mean, I had expected the driver to stand outside the airport arrivals with a big board bearing my name – as seen in numerous movies. I hadn’t expected him to call me and give me directions (in Hindi) to go somewhere. So laden with luggage, I did the only possible thing which came to mind.

I looked around till I could find a south Indian looking army officer (it shows in our faces right?) and I explained my predicament to him. The army officer (he was keralite by the way) took the next call from the driver and gave him an earful in Hindi such that the driver was present in front of us within the next five minutes. We learnt that he had parked way down the road to avoid the parking fees at the airport parking and had hence been giving us directions to exit the airport and walk down the Siliguri road to where he was parked. We communicated to him in our broken hingilish that we didn’t mind paying the parking fee in future if it means avoiding the long walk uphill dragging heavy luggage. And with that sorted out we began our journey into the hills.

Now the first order of business was to get some hot food inside as we had travelled by a budget airline in economy class and they basically will give you nothing but water for the entire flight. So as we travelled on the road to Siliguri we broached the topic of a late lunch/early evening tiffin. Meanwhile our driver asked us the passport size photographs the travel agency had recommended us to carry for applying to get a permit to travel to the Tibetan border. As a couple of us were not carrying two passport size photos per head we decided to get it taken in Siliguri itself along with all the Xerox copies of the various documents required and so, we first made for a fast food joint were we ordered momos with hot sauce- authentic Tibetan style and meanwhile got our pictures taken.

I have never had much taste for momos, but given the cold weather and our empty stomachs since breakfast, those momos disappeared fast. And then we had that most magical of drinks- authentic Darjeeling tea for after all we were in Darjeeling weren’t we? And then we were on our way hoping to reach Gangtok in time as the travel time – optimistically from Siliguri to Gangtok up in the hills was five hours when there were no landslides or accidents. We had travelled a long way to get to the Himalayas and just couldn’t wait to see the famed hills.



And that’s how our trip up that long, narrow treacherous road into the hills began. But you just had to roll down the window and look outside to forget all the dangers and get mesmerized in the beauty of the landscape you were passing along. The mighty Brahmaputra roaring out of the gorges, the long beautiful tea plantation’s everywhere, tiny streams and thundering waterfalls everywhere. Not to mention the cold, the bone freezing chill as went ascended up into the hills, clad in singleton t-shorts appropriate for hot and muggy Kolkata from where we had come.



Tuesday, December 26, 2017

How History Is Written- An Explainer

How History Is Written- An Explainer


The king was sitting impatiently in the audience chamber while the nobles around him argued loudly back and forth. One of them shouted “but we can’t keep allowing these migrants to invade our country, they might soon overwhelm our native population at the rate at which they breed. The best way to stop them is to build a wall across the border and make them pay for it”. Another minister screamed even more loudly “and their culture is so primitive- they worship the fire and offer sacrifices- animal and human to it. They don’t have gods like us”. Meanwhile a third noble stood up and said “but my lord we have to remember that these are peaceful refugees, they are unarmed. We cannot in good conscience turn away starving women and children who are fleeing famine from our bountiful lands”.

Another minister offered his view “he is right my king, these refugees prefer to settle in the forest areas by clearing the plantations. They don’t trouble our native populations except to work for them or to trade with them”. And one of the other ministers tried to interject “and they bring certain useful animals with them. That horse animal they have domesticated for sacrifice that seems to me a far more practical animal for travel than our own native racing bulls”. At this a whole host of voices tried to shout him down as a “barbarian lover”.

Meanwhile the king scratched his head and asked “so what do you want me to do? I don’t think these tribes are any threat to us in our strong citadels. They might trouble a few far-flung villages but we have received no news like that till now. Can we postpone making any decision for later?”. The general of the army stood up then and said “why not send a warning my lord?” the king looked at him hard and long “what kind of warning?” the general, who was a pretty bloodthirsty one as generals go “ the kind of warning these half naked fire worshippers will understand. Pick the next batch of refugees illegally entering our border and kill them to send a message to make sure that others don’t follow them”. The king frowned “women and children too?” the general shrugged “of course, elsewhere is the message that our borders are inviolable? We can’t allow any tom, dick and harry to cross our borders”.

The wise chief minister stood up then and said “if that’s the course you follow your majesty, let me add a small piece of advice. These fire worshippers would like nothing better than to burn their bodies in their fires, so deny them that and just bury those bodies in plain view outside our citadel as a warning to further intruders.” And so it was done and a refuge band of fifty men women and children were massacred and buried outside the citadels walls as a warning to others.

Four thousand years later a group of archaeologists were excavating the area and they accidentally chanced upon the citadels walls and the graves nearby. Excitedly they dug up what was left of the buried remains and sent them to foreign universities for DNA analysis for identification. The next day all the newspaper headlines screamed in bold letters “Aryan migration theory disproved by new DNA Evidence- Aryans have always lived here” “DNA analysis conclusively proves that it was the fire worshiping pastoral Aryans who were the builders of the great Indus Valley Civilization”. “The Indus valley civilization was a myth- it was the Aryans all along says DNA evidence” etc. And that’s how history is written – by whatever/whoever survives.


Dedication : To Tony Joseph for his piece in The Hindu on the IVC excavations.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Travels to the North-East- Part 2

Travels to the North-East- Part 2



As they say to travel to the north east, you have to first head east. And the gateway to the east is the magnificent megalopolis of Calcutta, nee’ Kolkata as its now pronounced. For those who don’t know, including me till this visit (although I have been to Kolkata before), the city is actually two, twin cities- Kolkata and Howrah joined together by the iconic Howrah bridge. Like all good things ruined by communism the leftists had ruined the once thriving capital of united Bengal into a bursting at the seams poverty ridden provincial township. Thankfully after the departure of the socialist regime lock, stock and barrel, things seem to have taken a turn for the better.

Kolkata now, on this visit, seemed filled with huge skyscrapers and long flyovers reducing the traffic snarls to manageable levels. There is also a general bustle in the streets and a sense of optimism in the people. Say what you will about Mamata di, the city of Kolkata looks spic and span in the brief period she has ruled over the state even if she prefers to stay over in Howrah and commute across to Kolkata to work daily. I was told that this was one another way for her to differentiate herself from the snooty communist bhadraloks who used to look down on the old city of Howrah while preferring the Victorian era genteel Kolkata.

I spent a day touring the tourist favorites like the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria palace and even ventured over into the old city of Howrah to see the authentic old gallis which Dominic La’pierre had written about in the bestseller novel ‘city of joy”. I came away with a sense of completeness to my journey into the Bengali consciousness as evinced by their pride in their capital Kolkata. And most surprisingly my taxi driver with whom I tried to communicate in English /hinglish ended up talking to me in my mother tongue telugu as he was a migrant from Andhra Pradesh. He informed me about the large number of migrants from Andhra who were living in Bengal for generations with just a remembrance of their language to connect them to their ancestral state. So instead of learning Bengali from my taxi driver as I had planned to I ended up speaking in a language I was comfortable with since childhood.

Having done the official part of the trip successfully, and with a win in the elections under my belt it was time for the actual vacation to start. And where better to head rather than the hills. The mighty Himalayas beckoned and from Kolkata I took a 45 mins flight to Bagdogra airport in north Bengal- an area called 24 parganas for reasons lost in the mists of times. It was a pretty short flight to say the least. I had just plonked down on my seat on the flight, adjusted my seat belt and got comfortable after the seat belts off sign came on, when the pilot again announced the seat belts on for descent into Bagdogra airfield.




For those who have never visited Bagdogra airport take it from me that it’s the size of Koyambedu bus stand in Chennai but serves a lot of important tourist spots in the north east –Siliguri, Darjeeling, Gangtok etc. Its approximately 20kms away (and one hour away depending on the traffic) from the nearest city- Siliguri and from there it’s all uphill into the Himalayas. Siliguiri is the last place you see the plains and as soon as you leave the city and head into the outskirts you can see the tea plantations start- the famous Darjeeling tea. And then you run smack into the largest landmass feature of India- the Himalayan ranges. More on my next post into the hills.