It was the beginning of March and I was traveling to the Punjab on work .My itinerary went something like this; arrive in Chandigarh Thursday, drive to Ludhiana for meeting on Friday, drive back down to Chandigarh for another meeting on Saturday there and then cool my heels on Sunday and attend the Medical Oncology OPD on Monday morning and fly back to Bombay on the 1pm flight. It is quite a challenge to do these official trips with my well meaning, super efficient but totally impractical counterparts / partners from the corporate world. They have their deadlines and pressures and God knows what other unavoidable circumstances that cannot be well, avoided and I fully commiserate with them but I am someone who likes a lot of time in between meetings and simply cannot press buttons and “get into presentation mode” one after another like some automated robot. Though that is exactly what I have been doing for the last few months and in the bargain become so very disoriented and cut off from my own life with no time to step back and see where the days are going, be pleasant to loved ones and catch up with their lives they so would like to share with me and …. not to mention post stuff in my blog !!
So back to the Punjab / Haryana trip - Every time I have gone to Chandigarh previously (or anywhere for that matter) it has always been in a frenzy trying to pack the trip’s agenda as tight as possible and then rushing to Delhi in an effort to “might as well catch up with pending work in AIIMS before returning to Bombay” or some such efficient but totally mad and hectic schedule. Weekends disappear swallowed by work that never ends and before I know it I am back in the midst of the mad whirl that life is in the vortex called Bombay (Jude thanks for letting me use your totally apt word for the city we live in) and it is time to catch another flight to someplace else.
Anyway, looking at all the to - ing and fro - ing this particular schedule seemed to have, I decided to do some rearranging of the travel plans that had been made for me and seriously looked at fitting in something totally "unrelated- to - work" I have been longing to do - before all these meetings began. This was, to go visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar .
Every time I go to Chandigarh, Balbir one of our most active patient volunteers who lives in Amritsar has never failed to chastise me for not even making the effort to try and go visit him and his wife Indu there. So this time I decided that would be exactly what I would do !! Go to Amritsar and the Golden Temple.
Then my dear friend Pankaj in Chandigarh waved his magic wand and made all necessary arrangements.Upon getting out of the Chandigarh airport I was smartly and sweetly welcomed by Gulshan who was to be my chauffer, chaperone and chief commentator on the political climate and the state of everything else I wanted know about Punjab and Haryana and the whole country if I so pleased. And I was whisked into a car that would take me to straight to Amritsar.
What followed was one of the best car trips I have ever had – lovely roads, lovely vistas of golden mustard fields ( You MUST believe me when I say Yash Chopra , yes , the very man who re packaged the mustard field and so profitably made it the USP of his films) was a co passenger on the flight from Bombay from Chandigarh and if I had stopped by and looked carefully I might have seen SRK serenading another lady love for his camera all over again .
But what I wanted was Saag and Makki ki Roti which Gulshan Bhai promised would be waiting for me soon. In the meantime we stopped off at Lucky ( what else could it have been named?) Dhabha for a quick chai . The afternoon was glorious and the river Sutlej as blue as the bright sky , the trees low and green and swaying gently over the sun dappled water.
The hours flew by as smooth as the miles the car ate up and as captivating as the snippets of random information Gulshan fed me. Close to four in the afternoon we stopped at this place called Haveli where indeed the Saag Roti lived up to the reputation that preceded it.
Now it was non stop to Amritsar and the setting sun showed us the way . The only regret , and Gulshan felt it more than I, was that we would not be in time to witness the Retreat at the Wagah Border, for the sun set as soon it led us into Amritsar. When I told Gulshan in passing a while later that I had been to Lahore it seemed to make him feel just that bit better that we missed Wagah .
The first words of greeting I heard in Amritsar set the tone for the whole of my absolutely awe-inspiring visit in the Punjab. Hello Madam ji, myself Harinder Singh Happy – please call me Happy ! The most honest and humble pair of eyes met mine and with the sweetest smile in them , the warmth of the handshake and the voice brimming over with hospitality endeared him to me at once. Happy ,I learnt , was Balbir’s best friend and he was there along with Balbir and his wife Indu to greet me at the hotel. Along with Happy was also Balbir’s nephew Sunny whose disposition matched his name and I could not have asked for better company. Sunny’s gracious mother and Balbir and Indu’s closest friends and their young children completed the reception party. In less than ten seconds I was made to feel so wanted , so welcomed and cherished by my ready made family from Amritsar.
As soon as was possible we set off for the Temple or The Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara .
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE
In the last light of the day my first glimpse of the temple was nothing short of ethereal. By the time we had left our footwear in the orderly cubicles in the huge area set aside for that purpose and entered the complex, the sky had turned an inky blue and the Golden Dome glistened like the sun itself would have. Those who have been there know what it is like and those who have not, nothing I can say will do justice to it. The aura of peace and purity, the sanctity and the feeling of oneness with all the other devotees, the awe inspiring cleanliness (no where else in this country, in no other place of worship where you are asked to enter bare foot do your feet remain spotlessly clean) and the soul stirring prayer songs relayed from the sanctum sanctorum, all of it in one word is indescribable. The photos I was able to take have not captured even a miniscule part of the experience.
With intentions of returning as early as possible in the morning we left and then it was time to have dinner. Every one who had come to meet me stayed on for dinner and we went to the Bharawan da Dhabha, "World Famous since 1912" said their board proudly and feasted on simply sumptuous simple Punjabi khana – Roti , Chhole , Maa ki daal and Raita.
I agreed to leave only after extracting a promise from Balbir that we would come there again for breakfast the next day. Saying good night and good bye to the lovely people who spent the evening with me was tough ; in the short span of a few hours it was like we had known each other for ever and when I hugged them good bye I had tears in my eyes . Happy and Sunny were both going to be at work the next day and the children had to go to school . I was so touched and humbled by the unconditional love they gave me – an unknown lady from Bombay they were meeting for the first time ever .
Next day the cool morning dawned and as planned we were at the Temple with the first morning light and spent a most satisfying couple of hours in the hallowed atmosphere. It is amazing how clean the water is , devotees bend down after darshan to scoop the holy water and drink it as sacred prasad and the meetha prasad that is given, sooji ka halwa , rich and sweet with the ghee dripping is nothing short of heavenly ambrosia,believe me . The halwa left one's palms all greasy with the ghee and I looked around to see how that could be wiped off. When I realised what the others were doing it seemed to be the most natural thing to do ; rub it on you hair or beard and on your arms and feel the dry skin soften and glisten with the glow of this holy moisturiser !!
We sat at the Langar and had sweet , strong tea served in sparkling clean steel mugs and once again it hit me that this was a place where you were truly one with everyone else. Your faith put you and marked you as one amongst hundreds just like you. The feeling hit me with great power .
And then there was the restored Akal Thakht that was completely destroyed during Operation Bluestar - Indu tells me with the greatest regret in her sweet voice of how it was the saddest thing to ever happen; that such a Holy place could be defiled by the militants .
But on this morning it is bright and heaven blessed and everyone there wears the golden burnished look – proof of being touched by the aura of this place.
Whether it is this newly married couple who let me take their picture or Balbir and Indu’s joy and pride , little Pari as I named her .
I of course , am still glowing!!
Jallianwala Bagh is just a five minute walk from the Golden Temple and one had to go there and pay homage right? I have never been able to process what happened there. Not all the history books, not all the films , not all the retellings can ever make the horror of that carnage seem real but actually walking into the place through that narrow little alley from where Dyer, that misguided soul took his police force in, managed to bring the reality of that horrific action and it hit me like a ton of bricks it did !!
Today in that little maidan , the walls with the bullet holes has been encased in plastic and the well where the poor people threw themselves in to die one upon another, is enshrined, and the rest of it is a pleasant , picturesque public garden . It seemed like the peace and calm in that sun drenched garden with its green lawns and smiling, happy folks enjoying a late winter morning’s warmth must surely bring some solace to the tortured spirits of those who fell to those cruel bullets that rained on them.
We were humbled, incredibly humbled.
And then it was time for the promised breakfast at Bharawan da Dhabha and I ate like lunch at Ludhiana was days away instead of just four hours!!
When it was time for me to go. Balbir would not let me leave without two things Amritsar was famous for ; one the tall glass of Lassi ( actually I had two) from the little back alley behind the Dhabha and a pair of classic Amritsar Joothis .
So lassi peeke , joothi khakhe I was on my way to Ludhiana with Gulshan Bhai my sarathi in kind attendance . Ludhiana to me has meant, for some reason, cycles ! and when I said so to Gulshan , he said of course and with some good reason only Madam, for the country’s best cycles come from here and then like Gowri reminded me , of Lal Imli woolens and other hosiery advertisements from my Delhi childhood days . I had never been to Ludhiana before, ever and here I was entering what was looking like a smart city for sure; so many cars and did I see some really fancy ones whizzing past me.
The next day I found myself nodding my head in agreement when Dr Rohit told me this was the place which had the maximum number of Mecedez Benzes per square mile or so –some amazing trivia to know about this Pind in Punjab !! And the maximum number of courteous and helpful men too if one could go by Dr Rohit who took time out of his busy schedule in the morning to take me to a book shop. I had left my book behind in Amritsar and needed one desperately to keep me company the next couple of days while I waited in between meetings.
So he took me to this Book Café ( Only Books no Coffee though) where we browsed and found some interesting titles a couple of them recommended by this guy who we were sure was the owner going by his ummmm proprietorial behaviour . Nice looking guy, smart in his red turban and very friendly and very knowledgeable and eventually it turned out he was also a customer, a regular who spent his free time in the book store happy to meet fellow discerning readers. He wrote down there and then for me a list of books I must read and DVDs I must watch.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Gulshan and it was like saying good bye to a close friend . We had broken bread together, prayed at the Harmandir Sahib together and exchanged so many important views and thoughts,shared parental concerns ; he on his married daughters and me on my married sons and listened to music together; he had enjoyed meeting Balbir and Indu and was full of praise for their lovely Pari and wanted to know all about leukemia. And his smile when I asked him to keep the Dilli 6 CD for his car made my eyes mist over.
I set off then in a private taxi for the two and a half hour trip to Chandigarh. I must say I was missing Gulshan Bhai and Dilli 6 !!
Early March is maybe the best time to be in this part of the country. The air was fresh and cool , the sun caressing in its golden warmth. Before I knew it we had pulled up at the hotel in Sector 24 and I waited just till I could check in , dump my bags and then was out again book in hand not wanting to miss even a second of the golden afternoon that remained . On my agenda was a quick lunch of paratha / daal and finding a place where I could sit and relax with my book . The whole of the lovely Saturday afternoon stretched before me.
Sector 15 I was told was the nearest market where I could find some place to eat and I was sure I could walk it down. But some ten minutes later I realised I was kind of lost and when an auto rickshaw spluttered to a pause by me and a kind Sardar looked out asking me if I needed a ride I thankfully got in and said “bas Khana khana hai aur thodi dhoop sekhni hai “and he nodded sagely with a conspiratorial smile as though telling me he agreed with me that this was what the afternoon demanded and merited indeed. In a couple of minutes he dropped me right in front of that very market place that had eluded me for the last fifteen minutes. "Jee pichwade ki taraf line lagee hai dhabaon ki – badhiya khaana milega" he said and then pointing to an expanse of green dotted with trees just ahead told me "aur bas araam se apne kitab mein kho jaaiye !! " And then he left , just like that ! refusing to charge me for the ride . Talk about generosity - of the heart and mind !!
And exactly as he had told me , tucked behind the shops fronting the market I found Dhabha after Dhabha lined up offering fare that turned out to be just what I was looking for. Crisp , melt in the mouth rotis , garam garam daal and succulent paneer mutter . Heaven !!
What followed was a leisurely lunch in the sun accompanied by one of the books I had picked up in Ludhiana and washed down by a tall glass of lassi. Across the road the lovely park awaited me and I sank into the grass, propped by a massive tree trunk and spent the rest of the afternoon in the most wonderful kind of stupor .
When the phone rang I reluctantly answered it but once I began to understand what Dr Pankaj ( the magician who conjured up the Amritsar trip) was telling me I was left open mouthed in surprised pleasure . Seeing that I had a Sunday with nothing to do in between the evening meeting and Monday’s appointment he had organized a day trip for me – to Shimla . 7am next morning , he told me the car and driver would be there along with two of the Volunteers from Sahayata who were to be my companions for the day!! Just what the doctor ordered so no disobeying this one !!
So it was becoming a mini Bharat Darshan as you can see from the length of this post . I had never been to Shimla in my life . Shimla to me meant an old, faded but much loved photograph from the family album .
That of my father , taken more than half a century ago on one of his official visits from Delhi . Dapper and debonair like he always was, in his pinstriped suit , his pipe held oh so elegantly with one hand and the fir tree in the back ground. My first thought was Oh Shimla ! Maybe I would find that fir tree Babuji posed in front of and made immortal in my mind’s picture of Shimla. So all through that day one part of me was looking out for that probable spot !!
But then I am jumping ahead - 7am on dot the car was there to pick up and you can imagine my happiness at seeing it was none other than Gulshan who was there to take us to Shimla that day; and the lovely ladies who had surrendered their Sunday with their family - what can I say about them ! I was indeed blessed . What I take back from that day about both of them is Nimmi's infectious laughter and her courageous anthem that she says has helped her cope with all the lemons life has thrown at her - "Jaati Baharen hai ji - jiyo !!" And Mrs Puri , gentle and lovley, all the time misisng her husband who she had abandoned for the day back home but who was determined to show me her Shimla !! In fact , she detailed her daughter who lived there in Shimla and that lovely girl too gave up her Sunday to take us over the beautiful hill station.
In less than three and a half hours ( a stop at the apparenlty cult like Sardar's for breakfast included) Gulshan had us up there in Shimla and we took the quaint lift up to the Mall Road to soak up sun and atmosphere.
So we set off - the day was bright and clear , crisp and cool and a look at the pictures will tell you all that we saw and all that we enjoyed.
The brilliant blue of the sky , the tragically run down architectural marvels , the monkey playing with the Kali Bari Mandir ka prasad ,
the stark and historic church and, oh the most wonderful place in Shimla the Viceregal Lodge and thanks once again to Jude for this quote - " Imperial power poured out to affect the millions of people across the subcontinent from Afghanistan in the West to Burma in the East and as the British Empire climbed to its High Noon some one -fifth of mankind was ruled from this hilltop mansion - the Viceregal Lodge in Simla" ....see for yourself !!
and maybe I did find the fir tree, Babuji's tree from all those years ago!!
I boarded the flight back to Bombay after a morning's work at the hospital on Monday thinking of the wonderful four days I had just got to spend and the beautiful people I had met and how much they touched my heart - and not just the people I met . The Punjabis are adorable - period. The Gabru jawans and the soni Muthiars so full of life and so honest in their zest for that life ; so happy and simple !! By the way all three nights in each of the different cities there were wedding parties going on full swing and in one of them another Happy was going to live happily (of course) ever after with his Son(u)i kudi ...
And oh by the way , the young boy who drove me to the Chandigargh airport was called Honey !!
And he was as sweet and charming as his name !!