Amritsar. 10 years ago.

I was barely 12 when I made the trip to Amritsar and Wagah border.

This was my first travel without family, a bunch of insane 12 year olds with just one teacher we were 35 of us and against all odds managed to have a fabulous time.

To quickly talk about the city it’s most well-known for The Golden Temple which is the holiest of all shrines for the community of Sikhs in India. Its also home to Jallianwala Bagh a site of one of the worst massacres in the history of the Indian struggle for freedom. Along with that its known for its proximity to the Indo-Pak border and its so called twin city on the other side Lahore. Just a little while away from Amritsar is Wagah Border one of the points used as a gateway between the two nations.

Between the walls, the dust, the robustness of Punjab lies deep sorrow that is engraved in every heart and every breath of the people of Amritsar. There is this automatic sense of patriotism that hits you when you visit the border and jallianwala bagh too. An inane sense of pride in the sacrifice of others. These are deep things which I will come back to once I tell you the story of my first trip to Punjab.

We climbed onto the bus waiting to say bye bye to school and the Coca-Cola bottles already opened. Sour punk passed around and chips of various brands flew from here and there. The ride that ensued was almost uneventful except for fighting for leg space, window seats and the last packet of food. We’d packed to survive a frat party just without all the alcohol. Well, we were just 12 back then.

Reaching Amritsar in the morning, we checked into a hotel called Hotel Deluxe. This by far was the most run down hotel I have ever seen in my 21 years. The poor boys had sheets instead of walls and there were no toilets to be seen. Flabbergasted Sapna maam our class teacher back then had us check out till we went on a search for another hotel which would gladly take 35 of us hopped up on too much sugar. We then moved into a better place and then dressed to leave for Jallianwala Bagh.

 

You walk into a crowded market slip into a winding alley and it opens into this garden, well that’s what it used to be back in the day. There is this sudden somberness that slips like a deathly shadow through everyone. Theres a quick hush in the air where even the most insensitive little twerps shut up and just look at this enclosed piece of history. Your feet automatically move towards the wall, fingers running over the bullet marks from 80 years ago. You look over the edge of the well where many a mothers jumped with their babies to just stop the bullets from killing them. You put yourself in the place of all those who died, almost a 1000 people, harmless civilians celebrating baisakhi, you look towards the narrow entrance where most of the rounds were fired, and you can almost taste the helplessness in the air. I remember standing there and slowly I felt morbidity crawling on my skin. I felt this sick cloying in my throat as it became difficult to breathe.

We left, some carrying the same feelings, some shook them off but I have a feeling that even almost a decade later we all have a memory of how we felt standing there.

Next on the itinerary was of course The Golden temple, while on the way someone realized that early morning maybe a better time to visit since it was Guru Purab that night. The Sikh new year, we grudgingly agreed to be woken up at 4 am and somehow all toppled off the bus and straight to bed.

4 am before the sun could rise, 35 tweens were woken dressed and shuffled in a line to the waiting bus. We reached the holy shrine while it was still dark, girls with chunnis on their heads, boys with hankies around their foreheads. I could never imagine a place that large could be that full. There were people everywhere at 4 am! We got into the queue to enter the sanctum sanctorum. The line stretched across the sarovar and halfway around the perimeter. By the time we covered half the distance the sun was high and shining. People started getting dehydrated and post maybe a four hour wait or more if memory serves right, we entered the inner realms of the Harmandir Sahib. And was it worth the wait or what?

There is this soft glow that emanates from the dome and gives everything an almost ethereal feel. The yak’s tail fan goes round and round in the priests hand as you stand witness to both the might and the piety of the Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib in front of you, you feel a presence in the room, almost like catharsis is settling into your bones. You kneel, you lower your forehead to the almighty and you sit. Your eyes stare into the distance as you look for answers and questions both. I remember this as being my first visit to a Gurudwara considering I was not of the same faith, but there is something unique about Sikhism, their belief in their gurus and their belief in themselves is what guides their religion. Some of the most tenacious men and women I have met in my life follow this faith. Everything has its flipsides and we were witness to those as we went around the temple looking at the ruins from Operation Blue Star. In all our might and anger we forget the sanctity of a place, we forget that peace and love for all humans is ingrained in every brick in those walls. And we use those same walls to hide our crimes and cover for our misgivings.

I remember post all this being stupendously hungry and eating langar for the first time in my life. Food prepared by devotees for devotees, the Harmandir Sahib kitchen had one of the coolest kitchen machines I ever saw even in my career as a chef. They had this machine which made rotis, and it was humongous. The rotis moved on a conveyor belt from being just a lump of dough to being perfectly round and delicious. Children, men and women of all ages did the service also known as kar seva. That meal left some lasting flavours in my head.

 

Wagah Border. At 21 I’m a child of a fairly peaceful time. I haven’t seen full out wars with the exception of Kargil, for me patriotism was a feeling saved for the cricket matches, Independence Day and the Republic Day Parade. I love my country and I always will, but that raw emotion, the blood rush, the heady feeling I’ve only felt at Wagah.

The sound of the soldiers boot heels on the tarmac, the flag that flutters even without the breeze, every spectator shouting themselves hoarse. I remember shouting. A lot. Enough to lose my voice for a couple of days. If I’d have been older maybe id have cried a little too.

Stories of pain, of sacrifice, of the Partition, of long lost family, of prisoners of war, of treason, of traitors and of heroes echo form both sides of the border. Rolling fields of mustard, and a coiled wire of steel. That’s what separates us from our origins. From our history. A lot of us came from across, and settled this side and the other way too. Will we ever get to see our birthplaces or those of our ancestors.

Thoughts that stray across my head as the gates close at sundown, the flags at half mast and sounds of Bharat Mata Ki Jai linger in the air.

Back onto the bus, and off to Delhi again.

I write all this a decade later, colours in my head have changed and peoples faces are missing as are names and exact minute to minute details. But Amritsar you changed something inside me, thank you.

 

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Where I Come From

A tiny spot on the map

A little place called Churu

The hottest place in the country.

 

A little town on the coast

Down Under in Kerala

From the family of the Prince of Ernakulam.

 

The smell of tanneries

A general flatness next to the Ganga

A little but big town called Kanpur.

 

I come from all these places

But my heart belongs to the center of my country.

I come from Dilli

 

I come from no real religion

 But a puja on every Diwali and Vishu

A set of new clothes and Vish-Kanni.

 

I come from a three bedroom apartment

From orange, blue and red walls

I come from a little black wagging tail not seen above the bed.

 

I come from a road full of Gujjar boys

Flashy cars and crass loud music

A momo stall and the smell of kathi rolls

 

I come from the Simpsons, FRIENDS, and SO You Think You Can Dance

The talk of Manchester United, Shin guards and mercurials,

And the sounds of someone screaming “Man On”

 

I come from 3 amazing people, 3 amazing friends

A tank on a terrace

The lights from a cellphone

 

This is where I come from.

And this is where I’ll be

For now and for the years to come.

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Agra. Of Love and Growing Up.

Living in Agra for three long years of my life the Taj Mahal became the most normal part of life.

That monument that brought a million people to India, was just another spot in the horizon from my window. I worked at The Oberoi Amarvilas which offers some of the worlds most spectacular views of the Taj, I saw it day in day out every moment of the day it shone in its white glory.

To tell you the truth all that charm of the monument wore off very very fast, it was then the only reason I was earning my bread and butter.

I’d been to the Taj quite a few times as a child, as relatives and my parents colleagues came in from all over the world we took them unfailingly everytime to Agra. The National Highway route to Agra was something I almost knew more than the roads in Delhi. As a child the taj was a wonder; large, looming and romantic. He built it for his wife, his late wife in her memory and then he too died gazing at it from a distance. This was my version of the taj till I grew into a cynical and critical adult. Then I cursed the man for his wife’s death, I told myself that having 14 children itself was the worst curse possible, then I learnt from one of Agra’s most accomplished guides that; Mumtaz Mahal died while accompanying her husband to Central india for she knew he had his eyes on one of the princesses somewhere there, so to keep an eye on him she travelled in her 8th month of pregnancy and while giving birth on a barren plateau she passed into the void.

What was it in the end? A mausoleum? A glorified mausoleum was all that Taj ever was and ever will be.

In these cynical jaded rants of mine I came to despise seeing the building( that’s all it was for me anymore, a building)

Until that one day when I made a trip to Mehtab Bagh, a little known garden across the river where rumours run thick in the tress, where the sand of the riverbank whispers stories of the ever elusive Black Taj Mahal. My first visit to Mehtab Bagh incidentally was on a Friday, the day the Taj is closed for business, and in the thick of the monsoons. Having gotten off an auto I bought a 5 rupee ticket and casually sauntered in, not waiting for anything miraculous and treating this like yet another unkempt garden of the indian world of archaeology. I walked straight down the path and then the path naturally curved to the right as I turned I looked up from my smartphone which of course always kept me busy I looked up and I stood transfixed in my spot. I just stood.

 

 

Breathing heavily I didn’t dare blink for I felt I may lose this image once and for all, there stood in front of me a starkly white building, almost glowing for the sky was a fierce grey behind it, luminous against the choppy water of the Yamuna which was full till its seam for it was the monsoon. And then there was me.

I slowly started walking till I reached the end of the garden where between me and the Taj flew only the river. And I sat down. I sat till I couldn’t look no more, till I heard whistles for sundown and the cops came with their lathis. That was the day I fell in love again. With the Taj Mahal and I found my place of solitude in the world Mehtab Bagh.

 

I write this piece equally about the two you know?

That ancient garden changed my life, it was my version of the secret garden, the place where I tread softly for every inch held my dreams, my hopes and my vision. Days I was sad I was in Mehtab Bagh and days I was happy I used to jump in front of the taj attempting one of those perfect pictures. I went there with friends I went there with lovers and I went there alone. Everytime meant something new something unique and something different.

I grew up in Agra, in between the streets of old city gorging on Nizamiya ki biryani and 10 rupai ke beef kebabs with ulte tawe ke paranthe and hot gulab jamuns. We had a favourite place called Shanu ke kebab, he had a little cubby hole in the market square and used to sit outside with a sigri in the evenings. He made the most delectable beef seekh kebabs in the world. 20 rupees for 4 of them and I could sit for hours and order. Then there were those funny anglicized breakfast places in the budget part of town, where all the hippy foreigners stayed on a shoestring. Where pancakes tasted like rotis and omelettes were just plain old yummy. Then of course was my favourite place of agra, Costa Coffee, that place was home for me. Those baristas have seen me through three crazy years with new friends old friends foes and everyone else. Ive sat there in the pouring rain getting drenched with just my mug being protected. I would walk up and sit outside, within a moment or two a mug of a cappuccino extra shot slim milk would sit in front of me. In the mornings a croissant too and sometimes a packet of lays.

I am pulled into a crazy state of nostalgia when I think of those days, we used to say “ chhote chhote shehron mein hum bhi bade log hote hain”. Restaurant owners knew us, so did auto walas, shopkeepers would stop us and give us our usuals without us having to ask.

There are parts of Agra that are so unexplored, being part of The Oberoi Amarvilas I had the chance of visiting the Wildlife SOS sanctuary. Nestled in the lush green environs of Khitam Lake, Wildlife SOS is a rehabilitation and rescue center for the diverse society of the dancing bears of India. With large habitats for these injured and insulted animals, Wildlife SOS tries to give them a better and a more normalized life. The bears often suffer from blindness and repetitive body movements after having been captive in dark constricted spaces. Along with the bears they also have a peacock called Danger who tends to attack people at random, a Great Dane they found wandering on the roads called Devil and one hyperactive Guinea fowl too! Visiting the sanctuary I found a place I could turn to when I needed to look for the unconditional comfort that only animals can provide.

Catharsis. Fatehpur Sikri. The ancient city a few kilometers outside Agra has had a major role to play in the life of all those who have ever visited it. A sight to behold emboldened by the Buland darwaza, this UNESCO World Heritage Site renewed my faith in the forces that lie beyond us. The tradition of tying a “dhaaga’ in the tomb of the great Saint Muinuddin Chishti has existed for years, the intricate marble trellis that surrounds the sanctum sanctorum is peppered with dhaagas of various colours. Showing us the hope that humankind puts in prayer and in wishes. Each thread tied with utmost conviction, holding someones dreams within its knots. Some of us are lucky that these dreams get fulfilled some of us hold on to the hope that someday they will be fulfilled. It is said that once your wish has been fulfilled you have to come back and remove any one of the many threads. I tied one in 2010, and in 2013 had the extremely blessed opportunity to remove one, for my wish came true. On this trip back, I met a young man all of 8 years who offered to be my guide to the city, Sul Mohammad was his name. With a prominent lisp this little one told me the story of Akbar, his wives, his prayers for a son and in his poignant tale he told me that Islam, Christianity and Hinduism could all exist together as he pointed to various symbols of all three religions in the architecture. How an 8 year old could understand this and talk so eloquently I still cannot fathom. But he gave me some perspective in life. And I do believe that’s the most important gift anyone could give to another.

Living at the edge of this town trying to be a city has been the most defining time in my life. Let Agra do that to you too. One day when you get the time, not half a day not a few hours and certainly not just the Taj. Let Agra do its magic.

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