Friday, November 28, 2008

Calling them cowards doesn't make you brave, Mister Minister!

We have been tested again and once again we have been found wanting. Wednesday night left us in tatters, almost naked in front of the world community. Two dozen boys defeated a country. Yes, politicians have called them cowards but let us not fool ourselves. Even if these guys are out of their minds and determined to commit suicide, the bitter truth is they succeeded in doing what they wanted to do and our security apparatus failed in what they ought to do. Wednesday night was shameful for us as inefficient, unfit and ill-equipped policemen fumbled as the terrorists sprayed bullets and walked the streets of Mumbai, from a railway station to a hospital, from a pub to the Taj Mahal Hotel. Of course, some brave police officers took them head on and made the supreme sacrifice but it also betrayed their level of sophistication in handling such situations.

Hours after the first burst rained out from their Kalashnikovs, one could see people carrying the injured with hands. Our disaster management system could fetch some stretchers to the spot. The hotel staff seemed more efficient in handling the situation that the police commissioner of India's shiniest metropolis. The excuse of intelligence failure works in case of timed bomb blasts. November 26 will go down in history as a direct assault on our resolve, with bullets and grenades. This is unprecedented.

The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorist Squad, the nomenclature explains it all, was busy unravelling the Pragya Thakur network. Just a few hours before he was killed on Wednesday night, ATC chief Hemant Karkare had told the press that 90 per cent of his resources are chasing the Malegaon case for over a month.His organisation did not have the foggiest that terror would paddle its way to the Gateway of India on a raft. Intelligence has become an oxymoron, thanks to the moronic ways leads are passed and pursued.

The home minister somnambulates to the waiting TV cameras at 2.30 in the morning but says few meaningful words. His soporific demeanour signals the inherent weakness of our system. Will we ever wake up? When will the policeman in megapolises, like Delhi and Mumbai, stop looking like mofussil havildar fiddling with his Raj-era .303? When will our ministers in charge understand the urgency to reassure a billion people by not appearing bored with blasts? These are clich├ęd questions but then so are talks about resilience; the spirit of Mumbai; terrorists are cowards; this is a conspiracy; and dastardly acts of violence against innocents. This Wednesday-Thursday India cried tears of blood. And Shivraj Patil was no comic relief, even if the country laughed at 2.30 am.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Top of the world

Being a man, I am genetically programmed to exess-ercise and develop muscles only marginally smaller than that of the Godzilla or alternatively protect them from minutest movements so that they decay in their little lethargical existence. I belonged to the second category and I do not blame it on TV alone. Chips, other chewies and myriad blends of Scotch share the blame equally.

I love nature, mountains and all. I have spent years watching Discovery and National Geographic to minutely study the flora and fauna of the world. I am in fact able to differentiate one from the other, well mostly. I have friends who love nature so much they go on hiking expeditions that comprises extensive driving through small towns of Haryana, Punjab and Himachal or Uttarakhand to reach the foothills of a mountain. After many drinks, the views apparently become more scenic. They also occasionally climb these hills and come down the mountains. I have had visual proof of all this thanks to the digital camera, which captures these nature-lovers making faces at the optical zoom lens while posing next to random rocks in the wilderness.

So when a friend suggested we take a hike to a place called Triund, above Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh, I was immediately dismissive of such an endeavour. Why drive 600 km to walk up a hill when you can walk about the same distance window-shopping at some of the XXL malls inside NCR? Everything at these malls is either crap or way too expensive. Hence, I decided to actually shop for a change and hopped on the bandWagon R.

The drive from Delhi is pleasant, more so if you started at night, lost your way after Ropar (which for some reason is called Rupnagar now) and did not know Gurmukhi. Road signs in interior Punjab, if you can find one, are in this script deceptively similar to Devnagari. The technological wonder called GPS in my mobile phone helped us at least thrice to find our road to Una, a town in the plains that thinks it's in the mountains. It is located geographically in Himachal Pradesh but is in a Punjab state of mind. You cross Una and go to Hamirpur via a road that the state government in Shimla should not be embarrassed about. The road gives you enough jitters to remember the state for a long time. Experts later told us it's better to go straight to Pathankot (take National Highway 1, shift to 1A at Jalandhar) and then turn right for Dharmsala (NH 20). There is another road: Take the Manali Road from Ropar and leave it at Bilaspur to turn left for Dharmsala. Well, even via Una managed to do Dharmsala in 10 hours flat. Just a little ahead of Dharmsala lies Mcleodganj, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. His Holiness The Dalai Lama stays in the Tibetan town inside India.

I would recommend you make this your base camp. You get magnificent views of the mighty Dhauladhar Himalayas from here. I could not because adrenalin had already kicked in inside my friend on the driving seat. He decided to drive up to Gallu Devi temple above the pretty village of Dharamkot. We checked in at Sagar, a five-room establishment, just where the tough part of the trek begins. We were exhausted, droopy eyed and crash-prone since we had left Delhi after a long day of work and had driven all night. So we decided to do the obvious: go for a hike down the hill to a glacial waterfall and freeze ourselves. The almost invisible track beneath our feet was pretty normal to begin with and got scarier, step by steep step. We had to crawl at places and walk on all fours at others. It ends at a waterfall. The water would freeze if it lost its furious momentum. We decided to give good sense a break and took a dip in an ice-cold puddle. The sun helped our frozen bodies get back into shape. Ravi runs a shack just above the waterfall and will serve you tea, coffee, chips and hot Maggi.

The five-km trip back to our rooms was refreshing. We slept well, dreaming of a new dawn. After a quick breakfast of eggs and toast, we started our long uphill walk to Triund. The rocky track is about two feet wide and steep to begin with. It took about an hour and a half to reach Magic Point, a small shop claiming to be the oldest tea shop on the route. Almost midway, this shop's unwritten motto should be: If we don't have it, you don't need it. Well, he sells everything from memory chips to Snickers and everything in between. After filling ourselves with water followed by a lot of caffeine, we decided to face our fears. From here, the climb needs determination. Your calves are already aching and city-bred lung huffing and puffing. You can see Triund, your destination, from here. Time to slay those naysaying demons inside your mind. That's what we did.

We cried, cribbed and cursed our sissy limbs and blamed the government for the condition of our sorry lungs. We also tried sado-masochism by screaming at our lungs: Take it baby, it's payback time, comeuppance, you lazy lung. We forcefed it so much oxygen I am sure they don't need air for another year. As a side-effect, our brains got a lot more oxygen than they are used to. The result was a heightened sense of clarity. Just a few feet from each other, we were walking alone. All the troubles of the world vanished and problems found solution as we got to the tortuous last leg (absolutely intended) of the trek. We were at Triund just about 2,975 metres above sea level but the feeling was the top of the world. The Dhauladhar spread in front of our eyes in full-blown beauty. With last year's snow still resting in its crannies, the tallest piece of stone there called Mount Indrahar was kissing the never-before-seen-blue sky as the half-shaped moon smiled. Yes, the world up there is so clear, the moon was visible at 3 in the afternoon on November 8 while the sun was still threatening enough.

Hindus of India manage tougher treks but it always ends in a mountain-top temple. Here, there was no temple but one felt with the gods. And of course dogs of the upper reaches are always around. Large, handsome dogs called gaddi dogs. There are a couple of shacks that serve soupy Maggi. We ordered some boiled eggs to begin with. Thanks to low pressure at that height, it takes a lot of time to boil things. We attributed to this phenomenon the out-of-the-world taste of those boiled eggs.

After soaking in the pure air, lazing on the flat meadows of the Triund ridge for a couple of hours, we began our trek downhill. By the time we reached Joginder Singh's midway magic point, it was dark. The moon tried to show us our way, but at curves and shades it could be misadventurous. But Joginder stayed open till we came back. He told us there are leopards and Himalayan bears, the most ill-tempered of the species this side of the world. "They don't attack humans but do not take chances at night," he was firm as he walked along us with torchlight. He told us stories of the jungle, the dogs, the firangis and the Israelis for the next hour till we reached our resthouse. I promised to come back. I will. And this time we will go to Laka Jot, the snow line where there is snow round the year. In Triund, snow is abundant only between December and March. More adventurous trekkers go beyond Laka and cross the Indrahar Pass into Chamba district. You start with Triund. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Wanted: An Obama for India

Till many years after India was born into equal suffrage democracy, the black minority in democratic America did not have voting rights. And today, a skinny black man is headed for the White House. Barack Obama vanquishing the Grand Old Party is about the common American slaying many demons cached in crannies of his mind. All nations of the world take interest in the American elections, for America is not just a country but also an idea, a dream surpassed only by India.

The idea of India is far more audacious than people anywhere else can possibly imagine. In spite of a Raj Thackeray here and a Lalu Yadav there, we stand as a country bound by that idea. Cynics had written us off soon after that midnight birth, preceded and followed by bloodbath. Sixty one years later, India has grown up to be a country that can now look into the eyes of most nations. It's no small feat.

Can India, the world's largest democracy, produce a Barack Obama? Can we find one leader who can inspire a whole nation? Can we ever again have a political revolution of the scale of Obama mania. Well, yes, we can. This is where Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru were born. Indira Gandhi stirred the nation after the Janata period. The Janata rule itself was the outcome of Jai Prakash Narayan’s clarion call. Rajiv Gandhi could do the magic. I would add even Atal Behari Vajpayee to that list for he enjoyed pan-Indian love and respect, in spite of his party.

But India never needed an Obama like we do today. The last decade has been devastatingly divisive for a nation tied together by just an idea. The gap between majority Hindus and minority Muslims and Christians has never been wider. The constant curse of caste refuses to leave us. The Thackeray brand of regionalism has brought mainstream states on collision course. India needs a leader who inspires its diverse people into burying these differences. Where is he? Where can we find her? The answer: we do not have a true leader in our midst and not even on the distant horizon.

When Obama overcame all obstacles including a very popular Clinton to run for the President, parallels were drawn with an Indian leader who has overcome bigger obstacles. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati's rise reflects the strength of our democracy as Obama's victory reflects that of America. Mayawati did not even have the privileges that Obama enjoyed, like growing up in a secure home, with prosperous grandparents, Harvard Law School and so on. What Mayawati has achieved is far greater than what Obama did. But then Mayawati is far, and I would go so far as to say too far, from being an Obama. Her politics is divisive in spite of the recent sarvajan cloak. Her politics is casteist at heart. Bringing Brahmins and Dalits together in itself is casteism. Her image is also of a vindictive and corrupt politician.

Sadly, no one from the present crop, young and old, shows any signs of ‘change’ we can believe in. Our politics is a game of numbers where parties take calculated risks. Obama did not win on black votes or white votes. Obama won because he made a better proposition to the American citizen. Obama won because he is inclusive, not just in what he wants for America but also in what he seeks for the world. Especially after George W's eight divisive years. America found a man who can save it from becoming a country universally hated. Americans hope Obama would take every American along and every country along.

Anyone here to take everyone along? Advani ji, aap to rehni hi do.