Kabul calling

Mahindra’s   invitation to blog on my life-changing road trip took me back in time ,  to Kabul.  Not to the strife-torn Afghan city,  but a hippie-happy,  ‘wheeling-n-dealing’ Kabul of 1960s.  The place was then a bustling staging post for hippies,  hitch-hikers,  and adventure tourists from Europe,  heading East beyond Khyber Pass.

This was in 1967,  when I was 29,  unattached,  and doing Europe overland.  We were seven – a mixed group,  aged between 10 and 50 – traveling  in a 12-seater van on a London-Delhi run.  Because of a nationality issue with Pakistan,  Kabul turned out to be the end of the road for me.  Denied a visa to transit Pakistan,  I flew from Kabul to Amritsar.  Our tour organiser  Brian,  and two other Brits  in our group took the van through  Khyber Pass to  Peshawar,  Lahore,  crossing the  Wagha  border post into Amritsar.

Alone,  and on loose ends,  I spent four days in Kabul,  waiting for India flight.  Ariana Afghan Airlines  flew to Amritsar twice weekly. Not being a sight-seeing type  (didn’t even own a camera then)  I spent much time in cafes watching host of other young men and women doing the same thing.  Most of them were youth-hostellers on adventure trip,  ready with their back-pack,  hoping to hop on to  the first available vehicle offering a free ride to some place in the general direction they were heading.  Back-packers met in cafes to swap travel experience. Those heading towards Europe,  having done India and Pakistan,  exchanged notes with European hitch-hickers heading East.  Hitch-hicking was a done thing among youths those days.  Passing motorists had no hesitation in picking up back-packers thumbing a lift.  Some made good company,  on long road trips.  Cafes in Kabul town were peopled , besides back-packers,  with hippies,  unshaven,  unshowered,  and lingering over their coffee waiting for hash-dealer or a vacancy in the toilet.

The vehicles parked outside the cafes had European number plates,  and carried windshield placards offering a seat to London for 50 pounds sterling. Vans,  Land-Rovers,  and bigger coaches on their return trip from India usually had seats going.  In our van Brian was the only one doing the return road trip to London. He would have picked up a few fare-paying passengers on his home run to London. Brian,  then on his first trip East,  said he planned doing the trip on a regular basis as an overland tour operator. We were his first customers – two males,  three ladies and a 10-year-old schoolgirl.  And Brian found us through an ad.  he gave in the New Statesman personal column.

Joan,  a middle-aged wife of  Norfolk businessman,  bored with golf and country life,  wanted to do the world overland,  if only to be able to  send picture-postcards home  from exotic-sounding addresses.  Carol,  a student nurse from London,  joined us for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she planned to take a ship to Sydney to join her Australian boyfriend. And then we had this young Indian couple,  with a 10-year-old girl,  heading home for a long vacation in Bombay. I believe they were close to the business family that owned the  ‘Parle’  brand of beverges.  Point is, even regular guys took to overland trips those days.  And Kabul of the hippy,  happier days  was  Mecca to road-trippers from all over Europe.  More on my Kabul,  a few paras. later.

To begin at the beginning,  my road trip started, as I mentioned,  with a New Statesman personnel column,  wherein Brian said he wanted to hear from those wanting to do India overland in May, 1967.  I was then a journalist on the staff of The Northern Echo, a daily published in  Darlington,  North-East England.  After three years in the UK  I thought it was time I returned home,  to turn a fresh  leaf in life.   And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start on  it  than what the New Statesman ad. offered.

Advertiser Brian,  when I got in touch,  cautioned  that his trip was not for those who expected to be  ‘carried’  by others;  or those not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort;  and, definitely,  not for the type that didn’t ‘get along’  with strangers.  Brian bought a 12-seater van, funded,  presumably, through our contribution, as down-payment on a vehicle loan.  I can’t recall how much I paid,  but it was less than 100 pounds. This didn’t include our motel stay en route,  and visa fees for transiting Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia,  Bulgaria, Turkey,  Iran and Afghanistan.

Irony was , such exciting journey  across continent had a pretty pedestrian start,  at the parking lot of  London’s Waterloo station.  It was a Sunday morning, 7ish,  when the parking lot was deserted.  Brian was already there,  and waiting.  So was my friend Sushil Nangia  who had come to see me off.  I was surpised to see him there,  on a Sunday morning.  Besides being a dear friend one had to be bit of a nut to be up and about to see off someone,  so early on Sunday morning , when most of London preferred to stay in bed,  reading their favourite paper – be it the Sunday Times, Observer, The Sunday Express or the now-closed News of the World.  Nangia was, and still remains,  both –  a dear friend,  and bit of the N-word.

Our road trip involved two car-ferry crossings  – Dover-Ostend  on the English Channel,  and across Bosphorus   in Istanbul –  motoring across the Black Forest;   stopping by at picture postcard towns of  Munich, Cologne,  Baden-Baden,  Salzburg;  driving up  Kop Dagi Highland in Turkey;  crossing Iran,  taking in en route  Tehran, Tabriz, Mehshad and many other small towns to make it to the Afghan border post;  and from there to Herat,  through a moonscaped barren expanse to Khandahar and then,  to Kabul.

After four days on loose ends in Kabul, I couldn’t wait to leave town.  As I reached the airport I was told I didn’t have  ‘exit visa’. Immigration official suggested I get my passport stamped at the city police station, some 20 mins.away. He offered to  get me a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get my passport exit-stamped at the police station and still make it back to the airport in time to catch the flight. The official at the immigration said it was worth a try –  for my flight wasn’t leaving for another hour.  A taxi-driver was ready to take me to the city and back.  And the next flight was three days away.  I had the decision made for me –  to make a dash to the city police station.  And the Kabul cabbie managed to bring me back to the airport some ten minutes before take-off.  As the Afghan Airlines Dakota took to the air with me in the plane,  I couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t nexus between the airport counter staff and the cabbie.

A childhood with grandpa

When you grew up, or raised your own kids, did you have an experience which felt 100% real to you? So said the IndiBlogger e-mail announcing the Kissanpur contest.

I couldn’t recall right away any anecdote or childhood incident that fit the bill. It is easier to think of episodes in life that made you ‘feel good’, but are they necessarily the ones that give you the feel that they are real,100 percent ? The real-feel episode I share in this post wasn’t a feel-good one while I went through the phase. But as I look back on it, I feel it was as real as they come.

If it wasn’t for IndiBlogger e-mail, I wouldn’t have strayed so far down the memory lane, some 65 years back, to dredge up a childhood that I spent with  thatha (grandpa). This was in mid-1940s when I was less than 10 years old, living away from parents, with my grand-parents. When my parents moved to New Delhi – father being in a govt. job – they left me behind under the charge of grand parents in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu.
The primary school I went to,  in Telugu Brahmin St., was across the road from my grandparents’ place. Periappa – father’s elder brother – was the school head-master. Which wasn’t such a good arrangement. My uncle, a stern disciplinarian, was  a terror in the school. What was worse, besides being the school head, he took Class IV.  And, as his nephew, I wasn’t shown any favour, though they counted me among his favorites, off school. He made me stand up on the bench (a standard punishment) even for minor lapses such as talking to someone across bench,  trading match-box labels or cigarette-pack fronts  with classmates during school-hours.

At home grandpa, a retired cop,  ran our household of three – that is, grandma and me – a bit like a police training establishment. I had a time-table for meals, play, study, and sleep. The only grace-time (when I could do whatever I felt like) was when grandpa had his afternoon snooze. But then I was away in school, on week days, returning home at 4.30 p m. By which time grandpa would be up and about.
Grandmother, subject to her time-table, occasionally flouted it.  She would simply disappear next door – like they do for water-cooler breaks in offices –  for a mid-day gossip with neighbour; or she would linger longer than  warranted, at our door front chatting thayirkari (lady selling buttermilk door to door).

Grandma got away with it,  but I wouldn’t dare flout the routine, set for study and play. Regulation play-time started at 5 p m, when I escorted thatha to the neighbourhood Gandhi park. He took a designated park bench for listening the evening radio programme relayed all over the park through a public address system. I wasn’t obliged to listen to radio, though. Grandpa would let me try the swings, slides and things in the play area. An hour and quarter later, 6.30 pm,  we headed home.

Study time, under thatha’s watchful guidance, started at 7 p m. An hour later,  he retired for 15 mins.  to the kitchen for evening meals. On his return, 8.15 p m, ,thatha made his own bed  on a cement slab embedded in a corner of his room. What followed was 15 minutes of question time, when thatha would ask me something, anything,  from class lessons, lying in bed.  At 8.30 p m, as if on cue, patti (grandma) showed up at thatha’s door to summon me for meals. That was the signal to which I looked forward the whole evening; the signal that my day was done.

Such small delights made my day. Grandma, as most of the clan are,  was considerate. She would even let me sit in at after-dinner gossip session grandma held with neighbours at the door-front thinnai ( a cement platform to seat a gossip group).

I hate to admit this, my feelings were mixed – sad, if somewhat relieved –  when thatha passed away . At the age of 11  I rejoined  my parents in New Delhi

Car crash on our way to airport

crash car 006Viewing this image you would not hold out much hope for its passengers. I wouldn’t,  either, had I not survived the crash. This was the vehicle in which my wife and I were going to the Bangalore airport to catch an early morning Dubai-bound flight. It happened near Bididi, nearly two hours after we had left Mysore,  at the dead of night.  Our vehicle  brushed  against a bitumen laden truck,  taking a ‘U’turn on a high-speed highway.

crash car 005We were at the rear-seat, asleep. I didn’t know what hit us, as I woke up to the crash; my wife had passed out on impact.  Stranded on a highway in pitch darkness, I felt futile and helpless. For a few agonised minutes I believed it was all over, as my wife wouldn’t respond to my frantic calls, and efforts to shake her awake.

It must have been minutes,  but seemed an eternity, before my wife  regained consciousness.  She was dazed, and kept asking what had happened, and why, and where we were heading , what for. Whatever I told her didn’t register, for she kept repeating the same questions, to a point when I lost patience. I found myself utterly at a loss as what to do next.

Our driver Mahadevan knew the drill. He informed his travel office in Mysore; called the police, and the ambulance service. Meanwhile a crowd gathered, even though it was past midnight.  Somewhat irritated at our becoming  a spectacle for curious passers-by, I gave vent to my frustration, asking the driver why he wouldn’t try to stop a passing vehicle to take my wife to hospital, instead of wasting time answering silly questions from inquisitive onookers.

I didn’t realise then that  Mahadevan, hurt and bleeding from his right ear, was doing his best, unmindful of his injury. I learnt later that he had a slashed ear. A few minutes later a policeman showed up on a bike,but there was no sign of ambulance.

Under stress I get clumsy at handling  things, even a cell phone. I managed to call co-brother Raghu in Mysore.  I had a credit card, but not much cash.  He called his co-brother Narsimhan in Bangalore, who was the first to turn up at the hospital at the crack of dawn. As it turned out, I didn’t need cash. The ambulance ride was free; and I used credit card at the hospital.  Incidentally, it came as a relief to learn that the Karnataka government has a free ambulance service in place on the Mysore-Bangalore highway. So dire was its need for me that I would have  readily paid a thousand rupees, if only I had the cash.

It was, I believe,  nearly half-hour ambulance ride to BGS Global hospital at Kengari. The approach road to an otherwise well-equipped hospital is bumpy, and bad for fracture cases. And the multi-speciality hospital,  located close to the highway receives mainly accident victims. I see repair of potholed  road to the hospital as a medical priority in critical care. 

Emergency service was prompt, and efficient. Dr Venkatesh who attended on my wife stitched up a nine-inch cut on her neck; had her right shoulder x-rayed for supected fracture; and kept up a conversation to calm our nerves.  At my request he agreed to take a call from my anxious daughter-in-law, a doctor in the US. I found Dr Venkatesh a multi-tasker with reassuring way with words in dealing with patients – the kind, I believe, would be an assset in any medical emergency room. I wonder why a hospital that has a well-functioning ER and claims to have world-class infrastructure, including helipad for air ambulance,  can’t fix its bumpy driveway.

crash car 008On our way back to Mysore, after a day in hospital, I stopped by to see,  for the first time, our damaged vehicle. The scale of damage may spell death for others. But I associate life,  my reality of it,  with that mangled mess on wheels, if only because my wife and I are still alive to see it. The image of the wrecked Sumo  tells me that at times a split-second or sheer hair-breadth is all that is there  between life and a pointless death.

Misleading headline

headlineI don’t know if they still have sub-editors (copy-editors)  in  newspapers. In my days in journalism no sub-editor would have let this headline get into print. It is misleading .  

 The headline reads: Four police officers accused of murdering Mangalore lawyer. The statement in its heading  is not substantiated by the news report, which is based on the First Information Report(FIR) filed by a senior advocate.

The police have yet to investigate before charging anyone in this case. The newspaper headline, terming as ‘accused’  those who are suspects in a case, smacks of  ‘trial by media’. The police oficials named in the report could fault  the newspaper for wrongfully charging them with murder.  Being named in FIR doesn’t necessarily make them accused.

Journalists  reporting crime and legal proceedings ought to know that an allegation isn’t an accusation; and a suspect in a crime doesn’t become an accused till he is formally charged by the police. Using the word ‘accused’  in reference to the police officers named in FIR would be unacceptable,  even if the word figures in the complaint filed by a senior advocate.  Wonder what The Hindu’s  readers editor has to say on this. Do newspapers have a style-book  for their editorial staff?

Domestic violence

seminarAt a Rotary Club seminar in Bangalore speakers called for empowerment of society to prevent domestic violence.  Police woman Kiren Bedi,  citing a UN report said India ranked third in the world – behind only Poland and Japan – when it came to incidence of domestic violence. 

trichy-trip-0151I wonder what the seminar speakers would have done,  had they been a witness to the scene in this picture.  Domestic violence here, involving an old man and a couple, is being played out in a roadside slum close to a rail crossing at Srirangam, Tiruchi.  The reality here cannot be  neatly summed up  in a seminar paper.  Nor do the recommendations  made  at such gatherings seem actionable on ground. 

There was  a sizeable traffic hold-up at the level crossing, waiting for the train to pass through. We watched the  old man, no less aggressive in his intentions,  being smacked by a couple at their door-step. The elevated road was at a height from where we couldn’t intervene physically.  Shouts and threats to call the police didn’t deter the young man bashing the old man.

 A couple of auto-drivers in the crowd were heard saying it was pointless  calling  the police , who, they said,  invariably arrived after the event , and that too , ‘to milk money from both parties’. So much for the public image of the police. Besides, incidents of domestic violence  are said to be  so commonlace that  society’s response is usually to let the feuding parties have it out among themselves till  the cops come to take them away.
trichy-trip-014Anyway, the feuding slum-dwellers were still at it as a freight train passed by the crossing ; and we move on as the rail barriers were lifted.

A Jail monthly from Chennai

outlookSpeaking of in-house journals, Ul Oli (Inner Light),  sounds unique. It’s a monthly of, by and  for  jailbirds in Tamilnadu.  It can count on a captive circulation of 16,000 in the state’s 137 prisons. Ul Oli is not available at news stands.

As journalist Pushpa Iyengar put it,  the magazine may not be Pulitzer material,  but it deserves an honourable mention. Pushpa has done a pageful on Ul Oli in her Outlook magazine. The 50-page jail monthly,  launched in mid-January,  is reported to be the brainchild of Tamilnadu Director General of Prisons, R Nataraj.

Pushpa,  Outlook bureau chief in Chennai,  who has had access to the inaugural issue says  the magazine has stories by jail inmates on their life in prison.  It has poems, drawings,  anecdotes and spiritual quotes and other literary contributions, all  by convicts in theft, smuggling, rape,  murder, and bomb blast cases. On the magazine editorial board is a Sri Lankan Tamil Santhan,  who faces death sentence for his role in the LTTE conspiracy to kill  Rajiv Gandhi.

Incidentally, Pushpa was among the journalists on the scene of the suicide bomb attack on Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur.  She had covered the story for The Times of India.

Red-circled by the media

Ram Gopal Varma  was red-circled by the media on Monday. Today it was the turn of a woman police officer in Bangalore.  Page One images in Bangalore Mirror shows  Sub-inspector Shilpa chatting on her cell while on bandobast duty at the funeral of Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan who went down fighting terrorist in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel.

It was an occasion for solemnity and silent reflection; and Ms Shilpa’s unpardonable lack of sensitivity is evident from the pictures in the media , red-circled for effect. On such occasions we refrain from instrusive use of cell phone, not because there is a law against it, but out of consideration for mourners in the gathering .

scan1The police sub-inspector was there on duty; and it is conceivable that she might have had to make or take a call in the line of duty. But then she could have gone about it discreetly,  by moving away to a corner to use her cell. The sub-inspector deserved the red-circling by the media; but does it have to be so  blatant as to make a cover story of it , with screamer headline?