Sunday, March 01, 2009

Punjabi Times

A wedding trip away from home is always a fair excuse for an extended vacation. The nuptials at Delhi almost incidental, the meat of our trip was in Chandigarh and Amritsar.

But, I don’t want to disregard the awesome marriage ceremonies and the mind boggling food. The starters themselves numbered in the double digits, with chaats galore; we just couldn’t set aside stomach space for the mind numbing variety of the main courses. We watched an eminently forgettable movie (Delhi-6) instead. What the hell was that all about?

A wonderful Shataabdi train journey to Chandigarh was capped by free dinner at the Shivalik hotel. A lovely city this is and definitely life moves at a slower pace than in the big cities. Didn’t do much and by an amazing twist of fortune, we got there on a Saturday night and Sunday all shops are closed; much to the chagrin of the women folk. That the wife still managed to do heavy weight shopping despite these seemingly insurmountable odds is another matter.

The rose festival in full bloom necessitated a visit to this roaring event. The most beautiful roses were in the form of Punjabi maidens and they easily outnumbered the actual amount of roses I saw. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to the flowers we were supposed to be seeing.

Another train ride (from Ambala) saw us in Amritsar. Here we were welcomed with open arms by our friends’ relatives who readily gave up their bedrooms for us. An interesting episode with the wash basin was the highlight of the first night in this town. Our hosts and our friends stepped out for dinner. We decided to stay back as the kids were tired. Manasi, for some unfathomable reason, decided to wash her feet in the wash basin and in fine form landed her foot elegantly on a sensitive part of the assembly. Not being an eyewitness to the actual drama, we rushed out of our room to see her calmly standing by while Niyathi had a major chunk of the ceramic basin in her hands. Ever the calm one, the wife, quickly took charge. Screaming at all of us on the top of her lungs, she frantically starting cleaning the floor, picking up the pieces, all while still mouthing curses at two innocents and one culprit. Strangely, the only one unaffected by the composed behavior was the perp who just stood by casually.

The kids, packed off to bed after severe admonishments, the post-mortem was a solemn and action oriented affair. Introspections on child rearing and upbringing of our babies were the main agenda items. I must say I provided valiant input to the whole drama.

We waited in trepidation for our hosts to return and I must say they were taken aback by our grim countenances. On hearing the reason, they all burst out laughing and were more concerned about the kids’ safety. That’s Punjabi hospitality for you!

No trip to Amritsar is complete without a visit to the Golden Temple. Truly an awe inspiring place. I just loved it and was fortunate enough to do the Sarovar (dip in the ice cold reservoir 5 times). Being a festival day, the temple was packed and it took us quite a while to enter the main temple, but man, it was worth every minute of the wait. It’s a great feeling to see the seat of any religion! Words can’t quite express the wonderful feeling one has in this holy shrine.

A somber visit to Jallianwala Bagh brought a few tears to the eyes to actually be in the same place where thousands of innocent people were shot down by one English General. The brick wall at the far end of the garden has carefully preserved bullet marks from the massacre. You can’t help but wonder how anyone could do something so heinous.

The same evening our hosts drove us to Attari/Wagah, the border towns in India and Pakistan. Hardly 30 km from Amritsar, we didn’t want to the border ceremony that happens here every day. As it was a weekday, we expected a smattering of people. Reality was different. It felt like entering a cricket stadium for a match between the two countries! Blaring loudspeakers, music and a festival like atmosphere! They even have stadium like seating with steps. Though the flag lowering and the aggressive marching at each other lasts about half hour, it’s packed with a lot of patriotism and passion. The BSF guards’ orders are yelled at full volume, further amplified by the microphones held in front of their faces. On the Pakistan side, there’s an old man who waves a Pakistani flag. Apparently, he does this daily and has been doing it for a couple of decades! Now, that’s commitment!

An interesting observation by our friend later was that while we on the Indian side were shouting ‘India Zindabad!’ our neighbors were shouting ‘Jeeve Jeeve’. Essentially, we were showing our patriotic fervor in Urdu while they were showing theirs in Punjabi.

On the Indian side, a gigantic truck with Balochistan license plates waited patiently for the celebrations to end. A non-decrepit truck but the novelty of a Pakistani truck on Indian soil attracted many photographs with people proudly standing in front of the ‘foreign’ license plates. The Pakistani driver was no doubt not feeling too safe as he had all his windows rolled up and stoically stared straight ahead, praying no doubt to quickly get across to his own land!

Another in your face gesture is a small Hindu temple at the border belting out Bhajans and Slokas with megaphones! All in good spirit?

Before I end this already painfully long essay, I gotta talk about the food! On a friend’s recommendation, I had Shikaar on the roadside. I did Obelix proud here as Shikaar is nothing but wild boar. It was just too too good! We also had the most wonderful home cooked Punjabi food, with paneer dishes, sabji and rotis with home-made butter. I easily added a couple of kilograms at one breakfast sitting!

And finally, I must say that I have never seen a warmer and friendlier people. While not overbearingly warm and affectionate, we were treated as part of the family during our stay and made to feel extremely welcome with all our comforts taken care of. There’s a lot one can learn from people here. I would love to go back again someday just for a taste of Punjabi hospitality.

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