Tilak Rishi's weblog

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Tilak Rishi, born in India, has been working as a career corporate executive, after doing his MBA. Passionately pursuing his hobby for writing, he also remained a regular contributor to newspapers in India and the U.S. Many true happenings and characters he came across in life, including interaction with former president Bill Clinton, inspired Paradise Lost and Found, his first novel. A family saga, it starts from Kashmir, when this paradise on earth is lost for the tourists who thronged in thousands every year to enjoy its scenic splendor. Terrorists have turned it into one of the most dangerous places in the world. The family is not only a witness to the loss of this paradise, but also to another tragedy of much bigger magnitude. In the aftermath of the partition of India, along with millions uprooted from their homes in Pakistan, the family leaves behind all that it has in Lahore. Starting from a scratch on the difficult path to progress, it still has many joyful moments when along the way it makes a difference in many a life. The survival-to-success story climaxes in California where the family finds the paradise that was lost in Kashmir.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Cheers For Uncle Sam!

1. Home away from home!

The thing that moved us instantly on moving to USA was the pleasantness of its people. On our walks or at the work, on the street or in stores, we experienced it everywhere, every day. Friendship and hospitality are traits that can be readily found all across this land. The day starts with almost every one, who passes us on the pavement or the park, greeting us, some even stopping to talk to us. Once on our morning walk on the beach, we were pleasantly surprised when a person approached us to bless the chip that he was holding in his hand. He was participating in the lottery for permission to operate the weekend kiosk on the beach and believed that Indians were spiritually very powerful and he would surely win if we blessed him . He soon returned to thank us; he had won kiosk for the weekend. Very simple, sincere and warm people. They are a nation of immigrants. Their parents, grandparents or forefathers came from many nations. This makes them specially compassionate, caring and hospitable to foreign guests. Ask for assistance in finding some destination, the stern visage of the Americans melts instantly as their concern and compassion takes over. Once traveling in the city bus I requested the driver to announce when he approached a particular stop as I was new to the area. The driver not only remembered to announce the stop but also stopped the bus for a while to give me detailed directions to walk to my destination. At the workplace too, the atmosphere was absolutely tension-free that made life easy and enjoyable at work. I was astonished when my boss, the Regional Manager, asked me if I wanted coffee when she was going out to bring for herself (no peons for the job here!). No wonder, multitude of people kept coming from different countries, and felt at home here amidst the friendliest people on the planet.

2. “Pahle aap, pehle aap”!

The second thing that attracted our attention was America's national love affair with cars that has been going strong for over 100 years; nearly as long as there have been cars at all. In the last sixty years, they have built such a great network of roads and service stations and restaurants that whenever you feel like it, you can get into your car and drive and drive and drive and ... Anything they want to do, anywhere they want to go, they have to get into the car. Their life seems regulated by stripes marking the parking places. Every adult seemed to own a car, some more than one. Most youngsters get a car as present from parents on completing 16 years, the prescribed age for procuring a driving license. There are 220m cars in a country of 290m people. America's obsession with the car goes so deep it is reflected in virtually every facet of socio-economic life. Back home in India car was a barometer of a man's richness, whereas in the U.S. we were surprised to see even the lowest on the economic ladder commuting in their cars. The newspaperman delivered the paper while driving, the mailman came with the mail in his official van, and the part-time gardner got out of his truck that carried all his garden tools and so did the weekly domestic help to do the cleaning job. The most amazing, also the most amusing sight was a procession of the homeless demanding subsidized homes, most of them in their cars with bold stickers or banners - “How long can we live in our cars?” The most cheering aspect of all their love for cars is that they never ever fail to respect the pedestrians' right to cross first. At times when persons like us, who are not used to such a right back home, want to wait and let the car cross first, inadvertently recreate the proverbial “Pehle aap, pehle aap” scene of the Lucknow railway station, as the driver would keep signaling to the pedestrian to cross first.

3. Age before beauty!

The third and most heartening thing for us was to see the respect for senior citizens that we experienced in every walk of life. The first time it attracted our attention when we went to watch a movie with our son and daughter-in-law. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we were charged half the price for our tickets of what our son and his wife paid. Senior citizens are given many advantages in American communities and by the American market. These include significant discounts on anything from travel to movies to bus-fare to consumer goods. Some establishments give out senior citizens cards which allow discounts all the time. Many stores, hotels, restaurants, theaters and other establishments do give senior citizen discounts, but do not advertise or publicize them widely. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), open to anyone over 50, offers its members a wide variety of discounts on travel, auto rental, insurance, and anything else sold in the United States. Community help for senior citizens can range from help preparing tax returns to free hot meals for the homebound. Many communities have "Senior Citizen Center" that allows for socializing, entertainment, job search and other kinds of assistance. To top all the above advantages, the U.S. workers become eligible at the age of 65 years to retire with full social security benefits and all citizens at this age are eligible for supplemental social income and free medical insurance under Medicare. In their everyday life too, people show great respect to seniors and put them ahead of themselves. An interesting example was when at a function I tried to let my boss go ahead of me at the entrance, but she insisted I go first - “age before beauty!” - she said in her own inimical style.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Burlingame - The City With A Precious Pin-code

I owe this blog on the beautiful City of Burlingame entirely to my daughter-in-law, who sent me this e-mail:

“... It occurs to me that your omissions in blogging on City Round Up are indicative of your relative fondness for the place, e.g., even though you lived in Burlingame for a while, you've not blogged about it – is that you don't find it redeeming enough to write about? Or it's just not worth your while? Or its not as close to your heart as other places? Or it had a transitory sense about it? Something surely....”

I can understand her curiosity and questioning on my omission to blog on Burlingame, because she knows for certain that if there is one city in the U.S. that is nearest to my heart, it has to be Burlingame. This is the first city in USA where we, my wife and I, settled down independently; where I experienced my first service in the States; where I wrote my first book published in USA and where my wife took to watercolor painting and got instant recognition from the local gallery. Indeed, Burlingame has a very sentimental bonding for me which will be there for ever, wherever I may move to. I intentionally wanted to take it last for blogging, because no other city than Burlingame could be the ultimate goal in my blogging of the City Round Ups.

Burlingame, known as the 'City of Trees' due to the number of trees within the city (18,000 public trees), is named after diplomat Anson Burlingame, who purchased approximately 1,000 acres in what is currently Hillsborough & Burlingame. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, Burlingame had a population of 28,158.The median income for a household in the city was $68,526. It is renowned for many surviving examples of Victorian architecture and its high residential quality of life. Burlingame was settled by wealthy San Franciscans looking for a better climate for their second homes, but industrial growth was spurred in the 1960s and 1970s by proximity to the San Francisco International Airport, generating airline support services. With nine major hotels, including Marriott, Hyatt Regency, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Crown Plaza and Embassy Suites, located along its eastern border with the bay and San Francisco International Airport just a few miles to the north, Burlingame is a popular destination for visitors. The city offers quiet stretches to walk amid wetlands dotted with egrets, pelicans and great blue herons, as well as bustling streets lined with stores featuring the latest fashions, designer home furnishings, handcrafted gifts and first-class restaurants.

“Libraries are the litmus test for the cultural temperature of a city's worth” - if it is true then Burlingame has it the best I've ever seen. Gorgeous Spanish architecture lovingly restored to original perfection. I just cannot recommend this library enough, this spectacular example of a civic organization done well! A+. The architecture has won awards and was featured in Library Journal as well as earning a cover story in American Libraries. I am especially attached to the library because it was here, working for hours daily on its computers, I wrote my first novel, and it was here one morning, when I was overjoyed as never before, to receive the most precious email ever : “I am happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give “Paradise Lost and Found” the chance it deserves. ....Welcome to PublishAmerica and congratulations on what promises to be an exciting time ahead. - Alexandra Windsong, Acquisitions Department.”

Burlingame Avenue is one of the most bustling streets any city can boast of. Browsers, shoppers and lovers of gourmet food travel from far and nearby cities to enjoy its tourist-city feel. When the visitors are done with their shopping at the high-end stores like Banana Republic, Gap, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn etc., or have enjoyed the cuisine of their craving at any of the wide variety of restaurants and bakeries such as Straits, Crepevine, Thai Satay, Roti Indian Bistro, Sapore Italian, Maxicana, The Mediterranean, Hola, Panda, Sushi Bar, Copenhagen Bakery and many more, they relax and enjoy the street scene sitting on the benches placed under the shady trees along the sidewalks. Burlingame Avenue has a special appeal for me. It was here I joined the management team of a reputed retail store and had my first exposure to the working environment in America. A thrilling experience indeed.

Farmers' Market on Sundays during summer months is another great attraction near Burlingame Avenue. Really cool stuff here. Veggies, fruits, breads, cheese and lots of fresh cut flowers. The busiest vendor family from Fresno not only carries Indian vegetables that are rarely found in super markets, but also gives green chillies as bonus, like in India but more generously. The most amazing find at the market is a Sikh vendor selling fresh samosas, parathas, naans etc., as well as chatneys and sauces. All the items are brand-named Sukhi, on his wife's name!

An interesting aspect of Burlingame life is living in close proximity to its rich neighbor, Hillsborough. Thanks to some weird zonal law, the City of Hillsborough, in spite of having the biggest purchasing power any city can boast of, has no place in the city to spend a single penny. The 'Zoning Law' that the city follows, forbids any kind of commercial activity within the city limits. Thus the city has no stores, no restaurants, not even essential services such as banks or a post office. For their everyday needs, the citizens of Hillsborough have to go across the road to Burlingame, thereby boosting its economy, and status of its citizens, for some at least. Our next door neighbor let go a great opportunity in another city, primarily because he did not want to lose the Burlingame pin-code CA 94010 - “You know it is also the pin- code of Hillsborough, the most expensive and prestigious place to live!” - he explains proudly.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yuba City - A Mini Punjab In California

Taking us for a long drive on weekends was something that our son usually did, but what was unusual this time was that he did not disclose the destination, before or during the drive. Our best guess on passing through Sacramento was that he must be heading towards Lake Tao, his most favorite holiday destination, second only to Solvang. But no, from here he took a different route – exit towards Redding on CA-99. After driving up for 40 minutes on this scenic route, flanked on either side by peach trees, we reached a bustling town. Our son was all smiles, when he announced that we were in Yuba City, the town he wanted to show us. The smile, we later realized, was on his success in giving us a great surprise.

Indeed, we had the most pleasant surprise driving around in Yuba City. It looked like out of the U.S. city, where a throaty Sat Sri Akal is the preferred form of greeting; where you can speak Punjabi and not be the odd man out at the local gas station, at the doctor's clinic, even at the stores. We came across people strolling around nonchalantly in Punjabi suits, and some of the nameplates, believe it or not, in Punjabi. As you talk to people - you are told Punjabi is taught in the high schools; that there are three gurudwaras, including one of the largest in the world; that every Friday, for an hour beginning 8 pm, the residents huddle around their TV to watch their favorite program, Apna Punjab.

The story of the Asian Indian community in Yuba City begins at the turn of the 20th century, when early immigrants from the Punjab province in erstwhile British India came down here. Male immigrants then faced a peculiar problem - the existing laws prohibited them from bringing their wives or marrying whites. They consequently entered into nuptial ties with co-workers, mostly Mexican women, who were taken as browns like the Asian Indians. To them were born the little-heard-of Punjabi-Mexicans. The Mexican women became Indian women. They learnt Punjabi cooking and made rotis and curry, adding a tinge of Mexican flavour to it. They mixed tomato sauce and made Spanish rice to go with the curry. Immigrants from Punjab arrived in droves in the Fifties, after immigration laws were relaxed post WW II, gradually changing the demography of the area. More important, they were also allowed to bring their Punjabi wives, consequently spawning a culture in which the Punjabi element dominated the hybrid variety of the earlier generation.

The Sikhs of Yuba City form the biggest farming community in California. Gurnam Pamma left his family farm in Punjab and boarded a plane with $8 his father gave him. It was 1971 and he was headed toward Sutter County to toil the farmland for $1.35 an hour. Today Pamma is 57, owns 1400 acres of farmland and wont stop toiling. Didar Singh Bains, called the Peach King of California, came from Nangal, Punjab in 1958 to work as farm laborer at 70 cents an hour. He bought his first farm in 1962 and grew apples. Bains Farms is now one of the biggest growers of prunes, walnuts, almonds, grapes and wine-grapes. The story of Pamma or Bains isn't an isolated anecdote in Sutter and Yuba Counties, where Asian Indian immigrants from Punjab have built family orchards with a little bit of money, but a lot of hard work. Today many of them own palatial houses in Yuba City and drive flashy German cars.

In 1969, Sikhs in Yuba City constructed one of the world's biggest gurdwaras, to commemorate 500 Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak. To celebrate the anniversary of the first installation of Guru Granth Sahib Ji, there is a huge celebration on the first Sunday of every November. The annual parade draws 40,000 to 50,000 from all parts of western USA. It is the largest gathering of Punjabis outside of India. Another big festival is held on the last Sunday of May. This Punjabi American fiesta is a much-awaited event and attended by people not only from the Yuba- Sutter area but also from neighboring states and Canada.

After praying at the gurdwara, we stopped for lunch at the Taste of India restaurant, known for excellent Punjabi cuisine. We came to know that other Indian restaurants, Jimmy's Restaurant, Lovely Sweet and Chat House, Star of India Cuisine and Taj Mahal are equally popular for their great food. Thanks to the guidance of the restaurant owner, we were ready to explore the places of interest in and around Yuba City.

Known as the Gateway to the Gold Fields, Yuba-Sutter offers a rare mlx of Gold-rush era communities and the historic downtown shopping opportunities. The lakes, rivers and mountains stimulate your senses and satisfy your camping, boating and fishing needs. Outdoor and cultural activities abound year round in the Marysville/Yuba City area. The area is also called “Feather River Valley, named for the river that divides Yuba City from its neighbor Marysville. To enjoy the entire area and all the recreations offered therein, we needed a longer vacation. Still, we were more than happy to have seen Pluma Street, the heart of downtown Yuba City, Yuba Sutter Mall, downtown Marysville, Ellis Lake and Bicentennial Living Witness Tree on Highway 99, a valley oak that has been identified as being over 200 years old, standing at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

It was time to wind up our day long trip to Yuba City, but we could not bid goodbye to it without wowing to come back to fully enjoy the flavor of Punjab in the rest of the Yuba-Sutter region. Until then, we are contented to cherish the cultural charm of Yuba City, the Mini Punjab in California.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Solvang - A Taste Of Denmark In California

Solvang – A Taste Of Denmark In California

There is one and only one town that we have visited many times and may visit many more times. This was the first town our son took us to for a sightseeing trip when we moved to the US to join him after our retirement in the nineties, and since then he must have taken us there to enjoy most of his extended weekend holidays. His wife is as much in love with the town as he is, and now we too are addicted to Solvang.

Nestled in the heart of Central California's wine country, Solvang is a small Danish-style town full of charm, culture, wine and, of course, pastries. The town garnered international attention and acclaim from the hit-movie "Sideways," and maintains its tourist allure today, thanks to its many windmills, window shops, bakeries and wineries. In a state as bustling as California, Solvang offers a great escape for a quiet, intimate weekend for two or a culture-filled family excursion.

Situated about 300 miles South from San Francisco on U.S. 101 – Highway, a Mecca for the “Dansk-Amerikaners,” the village is also proving a very popular weekend resort for anyone wishing to spend a weekend or a vacation in leisurely walks in the scenic streets of Solvang – the Sunny Valley - , enjoying its colorful mosaic architecture and the ethnic food of Denmark, including the delicious Smorgasbord dinner and the Danish pancakes and pastries. So, “Velkommen til Solvang” - welcome to Solvang. There is no dearth of decent accommodation in Solvang which has a large number of lavishly designed and furnished inns, many with hot pools and spas, at a reasonable price.

Solvang was founded in 1911 on 9,000 acres (36 km²) of formerly Spanish land by a group of Danish educators. The settlers of this city left for the west to escape midwestern winters. The city is home to some bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark in California. The architecture of many of the buildings follows traditional Danish style. There is a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen, as well as one featuring the bust of famed Danish fable writer Hans Christian Andersen. A replica of the Copenhagen observatory, Rundetårn, in the city centre.Storks peek down from thatch, copper and tile roofs; while delightful shops offer imported European wares: porcelain, collectibles, wrought iron and every form of handicraft. The aroma of chocolate, bakeries, coffee and beer flavor the quaint streets. Solvang offers a Shopping Showcase of unusual, quality imports and collectibles from 200+ merchants.

Food lovers really appreciate Solvang. They adore the Danish pastries, cookies and breads prepared in town's bakeries, and they relish the frikadeller (meat balls), medisterpolse (sausages) and rodkaal (red cabbage) served in many restaurants. No visit is complete without tasting aebleskiver, the jam-draped, powdered sugar-dusted Danish pancake balls. But visitors also can choose from a wide variety of restaurants preparing traditional American and ethnic cuisine.

The Santa Ynez Valley produces some of the finest premium wines in the world. The Santa Barbara County wine industry has more than doubled in size since 1996. There are currently over 18,000 acres of grapevines and over 60 wineries. The Santa Ynez Valley is known especially for its outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also produces fine Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and many other varietals.

Solvang has several world class golf courses to choose from while staying in the Santa Ynez Valley. Alisal River Course has 4 lakes which grace its beautiful terain. La Purisma was the site for the LPGA qualifying round. Zaca Creek Golf Course offers a challenging 9-hole, par 29 layout with a nice view of the Santa Ynez River and the hills.Come experience this spectacular new 18-hole, 7,000-yard Rancho San Marcos Golf Course.

This is how we spend our weekends in Solvang, and never ever regret repeating it over and over again on every visit:

Eat breakfast at Paula's Pancake House. Experience a little of the Dutch culture Solvang was built upon, try one of the local dishes, such as the Danish pancakes.

Visit the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art that shows off the Danish heritage with old photographs, period costumes, and arts and crafts. Continue our museum and local heritage tour with a visit to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, which honors the Danish author who was famous for such fairy-tales as "Thumbelina," "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling."

Eat lunch at one of the local cafes or restaurants. If we want something that highlights the Danish culture through food, eat at Bit O' Denmark, the Danish Mill Bakery, the Little Mermaid, Olsen's Danish Village Bakery or the Red Viking Restaurant.

Visit the Old Mission Santa Ines just outside downtown Solvang. Check out the old artwork and artifacts from the mission's past, take in the architecture and walk into the mission's church.

Engage in some wine tasting at the many, many wineries Solvang has to offer. Some of the most popular wineries include Lucas & Lewellen, Mandolina, Presidio Vineyard & Winery, Royal Oaks Winery and Tastes of the Valleys.

Take any souvenir wine glasses to add to what we have already collected along our testing excursions. There are many shops that are unique to Dutch country where we pick up miniature windmills or porcelain Dutch figurines. The bakeries are also a great place for souvenirs because many stock freshly made sheepherder's bread and pastries.

Sit down to a nice dinner and/or wine pairing at 5 Bistro and Wine Bar, BACCHUS Restaurant at the Storybook Inn or the Cabernet Bistro & Wine Lounge.

Drive up Highway 246 for a few miles to try our hand at some gambling at the Chumash Casino Resort, an Indian casino that belongs to the Chumash tribe.

If all this is not enough of enjoyment for our mini vacation, that's a motivation to return for another joyful routine, may be on the next holiday weekend.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Srinagar (Kashmir) - the paradise lost and found

Srinagar has always remained my most favorite destination for spending holidays, ever since my school days in Lahore. This was the city that my uncle, father's favorite younger brother, had selected to set up a sports goods factory, and had extended us an open invitation to spend our summer vacations with him every year. The Bund, where uncle lived, was an expensive and exclusive residential area on the river front. River Jhelum that flows in front of the houses is so calm, as if making a deliberate effort not to disturb the peace of the neighborhood, who must have paid so dearly to live along its beautiful bank. The scenic splendor of Jhelum is as joyful during the day, as it is at night. Shikaras, with their colorful canopies and expensive interiors, provide luxurious ride to tourists and the locals on the river and the Dal Lake. Hundreds of lanterns hanging on the shikaras at night look like another body of stars with blue waters of the river as their horizon. Most tourists prefer to stay in ornately decorated houseboats anchored in the river. Waterway vendors in their shikaras, bring to the doorsteps of the houseboats, Kashmir's finest crafts and choicest fruits. Much of Srinagar life seems to be on the river that flowed through the city, dividing it into the old and the new inhabitation, connected by boats and the seven bridges on the river.

Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, is also the crowning glory of Kashmir Valley. The Valley has been celebrated since ancient times for its magnificent setting in the Himalayan Mountains. The snow-covered peaks overlook the lovely lakes, their surfaces spangled with the exotic blooms of lotuses and water lilies. There are several small towns and tourist resorts near Srinagar, like Pehalgam and Gulmarg, that attract thousands of tourists every year for vacationing. They find the feeling of tranquility that pervades the romantic places nested between the towering Himalayan summits. Tourists are the backbone of Srinagar and the surrounding towns. Apart from being tourist attractions, these places are the outlets for purchase of Kashmir's crafts, especially shawls and carpets, which are admired all over the world. Amirakadal, Srinagar's main market street, is seen bustling with big crowd of shoppers during the season, most of them tourists from abroad and other parts of the country. The shopkeepers at Amirakadal are super smart salesmen and sell their stuff to tourists at exorbitant prices. Foreign tourists especially are often tipped by the guides at the hotels they stay, not to pay more than half the asking price for the items they would want to purchase. In winter they work indoor, creating their crafts, with 'kangri' – the earthen pot containing burning charcoal – in front to warm themselves, and samovar on their side to sip cups of freshly brewing tea. The 'hukka' – their favorite smoke – keeps passing around for enjoyable puffs, as they are engrossed in weaving and knitting for the next season.

Srinagar's biggest tourist attraction is the sightseeing trip to the famous Mogul Gardens – Nishat, Naseem and Shalimar – built by the Mogul Emperors three centuries ago as their summer resort. Beautifully decorated and luxuriously furnished shikaras are hired for the day long trip to the gardens through gorgeous Dal Lake. On the way to gardens, a break in the journey for lunch is a must at the mystical Chashma Shahi, the royal spring, the name given to the crystal spring by Emperor Shahjehan, who created this oasis around the spring. It impresses the visitors as the ultimate sanctuary, making it the most popular picnic spot near Srinagar. There is a magical quality in the spring water: whatever and how much you may eat, you will digest it instantly after drinking the spring water. After a couple of hours ride from Chashma Shahi on the Dal lake, enjoying the most magnificent views of the snow-peaked mountains and the waterfalls emerging out of them, you reach the royal Mogul Gardens. Built hundreds of years ago, the gardens have maintained their grandeur and glory under different dynasties that ruled Kashmir. Filled with flowers, terraced waterfalls, fountains, and great shade trees, chenars (sycamores) and evergreens, these are amongst the world's best preserved gardens. Another great place of tourist interest in Srinagar is Shankaracharya Temple on top of a hill. It is a hard climb but once you reach the top, the panoramic view of the city and heavenly peace at the temple fascinate you.

The breath taking view of the Valley made a Mogul Emperor exclaim in awe, “If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here!” Unfortunately, this paradise has been twice on the verge of being lost for the tourists, who throng in thousands every year to enjoy its scenic splendor. First time when the tribals aided by Pakistan army invaded Kashmir, shortly after India attained independence in 1947. I can never forget being an eye witness to the brave and proud saga of Srinagar. The ordinary citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs, bound together to build a human barrier that kept the invaders at bay till the Indian forces arrived to chase them away. The second time, when in early nineties the terrorists from across the border intruded into Kashmir and turned this paradise into one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit, even to live for an important section of its own citizens, Kashmiri Pandits. Thanks to succeeding secular governments in Kashmir and steps taken by the central government, terrorists are on the run and the tourists have once again found their lost paradise back. Srinagar is again full of life with thousands of tourists traveling to this awesome city in the season. It is my greatest wish and hope that Kashmiri Pandits, the colorful community, will also find their lost paradise and return from Jammu, where they have taken refuge, to live safely and happily in their homeland, Srinagar.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Alwar - where mosquitoes take over from monarchy

It was in the late seventies, when I preferred the option of accepting a challenging job to manage the most modern foundry that was coming up in Alwar, Rajasthan, to being transferred from New Delhi to Bombay in my job of 20 years with a reputed company. Although only 100 miles from New Delhi, due to bad condition of the road, it was beyond daily commuting. I would spend weekends with my family in New Delhi and return to Alwar on Monday mornings, to manage the factory located in the newly developed industrial area, 10 miles from the city.

Alwar, I soon found , was too sleepy to have any life. A grand historic city of the times of Maharajas, its grandeur and glory were all gone. The majestic palace built in marble was turned into the Collector's office, over looking the over crowded district courts within its compound walls. The great fort on the hilltop, visible for miles around the city, was perhaps the most neglected of all the places that must have been once the pride of Alwar and its rulers. As for the city itself, the citizens regarded heaps of garbage and choked open drains with dirty stagnant water along the houses, as a way of life. They did not seem to care that they were living in perpetual danger of being afflicted by the dreaded decease of Malaria. There could be no better breeding facilities for mosquitoes than found here. The mosquito menace simply made their life hell. However, they felt solace from the saying that those who have lived in Alwar are assured of definite entry into heaven after death; they have already served their term in hell while living here and atoned for whatever sins they might have committed in their life.

Clearing of drains for free flow of rain water as well as removal of city garbage was the responsibility of a contractor, who passed on the duty to stray cattle and street pigs. Mosquitoes, in the meanwhile, had the best breeding time in the stagnant dirty water of the drains all over the city. I, along with most other engineers and professionals, who had come to Alwar to work in the upcoming factories in the industrial area, though dismayed, could hardly do much to improve the sanitation in the city. I did write a 'Letter to the Editor' in the Hindustan Times, concerning conditions in Alwar, which became talk of the town, as it was for the first time that Alwar was mentioned prominently in the national press. The letter also attracted the attention of the Collector, who immediately ordered civic officials to launch cleanliness drive in the city, before his bosses in the central government gave any directions based on the letter.

Stray dogs in Alwar were another awful sight, though for me it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. One particular stray dog, whom I called Doggie, became my best friend in Alwar, because in me he found his food provider. It was a Sunday and my wife had joined me in Alwar during her summer vacations. Doggie followed us when we went for a long walk, up to the scenic lake some miles away. We had hardly covered half the distance when Doggie suddenly stopped and would not move a step further in spite of our repeated calls to come. On the contrary, he went and sat right in the middle of the busy road. Panicked for his life, we let Doggie prevail and returned from there, cutting short our walk. Next day we gave Doggie a warm hug when he came; that morning the local paper had reported that a tiger had walked out of the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary, situated near Alwar, in search of new territory and was last sighted near the lake area, where the forest guards were still searching for him. Animals are known for their sixth sense to foresee a coming calamity, Doggie had it extra strong, it seems.

All its filth and faults aside, we found Alwar the most feasible option to have our home here, when my wife retired from her job and had to surrender the accommodation in New Delhi that was provided to her as Principal of a government school. Property prices in New Delhi were prohibitive for our reach and I had already booked a house under the State Housing Scheme, during my tenure in Alwar. The biggest advantage of living in Alwar vis-a-vis New Delhi was its special small town charm. Even the best city doctor was not only available without prior appointment, but ready to attend you at your home if needed. Interestingly, our doctor even went out of the way to introduce us to some of his friends, when we hinted that we were missing our friends in Delhi and feeling a sort of bored in Alwar.

Whatever the civic disadvantages be, the life of citizens in Alwar was very safe. Not to speak of big crime, even small incidents of burglary were hardly heard of. It was unimaginable in Delhi how another small piece published in the Hindustan Times brought big awards and promotions to the cops at the police station in our area. I had only appreciated their work in solving a small burglary (my imported shoes!) , which letter attracted the attention of their big boss, the Inspecter General in Jaipur, the state capital. Soon after knowing about their reward and how it came about, the Incharge of the area police station called on us with his subordinates to thank me for writing the letter. From that day onwards, the officer arranged to specially safeguard our house with a new police post opposite our house. The police protection could not have come at a better time, as soon afterwards we moved to USA to join our son, while our house in Alwar remains well guarded.

Monday, September 01, 2008

New Delhi, the heart of India

The year was 1947. We literally landed on ground from the great heights of our lavish lifestyle in Lahore, when our plane arrived at Palam airport in New Delhi. We had to start from a scratch, after my father had lost all that he had in Lahore, including his job, in the aftermath of the partition of India. Thank God, the financial hardship of the family did not last too long; my elder brother got a good career break in a large lumber company and my father too landed into a job of his liking as editor with a local publisher. We were able to rent an independent 3-bedroom house in East Patel Nagar and I could take admission in a college under Delhi University to pursue undergraduate course, after having passed matriculation from Punjab University in Lahore. So, we were now well set to lead our normal life and ready to explore our newly adopted city, New Delhi.

New Delhi was created as a separate entity from old Delhi in early 20th century, when the British rulers decided to shift their administrative capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi. Two of England's most celebrated architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, were given the commissions to design the new buildings; The project took 20 years, and when it was finally finished, it represented their awesome architectural achievement, executed with immense skill, with no precise equivalent in our time. Many aspects of New Delhi, the stately government buildings and wide boulevards around them, Parliament House, Connaught Place, the commercial heart of the city, named after the Duke of Connaught, and especially, the Viceroy's House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), are architecturally amazing.

The capital of the world's largest democracy has a truly fascinating history. The city is littered with crumbling tombs and ruins, most of which are not even on the tourist map. In one day you can go from marveling at the sheer grace of the soaring Qutb Minar Tower, built in 1199 by the Turkish Slave King Qutb-ud-din Aibak to celebrate his victory over the Hindu Rajputs, to wander through the sculptural Jantar Mantar, a huge, open-air astronomy observatory built in 1725 by Jai Singh, creator and ruler of Jaipur, to the still-sacred atmosphere surrounding the tomb of the 14th-century Sufi saint, Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia, or the 16th-century garden tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun, precursor to the Taj. Or, after the chaos of exploring the crowded streets of 17th-century Shahjahanabad, Delhi's oldest living city, you can escape to Rajghat, the park where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated in 1948; or to Lodi Gardens, where lawns and golfing greens are studded with the crumbling 15th-century tombs of once-powerful dynasties. And still you haven't covered the half of it.

The facilities and opportunities that New Delhi has to offer have attracted Indians from far and wide corners of India, making it a melting pot of sorts. It is like the population explosion there: every day the people keep piling up, but there is always room for more the following day. This city actually grows! The presence of diplomatic and trade missions, the growing number of multi-national companies and foreign investors, and the influx of tourists and visiting professionals have given the city, a cosmopolitan air. The city boasts of being one of the greener capitals and also with the new shopping plazas opening at an unbelievable pace, the city can well turn itself into the shopping capital of the world.

As India’s economy surges, New Delhi is in the midst of a modernizing and building and construction boom, that includes new roads, new hotels, an improved transport system with expansion of Metro and dozens of flyers to relieve congestion in the city’s traffic choke-points. Adding urgency to the building boom is the countdown to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which the Indian government views much in the same way as its northern neighbor viewed the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

It was, indeed, heartbreaking to say goodbye to New Delhi, the heart of India, after spending over forty most heartwarming years of my life there – coming of age, pursuing higher studies in the prestigious Delhi University, meeting and marrying the love of my life, parenting a very loving son, and concluding a successful career in corporate sector. In 1990s we moved to the United States to join our son, settled here in Silicon Valley. We will cherish for ever the most charming memories of our life in New Delhi, and are eagerly looking forward to visit it in 2010, when the city will be at its most beautiful, ready to host the next Commonwealth Games.