Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The years like waves lapping on a beach have washed away most of the details from this leg of the journey. If I search through my mind long enough I discover vague recollections. We drove through roads which were actually not to be traveled. They were considered unsafe. The setting of the sun signaled the time to find a place to camp out. In the desert there was not much choice, we simply drove off the main road far into the sand. One morning we woke up to a man on a camel- or was it a bicycle?- somehow being on a camel would make it more 'romantic' I think- but the more I think of it- he was on a bicycle. He was pawing through our belongings. We quickly made tea- offered him some- and with some courteous sign language shoved our utensils in the car and crammed ourselves in after them. Off the wee 1958 Morris Minor trundled back to the road leading to Quetta.
As for directions, there was many a time we had no idea where we were going. At these interesting intervals, we stopped and gestured to whoever might be passing by and yelled out "Quetta? Tehran?" for we wanted to be going in this general direction. No one seemed in the least flustered by our yells, they simply pointed in the direction we needed to go.
We lost some of our belongings on the way. They weren't stolen, they were simply 'left behind' at each of our campsites. We would forget to pack them and only when we were hours away did we realize they were left behind. Of course this caused several minutes of "Its your fault" "No you were in charge of the..." type of conversations. Those didn't last long, because it becomes tiresome in a tiny car to be carrying on about things which can't be helped.
Jumbled memories now come washing up on the beaches of my mind. I fear some of them are actually from my time in Turkey, so I won't touch on those now. It is at such times I wish the journal with the details of the trip was not burnt in the fire. Ah, but it was, so now I must rely on my memory, although a poor help it is!
The night before reaching Quetta, we camped in the middle of a desert. In the middle of the night, I crept out of the tent to gaze at the stars. The desert stars sparkled, shimmered, and glistened. There were no city lights to dim their beauty. The stars looked like precious diamonds strewn across black velvet. There I stood, so small, so insignificant in comparison to the natural wonder. God knew how many stars there were and he knew the number of the hairs on my head....and He knew me!! Yet, in knowing this and being overwhelmed by this truth, I still preceded to want to control my life and make my own decisions.
The next morning we arrived in Quetta. A lovely city inhabited by friendly people. Although there was still the phenomenon of seeing mainly males walking about, they were not threatening. We checked into a travelers' hotel, and I set out to find some oranges at the nearby market. I, a lone female, walked to the market where I found a stall with lovely fruits to choose from. The stall keeper was generous and added an extra couple of fruits to my basket.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
It all is a bit fuzzy now; after all, it has been 23 years since I was there. The flight from Delhi to Islamabad was of no consequence. Actually, I was supposed to be driving across the border but due to the 'rough' relations between the two countries only one person was allowed to drive across- so I flew over to meet the car in Islamabad. The car was supposed to be there when I arrived, but there was no car. So I'm in a city I've never been in before and I have no phone number or address. Stranded in this city which although just a country away from India appeared so different. The one striking difference was the lack of females. (This would be something I would never get used to as I drove further into Pakistan).
The friendliness of the people sure did help to make my introduction to Pakistan be a positive one. A talkative taxi driver wanted to know if we were the ones waiting for the White Morris Minor. It could be a coincidence since there were so many Morris Minors around, so I pushed him to describe the driver. His description was perfect. My friend and I plunked ourselves down on the side of the road and waited. We waited and waited and waited. Soon the cheerful Morris Minor chugged up the road to where we were. Now the trip of a lifetime was to begin.
I saw a picture on another blog which brought back such memories. The picture was of a huge sign post telling the drivers how many miles there were to go to say...Islamabad...or Pershawa...etc. I just remember when we were driving those same roads there were very few signs- and we had to find out directions the hard way-- by stopping and asking with cross cultural, improvised sign language of course.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I can't remember specific names of streets or restaurants. I do remember the Carlton Hotel. The manicured lawns. The peaceful atmosphere. History is food for my soul and the Carlton fed me with delicate memories of what must have been. A palatial place fit for royalty but definitely showing signs of years of use. The hotel not only held a significance because of its past but it housed fascinating people in the present. Travelers from diverse cultures and countries found refuge in the sprawling building. When you enter the Carlton you are a stranger, but once inside you become tied to the other guests.
How does one visit Lucknow without visiting the Bara Imambara. This magnificent edifice rose up during a time of lack. A great famine spread through the land, but it was at this time the building went up. All through the years of famine there were people who secured income by working on the construction of the Imambara. It could be said this was a project of mercy. The massive building is known for its intricate tunnels and passageways. The bhulbhulaiyan is a maze which not only is exciting to explore, but also gives support to the entire building. A visitor is warned not to enter the labyrinth alone. Far too many people who entered these passageways without a proper guide were never heard of or seen again. Oh, that made me want to enter in and see what rich secrets could be found. My better judgment stopped me before I got too far down the dark hallways. Well it was either my better judgement or the fact I had no flashlight and things were pretty dark!
Lucknow cannot be bottled up in one simple post. It is a city to be tasted and savored. Lingering upon each part of the city, there are different flavors which emerge. Old and new tastes mingle together producing a full flavor.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
I was nowhere near Bhopal or Madhya Pradesh the morning the tragedy occurred. In fact, when I awoke in New Delhi the morning of December 3rd 1984, I had no idea what had transpired. There was no television in my house. I didn't turn on the radio. The sun rose as it did every day. Morning sounds filled the air, there was nothing to alert me to the horrible disaster. I sat with my cup of tea, nibbling on my bread, totally unaware of lives being snuffed out. The telephone brought me the news.
"No...No...I had not heard...what? Please tell me what...."
"NO!! It cannot be!!"
I was being chided for not knowing. "How is it you didn't know?" my friend asked.
Mother India wept the loss of her children on December 3rd 1984.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
After the 1984 riots, things settled down to a somewhat 'normal' routine. Surprisingly enough life fell into a set of manageable tasks. Rajiv Gandhi took leadership and the country limped forward. My personal life also went back to the day to day activities I was used to. One of my favorite places to visit was the Lodhi Gardens. Beautiful gardens fit for Kings or more appropriately, lovers.
How can I describe sitting on a bench facing the Sheesh Gumbad? The warm breeze lightly touching my cheek. The rustle of the wind in the trees. Closing my eyes, I can almost see mourners from the Lodhi dynasty coming to pay their last respects. Instinctively, I walk towards the building, as if trailing the imaginary path of the well wishers. When I peek into the inner parts of the mysterious structure my imagination is rudely interrupted. Other visitors clamber around inside the building reminding me this is not the 1500's but the 1980's. I'll come back another day maybe with a lover and we will explore the building together. Although time stands still in the Lodhi Gardens, it does not stand still for my life in New Delhi. I always had things to do and places to go.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Blossom, Blossom's mother and Padma
“I can’t go out and get the food; I’m too afraid! With this curfew on I am petrified of being out in the streets. I beg you, go for us.”
Blossom’s eyes implored me to be the brave one and at that moment I felt anything but brave. We had every right to be scared. Just days before, on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was gunned down by her Sikh body guards. Suddenly anyone who was a Sikh became a target.
Before the tragic incident I lived in what I considered a peaceful enclave. My neighborhood was largely inhabited by Sikhs along with a few Hindus and Muslims. This once peaceful place was now a hot spot for those who wanted to retaliate against Indira Gandhi's brutal murder. I was a 23 year old woman, thousands of miles away from my family, in a country that was not my own. No one could guarantee my safety.
Angry mobs raged for days. Rioters stormed through the streets setting houses, vehicles and people on fire. Smoke billowed in the distance. What would happen when the danger finally reached me? Who would save me? Those who I trusted: my friends, my neighbors, my landlord, they were now just as helpless as I was.
Our food ran out. My body felt weak with just the thought of having to leave the safety of the apartment. Unfortunately I knew there was no other choice.
I needed courage. Nothing I had experienced had prepared me for this. My mind grasped frantically around for some kind of emergency switch to help me get the boldness I wanted. Verses flashed through my mind assuring me that when all else changes God never changes. I was reminded that God is my very present help in time of danger. He promised countless times in the Bible that He was my fortress; He was my deliverer.
I prayed, begging God to give me courage. With heart pounding, I slipped down the stairwell. Although I prayed for courage, I still didn’t feel brave. At the bottom of the stairs, I pressed my back against the wall and peeked cautiously around the corner. Seeing no one in sight, I slipped through the alleyway, making my way to the nearby Kailash Market.
The sight of the deserted market sent shivers up and down my spine. The vacant stalls taunted me. Whether rain or shine the market place was always teaming with life. The empty space in front of me was just another reminder that there was nothing I could count on anymore.
“God, please, do something. Help me.”
My head jerked around to see a door open.
“PSSSssss, come here, we have rice to sell.”
I purchased the necessary food and dashed home. In the safety of the apartment my teeth chattered uncontrollably and my body shook violently. Blossom guided me to the bed. I lay there listening to the distant roar of the mob. The volume increased and my curiosity got the better of me. Slipping out onto the balcony of the third story apartment, my timing couldn’t have been worse.
A gang of rioters were tying two men to a tree. The men fought for their lives but they were no match against this blood thirsty crowd. Weren’t these the people that I mingled with everyday? Weren’t these good people? It didn’t make sense that these people were filled with such hatred.
Looking down at them, my mind still grappled with the questions that bombarded it. I realized that some of the people were holding burning torches.
“What is that they are doing?” I wondered. My heart registered what was happening before my mind could comprehend the horror.
My heart raced up into my throat, gagging me, as I realized the crowd had lit the two men on fire. Their bloodcurdling screams mingled with the smoke that curled up past the balcony. I wanted to yell at the crowd, but before I had a chance to say anything Blossom jerked me into the apartment. Her hand closed tightly over my mouth as she frantically whispered in my ear, “We can’t do anything for them now! They will try and rape us if they know we are up here. Shh, be still. It will be over soon.”
I fought against her. Tears of frustration slipped down my cheeks.
“Why? Why can’t we help them?”
There were no answers. I knew Blossom was wrong and yet so right. Nothing made sense anymore.
The death cries ceased giving way to an eerie silence. Blossom and I lay quietly on the bed. Our ears were finely tuned waiting for any noise alerting us to the return of the attackers.
On the fourth day the riots stopped as abruptly as they started. The army marched through the streets. I wondered why they took so long. No one else cared where they had been, all that mattered now was they were there. Unified cheers rang out over balconies and along the roadside. Despite the cheers, I sensed an underlying insecurity. The same insecurity I battled with over the preceding days. Now I was forced to choose either to cling to the insecurity or to cast it aside. What could I look to for security? Myself? I had discovered I was weak and full of fear. Would I trust those around me? I could not, especially after seeing how they could change at the drop of a hat. Would I trust in the military or machinery? I had no assurance their actions were done to uphold my best interests.
On November 4th 1984, I came to the conclusion my security had to be in God.
"What happened?"I asked as I retrieved the scattered papers.
The driver frowned as he surveyed the rowdy crowd. His Hindi flowed as he questioned those who stood nearby. My limited Hindi kept me in further suspense.
"What is it?"
"Oh, you will have to walk now."
"No road, you have to go now."
"What is going on?"
"Please Miss, please get down."
No explanation was given. I was told to get out of the auto rickshaw nearby the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The crowd seemed angry, but then many crowds I walked through in India seemed angry. All I wanted to do was get to the other side of the gathering and find another auto rickshaw to take me home. Letters firmly in hand, I made my way through a sea of people. Some were crying, others were yelling, and others were arguing but I couldn't understand why. After what seemed like an eternity I made it to the other side and got into a new auto rickshaw.
"Do you know what is happening?"
The driver almost crashed into the sign post. He turned his head and stared at me as though I was from Mars.
"You do not know?"
"If I knew, would I ask?"
"Indira Gandhi was shot by her body guards today."
"WHAT? No, this must be a mistake!! Is she dead?"
"They say she isn't."
It wasn't until later that evening they finally announced she was dead. Her body held 31 bullets. Each bullet coming from guns her bodyguards held. The ones who were supposed to protect her turned against her like they were actors in a Greek tragedy or Roman drama. Someone forgot to tell them this was real life and the consequences of their actions would be far reaching.
October 31, 1984 the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated.