A few good men..

Travelling has been my weakness. I love to travel a lot. Traveling by train or by vehicle satiates my hunger more than by air, as there is very little to explore during air travels. I am able to keep alive in me that enthusiastic child, who craves for that window seat. Even while traveling with a group of friends i look aloof as i keep myself busy enjoying the fast changing moving world outside the window of that train, bus or car. The world outside keeps on changing every inch the vehicle moves, one, if he or she has that fervor can enjoy the changing nature, observe keenly the changing landscapes and along with it the changing culture, the way the people dress, their houses, their farms, the trees, the animals, the roadside hoardings, the name boards, the number plates and the signages. Everything keeps on changing. Only the observer must be there to observe the changes that take place.

I made few friends and when friendship grew we went to explore places outside the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. One such trip we organized was long back to Punjab. Everything was precisely planned and we traveled by train. The Golden Temple Express to be specific. The train traverses through the heart of India and crosses atleast five to six states to reach its destination. However, I enjoyed every bit of it. The train chugged into Amritsar station at around 9 am the third morning. We were all tired by this long travel of about 33 hours. Those were days of rashness and the group was youthful too. We had not made any arrangements for stay or had planned our trip. Just as we reached outside the station we met a young guy who inquired if we needed a vehicle to travel. Indeed, we required one. I replied in affirmative on which he asked how many people were there in all. I said five. He said he owns a nine-seater autorickshaw and could arrange for a hotel for us to freshen up. I discussed with my team and we were quite happy with his proposal. It was a good idea to explore Punjab in an open vehicle we said. Throughout the day this young lad whose name was Niraj was with us. It was lunch time, he took us to a Dhaba and stood outside to have some food for himself. We invited him to join us, but, he was hesitant. We forced him to join us and we all ate together. This simple friendly act of ours moved the driver so much, he said that we were first such travelers who cared for the driver and the guy became, even more, friendlier and helped us out and ensured that we had a good day in Punjab. His duty had ended at 9 pm in the night, we checked into the hotel, but, he said that he would come back with his autorickshaw to drop us to the bus depot from where we were scheduled to pick the bus to Katra in Jammu. This was not in the initial plan. One friendly gesture on our part had turned the magic and the guy remained in touch with us even today. After that trip, we went to Punjab twice more and every time we ensured that we meet. The guy today is our friend and a person to rely upon when we reach in Punjab.

One such driving genius we found was on our Leh Tour some two years ago. His name was Ashique, he was from Jammu. A smart young guy, lean and mean and was very quirky and had a very good sense of humor to add to it. To our surprise, he was quite addicted to smartphones and chatted quite a bit on WhatsApp. We all befriended him and he shared quite a few anecdotes with him. When you befriend a driver on long tours, it guarantees that your tours are no more boring. The driver will tell you many a tales, some real, some imaginary some fascinating, some scary. For eg. When we were just ascending that mighty Zojilla pass (one can realize the gravity of it if he or she has travelled it at least once), the driver Manoj, casually said, the last time I came through this pass was two months ago, and I had carried a coffin with a dead body on the top of my vehicle. Imagine, you are crossing one of the most treacherous roads of the world and the man scares you telling that you are traveling by a somewhat haunted vehicle.

This driver Ashique took us to Leh all the way from Jammu. The ride was quite comfortable, he seemed to be an experienced hand on that road. The test of character of a person comes only during testing times. This guy was very rudely tested, in fact, we were tested. It so happened that, the road from Kargil to Srinagar was kept open for one-way traffic for specific hours of the day. The locals informed us that the vehicular traffic would halt for descend at 7 am in the morning. Due to the causal approach of one of our colleague, we missed the deadline and we lost one precious day in the forests on the outskirts of Kargil. The vehicular traffic was to move only at 7 in the evening, which meant that we had lost 12 precious hours of travel. Again, we were informed that the vehicles would be stopped at Drass and would be allowed to descend Zojilla pass only after 3 in the morning. It was the huge loss of time, we had to catch the train at Jammu, the next evening at 7 pm. The driver had to start his vehicle in the dead of the night at 3 am and cross Drass, Zojilla Pass, the Sonmarg, Srinagar and reach Jammu before 6 pm. This gentleman drove the vehicle at 3 am in the morning, took a half an hour break in the morning on the outskirts of Sonamarg for breakfast, he did not eat much, saying that he would fall asleep if he ate too much. He promised us that he would take us to Jammu by 6. And he did just that. It was not his fault that we lost some 15 hours, any other driver could have given an excuse, some crooked ones might have deliberately ensured that we reached late, so that we could book him further up to Delhi. But, this man ensured that we reach in time.

What special did we do, with Niraj, Sonu, Manoj, Ashique or Gurwinder our Driver on our recent trip to Delhi? We just befriended them, we were humane with them, it was not a contractual relationship between a driver and tourists, we made them part of our group and they loved that.

There were many such good souls that we encountered in our long journey, the sporting and bubbly Sonu driver who accompanied us from Katra to Manali to Ferozpur. Manoj who was with us from Katra to Leh to Srinagar on our next trip or Gurwinder Singh, were all good people. I firmly believe that if you are good, the supreme power ensures that you meet with equally good people. Looking back now after ten years of travel I sometimes wonder whether our trips would have been so memorable had we not met with these good people. Our simple act of humanity moved their hearts, be the sharing of food with Niraj or sharing our hotel rooms with Manoj or Gurwinder. These drivers felt that we were a class above them and showed kindness which they rarely encountered. We, humans, are good in making compartments on basis of gender, caste, creed, religion, economic activity while inertly we all are the same creations of God. I have not seen any other species apart from human beings having this habit of compartmentalization. When we connect with others on that natural plane of humanity it touches hearts and then the connection is firm and forever. No wonder that Niraj never forgets to call us and inquire about us even today, No wonder Ashique and Gurwinder WhatsApp us almost everyday. We have made quite a good friends, isn’t it ?

Monumental Mistake…

There is a mad rush of two kinds, it seems, one is to rename the places and other is to build huge monuments. The places are being renamed in such a haste that one will certainly be confused for a while. A new station almost popped out of nowhere between Jogeshwari and Goregaon, it was named Ram Mandir. Elphinstone road station is being renamed as Prabhadevi, a proposal is under consideration to renaming Dadar as Chaityabhoomi and many such proposals are in the air. All for narrow political gains and to score those precious brownie points with their respective vote banks.  Monuments are also being created with equal pace. A huge statue of Sardar Patel is coming up in Gujarat. A monument for the great Maratha warrior King Shivaji Maharaj, at least the foundation stone of which has been laid in the Arabian Sea.

I have been a self-proclaimed follower of Shivaji Maharaj since my early childhood days. We, as kids grew up listening to his stories of valor. Over the years, I have read as much literature as possible on the great king, have never missed an opportunity to visit a fort during my tours. Even in the last trip to Jaigad for some other work, I made it a point to visit the Jaigad fort. The conditions of these forts make me angry, very very angry. In my earlier blog post on Lohgad fort penned in 2010 (read here), i had raised the condition of the fort and the ensuing loot that was going on there. In my social life, working with an NGO we had written to the Cultural Ministry about the apathy shown towards the upkeep of these monuments. No reply was ever received, for obvious reasons. No one cares.

The Jaigad fort, which I recently visited too is a nice little fort, just 14 kms away from the famous temple town of Ganapatipule. The fort is in its worst condition, the walls are cracking up, there are no signs of upkeep. One banner of “swaccha bharat abhiyan” was hanging at the entrance which contradicted the condition of the fort. There was an office of Archeological Survey of India, but, it looked deserted. Considering the fact that the fort was just 14 kms away from Ganapatipule, one would assume that there would be rush here, but, the fort looked desolate, with two or three groups. The fort is adorned with a creek and is the meeting point of Shashti river. It gives a very beautiful scenic view. The fort would have had its deserved part of glory, had it been maintained properly.

This condition prevails in just all the forts in Maharashtra. Shivaji Maharaj built forts, more than 350 of them, at very strategic places. But, alas, we failed to keep these marvelous pieces of history alive. The restoration work that is seen in some forts, Shivneri, for example, seems to be out of sync, it does not match the original aesthetics or color combination and looks too much cosmetic. Even the tourists who visit these forts have a large chunk of blame to accept, as they come at these historical places to enjoy their holidays and weekends. The walls of these forts are scribbled with all and sundry names. Forts are not understood, very few care to taken assistance of guides, if they are available, or any reference material to study the fort or its importance. At Raigad fort, we found that the very seat where Shivaji Maharaj was coronated, youths climbed up with shoes and chappals to take group photos and selfies. How insulting is that?

Contrast this with the upcoming huge monument costing Rs.3600 crores. From the video which is circulating in the social media (if it is to be believed), the monument would be magnanimous. I do not oppose a monument, per se, for this great king. In fact, i strongly believe that we as Indians have failed to take this noble king to the world. A king who ranked second to none. However, would it not be have been proper, if we would have shown that much care for the original monuments that are lying without care. If, we really loved and adored this great king, we would not have left these forts in the condition that they are right now. It looks hypocritical, short visioned plan, to build a huge monument, when the originals are left to fend for themselves.

Forts are a great treasure of past. If they are properly developed, proper infrastructure is created, awareness is created, it can become living source of inspiration to coming generation. It will also assist the locals around the fort in generating some revenue through tourism. We are blessed to have so many forts, including sea forts, but, for our apathy.

Late Shri Ninadji Bedekar, renowned historian used to tell a story about his trip to Great Britain. He inquired with the locals why they did not have a monument for their great Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The reply he received was Churchill rests in our heart, we do not need a monument.  It seems, we failed to keep Shivaji Maharaj in our hearts, atleast the political breed, for they are not as visionary as their King was.