Sunday, 17 January 2010

A wish for peace

Can India and Pakistan ever see eye to eye, can they live together peacefully and flourish side be side or can they be good neighbours at all? To be very frank, it’s hoping for too much in present circumstances when both countries are at loggerheads and suspicious of each other’s motives.

Three wars have been fought. Thousands of lives have been lost. Much blood has been shed in six decades. Tensions have prevailed through the years. Bilateral ties have been restored on surface level and snapped again.

The gap between the two ‘arch rivals’ continue to widen which otherwise would have economically benefited each other immensely by exchange of goods and services.

Yes, there are differences, serious ones. There are problems of blames and counter blames. For Pakistan, Kashmir is the bone of contention and for India, Pakistan’s patronage and abetment to militancy in the valley. Both claim Kashmir in full but rule partly.

The differences are purely political, but have overshadowed every aspect of our bilateral relations. But, why deprive nations which can gain from cooperation in every sphere, including sports, culture, business and trade. Cordial ties will particularly benefit the business community on either sides of the fence which can import and export goods at a much lower price.

There are a set of people on both sides who are more liberal, tolerant and who genuinely want people-to-people contact happen and who are working towards building confidence measures that would lead to restore normal relationship and, which, in turn would help in lessening the tension between the two nations.

But, is it a utopian dream to have? No, I think. I personally believe there is so much to gain from each other and to benefit each other and there is so much people can do at their level to enhance trust, peace and harmony. And, make the Indian subcontinent a better region to live in.

To achieve this, there is a need of dialogue. Without having a two-way talk we will never be able to know each other and will never be able to get rid of our preconceived notions about each other.

Dialogue can be held on multilateral levels, through any medium-- be it music, poetry, people, cricket, art and craft, diplomacy, you name it. As long as we communicate, it will hopefully serve the purpose. It will give us a chance to know each other better and thus dispel many myths surrounding our minds.

Nevertheless, dialogues have been held on and off, harbingers of peace have occasionally visited each other … but somehow their efforts got lost in diplomatic disasters.
However, Bollywood is one fine example of trans-border cooperation and bonhomie.
Pakistani singers and comedians are singing for Hindi cinema and performing on Indian shows respectively. They are much appreciated by audiences here. And Indian artistes are adored in Pakistan. Pakistani stations play Indian singers, while Indians enjoy Pakistani gazal and sufi singers.

It is said music transcends language barrier. But for a majority of north Indians and Pakistanis the barrier doesn’t exist as both share similar linguistic and cultural heritage.

Singers are yet again doing their bit. Rahat Ali Khan from Pakistan and Kailash Kher from India on Jan 16 echoed the Purana Qila (old fort) in New Delhi with their mellifluous voice to spread the message of peace and harmony, foremost of humanity. Amen!

I remember one of my Pakistani friends asking me one day, “why is there so much animosity between the two peoples? How can we ever have normal and friendly relations?” But more than the ‘why’ we were interested in the ‘how’.

My answer to her was “we needed a dialogue, a real dialogue between people and we didn’t need to know each other through jingoistic media reports and over-hyped political statements.” She agreed wholeheartedly.

Leaving the media-created perception of India aside, she knows the ‘beautiful’ India and its various cultures through Bollywood movies, through her Indian friends, through talking to them and hanging out with them. She wants to come to India and see for herself, to meet her friends and to attend their weddings. But is it all that easy? If she does want to meet them perhaps a third country like England or Dubai is best suited. What a shame!

She often expressed her desire to see Goa or the Himalayan region but always ended her sentences with a long sigh. But when she happens to listen the musical concert held at the purana qila, I know for sure, she will smile and will become hopeful that one day peace will prevail upon the region and she may actually visit India as a tourist.

And like her many other peace loving people on both sides of the border will thank the initiative ‘Aman ki Asha’ (A wish for peace) taken together by India’s daily English newspaper Times of India and Pakistani newspaper ‘Jang’. The music concert is a result of the initiative which strives for highlighting the positives India and Pakistan share, instead of drumming up their rivalry.

Over six decades have been lost. If we can’t make up for the lost time, can we hope for a better and peaceful future?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Of Sublime Happiness and Holy Manipulation

December tends to be freezing cold in Jammu & Kashmir state. Thus, many avoid taking a trip to the famous Hindu shrine of Vaishno Devi around this time of the year.

However, against many advices, we embarked on a pilgrimage. We boarded an overnight train from Delhi to reach Jammu the following morning and then boarded a bus to be at Katra, the base camp from where the ascent to the shrine begins.

We were happy to have made that decision.

As we reached Katra, the sky was getting clear and the sun was glowing in gilded glory.

We began the ascent with a winning smile as we did not face any showers, sleet or snowfall. We were lucky! We were favoured by the sun god. Shall we say the Goddess herself? The nip in the air was undone by the warmth of the bright sun.

We covered 14 kilometers uphill climb in half a day. Finally, we reached the destination past dusk with sore and swollen feet.

We headed straight for dinner and then to the guest room to sleep so that we could get up early in the morning for darshan (audience) of the goddess.

There was visible excitement among the fellow devotees. Dressed up in new clothes we were waiting for our turn at the temple.

The happiness after having a blissful darshan of the goddess was winning over the pain incurred through the strenuous journey.

It was a sublime experience and I was appreciating my decision to come on this journey, the first for me

After the darshan, we returned to the base camp at Katra. Soaked in ecstasy we headed to Jammu from Katra the next day.

As we looked back from the rear window of the car, the sky over the shrine was overcast with dark clouds. We thanked the divine power for making our journey pleasant and obstacle free.

One and half hours later, we checked in a hotel room in Jammu, deposited our belongings there, changed into new clothes and went to the local market.
The Jammu market was abuzz with locals and tourists alike. Shops were stacked with woolens, Kashmiri hand-embroidered clothes, walnut wooden artifacts, puffed rice, dry fruits and nuts, you name it.

While criss-crossing through the market we entered the famous Raghunath Temple in the heart of the market.

We entered the temple complex comprising many temples dedicated to different deities.

After depositing our footwear, we proceeded to the main temple of Lord Rama. We were literally ushered in by a couple of priests sitting there through their hand gestures.

I walked up to the temple precinct, and the priest appointee started chanting mantras the minute I reached the rampart. I considered myself fortunate and thought the priest was especially chanting the mantras for me and for my family’s welfare. I was impressed with his selfless dedication.

He concluded his prayers by placing his right hand on my head to bless me and by telling rather softly “donate as much as you can, as per your capacity”. The concluding sentence was not in sync with his “selfless” prayers for me. I was going to do that anyway. Being Hindus we generally offer money while visiting temples and it could be anything right from a token amount of Rs1 to one’s capability.

As I looked down to open my wallet to take out a note, I saw a plate full of crispy notes placed just at the feet of the deity. Each of them not less than Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. I felt gullible to the power of big denomination without realizing it.

I deliberately took out a note of bigger denomination as if someone compelled me. I chastised myself for being calculative and letting the thought of money coming to my mind at such a spiritual place.

I moved on to the second temple dedicated to Hanumanji. Another priest stationed here started chanting prayers loudly and started gesturing me to come near the deity. He did all the ritual, put vermilion on my forehead, blessed me and by gesturing to the plate full with 1000 Rs notes he said “jitni ichacha ho utna daan kar dijiye” (donate as much as you can). Overpowered by the plate full of notes, again I felt compelled and departed from another crispy note.

However, it did not sound ok to me. I doubted his intention. But I snubbed myself for doubting the priest to manipulate me psychologically.

Nevertheless, the doubt remained there. TO me the ‘selfless’ and personalized service of the priests was a way of influencing the psyche of devotees and extorting money from them in a subtle way under the guise of faith.

Another temple, another priestly hypnotism and another forsaking of a crispy note. But this time of lesser value. But after this I dared not to go inside any temple just folded my hands from a distance and walked on.

I was not alone to go through the same feeling. Fellow devotees too found it as psychological manipulation and coercion even though none of the priests out there explicitly asked anyone to donate any amount of money.

One of them narrated how his daughter in law was rushed by a priest the moment he saw she was holding only a 10 Rs note in her hands. He did not let her finish her prayers and called in another devotee to be blessed by him. It was simply outrageous for all of us there.

Half an hour later everyone had enough fodder to talk about. Angry fellow visitors blamed the priests and their greed for discouraging people from coming to the temple.

The ‘priestly’ psychological manipulation for materialistic gains at Raghunath temple was quite in contrast to the spiritual and religious journey at Vaishno Devi where no one was under any external pressure to offer any cash or kind.

While I’m quite reluctant to go back to the Ragunath temple ever again, I think I will be fortunate enough if I get a chance to revisit the Vaishno Devi shrine.