Winter of Despair: La Tribune India

Ira Pande

With this gray and humid weather and a locked up weekend, I feel like I’m back in Nainital in the 50s, when we lived in a huge Gothic house impossible to heat no matter how many fireplaces were on and the number of sigris were placed in the rooms. Before, we were trapped inside this chilled grave because there was no sun outside and knee deep snow covered the lawn. Huge icicles hung from the eaves of the roof that looked like stalactites and stalagmites. A distraction was breaking them and making swords out of them until we were pulled inside by our mother. And yet, with beds cooling immediately after the hot water bottles got lukewarm and fights over who was to turn off the lights (we didn’t have bedside lamps), my heartbreaking memory of that time is this. joy and happiness.

Compare that with the luxuries we now take for granted: running hot water, radiators, electric blankets and gadgets that heat a room in minutes. We complain because we have so much. When these were unknown to us, we joyously endured the hardships that accompany wintering in the hills. Oh yes! I forgot to mention the thermal underwear, puffy windbreakers, and hoodies. My mother-in-law once told us about their semiannual trip to Badrinath from Chamoli, where my step-father was assigned as the SDM. He was also the administrator of the shrine and was to seal the temple after it was closed for winter in October, and open that seal after the snow melted in early March. The hike lasted for several days and a long line of porters and staff came out to pitch the tents and cook. There were no snow boots for any of them and the women wore sarees, not pants and jackets. During one of these treks in March, their group was joined by some Naga sadhus who decided to accompany them for the opening ceremony. “They were practically naked,” she told us. “All they had was a thin dhoti and a kamandal; their naked bodies were smeared with ashes while dreadlocks covered their heads. At night, they would sit in front of the porters’ tents around a roaring fire, which also lit their chillums. Stoned, they felt neither cold nor embarrassment. It was truly a pilgrimage of the faithful.

Compare that with what our modern ‘pilgrims’ expect: a helicopter ride, the comforts of a modern hotel, and instant VIP darshan. What is more, the government is doing everything possible to widen the roads (with dire ecological consequences) for a seamless Char Dham Yatra and gives plenty of incentives to attract tourists. So, religion has now become a part of promoting tourism to develop these pristine and sacred places. A laser show in Kashi, a Diwali jag-mag in Ayodhya and a meditation cave in Kedarnath! “Shiv Shambhu”, said my grandmother with horror at these reincarnations. It may be the same for the other religions of this millennium: everything that was considered private between its God and itself is now socially sanctioned only if it is noisy and vulgar. Strong prayers, kitsch decor and an emphasis on consumption. Private religious rituals performed in modest shrines are a memory like my winter memories of Nainital – they look like fairy tales.

Let’s move on to the drama unfolding in the Punjab. As a furious debate rages between the two sides as to whether there has been a real security breach or whether this was just another ploy to gain an electoral advantage, the truth is that all people Sensible are disgusted with what this once proud state has been reduced to. We have spent a lot of time in the Punjab and still have a deep affection and pride for its people, but when you meet the current body of political leadership you can only bow your head in shame. No one is above the blame: not the politicians, not the bureaucracy and the police, not even the farmers. I don’t want to say more on this issue because I try to stay away from political topics, but I have to share a hilarious clip sent by a reader of The Tribune of someone who runs the Jumla Party in Punjab . He promises dreams that are impossible if his party is elected: free power, money in your bank every month, free water, schools, hospitals and roads. Also, if you want a house, you just need to bring a handful of sand and the rest of the expenses will be paid for by the state. Then there is the proposal to build a road from Kanada to the Punjab and Canadian citizenship to whoever wants it. The whole episode reminds me so much of our dear Jaspal Bhatti, whose impassive face was a perfect foil for the sarcasm and satire he conveyed without offending anyone. I still love to watch his lovemaking on YouTube and share it with our children, who now live abroad but have wonderful memories of the magical time they spent growing up in Punjab.

I pray that common sense and decency will return once again to a land that has so much to show the world: courage, generosity, a vibrant love of life and the ability to laugh at themselves. How can they allow the country to laugh at them?

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