“One of my fantasies in my life has been that I was granted access with a
camera to go back in time, and to film the actual campaign of Alexander
crossing into India through Iran and Persia.”
The green lushness outside the dilapidated bus distracted my agitation with the brown leering inside. According to the karma of past actions, one’s Destiny unfolds.
Mine unfolded a map of the two countries straddling the Punjab. By the time our bus arrived at the frontier, we were the only ones on it.
“Welcome to PIA Flight #1, from Lahore to No Man’s Land.” Said the Pakistani official, stamping us out. He was stoned, and offered us a favorable black market rate for our rupees. We crossed between the trenches to a table of three seated giants, full bearded immigration officers, wearing double patti saffron turbans, and steel bangle karas on their wrists. They could have passed for a Sikh version of the three mystic monkeys of Confucius. Their nametags all read ‘Mr. Singh.’
“Is this India?” Robyn asked. When they bobbled in unison, I swear the music played in my head.
“Singh, Singh, Singh, everybody start to sing,
Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah
Now you're singin with a real good swing.”
They stamped our passports, and invited us to sign the guestbook.
‘It’s good to be here.’ I wrote, and meant it.
We boarded a bus for Amritsar, which baked for an hour before the driver materialized. He took two hours to drive the twenty-two kilometers, our first trip along the Grand Trunk Road. There were more passengers on top of the bus than on it, and there was no word for ‘hurry’ in Hindi.
We stepped down into the Sikh spiritual center, the ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality.’ Amritsar had been founded by Guru Ram Das in 1574, on land he bought for seven hundred rupees from the owners of Tung village. It had a small pool in a dense forest, later to become a temple of gold. Like Manhattan. Amritsar’s narrow streets evolved inside a central wall in the 17th century, with unique defensive residences, called katras. Some of the worst communal riots during Partition occurred here, between all the other massacres. Amristsar was the furthest eastern point of Alexander the Great’s conquests. Coenus, one of his staunchest generals, had told him to. ‘Sir, if there is one thing above all others that a successful man like you should know, it is when to stop.’
I headed in the wrong direction off the bus, but Julie and Robyn dragged me back up the hill and past the station yard, down below a traffic circle, to the Tourist Guest House.
“Tony Wheeler sent you.” The manager said, welcoming us with a Guru beer, and a clean room with high ceilings and an ‘entertainment console.’ The only thing that worked, however, was the sign, and that only worked to provide false hope. We showered and set off, past the beggars and chaos, to the A/C Kwality Restaurant, at the end of Lawrence Road. The manager was Mr. Singh. His waiters were dressed in black and the cook was sitting over huge pans of boiling milk, and frying puris and round rings in pure ghee. There were large glasses of buttermilk, spinach with cheese, curried vegetables, rice, and contentment.
Two discoveries were waiting, back at our guesthouse. The first was that my dysentery had dysappeared. There was something about Islam, and remembering to use your right hand in the kitchen and your left in the toilet, that was fundamental in fostering the flux. For the first time since landing in Karachi, I wasn’t up all night because of diarrhea. The second observation was that, despite every possible placement of our two floor fans, I was up all night because of the mosquitoes.
Robyn and Julie had Vegemite on their chapatis next morning. I held my nose, and ordered an omelette. Two man-powered rickshaws pulled us through the dense oriental bustle of the narrow streets, to the magnificence of the Harmadir Sahib gudwara, the Golden Temple of Guru Ram Das.
Entering through one of the four exterior portals, Robyn received a headscarf, and I a dhoti, to cover my legs. We left our shoes to wash our feet in marble pools, and descended the inlaid steps through the Darshani Deorhi Arch, along and between the golden lanterns lining the causeway, to an exotic serenity- the gold-plated ‘Abode of God,’ perched on a marble finger, projecting out into the sacred ‘immortal nectar’ Sarovar pool - Dumballa turbaned warriors with quarterstaffs, and women in multi-colored saris, offered clasped palms of welcome. Halfway back around the marble terrace we met a young Sikh scholar, who invited us into a huge hall decorated with frescos and gemstones, filled with four long rows of sitting pilgrims. A short incantation was followed by warm chapatis dropped into our hands, and bowls of dhal. Sitar, tabla and musical wails reverberated off the rectangular lake.
An ethereal scene like that just wasn’t meant to last. Less than a year later, the calm and tranquility we experienced was shattered. Indira Gandhi’s infantry, artillery, and tanks and armored vehicles launched an offensive known as Operation Blue Star. The fierce fighting that ensued killed 83 soldiers and 492 civilians, and severely damaged the holiest ‘Abode of God’ of the Sikhs, and burnt down the library. She was trying to kill separatists. Instead, many more were created. Four months later, she was murdered by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
In the late 1980s, there were two additional military operations against the Golden Temple, named Operations Black Thunder. Sometime before the black and blue, I bought a silver kara outside a golden temple, as a souvenir of the serenity I had found inside.
“It will remind you to always carry out righteous deeds and actions.” I remember the vendor saying. But it no longer fits over my hand.
Julie met Robyn and I under a billboard illustrating the electromagnetic bridge between Heaven and Earth. It didn’t seem to have an earthly purpose. We walked less than five minutes to the site of another tragedy. On the 13th of April, 1919, hundreds of unarmed defenseless Sikhs were mown down by twenty minutes of continuous rifle fire, on an order from Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was a colonial endgame example of less than zero tolerance. The memorial would have been more poignant without the pruned shrubbery, sandstone rocket ship monolith, and circled bullet holes.
Our evening dissolved into games of chess and scrabble, and my soft mournful harmonica on the dark empty streets, just before midnight.
The guesthouse manager waited with us, so it wouldn’t miss us. We were waved on so quickly, the bus barely stopped. I hung onto seat number six, near the door. The trip would take two drug-crazed Sikh drivers sixteen miserable hours of death-defying curve bending and incessant Indian nyah-nyah music, broken only by the occasional supplement microphoned karaoke of their assistants, and long rest stops in the middle of nowhere. If you could find any middle of nowhere in India. And you could, in the direction we were heading. For we were traveling north, to the Land of Kashyap Mar, the land desiccated from water. Kashmir.
“Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been...
When I see, when I see the way, you stay...
Let me take you there. Let me take you there.”
Led Zeppelin, Kashmir