Thursday, October 27, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXIX (Last visit to America-III)

The most dramatic sight of Washington which I witnessed before my return to Baltimore was the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It is a very important annual event which takes place in March-April. The Festival has an interesting history. In 1912, an incredible gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees was bestowed on Washington, DC by Tokyo, Japan. Rooted strongly and surviving outside elements, the trees have withstood the test of time and are a treat for everyone, especially the Japanese who come in large numbers to see it. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is preparing for an unprecedented and once-in-a-lifetime celebration, the centenary event! The epic 5-week spectacular, from March 20 – April 27, 2012, will unify and electrify the city, Washington, DC and the region will be abuzz with excitement. I wished we too had an event like that! Our Badamwari Festival centred on the Almond Blossoms has been a good local event. We could also obtain few thousand Japanese ornamental cherry trees and create a similar festival! It would be more attractive than the Tulip one!
After witnessing the festival, Mumtaz and his wife dropped at Mushtaq's house in Baltimore. After resting for a couple of days, I decided to undertake the last leg of my tour which was a visit to New York to look up Muzaffar Chisti. Mushtaq dropped me at the Baltimore Greyhound Bus station. He advised me that on return I should remain within the station premises and phone him for being picked up. He advised me not to go out and roam as there were many chances of being mugged! This time Muzaffar had not come to pick me up but asked me to get a taxi. They were now living in a posh locality of New York, the Riverside Drive and it was easy to get there by a taxi. They were very glad to see me.
As I had been to New York a number of times, Muzaffar just wanted me to visit Brooklyn and have dinner on top of the World Trade Centre. Also he wanted to invite friends for lunch on weekend which was near. First we went to Brooklyn to buy food stuff for the weekend lunch. In the evening, Muzaffar took me to the top of the World Trade Centre for dinner. There was a Club and a Restaurant near the top of the Tower. Entry to the restaurant was very interesting. At the reception desk in the ground floor when we told them that we were going to the Club Restaurant, they asked me to put on a black jacket which they gave me. No one could enter the Club without a jacket. Even though now I had a jacket, I was wearing blue jeans. The receptionist told me he had no instructions about jeans so I could wear these! I looked funny in a black club jacket and jeans. Well, that is the American way! From the top we had fantastic views of New York. I remembered this visit nostalgically when I saw the crumbling towers on 9/11.
The weekend lunch was quite lively. Muzaffar had invited Aga Shahid, the author of "Country without a post office". Zahid Khan and his sister were also there. Helene had prepared a number of dishes and everyone relished these. It was my first and the only meeting with late Aga Shahid. We chatted for a long time. We spoke about Kashmir. We discussed the life in America and so on. This would be my last interaction with the Kashmiri origin Americans. Most of them had got well settled in different walks of life here. However, everyone was pinning for the home which was in dire trouble. Something had to be done for this tragic land! But Helene would say about this, "Ashraf, they do a lot of pinning but no productive work!
Next day I left for Baltimore. As advised by Mushtaq, I stayed inside the station and waited for him. He came in the nick of time when the station was about to close! I stayed a couple of more days in Baltimore and then left for home via London and Gibraltar. This time I had a longer stay in Gibraltar and we took a trip to Portugal which I have described in earlier episodes.
Back in Srinagar in middle of June, I applied for extension of my study leave. We were entitled to two years paid leave. I wanted to avail it in full. Ashok Jaitly, the then Chief Secretary called me to his office. He told me that I had done enough of travelling and should do some productive work now. I told him that if he posted me back as the Director General Tourism, I would straight away utilize the experience of my foreign travel to promote tourism to Kashmir. If this was not possible then my leave should be extended so that I could prepare a very good report for the Government. He smiled and asked me to wait for few days. Just after two days Farooq Abdullah reshuffled his cabinet and kept the tourism portfolio with him. Next day I received a government order stating that after return from the study leave I had been posted as the Director General Tourism. Farooq Abdullah had changed his minister to bring me back! After this I had a five year continuous tenure as the Director General Tourism of Jammu & Kashmir. In a number of instances during those days I found that if Farooq Abdullah was convinced about something being right, he would go to any extent to support it! The things seem to have changed now! Well, it is said that the time is a great leveller! Thus end my travel episodes in Europe and America. Next I will be writing about my journeys in Arab lands!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXVIII (Last visit to America-II)

My next trip was to Washington, the US capital. Mushtaq dropped me at the residence of Mumtaz who lived in a suburb of the US capital. He had a small two room ground floor flat. At that time he was studying for his masters in law in George Washington, University. One of his neighbours was a taxi driver from the Pakistan Administered Kashmir. He would leave in the morning and ply his taxi in Washington during the day. In order to enable me to undertake sight seeing of some important places in the capital, he offered to drop me in the morning. In evening, I would go to George Washington University and return with Mumtaz by train or bus. Most important tourist spots of Washington are its Museums. I started my sight seeing trip from the Air and Space Museum.
It is a huge complex and probably the largest Museum? Complete aeroplanes are parked inside it. Space shuttle, the Star wars items, and many other interesting things. One needs at least a week to see the Museum. I spent two full days there. An interesting facility in the Museum is a tape-recorder which one can hire. As one goes to any exhibit, the tape recorder gives one the detailed background through earphones provided with it. There is no need for a guide. One can undertake the entire tour on ones own! There are also some shows inside the Museum. It has a number of eating places. One thing which I failed to understand was the physique of the people visiting the Museum. Almost all the kids and women I saw there were obese. Fat kids accompanying fat women! Most carried huge plastic bags full of potato chips or wafers and giant size paper containers of coke fitted with straws! They were continuously eating potato wafers and drinking coke. Generally dressed in t-shirts and shorts.
The Museum I saw after Air and Space Museum was the Natural History Museum. This too is a huge complex. This Museum is quite educative and elaborate. One cannot see it in one go. The other interesting Museum I saw was the Science Museum. As I had limited time and wanted to see many things, I had to restrict my visits to a very quick and fast tour. After the Museums, I went to see the US Congress House. There is a conducted tour but there is always a very long queue to get entry. Next was the US Supreme Court. I was very keen to see the stone carvings which depicted the Prophet (PBUH). There had been lot of hue and cry on this physical depiction of Prophet (PBUH). I also visited the Washington Monument. I used to pass by White House every day on way to George Washington University. However, I did not take a conducted tour inside White house.
There were two other places which I visited. The first was the John Hopkins Institute of International Studies. I was keen to know about any studies being conducted on Kashmir. At the reception I mentioned about my interest in studies related to Kashmir. The receptionist directed me to the South Asia Department on the fourth floor. I went to the South Asia Department and asked a lady there about Kashmir studies, she smiled and advised me to go the third floor and ask the Department of Central Asian Studies about Kashmir. I was surprised to know that the Americans had included Kashmir in the Central Asian Studies Department! The head of the department was Mr. Brezenski, the former national security advisor. His secretary told me that he was out of station. However, she confirmed that they were undertaking some studies on Kashmir through Carnegie Endowment. It was interesting to know that the Americans had already decided the final disposition of Kashmir as a part of Central Asia!
The second establishment which I went to see was the Library of Congress. It is supposed to be the largest library in the world. Being a foreigner, I would need to go through a long procedure to become a member so as to be able to borrow books and take these home. However, it was easy to become a member of the reading room where I could study all books and references within the library premises. Becoming a member of the reading room was very simple. There was a room with a dozen computers. One had to sit on a computer and fill a form and obtain a serial number. After doing this one had to approach a man sitting at the end of the room with a camera on a stand. He asked me to sit on a stool near the wall and took my picture. He showed me the picture on a monitor and asked if it was alright. As soon as I said it is ok, he pressed a button and a plastic card like a credit card with my photo came out of the machine. He told me that the card was valid for two years and could also be used as an ID card in USA. I visited the reading room a number of times and studied a number of books and references on Kashmir. The library has a documentation centre where one can order photo-copies of books and references against payment.
My next engagement in Washington was to visit the State Department. My friend Richard Livingston who had been the US Consul General in New Delhi had invited me for lunch. He had become one of the directors there on his return. Getting in was easy. They accepted my Library of Congress ID card but had to call Richard to the reception to take me along. Richard introduced me to the members of the South Asia Department and we had lunch in the canteen. The lunch which involved self-service, was quite good. During lunch while sitting at a table, I watched the CNN News which was being shown on a large TV screen. It was the international news. I immediately noticed that this news was different from that which was available on local CNN channel. The Americans were very clever! They were keeping their own people ignorant of everything happening around the globe!
Back home I asked Mumtaz about this and also regarding the fact that most of the Americans I had seen were obese. I was curious to know how these obese people were ruling the world. He took me next day to his university and we had a meal in the canteen. I saw the smartest and well dressed boys and girls, mostly people in their twenties going round. He told me these were the people who were ruling USA as well as the world! The rulers of the country lived in these universities with their think tanks and so on.
(To be concluded)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXVII (Last visit to America-I)

My last visit to America was in the spring of 1998. This visit too had an interesting background. After my reinstatement in the Tourism Department as the Director General Tourism, J & K, I started facing problems with the higher authorities. I had been to Sri Lanka to attend a Tourism Mart (SATTE) and while returning, I was informed at Delhi Airport that I had been transferred as Director General, Sports. It was a shock to me after the events of 1996 involving my incarceration during the Governor's Rule. However, I did not join my new place of posting and applied for one year's study leave which was due to me in terms of IAS rules. That winter I left for Dubai to spend some time with my brother. Peter Montagnon of BBC who had made the famous series of programmes on Zanskar, "The last place on the Earth", contacted me, and informed that Channel 4 was interested in making a programme about the Tibetan Manuscript about Jesus Christ supposed to be in the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh. He invited me to London to discuss various details and sent me a full fare ticket through Emirates on Dubai-London-Dubai routing. As it was a good opportunity to travel once again to Europe and America, I got the ticket re-issued on the routing Dubai-London-Washington-London-Dubai by paying some additional amount. I stayed in London with Peter for a week and we met Channel 4 people to discuss various possibilities. They were very keen about the documentary and Peter proposed to visit Ladakh accompanied by John Purdie of Channel 4 in July or August.
From London I flew to Baltimore (Washington BWI) airport where my cousin Mushtaq had come to receive me. He was running a store in Baltimore and I stayed with him. I had been very keen to visit Washington and also pay a visit to Muzaffar Chisti who was now married to Helene Laufer. Mushtaq also suggested a trip to Toronto by road to look up his friends in Buffalo and Portland. It was still cold and the central heating was on. In fact, we had light snowfall after my arrival. The plan was that we would go to Toronto, then I would spend a week in Washington with my friend Mumtaz, and finally, I would visit Muzaffar in New York for a couple of days before flying back. So after spending a couple days with Mushtaq and his family, we started one day very early in the morning for Buffalo and Portland. Before starting I had purchased a road map and plotted the shortest route on it. Mushtaq was driving while as I was navigating and giving him directions for taking specific routes. Driving in USA is very easy as most of the roads are clearly marked and there is no chance of getting lost. We travelled on motorways where ever these were available. Otherwise we took normal roads with incoming traffic.
As there was a drizzle, one had to be careful due to the slippery road surface. It is better to have rain than light drizzle! We stopped at one of the junctions to have a pizza. They serve all sizes. We took two pizzas sufficient for a person. It was quite tasty. We reached Portland in the evening. Dr. Gilkar and his wife were waiting for us. They have a large house in a virtual estate with huge trees and some hills. The view was quite enchanting and I was feeling as if I was back in Kashmir in some country house except it was equipped with the most modern gadgets. We had a comfortable night and next morning we woke up lazily. After a good breakfast we left for Toronto. Just after start it had started drizzling. However, by the time we crossed into Canada, it was really pouring. From the border we took the motorway to Toronto. There were sheets of water falling everywhere. I got a bit scared as Mushtaq was driving almost 100 kilometres per hour. He told me that the roads function better in pouring rain as the tyres have a good grip. Drizzle is dangerous as there are many chances of skidding. It was really difficult when we were behind a long vehicle especially a trailer. It would throw a continuous sheet of water over us! We reached Toronto in the afternoon and went straight to Farooq's house. He was happy to receive us. However, the day was washed away by the rain.
Next day it was much better. Farooq took us for lunch to an Indian restaurant. We had a good spicy meal! We also went for some sight seeing. As I had been to Toronto earlier also, so I preferred meeting people than seeing places. Next day we started back for Portland in the afternoon. It again started raining. After we crossed into USA sometime in the evening, it started snowing. First there were some flurries but soon it came down like a blizzard. The roads started becoming slippery and we were very much slowed down. It soon became dark and we lost all sense of direction.
The snow was accumulating fast everywhere. The road signs too disappeared. We were so much lost that we crossed a bridge twice and had to pay the toll each time! Ultimately, after stopping at open shops and asking directions, we finally reached the house of Dr. Gilkar. However, while entering the drive way our car got stuck in the accumulated snow. It took us half an hour with shovels to free it. The warm house with a hot meal was quite welcome. We had to start back next morning. Late in the night it stopped snowing. I got up very early, around six in the morning, woken up by the noise of a snow-machine. The roads had already been cleared. These people must have been working throughout the night unlike the ones in our part of the world! I was also surprised to see a man clearing the internal drive way with a small snow machine. We started back after breakfast. For some distance we had snow on both sides of the road but then it disappeared. The roads were clear and we could drive fast. We reached Baltimore late in the evening. It had been a real adventure!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXVI (Going West in America-V)

The flight from LA to New York is quite long. In fact, there is a time difference of about three hours between the east and the west coast! USA is not a country but a continent. Because of three hour time difference, I reached New York almost in the evening. Muzaffar Chisti had come in his car to pick me up. My main engagement in New York this time was giving a presentation on Ladakh to the members of the Pacific Asia Travel Agents Association (PATA), New York chapter.
This had been set up by Balakrishnan, the Director of Government of India, Tourist Office in New York. Balakrishnan is from Kerala and he finally became the Secretary Tourism there. I happened to know him and had called him earlier. He had informed me that Dr.Babu, the Secretary Tourism was visiting New York, and he was giving a presentation on Kerala. According to him it would be very useful if I could present Ladakh in the said meeting being hosted by their office, making it a presentation on India from Kashmir to Kerala. I immediately agreed as I was keen to promote Ladakh as a destination for the American tourists. The presentation was very well received and generated a lot of interest in Ladakh among the audience. That evening I had an opportunity to meet a cross section of the top American travel agents. They were thrilled when I gave description of Ladakh as the Grand Canyon turned upside down! Balakrishnan also arranged a luncheon meeting with the Indian Travel Agents who were mainly handling the tourists of Indian origin.
While staying with Muzaffar I had an interesting experience. He would go to office early but I used to wake up late. Around 10.30 am I would go out to have breakfast in the nearest McDonald's restaurant. At that time the only clients were old retired men and women. All the young ones were busy with their jobs. The old people like me must be getting up late and going to these food shops to have breakfast. It was quite an experience to see old people eating breakfast leisurely and reading newspapers and also gossiping. The young would return around noon to have their snack lunch! I also took this opportunity to visit some art galleries on the other side of the Central Park. I spent some time in the Central Park. It is a joy to roam through the lush green areas of the Park after seeing the rush of cars and people in Manhattan. The visit to the western part of America with a brief stopover in the east was quite fruitful and rewarding. I had varied experiences. I returned home after stopping for few days in Gibraltar.
The reception back home from the visit was anything but pleasant. The moment I joined back my office I was attached with the General administration Department. The attachment order came in a dramatic manner. I was sitting in my office giving an interview about tourism to a foreign journalist when a fax came on the machine next to me stating that I had been attached with the General Administration Department with immediate effect. No reasons were given for this action. It seemed a strange way of rewarding me for my efforts to promote Tourism to Kashmir and Ladakh! Subsequently I came to know the real story behind this action of the then Chief Secretary. He had been irked by the intervention of the Chief Election Commissioner in facilitating my departure to USA to represent India in an International Conference. He had sent a note to the then Governor that I had manipulated my departure to avoid participation in the ensuing Parliament Election and had sought approval for my suspension.
A colleague who had been with the Governor at that time had written on the note, "I can swear by the integrity of the officer and we should wait till his return". So the attachment order came after my return. There were protests from all sections of the travel trade. In fact, Dr Farooq Abdullah called on the Governor and told him that a wrong had been done. In fact, a delegation of prominent citizens from Ladakh led by Thupsten Chewang also called on the Governor. However, the Chief Secretary did not budge and wanted me to apologise to him which I refused to do as I had done no wrong. Ultimately, on persuasion of various advisors and people, the Administrative Council posted me as the Deputy Commissioner Leh. In the normal circumstances I would have loved the posting as Ladakh as always been my first love. However, this being a punishment posting I refused to go. Dr. Abdullah asked me if I could get the orders stayed, he would restore me to my posting in the Tourism Department. I did file a writ petition and the State High Court stayed my transfer.
In the meantime, the Government created a separate Director Tourism for Jammu. J&K thus became the only state in the country having two Directors of Tourism! This was probably done to prevent my return as Director Tourism, J&K. Just before the popular government led by Dr. Farooq was to take the office, I was approached by a number of advisors to say sorry to the Chief Secretary so that I could be reinstated. I refused to do that and remained probably the only officer being penalised during the Governor's Rule. However, Dr. Farooq Abdullah kept his word and in the very first meeting of the new Cabinet, I was ordered to be appointed as the first Director General Tourism of the entire J & K State. It was truly an apt vindication for me. My visit to western America had been fruitful and enjoyable and I had gone in good faith. However, it had been marred by the events on my return. But the timely action by Dr. Farooq Abdullah had redeemed my gains! Unfortunately, the uncertain events after my return prevented me from working for the UIIA Council meeting in Ladakh and we lost a beautiful opportunity to promote Ladakh among the mountaineering fraternity of the world! Nevertheless, I had several other opportunities subsequently to promote tourism to J & K.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

American role, filthier than Dal!

There are no two opinions that the politics in Kashmir over past sometime has became very murky and is definitely as filthy as the Dal Lake. In literal sense, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing and the vested interests are having a field day! Corruption is at its peak and as stated by Mulford, it cuts across all party lines. Apart from funds being doled out by the Central Government, the intelligence agencies from within the sub-continent as well as abroad are pumping money from all sides to one and sundry to serve their specific agendas. No one is really concerned with the basic problems of Kashmiris. In the true sense of the saying, everyone is making hay while the sun shines!
There may not be any justification for such a situation unless the local people go along with it. Nevertheless, one must not forget the fact that worst things have happened in similar situations of conflict where multiple players with their ulterior motives and vested interests are involved! This entire murky and filthy scene does not mean there is no political problem in Kashmir. Rather, it confirms the existence of a serious basic problem to conceal which as well as stall a solution to it; things have taken a filthy hue!
However, what is really annoying is the supposed moral high ground being taken by the Americans uttering such comments. American role both within Kashmir and globally has been filthier than the polluted Dal Lake. In Kashmir they have now made a 180 degree turn from their stand of fifties when Adlai Stevenson met Sheikh Abdullah and supposedly persuaded him to opt for an Independent Kashmir. They took Pakistan into their lap through the military pacts of SEATO and CENTO.
They became the strongest votaries of the rights of Kashmiri people. In fact, in the UN Security Council there were many clashes between the then Soviet Union and USA. The Russians used their veto a number of times to forestall any UN intervention in Kashmir. However, the situation has now turned a full circle. The Americans are now going to the extent of formulating overtly as well as covertly a triangular alliance with Israel and India which has resulted in blocking grant of basic rights to Kashmiris. In fact, they have fallen out even with Pakistan which is almost becoming a failed state. This has happened because the Americans made it a frontline state in their so called "War on Terror". The Americans are even prepared to go to the extent of ensuring the disintegration of their one time staunch ally.
The American role globally is even filthier. The basic fact is that the entire American society is based on violence. They virtually exterminated the local Red Indians, reservation by reservation to build their own society. They then imported the African blacks to serve them as slaves. To avenge their catastrophic intelligence failure in the Pearl Harbour, they wiped out two Japanese cities with nukes ostensibly to bring the Second World War to a close. My Lai massacre in Vietnam, use of napalm and the notorious Agent Orange are just small acts in their nefarious imperialist history.
In the modern times, the two Gulf Wars and the ongoing War in Afghanistan are living examples of their duplicity and bully behaviour. They have ensured that no Middle Eastern country is in a position to pose any threat to Jewish state of Israel created by them in collaboration with the British in the heart of Arab lands to expiate their sins of Jewish Holocaust in Europe. After neutralising Arabs they are now after Iran because it can pose a threat to Israel. Entire American capital and media is under the Jewish control.
They talk about global human rights but very conveniently forget about Abu Gharib and Guntanamo Bay! In the global armament market of over $ 1000 billion, the American share is more than half! They sell arms and for that create conflicts in different parts of the world. Sometimes they sell arms to both parties in a conflict. As stated by William Blum in his book, the "Rogue State", they have even gone to the extent of experimenting biological weapons on their own citizens without their knowledge.
The social and moral scene in America is even filthier. Gay marriages, children outside marriage, people living with their off springs outside wedlock as single parents. Pornography is widespread. Even there are cases of incest. Crime is quite high. Murders, rapes, muggings, and so many other crimes. It is said girls stand alone in parts of Central Park in New York to get raped! There are innumerable cults and fads. Even there are many clans worshipping Satan!
It is a tragedy that in spite of all the muck and filth connected with American role in Kashmir as well as globally, many political leaders, intellectuals, and even some columnists look towards them as our saviours! It is time we introspect and seriously ponder over the consequences of looking outside for a solution to our problems especially to the west and in particular to America! Unless we develop the will and honestly make an effort to stand on our own legs, we will have no escape from the present filthy situation and would continue to be humiliated by one and all!