The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 17, 2002
Time Off

Out-of-bound holiday places
Manohar Malgonkar

WHAT is called the ‘Air Age’ was beginning to gain acceptance as early as the 1930s. Businessmen and women, always in a hurry to get things done, had started taking the air service from London to Paris in place of doing it by train and ferry. If they made a dawn start, they could be in Paris soon after the lunch hour. That way, they could squeeze in a couple of hours with their French contacts so that they were free to have their night on the town before catching the morning plane back to London.

I wonder what today’s jet-setters would think of that journey.

"The roar of the propellers was shattering," one who made it tells us. "The little windows kept sliding open and chilled you to the bone. I was sick in the brown paper bag" which was about all that the air company provided in the way of on-board service. Not knowing what to do with the used bag, he carried it and deposited it in the lavatory which "opened directly into the void." The only other passenger on the flight, a smartly dressed businesswoman, treated him to a look of "frightful scorn".

But if the way we are transported from place to place has changed beyond recognition, so have the places we travel to. Admitting that Paris and London, Rome, Madrid, Prague have noble buildings which give them distinct identities, most other cities and towns are no more than untidy sprawls of squatter shelters filling put their open spaces. They’re formless, overcrowded, dirty, unsightly.

And some are like battle-zones and where, as Mahatma Gandhi once predicted: "not a man, woman or child is safe and every man’s hand is raised against his neighbour."

It was not always so. Who would believe it today that Palestine was once a land where cruise-ships made brief stopovers? Evelyn Waugh, who went there on a winter cruise in 1930, tells us that, while he was disappointed with the architecture of Haifa’s ancient buildings, there were no visible signs of any hostility between the Arabs and the Christians or between the Jews and the Arabs. He mentions "a spot of peculiar sanctity, being revered alike by the Jews, Mohammedans and Christians", and there was a monastery of the Carmelite order where "during one week in the year, the Arabs bring their children and the monks bless them and perform the ceremony of shaving their heads. The Arabs bring presents of oil, incense and candles. After the week is over, they go away as they came, with camels and horses and numerous wives."

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Not far from Haifa, Waugh was shown a mosque "inside the monastery cloister, and the bell for Mass every day is rung by the Mohammedan priest."

The one city in our own subcontinent that all foreigners avoid visiting because of the danger of being kidnapped or killed, is Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital. Here, places where recent killings occurred or bombs were set of for killing foreigners, have become tourist sights. Early this summer, they were thus shown to a visiting American journalist, Isabel Hilton, by one of Karachi’s ex-Mayors, Fahim Zaman: Here, in the forecourt of the Sheraton Hotel, is where 11 French engineers busy building a submarine base for the Pakistani Navy were killed. And now we’re crossing the bridge from which gunmen killed four American employees of an oil company. A little further on, two Iranian engineers, and here, just this morning, 12 people died and more than 50 were injured when a car packed with explosives was blown up by ramming it against the wall of the American Consulate.

They’ve shut down the consulate now.

Ms Hilton’s guide did not show her either Orangi or Koraugi, Karachi’s danger areas where migrants from India who came looking for the promised land have lived in squalor for more than 50 years. A more recent slum area had opened up, as it were, almost buried under piles of garbage and hugging both sides of the city’s main storm drain, a colony of half a million migrant Biharis and Pushtoons living in makeshift shelters in the direct path of likely flash-floods that come every year or so.

A well-known British artist, April Swayne Thomas, who knew India well before its Partition, also happened to be in Karachi in the mid 1940s. She and her husband who was in the army moved about in the highest social circles. She mentions gay and cosmopolitan gatherings at the Gymkhana, the Boat Club, the races. Rao Raja Hanut Singh, one of the world’s best polo players, who, too, was in the army and posted there, was the season’s celebrity. In her account of her days in Sind, she does not so much as mention communal disharmony, it just wasn’t there.

Swayne Thomas and her husband attended a wedding in the house of "The Mukhi of Sind", who, believe it or not, was Hindu. They stayed with their host, in a vast house built round courtyards, "charming little place with cooing pigeons above us flowers and creepers in pots," and joined the family at meals. She was "amazed" by the size of the diamonds that both the men-folk as well as the women wore. They even joined the wedding procession, through the bazaar; the women in carriages and the men on foot the procession was two-and-a-half miles long.

Today when non-Muslims in Pakistan have to keep a low profile and move about in the shadows, a fabulously wealthy Hindu celebrating so grand a wedding would be in the realm of fantasy. Are there enough Hindus still left in that vast human sprawl that is Karachi to make up a procession 2.5 miles long? After all, Pakistan’s drive to achieve ethnic purity has been a near-total success.

Sure, we, too, in India have masses of people living in poverty and squalor in many of our cities, but street violence motivated by religion is rare except in the Kashmir Valley.

When the Valley was, so to say ‘discovered’ by the Sahibs of the East India Company after they conquered the Punjab, they were positively stupefied by its implausible beauty ‘Paradise on earth’ they called it. The first Englishwoman to see it was Honoria Lawrence. In a letter to her son at school in England, she reports: "Beauty almost beyond the power of words...beyond that of the earth."

This was in the year 1850. The menfolk of the Company had already begun to come to it in large numbers. In an effort to keep them out, the Maharaja enacted a law which forbade all Europeans from owning land in Kashmir, but that device didn’t work. They began to live on the surface of the water in floating cottages.

The Sahibs invented a new life-style, which caught on rapidly: Houseboat living spawned its own social mores not compatible with Victorian concepts of morality. The sterner officials of the company such as John Nicholson tried vainly "to reform the moral tone of the British community in Kashmir.

As it finally emerged, Kashmir was the Raj’s favourite holiday resort, a place for honeymooning couples, with overtones of wantonness.

Such was the Kashmir that came to us in 1947, beautiful, romantic, maybe even a shade sinful, but without so much as a trace of religious ill will. And so it remained for more than a generation, until late in the 1980s, it was adopted as a ‘core issue’ by the protagonists of ethnic cleansing. It’s Paradise status was just not good enough. It had to be pure, too.