For an ancient history and heritage buff like me, Chandigarh, the capital city shared by the states of Punjab and Haryana, has little or nothing to offer. Obviously, because it was kind of built just yesterday (1960, to be precise), that is, if you don’t consider archeological evidence of the 8000-year-old Harappan civilization in the general geographic region. But there’s another reason why I wanted to visit this city, the only planned city of its kind to be built from scratch in post-independence India: My father. He would always talk about Chandigarh’s unique civic discipline.
So as one who has seen enough Indian cities and towns where unruly traffic, rotting garbage, trash, spit, poo and pee ridden streets, and uncouth shopkeepers, hawkers and filthy food carts are a norm, I had to see this city to believe it can exist in the same space as the rest of the country.
To understate it, Chandigarh is clean. It’s orderly. It’s very, very green. Not a single hoarding, poster, billboard, notice or graffiti defaces its walls or the street profile. Not a single encroachment of public space; no untidy, ugly-front small shops or hawkers. The roads are really wide, with more space occupied on either side by large, shade-giving trees than by traffic. Every sector has its own park, hospital, school, parking and contained market area and every road intersection has a beautifully landscaped roundabout. Few buildings rise above the tree tops. All residential buildings are no more than two stories high.
The traffic cops in this city take their duties seriously and the effect shows.
Of course for the touristy minded there is the famous Rock Garden that houses installations and sculptures made of recycled materials, Sukhna Lake, Rose Garden, and some modern architectural specimens, but they didn’t interest me much. All I wanted to do was simply drive through these magnificently tree lined and clean, hoarding and hawker-free streets. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
Sure, sitting in Mumbai I wouldn’t prejudge every Indian city to be as unclean as Mumbai, but Chandigarh is an amazingly successful template for civic administrations on how not to mess up your cities, literally. All they need is the will to do it.
I have long given up the idea that Indians in general, could be self-motivated to keep their immediate surroundings and their cities/towns at large clean. But apparently strict civic laws work when imposed diligently.
Moving on, Chandigarh, I think is the gateway to authentic Punjabi food. At least my initiation to it happened here. The butter-soaked kulchas and parathas are worth sacrificing a year’s worth of being on a gluten-free diet.
But when ordering food, whether at a dhaba or a restaurant, one needs to remember that it is Punjabi hospitality… each dish served can feed a mini army.
My takeaway from Chandigarh:
The city is like a loving, old uncle with OCD and perhaps tired of his own affliction; it’s just that a lot of its buildings desperately need a white wash job. Just that.
If Chandigarh is benign, Amritsar asserts its vibrant presence by embracing chaos like a birthright.
To anyone at all that I may have mentioned my intended visit to Amritsar, they all had only one thing to say: “Oh, you must visit Wagah border!”
Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar itself was a given – like you can’t visit the Vatican and not see the Apostolic Palace (Pope’s home, in case you didn’t know) or go to Mecca and not visit the Kaaba or go to Benares and not bathe in the Ganges (well, you get the point) …
For the uninitiated, Wagah is the village on the border of India and Pakistan, about a 45-minute drive from Amritsar. And for anyone visiting Amritsar, a trip to Wagah has become a testament to their nationalism. The first bastion of the border patrols, both India and Pakistan have over the years choreographed a daily flag lowering ceremony when briefly the gates between the two countries are opened, hands cursorily shaken and gates closed again. Thousands flock to see the ceremony on both sides, every single day.
But then I am not one to wear my patriotism on my sleeve. So I guess my particular lack of enthusiasm about witnessing the ritualistic ceremony was beyond their comprehension and I suspect, seen as un-patriotic if not un-Indian. Particularly upset was my rental car driver in Amritsar who couldn’t fathom how anyone can NOT want to be part of a national pride fest especially one that involves out-shouting the not-so-friendly neighbors visible up close across the international border.
So he (the driver) unilaterally decided to take me there insisting I would love the experience. And there I was in 40 degree sweltering heat, walking the last two kilometers to the India-Pakistan border (because vehicles are not allowed), telling myself that this had better be worth it.
I guess it would be politically incorrect to judge this brand of patriotism, one that involves loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs of the Bollywood variety; dozens of women and children dancing like in an open-air disco to the beats of that same music including for some reason, A.R. Rahman’s ‘Jay ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire; a hyper-gesticulating crowd energizer who literally orchestrates the crowds to varying levels of crescendos whether it be cheering, or sloganeering or throwing a fist at those gathered for their own show of nationalism on the other side of the border.
In the lead up to the flag lowering, the Indian BSF men and the Pak rangers put on what can only be seen as a passive aggressive show of muscle flexing if you will, much to the perverse delight of people watching on both sides.
If there ever was a far remote dream of seeing a future of Indo-Pak peace, this spectacle is not going to help realize it.
But like I said I am not going to judge, especially people who were cheering for their country while trashing the whole place with snack foods, wrappers, paper and plastic bottles.
I failed to intellectualize it though, patriotism that is, at Jallianwala Baug. I felt shaken by a voiceless rage when I saw bullet ridden walls and the dry well into which innocent men, women and children jumped to escape the firing ordered by the British General Dyer in pre-independent India; and felt goosebumps all over when I peered into the ancestral home of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
Jallianwala Baug is just a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple, while freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s home sits pretty in its original neighborhood now as a protected and renovated site in Khatkar Kalan village about half way between Chandigarh and Amritsar.
What I did find heartwarming at Wagah though, was this cycle rickshaw puller who dropped me a kilometer closer to the border sparing me the walk in the sun, but refused to take money just because he decided to call me “sister”. At the end of the flag ceremony, I was surprised to see him waiting to drop me back to my car in the parking lot, again refusing to take money. “I called you sister, how can I take money from you?” Difficult to argue with that even if we were non-existent to each other until that moment.
Well, I guess that’s Punjabiyat for you or Indianness for that matter. Just connecting with that rickshaw puller – a fellow Indian – somehow felt like a patriotic act for me.
And of course, a salutary shout out to our Border Security Forces, without whose presence at the border perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting and opinionating in the cool safety of my home.
Back in old Amritsar, one must experience the jutti and dupatta shopping in the cramped shops dotting the entire area and take a rickshaw ride through the streets which time seems to have forgotten. The Golden Temple Plaza itself is shiny new and has a European feel to it with its marbled surface, monumental statues and shops neatly pushed back.
And oh yeah, about the Golden Temple … I’ll say this to all non-Sikhs, non-believers and non-pilgrims: Go visit the temple. It’s a national treasure.
My take away from Amritsar… was what I didn’t take away: The experience of savoring Amritsari chole-kulche and sweet lassi at Brothers dhaba. Laugh all you want at my missed opportunity but for time constrained poor me it was a trade-off between that food heaven and langar at the Golden Temple. Well, there’s always a next time.