The Everest Experience

Sumeer Kalyani

1. Introduction

If we’re talking in the traditional sense, I’m not an adventurer, a trekker or an adrenaline junkie.

But in my own personal and humble world that is my heart, soul and psyche, I am all of the above.

Taking out three weeks from my stable work and home life, to travel solo in a part of the world I know little about,  is something out of my comfort zone.

This really isn’t me.  Having said that, I’m already doing it, so I guess that’s the first thing I’ve already learned about myself.  I’m sure I’ll discover much more – about me and about the beautiful country and people I’m visiting too.

The decision to take three weeks out to travel in North India and Nepal is credited to my cousin, Vivek.  He sadly pulled out of the travel plan, but he left enough excitement and inspiration in me to forge ahead on my own.

So a few months on from sitting in front of a laptop screen and checking flights, here I am in the beautiful city of Shimla – a lush landscape high on the hills at over 6000 feet above sea level.  Tranquil, peaceful, no honking horns – everything I’ve so far haven’t imagined in India.

As I relax in my gorgeous Homestay, hosted by a local family, I have continued my recent pattern of ‘firsts’ – this time by writing a blog about my journey.

I’m hoping it’ll be a frequent account of what I’ve seen, experienced and observed.  I find that many things can be learned by simply being there to see, listen and talk.  They’re merely my own thoughts based on my personal travels.

But I do hope they might give any interested readers (I’m sure you’re out there!) with an entertaining and insightful journey that pretty much reflects my own.

So here’s to the start of what for me is a big adventure. With the excitement, fear and buzz it’s giving me all at the same time – I guess it’s also my own way of being an adrenaline junkie.

Here goes!


“You should go to see the museums today.” That was the suggestion of my Homestay hosts over a delicious breakfast of aloo (potato) parathas, yoghurt and fruit.

On the outside, my face showed signs of agreement at a wonderful idea. My mind, however, wasn’t in the least bit interested. As I took another (and this time a much bigger) bite of my paratha to avoid any awkwardness, I wondered why I’d want to go to stuffy museums when a) it’s gloriously hot; and b) I’m in the middle of natural scenic beauty.

The deal was pretty much sealed when the elderly father of my host decided he’ll accompany me. At this point I must say Mr. Sharda is an amazing man – a retired senior civil engineer hugely responsible for making Shimla more accessible for locals and tourists alike (I might even dedicate a blog chapter on him later on). But his austere way of living shows through in his friendly, helpful and humble manner. We get on very well with our chats on all things political, current affairs, history and sport. Mr Sharda is the sort of bloke you’d love to have a couple of pints with in a local pub (he’s so well respected that he’d know everyone there!). But sadly for me, he doesn’t drink. The pub is off the agenda.

So off we went (three parathas later!). First stop – Viceregal Lodge. Immediately I thought of it being a small house built by the Brits as part of its colonial empire. Some kind of administrative building I thought. What’s in a lodge, I asked myself.

We arrived some 20 minutes after setting off. It wasn’t a lodge. Or a house. It looked more like a palace. A huge building created 129 years ago to house the Viceroys of India during the summer months. It was from within these very walls that Britain ruled India for a few months each year.

This Lodge has seen several different Viceroys stay here and make key decisions about the governance, and later independence, of India.

As I walked through its immaculate gardens and through its grand hall and rooms decked with Burmese teak and Kashmiri Walnut, I could feel I was stepping into a small but significant chapter of Indian history. The same corridors once walked upon by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Lord Mountbatten and Sardar Patel. And now here’s little me walking that same floor.

That feeling of being in a place as awesome as this is simply a buzz. Even for those who aren’t historically-minded. It’s difficult to explain how emotionally amazing the visit was – but it’s fair to say I felt like a right plonker for even thinking twice about coming here. One nil to you, Mr Sharda.

The second half of the day was to include a visit to the Indian Army Museum. I wasn’t so bothered anymore and certainly wasn’t in any position to believe my own pre-conceived thoughts.

Even better that the musuem is free to all visitors and is run by the Army. So no worries here about security!

Walking through the informative exhibition, I could feel a sense of India’s military history and a sense of pride for my heritage here and my association with Britain.

I learned India’s military values stem from the ancient scriptures such as the Mahabharata, Gita and the military strategy book by Chanakya, Arthashastra, which pre-dates Machiavelli’s guide.

The museum highlights India’s military history and key moments in a brilliant way – with lots of artefacts, costumes and armoury to tell its stories. There’s so much about its role with Britain and how it has taken in many aspects of its former master’s military culture. I can now see and understand why people in India show so much respect and pride for their armed forces.

Having walked off my three aloo parathas in the space of a few hours, I felt like I’d been bathed in Indian history. Not the sort you’d see or read about in national museums or history books. It wasn’t forced down me – but it was a gentle invitation to glimpse into a part of India we so seldom hear about. And boy am I glad I accepted that invite. Two nil to Mr. S. Game over.


It’s my last night in Shimla. An early morning journey awaits, as Ashok the cab driver picks me up at 6am. Yes, 6am – to head down and across to Rishikesh. You’ll learn more about Ashok in a later post – he’s been driving me around Shimla for the past three days. His English isn’t great and my Hindi is muddled.

The evening’s highlight is a traditional vegetarian meal with the Shardas, who have been tremendous hosts. As we sat on my terrace in the late afternoon sipping on masala tea (it’s a teetotal house, remember), Mr Sharda senior presented me with a souvenir mug on behalf of his family.

I have no idea how I’m going to fit it into my already-bulging suitcase and even if I did cram it in somewhere among the socks and shorts, I’m slightly sceptical of it returning to the UK in one piece.

But what I do know will remain intact is the memory of Shimla and with it, the Sharda household.

There’s a Sanskrit saying “Athiti Devo Bhava” which means “Guest is God.” Not literally, of course – or else I might have found myself being bathed in milk or sang to before a feast.

No, but for this family, like many Indian families here, treating a guest as no less than a God is the ultimate hospitality.

Nothing was ever a problem, and every moment spent with them has been met with a smile.

Mr Sharda’s son, Asheesh, took care of all logistics – taxi cabs, itineraries, food timings. His wife and mum were pretty much in charge of feeding me with the most amazing breakfasts and evening meals. Despite all the hill-walking and steep climbs, I fear those extra aloo parathas, a cheeky pakora and a few veggie patties have hampered my efforts on weight- watching (but certainly didn’t stop me, such is my willpower).

So you’ll remember me talking about Mr Sharda in my previous post. A short and slim man who reminded me of an elder uncle, he is a font of local knowledge and spent many moments talking with me about anything and everything.

He has this formality about him which is so quintessentially British in many ways – polite and well mannered and so eloquent in his speech. As he handed me the gift, he said, “We think of you as part of our family now.”

Great, I look forward to the family wedding invites and Diwali presents.

Overnight rains and thunderstorms (I kid you not, I’ve never seen such prolonged lightning strikes, heavy rain and thunderclaps – it was as if Heaven was having a party and as I wasn’t on the guest list, I could only watch from the outside.  So the morning plans to explore outside the city were suddenly looking bleak. But in true Shimla spirit –  and my jammy knack of getting things right in the end – the sightseeing was back on.  Hurrah!

Having spent some of the day on an old but well-maintained golf course once owned by a former Viceroy – and finally a much-craved pint of cold beer in its colonial bar – I arrived back ‘home’ and sat on the terrace with Sharda senior and junior.

They epitomise Indian hospitality in every sense. I’ve learned how people like the Shardas will go out of their way to make a total stranger feel welcome – almost to the point where you feel embarrassed but humbled. But it’s so welcome in a country where inconsiderate driving, pushing and shoving, spitting or showing little courtesy when driving is commonplace.

Whatever the Indian might be like out on the roads, once they welcome someone into their home or even their heart, there is nothing but respect, courtesy, care and kindness – way beyond our expectation.

Shimla is special. Way different to down-town India in terms of geography, culture and scenery. But it was made even more special because the Shardas took in a stranger travelling solo and turned the trip into what felt like a visit to see family.

To make another reference to alcohol (which I realise is beginning to become a common trend in my posts and so I will stress at this stage I’m not alcohol-dependent) I raise a toast to the Shardas for living by, and teaching me, the most ancient of Sanskrit values – Athiti Devo Bhava.


It had all the makings of a road trip. Lads on tour. Me, Ashok (the cabbie from Shimla) and his younger brother who came along for the ride and to give Ashok company on his return journey.

After all, Shimla to Rishikesh is around an eight hour drive, inter-state. And with bends and curves that even Pamela Anderson would be proud of, having a second driver option after dark isn’t a bad idea.

For most of the journey, the younger sibling sat at the back suffering from motion sickness. We had to make a few stops along the way and he really wasn’t up to the banter.

So it was left to me and Ashok to prop up the road trip. Taking turns to plug in our phones to the sound system and chatting about what many guys talk about. Life, cricket, women, marriage and travel anecdotes. At 23, Ashok is full of life experiences. Already married with a young baby, he works 7 days a week during tourist season. Unlike many Indians, he’s punctual. He’s a good guy and I wish him all the very best for the future.

As we finally arrived into Rishikesh at 3pm, I was dropped off to my hostel. Ashok and I said our byes – we’d spent the best part of three days together in and around Shimla and he became a mate of sorts. So off he went and here I was – in one of India’s most sacred towns. Rishikesh – which literally means the land of the Rishis (great sages).

It’s a town so sacred to Hindus that alcohol and meat aren’t served here. But I already knew what I was letting myself in for and so was was prepared for a dry run.

What was totally alien to me was the hostel scene. It’s a far cry from the usual hotel option I’m more used to, and certainly different to the comfy Homestay back in Shimla. I chose the hostel for 2 reasons. The first is cost – it was about £9 per night for my own room with ensuite.

Secondly, I wanted to push myself to try something different and out of my comfort zone. In all honesty, it’s probably something I might not always go for in the future, but I could certainly see its merits.

The room was very basic and dated – and made Travelodge seem like a 5 star.

But it had everything one really needs. A comfortable bed, working shower and toilet, a ceiling fan and a TV. There really wasn’t much else in the room. Apart from the odd cockroach that met its end with the end of my shoe.

But of course, my trip wasn’t about the hostel. On the first morning in Rishikesh, I ventured towards the Laxman Jhula (footbridge) which towers across the enormous width of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) river. The water provides not only sustenance to millions of people and animals that live along its banks, but it’s also the salvation of many Hindus and Sikhs who regard the Ganga as a mother figure and Goddess.

Ganga Mata, or Mother Ganga, as she is affectionately known, is visited by tens of thousands of people every day who come to bathe in the river they believe will wash them of their sins, and perhaps even provide a fast-track entry ticket to eternal salvation (Moksha).

While the river keeps giving, as much as a mother would for her children, sadly her kids aren’t so appreciative.

The river is facing a huge challenge from pollution. I saw piles and piles of rubbish strewn along the river banks, in amongst the faithful many taking a dip. In the Ganga river, plastic bottles floated by alongside flowers and clay diva lamps resting on a leaf boat.

In some parts, the river would also wash away people’s own waste, given the shortage of toilets.

So my biggest confusion was how people could regard the river so highly, and yet openly throw rubbish into and near it.

I saw one child throwing his crisps wrapper out from the car window – clearly a mindset that littering is absolutely fine as long as the mess isn’t in one’s own personal space.

The government faces a huge challenge here. It wants to clean up the Ganga – but it also needs to change the habit of millions. And maybe a few bins along the roads would help too. I didn’t see any public bins along my walks, and the public toilets were filthy.

In a land so holy, I was disturbed at how careless people and authorities are at keeping the town clean. I’d decided there there was no way I’d be dipping even a toe into the river Ganga. I’ll take the sin over cholera, thank you very much.

The filth in Rishikesh is far outweighed by the level of faith and devotion here. In spite of the many environmental issues, people still throng in their millions to worship Ganga. I saw men, women and children praying devoutly in the shallows of the water, and holy men clad in saffron meditating along the banks. I’m not sure how many are the ‘genuine’ article – but because it’s India and making a quick buck is common, my guess is there are a few who aren’t as saintly as they might appear.

Rishikesh is also a hotspot for the new age hippie traveller. Those young ‘uns and a few older, coming to find themselves, learn yoga and other mystical Hindu practices. So many of the cafes are a bit too ‘out there’ for me. The food wasn’t up to scratch in most places but passable if you’re on a budget.

One of the highlights in Rishikesh was attending the evening ‘Ganga Aarti.’ At dusk, many of the Ashrams along the ghats perform a fire ceremony in worship of Ganga Mata. I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat at the ceremony at an ashram called Parmarth Niketan. It was the most peaceful and exhilarating experience. The Aarti was conducted so divinely, with no rushing, impatience or unprofessionalism. The volunteers were incredibly helpful.

One of the most striking things was how a group of young ‘priests in training’ conducted themselves. Some were as young as 9 or 10, with shaved heads bar a small pony tail, and dressed immaculately in crisp orange and green traditional clothes. They took part in all the hymns and prayers, and assisted in preparing for the Aarti ceremony. In-between, they shared a giggle or joke among themselves. Kids will be kids after all.

After the Aarti ceremony, which really was a beautiful moment, the head of the Ashram, Swami Chidanand, or Swamiji, spoke to the congregation. He was eloquent and charismatic – yet sounded genuine and humble. He spoke of the urgent need to clean up the Ganga. He said India doesn’t need any more Temples – people should clean and maintain the ones we already have. He wants India to create Toilets – not Temples. With such a strong belief in environmental matters and all things practical, it’s hard not to agree with Swamiji. I hope his dreams of a cleaner Ganga and cleaner India are realised.

The next day, the exhilaration moved further into the Ganga. On a spur, I decided I wanted to try my hand at whitewater rafting along the rapids in the Ganga. It looked fun enough. And it was another first.

We started off 11km away from the Lakshman Jhula bridge, in active waters which also looked a lot cleaner being away from the throngs.

I loved rowing through the rapids and even the calmer waters of the Ganga. It was a good way of getting up close and personal to the river that my daughter, Jahnavi, is named after. Jahnavi is an ancient Sanskrit name for Ganga.

Thinking this is as close as it gets was a wrong thought. Midway through our ride, the instructor encouraged us all to jump into the river. We had lifejackets, a helmet and a safety rope to cling on to. The 7 other members of the group were all in the water in an instant. Just me and the instructor left on the boat. The lads in the water urged me to join them and the instructor told me to jump in too. So I did. I took the plunge, and suddenly found myself floating in the Ganga.

Wow – it was cold for about five seconds. Then as the midday sun beat down, I began to enjoy the experience. The water was clean and fresh too. We eased along the gentle current for a fair while. I chuckled as I recalled my thoughts from the previous day. What was that about not dipping even a toe in the Ganga? And here I now was, fully immersed in Her. Toe and more.

For those who believe in fate and the mystical lure and power of the mighty Ganga, I guess She got me to take a dip after all. Sin slate clean. See you in Heaven.


The first thing that struck me en-route from Tribhuvan International Airport to my hotel is the aftermath of Kathmandu’s massive earthquake in 2015. It was the biggest quake this valley had seen for more than 70 years, and evidence of the destruction left in its wake is still visible.

Huge piles of rubble, scaffolding on partially-collapsed buildings and the sheer amount of dust creating an uncomfortable atmosphere.

If India is beset with smog, her neighbour has major dust issues. Many people went about their business wearing face masks to guard against the dirt – it’s either that, or breathing in asthma.

That offers a tiny glimpse into the resilience of Nepalese people – still piecing together their lives as they re-build the city brick by brick.

Although culturally different in many ways to India, both countries share many things. The language might be different but both Hindi and Nepalese are derived from Sanskrit – so a lot of road signs and shopfronts reminded me of being back in India.

And they use the horn far less here – a much welcome respite for my ears damaged by the constant and often unnecessary tooting from just about anything on wheels across the border.

While predominantly a Hindu country, Buddhism is also widely practiced here, with both faiths living side by side and making room for each other. A fine example of how communities can co-exist and a lesson for others to perhaps take on.

As I wandered through Kathmandu valley on a sightseeing tour (it’s very hot here in June and you find yourself sweating buckets!) I saw a huge number of Buddhist stupas and Hindu Temples. It’s as though they’re competing with India on who can have the most!

Former royal palaces belonging to kings and queens of old, and even those from more recent years (the monarchy was abolished only a few years back) are plentiful.

The most impressive one is in an area called Patan, whose people are famed for their art, craft and architectural skills. Generations of families have passed down the art which includes stone and wood carving, metalwork, and painting amazingly intricate designs on cotton paper with natural stone colours.

Not surprising then that the old Hindu palace here is crafted and intricately carved, surrounded by even more ancient Temples – 12 in total, each dedicated to a different deity (there are 33 million to choose from, so you never really run out of choices).

I took on the services of an official local guide called Raj (a rather apt name for someone working on royal property) who initially decided he’d charge me 2000 Nepalese rupees.

The Indian blood in me will always mean I’ll haggle for a good deal, and we eventually agreed on 1000 NR. That’s about 8 pounds.

The tour of the Temples and palace was very informative. Raj showed me the different royal chambers and their uses, including a central one that’s still used to hold an annual ancient ritual during the festival of Navratri in Sept/Oct.

As a Gujarati lad, I’m no stranger to Navratri. A festival of nine nights where people dress up and dance every night in large circles – dancing to the tune of Gujarati folk songs and using their hands to clap and also Dandiya sticks.

So when Raj explained how some holy women would dance around the circle here too, I thought the Gujaratis have made an impression here as well (I think we’re in pretty much every country now).

Except I was far off the mark. The chamber sees the ritual slaughter of 108 bulls during the nine day festival each year, and the dancing women would drink the fresh blood of that animal in order to re-energise themselves. That would explain the dried bull intestines hanging over the door frame, then.

To cut the bull, I’m not sure I’d particularly want to see a live slaughter but it is a public event and anyone is welcome to witness the ceremony. I bet the local yaks are relieved.

Another highlight of the city tour was a visit to a Shiva Mandir said to be thousands of years old. Pashupatinath, one of the deity’s many names, sits on the bank of a river, where traditional Hindu cremations take place in full sight. No coffins or furnaces here. It’s back to basics with the body covered in a wooden pyre and burned till all that remains are the ashes – which are then scattered into the river. I suppose with the cost of funerals going up, it’s not such a bad way to go up either.

Next stop was a Buddhist stupa called Swayambhunath. The Nepalese and northern Indians clearly like building things high up on hills. Which means having to climb hundreds of steps. Again. In the scorching heat.

The sight of the city is spectacular. You’ve only just managed to catch your breath when it’s taken away again by the view.

Buddhist rituals are fascinating – many feel similar to Hindu customs too but distinctively different are the deities, symbolism and spinning prayer wheels. Each stupa has 108 wheels which devotees would spin in turn as they walk around the stupa and chant a prayer.

Raj the tour guide had explained how each spinning wheel (cylinder shaped – a bit like a biscuit tin) contains a scroll of that same prayer hand-written 1,008 times. Makes copy and paste seem like a Godsend.

The evening was spent along the streets of Thamel district, where my hotel was situated. It’s the main tourist hub with hundreds of cafes, restaurants and bars to choose from. It has a real old charm to it, with much more personality than staying in a newer or more cosmopolitan area. You get a real sense of how locals here socialise too, and not just the tourists.

Kathmandu is a bustling city with a sprawling population, and horrendous traffic. The honking horns might not be a feature of roadlife here, but there’s no escaping the by-product of rapid urbanisation – with the number of wheels on the road fast catching up with the spinning wheels of Buddha.

Tomorrow, I treat myself to an overnight stay in the more scenic, peaceful and tranquil town of Pokhara valley. It’s eight hours by road, or half an hour by flight. I’ll get my passport and boarding pass ready, then.


As far as life experiences go, it’ll take something special to come even close to beating the splendour of seeing Mount Everest.

The last time I felt this euphoric and overwhelmed was when I saw my newborn daughter for the first time. Just as she was a gift of nature, Everest and the Himalayas are nothing short of nature’s generosity to mankind either.

Having found the constant climbs up Buddhist stupas and temples on hills a bit tedious, it wasn’t likely I’d be reaching Everest base camp anytime soon.

So the next best option was to see it from the skies. A mountain flight at 6.30am which takes passengers on what, it’s fair to say, is the flight of their life.

Just 16 passengers in a small plane – each of us with our own window seat ready for the one-hour journey.

I could sense the real buzz of excitement and anticipation around me. As the engine blades began spinning, it wasn’t too long before we were thousands of feet up in the morning sky.

The airplane rose above the cotton-like clouds, and there soon emerged the mighty Himalayas. The range of snowy mountains that are truly the jewel in Nepal’s crown.

The country may have abolished its monarchy, but here in its skies stood the royal family of nature – kings and queens of natural earth – and they’re not going away any time soon.

One by one, we were all invited to the front of the plane – in the actual cockpit – to see the head of this royal family of mountains. I eagerly awaited my turn, camera in hand. It’s a bit like being told as a kid that you’ll get to go to the park if you sit still for just a bit longer.

The park visit finally arrived. I walked up towards the front of the plane, directly behind the seat of the pilot. From the windscreen, I caught my first glimpse of Mount Everest.

There she was, in all her glory, looking even more majestic than I’d seen on television and in photographs. If the Himalayas are royalty, then Everest is undoubtedly Her Majesty the Queen, taking her place in the throne of a stunning landscape which so few of us are privileged to witness. At 29 thousand feet tall, it’s no wonder the Nepalese call her Sagarmatha (head of the skies).

The entire range of mountains in this towering range show just how small and insignificant countries, cities, buildings and even people are when compared to their sheer size and beauty. With all the technology, science and engineering prowess in the world, we’d never be able to replicate Nature’s creation.

A nice touch at the end of the flight was being given a certificate which says “I did not climb Mount Everest but touched it with my heart.” One to add to my Record Of Achievement folder for those of you old enough to remember. But the certificate really took the words right out of my mouth.

My admiration and respect for those who’ve managed to scale these stone giants to their peak has grown ten-fold. The challenge first set by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 has since seen more than 4000 people conquering the summit. Many more have attempted the feat and some have even lost their lives trying. I remain in awe of these courageous men and women who’ve had the honour to touch the mountain with their hands and heart.

It’s my last day in Nepal and I fly back to the UK tomorrow. There are many things one could point out about Nepal and India’s shortcomings, frustrations and annoyances. But I won’t. The countries have welcomed me with open arms, allowed me to immerse myself in their cultures and their way of life.

I’ve come out unscathed but certainly more richer from the knowledge gained. If I set out to learn about these great nations, and about myself, along the way, then I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

It’s the end of an adventure but I hope it won’t be the final one either. Many menories have been etched into my mind along the way. But this Everest experience really was Nepal saving the best till last.

e.mail : sumeerkalyani@gmail.com

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

In Defence Of My Dinner That Has Enraged Modi

Mani Shankar Aiyar

Are we becoming a police state?

BJP spokespersons have been asserting on TV screens and public platforms that I should have taken the government's permission before hosting an old Pakistani friend of mine to dinner. Why should I seek anyone's permission to host a dinner party - even if that friend is a Pakistani? Why cannot I invite friends and colleagues to talk about Pakistan with a distinguished Pakistani? Why must I toe Modi's line on Pakistan? What gives the government a monopoly of national opinion on our neighbour? Does anyone who does not believe that the Prime Minister is the nation's sole fount of wisdom become liable to the charge of treachery? Do I not have a right to privacy? Do my guests not have such a right?

The BJP responds that this was not just some dinner party, it amounted to sleeping with the enemy. Indeed, the Prime Minister has darkly hinted that I was hiring a contract killer ("supari") to get him. Invoking a fake Facebook post, he slyly let slip that the dinner was a "secret" conclave to hatch a "conspiracy" with the Pakistanis to make - horror of horrors - a Gujarati Muslim the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Utter rubbish, total balderdash, but a nasty move to establish a salience between Pakistan and Indian Muslims to polarize a crucial election.

Well, I don't consider Muslims or Pakistanis my enemies, especially a Pakistani Muslim like Khurshid Kasuri who I have known since we were twenty-year-old undergraduates at the same Cambridge college some 56 years ago. It was a friendship that was renewed when the founder-President of the BJP, and then Janata Party Foreign Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, chose me, out of scores of other IFS officers of about my seniority, to be the first-ever Consul-General of India in Karachi (1978-82).

Did he choose me to go to Karachi to spew at the Pakistanis? Atal Behari-ji, as a man truly worthy of the post of Prime Minister, would invariably take his seat in the House whenever I rose to speak on Pakistan. For unlike the present incumbent, he was not paranoid about Pakistan. A true democrat, he was interested in understanding other perspectives on that country.

I flew to Islamabad in December 1978 from the home of our Ambassador in Abu Dhabi, M Hamid Ansari, a brilliant diplomat and an engaging companion with whom I had served a little earlier in Brussels. He was among my closest friends in the Foreign Service and I appointed him chairman of the Oil Diplomacy Committee when I was Petroleum Minister. Destiny had kissed him on the brow to rise for ten long years (2007-2017) to the second-highest constitutional position in our land: Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Invaluable in his penetrating insights into the Pak psyche, he has guided me over the years through the maze of Pakistan's domestic politics. He introduced me to his wife's relatives in Karachi. (Among those I took to their home was a highly distinguished young journalist, in the forefront then of the crusade for a secular India; he is now a minister in Modi's government. O tempora! O mores!) Hamid Ansari was second only to Doctor-sahib among the distinguished guests at my dinner.

The morning after I reached Islamabad to be briefed by my Ambassador before taking up my new assignment, I heard the Ambassador speaking on the phone to Khurshid Kasuri. I slipped him a note on which I had scribbled that Khurshid was an old friend of mine. He passed on the phone to me, and I could hear the joy in Khurshid's voice as he welcomed me to Pakistan, insisting that I proceed to Karachi only after first visiting Lahore. That was a tempting invitation as I was born in Lahore. I agreed, subject to Khurshid driving me straight from the airport to my old home at 44, Lakshmi Mansions, located in the triangle formed by Beedon Road, Hall Road and The Mall. Khurshid promptly agreed and my Ambassador indulgently let me take that slightly circuitous route to my new posting.

That Ambassador, Katyayni Shankar Bajpai, was no soft-heart like me. He has always had a hard, tough understanding of Pakistan, untouched by any of the starry-eyed romanticism that tinges my view of that country. He was at the time in almost daily touch with Barrister Khurshid Kasuri, monitoring developments in the then ongoing Lahore High Court trial of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. That is how trustworthy the Ambassador had found Khurshid. Now nearly 90 years old, Ambassador K Shankar Bajpai was another of my valued guests.

On my landing in Lahore, Khurshid picked me up and drove me straight to the apartment where my family had lived till Partition, now taken over by a medical doctor who had been a student in London while Khurshid and I were cutting our academic teeth in Cambridge. I have since been several times to Lakshmi Mansions (does Modi know it is still called that even seven decades after Partition?), taking my wife and children with me so often that the old chowkidar lets me in even when Dr Malik is not at home. Most touching of all was when I visited Pakistan as India's Petroleum Minister to initiate talks on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. The Residents Welfare Association of Lakshmi Mansions (including writer Sa'adat Hassan Manto's family) organized a welcome reception for me and Dr Malik asked me to send him a blow-up of my parents' photograph so that he could, in respectful tribute to their memory, hang it on the walls of their first marital home. Is this the enemy?

In 2003, Musharraf appointed Khurshid Kasuri as his Foreign Minister. Kasuri immediately embarked on the most determined exercise in India-Pak history to resolve the Kashmir issue to the mutual satisfaction of the two countries and the people of Kashmir divided by the Line of Control.

The parameters for that bold initiative were set by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (the most distinguished of the invitees to my dinner party). Between them, they agreed that there would be no exchange of territory or people but an attempt to "render the LoC irrelevant" to the ordinary lives of ordinary Kashmiris on either side of the Line.

The task of negotiating the deal was entrusted on the back-channel to a Pakistani civil servant, Tariq Aziz, and Ambassador Sati Lambah of India (yes, Sati too was my guest at the Kasuri dinner). Sati was not only my Islamabad counterpart though all the three years I served in Karachi, he went on to head the Pakistan division at headquarters, returned to Islamabad both as Deputy High Commissioner and High Commissioner, and climaxed his high-flying life in diplomacy as the longest-ever serving PM's Special Envoy: nine uninterrupted years as Doctor sahib's most trusted aide on Pakistan. No one knows Pakistan better or longer than Sati Lambah.

The kick-off point for the Musharraf-Manmohan dialogue was Atal Behari Vajpayee's January 2004 visit to Islamabad, accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha (who had also accepted my invitation but could not attend because he was detained by the Maharashtra police in Akola).

On the Pakistan side, it was Kasuri who supervised and guided the back-channel conversations that brought more progress than ever before on the vexed question of Kashmir. It would have been concluded, but for Musharraf's domestic fracas with the judiciary that presaged the end of his regime. Whenever the dialogue is resumed, the four-point formula will surely constitute the point of departure.

On the Indian side, Dr Manmohan Singh's Foreign Minister at the commencement of the back-channel talks was Natwar Singh. So I invited him too, bearing particularly in mind that not only had he been my boss in Islamabad for most of my term in Pakistan, but also because of his immortal comment to the Pakistan press on the ghastly Moradabad riots sparked just outside the Eidgah on the holy day of Eid, 1981: "I feel humiliated as an Indian and diminished as a human being.

As former Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid had gone with Atal-ji to Geneva in the mid-90s to give a fitting reply to Pakistan's canards in the Human Rights sub-commission, I invited him too. Alas, he mixed up the dates and turned up only the next day. But the other Salman - Salman Haider - former Foreign Secretary and architect of the 1997 "Composite Dialogue" between India and Pakistan that has persisted over 20 turbulent years (its name but not its essence changed by the BJP, as is their wont) came, listened, spoke and heartily ate.

Present too were former High Commissioners Sharat Sabharwal and TCA Raghavan. Raghavan's masterpiece, The People Next Door, published a few months ago, has quickly become the defining narrative of what Raghavan calls in his subtitle The Curious History of our relations with Pakistan. He describes, with a wealth of documented detail, that "curious history" as moving cyclically between proving the doves right before moving on remorselessly to prove the hawks right.

We also had two former Heads of the Pakistan Division: Chinmaya Gharekhan who headed the Division when I was in Karachi, and then went on to become principal foreign policy adviser in the PMO to two Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, before winding up his career in the IFS as the longest-ever serving Permanent Representative of India to the UN. He was later Dr Manmohan Singh's special envoy for West Asia. He is a frequent contributor on foreign policy to several journals, including The Indian Express and The Hindu. There is absolutely nothing clandestine about him. He bluntly told Kasuri that so long as Pakistan insisted on filching back Kashmir from us, there was nothing to talk about to Pakistan. Gharekhan, a conspirator? Gharekhan, a subversive? Modi-ji, why not check with him? Know what? Notwithstanding his name, Gharekhan is not a Muslim, his surname is a title bestowed centuries ago on his family. Indeed, he is a fellow-Gujarati! Khem chhe?

The other Head of Division present was MK Bhadrakumar, former Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan. No one in India, absolutely no one, is engaged as deeply as he is with Central Asia, West Asia and our neighbourhood in which he quite rightly includes China, and views all foreign policy in the perspective of great power geopolitics and geo-strategies. After retirement, he has emerged as the most prolific writer on foreign policy in Indian journalism. Modi's spooks can track him every day before dawn. Far from stooping to low conspiracy, Bhadrakumar's published view is that the talk at the Kasuri dinner amounted to little more than "airy nothings" (The Tribune, December 2017). 

We had two professional journalists of long standing: Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of The Hindustan Times and Rahul Khushwant Singh, former editor of The Khaleej Times, Dubai, and former resident editor of The Indian Express, Chandigarh - blameless except for being stained by association with me since our school days! Besides, we were graced by the participation of an outstanding defence analyst, Col Ajai Shukla (retd), a soldier and an intellectual who understands defence matters better than anyone else in the public realm, a jewel in the diadem of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. They too are being slyly accused of "conspiring" to unseat the BJP. Shocking. Reprehensible.

I rounded off my list of invitees with none other and none less than the former army chief, General Deepak Kapoor. I wanted him in so that Kasuri would not get away without first hearing an authoritative armed forces voice. This is the highly-distinguished, highly-decorated officer, who risked his life all through his life in the service of the nation, whose integrity, patriotism, and sacrifice has been impugned by a Prime Minister - none less and none other - as having attended a "secret" conclave in my home to take out a "supari" on Narendra-bhai Modi. Even my acerbic tongue cannot find the right word to condemn this outrage.

And, oh yes, of course, there was the newly-appointed Pakistan High Commissioner, learning the ropes, more silent than the Silent Valley, deferring to his former boss, Khurshid Kasuri.

We had nothing to hide. We were just close friends and top experts who had spent a virtual life time professionally involved in and analyzing India-Pakistan relations. We had come together to brief Khurshid on Indian perspectives on Pakistan because Kasuri is arguably the best friend India has in influential political circles in that country. We also wanted to hear him, as an articulate well-informed and India-friendly interlocutor. He has, of course, been out of office for the best part of a decade and is unlikely to make it again. So, the discussion was informal and certainly not "official". All of us, without exception, were "has-beens".

There was absolutely nothing "secret" or "secretive" about the get-together. Indeed, the place was crawling with Modi's intelligence agents whispering into their lapel mikes. Khurshid Kasuri is closely related to the Rampur family. The dates of the wedding in their family had been determined without reference to the election in Gujarat. My invitations had gone out a month earlier and reminders had been issued both by email and mobile phones. Doubtless, both were tapped.

We talked and dined convivially for about three hours, my wife proving to our Pakistani guests that Indian nihari and biryani are quite as good as in Pakistan! Some BJP spokesman misunderstood and claimed we had sat and conspired till 3 am. There was no conspiracy. There was no mention of Gujarat. We were just talking Pakistan with a Pakistani guest and friend.

It is shameful that baseless allegations have been flung from public platforms by no less a personage than the present Prime Minister, with the Election Commission taking no suo moto notice of these repeated transgressions of electoral ethics, political morality and very possibly the Model Code of Conduct. Such distinguished citizens of our nation as a former Prime Minister, a former Vice President and a former Chief of Army Staff, besides a former Foreign Minister and a former Foreign Secretary, plus a raft of some of the best diplomats the Indian Foreign Service has produced since Independence, not to mention three of our best known political and national security commentators, have been, in effect, accused by high authority of subversion, sabotage and sedition. How, in a democracy, can the right of any citizen to express views contrary to those of the government be questioned as Modi and his cohort are doing? Are we not drifting towards becoming a police state?

I know Modi hates me. But my party so distrusts me that I was perhaps the only Congressman of 25 years standing who was not sent to Gujarat for the campaign. Yet, Modi's invective was reserved for me as if the Battle for Gujarat was between him and me. Towards the end of my Rajya Sabha term, I asked him a question on the floor of the House. He brushed off my enquiry, adding, quite gratuitously, that I would soon be joining the ranks of the "bhule-bisre" - the forgotten and the destitute. That indeed would have been my fate - except for Narendra-bhai Modi. He has given me more publicity than I could have garnered for myself in three lives. Thank you, Prime Minister.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

December 15, 2017


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features