Life, serendipity and strange coincidences

This is my first blog and I’ve read what Professor Google has to say about what the first blog should be like. Length, subject matter, graphics, links, etc. etc. After all of that, I went my way. I mean this to be a writer’s blog showcasing my advertising copywriting skills which would transform into an author’s blog when my first book is published. (Anytime now.)

 I guess I will firm it up as we go along with posts I hope will strike a chord with all you writers, travellers and storytellers out there. Here is the first one. All the photographs have been taken on my trusty Canon EOS.

A week ago, the smoke cleared from the Notre Dame and Paris is picking up the charred pieces from the ashes. My heart echoed the devastation of the French people who felt a piece of their history had come crashing down along with that iconic spire.

When the TV news clippings over the past week showed the fire, the spire crashing and the tear-filled eyes of the people in the crowd in an endless loop, my mind went back to a Parisian spring exactly a decade ago.

Paris, April 2009

My wife, Lata and I had checked into Esmeralda, a quirky little hotel full of medieval character, by accident. Or I should say, serendipity. We had seen the name in a pocket travel guide in Bangalore and decided the review was good enough for us.

 “Hotel Esmeralda, hidden away on rue St-Julien-le-Pauvre across the Notre Dame Cathedral in the Latin Quarter is named after the gypsy in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Housed in a charming 17th-century building, Esmeralda has the best views of the cathedral.”

 We pushed through the glass-paned door and walked into a postage stamp-sized reception-cum lobby strewn with picture-postcard period furniture. A narrow staircase with solid timber balustrades as old as the building and a rope handrail wound its way into the upper floors.

Lata sitting on the ancient staircase next to Esmeralda’s painting.

As we manhandled our luggage up the rickety stairs, we paused at the painting of Esmeralda the gypsy girl prancing with her goat. We had a quick glimpse of the original wood-beamed ceilings and the potpourri of period furniture. Finally, we threw open the windows and gazed upon a view that hadn’t changed in centuries. From that moment on, Notre Dame captured our hearts and imagination.

The view of Notre Dame from our hotel room window.

Bangalore, April 2019

Lata goggled at the slo-mo shot of the burning spire falling and said, “Thank God we saw the Notre Dame in all its pristine grandeur.” After a pause, she said, “You know it’s strange, this is the third time a place we saw and loved, has been destroyed.”

And that disconcerting insight is the crux of this blog.

Sri Lanka, December 2003

Lata and I went to Sri Lanka for the Christmas and New Year week of 2003. It was my first trip abroad, and I was as excited as a schoolboy. After spending Christmas in Colombo, we headed out to Hikkaduwa, a beautiful beach resort about a hundred kilometers south of the capital city. Following the advice of Vinny, the owner of our hotel in Colombo, we walked into the Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel.

One end of Hikkaduwa beach is a surfer’s paradise.

As soon as we walked into our room, we knew we were on to something magical. Not only was it beach-facing, but the balcony was just over the high tide mark. If I jumped from the balcony, I would fall into the ocean!

I was thrilled to bits but Lata was a tad uneasy. “What if the sea comes into the room?” she asked nervously. Was it her innate caution raising its head or was it a premonition of the horrific events that were to happen exactly a year later?

The other end is the perfect pickup point for deep-sea dive boats.

However, the beautiful view overpowered her fears, and we had a grand old time in Hikkaduwa before heading back to Colombo and then home to Bangalore.

Bangalore, December 2004

One year later, we were wondering where to go for the Christmas—New Year holidays. “Let’s relive last year’s holiday. We’ll go back to Hikkaduwa. We’ll book the same room at the Beach Hotel. What fun it’ll be.” Lata was beside herself with excitement.

At first, it seemed like a terrific idea. I remembered the long lazy hours of lolling on the beach, becoming one with the sea and feeling closer to each other than ever before. Or sitting and holding hands on the balcony deep into the night, content to quietly revel in each other’s company.

I was about to say “What a great idea” when I felt a strange unease in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t anything physical but purely a sense of disquiet. I tried to shrug it off but it wouldn’t go away. Instead, it grew stronger and refused to leave me.

I couldn’t tell Lata about my strange feeling, so rather than sounding like a wuss, I hid my initial excitement and tried to brush off her idea.

“Hikkaduwa? Again, this year? I won’t be quite the same.”

“But we promised each other we’d go back.”

“Yeah, but not this Christmas. Last year it was beautiful, but if we try to recapture the same feeling, we are bound to be disappointed.”

However, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake her enthusiasm and no matter what I said, couldn’t dissuade her. Finally, in desperation, aware I was losing the argument comprehensively, I said feebly, “I have a bad feeling.”

She gave me a look of scornful disbelief but thankfully let it drop.

As it turned out, we didn’t go on a holiday that Christmas, but instead accepted an invitation from a friend and had a rather lame party sitting around making polite conversation.

Still rankling about being defeated by a “feeling” Lata pointedly remarked, “We could have been having a ball in Hikkaduwa.” I grinned sheepishly and let the dig pass.

The next day was a Sunday, and we slept late. Switching the TV on, idly browsing through the channels, we saw a news report about an earthquake in Sumatra. Soon, there were scattered reports about a tsunami that claimed hundreds of lives in Thailand. Through the day, more reports trickled in about widespread devastation in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

At first, it was purely a massive tragedy. Then as the reports became more specific, we learnt of Galle being severely hit. That was when the penny dropped.

Galle was only 20 odd kilometres from Hikkaduwa! If the strange “feeling” hadn’t stopped us, we would have been at the very heart of the disaster. And we would have been in our room overlooking the sea.

Lata’s fear of the sea coming into our room had come true. Only it happened exactly one year from the day when we were there.

Coincidence? I know it isn’t.

If that strange premonition hadn’t stopped us from going again to Hikkaduwa, we would surely have been among the casualties of that dreadful day.

Lucky escape? The most cynical atheist of us all will have to admit to supernatural forces at work here. Lata and I will merely call it divine intervention.

When the full import of the realization hit us, Lata asked me in a hushed, awed voice as the horrific images played over and over again on the TV.

“How did you know?”

“God told me.”

I might have said it flippantly, trying to hide my roiling emotions, but it was true.

God did tell me. Not in a stentorian voice roaring through the universe. Not accompanied by thunder and lightning. Not even in simple easy-to-understand words.

No, He told me quietly, through a “feeling” in the pit of my stomach.

Himalayas, June 2011

Haridwar

Lata and I decided to go to Kedarnath and Badrinath in Uttarakhand to experience the grandeur of the Himalayas. We flew to Delhi and took a taxi to Haridwar, 250 kilometers away. The drive from Delhi to Haridwar was long and tiresome, the traffic crawling like cold molasses.

“Saab, very heavy traffic today” the driver lamented.

“Why?”

“Oh, it’s Ganga Saptami, didn’t you know? I thought that was why you were going to Haridwar, today.”

“What happens on Ganga Saptami?” Lata asked.

“It is Goddess Ganga’s birthday today. Very auspicious day to take a dip in the river, light a lamp and watch Ganga Arati. That’s why so much traffic today Memsaab. People come from all over the world to pray at Haridwar and Rishikesh today.”

And wholly by serendipity (I love that word), we found ourselves going to Haridwar on one of the most auspicious days of the calendar.

The first glimpse of the famous city was the Shiva statue towering over the cityscape 100 feet into the twilit sky. We went straight to the bathing ghats and saw the head priest at the temple on the river bank getting ready for the spectacular Ganga Arati. We hurriedly bought the necessary puja items and found a decent vantage point among the teeming mass of humanity.

The 100-ft tall statue of Shiva in Haridwar

The head priest raised his flaming torch and chanted, “Om Jai Ganga Mata”. On cue, about 30 junior priests lining the riverbank, raised their torches in salute and repeated the chant. Then the flaming torches began to dip and sway in unison creating intricate patterns as several thousand ecstatic throats roared the chant.

I glanced at Lata. She was in a trance swaying to the lilting chant with her eyes closed. Suddenly, her eyes flew open and met mine. In a split second, we were both fused as one, as if by a celestial fire as old as time.

A vast peace descended upon us like a warm blanket on a chilly night. We were content to let the immense tranquility wash over us until the Arati was over.

That was our welcome to the land of the gods and we were still in the foothills! We couldn’t wait to climb the mountains.

Kedar, Badri and Auli

I am deliberately not including some of the miraculous events that changed my life forever during this trip in this blog because they are covered in breath-taking detail in my book.  Any description here would be a spoiler for the book itself. I promise you will thank me when you read the book. I will keep you posted when it is published.

We set out for Kedar the next day with Mahendar a young driver cum guide who would drive us in his little Santro for the next week or more. I was initially anxious about his age wondering if he had the maturity to drive us around the mountain roads. But I needn’t have worried. Observing his handling of the car was a pleasure. His concentration was supreme. The engine of the little Santro purred as it ate up the gradient-filled miles with ease.

The winding roads that Mahendar drove us up to Kedar. Racing down these hairpin bends in the dead of night is a tribute to his superb driving.

We made a couple of stops, once above Devprayag, where the two rivers Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda meet to form the Ganges. We stopped for lunch at Srinagar and around mid-afternoon made another stop at Rudraprayag, the place made famous by Corbett’s ‘The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag’. Just before we halted for the night at Sonprayag, we saw the setting sun setting the snow-capped mountains ablaze in the distance.

The green waters of the Bhagirathi River meet the Alaknanda which is brown, at Devprayag. From this point onwards the river becomes the Ganga.

The next day we took a chopper ride to Kedarnath—the most magical ten-minute flight in my life. The whole shifting scene below us was like a fairytale landscape.

I went shutter-happy with my camera shooting everything in sight, including a semi-feral buffalo which thanked me by chasing me down the mountain slope. We had wonderful darshans, especially a 4 am VIP darshan which we were extremely lucky to get. We gave our seats on the chopper ride to an aged couple because they had altitude sickness and trudged down the centuries-old walking track instead.

From Kedar, we drove to Badrinath and had a great darshan here too. Lata had an otherworldly experience during the darshan and lost a diamond from her wedding ring in the bargain. We then went to Auli, a ski resort to have a few days to ourselves. There I had a medical emergency and Lata saved my life, literally. We had to race down the mountains in the dead of night to reach Dehradun, the closest place with a specialty hospital.

After a hair-raising 18-hour drive, we arrived at the hospital, exhausted and thankful to be alive. But those are stories for another time. Suffice to say, we were blessed to have the gods with us every step of the way.

Bangalore, June 2013

Deja Vu all over again. We were sitting and watching TV at home exactly two years to the day when we were in Kedarnath on the 16th of June. The TV anchor interrupted his program to announce a massive cloudburst had hit Kedarnath and there was widespread destruction and heavy loss of life. We were stunned at the coincidence. Two years ago, at the very hour when the flood struck, we were trudging down the track that was now completely washed away. The entire mountainside had now vanished.

In the foreground is the top of the temple. The winding rock-strewn river bed is the path the floodwaters took in 2013, washing away an entire mountainside.

As I write this, I can feel the goosebumps on my body. First Hikkaduwa, then Kedar and now Notre Dame. How can something like this happen to us thrice? On exactly the same day, only on different years?

Is it merely an accident of happenstance? A cosmic lesson? Kalyug? Am I drawing parallels where none exist?

Or could it be destiny, after all?

Whatever it is, Hikkaduwa is thriving now. Kedarnath is open and Notre Dame will be restored soon. Already hundreds of millions have been pledged for its restoration. You could say it is the universal story of birth, death and renewal.

The giant turtles of Hikkaduwa are back and you can feed them seaweed in the early morning and evening.

As I am writing this, the news is full of reports about the serial bomb attacks in Colombo and Batticaloa. Will this beautiful land ever be free of the violence so at odds with its people? I can only pray.

 

 

 

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