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Ashu, Ashiq and I

May I offer you a rat?That is what Hotel Anand seems to be asking us – and repeatedly – in the supremely ugly town of Poonch that seems to have stopped caring about itself long, long ago.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 19:39 IST
Neelesh Misra

May I offer you a rat?

That is what Hotel Anand seems to be asking us – and repeatedly – in the supremely ugly town of Poonch that seems to have stopped caring about itself long, long ago.

Poonch was an anti-climax. I had heard so much about it. It is seeped in history, most prominently in 1947 and 1965 when tens of thousands of families were separated. I was hoping to find so much there.

Instead, we found the rat.

Wait a moment. Before that, we had smelled a rat. Hotel Anand, where we had booked three rooms, was supposed to be the best in town. But when we reached there all haggard from Surankote, the building seemed like a Food Corporation of India godown. We realised we were going to be treated like nothing better than sacks of rotting wheat when we found there was no one to take our heavy suitcases, no room service, no clean towels or soap, no one to bring us tea or food – in short, there was no one.

Except HIM, who made Ashiq leap into the air like Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka, and land with a thud on the chair like another dud DRDO rocket.

"OH MY GOD, I HATE RATS!" he announced – more to the rat, I thought, than to us. If he meant to scare the thing away, he failed miserably.

Ashiq's addressee was right there – big, hulky, dark, with a long wriggling tail, looking straight and menacingly at him and apparently saying "Welcome to Poonch, dude!"

Then it vanished, I guess to welcome the other guests.

Being afraid of rats takes away nothing from the valour of a person, and I have no guilt in reporting to you that the night was a difficult one for the young Peerzada.

The young Sapru is agile too. He doesn't jump up and down on chairs when he sees rats. He sprints at the slightest hint of a story. He is the design chief of our newspaper but is on his first assignment as a reporter in an ambitious project like this – and he has the admirable quality which I always seek -- of an enterprising, inquisitive cub reporter. He is turning out into a fine reporter. He wakes up at three and writes.

We got one large room and one small room. The bathrooms made Sulabh Shauchalaya look like Maharaja suites. And we slept in our denims that night, three men afraid that the rat might want to venture inside the quilts to nibble on the hemlines of our shorts.

Sleeping in the denims was no big deal. We have been travelling for two weeks now, and have eased into a rough travellers' mode. We are sleeping for only about four hours every day, skipping meals constantly, and rushing to meet deadlines most of the time.

The next morning, we were at a football ground where we interviewed people for a long time for our stories. We met a Kashmiri police officer who told us in great excitement that he also wanted azaadi like the men he and his colleagues helped beat up every now and then.

If there was one thing that made us feel better than the rat issue, it was the desperate search for the internet to file our stories. After much difficulty, we located the only cyber café in town, where the tall wiry owner Jameel was not open for business.

The long hours of power shutdowns had ensured that his backup battery had collapsed – and this was on a good day. Today was the first day after eight days when the Internet link was functioning – this after he had threatened the BSNL officers to use the Right to Information to seek details about the poor service. But in an hour, Jameel offered us not only an internet connection but tea and part of his packed lunch.

But the best food in town was the rajma chawal at the little vegetarian dhaba, where a dollop of ghee came with everything but the water and the tea.

When we emerged from the dhaba after a dinner and two lunches over two days, I seemed to have a waist of 197 inches, which I hope to trim down by running around the world 57 times.