Continuing on my travels as a nine-year-old with my parents, the next day we had an unforgettable trip to see the ruins of Baalbek, an ancient temple where there is a music festival held every year.
A few years before this Baba had visited Lebanon for the first time and he had brought back an album of a concert in Baalbek. Always fond of music, I was completely mesmerised by the voice of singer Fairuz, the Lata Mangeshkar of Lebanon.
So when we reached I had a sense of deja vu, almost as though I had been there before. But the Indian film delegation who accompanied us were bored out of their thick skulls and were dying to get back to the fleshpots of Beirut. So we finally bid Baalbek, and soon after, Beirut a fond goodbye.
We flew to Amman and camped in the King David Hotel. From there we took daily excursions to all the surrounding tourist spots, the first being Bethlehem.
Even at nine, I remember being transported by the atmosphere of Bethlehem. Going into the grotto which is supposedly Jesus’ birthplace was a spiritual and elevating experience.
Time stands still in Jerusalem where I saw men riding donkeys in the narrow lanes carrying their wares strapped to the sides. We then went on to Jerusalem, and the walls of Jericho. It was like going back to Biblical times.
There was not much to do in the evenings in Amman, so the Attache’s three-year-old son Kim and I amused ourselves by going up and down in the antiquated lift to kill time. Until it suddenly groaned to a halt between two floors and refused to budge despite my frantically pressing all the buttons.
I started screaming in terror and the little one followed suit. I think our collective screaming almost brought the house down. When we were finally rescued, the manager ticked me off roundly.
It was for the first time I discovered I have acute claustrophobia, though I didn’t know the word at that time, and have had a healthy fear of lifts ever since.
Our last outing in Jordan was to the Dead Sea. The atmosphere there matched the name perfectly. It was ominously silent and there were no signs of life anywhere. No plants or animals could survive in the dense atmosphere.
My parents insisted I get into the water in spite of my pleas that I would drown to death because I couldn’t swim. I was told one couldn’t sink in the water but I was not convinced. Before I knew it, I was in my undies being pushed into the water by my unfeeling parents, egged on by the Guptas.
I somehow lasted just a few minutes but realised in that short time that what they said was probably true because there was an unnatural buoyancy to the water, which seemed to push one upwards. But I didn’t want to push my luck, and I came out caked in salt.
It was altogether a most unpleasant experience, more so because there was nowhere I could wash the salt off my body, so all through the rest of the day I felt icky and itchy in turns.
In hindsight I realise that I was privileged to have had such a unique experience. After all how many of our fellow countrymen can claim to have had a near death experience in a dead sea?
At this point, Baba took a spur of the moment decision to visit Greece as it was so close that it seemed a shame not to visit. We stayed in a grand old hotel in Athens with waiters the same vintage as the hotel.
One of them hovered over us while we ate breakfast and much to my annoyance cluck clucked disapprovingly when I refused to eat anything. He brought me an omelette and stood by patiently till I finished eating it. Only then did he leave the table. I don’t think I have ever come across a waiter like that again.
I still remember his face clearly and the beautiful and gracious dining room where we sat at a table covered in a pristine white tablecloth, overlooking the street outside.
After Beirut, Athens felt like a morgue. Our waiter seemed to have taken a shine to us, because he came back to the table to tell us that we must buy some Greek delicacies to take home. And so we discovered baklava for the first time. I had never seen sweets made out of whole pistas and almonds. It was absolutely divine!
As all tourists, we went to see the Acropolis. It was imposing and majestic but by now I was tired of seeing so many monuments and walking miles in the process. My enthusiasm was waning rapidly. I perked up again when we went on a one-day cruise of the Aegean sea. The sight of the water and the quaint islands revived me.
An American woman on the boat gifted me a Pentel pen when she saw me sketching. It turned out she was an artist and she befriended us through the rest of the cruise. I still remember her name — Johanna Osborne. But that was the last time we saw her.
Ma was fascinated by the tiny shops that lined the quay. She spotted a beautiful tangerine coral necklace, and bought it for my sister Yashodhara who passed away on January 1, this year. But the coral necklace has outlasted both of them and is mute testimony of an unforgettable past.
And then it was was time to return to lndia. Though I had travelled to magical places I was happy to be back home, but my happiness was short lived.
Baba developed fever soon after we got back from our travels. He had to cancel the shoot of his new film as he developed high temperature on the sets.
He was diagnosed with pleurisy. Little did we realise it was the beginning of the end. He steadily got worse, till he was finally diagnosed with lung cancer. He died 15 months later in January 1966.
My last trip with him proved to be fateful. It is a memory that will always be tinged with sadness.