Irish message for Kashmir

Before appearing on a TV show it is never a good idea to trip and stumble on the pavement, or to hit your head and nose so hard on the ground that it swells up double its size. Anyway I managed to do all of that and had a very dramatic flight to Belfast for a BBC programme, bleeding all the way.

Of course, I did try to get some medical care in London, at the well-known King’s College Hospital, but the National Health Service (NHS) emergency services move at a leisurely pace, with a receptionist who always seems challenged by the computer as she fills in your name. This one, too, was glacially unimpressed as I pleaded with her to hurry up, even begging her for a glass of water before I collapsed. I finally decided that it was better to go to a chemist, swallow a painkiller and catch that flight. Even though I had offered to drop out of the show the producers said the show must go on! Ouch!
At airports you rarely see anyone limping around, all bruised? So, with my colourful face I really stood out, receiving a lot of sympathy and advice the whole way, with the ground and airline staff trying to provide me with ice packs and helping me stem the flow. Much better than the legendary NHS! But it was the BBC crew the next day that surprised me with their pragmatic attitude. Perhaps as Belfast has a history of strife, they’ve seen a lot of bloody noses! Obviously, it was a strange way to begin their new series of Sunday Morning Live with a guest who looked like she had been in a serious punch-up. Maria, the make-up lady, saved the day. She had worked on the West End, especially on the musical, Cats. After that I knew I was in safe hands — if she could turn human beings into animals, surely my wounds would offer no challenge for her.
Finally well-camouflaged, I appeared with my fellow guests, the radio shock jock, Nick Ferrari, journalist Richard North and managed a heated discussion with host Susanna Reid.
Thus my Belfast foray is difficult to forget. Wisely, as I did not want to scare everyone on the flight back to London the same day, I decided to keep the make-up on. The disadvantage was that I received no further sympathy. Kind of missed it, I must admit!
Wandering around Belfast I was struck by two things: On the surface it appears a beautiful city by the river but much like Srinagar, it bears the memory of the years of militancy that has torn the city apart, so often. And it still continues to do so. In fact, just last week, tension flared up again. But it has become so much a part of life that people barely discuss it any more. They rather prefer to focus on the progress made after devolution, which has contributed enormously to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Accordingly, Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the United Kingdom, has its own government and functions fairly independently. This has given the two warring factions a chance to participate in the government.
Overall now it all seems quite calm. And the strange thing is that the once conflict zones have now become tourist attractions. In a guided tour of the city, we saw buildings that had been bombed, memorials to martyred soldiers and rebels alike, as well as the jail which had been home to many militants. But the most fascinating sight was the “peace walls”. These are literally huge walls topped with barbed wire running through the heart of Belfast, between the Protestant and Catholic communities, dividing them for their own safety. The walls have large gates known as “peace gates” which are opened and closed at fixed times of the day and night, an uncomfortable but necessary process.
Despite their rather gloomy purpose, the walls, however, are covered with fabulous paintings and graffiti painted by members of both communities, signifying both the sorrow of the deaths which have taken place (over 1,500 people were killed in the past few decades) as well as the hope for the future. But taking a tour through what seems like a war zone is surreal, especially when your guide is as young as mine was. Inured by the years of warfare, he said, quite matter of fact,
“People say that our wars are due to our different religions. Actually they are due to our politicians.” The guide seemed wise beyond his years. I was wondering why we in India are still so squeamish about our history of terrorism and communal battles? Couldn’t we too organise tours around Srinagar, for instance, in the same way? Not only would we see the spectacular natural and historical sites, and the art and craft, but learn the poignant lessons of a chequered past, as well.
Among Belfast’s other well-known claims to fame is that fact that the RMS Titanic, owned by the White Star Line, was constructed here at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in 1912, exactly a century back. It then left for Southampton, where she set sail for New York with more than 2,000 people on board. In fact, a whole museum for the Titanic is now under construction (though reassuringly behind schedule). However, the guide was suitably defensive about the role of the Irish, and the fact that it is sometimes said that there was a technical fault that led to the dramatic sinking of the fabled ship.
To him this was a conspiracy to defame the Irish. “Don’t forget”, our young guide pointed out darkly “the ship had British and Scotsmen at the helm”. Which, of course, was true as the Captain was Edward J. Smith. But looking at the peaceful blue waters it was strange to imagine that the wonderfully designed ship, built exactly a 100 years ago was just a memory now.
The tiny city of Belfast, with less than half a million population, is definitely still learning to live with its history, but there is little doubt that it has the spirit to fight back! After all Ireland has also given the US some of its best loved politicians, including the Kennedys. And so I hope I have brought some of the famous luck of the Irish with me.

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