Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

Suspended on Beliefs: Riding the faith cycle in Madhya Pradesh

(This. Because I’m on a nostalgia trip. Also because I’m wanting to run away from Big City right now. But mostly because this is one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime.)

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Our little boat is silently making its way across the river Narmada. The only sounds audible are of geese squawking farewell to each other in the distance, the melodic strains of the oar splicing through the water, and the rapid clicking of a camera — it is a beautiful clear sunset in the tiny town of Maheshwar, the kind that occurs the day after torrential rain. Our destination is the 200-year-old Baneshwar temple situated in the middle of the river, one that the more modern motorboats only circle around for the benefit of tourists. “Once we get there, take your time, take as many pictures as you want, there’s no hurry,” says Kaluram, our wizened 60-year-old oarsman.

He has an ulterior motive — while we do a quick round of the temple and dismiss it as just another one of Madhya Pradesh’s countless shrines, he shrugs off his holey rubber chappals, does swift ablutions in the river and gets on with lighting diyas, offering flowers, perambulating the temple with folded hands and eyes devoutly shut. Sheepishly, we look the other way, perhaps not wanting to invade his privacy. Once he’s done, Kaluram crouches on the steps of the temple, lights a beedi and proceeds to give us a brief history of the place.

“Every year, there’s a flood in this river — banks, houses, trees are all washed away. When the tide ebbs, this little shrine is the only thing still standing. We think of it as a miracle — which is why I come here to pray every day,” he explains. From our vantage point in the dimming light, Ahilya Bai Holkar’s massive fort looks dwarfed in the distance. Under a starry, moonless sky, we quietly make our way back to the ghat, now thronged by people sending off little betel leaf boats loaded with flowers and incense sticks into the river.

Maheshwar is a small town, quite off the beaten track, that thrives on a special kind of textile crafted here and because of adventurous tourists, mostly foreigners. Ahilya Bai Holkar, after being appointed ruler of Malwa in 1767, set up her capital here. Inside the fort, one of the few living ones in the country is a little house with a blooming angan where she used to live.

This space is now a museum stocked with her sparse belongings, countless portraits, posters and canvasses printed with poetry in praise of her piety, simple beauty and valour. Inside the fort are also countless shivlings, a school for girls, a Maheshwari cloth workshop run by old, widowed women and the poshest restaurant in town.

The people of the town seem to follow Ahilya Bai’s example dedicatedly — their visits to the smooth sandstone riverside are a daily ritual, says Kaluram. Not only does this serve as a release from the humdrum of everyday life, but it also acts as a binding force, instilling a sense of community. This spirit is quite in contrast with nearby Mandu, a more popular destination thanks to some wonderful historic architecture marvels, but which we are repeatedly warned away from due to brewing communal tensions. The issue at hand was a Hindu opposition to the Muslims offering namaaz at the local Bhojshala temple, a tradition that has continued for ages.

We’ve arrived here after a week of haphazard travelling — having hopped onto a train to Jhansi from Delhi, we headed to Khajuraho, “the land of the Kama Sutra”, as an American girl on the train put it. Khajuraho is, of course, particularly popular with the foreign tourists because it is a window to India’s heritage that celebrates all that is carnal. We cycle around the tiny cosmopolitan village that has cropped up between the eastern and western temples, populated with little hotels and restaurants serving a global menu. The temples themselves are beautiful — cut in sandstone, with statues depicting sexual positions studding the tall structures. Even the Jain temples to the west, known to be a tribute to sacrifice and abstinence, are designed thus, inspiring a sense of awe for those who are acquainted with the ways of the Hindu religion.

Pachmarhi, the Deccan’s only hill-station, is known to be an important destination on the Shaivite pilgrim’s map. Deep in the Satpura jungles is a cave, popularly known as Jatashankar, where you descend into a wet crevasse to discover a small shrine to the lord of destruction, guarded by tridents and a stalactite that looks like the hood of a cobra snake. An old woman wrapped in blue plastic sits on a rock and sings bhajans in a startlingly clear voice. When we compliment her, she gives us a toothy grin and demands I take a picture of her. Calling herself shankarji ki bhaktan, she says, “I’ve been here since I was a little girl — never married, no kids. He is my lord, my soul. I sing for his pleasure.”

Near the cantonment is the town Church, among the few survivors of the British contribution to this town. From a distance, it looks enticingly haunted, half-obscured by tall poplars, and we can catch glimpses of pretty stained-glass windows. But a woman selling cigarettes in front of the church intercepts us and, after some discomfiting questions (“Where are you going? Are you Christian? Catholic?”), tell us that tourists aren’t allowed in anymore. We find out much later that her tale of a mob coming and vandalising the church, post which it was only open on Sundays for mass, is a complete hogwash and just a ploy to earn some extra money on the side.

Our sojourn into the heart of India was not meant to be a religious one, but it seems that in Madhya Pradesh, faith just happens to be the driving force for pretty much everything. We leave Maheshwar with a heavy heart — our agnostic souls found peace sitting on the steps of the fort, as we watched breathtaking sunsets in silence. On the bus to Indore, the closest stop for a railway connection, we meet a maulavi dressed in a black achkan and white pyjamas, his silver beard flecked with red. We offer him our breakfast — delicious sweet and spicy poha wrapped in newspaper, for the princely sum of Rs. 5 — at which he smiles and begins talking about politics, religion and education, exalting the virtues of the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita and the Quran in a single breath.

As we get closer to the highway, we spot a poster by a local political party, calling for an end to namaaz in the Bhojshala temple and sporting one of the ‘sexy’ figurines from Khajuraho. While we’re busy guffawing at this, our new friend finds this violation of amity atrocious. “What is the point of religion if all it makes you want to do is force your ideas upon others?” he demands, his voice quavering. “I teach my pupils all the holy texts — and the only way to find true faith is to sieve the good out of these, because, I must warn you, they aren’t without flaws,” he asserts. It was ironical — he used the very factors that drive us ‘secular’ city folk into disclaiming religion to inspire a pluralist sensibility. But then again, in this land of convergence, such a manifestation of faith can hardly be surprising.

Sampling Sandunes at Jodhpur

(This is a travelogue I wrote for the paper that pays me to do such stuff — yes my life is that awesome, sometimes! — and I am rather proud of it. Also, Jodhpur is a fun place to visit, especially at this time of the year. Another reason you might want to pack up your bags and head for the edge of the Thar is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, which promises a rather intriguing cocktail of rustic tunes, camels, forts and food for the nomad soul! See you there, perhaps!)

A view of Mehrangarh Fort from Pal Haveli’s terrace. Go to the Indica restaurant for its view, the cool desert breeze at night and cheap liquor. Photo: Akash Gupta

In a tiny ‘Bishnoi’ (Vaishnav, as per the Hindu caste system) village called Salawas near Jodhpur, an old man, browned and lined by a lifetime of physical labour, shows us around his humble abode – mud-caked houses, thatched roofs with goats and cows tethered, with a couple of peacocks frolicking close by – and treats us to some home-made afeem (opium) and chai.

“Salman Khan shot his infamous black bucks in our village only,” he states pompously, as he unwraps his stash with a flourish. Scraping off bits of the dry stuff, he directs us to eat it and says, “Ab hum aapka apne ghar mein swagat karte hain.”

Singh then proudly shows us his afeem-making machine, a fascinating contraption carved out of wood, with a crusher, two cones for accumulating the juice of poppies and a little serpent idol. He explains that afeem is not so much an addiction as a way of life. “No marriage is sanctioned unless the father of the bride gives his new in-laws some of this. We celebrate, commemorate and cure with the help of this flower. Of course, we cannot grow it here nor have we ever thought of marketing it,” he laughs, his white whiskers, which could be the envy of any royal heir, twitching with mirth at the tourist’s surprise.

There is a practiced aura around all of Charan Singh’s movements. We are instructed to give the man a little token of appreciation. Not that one minds, especially since the man has given us a peek into a hitherto unknown world. We are then driven on to a potter’s and a weaver’s houses – at both places we repeat the routine. Clearly, the burgeoning trade of tourism in Jodhpur has infiltrated the suburbs too, in spirit as well as in economic returns.

This delightful little ‘trip’ is unexpected as our train Mandore Express pulls up earlier that morning into the railway station, disgorging us at an unearthly 5 am. We’ve only planned a romp in the lap of old-style affluence, basking in the reflected light of this warrior clan’s heritage, even as we sample some of that famed Marwari hospitality. Clearly, we are to get much more than we’d bargained for.

Jodhpur was founded by a king called Rao Jodha in 1459, with the nearby town Mandore functioning as capital initially. The Rathores, a clan of Rajputs to which Jodha belonged, ruled the Marwar region for centuries till it finally became a fief under Mughal rule and then a princely state under British rule.

We headed to Ranbanka Palace, a beautiful heritage hotel, situated a bit away from the main city’s bustle. At dawn, the place looked like an oasis of greenery bordered by sandstone in the middle of a rambling desert. The hotel used to be the residence of Prince Ajit Singh, Maharaja Jodha Singh’s (founder of the town) younger brother. Much of the opulence of earlier centuries have been retained and added upon – badges of honour in the form of stuffed deer heads, tiger skin rugs, photographs of previous kings and residents standing over hunted conquests find pride of place everywhere.

Ranbanka Palace at dawn. Photo: Akash Gupta

The present generation has a different sport to excel at – the bar exhibits Rajkumar Karan Singh’s (the current owner and also a cousin of designer Raghavendra Rathore) laurels at Polo. In fact, we’re informed, the palace hosts a tournament during the winters. We take all this in – the pink walls adorned with bougainvillea creepers, colourful frescoes for windows, rangolis on the floor combined with Jacuzzis, swimming pools, spas and wi-fi connectivity — and realise that the distance between old and new money is easily bridged.

Umaid Bhawan, an important spot of historical importance in the city, is another example of this phenomenon.  Commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1924, the palace took 20 years to build. Situated on a hillock, it glows a magnificent golden, the sandstone is intricately carved in the style in Rajputana style, and is surrounded by well-tended gardens. While a section of the palace is still the residence of the current king, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, the rest is a museum showcasing royal paraphernalia – jewellery, furniture, armoury, attire and an impressive array of vintage cars, including Bentleys, Cadillacs and even Humbers.

Quite uniquely, the main foyer houses LED displays that pay special tribute to the Edwardian architect of the palace, Sir Henry Vaughan Lanchester, and to interior designer Stefan Norblin, who can be credited for some stunning but slightly out-of-context Biblical murals to be found on the palace’s ceilings. A new gated colony adjoining the palace premises is the most intriguing sight before us. Umaid Heritage Estate is to be a high-end residential area for the industrialists and the super-rich, most famously Mankichand Panwala. Kumar finds this capitalist desire to be part of royalty quite awesome; in some way, this new development makes him feel part of it all.

Kumar tells us with immense pride that Jodhpur has its own culture, quite distinct from, say, Jaipur or Jaisalmer. “Look at the clothes – we invented the jodhpuris,” he laughs. The main part of the town, housing an archaic clock tower, is fairly ordinary, except for the amount of colour on display. From the men’s turbans, which are blue, white or multi-coloured depending on what caste they hail from, to flowing ghaghras in shocking pink and electric green, there is colour everywhere. Living at the edge of desert, one would want this kind of palette to keep the eyes feasting on some life.

We make a beeline for Gypsy, a popular restaurant, for a Marwari thali. We’re served a wholesome meal – daal, baati, choorme ke ladoo, dhokla, rotis soaked in ghee, gattey ki sabzi, pooris andsaffron pulao – and coaxed into seconds by the owner, Mr. Chandali, who waits upon his guests in person, carrying out his cultural duty of ‘Manuhaar’ (hospitable persuasion) with elan. Replete with satisfaction, we head out to the next must-visit place in Jodhpur – the Mehrangarh fort.

Rajasthani Marwari thali at Gypsy. Slurp! Photo: Akash Gupta

The fort, situated on a hillock for strategic reasons, is a ramshackle giant of a site that is visible from anywhere in the city. It truly does look like the work of ‘angels, fairies and giants’, as Rudyard Kipling said way back in 1899. From its higher vantage point, one can see an ocean of blue houses winking up at us. Today, it wears a haunted look – threadbare, swept clean of life, unlike the living fort of Jaisalmer. It is perhaps this quality that led Christopher Nolan to feature the fort in The Dark Knight Rises as the backdrop for the prison-well in the middle of nowhere.

Within the fort, a few rooms are open to the public as a museum – on display here are accessories of the subject’s life, cultural investments that the kings endowed the kingdom with and religious strains. Miniature paintings between 1725 and 1843 that depict the transition from portraiture of the monarchs to sketching out abstract ideas of Vaishnavite religion find pride of place in the Diwan-e-Am (the court of the commoners). And we also spotted a more expensive-looking version of the afeem-making machine in a glass case here.

As the sun goes down, we ascend to new heights of magnificence. Strains of the sarangi, fused with sounds from the city below, waft in through exquisitely carved wooden doors and windows, cannons and other outdated armoury, and domes of all shapes and sizes, giving the evening a scintillating hue. We look upon the city milling about in the everyday, and are struck by the many contradictions that history has ordained this long-surviving nub of civilisation with.

Like Aldous Huxley once rather floridly stated: “From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus, the gods to whom each separate word uttered in the innumerably peopled world below, comes up distinct and individual to be recorded in the books of omniscience.” Perhaps this over-the-top description was also an inspired conjecture on some afeem-swilling night.

The Blue City. At Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Akash Gupta

Narrow Escape

That morning, I woke up wanting
only a vision to calm the restive animal
hammering to get out of  my rib cage.

That morning, my breakfast
was a few dry crumbs dissolved in tea gone 
cold. I wasn’t paying attention. 

That morning, all those years of lies
And deceit were unwanted company 
On the balcony, twirling in tune with the smoke.

That morning, the valley yonder
was a vast, relentless admonishment —
“Who do you think you’re running away from?”

That morning, I thought I’d escaped
on a blue bus, out of the city, out of the civil,
out of me. And there I was, face to face.

That morning, the wilderness was inside
me like never before, confusion reigning,
anger thrashing, the madness hunting.

That morning was just the night in camouflage,
only just beginning to descend. With fingers
clammy, it would’ve squeezed me bloodless.

But that morning turned into noon, into 
evening and into twilight, and i walked
from sunset to sunset and rainbow to rainbow
and felt the monster disengage, dissipate,
apparate as the sweat on my forehead
arrived to witness………………………………..

…………………………………….THIS.

THE moment in Kasol…

…was digging into Banoffee Pie (which was an Israeli delight according to Pinku bhaiya, the sweetest simplest waiter at Sasi Restaurant who hailed from Mandi and prattled on cheerfully about life, love and loss and kept us satiated with conversation while we waited for our Shakshuka plates or Enchiladas to arrive) on a candle-lit check-cloth covered table under a star-studded clear sky, with the white Parvati raging endlessly to our left and the solid black mountains of Himachal all around.

Never had i thought that bananas could taste so delicious. Some Parle-G or chocolate biscuit crumble, honey, condensed milk, glazed bananas, almonds and walnuts, cream, butter, your expertise at layering and voila! you’ve got an eighth of an orgasm in each bite. Oh, and it is very much an English invention.

Of course, apart from partaking of such wonderful food, we did the usual frolic in the hills, dipping into cold water, emerging from shivering trances to take walks along green winding roads, talking, playing catch like children. Meeting fresh-off-the-Army-bus Israelis who loved India and chai and ‘gulab jabun’ and travelling. Scouring tiny shops for semi-silver cheap trinkets. Sitting on a lovely big balcony, wrapped up in sweaters and music and good company, sipping chai, breathing pine scent, feeling life re-coursing through one’s veins. Embalming bad patches, building reservoirs of energy to brace against more rough wind. Praying there wouldn’t be any.

Planning it would’ve been to ruin it. We went with the flow, wherever our mood and the buses took us. If vacations are about suspension of reality and taking a chance at living out a fantasy, this was IT.

Oh Kabul Kabul!

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( The following is an essay on the lessons learnt in peacemaking in Afghanistan during the visit to Kabul earlier this year. In the space of one week, we were given lectures, visited the city an neighbouring areas to see ground realities, and had long soulful discussions on the unique conundrum that South Asia faces in terms of development, coming to terms with a colonial history and building peace. This work is a product of analysis and summarisation of all that I learnt from the experience. )

Mr Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, had begun his talk to us in Kabul with the following quote by Saadi: “If you have no sympathy for another’s pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” For peacemakers, and for any individual, these words are heavy with the wisdom of man’s experience in the world, not as a political being, but a social, emotional one. For us students, the student exchange programme was enlightening in that it showed to us the three sides of the subcontinent: it was an exercise in understanding this very ‘other’.

The Great Game

Afghanistan is currently, and historically has been, the prize that the winner of the ‘Great Game’ shall acquire. Although this explicit statement sounds inciting enough, and may sound untrue at first sight, seeing as America’s predominant ‘cause’ in the region is the establishment of democracy and a ‘just government’, this is how people from within the civil society analyze their status even today. Said Mr Rafiee, Afghanistan currently has the highest capability of sweet water in the world: 17 billion cubic metres. The World Bank puts this number at 65 billion cubic metres and the CIA says there’s 170 billion cubic metres of the said resource in the region. There is also said to a hidden trove of natural gas and oil, along with mines of caladium and scandium which are 200 times more expensive than uranium. So while the label of instituting democracy stays put, as it has since the time of the Cold War across the world, it seems to be a covert war in the name of globalization that the US is carrying out in the region to advance the interests of its multi-national corporations. This is a view from within Afghanistan as to their value in the world.

All in the name of Democracy?

The presence of international actors seems to be something that has, for the larger part, been welcomed by the people of Kabul, at least in terms of dealing with the Taliban. However, their continuing presence seems to be irksome to a few within the civil society members we spoke to, who saw them as a hindrance to development of the country as well as peaceful resolution of their political situation. They are seen as pursuing greedy corporate as well as strategic interests. Also, a large number of people do not believe that NATO and US forces shall actually be pulled back by next year. Continuation of presence could be justified through the fact that Afghanistan has no functional economy of its own, and is too dependent on funds coming in from aid from the UN and other international donors. There are not many people dying of hunger or poverty within the country, maintaining this status quo which turns into a vicious cycle. Neo-colonial domination also continues through the fact that the cabinet of Afghanistan is composed of foreign ministers from different countries which means there are already too many stakeholders within the country.

Multiculturalism vs a Fragmented Nation

Apart from the international presence, the question of a cohesive national identity still remains. The region is made up of 36 ethnic and religious constituents, including Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. Of these, the Pashtuns dominate, constituting 36% of the population, according to the last census held in 1979. The second in this turn come to be the Tajiks, who hold the executive administrative rights within the country, while the Pashtuns hold most of the power. Other tribes include the Hazaras, the Balochs, the Turkmen and the Persians, among others. The country is landlocked on all sides by Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and on all fronts, there exist skirmishes along the borders as identities spill over them. Thus, Afghanistan also faces the problem of facing disturbances on almost all fronts with ethnic identities seeking to unite or separate. Thus emerges the problem of no common language, no common national identity to keep the nation together. However, it was also argued that no serious efforts at secession have been made, and this was attributed to the predominance of the Islamic identity, and the characterization of Afghanistan as an Islamic state.

Jihad

Then there is the question of terrorism. According to Liaqat Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is the most important challenge that Pakistan and Afghanistan face today. He stressed on the importance of taking this seriously and not being reductionist about it since it is the main contributor to instability and threat to regional peace. He blamed the phenomenon on the inability of the region to get rid of the colonial legacies, ie the disputed borders along Kashmir as well as the Durand Line. Calling us ‘hostages to history’, he said it was important to go back to the roots of jihad and see where it originated and tackle it from the ground upwards. Jihad, according to him, has very deep sentimental, psychological and social underpinnings, none of which will be easy to tackle, but it is equally important that they are. Finding a political solution would mean encouraging the Taliban to participate within civil society and eventually reaching a political power sharing agreement with them, even though Mr Ali did not see in them the capacity to be able to govern.

Regional Peace?

Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are also a hotbed of disagreements as well as the source of much security for the country. While both characterize themselves as Islamic countries and share that bond, they also share a partitioned Pashtun population between themselves along the Durand Line. Apart from Pashtun cries for national secession, the two countries have till date not come to an agreement on formalizing the border or on Pakistan returning the disputed areas to Afghanistan. Mr Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized Pakistan into four categories: the common people that live there, the progressive civil society of Pakistan, the nation-state of Pakistan and the established one in terms of governance and intelligence. While the first three are not problematic, it is the last that creates a sense of an ideological Pakistan that shoulders Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan has had an increasing desire for influence in the country since the Russian invasion and it also has a different approach to terrorism than Afghanistan. Its approach to the Taliban is one of support and encouragement, especially the Quetta Shura faction, even at the political level, while it sees the Northern Alliance as an opposing political party. In this, the two countries face potential problems which could only be solved through a resolution of the disputed border, an agreement on approach to dealing with terrorism, and possibly through a power-sharing agreement that could be cut between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that could be cut next year.

India’s presence in Afghanistan, although not seen as definitely benign by either Afghanistan or Pakistan, is certainly not military, which makes it less of threat in that sense. The Afghans seem to embrace the Indian presence, for its effect on their economy, their cultural advancement and social and infrastructural development. Although there have been recent accusations and uprisings against the perceived corruption of the indigenous culture by Indian parties in the state, for the larger part, the Indian presence is seen as harmless and productive.

Representation and the Other

Thus, for Afghanistan, the situation is as tumultuous as ever. According to Mr Rafiee, the lack of trust, disconnected states and state-nations, corrupt governments, territorial conflicts, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, no presence of rule of law are all factors that work well for the ‘actors’ present in the region. As much the speakers stressed on regional cooperation as the way ahead as well as the ultimate goal for lasting peace in the region, a real-time on-the-ground effecting of such a situation seems hard enough, seeing as there exist enough intractable conflicts between the three countries – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, common agendas to work on would and should include dealing with the rampant poverty in the region, terrorism and millennium development goals.

According to Mr Aziz Hakimi of Future Generation, copious investment in education, building tolerance instincts, dispelling myths that might create victims are some of the ways to deal with the exceptional situation in South Asia at the ground level. According to Mr Ali, also important is reviving micro-identities to focus on localism to deal with Western hegemonistic forces and keeping traditional values alive. While such as assertion at a cultural level can go tragically awry in the name of re-gaining ground for the ‘Orient’, it is indeed true that for Afghanistan to take further steps into development and peaceful existence, it needs to move forward on its own feet with a considerable role in handling issues that the region faces together.

Peaks

Ten days in the month of June, three girls (very much like that Maggi ad) roamed the road less travelled in Himachal. It has to be one of the most memorable trips for me, all thanks to R and B. Yes we did it all – saw, ate, slept, wrote, dreamt, stared, gaped, prayed, loved, inhaled, trekked, read, heard, felt, yelled, guffawed…it was like an endless journey through the thick and thin of nature and what mankind has made of it. It was a much needed break from the city, the cosmopolitanism and the competition. It was an exploration into depths, searching for love, religion, words, sights, ideas and eventually, for existence…for just being. It was an opportunity, to bond with strangers, to grow closer to acqauintances and to get to know friends better. Somewhere between the loud singing along to Coldplay, The Beatles, ABBA as our little Alto zipped and zoomed round hills and blind turns, we learnt of some of the simplest forms of bliss – silence in good company, golden hot aloo paranthas with loads of melting butter at 7 am in the middle of nowhere (and this view is from this very point), gaping at the immense capability of the sky to hold stars, touching the innocence that only children can have, but that is sadly going amiss in this day and age of ‘little TV stars’, sipping hot lemon ginger tea and making friends from beyond borders, being awed at the spectacle of a 1,000 year old looming Buddha statue carved into an even older wall, sleeping in a car for the night for lack of money but only loving the stories this stuff makes, absorbing what village elders have to give us, laughing our lungs out at the most inane jokes, falling asleep through rambling tipsy conversations at 2 am…

It was an escape that i needed. It was a rejuvenation i got.

Spontaneity works pure magic sometimes.

Looking.

My last memory of Vrindavan was a dazed round through a few temples in one evening on the way back from a holiday in Agra. On this one-day trip i took last week with my family, which was actually to attend a second cousin’s wedding in the town, was a chance at clearing up my somewhat hazy recollection of the ISKCON temple. I remembered being enamoured by it last time (despite myself, might i add), but then attributed it to the innocence of childhood and drowsiness in the backseat of long car rides. Somehow, it was a challenge to myself — to feel awed now, now that i had become an adult and was trying hard to be the quintessential cynic.

You see, my relationship with god has been one of convenience – mostly mine. I have variously modelled myself along the lines of the atheist – i would resolutely refuse to sing along to prayers during school assemblies – the non-believer – have long arguments with my father about the existence of any such power – the anti-idolatory person – why should a piece of stone be the repository of all man’s affections, beliefs and all that he’d be willing to fight for?! – and the agnostic – religions are here to stay, i guess, so might as well make peace with them, and know they were all in good faith and should continue to be so. I just can’t bring myself to pick (yes, PICK) one.

To be honest, what i had felt at the Iskcon temple at Vrindavan last time had bothered me. Was this my chance to prove myself wrong – and right at the same time?

And so, we step into the marbled, banyan tree-ensconced entrance one sweltering summer evening, all dressed up for a marwari wedding but in no mood to tolerate the heat of the holy fire. In the incandescent light of the moon, and the floodlights, the white archway we pass under glimmers like pure wind. The path leads through a huge wood and iron door – the dwar – into a courtyard. This is an open angan styled on the big hindu mansions of yore, with a magnificently green and waif-like tree swaying in the middle, surrounded on all four sides by rooms. Straight ahead, there is a big hullabaloo happening in front of the gods chambers, all decked up in gold and gauze. The gods krishna and radha smile benignly upon all the song and dance happening in their court, enjoying the attention.

Finally, we turn to see the aarti – unlike any evening prayers i’ve seen before, this one has all the pundits and the worshippers jumping, dancing and hollering their god’s name in sheer joy, in what seems almost like a trance, a trip you can only get from certain banned intoxicating substances. A motley crowd this: pundits, hippie firangs, your usual hindu devotees,  a group of very young girls that have been initiated into gopi-hood, little Meeras…we gaze in wonderment, feeling it sprout within us too. the spirit is infectious – liberating enough to bring back the childhood in you.

We sit down on one side of the courtyard, trying to take it all in. Prayers are generally considered to be solemn, meditating affairs – but this was meditation of a different kind, where you’d connect with your your soul through what i feel is the best way to be – dancing. We gazed upon two boys who were hopping and swivelling on their own in the middle of the courtyard, in what is known as the chaitanya style of devoted dancing. We sought stars rarely seen in the Delhi sky from our lowly vantage point. We laughed at the frolicks of two toddler gopis playing near the tree. We soaked in all the vibrance floating in the air. Or was that just the aroma of fresh-baked cookies, the prasadam, wafting from their bakery?

It was a blissful evening. Not because it delivered any epiphanic moments that would awaken the devout in me, but because it brought to light an option of loving, believing in a way that doesn’t become the turn-off that a lot of people of this generation find in our customary ways of identifying and venerating god.

Yes, it was about the options. And also, about making my peace with God. just the one, not his/her 3,30 million avatars.

When we ‘covered deprivation’ in 2008

[Something i wrote about 2 years ago. old memories. reshared? 🙂 ]

One bright morning in January, a bunch of thirty odd youngsters set out on a trip with a mission- “covering deprivation”. Their motive was to visit the adjoining ‘poor’ district of Krishnagiri, 256 kms away from Chennai, to bring to light the plight of villagers and others who did not belong to the mainstream flow of convenience that makes up metropolitan cities like their own. Spirits soared and bad jokes as well as rumors flew about how they’d have to stay in sad little huts, with no electricity or water. Most had chlorine tablets, purifiers, blankets, thermal body suits and more safely tucked into their strollies. And they prepared for the worst as they kicked back heels, reclined into comfort and enjoyed ‘Ratatouille’ on the LCD screen in their mini tourister on the way.
Six hours and a few mishaps later, they were looking out their windows and drinking in rustic beauty at its best. The horizon was made up of rocky hills and forest land and the highway that they were speeding on was the lifeline that seemed to connect this island to the rest of civilization. Soon, much to the relief of some, they came to a hotel in which they were to be accommodated for the next week. The hotel boasted of a restaurant as well as a bar, thank god, but now, could they get some hot water, pronto please?? And then they were escorted to the district collector’s office where Dr. Santosh Babu, IAS, personally welcomed this bunch of overeager journalists. He was to make his best efforts to help them but they were to keep in mind that this district was also being developed at an extremely rapid pace- the officialdom was putting its best foot forward and they, the press, were to keep in line…
The following few days were a flurry of travel, visiting villages, talking to farmers, understanding the rural setup of life, as well as enjoying the idyllic pleasures of natural beauty, taking rides on fishermen’s boats down the Cauvery, eating, drinking and having ‘fun’ back at the hotel and then falling into bed exhausted but content. From seeing scruffy children running after their bus, and then grouping together with outstretched hands for sweet treats that these exotic looking ‘rich’ people might offer them, to finding out how bigger goals, such a conserving a forest, are achieved at the cost of taking away the livelihood of the marginalized alone- they saw it all.
It was like a pictoral collage of deprivation. A widow who was dumb and deaf, who stood smiling like an idiot, not knowing her plight, since she had no financial statistics of her own whatsoever. An eighty year old woman with no one in the world to call her own, except a brother in whose bathroom she was allowed to spend rainy days. Kaveri, an 8 year old girl, who was so enchanted by the tinkle of bangles on the wrist of one of these foreigners, that she cutely recited ‘ABC..’ in order to gain possession of them. Another girl, who sat watching Sun TV in her one room house, but was never allowed to go to school anymore, since she had gained puberty. Satyamurthy, a young man in his prime who worked in the pantry car of Lal Bagh Express, who believed that purity of the village was important to keep the Gods happy. Sujatha, his wife, who was living in the forest for the time being because she was having her period. Her one year old son, who was deprived of polio vaccination because she was unfit to mingle in social circles.
But with the graphic portraits of deprivation came the ghastly mask of deception. Government officials attempted to gloss over the truth by guiding their guests to their successful endeavors alone. The villagers had seen it all before- these foreigners came once, saw them in their natural habitat, absorbed the shock and went away, never to return. In turn, they had learnt techniques to make profit out of their destitution. They told tales of their poverty and then begged for some form of remuneration to ease their pain if only for a very short while. Kaveri and her friends too, had learnt the art of begging- since nobody could resist the sympathy they’d feel for these cherubs of the wild. The deception, probably, fully and finally existed in the heart of these journalists. What they came looking for, really, was stories and tales they could tell, and it did not much matter what the fates of these people would be.
The fun fair ended where it began. Questions, terrifying answers, doubts and clarifications- all swam together in the mind, but were not really voiced. For lack of concern or for fear of the truth and its reverberations- they all stayed woefully mum. Their hearts and heads were in the right place, probably, since feeling too much might have been something of a mistake. Emotion, after all, obscures objectivity, that much valued characteristic essential to a journalist. They all felt a little bit wiser to the ways of the world, now that they had gone down a road less travelled. They took their memories, and their notes, home.