Friday, October 31, 2008

A First Look at Meghalaya

In spite of the day’s tragedy, the drive from Guwahati, in the state of Assam, to Shillong, in Meghalaya, was a wonderful one. This is hill country where smart slant-roofed houses line the highway and where the landscape is clean and green. I love the aroma of the forest. It reminded me of the days I spent in a forest monastery in Togo a decade ago. There was that same freshness. The same vegetative sweetness. (Scent memory amazes me). We passed hilltops shrouded by rain-clouds and palm trees reflected in placid lakes. This was my first experience with ‘natural’ beauty on this trip, and after Mumbai and Calcutta, I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

Meghalaya is predominantly Christian, and as we drove into the region the statues of blue Krishna are replaced with white Christ’s, and the tiny roadside stalls selling rice with pig’s blood, a local specialty, outnumber the vegetarian eateries. The people, too, are different. They look more East Asian than Indian. Once we reached Shillong I was impressed with how clean the city was – again, especially coming from Calcutta. And although this is one of the most economically depressed regions of India, there are no beggars on the streets. I wonder why that is.

The nights are cool. Another relief after Calcutta’s and Mumbai’s swelter.

Of Fireworks and Other Explosions

Just like the last Hindu celebration I witnessed in Mumbai, I don’t understand Diwali, the “Festival of Lights.” It has something to do with the blue-skinned Krishna’s victory over something or other. Every street in Calcutta had a temporary shrine to Krishna built. Some were tiny modest structures. Others were grand tents several metres high. Inside was a statue of Krishna, trampling his defeated foe with a garland of severed heads around his neck.

Most exciting, though, especially for the young, were the fireworks. People set off fireworks all night long all around the city. These were not professional fireworks displays, but the festivities of individual families who bought their 'crackers' from the markets. I watched from the roof of my hotel as the city lit up all around me. There were so many crackers going off it sounded like a war zone. Once and a while, a burst of coloured flares would rise up in a bouquet from one street or another. Sometimes the fireworks did not have the altitude to reach over the rooftops, and one had to watch for the occasional flash of light from between buildings, or the wall of some tower suddenly light up with colour from the explosions I could not see.

The boy at the hotel said that the fireworks would end at midnight, but they went on all night long. The next morning, scraps of coloured foil and piles of ash and soot littered the street, and there was so much particulate matter still suspended in the air that flights from Calcutta’s airport had to be delayed. They call it the Diwali Effect. It happens every year.

Yesterday I left Calcutta and flew to Guwahati. I arrived just in time for the explosions. I don’t know how much play the attack got in the Western media, but northeastern India is in a crisis right now. Five bombs exploded in Guwahati. Four others blew up in smaller towns in the province of Assam. The bodies are still being counted, but up to 72 people have been killed and hundreds injured. I'll spare you the gruesome details that the papers did not.

I did not hear the bombs go off – I must have been in my taxi from the airport at the time – and I didn’t visit the scenes of the carnage. Instead, I opted to leave Guwahati and head to Shillong, a city about a hundred kilometres south where I am scheduled to meet the governor tomorrow. Our driver had to take an alternate route to Shillong since the bombing shut down the main highway. We were lucky to get out when we did, because a curfew was imposed and the roads going in and out of Guwahati were closed.

The mood is somewhat tense here in Shillong as well, even though we are in a different province. There are police on the roundabouts, and last night, at ten o’clock, a half-dozen police knocked on my hotel room door. They were going from room to room making sure that all the guests had good reasons to be in Shillong.

Considering that most commentators blame jihadists from Bangladesh for the bombings, my research into the border fence has suddenly taken on a whole new urgency.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

So Happy This Didn't Happen to Me

(I don't know if I am allowed to just cut and paste stories from The Globe and Mail onto this blog, but I can't resist posting this one.)

Flush from embarrassment


Special to The Globe and Mail

October 18, 2008

It didn't come crashing to a shrieking halt. Bags didn't fly missile-like from overhead racks. And people didn't tumble into the aisles.

Instead, all was calm as the train rolled gently to a standstill: This is what happens when you pull the emergency stop?

We were two weeks into our journey across Western India, heading north from Udaipur through the colourful state of Rajasthan. And we were relaxed for a change.

After our white-knuckle drives on India's treacherously narrow highways (where the still-smoking wreckage of transport trucks seemed part of the natural landscape) and agonizingly long journeys on buses vibrating with Bollywood music, spending a night on a train felt like a walk in the park.
Print Edition - Section Front

Indeed, rail travel in India is a fantastic way to see the place. More than 63,000 kilometres of track criss-cross the country's 29 states, and more than 13 million passengers ride the rails each day, staggering numbers by any measure.

You can travel first, second or third class. You can standing room only, or opt for an air-conditioned sleeper, complete with freshly-laundered sheets. You can also travel in the privacy of your own spacious cabin. Or, if you're a woman travelling solo, hop on a female-only car.

Best of all, you can open your windows to the scents of sea and spice (and diesel), and to the calls of touts and hawkers peddling chai and spicy samosas.

Much as I was enjoying this heady awakening of my senses, though, I was distracted by the rumblings of my stomach. So with some trepidation - what would a toilet used by hundreds of millions of people look like? - I headed off to the washroom.

Thankfully, Indian Railways is the world's largest state employer and I had little to fear. Somebody, clearly, must be assigned to clean the toilets. And now it was up to me. I glanced at the sign posted on the wall behind the toilet: Flush before and after use, its bold, black letters advised; in front of the sign dangled a bright, red, chain.

I shrugged and pulled hard, staring down at the toilet. But there was only silence. It was then that I noticed the foot pedal on the floor. And in a flash, the adrenalin began to course through me.

With a gentle sigh, the train started to slow and I made my way quickly back to my seat.

"It's stopping," I whispered anxiously to my unconcerned partner.

"Uh huh," he said, not looking up from his book.

"You don't understand. I did it. I pulled the emergency stop!" I could hear the panic in my voice as he stared at me in amazement.

We glanced at the sign posted across from our seat: "To stop train, pull chain," it read. "Penalty for use without reasonable and sufficient cause, fine up to Rs. 1,000 and/or imprisonment up to one year."

I imagined police, angry passengers, a year behind bars. I could pay the 1,000-rupee fine (about $20). But would I get to choose?

And then, in a small voice, the child within me spoke. "Do you think they'll know it was me?"

Within a minute I heard shouts and saw men gathering around our rail car. We poked our heads out the window and followed the fingers pointing upward.

Busted. A small red flag flew accusingly from an opening in our roof.

"It was me," I yelled, anguished. "It was an accident!"

And then I watched in horror as word of an "accident" spread like wildfire through the car.

"No, no. It was me." I said, struggling to get the story back on track. "I thought I was flushing the toilet."

More shouts, more head-shaking, more quizzical expressions. Finally, a passenger beside me leaned out the window, translating.

Silence. Disbelief. Then, miraculously, laughter. Giggles and chortles and outright guffaws. Rail travel in India is nothing if not entertaining.

I can't remember if I ever made it back to the washroom on that trip. But with no fine, no jail term, no major public humiliation, that train journey remained a relief.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Comedians and Street Sleepers

It is amazing to me the two societies that exist here. There are the middle and upper classes who go to work in their business suits and dress up for weekends at the nightclubs. And there is the population that lives just beneath their knees on the ground and in the dirt, the people that seem miniaturized by poverty. The two groups occupy the same space at the same time, but might as well be on different planets. And neither group seems relevant to the other aside from the occasional coins that drop into someone’s tin cup.

The other night I saw both sides. I watched the Canadian comedian Russell Peters perform at the Science City auditorium in eastern Calcutta. With ticket prices starting at $25, this was an event for the upper classes only. It was a great show. Peters’ parents are originally from Calcutta and this was the first time he performed a show here. The crowd – dressed in shiny saris, high heels and sports jackets – welcomed him like a favourite son. They even laughed when he ridiculed Indian film stars and mused about what Bollywood-inspired porn films might be like.

After the show, I decided to walk back to the centre of town rather than try for a taxi. It was around ten o’clock and the shops in this part of Calcutta had been closed for some time. Along the sidewalks were the street people. (One Indian journalist I read calls them ‘starvelings.’). There was one about every hundred metres, sleeping on the pavement. Some dozed beneath trucks or rickshaws. Some had a scrap of cardboard to sleep on. Others a sheet of cloth or plastic. One man on the Circus Street flyover even had a small pillow. But the most ragged slept directly on the ground.

I wonder if these people choose where they sleep. Why this stretch of pavement or this traffic median and not the next? Are they in the same place every night? Or do they wander until they are tired, then simply lay down?

I passed a one couple that was still awake. A man and a woman, camped out on a flattened carton and leaning against the side of a building. They had their arms around each other and sat there smiling and laughing as if at a picnic in a park.

At the Bangladesh Border

The official at the Border Security Forces office with the small cheery moustache laughed when I told him I wanted to see the border fence at Jayantipur. “That is impossible,” he said. “It is a restricted area.” Otherwise, he and the other soldiers in the office were friendly and happy to answer all my questions. They told me that in some places, the fence separates Indian farmers from their own fields, and that the fence itself was likely inspired by the “Palestinian Wall,” but I couldn’t get anywhere near it.

I had come by train that morning from Calcutta, and even though my intention of seeing the border fence was bust, it was worth coming to the area just to get out of the big city. This was my first foray out of the teeming Indian megopoli since I arrived in the country. It was a relief to be able to breathe the air.

I hired a bicycle rickshaw man with red, paan-stained teeth to bring me from the train station to the border post. At first we were stuck in a jam of similar rickshaws, carts, and bicycles. Most were armed with an old-style squeeze-bulb horn that the drivers honked continually. It sounded like a riot of angry rubber ducks. Eventually the traffic thinned out and I was on a wide road lined with trees and barbers’ stalls. In this part of rural India, the villagers use cow dung for fuel, and nearly all the trees along the road were spotted with the drying brown patties. Each had a hand-print in the middle left by whoever did the splatting. We passed over small rivers and beside clean ponds where women bathed and boys swam. After Calcutta, I was struck by how green everything was. In the cities, even the trees seem grey.

After being denied access to the fence, I walked into Jayantipur anyway, curious as to how far I could go. A teenage boy on a bicycle stopped me. He spoke a little English and when I told him I was just going for a walk he shook his head. “That way is Bangladesh,” he warned. “No-man’s land. Soldiers.” He mimed a soldier firing a rifle. “AK-47!” He beckoned me to follow him back to the main road and offered to double me on his bicycle back to the train station. We rattled back along the main road. My driver – whose Bengali-Muslim name escapes me – was thrilled to have me as a charge. Each time we came upon a friend of his he jerked his thumb back at me, smiled and shouted “Foreigner!”

I returned to Calcutta just in time for the evening rush hour. At the station near the border, the Indians waited in tidy queues to buy tickets, but once the train arrived, it was bedlam. I was swept up in the current of pushing bodies and launched into the train purely under the power of the mob. But this was nothing compared to the scene waiting at the station in Calcutta. There must have been a thousand people fighting to get on the train as the rest of us tried to get off. Again, I had no power over any of my movements. I was ejected from the train by the surge behind me, then forced across the platform to the exit in tiny steps, trying to keep from falling. Or weeping. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Crazier still, was that the street people who sleep on the train platforms did not move. They risked being flattened by a thousand footfalls. I almost stepped on one woman. She lay on the ground, impossibly asleep in her white rags, as the wave of commuters seethed above her and did their best not to trample her to death.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Calcutta

In revenge for the burning of his wife, Sati, the God Shiva decided to destroy the universe. The God Vishnu, thankfully, stopped Shiva by flinging a discus at him. The weapon also severed Sati’s charred corpse into 51 pieces which were flung across the landscape. Her little toe landed on the banks of the Hughli River, and became a pilgrimage site that eventually grew into Calcutta: an overwhelming city of some 18 million people.

I arrived in Calcutta by train on Monday, and in describing my first impressions it is hard not to succumb to clichés of poverty. Some of the scenes on the street are punishing. Trios of naked children. Cripples wave their stumps at passersby for donations. Entire families live on a patch of sidewalk. I saw a woman lying on the pavement with two infant children. One was suckling on her breast but the woman herself was unconscious. Beggars plead in my ear and tug on my sleeves. Homes built of scraps of cardboard form against the sides of buildings. Thin men pull rickshaws or push heavy carts. The street vendors sleep on top of their stalls at night. Others sleep on the highway overpasses, inches from traffic.

But alongside of all this is a contemporary thriving city. There are smart Starbucks-clone cafés, juice bars and bookstores patronized by young couples and businessmen. Bollywood stars hawk everything from jewelry to steel rods from enormous billboards. This is not a city of homogeneous squalor, but a place where the desperately poor somehow live alongside the comfortable middle class. Sometimes directly under their feet.

Speaking of feet, I‘ve spent most of my time in India looking down. The uneven sidewalks and pavement sleepers are one reason for this, but everything, it seems is happening at ground level. The sellers, the beggars, the taxi derby are all terrestrial phenomenon. There could be angels soaring above all of this and I would have no idea.

I had an interesting conversation with some new Indian friends on my last night in Mumbai. My hotel was in Colaba, the tourist centre on Mumbai, and I had noticed that I received far less aggressive attention from the touts and souvenir sellers than some of the other foreigners did. The drum sellers and pashima scarf vendors never pestered me after I refused, but I saw the same men tail other tourists for blocks hoping to plead a sale out of them.

I was trying to figure out why this was. I thought that maybe my relatively small stature and conservative dress made me less noticeable to these guys. Compared to some of the enormous dreadlocked Aussies I might as well be invisible. Then I thought maybe I am just dark enough to pass as a local. No one would confuse me for a dark-skinned Bengali, but I could be a Parsi. And on a couple of occasions, men asked me for directions in Hindi assuming I was a local.

But my friends Angad and Tara had a different explanation. They said that these touts and sellers can spot an easy mark a mile away. That is their job, after all, and they have perfected the ability to instantly size up a potential customer. It is not that they don’t notice me, it is that they can immediately tell that I am not interested in buying and nor am I likely to be talked into it. I hadn’t given these guys enough credit. They were reading me right all along.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thinking about Travel Writing

Last night I attended a reading and discussion put on by the American Club in Mumbai. An American nature writer and poet named Bruce Berger was in town. After reading some wonderful poetry, Mr. Berger spoke with a moderator, poet Ranjit Hoskote, and the small audience about the writing life.

The discussion turned to travel writing, a genre that Berger also writes in. He talked about how great travel writing used to be, especially in the post-war years when magazines like Holiday published long-form stories by such writers as Paul Bowles. Back then, there were places in the world still to discover and explore. Now, with the global media ad cheap airfare bringing the most far-flung locales within reach – virtually if not actually – there is little left to write about.

Berger’s complaint is a common one, but I feel he is missing something. In a world where there may be no new places to discover or explore, travel writing has changed. It is no longer enough to describe an African marketplace or the beaches on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. This has already been done. Now travel writers – the good ones, at least – are seeking out narratives in these places, not just scenes. They are looking for people’s stories. They are writing about relevant things, not just postcards.

And perhaps they are doing it in disguise. No one would immediately call the ‘Letters From …’ articles in Harper’s travel writing, but the stories are long dispatches from abroad, usually with some cultural or political focus. I just finished reading a book called AIDS Sutra in which a number of authors of Indian descent, my friend Jaspreet Singh among them, told the stories of the communities in India most impacted by HIV-AIDS. The authors wrote about sex-workers in Kolkata and Andra Pradesh, AIDS orphans and the transgendered in Mumbai, and drug-addicts in Manipur. This is not a travel book by anyone’s definition, yet each story brings to life both people and their place in the world.

Perhaps we have reached the end of our explorations on this earth, but all that means is that those who write about far-away places will have to find more interesting stories. We cannot write about rivers we’ve discovered or mountains we were the first to climb. We can no longer write about ‘first contact’ with ‘the natives.’ Now we have to sit down and listen to them.

What a fantastic opportunity this is. In a time of falling towers, when people are increasingly afraid of the other, we writers are invited to tell the other’s stories. The end of discovery might turn into a golden age of travel writing. Or whatever you want to call it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Painting the Walls in Mumbai

“My friends drool over guys. They drool over cars,” said Dhanya Pilo as we walked along Chapel Road in her neighborhood. “I drool over walls.”

Meeting Dhanya and writing about her Walls Project are the primary reasons I am in Mumbai. It is an interesting story. Last year, Dhanya had just finished an internship working with a well-known fashion photographer. The work was exhausting and Dhanya was looking for “something physical” to do. Something that might, as she says "relieve her mind and eyes" and recharge her creativity. She asked her landlord if she could paint one of the walls in the compound. He agreed and Dhanya, along with some of her friends spent the day turning the bland concrete slab into a colorful mural.

This inspired an idea. Dhanya knew that there were no shortage of walls in her neighborhood that could benefit by a few licks of colour. She scouted out potential locations, sought permission from property owners, and engaged the help of the neighborhood’s artistic young people. The streetscape in Dhanya’s small corner of Bandra was was brightened by sudden splashes of colour and design, and Dhanya had found a project that had a long term vision.

Dhanya told me about the moment she knew that her idea became a Project. She had found an abandoned house in a field near where some young boys practiced volleyball. The house used to belong to a famous Indian film star, but was now crumbling. Dhanya asked the neighbors if they thought it would be okay if her friends painted the old walls. The moment they consented Dhanya summoned her friends with her mobile phone. ‘Bring paints,’ she texted them, ‘and bring your cars.’ It was night, and the artists needed to shine the headlights on the walls in order to paint.

Once the cars started arriving and the painting began, residents from all the nearby buildings came out to see what was going on. Someone called the police, but when the officers saw Dhanya and her friends weren’t vandals , they let the artists be. Now Dhanya is a neighborhood celebrity. Residents in the neighborhood call out to her to compliment her on the work, and offer up their own walls to be painted. A group of graffiti artists from France showed up in Bandra and helped paint a couple of murals. Now Dhanya cannot look at a building without thinking of it as a potential canvas.

After receiving some press for the Walls Project, Dhanya got a message from an NGO working in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s largest red-light district. The organization wanted to Dhanya to ‘import’ her project into their neighborhood and involve the sex-workers in bringing some sense of whimsy to the brothel walls.
This is what I am most interested in: the painting of Kamathipura’s walls. I want to write about what the murals might mean in such a neighborhood. And what the walls themselves represent to the people who live there. For those women working in the brothels, does it matter that the walls around them are painted with flowers? If so, why? What can art accomplish there?

Unfortunately, I may not get a chance to find out. I had hoped that the Kamathipura project would have begun around the same time I arrived in Mumbai. (It was a bit of a gamble, I know). But project has still not started and will not begin for at least another week. I’m afraid I will be gone before then. My time in India and Pakistan is short, and the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier beckons. I also need to get into Pakistan before December or my visa will expire. Writing about the walls in Kamathipura might have to wait for another time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mumbai moments

I don’t understand Hinduism. The philosophy is simple enough, but the rituals and the pantheon of multi-headed and multi-armed gods are beyond my understanding.

I witnessed a ritual on Chowpatty Beach the other night. Devout Hindus prayed and sang in front of the statues of goddesses, then they immersed the goddesses in the sea. I watched as a 50-metre effigee of Ravan, the ten-headed demon, was burned to the ground on the beach. The annual triumph of good over evil to the tune of fireworks and flame. That same day, Hindus decorated their vehicles with garlands of marigolds. Cyclists hung flowers from their bicycles. Taxi drivers broke melons in front of their cars and crushed limes beneath their tires in a ceremony of blessing.

The rains have just ended and the air is still thick with the moisture of monsoons. There was a whiff of a breeze on the beach that night, but the wind blew from the city out to the sea instead of the other way around. It was as if the water itself coaxed the dirty city air towards it, following the path of the believers who sunk their idols. The next day was the hottest yet, and the marigolds that still hung from car hoods and handlebars had grown as soft as egg yolks.

There are no neutral moments in Mumbai. Everywhere you look there is something that moves you. A man with a henna-reddened beard passes a street stall selling alarm clocks and vibrators. Another stall crushes sugar cane into juice while the bin of discarded splinters attracts flies. Burning incense sticks are rammed into the roots of trees. Bookstalls sell poorly-bound versions of famous novels, and the magazine stands offer the new Indian version of GQ. There are men who sleep on the streets every night. Women shine and sweat in their saris. At the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, wealthy members jive to a live band playing swing tunes and Elvis, while just outside, in front of the Gateway to India, beggar girls offer strings of orange blossoms to strangers in exchange for rupees. Each trip in a taxi is like an amusement park ride.

There is nothing banal in Mumbai.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In the Maximum City

I am finding it hard to know what to write about Mumbai. This is a city, after all, that has been so well-served by writers far better than I am. And one of them, Suketu Mehta, encapsulated Mumbai in two words: ‘maximum city.’

I didn't know what to expect here. Everyone I know who has travelled to India has spoken about the place in superlatives. It is like 'another planet.' It 'blows the mind.' Still, I've never been attracted to the place. The Islamic world and Africa are more my beat, and if it weren't for this walls project, I might not have visited India at all.

But my first few days here in the maximum city have been exhilarating. The streets here are like nothing I've ever seen before. They are so filled with colour and industry. Men and women sit on the pavement and thread marigolds into garlands. Streetside shops crush sugar cane into juice or press paan into betel leaves. Black and yellow taxis avoid accident by inches as they serve around pedestrians and cyclists whose bravery borders on madness. Everywhere is the smell of incense, fenugreek and car exhaust. At noon the smog filters the sun and turns the streets to sepia.

I’ve heard about the infinite hassles of India, but in the last two days in south Mumbai I’ve experienced little of it. A young man offered me hashish. Another a pretty girl for a massage. And the taxi drivers in front of my hotel plead for custom. But these offers are without aggression. I am permitted to walk amid the noise unfettered.

I don't know if my mind has been blown, but there is certainly something about this place. (I do know, however, that these are banal and obvious observations. I blame the jet lag.)

Last night I had dinner with Dhanya Pilo, an artist responsible for the Walls Project I am writing about. She and a group of young artists painted the compound walls in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, with murals and graffitti. It was a way to bring life and beauty to some drab city streets. Since then, a representative from Mumbai's largest red-light district has been in touch with Dhanya asking her to bring her Walls Project to their neighborhood. Sometime in the next few days, Dhanya will join with some of the sex-workers in the district to bring some whimsy to one of the city's most despairing areas. I am looking forward to hearing the women's stories and learning about the walls that surround them.