Monday, December 15, 2008


After a delayed flight out of India, then not finding a stand-by seat out of London, I finally made it back to Calgary on Saturday. I was welcomed by the warm arms of my wife and the icy embrace of a Calgary cold snap. It was nearly 30 degrees when I got on the plane in Kolkata. When I got off the plane in Calgary it was minus 40 degrees with the wind-chill. Who needs anything like as amorphous as 'culture shock' when the landscape offers you actual physical shock.

My time home, however, will be short. I will be abroad again by mid-February visiting the West Bank Security barrier, the fencing around the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and the fallen wall on the divided island of Cyprus. I've been to Israel and Palestine several times and I am excited to return, but I am most looking forward to Cyprus. Aside from a little history, I don't know very much about the place, but I can't imagine a Greek and Turk-populated island in the Mediterranean can be anything less than beautiful. Certainly the weather will be better.

I will spend the next couple of months writing down the material I managed to glean from my time in India. As I mentioned before, I will have to return to Kashmir - and visit the Pakistan side - in the spring or summer of 2009 to do my research on the Line of Control, but I probably have enough material on the Indo-Bangladesh border fencing. I won't know for sure until I get writing.

Another task I have to accomplish before I leave is to prepare a lecture for a monthly gathering of the Canadian Author's Association in Edmonton. I was honoured when they invited me to address their membership in January and speak about travel writing. Still, I am nervous. I have no problem reading from my work in front of a crowd, in fact I really enjoy it, but I have never stood before an audience and talked about my own writing process and philosophy. I am sure it will be a useful exercise but I am feeling rather jittery.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Café moment

Yesterday, as I was reading in a Starbucks-clone café, the man sitting at the next table removed one of his sandals and began caressing his bare foot while whistling ‘My Heart will Go On.’

Finishing in Kolkata

I am back in Kolkata winding down the last few days of my trip. I will be home in Calgary on the weekend, and while returning to a Canadian winter and the Christmas nonsense holds little appeal I am glad, in a way, that this trip is over. It has been a frustrating couple of months. Early snowfalls, security bureaucracy, controversial elections, official-but-undeclared curfews, and the occasional terrorist attack scuttled much of what I wanted to do. At least I’ll be home for Christmas Eve dinner at my grandmother’s house.

(My wife has been printing off my blog entries and giving them to my grandmother to read. This is no small task. Nonna is in her eighties and English is her second language. She manages to read through the blogs alright, but apparently it takes the better part of a day. Each time I write a word she might find difficult I feel a brief snap of guilt. Wait until she sees all the Indian names in the next paragraph….)

I’ve been spending the last few days eating Bengali and Hakka Chinese food, and immersing myself in ‘Indian Lit.’ Having given up on ‘wall’ research for the time being means I can devote serious hours to other people’s books. The shops and streetstalls are filled with wonderful Indian authors that I never read before. This is a welcome change from North African travels earlier this year when I could not find English books anywhere. In India, I’ve ‘discovered’ Kirin Desai (I am the last to read Inheritance of Loss, no doubt), Amitav Ghosh, Siddharta Deb, Basharat Peer, Amit Choudury, Sanjoy Hazarika, and Calcutta literary saint Rabindranath Tagore.

What most of these writers have in common is a remarkable eye for detail and a poet’s gift for description. Even when the narrative fails to hold my attention, which happens once in a while, I am happy just to give in to the beauty of the language.

It is strange to me, then, that the same community that produces such rich and observant fiction can write such bland nonfiction. I read an anthology of Indian nonfiction early on in this trip and was alarmed at the clichés and flat prose. I found the same phenomenon in another anthology, called AIDS Sutra. Even gifted Indian novelists – with some exceptions, my friend Jaspreet Singh being one of them – tend to write stilted nonfiction.

I wonder why this is. In spite of India’s pantheon of great writers, nonfiction is a genre that does not seem to be fully embraced or explored. The abundance of Bollywood biographies in the ‘best of nonfiction’ anthology is, perhaps, a good indication of this.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Imposing identity

I’ve spent the last week or so in Assam and Tripura. I intended to make another attempt at the fenced-in village of Bhogdanga in Assam. I had a contact at a television news channel that was willing to ‘lend’ me some credentials, but the attacks in Mumbai meant that all of India’s more sensitive border areas were made even tighter and I was not granted permission to visit. Instead I spent a few days in the company of anthropologists, photographers and general smart people. We had impassioned discussions about bombings and borders inspired by some fine Nepalese rum.

One observation, among many, that related to my walls project was this: The construction of physical barriers along borders inspires feelings of nationalism that were not already there. I find this very interesting. It is the opposite phenomenon I witnessed in Melilla, for example, where the fencing is built because of a sense of national and cultural pride, not the other way around.

On some parts of the Indo-Bangladesh frontier, the actual borderline separates people of different ethnic groups that have little in common culturally. This was often the case in Meghalaya, where ‘tribal’ groups such as the Khasis lived on the Indian side of the border, while Muslim Bengalis lived on the other side. However, in many other areas, people on both sides of the border share the same culture, language and religion. Before the fencing, people crossed over freely to visit with family, go to the market, or fetch water never considering, or at least not caring, that they were crossing an international border. The invisible boundary, drawn by some official in some office in some city far away, was meaningless. And so, too, was the idea of nationality. If I share my entire culture with the people in the next village, does it really matter that I am Indian and they are Bangladeshi?

But the fencing changes things. Yesterday I visited two villages along the border fencing on the outskirts of Agaratala, the capital city of the tiny Indian state of Tripura. With a Border Security Forces officer as my guide, was able to cross through the fence into the so-called ‘No Man’s Land’ that separates the two nations. Women led cows by tether ropes to nibble on dry rice stalks. Men tended to vines of bitter melon. Girls in bright saris poured water onto budding cauliflower from shiny bulbous pots they carried on their head. Clearly this was some man’s land.

A young man told me how, before the fencing, he used to cross the frontier to play cricket with his cousins. Or watch the Bangladeshi trains go by. Now he only sees them after he passes through the soldier-guarded gate and goes to work in the fields. He has to be back before six in the evening; that is when the gate is locked each night. And I met an old man with a fabulous white beard and striped-rotten teeth whose family house is on the Bangladeshi side of the fence. A worn footpath from his compound led straight past the border pillars into Bangladesh. His family has had that plot of land for 100 years, long before the ‘nation’ of Bangladesh even existed. In the past, the invisible line meant little to him, perhaps it still does, but the Indian government now insists his family move to the Indian side of the fence. “It seems it would be better to not have relations with Bangladeshi people anymore,” he said.

Since the fencing went up three years ago, people cannot freely visit family across the line. The impromptu cricket games between cousins no longer happen. Those who live in the shadow of fence posts and barbed wire are starting to develop a sense of national, political identity that never existed before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it is not organic. It is imposed. The fence demands allegiance.

On Mumbai

I’ve resisted commenting on the Mumbai attacks in this blog because I don’t think that my take on the disaster is at all relevant. I was, thankfully, not in Mumbai at the time, not even close, and I knew none of the victims. I cannot pretend to understand what Mumbaikers are feeling – though to assign a single emotion to a city of 18 million unique souls is insulting anyway – and I don’t want to give armchair commentary. There is enough nonsense in the Indian media. The newspapers and news channels clang with typically grotesque post-disaster rhetoric that creates heroes in one moment and assigns blame to villains in the next. Politicians read bland pre-typed statements while the pantheon of Bollywood icons step forward in their turn to give their own starlit take on the disaster. I find this repulsive, too, though I suppose these cinema icons represent the class of Mumbaikers who could actually afford a room, or even a meal, at the hotels targeted by the terrorists.

I will say, though, that the attack in Mumbai, as well as the bombings in Guwahati which happened a little over a month ago, reminded me of an essay I read two months ago by Amitav Ghosh. I don’t have the essay with me so I cannot quote directly from it, but in it Ghosh speaks about another spate of violence – I don’t remember which; perhaps the riots in 1993 – and the way it was written about. He said writers have an unfortunate tendency to approach violence aesthetically. They feel that violence must be described in its lurid, realistic detail, and ‘writing violence’ means painting a visceral scene of black smoke and blood. He doesn’t mean that the writing is necessarily gratuitous, or even poorly written, but that it focuses only on the mechanics of death.

Ghosh argues that this sort of writing pays humanity no service. Instead, writers should step back and observe the acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that always accompany such tragedies. And he is not talking about the rescue workers, SWAT team members and fire-fighters who are the official, media- and politician-christened heroes of these terrible days – though their efforts should, of course, be celebrated. He is speaking of those for whom heroism is not their job. He is talking about those who lead others through dark hallways to emergency doors. Those who drag the bleeding to shelter. Those who press fabric torn from their own clothing against the wounds of strangers.

This is not heroism. It is humanity. It is the light that exists on the other side of the darkest shadow. Sadly, it gets the last of the ink if it gets any at all.