Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Manipur Diary: 2

Writing about Manipur, I have said it before, has the risk of unleashing some of your own Frankenstein. Also capturing the whole story would require as much time as Vyas took to write his world famous piece, even when computer aided. But Manipur throws so many stories at you per second that it makes you feel laziness would be waste of resources.

The last time I was here in the middle of the economic blockade that benefited every legal and illegal entrepreneur including the state, the oil companies and the airlines. Flight tickets from Imphal to Guwahati were at a ridiculous twenty two thousand, or so which is more than what I intend to spend in my impending South-East Asia holiday, airfare included. Due to the blockade, supposedly nothing was coming into the state. But you could see hundreds of enthusiastic local business people selling petrol and diesel in mineral water bottles outside every petrol pump. At its peak, petrol was being sold at Rs.120/lit and diesel at Rs.80. Needless to say, this encouraged every other clever business persons like auto and cycle rikshaw walas to up their price by at least 4 times the regular rates. Business went about normal, except for days towards the end of the blockade, when petrol pumps would open for sometime, creating miles long ques of cars and bikes. When the blockade opened, 60 oil tankers from Indian Oil Corporation went missing! IOC or the police simply said they don't know.

By the way, what happened to the blockade? Is the road open now? Are things coming in? Are people going out? Who is blocking it? Who has opened it? Please let me know if anyone has a clue.

Last time I was taught by my local friends that I must not give in to the demands of the autowalas because when they say petrol is going at 100 it is actually going at 80. And cycle rickshaws do not need fossil fuel. So, this time at the airport when the auto guy said Rs.250 because petrol is going at 100, I laughingly brought it down to a whooping 200. Later I learnt it should be 150.

On the way from the airport, the familiar sites of log ques outside petrol pumps, made me feel instantly at home. Only to learn later that the situation has become even more complicated. (Don't know how this is possible but only Manipur can be more complicated than the rules of World Domination.) The home secretary, a tad ashamed, unlike their regular undismayed disposition, declared selling fuel on black openly on the streets illegal. He did forget to say that they would make it available legally. So like all bans on anything pleasurable, what it did is not stop the selling at black but pushing the sellers underground. What was available conveniently before on the street just outside your house, albeit at a price, now has become a pain in many parts, what with you having to refresh your skills from those nefarious substance scoring days like looking over the shoulder conspicuously and frantically whispering 'do u have, do u have?' In Meitei. Of course prices of fuel has gone up again as the sellers now have to pay a thousand rupee fine if they get caught.

One early morning as I opened my hotel window into the adjacent petrol pump, I saw an oil tanker filling a blue truck full of large blue barrels. Military supply, I was told. Then came the turn of official vehicles of politicians and bureaucrats. If there is anything left after this, it will be opened to public, standing on a long que from morning and not ensured they will get any at the end of day!

Manipur, however, I can not help repeat, is something else altogether still. In the middle of all this chaos, they held an Asian Film Festival showcasing some really good films. Pity I did not get to catch any, being hectically caught in meeting people for things to do. They also had a big show organised for the Kut festival which is one of Manipur's 365ish state holidays what with the government being strictly equal about giving each tribe a state holiday. Kut is a festival of the Kuki-Mizo-Chin group. It had a Miss. Kut thing happening and the festival was a state organised boring affair with all guest present there being addressed as 'honourable' (?) The DJ played the song Pretty Woman repeatedly for 2 hours straight as the contestants walked the stamp (stage cum ramp) up and down in gory glittering gowns. The fans of Irom Sharmila (of which I am also a half-hearted member, not because I do not believe in her cause but because I do not like being a fan) are organsing a Festival of Hope, Peace and Justice to celebrate her 10th year of hunger strike and resilience. Artists, performers, activists, writers and all other kinds of freaks are togathering, doing numerous things like painting murals, writing and reciting poetry, dancing, doing drama right now. The festival goes on till end of November. Manipur is always protesting and always celebrating!

Moving out of Imphal, there is one thing that has always struck me in Manipur. The taxi drivers are such pansies. They are always scared of going anywhere and always in a hurry to get back fast. So much so that this one I took to a village called Khengmol in Churchandpur district, started asking the village people to come with us, for our protection, till the nearest town of Sugnu which is 20 km away. There is only one bus from Sugnu to the village, which in the first place forced me to hire a pansy from Imphal. If someone from the village comes to Sugnu to protect us how does she/he get back? He was doing this in fast Meitei thinking I will not be able to figure out. But his pissing-in-my-pants body language gave it away and I scolded and threatened him into the car. On the way, he tells me, 'you are very brave like a man'. I wanted to remind him a few things about his and his male relatives' dysfunctional body parts.

Right now I am in Tamenglong supposedly one of the most backward districts of the entire country. As we started from Imphal through a chilly early morning November drizzle, my heart soared at the sight of the ripe golden paddy fields. Abundance! and as we said in our, Manipuri ganja hazed, conversation last evening too, 'North-East is the best. It gives us all.'

Twenty minutes into the drive just when I was preparing to catch up on the sleep lost due to an early start, the car comes to a halt. There is a group of people and cars ahead of us. Accident? No. Nothing in Manipur can be so simple. As it turned out, there is a bridge ahead and the army has got info that a bomb has been planted. The bomb squad is at it but no one knows how long it might take. A group of helpful local tells us to take an interior road that would bring us back to the highway at a point ahead of the mess. Thankfully this was not a taxi and 'we' were not just driver and me. So we drive through the valley, passing villages with many ponds and big old shady trees, more golden paddy fields and an overall charming well endowed valley scene. Very serene. Unlike what you hear all the time.

On the road, my Naga friends spot a 'Manipuri' friend of theirs (for a definition of Manipuri, keep on reading). They stop the vehicle and much hearty exchange of greetings and news follow. I think there was even an invitation for tea. Thankfully they skipped it. I have a feeling my sleepy, bored, cranky expression could have something to do with that decision. So they say a bye-bye longer than the hello and we start. As soon as they are out of earshot, one Naga says, 'Ha, ha, I met that guy at a workshop. He was saying we must support Irom Sharmila. I got up and said, but when so many of our people were killed in 1960, what did u Meiteis do?' The other Naga says, 'yes, and how can anyone live if they do not eat for 10 years? Even a child can fast between meals.' For the first time I was glad I was so sleep deprived that I did not have a thing to say in this conversation!

We stop at Nonei for lunch. It is 9am and every one is very hungry. I am given a choice of meat – chicken, venison or dog. I eat none. The iromba (mashed boiled vegetables cooked with fermented fish and overdose of Raja Mirchi) and boiled beans are good enough for me. A 1 year old child travelling with us is given a taste of the dog meat by his mother. I feel a little ashamed of being a pansy but Pucki, Chiklu and Kei Nyu's (my pet dogs) faces flash in front of me.

I try to complete my sleep quota, but the road by this time has gotten so bumpy that if you do not keep your neck consciously stiff your head might shake off your shoulder. I am told the PWD, on paper, has spent so many crores of rupees on the road, that we would have a smooth ride if we laid the cash on the road in place of the missing tar. As the road turned from bumpy to very bumpy I hear strange noises coming from the boxes they have been carrying at the back. I look at my co-passengers. 'Ducklings', they explain.

We have another stop, this time one of those military gates. As the driver goes off to entry his vehicle, a military man carrying gun comes to the car. He asks whats there in those boxes. They say, 'Duck. Duck? Ducklings!'. Military looks lost. They ask me to explain in Hindi. I say, 'Hans' not sure if that mean I am asking him to laugh or telling him there are a few duckings in the car. He then turns to one of the guys and asks, 'Aap Manipuri hai?' (are you Manipuri)
The guy, 'No, no, I am not'.
Military, 'Where are you from?'
Guy, 'Tamenglong'
Military, 'Toh Tamenglong Manipur mein nahi hai kya?' (Isn't Tamenglong in Manipur?)
Guy, ' han but hum log Naga hai. Manipuri to who log hai'. (But we are Naga, they are Manipuri)

And the whole car bursts into laughter. The same person, who earlier talked about Sharmila and children, says in English, 'He is a South-Indian. If he live in Punjab, will he be a Punjabi?' They have another burst of laughter and look at me and say, 'please tell him in Hindi'. I try to oblige. Thankfully the driver is back by now to carry us away from the military's uncomfortable silence.

And to end the day, after reaching Tamenglong, I get settled into a room in the only hotel in town – Sui's Hotel. They fret around me, organising my things, buying me water, banana, biscuit in case I feel hungry before dinner and want to know what time I want every meal from tonight's dinner till tomorrow's. I shoo them away gently. People from the North-East can be horribly hospitable.

Once free, I decide to walk down the market and visit a friend. My short hair has always drawn attention in Tamenglong. No where else have I seen so much curiosity and confusion around my hairstyle and my gender. People always ask if I am boy and it often takes them at least an hour to realise I am not. So I get the familiar curious looks and giggles from teenage girls as I walk down the busy market road. Busy in Tamenglong means fifty people in a whole market. Keep that in mind. I decide to pull up the hood of my jacket to protect myself from the cold wind and the curious laughter. But I was seconds late. Two little girls caught me in the act and followed me a few steps. When I turned around to look at them they shouted, 'BLOODY INDIAN!' and ran away giggling.

That's about it for now. There are many many many more stories from Manipur to tell. I have skipped about half a dozen that involve killing, corruption and chaos from today. Sometimes I feel like running away. Then I think about staying on. At least my diary would have unusual things to say.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Little Girl Who Does Not Read and Write

There was a little girl who did not know how to read or write. She was completely illiterate. Com-plete-ly il-lite-rates are people who can not read and write.

Now, the little girl could talk perfectly of course. And on top of that she could sing, dance, scream her head off, ski, swim, climb trees and do many other things. She could even stand on her hands, hang her head upside down and walk around like that.

If you show her a picture of a Blue Whale and ask her what it is, she would jump with joy and while she is still jumping she would tell you it is a Blue Whale! That little girl was a handful her mother said. Her name was a mouthful her father said. Her father like many fathers was away while she was born. So her mother named her mouthful because she screamed a lot when she was just born a baby.

So, the girl with the mouthful name could do many things and could not read or write. Although she had fun most of the time there were times when she could not have as much fun because she could not read or write. Like that one time when she went to the cinema with a friend. Her friend said she would go and get the ice-cream and asked the girl with the mouthful name to buy the tickets. ‘Let’s watch a fun movie today. I feel like laughing a lot’ – said her friend. ‘Me too. Yippee!’ – jumped the mouthful name girl with joy. When she reached the ticket counter she saw posters of many movies all around her. There was a poster with a little girl and a toy and another one with a whale and big waves. ‘The whale and the wave one looks scary’ – thought the mouthful girl. ‘The one with the little girl looks more fun. I will buy tickets for them’, she decided. At the counter she said – ‘Give me two tickets for that one with the little girl and her toy please’.

Her friend came back with the ice-creams and they went into the hall. But my-goodness-me, do you know what happened? It so turned out that the movie with the little girl and her toy was a scary one where the toys were ghosts. They came out of the movie terrified and almost in tears. ‘But I told you I wanted to watch a fun movie?’ her friend complained. ‘Oh, I thought it would be a fun one because there was the little girl and her toy on the poster’. ‘But the poster also said it is a scary movie. Be warned! Didn’t you read that?’ The girl with the mouthful name did not say anything because she could not read and write. She told herself she would learn to read and write soon.

When they reached home her friend went home to read and write because she would learn to read and write for an hour everyday. That way, her friend could read all the comics, the posters and even signs on the shops and the road. Although she could not read them all, the friend liked figuring them out.

Our little girl with the mouthful name thought, ‘I must also learn to read and write. But it is so boring. I would rather watch TV’ So she went home and sat down to watch TV instead of learning to read and write. ‘I will learn from tomorrow’, she told herself.

Many days passed like that. But the girl with the mouthful name would not sit down to read or write. Every time it was time to do it, she would think of doing something else. She would go out and play, watch TV, play games on the computer or throw a tantrum. So she never learnt to read and write. Her mother was a busy woman. She had to work and look after the house and both of them. So she had asked Meera, the girl who comes to cook and clean for them, to teach the girl with the mouthful name how to read and write. ‘As soon as you learn to read and write a little I will put you to a school’, her mother said. The little girl was not sent to school till now because they have been travelling from one place to another and her mother thought she could learn to read and write at home. ‘I will put her to school when she grows a little older’, her mother thought, ‘This way she can spend a lot of time at home and have more fun’

But everyday when Meera would ask her to bring her books, the little girl would come with one excuse or the other. ‘My stomach is paining’, ‘Mom said I do not have to do it today’, ‘I am very tired’, ‘can we start tomorrow please?’… her excuses were endless and not original. I know a lot of children who use these excuses to avoid doing things that they are asked to do. So the girl with the mouthful name kept on making excuses and a few more incidents happened in between.

There was a time when she was supposed to meet her friends at ‘tennis court number 3’ in the local club. ‘It would be written outside’ her friends told her. But she had to wait for a long time till someone came along and showed her where court number 3 was because she could not even read the numbers. Then there was a time when a cousin of her who lives far away sent her 2 packets of chocolates with a note. ‘One for you and one for Yana’ the note said. Yana is their other cousin. But the girl with the mouthful name ate both the chocolates because she could not read the note. That not only gave her a bad stomach ache but also made her mother very angry. She got scolded for being selfish and greedy.

There are many incidents like these that I know of which happened to many little girls and boys because they could not read or write. Many of these children do not get a chance to learn to read and write. Mostly because they are poor (poor is somebody who does not have many things). But to tell all to you, oh my wise little friends, it will take a long time. So let me tell you how the girl with the mouthful name finally learned to read and write.

Although she did not go to a school, the girl with the mouthful name really wanted to go to one. There was a particular school that she really liked. It had a lovely play ground with soft green grass on it. There were a few swings, a slide and a small train on the playground. She has seen many little children like her playing in the playground. ‘Oh, what fun it will be to play there’ thought the little girl. ‘And I particularly like their green, orange and blue dresses’. There was also a beautiful garden with rows of flowers that had every colour. But she needed to know ‘At least her letters’, the principal of that school said when they went there some time ago. ‘There is still a little time till school starts again. You can learn to read and write at home in the meantime. This would help you understand things and do well in class’ the plump and pleasant woman had said from under her glasses.

So her mother had asked Meera to teach the little girl with the mouthful name how to read and write. And we all know by now how she kept on postponing it. Po-st-po-ning means to keep things for later when you could have done it now.

One day, after a few months from the day they went to the school, the little girl was playing at home. Her mother was at work and Meera had gone to throw out the garbage. Just then a delivery man came and gave the girl with the mouthful name a letter. He said it was an urgent letter and she must give it her mother. The little girl said thank you to the delivery man and looked at the paper. It looked similar to the papers she was making paper things with. Her mother had given her those papers saying ‘these are for recycling. You can use these papers to make paper things. This way we save paper’.

The little girl was busy making paper crowns for her friends and herself. They wanted to play ‘princesses’ that evening. She took the letter with her and soon forgot about it. She made 3 crowns that day. A pink one with little silver stars on it. This was her favourite. She wanted it for herself. The second one was green with shiny red flowers on it. And the third one was yellow with balloons of many colours on it. In the evening when her mother came home she was out playing ‘princesses’ at her friend’s place. She got to wear the pink crown and she was very happy.

A few days later, her mother came back from work looking very worried. ‘I met someone from the school you really like’, said her mother, ‘she said they sent a letter for me. But I never saw any letter’.

‘Oh!’ said the girl with the mouthful name, ‘I forgot all about the letter’

‘Forgot about the letter? Where is it? What did it say?’ mother asked looking even more worried.

‘I do not know what it said. I could not read it. I was playing with my papers and I kept it with them. It must be there’ she ran to get the papers.

Her mother looked through all her papers but could not find the letter. ‘What were you doing with your papers?’ asked her mother.

‘I was cutting them with scissors and making paper crowns’

Oh no! You must have cut it up thinking it was one of your papers. If only you could read! You would know that the letter said something urgent about you and the school. Anyway, now we have to meet the principal tomorrow and find out what it said. May be it is about your going to that school’

The little girl could not sleep very well that night. She was very excited about the letter. She thought the letter said she could go to that school and she saw a dream where she was playing in the beautiful garden with colourful flowers in the nice orange, green and blue school dress.

In the morning before going to work, her mother made her wear a nice blue dress and they went to the school. At the principal’s office there were many people waiting. There were many children with their elders and some older people without any children with them. When their turn came, the little girl’s mother explained to the principal that they had received a letter and but had lost it. They would like to know what it was about.

‘Oh! You did not see the letter? I had sent it asking you to come to the school as soon as possible. The admissions for the new classes were going on and I wanted the girl with the mouthful name to come to this school’ the plum principal said pushing her glasses up her nose. ‘When I did not hear from you I gave her place to someone else and now there is no more place in the school’

‘Oh no!’ cried the girl and her mother. ‘Can you please not do something? ‘My daughter really loves this school and wants to come here’ the girl with the mouthful name’s mother pleaded.

‘I am very sorry. I would really like to help you. But as you can see, many people come to our school to get admission. But it is not possible for us to get everyone in as it is a small school. This year our places have all been taken. If you want to come to this school, you have to wait till next year’, the pleasant woman said with a smile.

The little girl and her mother walked back through the school feeling very sad. On her way back the girl with the mouthful name saw all the children playing on the playground. ‘If only I could read, I would know what the letter said. And then I could come and play here everyday’, the little girl thought.

‘And it will be more difficult for you to get a place next year because you will be older. You will have to know to read and write more’ her mother told her, giving her a hug.

‘From today, when Meera asks me to learn to read and write I will not make excuses. I will learn to read and write so that I can surely come to this beautiful school next year.

‘I promise I will try very hard and learn to read and write even more so that I can come to this school’ she hugged and told her mother.

The little girl kept the promise she made to her mother. And went to the school next year. There she learnt to read and write more. She also learnt to draw and count. She had lots of fun because she could tell the scary movies from the fun ones. Could read nice books and comics and also because she could do many things on the computer.

So my illiterate friends (illiterate means the ones who do not know how to read or write remember?), there are some people who can not read or write because they did not get a chance to learn it. But for those like you who are too lazy to learn, learning how to read and write can be fun. You can learn new things, have fun and at least know which one is a scary movie and which one is fun.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Saturine people, Adim says, are influenced by the planet or the God or the energy of Saturn or Xani in Oxomia. The Saturines tend to be relaxed and non-controlling in life. They are not very ambitious as opposed to sun people who are managerial and control-freaks.

Going by the definition, many people I know look like they are heavily influenced by the jewellered planet. There are some seriously relaxed people I know whose blanket slogan in any situation in life is – I-am-ok-with-everything. Sometimes with raised hands. The only thing they have managed in their lives is to have a good time without doing much for it. They have managed to let others manage their lives while they relax and lie low while life passes by.

Going by my employment history (once I sat on a boss’s back while he was hunched on the floor looking for some papers that had flown away because I did not clip them properly), I am definitely influenced by the blue God. From the first job onwards, I have managed to do very little in a long and tedious decade of getting paid. I have managed more holidays then most regularly employed people I know. I can even give travel writers a run for money when it comes to travelling. I have perfected the art of coming late and leaving early from work look like the correct official conduct. I have reorganised organisations and offices to accommodate my afternoon naps and the necessary sofa and cushions for it. I have trained colleagues to take calls and not disturb me while I take my rejuvenating naps. And I am not elaborating the long meal breaks (breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks and tea breaks in betweens) I manage to take everyday least I look like I am boasting. Overall I can say this much, as my retirement plan I plan to teach young people how to relax and not do anything in office when you have a job. When you do not have one, do not bother about it. And I plan to let somebody else do the teaching.

For this (the teaching job), I was thinking through my set of friends and found a few ranking high on the shortlist. Here is one to begin with:

Raja a.k.a Rajkumar meaning a prince:

When I called him yesterday to invite him to a party at 6.30 in the evening, mid-call I remembered something and felt very guilty - he wakes up from his afternoon nap only around 8p.m. I am surely disturbing him.

Needless to say, someone who can get up at 8 pm has little time to do much else. So he does not. His mother after years of trying to house break him realised it is bit late, now that he is full grown dog. It requires powers way beyond her control (she must be a Sun person). So she consulted some astrologer who said Raja is under heavy Saturn influence - Xani-doxa. This Xani-doxa will last for a year and make things very slow for him. He gave her few stones for Raja to wear around his finger. In this one year, he must remain very careful. He must not lose the rings and must have a bath at least on Saturdays. In the meantime he should start work that he likes. This latter part, Raja says, his mother made up because he had clearly told the astrologer he does not like any work at all.

Few weeks into this strenuous routine of a careful life one day Raja was very pissed off. At the crows on the tree next to his window. Now anyone who has lived near a tree with a few crows would know how annoying they can be. They make a lot of noise early in the morning. I absolutely hate them and am careful not to let any tree be near my window. But I hear there are some morning-walker types who like them because they save on the alarm clock expense.

Raja however was more pissed off than people would be when woken in the morning by crows. For, in the morning either he is still partying or he is too fuzzy to care. But this bunch of irritating crows was ruining his afternoon nap, right in the middle of it, by returning to the tree around sun set. Everyday, he would be woken from his much needed siesta (how else will he get energy to party when he gets up?). He did manage to sleep through this nuisance for about 20 years. But one particularly tiring day, (last night’s party had continued till noon) while he was trying to recuperate for another very important party, he lost it. He took out his air rifle and shot a couple of them sinister birds.

Mayhem broke. Now I am not sure if they have shown it on a nature channel ever, but I have seen in real life that crows get absolutely mad if you do anything to one of them. They are like an angry mob where the anger is spontaneous without any political instigation and slogan shouting leaders. They are more vicious then the latest red army in news when it comes to giving it back to the oppressors. The entire hoard has only one thing in mind. Kill the killer. This continues for days while the crows suspend their regular routine of whatever crows do in a day. From morning till night they stay on vigil looking for the enemy to come out. And they are so accurate and focused in remembering and identifying the human who has killed their one that it would put Osama hunting American troupes to shame. There is no mistaking any turbaned Punjabi to be the enemy with crows. In fact, if Osama shaved (which I am sure he has already), grew a Mohawk, pierced himself from bellybutton to eyebrow, played in punk rock band and looked like this crows will be able to peck him to death the instant he comes into their vision field.

So for days, Raja could not get out of the house. Hundreds of crows waited for him near his window, in his balcony, near their gate, even kept an eye on his garage door so that he could to get to his car. He had to suspend all parties. This naturally made Raja feel like things are not going well in his life. So he landed at the feet of the astrologer again –

‘You said, my life is going to improve if I wear these rings and have a bath on Saturdays? I have had 9 baths so far. Never have I taken baths so frequently in my life. And this is what I get? I can not even go out to party? What kind of an astrologer are you?’ – Raja raged.

The astrologer fell from his spiritual mat when he heard what Raja had done.

Nahin!!’, he lamented Hindi film style. ‘What have you done? How many did you kill?’

Raja: Five

Astro: ‘Hai Xani Dev! (Saturn God). Save him. Only you can save him.’

He looked at Raja and said with very dark, very serious eyes:

‘For people who are going through Xani-doxa, black things are gods. They must worship all things black. And must never, I repeat NEVER, kill anything black. You have killed crows, and that too five?! An odd number! Now Xani Dev will be very angry with you. Your life will fall apart. Nothing you do you will succeed in. Nothing you will be able to achieve.’

Raja did not mind the last bit, but not succeeding in anything made him think about all the chicks he has been trying to score with in the past month. A few of them are right near the goal post. If Xani now puts obstacles in his path, his many weeks of hard work will be delayed. Although he is not the one to try and do anything about anything, delayed pleasure of sleeping with girls was too much to sleep on. Especially without the girls. So he asked:

‘What can be done now? (Hoping someone else can do something about it)’

Astro: ‘You have to go to the Xani temple every Saturday for 7 weeks and offer Xani Dev puja. But please make sure to have a bath before that.’

Raja, I hear, did try to negotiate the stringent clauses – can’t I do only 3? Can’t my mother do the puja? Is the bath absolutely necessary? But seeing the fear in the astrologer’s eyes for his own future, he decided to be ok with it.

Raja started going to the Xani temple every Saturday. About 5 Saturdays passed. But Raja was not seeing any marked improvement in his life. The crows had cease-fired the attack, but he was sure it was a temporary thing. A feeling that they were regrouping and strategising for a come back, followed him every time he came out to the balcony. And these were the only birds that flocked toward him these days. The chicks he so skilfully cultivated were not laying. At least not with him. He was planning on visiting the astrologer again and demanding a refund of the 20 rupee he had given him the last time when he bumped into the very guy near the Xani temple one Saturday. He was bowing to the black idol, his palms together, his eyes closed and his soul sincerely negotiating a direct deal with the God (please Xani dev, at least make Radha agree to come over to my room tonight. I promise I will not kill any crow ever), when he heard a familiar wail saying:

Hai Xani de! Iski raksha karo! (Oh Saturn God, save him).’

He turned around, to find the astrologer, dark with fear and fury. He was shaking like a vibrating dildo looking at Raja. When Raja smiled, he said, ‘Nahin!’ with the same Hindi film effect. The thought blurb over Raja’s head said, ‘this guy has been caught and now he does not want to return the 20 rupee and that’s why he is saying Nahin.’

Raja wanted to let go of the money and clinch a deal in return to ensure Radha comes to bed. But the strange, frightened vibration coming from the astrologer stopped him. Instead he asked: ‘What happened? Why are you shaking like Xani has possessed you? Did you not have a bath today?’

The astrologer cried, ‘Hai Xani dev!’ 3 times at this and then said, in a surprisingly calm and cool voice for a dildo: ‘Beta, have you been praying like this every Saturday?’

Raja, feeling a bit smug thinking he is being appreciated said: ‘Yes, every Saturday and I have also been having a bath.’

Astrologer: ‘What have you done beta (son), what have you done to yourself’

Raja, now a bit confused: ‘You mean I could have done without the baths? I could stop now. I won’t have it next Saturday. Ok?’

Astrologer: ‘Nahin beta, you have made a great mistake. You have bowed in front of the Xani devta. He is not a God you bow to. When you appease Xani you look at his eyes straight. For he does not like weak willed people. He will help you when you look him straight in the eye. But if you bow in front of him, he will sit on your head. He will sit on your head and screws with it. He will not let you think one thing straight. He will make your head go round and round. He will not let you do any work. Nothing will happen in your life. You will not be able to achieve anything. You will not see any success. What have you done to yourself?’

At this point, Raja ran. I am exaggerating of course. Raja is hardly the kind to run for anything. In reality he staggered to the paanwala next door, bought a cigarette, lit it, walked to the car and drove home. Now, the fact that he did not go to a bar or call a friend to smoke a blunt with, shows that he was running metaphorically. So he rab home, fetched his mother from the kitchen (a lot of work) and gave the all the stones back to her. To her he explained:

‘Listen, I just met the astrologer at the temple. He said from now on, my life will go back to the same way it was before this Xani-doxa business started. So I do not need these rings or to go to the temple any more.’

To the visibly happy looking mother, he did not mention that he also does not have to take a bath every Saturday anymore.



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pokhra: Out of Time Paradise

A friend and I needed a break in life. We needed time to find meaning and space to get perspective. A well travelled friend suggested Pokhara in Nepal. He promised veritable paradise. We packed at the speed of light and in true spiritual fashion decided to travel by land knowing there is no shortcut to heaven.

‘A train to New Jalpaiguri, a taxi from the train station to the border at Kakarbhitta, an overnight bus from border to Pokhra. Simple.’ – I explained to my friend. The shrug in her shoulder showed she was already in paradise and I should not bother her with worldly logistical issues.

Reaching NJP in the morning, we took a taxi to Kakarbhitta immediately. We spent the day at a dingy hotel in this border town and waited for the bus till evening. ‘It will take 14 hours and the bus has push back seats.’ – informed our slime coated travel agent. ‘You must book a hotel from here. It is very difficult to find hotels there. We have deluxe rooms which will cost you only 400 Indian’, he continued without a break. His smile reminded me of the jackals from childhood fables. But our belief in karma, our determination to live only in the moment and prior information from the evolved friend not to trust anyone at the border, deterred us from making any such advance moves.

The bus turned out to be a lemon and the seats as straight and firm as heterosexuals. As we left the dirty border town into greenery all around and hills at the horizon, a downpour started. Inside the bus it was dripping-all-over wet. Soggy smell of people mixed with diesel and kerosene fumes. Nepal is going through an acute fossil fuel crisis at the moment. So the bus was carrying gallons of fuel from India to be sold in black. Outside the window it was green and lush. Dancing springs and rivers criss-crossed the land in rhythmic intervals. We kept our spirits high with the German beer that we wisely carried. Paradise was not far from us.

What happened and how between is the beginning of an experience that dismantled our concepts of time and space forever. But that’s a long story. To cut it short, a local boy we befriended on the bus told us he has travelled many times from Kakarbhitta to Pokhara in his life. But he does not know how long it takes. He was right. One road block due to accident, one technical error, one road blockage by protesting students later, we reached Pokhara sometime next evening. We did not know how long it took and no one around us seemed to care. Time, we realised, is not understood the same way in Nepal.

At Pokhara, we were hoarded into a taxi by the bus guys and promised they were taking us to a hotel with the ‘best lake view’. It did have a lake view but it was dark by then. We decided to have a look around town and grab some more beer. The signs of imported beer brands on the way had caught our fancy already.

Pokhara, the other city of Nepal turned out to be quite a spot. Nestled around the mammoth Phewa lake, the small town has a tourist part that is obviously influenced by hippy westerners. Shops selling colourful clothes, second hand books and souvenirs and the ubiquitous hippy favourite German Bakeries are obviously not Nepali invention. There were so few cars on the streets that at first we thought there must be another strike going on. Post elections, Nepal, as any new born democracy, is going through a period of unrest stemming from long standing dissatisfaction in people and numerous political divisions.

Our first stop was at a night club called Show Girl. We entered feeling adventurous but unsure, prepared for male leer that we are so used to in India. We came out with changed notions about men and patriarchy. The men were so polite and non-intrusive, it brought tears to our eyes. But then, Nepal has its own concepts of time and space as we learnt again and again. That night we fell asleep into a summer breeze after dinner at one of the many restaurants that serve delicious Nepali dal, bhat, sabji and real chicken.

Waking up to a bright sunny morning, the weather was warmer than we thought it would be. The town is small but getting commercialised with concrete hotels all over. We looked longingly at the hills on the other side of the lake that looked so green and empty. ‘If we could live on those hills it would be perfect’. – said my friend looking longingly over the beautiful lake. ‘I have friend who take you there. There is place to stay in village. Very nice. You wanna go?’ – asked the waiter, granting us our wish.

Half an hour later we were on a boat, our back packs finely balanced, being rowed by a beautiful Nepali boy, going to Other Side of Lake (as the place is called). The boat landed on a beautiful spot, tucked away in a nook of the hills, away from the town, over-looking the lake. A local resort promised ‘active leisure’. Next to it is another place that has ‘Beer, Nepali Food and Fresh Fish from the Lake’. We found our paradise.

What to do now?

Nothing. Stare at the trees, the hills around the lake, swim in the lake, float around with life jackets, eat fresh fish, drink good beer, go for a ride on a boat, walk about the village, score intoxicants if possible, follow the butterflies and dragonflies, lie about shamelessly.

We were in paradise for a short time; we decided to do nothing at all. And while we floated on the lake, looking at the clouds passing by or playing with the endless hills around or snoozed in the shade of old mango trees, Time, we realised, actually does not exist in Nepal at all. Someone, when we asked how long it will take him to come back, answered puzzled, ‘How long?? As long as it takes to go and come.’

At some point we did a pilgrimage to the other part of the village called Anadu, where this paradise is. Looking for spiritual, medicinal herbs, we landed in a beautiful house with a well tended garden and met the owners. Their dream like idyllic home is also a guest house. We drank tea, made friends and promised to ourselves on the way back, ‘Next time we are surely staying here.’ Each house of the village has a view of the lake and the mountains and a boat and few oars. People on this side of the lake use boats the same way we use motorbikes or cars. We saw school children hurrying in the morning, young couples taking romantic rides in the evening, young women going out in the evening to town, old people going out in the day and people drifting around aimlessly enjoying the sunset and the evening breeze, all on boats. Everyone carries an oar along with their bags, wallets and mobile phones when they go out. . In the village, whoever we met and said hello to, told us, ‘now is not the right time, in season you can see the Himal (Himalaya in Nepali) from ‘heeeere to theeere’, pointing to one end of the sky to the other.

‘I do not believe’, announced my friend after we nearly squinted our eyes trying to look through the clouds that covered the famous Annapurna range that we have read and heard about so much.

We attempted to walk up to the Buddhist stupa you can see from everywhere in Pokhara. We were told this stupa has been made by the Japanese and the view from top is stunning. Sadly our attempt had to be aborted due to an attack of the leeches. Half way up there when we felt creatures crawling on us and saw them getting bigger sucking our blood, we retreated. ‘That too’, we promised again, ‘we have to do next time in season.’ ‘And where are the bloody mountains?’ demanded my friend, ‘Can’t they come out for one day at least?’

We decided to come back and spend the rest of the day on a boat. We hired a boat, went to town for lunch and spent the entire day rowing through the lake. As evening dawned and the sun, clouds and the mountains played a colourful drama, lost in a maze of water hyacinths on the silver water our trip to paradise was complete.

As our time to leave this paradise closed in we were paralysed by two thoughts – 1. How will we cope with the hustle-bustle of the crowded cities with our dismantled notions of time and space? 2. We did not get to see the Himalayan vista even once!

The last night in our paradise, we went to sleep heavy hearted. Early in the morning I opened my eyes to a startled cry from my friend. As I sat up, I saw my friend’s gaping mouth and through the window a line of giant mountains standing where there have been clouds so far. Their snow cover glistened in the morning sun while the clouds moved away for us to see. In front of us stood some of the tallest peaks in the world from Annapurna II to Machu Pichure (Fish Tail as its known). We stood there mesmerised. Our desires fulfilled, our selves humbled, we said, ‘thank you for being there, thank you for letting me be.’

Back to Babylon:

Once again as if to repeat our lesson so that we do not forget, the bus that brought us back to the world defied time. A few stops for crisis, fuel, breakdown and protests later when we reached a small town called Jhapa in the morning; we were told the bus would not move from there till the evening. There is a strike going on. We travelled the 17km from Jhapa to the border by cycle rickshaw. Our well learnt lessons came in handy as we tried not to fret about missing our train back from NJP. We kept calm saying, ‘Time is a western creation. In a non-mechanised world, time does not matter.’ Indian railway proved us right by delaying our train by 5 hours that day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

High Art, Low Lives

At the end of a failed attempt to reach Kunming (in China) from Margherita (in Assam) we were quick to settle for a resort nearby. This is what I enjoy most about travelling with my friends - this ability to happily settle for rabbit piss while you were actually looking for moonshine.

When we started from Guwahati 650 kilometres ago, no one knew where we were going. Such is the level of meticulous planning and detailed organisation of the ensemble we were travelling in. The ensemble performs music and is quite popularly known. Thankfully they had a show in Margherita. Or we would not even know where to go from Guwahati.

Somewhere through the 650 km journey, from Guwahati to Margherita, that for some inexplicable reason started at 2 am in the morning, we managed to decide that we will go somewhere beyond Margherita and visit unknown frontiers and untouched forests.

Making decision you must know is more difficult than driving 650 km straight through a night and more dangerous than the untrodden frontiers we want to traverse. It involves filtering through a sudden attack of inane answers to any question you ask. It involves fighting strong urges to kill your own troupe and tremendous self control to remain focused on the question. A typical situation of decision making process with my friends:

Friend 1: So what can we do with the 2 days we have in hand after Margherita?
Friend 2: We can do something.
Friend 3: Or we can not do something
Friend 4: All of you should shut up
Friend 5: We can go to Namdapha
Friend 6: We can also go to Arunachal Pradesh
Friend 3: Namdapha is in Arunachal Pradesh
Friend 2: Then let’s go there
Friend 4: We can also go to Dibru-Soikhua
Friend 6: Parasuram Kunda is also close by
Friend 1: We can go to Namdapha via Dibru-Soikhua and Parasuram Kunda
Everyone: Ye ye ye … let’s go there

Sounds easy? It does. Just that no one can go to Namdapha via Dibru-Soikhua and Parasuram Kunda from Margherita. Not in 2 days in any case.

At some point in the journey, a minister of the state (a real one!) became our tour operator. The star of the ensemble managed to throw enough charm to the minister into self suggesting and organising places for us to visit. He suggested Napdapha, we insisted on Burma. In fact when at Margherita we saw the sign that showed Stillwell road, going into Burma and out to Kunming in China, that was the only place we wanted to go. It was only 1700 km. ‘We can do 2 foreign countries in one trip!’ – one razor sharp calculator amongst us cried.

So the star called the minister. The minister told us it is a far cry. We should be lucky if we make it to Burma. We should have started early in the morning. It is already 1 pm and we will have to return from the border before 5. We are not allowed to spend the night in Burma. We still have 3 hours' journey left to the border.

Pointless to say that that did not deter us even a wee bit. We were out on conquering unknown land. What is time and inconvenient state rules for us? We will proceed to the border and convince the Burmese army into letting us in and out from the other side into China. So we proceeded. At Joirampur on Arunachal border (still in India), the SDO (Sub Divisional Officer), refused to give us a permit to go to the border. He said the road was being built. We called the minister. He asked us to proceed towards Nampong, the town at the Burmese border and that he will organise a pass for us. He will also organise for us to stay at the IB (Inspection Bunglow) on the Indian side.

When we arrived at Nampong, the caretaker of the IB did not know anything about our arrival. The SDO said he has not heard anything about us. We called the minister again. His phone was switched off!

We decided to take things in our own hands and proceeded towards Burma border. At the army check point there was much chaos as they were conducting a firing practice. We managed to take advantage of the situation and slip in without a pass. Ab Chinia dur nahin – now China is not far. But as wise people say – Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, Baki Sara S***r Bhai!* Even if the Chinese were dying to let us in at the border, the border road organisation of India had actually dug up the whole hill to make road. Ahead of us there were only piles of falling rocks and soil.

‘We can not go ahead any more’ – the captain said unnecessarily.
‘But the map on the road way showed such a big road?’ – Some one bright queried.
‘It was not that big. It was only this much’ – a brighter one held his forefinger and thumb in a pinch to show how big the road was on the map. Another inane conversation began.

We about turned. Cursing India for being so disorganised and vowing to take revenge on the first SDO who refused us the pass saying they are building the road. It was all his fault. If he gave us the pass we would have been in Burma by now and tomorrow morning in China. We must take revenge. This poured in another set of inane suggestions.

‘We should kill his dog’
‘No we should shit in plastic bags and throw it over the wall.’
‘At the dog?’
‘No, at the SDO’
‘What if he is not outside? If we dirty only his compound he will make someone else clean it. That won’t be fair’, socially conscious one said.
‘One of us should go in and ring the bell first and while he is talking the rest should throw the shit in’
‘What if it hits me?’ – a volunteer whined
‘What if the dog is out’ – pragmatic one asked.

Thankfully we passed the town where the wretched SDO lived and did not notice it being deeply engaged in this planning of the SDO’s insult.

We had also passed the IB where we were supposed to spend the night. Now we were not in China, we did not have a place to spend the night and no SDO to throw shit at. Going back to the beautiful IOC (Indian Oil Company) guest house we had rooms in, looked too sissy. The star called another contact. This time it was just a district president (referred as DP from here on) of a political party. The minister, we decided, is not competent enough.

The guy jumped at the first query and told us not to worry about anything. He immediately organised our stay in a beautiful resort in a Singpho village nearby. He even came to meet us halfway to take us there. Singpho is a tribe with much colourful history and clothes. Their houses on stilts are built of bamboo and locally found palm leaves. They are supposedly the first people on mother earth to have done tea cultivation. Originally they came from China. They also have a lot in common with some Burmese tribes. This particular resort is run by a family on behalf of the community. The wide, spacious bamboo house on stilts is set amidst a tea garden. They serve delicious and healthy home cooked food and are an extremely friendly lot. Their hospitality makes you feel like a Singpho yourself.

But this was not our luckiest day (night by now). The resort and the hosts were perfect. There was alcohol. There was good company. This perfect setting made us forget the DP. Not that he was a bad guy. He was in fact more hospitable than the hosts. But even the moon has stain on it. This over friendly DP was into theatre and poetry. Of the loud, exaggerated, popular kind. After a couple of drinks it becomes particularly irrepressible. We sat with him innocently, enjoying his local company and historical information, albeit touched with histrionics, about the area and its people. But as he touched his lucid lips to the third glass filled with jaam (Urdu for alcohol. Somehow only that word can capture the mood of the moment that night. Alcohol sounds too scientific under this hysterics) out came a diary he has been carrying with himself. He opened it with √©lan and started –‘Here is a poem I wrote in 1989. It was the time when the military had entered our homes. No body was safe. Our boys were getting killed. Our girls were…If you give me permission, I would like to recite it in front of this auspicious audience’.

We were innocent till then. So we said yes. Later, much later, the next day, while coming back from the resort, we would have many regretful conversations about at which exact moment we should have snatched his diary and thrown it into the fire around which we sat comfortably. Well, comfortably till then. It was our innocence till then that also made us say yes to his proposal for poetry recital. For, he started, at the top of his voice, an assault of difficult, angry, Assamese words that sounded like nuclear combustions fiery enough to burn your soul. Translated, it would sound something like –

In my heart there is a palpitating unhealed wound
In the marrows of my bones and bones there is cancer
Do you not see what is happening to my country? (At this point he takes his voice few notches higher and looks at us accusingly).

I looked at my cult. They might be very good at lateral thinking when it comes to decision making, but art and literature is not what they do for fun during evening drinking sessions. His poetry had stunned even this vociferous lot (our decibel level of normal conversation inside the car had made the DP warn us to be quiet at the resort before entering it). They all nodded when he finished, I guess, to release the tension that hang in the air from the poetry. This was another near fatal mistake. For the DP took it to be a sign of appreciation and volleyed into the next page in his diary.

He started another recitation. This time it was about love. Cruel, deceiving, unrequited love. He was drunk and consumed by his poetic emotions for sure. But he was also quick enough to move to the next page in his diary before people got a chance to recover from the previous one. And it was all organised in a chronological order. The local alcohol mixed with the tiredness of the failed attempt to go to China and generous overdose of the magic herb had made us slow in reflex. The DP had reached 1998 before any one of us could think about self defence. Also the atmosphere by then was too tensely poetic to have another decision making conversation of the aforesaid kind. We had to move carefully. This was an enemy more dangerous than the Burmese and Chinese army put together. The attack was relentless. I heard two of our bravest soldiers whispering into each other’s ears like a pair of little girls in bloomers. They were of the opinion that only an overdose of the magic herb could quieten this smouldering poet. So they started rolling joints at a speed only slightly slower than the sonic jet that was dropping killer words on us.

Meanwhile more people, hearing about the presence of the star amongst us, had arrived at the resort, hoping he would sing few of his popular mushy love songs for them. But, this evening, there was stiff competition for our star. The larger audience only aroused more passion in the poet’s diseased marrows. We had more to suffer.

However, these distractions of rolling joints, people’s arrival etc did slow the enemy a bit. It was past midnight and we had reached only 2002. Also the public began do demand successful love songs, not unsuccessful political poetry. Our crew in the meanwhile managed to pass on few more joints to the evening’s target.

I must add here that our crew was behaving exceptionally well that day. Normally it would not take 2 minutes for one of them to lose it completely and throw the poet into the fire. They did not care much for art and other people’s living in general. But today, we were at a new place with amazingly hospitable people. Also being a part of a star troupe meant our activities could get reported in local media instantly. So the crew was at its restrained best. And in fact the following account will highlight the moment of victory when this logically challenged army devised some sharp cunning and defeated the enemy tactically.

So after a new round of rice beer, introductions were made, our star was given a guitar by the admirers and few people sat at his feet to listen to his crooning voice. The DP took this opportunity and launched into a late 2002 poem. He proceeded with vigour renewed with beer and presence of young females in the audience now. When he finished his first stanza, one of our soldiers passed him a joint. He stopped to take a drag. A second soldier said in a loud voice, ‘Take a break, let me tell you some poetry now’, and he threw his voice at the poet –

Have you ever shat in a forest?
Or on the green of the grass?
Have you wiped your bum with wild leaves?
Sometimes it makes you burn.
Have you washed your bum in freezing cold mountain springs in winter?
Or peed on dry leaves making them smoke?
Have you farted loud into the maddening wind of Phagun (an Assamese month)
If you have not
Have you seen anybody else do it?

When he finished there was death like silence. We heard a loud sound of something banging shut. It was the poet. He was lying on the floor with his bum pointing towards the sky and had just shut his diary up. He never got up that night again.

The poet soldier of course received much applause from us. He has become a hero since. After the initial discomfort even the audience admired the simplicity and effectiveness of his poetry.

When I look back, I vow not to go on a holiday with my friends again. Especially not to China. I am still a bit traumatised to think about poetry or art. It will take time to heal. But on the upside of it, we now have a new talent amongst us. And the star continues to have competition.

* Translated into English this very profound idiom would be something like – 'All Indians and Chinese are bothers and rest of them are brother fuckers'