Monday, May 31, 2010

Ladakh - Day 7 - Alchi

We traversed the same route backwards in order to cover monasteries on the way. Our destination now was Alchi.

The temples of Alchi are in a class of their own. Sited on flat ground and not the usual hillside, the 12th century shrines, abandoned probably in the 15th century boast of the most magnificent murals in all Ladakh, they hark back to a time when Tibetan Buddhism, still looking to India for inspiration, was making its first inroads into the region.

Alchi’s sculptures and murals betray little influence of China and Tibet. What they preserve is the artistic style and tradition of Buddhist northern India, particularly Kashmir that disappeared almost without trace from the subcontinent in the years after the Muslim conquest and depredations of the 12th century.

A narrow path, lined with souvenir stalls leads to the choskar, the religious enclave. The first sight of the Alchi temples leaves most visitors unimpressed; from the outside, they seem to be modest, unremarkable mud houses, not indicating the artistic wealth within.

The stylisation will strike you as markedly different from that you have seen in other Ladakh gompas. The facial features are more mainstream Indian than Mongoloid.

Alchi’s most impressive temple is the Sumtsek. Thr name means three tiered. The temple rises to three floors, with a high entrance porch that is supported by carved wooden columns and beams. The ornamentation of the wooden support framework employs Greco-Gandhara architectural motifs used in Kashmir in the period between 7th and 10th century AD.

The three pediment like triangular gables between the beams each encasing a trefoliated(three lobed) arch that encloses a Buddha image. It is a format common in the pre-Islamic architecture of Kashmir. These design elements came to Kashmir from Gandhara, influenced and ruled or a period by the post Alexandrian Bactrian Greeks.

As you enter the dark inside, you will notice 3 colossal statues - of avalokiteshwara, maitreya and Manjushree - on the 3 sides of the square chamber with a large stupa in the middle.

Photography is prohibited inside all the temples.

There is a courtyard through which one passes to reach other temples, all of which prohibit photography.

All temples are treasure houses of very old and significant murals, elaborate and detailed sculptures and clay figures.

As we returned, I tried to capture as much beauty surrounding the place as I could.

On my walk back, I entered one of the souvenir shops and bought a grand Thankgka, not an original handmade one, but a kind of printed velvet, for 200 rupees. I think it was Tara.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Kahlil Gibran's Prophet - Play By Soham

How much effort it took me to get to Alliance Francaise from Jayanagar. No one has heard of the place, Rick drivers don’t know the route and then one ways everywhere. What more, it started raining just when I got down from the auto to walk to the venue…

And all this for what joy?
Watching a play that’s wasn’t quite a play by a troupe that’s not ready yet to enter stage.

Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet by this troupe Soham, directed by a certain Yogesh Master. In one sentence, a performance that was on the whole, ridiculous.

First of all the book Prophet by Gibran does not lend itself to the stage. When I leant of the event, I was curious to know what the troupe had done to adapt it to the stage. It was curiosity that made me book my ticket.

As I said, the book does not lend itself to the stage. But there was scope to make a beautiful pantomime of it –
Pantomime is where emotions, actions, feelings, etc., are conveyed by gestures without speech.
- a play or entertainment in which the performers express themselves mutely by gestures, often to the accompaniment of music.
A lot of property could have been used. Huge screens with pictures in the background, changing according to the message.
The setting of the story – an approaching ship on the sea with Almustafa and his people gathered on the beach – provided enough scope for stage arrangement.
The play of colour and light would have made it charming.
Music – Sufi I think - would have befitted the occasion.
Costume required special attention – to suit the historic period and geography.
Actors could have floated skillfully on stage while the narrator told a story.
The audience could have been transported to a different world.

All the above are what could have and should have happened.

What actually happened was this.
The play was introduced by someone who was barely audible and low in confidence, which was obvious from the way he spoke. His English was poor and pronunciation, imperfect. To me, that was an indication of what was to come. I still hoped I was wrong.

Then followed a series of acts that had no relevance whatsoever. This was before the narration of the story began. A kind of slow dance by a group of topless men that was too prolonged.
And then, there appeared a clothesline on the stage with the faded over-washed gowns clipped to it, meant for the actors. The actors then clumsily slid into those gowns still clipped to the clothesline and then unfastened the clips. And then they danced some more, to a tune that was not particularly remarkable.

The narration turned out be just the reading from the book - every line as it was - by a guy who had no reading skills.
The actor who was Almustafa delivered his own lines while all else listened around him.

Thus, as a boring act went on, there were a series of histrionics that a college kid would have deemed immature.
The first one preceded the chapter on marriage. One of the members of the troupe who was not in costume rose from the audience, and shouted at a lady actor trying to enter the stage- twice or thrice; a crude depiction of oppression that was a sort of preparation for the message on marriage that space is necessary between man and woman.

There were two, no one, but two such acts of irrelevance preceding the chapter on children. The lady actor actually carried a half asleep toddler in her arms and gave him to Almustafa as she asked him to speak on children. I don’t know how they put the baby to sleep at the right time and I wonder why he did not wake up, not even murmur, leave alone howl.
The baby had anklets on it with those tiny bells that jingled!

A few lines from the chapter on children were delivered and someone was rapping the door to the entrance. The man was shouting “I have not come here to watch your play. I want to see my son…” For a minute, I was not sure if this was an act or this was real. What followed showed that this was an act. And a most thoughtless one. A middle aged man, in jeans and shirt, carrying a back pack, barged in, went on the stage and began shouting at one of the actors “you haven’t come home in 3 days. I will not leave you this time….”
This was followed by the message on children…how children come through you, not from you, learn from them, do not give them your thoughts and all…

Meanwhile the baby who had woken up from sleep was walking all over the stage, not speaking, not crying, what with its anklets making the low jingling sounds…
Don’t know what the relevance was.

A corner of the stage was occupied by a lady on a cot who had an assortment of objects spread on the cot. Who was she and what was she doing there?
The younger lady actor, the baby also occupied it whenever their legs ached and they wanted some rest.

Then there was the chapter on work when some equipment was brought by all actors and deposited on the stage so everyone could see.

When the chapter on food started, one of the actors actually walked between the aisles and distributed nuts in leaf cups to a few lucky people in the audience.

The baby continued its rambling on the stage…

Just when I thought there were so many more chapters and this was going to take long………the whole thing abruptly came to an end.

Last but not the least, the words of the director, Yogesh master, after all of them had been introduced, deserve special mention.
“I would read prophet by Gibran to my troupe members and these people would not understand it. So everyone suggested, why not take this to the stage? Hence this play”. WHAT???

Moral of the story. Anybody can stage a play. You can get away with bad performance.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Nobel Prize for literature. 118 pages. A really small book and easy read.

It’s a book that I read twice. Because, the first time I read it, I did not find anything remarkable about it. Puzzled? Don’t be.

By now I am used to it; picking up an award winning book expecting to be blown away, searching for that X factor until the last page and finally putting the book down with a question mark in my mind, on my face and around me for some time-Do I know how to read a book? Am I missing something that the rest of the world appreciated?

Gradually I have come to terms with the peculiar plainness of such books. Now I know what to look for and where to look – which layer and how deep, in order to find the point of the book.
In a world where there is a preponderance of sensation, thrill, the out-of-ordinary, the spectacular and the mind blowing, He who presents the bare simple truths of life gets a standing ovation.

The Outsider is the story (rather, no story) of a character, Meursault.
The story begins with Mr. Meursault preparing to attend his mother’s funeral. He visits the old age home where her body lay in a coffin and watches over it all night. He refuses to see her body, does not cry, attends her funeral mechanically, returns home and rests.
The next day, he meets his girlfriend in a swimming pool and has sex with her. He gets back to work, cooks, eats at a restaurant, meets his neighbor and his dog, and the rest of the routine...

Without much thinking, by the way, he agrees to write a nasty letter to his neighbour’s girlfriend when requested to do so by the neighbor, Raymond.
When Raymond was arrested by the police for beating his girlfriend, Meursault agrees to act as Raymond’s witness in the court, again, without much thinking and by the way.

One weekend while visiting a friend’s cottage on the beach, Raymond and Meursault are followed by a group of Arabs, one of whom was Raymond’s girlfriend’s brother. Raymond is hurt in the brawl that followed and they all return to the cottage. Meursault, by the way, returns to the beach for a walk, where he finds the Arabs resting. The heat of the sun makes him impatient. When the Arab flashes a knife at him, he fires 5 shots at the Arab and kills him, by the way. He is arrested. When asked whether he regretted what he had done, Meursault says he is more annoyed.
The prosecutor proves that Meursault is a monster by pointing out that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral.
Meursault is given capital punishment.

That’s the story. And that’s no story.

And when I sat down to write a book review, I didn’t have much to say.
Having a foreknowledge of the Nobel Prize that this book won, I read it a second time determined to discover what lay beneath the banality. And I must say I found something (you always find what you are looking for)

There is really nothing to say about language, style, story or any of those parameters on which I have in the past evaluated books - meaningful insights, plot, historical facts, ability to make impact…, beauty, sweetness, nothing…

The only thing about the book is the character.

The character the author has created is a non-descript, dispassionate, unemotional, ordinary fellow who is in no way remarkable, intriguing or impressive and does not have much to say or do. He is one of those that you will forget the day after meeting.
In fact, he is someone you would be inclined to dislike. For various reasons; but all of them having one thing in common. He is different.

For instance when his mother dies, he does not feel great sorrow. Hence he does not display any sorrow.
Contrary to people’s thinking and expectation that he should be mournful, he goes about his routine as before – his office, his girlfriend, his cooking, his food, his neighbour, neighbour’s dog – without being embarrassed about it.

He is wooden. In general, he goes about everything unmoved, untouched and quite detached.

His truths are not interesting but he has no lies either.
“I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent, all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead.”

“He (Lawyer) asked me whether I regretted what I had done. I thought it over and said that rather than true regret I felt a kind of annoyance.”

When his girlfriend Mary asks him to marry her he agrees, but when she asks him if he loves her, he says ‘probably not’.

When arrested by the police, he refuses to engage a lawyer, beg for mercy or feign repentance. He simply admits his crime and when questioned by lawyers, gives honest replies.

When he says something, he means what he says. He does not pretend to be someone else, gives no thought to political correctness and lives by his instincts.
He expresses what he feels - and he feels nothing in particular - neither too much joy, nor too much pain, neither too much passion, nor too much hatred, neither anger nor disgust, nor love.
And he does not pretend for the sake of society or political correctness. He is someone who lives in the mid frequencies neither riding the crest nor sinking into the trough.

He is somewhat like an animal. Sincere, impulsive and primitive.

AND YET, HE IS NOT GUILTY. JUST DIFFERENT. And that, is the point of this book.

Reader’s Reaction

In the beginning, you, the reader, see Meursault as an ‘Outsider’.

You feel both angry and pity for the protagonist because of the apparent futility of his existence. He goes through his life without dwelling upon his surroundings without being aware of his feelings for other people, noticing nothing and just going on. It is only after his arrest and during his trial that, for the first time, he recollects his happiness, the summer evening, the chirping of birds, cries of newspaper sellers, shouts of sandwich sellers, moaning of trams, murmuring of the sky before darkness, etc… Alas, too late…

You feel annoyance, pity and disgust for our man who only feels the morning heat and dizziness when the prosecutor is calling him a monster and asking the court to give him capital punishment.

You feel some more anger and pity for him who makes no attempt to defend himself whatsoever…
“He wanted to know whether I was quite sure about that and I said I had no reason for asking myself that question; it didn’t seem to matter.”…until his capital punishment is announced and then starts thinking, imagining, wishing, waiting, worrying…

But in the end, you feel sympathy for him. Not because you think he is innocent - you know he is accused of a criminal offence, and you still sympathize with him. And that again, is the point of this book.

Narration & The Point

One can be outrageously, blatantly, unconventional and yet as innocent as anyone else. But unfortunately, perceptions about who we are matter more than who we actually are.

This is the story of a person who is judged to be guilty not because of the wrong that he committed but because he was unconventional - he did not cry at his mother’s funeral. In the court, the prosecutor talks less about the actual crime and extensively about Meursault’s cold behaviour at his mother’s funeral to send him to the guillotine.

All Meursault did was refuse to pretend. How many men really feel pained, hurt at their mother’s death? Surely not everyone does. There are many of them who don’t. But all of them pretend that they do. And if one man refuses to feign hurt, to pretend, he is not forgiven. He is judged and condemned for not pretending.

The story is narrated by the character, protagonist himself. As a result, there is no explicit attempt at character sketching. The character unfolds, by the way.

That author has portrayed a character that is very unconventional, apparently hard hearted and offers no explanation for the way he is.
The author neither justifies the oddness of Meursault nor criticizes/condemns it. The author narrates the incidents in the character’s life matter-of-factly, perhaps implying that people who are different need not explain or justify themselves and it is not up to others to judge them. Everyone has a right to BE who they want to BE.

The author drops a hint now and then that Meursault has a heart, and deep down, a soft spot.
For instance, the author shows Meursault to be thinking of his mother, recollecting things she used to say…
“It was an idea of mother’s and she often used to repeat it that you ended up getting used to everything.”
“Mother often used to say that you’re never altogether unhappy.” But the author does not fully reveal that spot or that softer aspect of Meursault to the reader. All the same, he gives no explanation either for his coldness, even as the reader searches for one and hopes to find in the end.

The fact that the author has given no explanation whatsoever – even as the reader searches for one – for the character’s hard –heartedness - such as a deep rooted psychological wound, an incident of childhood that hardened him, etc. – is significant.
By this, the author is perhaps trying to say that no explanation should be expected and that even without such an explanation one should be able to refrain from judging the man guilty for his unconventionality and simply allow him to be unconventional, accept him and respect him that way.

“In what way, does Meursault not play the game? The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also in fact especially, saying more than is true, and in the case of human heart, saying more than one feels”.

With some exaggeration, Meursault is a character that all of us must strive to become and yet reject and banish outright. That, is the point of the book.

The book shows to what extent we are buried behind masks and pretenses; such an extent that we forget that there is a true self behind that mask, that image and with time, become those images.
It’s like this. When you utter a lie a thousand times it becomes the truth.
Likewise when you project an image of yourself to the outer world for a long time, you start believing that you are that image. The line between your image and your true self becomes blurred and finally disappears.

There are many among us who would not feel grief when their mother died. But all of us believe that we feel grief, because our minds have become conditioned by the society and its norms to believe that it’s natural for all to feel grief when their mother dies.
So even if we don’t feel grief deep down, we believe that we feel grief and we cry.

Also, when we find in our midst someone who is unmasked and unpretentious, somebody who is himself, we don’t let him alone. We seize him, tell him to become one among us or perish.

Apart from that, the story makes you see the narrowness and shallowness of the system of justice – the ludicrousness of modern law, the hilarious absurdity of law practitioners, and the poignantly amazing position of the accused; two practitioners of law engage in a battle of words, perhaps use the opportunity to show their prowess, deliver a lot of rhetorical speeches, a third person passes judgment and the one whom it all concerns does not even have a say. The extent of guilt of a person in the dock depends heavily on the capacity of the lawyers to argue.
Justice is justice merely in letter and not in spirit.


There was still the same dazzling red glare. The little waves were lapping restlessly at the sand as the stifled sea gasped for breath.

I fired four more times at a lifeless body and the bullets sank in without leaving a mark. And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.

The prosecutor retorted that chance already had a number of misdemeanours on its conscience in this affair.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ladakh - Day 7 - Lamayuru

It was in the queue before the SBI ATM in Leh that I met Fee, a tourist from Germany. She was standing in front of me. She was travelling alone too. She had just arrived in Leh and did not have a definite plan. I was looking for someone to share my taxi with, so I could visit some more places around. Within a few minutes, a plan was made. We went to a travel agency which by the way happened to be close to Fee’s hotel.

The monasteries west of Leh interested me. I had a few places in my list within 60 kilometers of Leh, but the agent agreed to give us a discount and I included Lamayuru as well, a place that was 125 kilometers from Leh, the pictures of which looked unusually different and out of this world.

And what more, Fee had met with two others who had planned to go to Pangong lake that had been a preoccupation with me ever since I saw pictures of it, ever since I heard of its peacock blue waters from those that had just returned from the place.

They were three and just one more could be accommodated. And it was destined to be ME.

Everything fell into place so perfectly. I consider myself lucky in these matters. Or perhaps, I want it so badly, so earnestly, that the universe conspires to make it happen.
We planned to leave at 8 in the morning so we could cover as many places s possible. I looked forward to this with delight.
We started a little later than 8.

This route for some distance was grand and solemn, but as we went further west, it turned into a charming one.
As we started there were the rugged mountains, eternal, with enormous spaces separating them, the serpentine roads seeming over-ambitious as they scaled these mountains.

After some distance, there was the unexpected appearance of charming green fields sprinkled generously with yellow flowers right by the road; just a small patch of emerald set neatly in a surrounding of gold; disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared.

I had to ask the driver to stop and take a reverse.

As we drove, there were some more such fields. Each one was a surprise and we stopped at every one of them.

After some more driving, the Sindhu river emerged. Grander than I had seen her before, marching on in the valley.

Our destination was Lamayuru. The plan was to go to the farthest place and then while returning, visit the other monasteries on our way, and cover as many as possible before dark.

As we approached Lamayuru, the landscape changed. It was unlike anything I had seen before. This place is called the moon valley since it has lunar landscapes.

During the full moon tourists pitch their tent here and I believe the sight is spectacular.

This looks like a huge field of sand. Some children scooped out portions with a shovel/spoon disproportionate to the size of the sand basin, creating the impressions of engravings of a common pattern.

The monastery. What a spectacular setting.

Lamayuru village and its fields lie below the monastery. The cliff on which the monastery stands, a promontory like spur, is heavily eroded, its sides jagged and bare. The village homes, chortens, monks’ quarters, blend seamlessly almost as though they aren’t manmade but part of the natural landscapes.

Butter sculpture in Dukhang.


There is a mythical story that Lamayuru corrie(a circular hollow in the side of a hill or mountain) was once a great lake and this may well be true; the moonland depression closeby, geologists believe, was certainly one. A great Arhat used his spiritual powers to open a crack at the side of the basin and drain the lake. Prophesysing that a monastery would come up above the depression, he planted corn on its edges that ripened in the shape of swastikas. Lamayuru is called Yang-Drung Gompa, that being the Tibetan word for swastika.