Sunday, July 31, 2011

Empires Of The Indus - Alice Albinia

A brilliant work. A blend of history and travelogue narrated as though a thrilling novel. Very well written.

The title is very apt. ‘Empires of the Indus. The story of a river.’ For this is not the story of any one country or kingdom or race or culture or religion or any one period in history. It’s the story of all countries, kingdoms, races, cultures, religions and times that the Indus has ever seen in her life.

The author begins her story backwards – both in time and the river’s course.

She begins in Karachi where the Sindhu discharges into the Arabian Sea and travels along the river back to her source in China occupied Tibet.
It’s a sweeping narration covering a range on interesting subjects including scientific facts, myth, religion, mythology, folklore...and more.

Starting with the current and very recent political history of Karachi including partition, Jinnah and the Hindus remaining there mostly cleaning the gutters of the city, she gives an account of

1. Various people who tried to navigate the difficult Sindhu river – mostly the British
2. Sheedis – descendants of slaves taken from Africa to Sindh by Muslim traders and their unique culture
3. Various river saints, Sufi saints at various times
4. Sindhis and the cultural synthesis between the Hindus and the Muslims that they represent
5. Plight of the Sikhs who had to move from Pakistan to India but whose pilgrim centres and holy places are in Pakistan
6. Other rivers of Punjab that have been heavily dammed
7. The author's dangerous and risky journey to the Khyber pass, her meeting with political agents and officers to arrange for her travel through certain forbidden zones
8 . Her disguise in white as a Muslim woman through the countryside, stops made at small villages, the lives of people there
9. Exploits of Babar, Akbar, Aurangzeb, Mahmud of Ghazni
10. Homosexuality predominant in the Muslim community
11. Buddhism in the region
13. Coming of Alexander the Great
14. Hinduism, Rigveda, Aryans and Sanskrit around the Indus
15. Strange archaeological sights, rock carvings & engravings
16. Harappa, Mohenjo – Daro and the Indus valley civilization
17. Kargil war and Musharraf’s plan
18. The Stone Age,
19. Polyandry in the region – Ladakh, Tibet etc.
20. Her coming to Ladakh following the Indus and the culture of the place

And finally,

21. Her entering China occupied Tibet and the ensuing disappointment upon realizing that all these days she had been following a river that was not the Indus but the confluence of her tributaries - Gar, Zanskar, Shyok and Shigar – because the Indus had been dammed right at its source by China.

She weeps every time she talks to her husband over phone from Tibet. She is affected by the emptiness of the landscape like she was not affected by the many dangers she passed by during her journey.

She walks to the source of the Indus and meets a trickle of water. It is 35 to 40 million years old and the oldest river of the region. It comes not from melting snow but from the ground and flows all round the year.

Where it discharges into the sea, there’s just a trickle of water in the Delta because the river is dammed heavily in Pakistan all along its course for irrigation. And some distance after it begins, it has been dammed by China and just a trickle of water escapes the dam to follow its journey of three thousand one hundred eighty kilometres. The fanaticism of Islam has been erasing the Buddhist and the Hindu past of the river.
The folly of man is killing the river all along its course. And its water that is the cause of persecution of India by Pakistan and Tibet by China.

It’s the story of a river so well told that it touches you as if it were the story of a living human.

There is much suspense till the end. Will she reach the source of the Indus? Will she see it? What’s it going to be like?

The author deserves appreciation not just for her writing but for the effort it took her to experience all that she has written about and for the physical hazards of her undertaking.
The author, a lone woman, has been most adventurous in travelling through areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that were haunted by the Talibans and certain feared local tribes. In following the course of the river, she faced difficulties as the river coursed through terrains not easy to follow. The river sometimes flowed in valleys, around huge boulders, steep ravines and she lost sight of it but she took detours, sometimes really long so she could rejoin the river soon, so she could 'be with the river'. She has gone out of her way in her study of the Indus.

A must read for every Indian. For our roots go back to the Indus river. As the author puts it, 'the hoeland of Hinduism is not India but Pakistan'. The book is full of innumerable interesting facts.

When I reached the end of the book I wished it would go on for a few hundred pages more.

The book ends not with hope but with despair.
Perhaps there is very little hope but I wish the author had shown some silver lining to the dark cloud.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gliding In Rain

On June 17th I resumed my Carnatic vocal music lessons. After more than 15 years. Now and then, in doing certain things, I realize that I am trying to be the daughter my father always wanted me to be. This was one of those things. Carnatic Vocal Music. He was a disappointed man when he learnt that I was more interested in Hindi Film Songs and that I dragged myself to my music classes only because of him.
When I realized years later that you could sing film songs better with some training in classical music, I decided to resume my lessons. After a long time of doing nothing about it, at last I started last month. And I was pleased with how quickly I was able to pick up, how malleable the human voice is, how it gave in to persuasion and how I was able to dwell upon a certain high note longer than I had imagined I was capable of, when at first attempt, a week ago, my voice had cracked to my embarrassment before the audience of the walls of my home.

On the 5th of July, I learnt Suryanamaskara from Nisha. I knew it exercised every muscle of your body and the best gym in the world therefore but did not expect it to leave me panting after just 2 times of doing the exercise.
Although my cautious eating does not seem like a penance to me, I become filled with a longing now and then for those days of great blessing when I was able to eat without a care. Ghee, butter, curd, cream, sweets, ice cream, Deep Fried Puri …
Those evenings of greasy vegetable puffs, apple cake, potato bun and Badam Burfee from V B Bakery.
Those days of Krishna Janmashtami filled with exotic sweets and Namkeens like Chakkuli, Thenkolal, Kodu Bale,Om Pudi, Kadle Unde, Coconut Burfee, Nippat, Murukku...
Those dinners cooked by Muthu in Akkarai guesthouse in Chennai when I started work in Cognizant - Rice, Rasam, coconut rich South Indian Poriyal or Palya, North Indian Paneer filled curries in cashew rich gravy, thick curd with a spoonful of sugar…
I will need to increment the number of Suryanamaskaras gradually. It is certainly effective and brings results within weeks. For now, my wrists are my only hope; for the Suryanamaskara puts the weight of the whole body on the wrists, which in my case, seem like they stopped growing when I was 12.

9th July. An evening drunk in music. Soaking in bliss. Original musicians who had played with RD Burman, Amit Kumar, son of Kishore Kumar and other artists played tribute to the Burmans. I was seeing Amit Kumar for the first time and was impressed by his talent. His voice sounds so much like Kishore’s. His antics on stage that I had dismissed as noisy stunts years ago when I had seen him on stage, seemed very natural. His stories of the Burmans, of their idiosyncrasies, the blinking-winking expressions of RD Burman, the amusingly deep voice of SD Burman and his short sentences, their special relationship with Kishore Kumar and the unforgettable story of the famous song ‘Roop Tera Mastana’, all narrated from childhood memories were captivating.
Although I have heard the song many times, ‘Bade Achhe Lagte Hain’ in Amit’s voice sounded so beautiful. ‘Tere Mere Milan Ki Ye Raina’ by Amit and his half sister sounded like experiencing God. And what more, I learnt that the first 2 lines were inspired by Tagore. When I came to know that Amit was 59, I could not believe it. And I returned home thinking that he should definitely have had a bigger brighter career.

13th July. Murali got engaged. My baby brother was engaged(ok, he is just 3 years younger). I am yet to get over it. He had grown up. So soon. So fast.
There were festivities in the family after 15 years. All our relatives were gathered in Hassan, my grandmother’s house - the house that has only known giving – to all who need.
Who ever had dreamed he would find such a perfect girl, and my parents, the perfect daughter in law? He never really had expectations, unlike me.
He sat gloomy faced through the ceremonies simply because he felt he was too young for it and he should have had more playtime. He is a shy boy and was perhaps conscious of being the centre of attention.
The priest presiding over the ceremonies said no exchanging rings – it wasn’t part of our custom and moreover the boy and girl weren’t supposed to touch one another before marriage! : ) so my mother slipped the ring on the girl’s finger and the girl’s mother slipped the ring on my brother’s finger. After we had partaken of the feast, when I caught my brother exchanging words with his fiancĂ©e, I felt a naughty joy.
She is sweet, innocent and simple. She knows classical music and Bharatnatyam dance. She is learning how to cook but her chapattis arent round : )
The icing on the cake, of course, is that she is very pretty!

Last week.
My faraway distant dream of writing a book suddenly seemed like a possibility.
Five hundred pages of a book, ‘Family Matters’ by Rohinton Mistry filled with excruciating descriptions of the daily troubles of a middleclass family trying to make ends meet – of course with other things thrown in – a love story, socio political background of the time and space with special focus on the ethnic group of Parsis, made interesting through skilful writing - gradually made me see that all of us are leading interesting, or even sensational lives. We look at our own lives as ordinary, banal, insipid and so on but the life we have lead and the lives our parents and grandparents lead in the special context of their time and space, in retrospect, seem so interesting.
My own grandfather was orphaned at 6, was adopted by a rich couple and struggled to prosperity. In those times, people practised black magic on enemies, rivals and the victims died a curious death. Villages were haunted by ghosts – women became possessed by them after childbirth – they would fling their babies, eat a cauldron full of rice and all. A relative had eloped with a boy of a lower caste and there had been melodrama... two subsects of the same caste had gone to court over the matter of a certain 12th century holyman (alwaar) and attempted to judge his credentials!
I have now to control my OCD –obsessive compulsive disorder of reading and start writing. There is much work to be done...

I had gotten used to the dust in my house; and also the untidiness of the two small rooms that make my home. I never bothered to deck up the place thinking my days in that house were numbered. One day I got flowers. Soon, I started getting flowers every week. I placed the ornate and ornamental vase I got from Kashmir next to the real flower vase. Then I arranged the fleet of wooden shikaras neatly – red, green, yellow and brown. And then the miniature Pashupatinath temple i got from Nepal.
I bought a wooden Ashoka pillar and Budhha statues from Sapna Book House (They usually dont have the book I’m looking for, but they do have nice showpieces!). Encouraged by the difference they made to my place, I did something more every week.
Wanting to frame a Mandala that Nandu had gifted me in Kathmandu, I found this poster & frame shop in Jayanagar.
My eyes fell on the many colourful posters around. I bought a beautiful framed picture of Saraswati. Or was it a Sharada? I soon realized that I needed more nails in my house to fasten more pictures. The carpenter came and drove 4 nails.
Now I have a Taj Mahal, a picture of the Fall, a Crimson Sunset, a Yashoda with baby Krishna in her arms hung on my walls.
It feels so good to come home to such beauty.
Life has to be lived today. Because tomorrow never comes.
The small picture of Radha and Krishna, I chose to place on the wall above my bed. I would wake up to their love every morning.
On second thought, maybe I should have chosen differently. Their’s was a love that was never consummated.

24th July. I hadn’t seen a movie in the longest while. Suddenly I became aware of this at times and then I go on a movie watching spree.
The first one I watched was Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara. Loved it. Hrithink is reluctant to go deep water diving. He does not swim. He’s afraid. His coach Katrina tells him ‘Your life will change forever after this’ and he jumps. He is shown swimming in the deep blue, through the little valleys an hills under the sea, among corals and fish of all colours, He climbs back to his boat and as they sail towards the shore, he is crying silent tears. A very powerful scene.
It reminded me of my own experience of being in the lap of the eternal Himalayan peaks and the way I was moved to tears.
I do not swim but I now want to overcome fear and see a world – blue, silent and slow - that I have never seen before. Loved Hrithik and Katrina.
Justin had said ‘Moviemaking is the greatest gift to mankind’. Very true. For three hours, it fills your life with possibilities and leaves you with the fulfilment of all that you want and all that you want to BE - in this life and another.

25th July. Watched the evening show of Delhi Belly. Brilliant movie. Everyone in the hall were laughing, sure, but I was the loudest and the happiest. Glad I watched the English version, I at least understood all the slang and abuses! So much packed into a 2 hour movie. Not a minute wasted. Fast paced. I don’t think anyone blinked. A movie packed with story, wit and humour. I was exhilarated. I was laughing to myself like a retard when I walked into the poster and frame shop on the way to collect a bigger print of the beautiful Saraswati I already had.

I quickly dropped the bundle of framed pictures at home, picked up my electronic Tamburi and started walking to my music teacher’s home. It was raining and though I had an umbrella, I got wet here and there.
You need a ‘Shruti Box’ which is actually an electronic Tamburi to set the pitch for singing. My teacher uses one during our lessons and it is important that we practise at home in the same pitch. But pitch is something you cannot memorize. More often than not, we tend to fall back to the pitch that we find comfortable rather than the pitch prescribed for lessons. And it’s important to sing in the prescribed pitch so you will stretch your voice little by little.
So I decided to buy one. I asked her for the configuration of the device and she said she would let me know during next class. In the next session, I asked her and she briefly told me what to buy. I asked if I could drop by on Saturday so she would configure the instrument for me; you know set the pitch to C, C Sharp or C Minor, D or whatever.
She was busy the whole of Saturday and Sunday. It would take half a minute to press a button but she just didn’t have the time. I would have to go without practise for 2 days but she shook her head firmly.
I called up on Monday in the noon and she said she was away and would be home after 7.
So I reached the first floor and was relieved to hear voices inside. I rang the doorbell. She opened it and when she saw me she raised her brows in shock. ‘So late? Its 9:30’. I smiled apologetically. ‘I am sorry mam. It is a working day.’ I said as I closed the umbrella slowly.
‘But so late? You did not even call me up’ she frowned. ‘Sorry I cannot do it now’
‘I thought it would take less than a minute. You just have to plug it in and press a button’
‘Sorry, I cannot’ she shook her head firmly and closed the door even as I was standing there.
Feeling stabbed, I walked back home.
I should have known it before. When she had kept me waiting with the fruit basket, vermilion, arecanut and betel leaves in my hand, the very first day instead of accepting it the first thing. When she kept saying ;tomorrow, tomorrow,...’ each time I reminded her of the printed booklet everyone else had but not me, when she took two reminders to give me the configuration of the device, when she rushed me through the lessons and moved to the next pupil... even though she knew I came from work that was 14 kilometers away and that too on Tuesdays and Fridays which meant that I had to leave office by 4 in order to reach her place by 5 30.
That night, anyone else in her place would have felt overjoyed by my enthusiasm and seen the redemption of her effort in my commitment. Most of them came to class without even practising. But she probably felt offended by my persistence in reaping the complete returns on my 500 rupee monthly investment.
It was just 9 30, not 11 30. They were not about to sleep. They were wide awake. I was the one who walked to her door in the rain. She didn’t have to. All she had to do was turn on the instrument and press a button. It would take 30 seconds. I could practise my lessons at home which I had postponed for 3 days now. The matter would have been closed and I would not have to carry the instrument to her all the way another day.
But she turned me away. A Guru. A woman. And mother of a child!
I lost respect for her. She was a miserly chicken hearted woman. I was disappointed. How would I learn from someone I did not respect?

All the happy events that had lead to my birthday one after another had ended with this last one.

Crests and troughs and moments of stillness. Calm and storm.
I could have glided onto the shores of golden sands. And I did but for one jagged rock that fate had put there for a reason I know not.

I looked at Saraswati on my wall.
I picked up the phone, called the poster-frame guy and placed an order for an even bigger print. Now with this teacher having done this to me, I felt the need for a bigger Saraswati.

Through these days of happy and sad turns it rained. The smell of wet earth found me almost every day. There were all kinds of rain. Weeping rain. Laughing rain. Angry rain. Rain below yellow sunshine. Rain under blue black clouds. Rain swayed by roaring winds. Moody, just like me.
I love every kind of rain. The rainy season is my favourite season of all. And water, my favourite element.

Whether or not friends call, whether or not I cut a cake, receive presents, the rain is the one consolation I have. My birthday present. Year after year. Because I was born in July.

Happy Birthday to me.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Everest Calling - Lukla To Phakding

This was our first trek. Lukla to a village called Phakding.
No one knew the exact distance, not even our guides. Someone said 5 – 6 kilometers.
Someone in my troupe who used an instrument to measure distance said 8 kilometers. Weird. I trekked for a month in the Indian Himalayas and the length of every trail was known.

The vegetation around was colourful – flowers, foliage, barks and leaves alike.

Cloudy foggy weather though good for trekking is bad for photography. But now when i look at the pictures, i think the clouds and fog given the pictures a special, unearthly, dreamy, unreal quality.

These red flowers reminded of a flower ‘Buras’ that i had seen in my Himalaya trek in 2008 in Uttaranchal. Its juice was delicious. But this was a different flower.

The hanging bridge was an important feature of this trek.

Walking through abnadoned wildreness, suddenly after a bend, you came across a pictureque retaurant like this. And after the next bend, it was wilderness again.

Sometimes there were cultivated fields flanking the trail.

Buddhist monasteries, prayer flags, stupas and sacred writings. As you enter the mountains, you find mostly Buddhist people.

Dudhkoshi river – blue green after its confluence with Botekoshi coming from Tibet.
Dudhkoshi comes from a pond in Gokyo that is white in colour like milk and hence the name.

I trekked mostly all alone to keep my field of view clear of people during photography.
I did not rest stop even once during the trek. Except for taking pictures.

Thanks to those who were sensitive to stand aside, away from my field of view while I took pictures. There were a few who, even after I requested explicitly to stop for a minute, continued walking on the narrow trail causing me to wait until they had passed.
Well, there are two types of people in this world – those who stop for others and those who don’t!
: ) every predicament offers some opportunity for philosophy.

And finally we reached. This was our hotel.

It was cold. People were sitting huddled together, shivering, holding hands and all.

A surprise awaited me (all of us) at Phakding. If you wanted to use electricity to charge your phone, camera etc., you were charged 100 Nepalese rupees per hour.

‘It gets more expensive as you go up’, we were told.
‘I will have to be more judicious while taking pictures’, I thought.

One bucket of hot water cost 100 rupees.
One mug for washing face cost 10 rupees.

All kinds of jokes started were going around. Context is a powerful thing.
There were jokes about the idea of people bathing together, not bathing at all. A boy was rubbing another to keep him warm – and that triggered this idea of people sleeping with a bucket of cold water in between them in the night so it would become hot by morning and they could save money.
People joked about dividing the job of photography as well when they learnt electricity had to be paid for through the nose.