Author Archives: Samar

Phnom Penh: The original not in my name

The boy from Babhnan knew that this encounter was inevitable, that there was no escape. One has to fight his demons, after all. He had braced himself up. Yet he could not take it when it really happened.

In National Museum, 2010
In National Museum, 2010

He was standing in front of the Killing Fields, slightly out of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The execution centre of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 and killed around two million Cambodians, almost one fourth of the total population. This is where the purged from party cadre imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) were brought to get killed. Often with all of their family. The boy had been to S-21, a former school converted into first prison, and now a Genocide Museum! What a sad journey! 

The Killing Tree: Khmer Rouge used to kill kids by banging them against this

The trip had started on a positive note. The boy was there to participate in a United Nations workshop on rebuilding the rural communities. The days were filled with the discussions of hope, of looking ahead. The evenings with real yummy street food- though he could dare try one of the most famous of them all- red ants chutney! Early part of the nights was even more hep and happening- exploring many night markets that dot the capital. Phnom Penh Night Market was his favorite despite the jury preferring the Russian Market more. By the way, you can buy almost anything in the Russian Market barring a Russian! It got the name not for selling them, but because at the height of cold war, Soviets, the biggest, and welcome, expat community in Cambodia visited this market. 

In National Museum, 2018

It was also about long walks by the Mekong Promenade and dining in one of the myriad of Indian restaurants. The ‘vegetarian’ boy from Babhnan was ‘culinarily’ home in the South East Asia for the first time. He thanked the UN which had taken over the country- along with the Vietnam backed liberators for rehabilitation in the post Pol Pot era. They brought Indian curries, the reverse, cuisine colonisers of Europe with them. “Indian” restaurants followed. 

The Royal Palace

There was only a limit to which the boy could delay the inevitable. So there he was. In front of the Choeung Ek- the killing field with Sophary, his colleague. 

The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia
The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia

It was a revolution gone horribly wrong and revolutionaries gone paranoid. It was a dream shattered. Not in my name, the boy could hardly tell himself. 

It is not your fault, said Sophary, gently holding his hands. 

Being in Cambodia is like time travel. A country stuck in times gone by, running decades behind the most of the world. It had to be- after the year ZERO, or 1975  when Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge snatched the country from a US puppet regime. They abolished the currency, evacuated the cities and ordered everyone back to the villages. Four years of mayhem ensued. Mayhem that included US carpet bombing against the communists in Indochina- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam killing millions. Communist Khmer Rouge added another million to the tally. 

Flower boys of Phnom Penh
Flower boys of Phnom Penh

Ironically, the latter had their own completely understandable reasons for getting paranoid. US led forces were not only bombing Indochina to get rid of the Reds, they were also killing communists with CIA made lists in the countries with allied governments in the region. Indonesia, for instance, had witnessed the killing of half a million members of communist party! 

Ironically, once communist North Vietnam supported forces defeated the Khmer Rouge and ousted them, US immediately allied with them and kept supporting the Pol Pot led government in exile as the legitimate representative of the country in the United Nations! It ended up sheltering him too, where the UN indicted war criminal finally died peacefully! 

The Killing Fields Monument
The Killing Fields Monument

Yeah, truth is far more stranger than imagination. So is history! History that changes Tuol Sway Priyala School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeung Ek orchard into killings fields and a die hard communist Pol Pot into an American protegee! 

Later, resting at the steps of magnificent Wat Phnom, Sophary told him that the younger generations of the country hardly remember the horrors their parents and grandparents lived with. This gives me hope, she giggled, hope that nothing is beyond redemption. It also scares me, she sombrely added- we need memories to guard us from falling in the same pit again.

They agreed and went on the memory trip: the Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom, both night markets, the National Museum. 

And being friends with locals, a gem unknown- a RO RO Ferry trip to the other side of the Mekong- at least 30 years back in time! Don’t miss the last one!  

Orchha: Another ayodhya with Aarti and a gun salute

It is an aarti like none other, not at least the boy from Babhnan knew about. An aarti that gets followed by a gun salute to the deity, Ram Lalla, or baby form of Lord Ram in this case. This was in Orchha, a small kasbah now fallen 15 kilometers off the major railway route connecting India’s north to the south. It was once the mighty capital of the Bundela kings though, giving the region its name- Bundelkhand. A word mere mention of which evokes strong memories: of ballads and betrayals. Of alliances and intrigues. Of Abul Fazal and Jahangeer. 

And of Ayodhya, a very important part of the history of the once capital of the princely state accorded a 15 gun salute by the British Raj. The boy was in Ram Raja Temple, the centre of life in the small town more than 500 years after Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh had established it in 1501 AD, albeit at a different place nearby called Garh Kundar. He then shifted his capital to a more strategically located place, Orchha, on the banks of the river Betwa in 1931. 

The story behind the gun salute is contested and, intriguing. Most accepted version though is that of a clash of faith. Then king believed in Lord Krishna while the queen was a Ram devotee. The conflicted escalated to such an extent that the King permitted the queen to go to Ayodhya only on a condition. The condition was that she would return with Ram Lalla (Baby Ram). 

She went and worshipped. Yet, after getting no response from the lord for several months, she jumped in the river Sarayu. Lord Ram immediately manifested himself and granted her wish on three conditions. They were that he would travel only under a particular star, would take his seat wherever she first kept in the capital. She returned and kept him in his palace for taking him to the temple built for him the next day. By then he had become an idol. The king and queen tried their best to shift the idol next morning to the newly built temple but it did not budge. Legend has it that Lord Ram came in the queen’s dream in the night reminding her that as the new king, the palace was his rightful abode. 

The king and queen kept the promise. They vacated the palace and turned it into Ram Raja temple. The king also abdicated in favour of Ram Lalla, making him official king of the state and started working as his regent. 

From there started the tradition of the gun salute to Raja Ram. Interestingly, Nehru, the secular blamed for everything today, kept the tradition alive even after accession of the state in the Union of India. This also reminds me that the queen had returned from Ayodhya in 1528, two years after the claims of Babar having demolished Ram Janbhoomi or the Birth Place of Ram Lalla. But then, these are other tales for some other time. 

The fact remains that the city stands as a witness to the history of India from much before the idea of India itself was to be born. It stays witness to all the attacks and intrigues too. Of first Islam Shah Suri trying to capture the state and then Akbar himself, forcing Madhukar Shah becoming vassal of Mughal empire. Interestingly, another contemporary historian records him as a rebel much, though much later in 1583. 

What is certain though that Akbar did send his favourite son Saleem along with Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak to capture the city and its then Vir Singh Deo surrendered. He vowed to never ever betray Akbar and became friends with would be Jahangeer, the Mughal emperor. As fate would have it, Deo later assisted Jahangeer during the war of succession and kill Abul Fazal at his behest. They would stay friends all their life and Deo would build many monuments, making the capital a city to cherish. Jahangeer would even visit the city again, the city which Ram Lala ruled. Deo would build a palace for just that visit of his, the most beautiful in town. 

The Aarti was over, cops in attention, gun salute ensued! It was time to retire- the day ahead was a long one with various palaces, most importantly the Jahangeer Mahal, Chhatris (cenotaphs), river Betwa and much more. Bolo Ram Raja Durbar ki Jai, the crowd ecstatically chanted. The boy from Babhnan, a stone throw away from Ayodhya, was home. 

Ningde: Where the sea became farms

It was so surreal. Bamboos rose out of the sea, all the way till eyes could sea. The boy from Babhnan was in utter disbelief a second time in China. Yet to come out of rice farming on the mountain terraces in Longji, and here the sea had become farmlands growing Bamboo… Like how come, he asked Lin, his driver and the guide in Ningde, the coastal prefecture in China famed for perhaps the most beautiful mudflats in the world! 

In Xiapu's Most famous sea farm
In Xiapu’s Most famous sea farm

Lin had a hearty laugh. They are farming seaweed, not bamboos, bamboos are there merely for drying weeds. It makes the autumn harvest easier. 

Mudflats, also called tidal flats are many things. Found in coastal wetlands, they are a very important part of the ecology, a refuge for many species both of flora and fauna. The last thing one could imagine about them, though, was beauty, breathtaking beauty to be precise! What can be so beautiful about long expanses of mud, just mud, the boy had thought before undertaking this journey. He had nonetheless as he was intrigued by the pictures scattered across the internet. Pictures screaming that these were perhaps the most beautiful mudflats indeed. 

See the girl in the mudflats?

They proved to be. They were a delight for photographers, even for the amateurish ones like the boy who would often keep the DSLR aside, daunted by its hundred controls and take recourse to his phone. Comes the sun, and the rays turn them into paintings capable of putting even the best of the abstract painters to shame! Former Sea Gypsies, the human ones, start their work walking on the mudflats, and they start looking magical! Whole villages, of course floating ones, on the sea. And the miraculous Kelp, a type of seaweed, that grows over half a meter a day and is sort of the hinge on which mudflats lives hinge upon. 

And of course, they were a refuge for escaping the maddening chaos called metropolitan cities, a gateway to the times gone by. 

Mudflats are also an opportunity for a mere human to emulate Jesus, and all others known for the legends like walking on the water! Comes the high tide and they disappear despite being firmly there- walk on them and those looking at you from far away can take you to be the next prophet. Not a bad thing, no? 

A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!
A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!

Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavor that can move the mountains as cliche would have it. They can also farm the sea, the boy was to know in Ningde. Yeah, all kinds of seaweed along with fishing and crabs and what not. All of this in beautiful gear in super vibrant colors, all of which are locally innovated. They could also build whole villages on the sea, a properly functioning ecosystem. 

Receding tides, leaving day's catch behind
Receding tides, leaving day’s catch behind

Why did they choose to live on the sea, it is not easy, the boy suddenly realized. Lin came handy. His English was very rudimentary, my Putonghua did not even exist. But we were both armed with the magic called smartphones with Baidu App though- you speak into it in English and it translates that into Putonghua and vice versa. As expected, the gut feeling of the boy proved to be true.

They did not choose to live on the sea. No one does, knowing the vagaries of nature. They were rather forced to as they were Tanka people. The Outcasts of China, with many theories of their evolution. The most plausible one of them identifies as the descendents of one of the ethnic minorities, meaning non-Han Chinese people, from the first millenium BC and condemned to fend for themselves ever since. That they did, and did with elan. Exiled from the lands, they converted the seas into farmlands. They were denied a life, they built another. 

Village on the sea… These huts you see are real homes

Tanka people are not treated badly anymore, Lin volunteered. They were brought back in the mainstream after the Peoples’ Republic of China came into existence, he added. You support the party, I asked Lin. A boisterous laughter was the reply- we do not talk about politics here in China. 

Sam and the Seaweeds
Sam and the Seaweeds

I am definitely coming back here, the boy from Babhnan thought, six days were just not enough for a place this enchanting. There was so much left to know, like that colourful parade he came across. Lin had made him tick them all. Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian, the ancient town whose name he forgot. Yet he got to come back. To celebrate human endeavour. To salute the Boat People! 

With Lin.
Lin, the local

Manila Meandrings: Audacity of hope

Richell’s smile was infectious, her hope audacious. The boy of Babhnan was in Manila, the pearl of the East, as they called it because of its strategic location in the Asia Pacific region. They were chatting in a yellowy darkness that reminded the boy of his village some 4,500 kilometers, two oceans and several seas away. The ambience was eerily similar, reminiscent of those 200 watt yellow bulbs that hanged precariously in decaying holders and gave a twinkling yellow light that sickened more than illuminating. They hanged on, nonetheless.

With Children in Cavite
With children in Cavite

So did Richell, the bright and beautiful young girl. Sitting in the verandah in front of her room that she shared with seven others. All she had of her own was a bunker bed with no privacy other than a big and coarse curtain that could lock her 6 into 6 feet space out of others’ eyesight but could not stop noise, or even light from seeping in. Yet she laughed, and laughed a lot. She dragged the boy inside to have a ‘feel’ of her life and once inside, proudly showed him the teddy bear she had bought, no got as she corrected herself, a few days back. Her eyes twinkled when she talked of her dreams. She had no qualms against sharing them with me, a rank stranger until just half an hour ago.

With Richell and her friends and colleagues
With Richell and her friends and colleagues

Manila was going to be different, very different, the boy from Babhnan thought. He decided to give monuments a miss this time. He would meet people instead. 

Richell’s dreams seemed so out of place in that dingy verandah.Yet,she had the courage to chase her dreams. The girls of his village would dare not, or they would be sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy for the ‘crime’.

His ride to their ‘home” had been tough and uneventful. Having decided to dump a cab ride, he had taken a bus followed by a signature Filipino Jeepney and then a ride in that claustrophobic tricycle that cages you on small shaded compartment attached to a motorcycle or a cycle. The route ran, almost along the seashore that defines the boundaries of Metro Manila, as the national capital region is known there. It passed by Freedom Islands, ironically named so, that are home to the boathouses and the skyscrapers coming next to it, which would gulp the boathouses soon. Notices are already out and served on them.

City Hall, built in 1939

Richell’s journey was much longer and tougher. Masabate, the city she calls home, is not merely geographically distant from Manila, it is almost a different country, poorer and lacking of opportunities. But then, her old and ailing parents lived there, they still do, and it was there where she was pursuing her college degree in Information Technology. Ask her what brought her, then, here and what you get is another burst of laughter that could hardly conceal the pain seeping through her eyes. No work there, why else, she replies. Ask her about the IT course that she left midway and she points towards a roommate, she has an IT degree as well, no use. The roommate nods, giggles and then all of them burst into a collective laughter.

Leya does a Rizal, national hero of the country

Laughter, the boy was soon to realize, is not born merely out of the sheer audacity of their hopes. It was their weapon too, to reassure them that they have not lost everything, The laughter and the hope kept them afloat in a country that alienates them from their own labour, from their own bodies. It is intoxicating. It gives them the delusion they need the most.

You have a boyfriend; the boy suddenly asked Richell and saw her blushing for the first time. The reply, hastily put together with an invitation to have dinner with the group, is a coy ‘not yet’.

The story was the same; be it Irene, a single mom. Or Maribel, a fisherwoman in ironically named Freedom Island. The government was trying to relocate them to mountains, she informed. And giggles, fisherfolk to mountains, the government got some good sense of humour! 

Museum in Rizal Park
Museum in Rizal Park

And Leya, an activist. And Dayan, my colleague. Or Freddie, a vendor in the Rizal National Park. I have been living here since 1972, Freddie tells me. My wife died here, he adds. He had slept in the makeshift bed inside his stall ever since. Wanna try, he asks the boy. He readily agrees. 

Jeepney: US Military jeeps modified into passenger whatever

The boy did manage to go to some of the monuments, just for the pictures’ sake. And he stole a trip to Taal Volcano, a live one. The boy from the plains seeing the lava of a volcano! It is mere 100 kilometers away from Manila, and one thing you should not miss if you ever happen to be in Manila. 

Lava in Taal Volcano

And of course there are more places, one of the most beautiful of them being Manila Bay walk. I have passed by many of them, but not quite visited. Just like locals who hardly wink at touristy places in their own cities. People there become far more important than them. 

Richell’s laugh was the souvenir the boy brought back from Manila, a laughter so uncontrolled and unabashed. And her belief in the future. The audacity of that belief which can make anyone believe in humanity. Can we save the smile for our children, the boy asked himself. He had no answer!

Hope…

Lucknow to Longji Rice Terraces

Rice fields on hills? In small serpentine terraces cut over centuries? Small boy from Babhnan was in the Longji Rice Terraces in the Longsheng County of Guangxi, surprised to his wits end. Coiling terraces rising up from the foothills and going up all the way to top of the mountains is fine! Where do they get water though, he was thinking, perplexed. Growing rice needs a lot of water, after all.

Longji Rice Terraces: The Dragon's Back section in Ping'an. See the people?
Longji Rice Terraces: The Dragon’s Back section in Ping’an. See the people?

Surprise slowly gave in to nostalgia. He had grown up by the rice fields, a food grain central to the civilisation feeding over half of the world’s population. But the rice fields he has known, and has a few of his own, are all in the Gangetic plains. One which could be easily mistaken for giant ponds from preparation to planting!  He remembered the days he would run to them and jump in the muddy rice fields, filled with ankle deep water. He would then have to run away from mom, hiding behind grandpa to escape beating. Layers of rice shoots had led him to layers of memories, longings and losses. 

The terraces would soon become small rivers... then rice fields
The terraces would soon become small rivers… then rice fields

He was missing his own rice fields back home some 3,000 kilometres away from Longsheng. Rice, along with other crops, was the currency his ancestors had. Cultivating rice would get them their livelihood, their luxuries, howsoever scant, their travels, everything. Rice would get the small village boy education and set him on this journey.

Rice would take him to Lucknow, the first big city he got to know. A city known for its Tehzeeb, culture, and the monuments, both built by the surplus its rulers, the formidable Nawabs, got from rice cultivators. A smile had made its way to boy’s lips. Monuments built from rice surplus to rice terraces built by sheer human endeavour… Journeys!

His ancestors had fought among themselves to get the most low lying lands, preferably closest to the water bodies. That they were also the farthest from the roads and they repent now for that is another story for another time! 

Longji too had become home. And its people, Zhuang and Yao from two minority communities in China, his own people. The Zhuangs are native to the area. The Yaos originated in Hunan and came here fighting persecution and became native. Oh the journeys! The boy from Babhnan to Lucknow to Delhi to Hong Kong to Longji, Yaos from Hunan to same place!

With a Yao aunty, look how long they wear their hair
With a Yao aunty, look how long they wear their hair

Then, they started constructing the terraces- the Zhuangs in Ping’an and the Yaos in Dazhai and Tiantou in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Turning hills after hills into rice fields big and small, they continued until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the hills had all become fields! Rising from the river bed that sits at 380 meters above the sea level and rises, with the coiling terraces up to whopping 1180 meters! 

The boy from Babhnan in Longji Rice Terraces
The boy from Babhnan in Longji Rice Terraces

Where do you people get the water for the rice from, the boy from Babhnan asked Qin,his friendly hostel owner (basically a traditional 3-story stilted woodhouse converted into a hostel)? He smiled and asked the boy to come behind. The boy did, going all the way up to the one of the most scenic terraces, me again, tired, yet excited with his running commentary which I would otherwise never had known- that’s my aunt’s house, built 200 years ago, that is the home of a friend who migrated to US and so on. The boy was getting to know even the people now.

See that round, white mountain top: people have made that a pond!
See that round, white mountain top: people have made that a pond!

See that huge flat thing on the top of the hill, Qin asked! The boy, ever the son of the farmers, did not need a single word more. He has got it, with eyes wide open with surprise! The people had cut the top of the hills into flat bodies first, and then dug them into huge ponds to store water during rains! They then dug winding irrigation channels accompanying rice terraces! How did they do it? He wanted to ask, but did not. He was in awe of these people who rose to mighty mountains some 800 years ago, armed with primitive axes and shovels at the most and made fields out of them! Humans can indeed move the mountains, he smiled. 

Another Yao woman, look at her hair too
Another Yao woman, look at her hair too

The boy from Babhnan had fallen in love. He has been coming to the fields year after year, season after season. To see the hills become rivers in the spring with terraces filled with water in preparation for sowing paddy. In summers, to see them turn into a sea of green shoots, neatly arranged. Then to see them turn into gold mines in the autumn, with ripe paddy ready for the harvest. He is yet to make it there in winters though, when the mountains turn into a frozen mystery with white snow all over! Soon, he would. 

A village nestled in the terraces.
See the village nestled in the rice terraces?

He is sad, though, seeing the terraces falling to tourist trap since he first visited them in 2015 and hiked his way to Tiantou. There was no road to the village then, the reason he chose to stay there and not in Ping’an or Dazhai that had already fallen. He had then hiked his way up to the hostel enjoying the beauty and paying respects to the elders who created it. He saw a road being constructed to Taintou too, when he was there at last- in 2018. 

Go, before it is too late. The boy from Babhnan would be happy to help with suggestions and inside secrets. 

Kathmandu: The Legend Lives On

The boy from Babhnan looked away, trying to hide his welled up eyes from his mom. They were standing at the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the capital of the great Malla kingdom till the 15th century, a place he had fallen in love with over his numerous visits to Nepal. Nothing looked the same this time though. The horrible 2015 earthquake, also known as Gorkha Earthquake had obliterated many a buildings he loved to frequent. Vatsala Durga temple was one of them. 

Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019
Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019

The scene was the same all over Kathmandu valley consisting of three ancient cities. They were all capital of Nepal over centuries under different kingdoms- Lalitpur aka Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. All three had, still have quite a lot left, their own Durbar squares. The quake did inflict a huge loss on all of them yet it could not flatten them all. A lot with which the boy from Babhnan identified still stood tall. His welled up eyes slowly gave away to a smile of hope. 

Boudhanath Stupa from a window
Boudhanath Stupa

His relationship with Nepal went a long way, literally. His village is in Terai, an area common to India and the Himalayan country divided by a man made borders. Take the proper concrete road routes and you would be crossing one just 150 kms away. 

Go by the ones ‘smugglers’ took in the era India was still a closed economy, and nearest one would be just about 70 kms. He had known many of these ‘smugglers’. One was the husband of his house help he called Mami (aunt) and thus he was Mama. The boy, grown up into a man standing at Durbar square remembered how eagerly he waited for him to return. He remembered the polyester shirts, cotton had yet not become a fad he would bring back. And the Nike shoes, real or fake, as India did not even have Action shoes (remember them?) by then. And so on. 

Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel
Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel

The smile was fully back on his lips. He had first gone to Nepal when he was just 14. To Pokhara, from where came a classmate of his, Akhilesh Barnwal. His father was one of the biggest ginger wholesaler of the kingdom with a really huge house. And a distinct smell of ginger lingering in the air. Over his stay with them for about a week, the boy from Babhnan had fallen in love with both: super yum dishes Akhilesh’s Bhabhi cooked and the smell of ginger. 

Oh, life, you cheat! You never told him that the mountains would soon become another home. And they did.

Over the course of his work visits to the republic just born out of the ruins of the Kingdom. It’s capital would soon be a city in which he would stay in a home, of a colleague cum dear friend, not in hostels or hotels. The longest stint being a whopping 28 days in a row with long scooty rides at times doing household chores. A definite ‘local’ feeling. 

He would soon know its bylanes just as well, if not better, as he knows of his Mofussil Kasba. In which he would take the shortcuts to escape the maddening traffic, and would find himself, at times, stuck in some lane recently closed. Of course with other smart asses like him. Believe him, this is the most authentic local feeling one can ever have! 

He would soon be advising others about hidden gems of the valley: The every night Arti at river Bagmati, behind the Pashupatinath Temple on the other side of the river. It is an experience to die for in itself. Watch it from the Shamshan Ghat just behind the temple, and it becomes surreal. A tale of life and death and life again, together with devotees dancing to the beautiful hymns! 

Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side
Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side

Or the evenings at Boudhanath Stupa. And the mornings at Swyambhoo. Yeah, specific times when they look like they do not at any other time. And the Budhanilkantha Temple with a stone statue of Lord Vishnu, perhaps the largest stone carving in the country  inexplicably floating in the water. Okay, there are a few scientific theories but religion does not allow them to experiment with. The legend has it that any Monarch visiting the temple would die so no King after Pratap Malla (1641–1674) ever visited the temple. Monarchy died anyway, aah irony! Do visit the Kopan Monastery too.

Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple
Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple

Of course there are regular suspects- Thamel that still retains some of the original Hippy vibes, all the Durbar Squares and so on.

Do pay my respects to the boy from Babhnan’s other home though. Please also pray for all that he lost in 2015 earthquake, both people and places. 

Jakarta: A city of jarring juxtapositions

Garuda Indonesia. The name sent a shiver down the spine of the small boy from Babhnan. Yeah, he knew that it was once one of the most dangerous airlines of the world with unrivalled crash record. Then he remembered his flight to Mugu, deep in the mountains in Nepal in a 10 seater Cessna Caravan, which the pilots flew with the GPS as radar doesn’t work in mountains and checked the tires on landing! Garuda is fine, he told himself with a smile! 

Jakarta was the first place where I saw HIjabi women in bars!
Hijabi women in a Bar!

Jakarta, it was to be. The city which took its name from Sanskrit, Jay Krita or victory accomplished.  The city which was there in books since forever as the capital of Indonesia. What dragged him to the city, rather country to be honest, was a lesson in his Hindi textbook of standard 7th or 8th- a lesson about Sumatra and Bali- still Hindu majority in the world’s largest country by Muslim majority. He had to go there.

A picture of women shopping from street side vendors
Women shopping

And he was there. On his way to the hotel, for a change from hostels, at 1 am. Lots of eateries were open with a sizable presence of women too. Just like rest of South East Asian countries, he thought. Hanoi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Phnon Penh- the first thing that struck him was this- the sense of security for the women. Do they too worship women, he thought and shrugged, no time for sarcasm. 

This city is love, he was to discover soon. It was pain, when it came to the traffic, he was to discover too. It is a contradiction. Where else could one find Hijabi women in a bar, even if drinking mocktails? Or Muslims with names like Sukaron and Suharto! Jakarta holds one of the biggest (and first of the world) Ramayan Fair, also the most popular tale in the country told in a thousand ways from plays to puppetry! 

Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague
Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague

Puppetry reminds me of another contradiction: they make their ones with the skin of dead buffaloes or cows. Imagine our deities on that- I am sure it could force us to put the bigots on trauma induced heart attack watch! 

And the Apsaras roaming in the streets in full costumes and an accompanying band! Mostly of youngsters! Beware though, they may seek money so keep some change, small notes with you! As it is, they have notes of millions meaning nothing! 

Jakarta, I mean Indonesia, is repressive, it allows the police to keep people in remand without even producing them before a judge for a whopping 60 days. The boy from Babhnan saw thousands assembling right in front of the Presidential Palace protesting for a myriad of things for a full week, everyday! 

A protest in front of Monas: Or Monument of Independence

 

Biggest of them though is coexistence of religions captured perfectly by the Istiqlal Mosque, fifth largest mosque in the world with a capacity of 1,20,000 people right in front of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Jakartal. Look from a little distance, and the towers of cathedral and minarets of the mosque seem to be part of the same structure! This, in fact was the idea behind Sukarno, then president deciding to build the mosque to celebrate Indonesian Independence right in front of the cathedral. 

Fruit seller by the canal
Fruit seller by the canal

And they both welcome people from all religions. The boy from Babhnan had gone there in a group with 2 women wearing shorts- they were immediately given a kaftan kind of thing to cover. A guide was assigned to the group who took us inside and gave us great details! And his name was Indra! 

Kota Tua aka Old Town, Batavia- an oasis of museums and life

It was a visit for work so he was little hard pressed for time. The traveler inside him was enterprising though, he stole as much time as possible and saw the city like a local. He bowed to the Monas Tower (National Monument celebrating the independence of Indonesia) in memory of all those who made sacrifices, small to supreme fighting against the colonials. Just like in our own India. 

Cycle wallah in Old Town Batavia
Cycle wallah in Kota Tua

He went to the Passer Baroe- a lovely flea market established in 1820 and bought everything- from Batik to biscuits! Just like locals would! He went to Kota Tua aka Old Town Batavia, the colonial name the Dutch gave to the city when they ruled it and traced the city, and country’s history in the Fatahillah Museum. Old Town Batavia is really charming, worth a whole day of museum hopping coupled with loitering in Cafe Batavia. Wish he had that much time on him! 

Monas Tower from my hotel
Monas Tower from my hotel

And more to visit Chinatown

There’s always a next time, though. See you again, Jakarta!

 

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A to Z challenge, 2020
AtoZChallenge2020

India: From Bharat and back

Statutory Warning: This post might read very narcissistic as it is essentially about a very personal journey. 

The small boy from Babhnan was very sad looking at things happening in India, 3700 kms away from Hong Kong. Lakhs of migrant labours thrown on the roads in the middle of the Covid 19 lockdown, people starving, doctors being abused and attacked, slums in eerie silence,a religion being vilified and his own friends- urbane, middle and upper middle class locked in, getting depressed. 

Small boy from Babhnan in front of his village house
Small boy from Babhnan in front of his village house

It was essentially a journey back. From India to Bharat. 

Sounds strange? As the constitution asserts that it is India that is Bharat, no? Yeah, in the constitution it is. Just like untouchability is banned and is a cognizable criminal offence in the same constitution. Believe it or not, traveling to India from Bharat is perhaps one of the longest, and the most arduous journeys, one can take upon. Even the far more fortunate ones like the small boy from Babhnan who ticked every box right barring one- so called upper caste? Right, in fact in a landed, locally dominant family. Male? Right? Father in government service? Right, actually a professor, even mom is a school principal. Born in a big town? Sorry, NO. 

In Bhilai, some 14-15 years ago

Yeah. It was a long and arduous journey even for a boy from a privileged family. The one who slowly scaled all the peaks and reached where he wanted to, living a life chasing his dreams- which did never go beyond, ironically, backpacking. The boy never fancied hotels, hostels were where he belonged to- meeting fellow travellers, sharing notes, jokes and often beers too! A fallout of having lived in hostels perhaps, as a boarding student, since he was just 12. 

He was wondering how difficult this journey back to Bharat for those on the roads must be. And he remembered his. 

Going to Gorakhpur at mere 12 as a boarding student. Then Allahabad, at 17. And from Allahabad to Shankargarh where he worked with the Kol Tribals and Snake Charmers, and often slept on the only cot in Balanath’s family- with snakes in their baskets below it. It was a journey of no return. A journey which seldom gets recognised, let alone reaching travel stories. It was to a myriad of slums, teaching children, dreaming of a better future for them. 

This was the last house standing in a village named Jhalkusum in Komna block of Nuapada,
lost to Lower Indira irrigation project in Nuapada, Odisha, in 2013. We could not save it.
This was the last house standing in a village named Jhalkusum in Komna block of Nuapada,
lost to Lower Indira irrigation project in Nuapada, Odisha, in 2013. We could not save it.

Then to Jabalpur- meeting fellow travelers- the unconventional ones. From there it was to almost every nook and corner of India: going to Hyderabad for some labour protest, Ranchi for right to food agitation. Often missing the must visit places, though.

From there it was to JNU: that was to change him even more. And a journey undertaken like none other- a bus journey demanding Right to Employment. 52 days, 12 states from Delhi to Maharashtra and back. Hundreds of places- big and small- sleeping in villages under mango trees- a throwback to the summer vacations in his village by the Manvar river decades ago. The journey succeeded, by the way, with the passing of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. The small boy from Babhnan smiled, after very long, thinking of this.

A village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. This one is still standing.
A village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. This one is still standing.

The journey was interesting, along with many jailbreaks- no not the iphone ones, real as they happen with activists. Basti, Allahabad, Nuapada, Kochi, Palanpur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Raipur, Amarkantak, Bhadrak, Chennai, Bhuvaneshwar, Agartala, Bishrampur, Shillong, Palakkad, Lansdowne, Kaithal, Indore, Solan, Gaya, Ranchi, Nagpur, Goa, Puruliya, Guwahati, Bhilwara, Jammu, Ropar, – he remembered some of the stops, in no order though. It was a journey full of horrors, of being in boats on what were villages, full of living people and all that come along with them, now submerged by some dam. It was a journey full of hopes, of Niyamgiri people successfully saving their lands for decades.

It's a fake, laboured smile extracted out in a reservoir that once was land belonging to Reyang and Chakma Adivasis. And there was a river sacrificed at the altar of development at Dumboor Dam, Tripura.
It’s a fake, laboured smile extracted out in a reservoir that once was land belonging to Reyang and Chakma Adivasis. And there was a river sacrificed at the altar of development. — at Dumboor Dam, Tripura.

From there it was to Hong Kong, and then many places- including Kathmandu- home for over a month! 

An anchor shrieking broke his chain of thoughts. He was back to the millions of journeys taking place from India to Bharat again. Journeys full of losses. Of jobs, dreams and hopes. No one wants to leave home, after all. If so many people from rural India did that, they did it under sheer compulsion. Be they privileged like the small boy writing this, or desperate- forced into distress migration. It is urban India, mostly metropolitan alone, which is their only escape route- a chance of finding a job, a life, a home- howsoever small- a shanty in a slum, home nonetheless. 

This too shall pass, they would be fine. The boy tried to reassure himself. Amen.

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Hong Kong: Home Coming to a Harbour

It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home. 

Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.
Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.

Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares. 

Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.

Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.

This is an aerial view of the Ocean Park, the best theme park in Hong Kong.
An Aerial view of the Ocean Park.

 

The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon:  a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.

He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them. 

That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city. 

Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai. 

Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory 'establishing shot' for HKSAR.
Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory ‘establishing shot’ for HKSAR.

Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.

Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side
Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side

Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by. 

The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun. 

The BOnsai Mandarin plantation right out of the window of my bedroom

A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.

Bride's Pool Waterfall
Bride’s Pool Waterfall

Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Bride's Pool
Bride’s Pool

And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that! 

Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village
Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village

And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work. 

The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau
The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau

Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars. 

Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home. 

Ghazipur to Guangzhou: The opium trail

Magnificent Canton Tower in Guangzhou, briefly the tallest building of the world, stood in front of me. Inquiring, it seems, why I looked so familiar. 

It wasn’t because I came from Hong Kong, just 129 kms away, I told him. Yet, I had to look familiar as the real, left behind home of the boy from Babhnan is a mere 190 kms away from Ghazipur. A small sleepy town the boy knew so well. A Kasba he has been to many times for things big and small- from family weddings to a pit stop on the way to Varanasi- a major pilgrim centre. 

This is the Canton Tower, briefly the tallest building in the world.
Canton Tower

This is where this story started. A story that would change the world. It wasn’t one of those beautiful stories of the travellers and knowledge seekers who went from China to India- their Buddha’s home. 

This was not a story of great scholars like Faxian or Xuanzang. It was a story of the Opium and the Raj. A story of wars and blood. Of Colonials and the Natives. Of victors and the vanquished for centuries to come.

Yeah, the story formally began in Ghazipur, still one of the single biggest opium producers in the world. It began with ith the Ghazipur Opium Factory, established as Benaras Opium Agency, an East India Company entity in 1820. The idea of exporting opium to China was that of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India, in 1780. Yet, the first few shipments, hardly found any takers. Ten years down the line, the scene had completely changed with scores of Chinese already addicted. The Qing dynasty was already cracking down threatening death sentences to smugglers, including the foreign merchants. 

This was an almost unbelievable sequence in the Chimelong International Circus! My heart skipped a beat many a times!
An almost unbelievable stunt from the Chimelong International Circus

The British opposed this in the name of Free Trade and parity of the nations (sounds familiar, no?), and continued engaging in the illegal trade. 

By the early 1820s, opium processed in Ghazipur would be sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for auction, then smuggled to the south China coast via the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Canton was the only port through which the Chinese empire allowed, and regulated, foreign trade for centuries. Macau was the only exception with a small concession for a Portugese post in 1557, but not allowed to trade in China. 

The skirmishes over opium escalated. The Qings sent Lin Zexu, from Fuzhou (aah, the world is so small) as Viceroy in 1839 to crack down on the illegal trade. He would appeal to the conscience of the Queen Victoria to stop the trade in a letter that would never reach her. He would try to forfeit opium offering tea in exchange, the British won’t listen to him. He would then use force: and a war would break out- the First Opium War- with the Qing’s defeat in 1842. The Qings would sign the Treaty of Nanking granting indemnity and extraterritoriality to the foreigners in China, would open 5 more ports and cede Hong Kong, my home now, to the British in perpetuity. 

All I could get was this horrible photo despite trying a `100 times! Those were the days!
I tried so hard to get this! Beat if you can! That’s Pearl River…

Oh Ghazipur and Gwanjhou, you changed the history of the world. And also personal history of the small boy from Babhnan. Had you both not played your role, Hong Kong would not become a British colony and would be one of the most unlikely places he could call home! This even as Charles Cornwallis, then Governor General of India sleeps in his grave overlooking the graceful Ganges in Ghazipur! Talk of the journies! 

Anyways, back to Guangzhou, with a history of over 2200 years. Though the Canton part is perhaps the most fascinating part of its life, it is not the only one. Neither is the modern megapolis- one of the biggest foreign trade centres in China again! Sitting in the heart of Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou too has been one of the earliest cradles of the civilisation, with all its bounties.

Once in the city, start with a stroll by the river. Then go up in the sky, in the Canton Tower, and watch it flow down with grace. 

Miss the old Circus days? You are at the right place, provided you could make that morally difficult decision- and vouch for yourself if animals, and humans are treated well. Once done, head to Chimelong International Circus, and/or Safari and/or resort. Want to imagine what Canton looked like? Head to Shamian Island- a major abode for the foreigners- a European oasis in the orient! 

Don’t miss the over 2000 year old Mausoleum of Nanyue King Zhao Mo, discovered only in 1983! Nanyue, incidentally was an ancient kingdom encompassing parts of southern China and northern Vietnam And is considered to be a Chinese one by them, and a Vietnamese one by them.

This was after watching a circus performance in decades!
After watching a circus after decades!

Squeeze in some time for Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall as well and pay tributes to the city that played a major role in changing  the history of China, and the world, yet another time with strings of revolutions against the Monarchy followed by the establishment of first, Republic of China and then, Peoples’ Republic of China.

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