Tag Archives: #atozchallenge

Uttar Pradesh: A descent in decline

The boy from Babhnan looked at the vast, magical, colour changing expanse of the landmass below. The land of mythical Rama and Sita and historical Buddha, both worshipped across the world by millions. The lands of once the home of the Mahajanapadas of the oligarchic republics of ancient India. All but a blur now, a forgotten blur. A magical one, nonetheless. 

Take a flight from Hong Kong in January or February, and the wheat and mustard crop growing in the fields would paint it green and golden yellow. Come in April and it would all turn into bright yellow. A month later, and with the crop harvested, it would be a brownish blur. Come in late May and June, and one would find it difficult to make the fields from ponds with all of them filled with water in preparation for the paddy cultivation.

The boy would keep looking back at the flight map trying to locate his village, one of the thousands below. He would fail, invariably. There is nothing much in his village to differentiate from countless other ones. It was not supposed to be. His village, like others around, has been there producing food for humanity for centuries. Rice, wheat, pulses, oils, mangoes- name it. And producing food was never sexy enough for the rulers to build monuments honoring the producers. 

People also build their monuments, but not for this very mundane, yet, essential for survival activity. He could identify Lumbini if the flight took a detour by the Stupas, but not even Gorakhpur from Basti- district headquarters all looked the same. Unless there was a river below. A mighty river, to be precise. The small tributary by his village would not qualify as one. 

He had grown up in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, traversing fields that led to his school. It was a long and arduous journey, often also an unpleasant one. It was a journey to decline, to have been, just like the state. Yeah, a journey from the world’s most ancient republics to becoming one of the BiMaRU (sick, literally!) states of India by the end of the twentieth century. 

By the time the boy from Babhnan grew, most, if not everything in the state, was a story of have beens. Eastern UP of Buddha and ancient republics was now a den of caste-based mafia groups with nothing much to boast about. He would see tourists and travelers from across the world going to Kushinagar, where Buddha breathed his last, not even give a blink when the city would pass by. He would go to Shravasti, the sixth largest city of the country in Buddha’s lifetime and his abode for years, and the story would be the same. A nondescript Kasbah full with people from across the world, but with hardly any facilities! 

His study would then take him to Allahabad, and he would find his university, the University of Allahabad as ‘the had been’ Oxford of the East. Yeah, the university established in 1887, fifth in the Modern India which attracted the best of the minds at its zenith was reduced to a mediocre place manufacturing provincial civil servants at the most. His activism would take him to Benaras and the story would be the same for both: world’s most ancient continuously inhabited city and the university that takes its name from the city. 

But for its splendid monuments, Lucknow, one the showpiece of the Ganga Jamuni Culture through both: its architecture and culture looked the same as any other city in the North. There would be one saving grace though, the Mughalai Cuisine would still taste the same. So did the folk glories- the quintessential Litti Chokha of the East. 

The small boy had started his journey just like the one that the state had. Born in a hospital in Faizabad, the first and original capital of the Nawabs, he went back to a village. The similarities ended there. His was more of a journey forward, from his Awadhi speaking area to Gorakhpur, in UP, though more in Bihar, culturally speaking. It even spoke Bhojpuri. The joke, very few of ones which are gospel truths as well, has it that Bihar is not a state, it is a state of mind. It was back to Allahabad from there where he really grew up into a young man chasing his dreams. Where he would sit by the Sangam, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna thinking of the days of the glory of his home state, gone down the drain to earn a sad moniker: BiMaRU.

He would see the land of Buddha slowly changing into the biggest sectarian flashpoint of the world with Ayodhya, his own Ayodhya becoming its epicenter! He would experience it first hand as well- in western UP during the 2013 riots. It was so different from his own UP, in language and culture, unfortunately, united by the politics of hate in those times, though! 

He knew, though, that journeys do not end in decline. One can always go back, rebuilding all that is lost, just like one can go ahead to seek newness. He would, he thought.

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!


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.