Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Zambia, Oct 2015.)
We entered Zambia by bus from Malawi and first saw the amazing South Luangwa National Park. From there we took a bus to Lusaka, the urbane metropolis of the bipedal Zambians. We had the nicest bus yet on our African trip, with video screens that however played gospel musical videos—evidently inspired by American Evangelical musical videos—for the full nine hours of the journey! This would've been a lot less bearable without the famed musical talents of Africans, at once rich and resonant (perfect weather, short naps, and the beautiful landscape helped too). Nearly everyone in Zambia is now Christian. Local preachers sometimes board long-distance buses from one stop to the next and sermonize; passengers even sing along. The president of Zambia recently held a national prayer day to beseech the Lord to arrest the decline of the Zambian currency in international markets. It astonished me yet again: Here too an entire population so quickly and so totally embraced a religious tradition so alien to their own. Old layers of magical thinking made room for new layers, such as the strange story of a son of a male God coming to earth and dying for other people's sins. Christianization in Zambia has also meant that, over a few generations, society has become more patrilineal from its mostly matrilineal roots, aspects of which nevertheless survive. A Zambian man we met couldn’t comprehend the Indian practice of dowry, the polar opposite of their own custom of men paying bride price.
Traveling westward in Zambia, I noticed rising prosperity, greater urbanization, and evidence of Zambian per capita income being 4X that of Malawi and Mozambique. Zambia's linguistic/ethnic landscape is fragmented across 72 languages (!), most mutually incomprehensible. In Lusaka, which hosts Zambians from all regions, English is commonly heard. English, as in India, is the first language of a minuscule number but the medium of instruction in all Zambian schools is now English, alongside courses in one or more of the 72 regional languages. Most people speak several languages. Modernity and Christianity have loosened old bonds of tribe and ethnicity, making intermarriages frequent in Zambia. A severe shortfall in rains last year was causing power outages—nearly all of Zambia's power is hydroelectric—but the outages were well-managed, and the outage schedule for each locality was announced ahead of time. How I wished India would learn from this. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Malawi, Oct 2015.)
We crossed into Malawi from Mozambique and immediately found traveling easier: its distances shorter, tourist facilities and transportation better, and English a lingua franca. The gigantic Lake Malawi has long shaped patterns of life in this most densely populated of sub-Saharan countries, encompassing nine major ethnic groups, many of which are matrilineal and Christian. All of its native languages belong to the Bantu family, and while English is the official language, more widely spoken is the national language, Chichewa (similar to Hindi in north India; ATM machines operate in both English and Chichewa). At least nominally, a third of the population is Catholic, a third Protestant, and a fifth Muslim; people variously combine monotheistic lore with native beliefs that include animism, ancestor worship, and witchcraft.
Compared to Mozambique, I saw a more hopeful economic dynamism in Malawi's rural and semi-urban areas, reflected in its many micro enterprises, provision stores, roadside bars and eateries, and emerging consumer economy. Aspirations for upward mobility seem common enough. Its young democracy is taking root and its religious and ethnic groups coexist rather well, with differences among the latter (and their historical endogamy) yielding to a more inclusive "Malawian identity". These aspects however coexist with some grim realities: half the population is under 15; a quarter of them don't attend school; public corruption is rife; life expectancy is only 54 (due largely to malaria and AIDS); its lakes and rivers are very overfished; and its fast growing population is coming in greater conflict with wildlife. In this part of Africa, too, China looms large, evoking both admiration and disquiet. Many locals appreciate the Chinese investing in Malawi—for creating jobs and building its infrastructure, including its shiny new parliament building, its first five-star hotel, and a science university—but they worry about back-room dealings and unfair mining, timber, and trade concessions that the Chinese seem to be extracting from Malawi's politicians.
We visited two areas on Lake Malawi's shores (Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay), the beautiful Liwonde National Park, and the capital city, Lilongwe, with its planned spaces, a nature reserve, and pockets of cosmopolitan affluence (some of its shopping centers seemed built in the image of suburban California). Yet again, we met and conversed with far more nice and interesting people than I have any right to expect on a short visit, and I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers that came our way in ample measure. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Mozambique, Sep/Oct 2015.)
We began our journey in Mozambique on the southeastern coast of Africa. It’s a huge, sparsely populated country of 25 million people, with the greatest density being spread out along its 1,500 miles of stunning, tropical coastline. The south, which includes the capital of Maputo, is the region of greatest development, economic activity, and settlement. With large populations of both Christians and Muslims, Mozambique is famous for the long amity between these communities. Portuguese is the lingua franca among a host of native languages.
Mozambique holds the distinction of having had the longest experience of European colonialism on the African continent, beginning hardly a decade after the first European ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Here the Portuguese stumbled upon the bustling world of Indian Ocean trade, which had already been plying for centuries. Determined to dominate it, they conquered one of its robust island trading ports and built a permanent settlement by 1507. The island, called Mozambique after its reigning sultan, Ali Musa Mbiki, would become the first capital of colonial Portuguese East Africa, which grew from there. For over 450 years, Portugal administered its colony with overtly racist policies and little concern for its development.
This long engagement with Europe has left its mark most obviously for today’s visitor in Mozambican cuisine, both in the unique fusion that today makes up Mozambican food, as well in introducing the many European and New World foods that entered the common diet. Most significant of these is corn (maize), which revolutionized African agriculture and quickly became the primary staple food across Southern Africa. The Portuguese also introduced the cashew nut, which is today a major export crop and readily available as a street food, along with the chili pepper, which was nativized to become the peri-peri pepper, used to make the hot sauces that are a table-top staple across the region, to name but a few examples.
Mozambique won its war of independence from Portugal in 1975 and set about building a communist government, but was soon engulfed in another horrendous, 16 year war—in part a civil war, in part a proxy war fueled by South Africa, Rhodesia, the Soviet Union, and the USA as another front of the Cold War—that handicapped its development and helped to keep it one of the absolutely poorest nations on earth.
The country has come a great distance since the days of the war and today it bears an undeniably optimistic outlook toward the future. Especially in Maputo, where its rapidly growing economy is anchored, there’s a sense of hope and possibility, a belief that the country can be drawn upwards from its past. In and around Maputo, a thoroughly modern city, infrastructure development appears to be going strong, aided enormously by China, which has won for itself rights to newly discovered oil fields in the north. But it must be said that not all Mozambicans are on board with the trade-offs being made, and fear their country is being sold off at a pittance. Public education and healthcare suffer miserably; any Mozambican with any means plans on a trip at least to South Africa, India, or further afield to receive medical care or opportunities for higher education.
Mozambique is a physically demanding place to travel, as distances are long, buses unwaveringly unreliable and unfailingly overstuffed. Though the roads are all newly built, and along the coast the major routes are paved, though there is as yet little motorized traffic along them, it’s clear that the infrastructure is not keeping pace with the country’s own demands for intra-country transit. Chinese assistance has provided modern airports, roads, and buses, but I was astounded to learn that there is only one passenger train operating in so vast a country—and that too a creaky old thing that clatters slowly, when at all, back-and-forth along a single 360 km track between Nampula and Cuamba in the north. While making one’s way across immense, empty stretches of countryside, packed 25 people and cargo to a 14-seat minivan, the thought that a passenger railway would revolutionize Mozambique’s development is inescapable. Nevertheless, with patience (and strategically self-imposed dehydration, to avoid the need for a bathroom), one can discover a country of astonishing beauty and friendly, welcoming communities of people who are finding a new way in their rapidly changing world. At every stop, the discomforts of getting there immediately evaporate into the wonder of the present. [—Usha Alexander, October 2015.]
(My review of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 April, 2015.)
The living and the dead of Varanasi have long enticed Western travelers, especially those fond of ‘Eastern spirituality’. Among them is British writer Piers Moore Ede, who, after many short visits, recently spent a year in this ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. From a Spartan flat overlooking the Ganga, he forayed into other parts of Varanasi, always ‘grateful for return to the familiarity and lyricism of the river bank’. Kaleidoscope City, an account of his experiences, brims with warmth, humility, and curiosity.
Moore Ede covers a fair bit of ground. He marvels at folk theater performances of The Ramayana. He probes the life and beliefs of an Aghori ascetic, among the most austere of holy men. He meets the city’s legendary master silk weavers, almost all Muslim, who still weave exquisite designs on manual looms inside their homes. Sampling Varanasi’s foods, he fondly delves into the locals’ love of sweets. He learns about the city’s great musical heritage, discovering that Muslims often ‘worked as professional musicians in Hindu temples’. He uncovers sad stories too: a prostitute and victim of a sex trafficking ring; white-robed widows who, often discarded by their families, come to die in Varanasi; textile workers fallen on hard times in the age of globalization.
As a Westerner in Varanasi, Moore Ede inhabits a privileged world, which both enables and limits him. If people sometimes trust him for being an empathetic outsider without a threatening stake in their lives, he admits he can often only see ‘the facade rather than the finer details, and cannot decipher the inner meaning of things.’ This is partly the lot of all outsiders, for whom encounters can be superficial and realities invisible. Moore Ede seems oblivious to the range of crookedness in the holy men he meets. At times, he is too uncritical, more like a fellow believer than a journalist. His yoga-studio Hinduism seems untouched by dissident voices—of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Ambedkar, say. Like many before him, he is prone to reducing the varieties of secular and religious life in pre-modern India to stereotypes. He writes, for example, that ‘At the heart of India’s change lies an unmistakable shift away from moksha as the central goal of life, towards that of material prosperity.’ Witnessing the disruptive juggernaut of modernity, he comes close to romanticizing the vanishing traditions of village life.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Kaleidoscope City are the author’s respectful encounters with people and his sensitive exposition of several Varanasi traditions. Interwoven are many lovely impressions of the fleeting and the quirky. The rhythms of life and death by the river are vividly rendered in Moore Ede’s fluid prose.
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2015. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Few places in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
Check out "Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy", an engaging documentary film by Rakesh Sharma. Set in Kutch, Gujarat, it tells the story of people in two remote villages whose lives are plunged into upheaval by an earthquake, an apathetic state, corporate greed, religious myth, baseless optimism, and other human tragedies (64 mins, 2002). Sharma is better known for "The Final Solution", a really good film on the 2002 Gujarat riots. You'll find both films at his Vimeo channel.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ wrote Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, ‘for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Some also say this about ‘home’, making it less a place, more a state of mind. Or as Basho, the haiku master, put it, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ Still, in an age of physical migration like ours, one of the most bittersweet experiences in a migrant’s life is revisiting, after a long gap, the hometown where he came of age. More so perhaps if, while he was away, his neighborhood turned to ruin, crumbling and overrun with weeds, as happened in my case.
Last month, I revisited my boyhood home in Gwalior, a city in north central India, with my parents. I had grown up with my two sisters in Birlanagar, an industrial township in Gwalior, until I went away to college at age 17. After graduation, I left for the U.S. in 1989 for post-graduate studies and various jobs in the U.S. and Europe over the next two decades. I continued to think of Gwalior as my hometown until my parents also left in 1995 and I stopped going there during my India visits. By most measures I had a decent boyhood in Gwalior, yet I’m loath to idealize it or look upon it fondly. If it had its joys, it was also full of graceless anxieties, pressures, and confusions.
A ‘Temple of Modern India’
Many industrial townships similar to Birlanagar had arisen in mid-20th-century India, including at Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi. Most were built around public sector enterprises, housing factories that employed thousands. Nehru, the modernizer, called these the ‘temples of modern India’. Birlanagar, where I grew up, was a private township, centered on two textile mills. The Birlas had started building it shortly before independence on land given to them for free by the Scindias, who ruled the then princely state of Gwalior. The older and larger of Birlanagar’s two mills was Jiyajeerao Cotton Mills (JC Mills), named after a member of the dynasty. The other mill, founded around 1950, was Gwalior Rayon (later Grasim), where my father, a textile engineer, worked for 36 years from 1958-94. Under the once famous ‘Gwalior Suiting & Shirting’ brand (watch this ad with Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore), Gwalior Rayon produced a range of fabrics combining both natural and synthetic fibers—such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, acetate, viscose—including some that ‘never tore’ and needed no ironing. Retailers apparently loved these products because their quality required no discounting.
During their heydays in the 1970s and 80s, the Birlanagar mills had over 10K employees—about 6-8 percent were Staff, the rest Labor—sustaining the livelihoods of perhaps over 100K people locally, about one sixth the population of Gwalior. In this otherwise unexceptional cow-belt city, many saw Birlanagar as a relative oasis—a modern township that drew in a diversity of professionals in nuclear families from across the country: Bengalis, Goans, Kashmiris, Tamils, Marathis, Punjabis, and more.
For most of April, I traveled in Sri Lanka with my partner, Usha. Not only a beautiful island with a rich cultural history and ample wildlife, it's the only country in S. Asia rated "high" on the UN Human Development Index. It has relatively low economic disparity, little abject poverty, high literacy, and universal healthcare. To most Indians, Sri Lankan urbanscapes and rhythms of life will feel familiar and comfortable. I found traveling to be easy enough, the locals friendly, and the food delicious. Sri Lanka even has seven UNESCO world heritage sites.
It's also a country whose major ethnic communities—mainly Tamil and Sinhala but also the Muslims—haven't learned to live with each other. Their troubles mostly began in the 1950s with Sinhala nationalism and majoritarianism, driven by chauvinistic monks and militant buddhists, and fueled by cultural insecurities and jaundiced readings of religio-historic texts like the Mahavamsa. Humiliated and cornered, the Tamils demanded their own homeland; many resorted to violent resistance, leading to harsh reprisals from the Sinhala-dominated state. Over nearly three decades, Tamil areas suffered great destruction, mass exodus, and genocidal violence; ruins of war abound in the north. The LTTE may be finished, but will the great many atrocities committed against Tamil civilians near the war's end be forgotten or forgiven easily, esp. with no reconciliation underway, tens of thousands forced off their lands, and 100K+ refugees still in India five years after the war's end? Under the Rajapaksa family's authoritarian regime, Sinhala pride and triumphalism have resurged, public corruption is rampant, there is little freedom of the press and disappearances are common, especially in Tamil areas that have an oppressive army presence. The economy, however, is growing again and new infrastructure, often funded by the Chinese, is coming up: an airport, modern highways, high-rise apartments, casinos, resorts, and more. For a country its size, I found Sri Lanka to be enormously complex and interesting.
Read a brief history of Sri Lanka here. For a closer look at contemporary Sri Lankan society and politics, start with the following: How Not to Win a War, Buddhists Behaving Badly, Beyond the Beach, Sri Lanka After the War, Five Years On (an archive of recent journalism), and the harrowing documentary, No Fire Zone. Below are some of my pictures.
(Usha Alexander's periodic musings on her life in India. She moved there in mid-2013. Read Dispatches from India 1: First Impressions.)
‘All you get here are these Bangla maids. They’re so lazy! To get them to work you have to shout at them and shout at them,’ lamented a neighbor. I had casually asked her, two days after our arrival in Gurgaon, if she knew anyone looking for work as a cook or house cleaner. Her voice tensed as she spoke, and her forehead crumpled with the pain of a woman in search of commiseration.
Days later, another neighbor introduced us to her cleaning woman, newly arrived from West Bengal. ‘Does she speak Hindi?’ I asked. ‘No, she doesn’t speak Hindi or English or any language!’ the neighbor blurted with vague, exasperated disgust, while the short Bangla woman stood smiling shyly behind her; she was aware we were speaking of her but not of what we said.
I had heard such comments before in other middle-class Indian living rooms, when the workers whom we invite daily into our homes were cast by their employers as a mysterious band of them, their collective virtues and vices debated or condemned: they steal; they are lazy and don’t work; they are careless and clumsy, prone to breaking things; they’ve become ‘too smart’ and know how to play you. When our maid returned to work after being out just 3 or 4 days due to a slipped disk in her back, my neighbor remarked that ‘they recover quickly’ from illness and injury.
It’s true that nearly all the domestic laborers looking for work in our colony are economic migrants from West Bengal. For years there has been a human pipeline from the villages of that region, over 700 miles away, to our corner of Gurgaon. Most of these migrants travel as partial families, leaving one or more children with grandparents in their village. They often arrive speaking only Bangla, entirely unfamiliar with the challenges and benefits of urban life, local food, and local climate, no less than if they had traveled to another country. To be successful here, they must quickly learn enough Hindi, network with the local Bangla community, and take up whatever domestic work, factory work, rickshaw-pulling, or other labor they can find, continually looking for new or more rewarding opportunities. The hope is to return home with a good nest-egg which can increase their village standard of living, provide good dowries for their daughters, or otherwise ease their long-term livelihoods. If they bring school-age children to Gurgaon, it's often with the intention of enrolling them in school; if they have a 10th-pass son, he may also come to look for work.
But their city ventures are precarious and risky. They have no health insurance, and a single accident or illness can wipe out any savings they might have accrued. The cost of living is high. They live in overcrowded buildings, usually more basic than the village homes they’ve left. A family typically rents a single-room unit with shared bathrooms for a block of units. Often wages are too low or misfortunes too numerous, and a family is able to save nothing during their time here.
When we stayed in Gurgaon before, we employed Shoreefa and Asha, two Bangla women who spoke badly broken Hindi that never improved during the two years we knew them. Since most of my Hindi practice came from speaking to them, my own Hindi stalled and broke under their unwitting tutelage. So before returning to India this year, I had decided to only employ people who can speak clear Hindi, though these might be a minority of available candidates.
But despite never speaking clear Hindi, Shoreefa, our housecleaner, was not only reliable as an employee, but also one of the most vivacious and open-hearted people I have ever been glad to know. Patiently, Shoreefa and I had found ways to communicate well enough, eventually not only about housework, but about her pride in her two boys, her dramatic but stable marriage, her own orphan childhood, her faith in kindness and god. With time, as she got to feel at ease with me, the big foreign lady, she entered our home like the wind, uninhibited, stirring the calm, criticizing my short haircut, insisting that I not wear shorts even at home. We certainly had our small battles and irritations; there were times I wished she would shut up and go home. But I went on being myself, and she went on being herself, and no ill ever came of our spats.
(Usha Alexander's periodic musings on her life in India. She moved there in mid-2013.)
So here I am living in Gurgaon for the last four months. We arrived in the hottest days of the year and to summer’s sweet deluge of fruits—mangos, lychees, jamun, watermelon—which we enjoyed daily. Within three days of arrival, we found a furnished rental with adequate water and power backup, and we lucked upon the services of an excellent cook and a cleaning woman, both recent migrants from West Bengal. We soon identified some take-out places, a barber, dairy outlet, and other services in the small bazaar two streets over. And we found a gleaming mall with a modern gym, theater, grocery stores, bookstores, and electronics, just a 15-minute walk from our door, across lots filled with cows, stray dogs, mansions, and shanties.
In our earliest weeks, we spent a lot of time reconnecting with old friends and family in the area. We had to relearn how to get around Gurgaon, which has reconfigured itself in the grand makeover this so-called Millennium City has undergone during the seven years since our previous stay here. Most of these changes have been very useful, from our perspective: the completion of the Delhi Metro line serving Gurgaon; the impending completion of Gurgaon’s own Rapid Metro; improved roads (apart from those still under reconstruction); and the easy availability of familiar international products, like fresh basil and avocados in the grocery store, and hummus and falafel takeaway. So in many respects, our landing has been soft and picking up new rhythms of life has been easy.
The most difficult part was the fair amount of officialdom and red tape to untangle, which Namit took on single-handedly. I was useless in these tasks, being both unable to drive and unsure with my Hindi, let alone entirely ignorant about how these things work in India. So armed with his parents’ insider advice, Namit made his way around to the various agencies and businesses to set things up, including health insurance, phone and internet service, cooking gas permit, electrical billing, ID cards, police verification, tax filing, bank accounts, and other essential mundanities. None of these things are to be had as straightforwardly as in the States: one must produce official documents, various proofs of identity and residency, forms in triplicate procured from one office and stamped by the clerks in another, multiple properly framed and sized headshots, and the names of dead ancestors. All this for a cylinder of propane for the kitchen.
The adjustment might have been more difficult, though. Happily, we have no children, which means, among other things, we aren’t agonizing about their health with each sip of water and every mosquito bite, nor are we selecting schools and private tutors to ensure the right college admissions, as we see other middle-class parents doing. This alone collapses our risks and costs immeasurably and increases our freedom. Just as much, we are fortunate to not have to seek conventional employment—provided we live modestly—which means we avoid the grind of daily commutes, workaday insults, and the weariness of mounting the career ladder. The upwardly mobile, family-oriented lifestyle emerging in India seems even more of a rat-race than it is in the US, and a good part of our secret to gladness in being here is that we are not pursuing it.
Two days in south Rajasthan with AMRIT Health Services, a not-for-profit initiative
“The demand to sacrifice a goat was not something we had expected as a precondition for setting up the clinic,” Dr. Pavitra Mohan explained. A pediatrician and public health professional, he was telling me about the initial days of setting up the first AMRIT Clinic in Bedawal, a Meena village in south Rajasthan that otherwise had no healthcare facility. The problem was that the building he had identified as adequate for his purpose was directly across from the village temple to their god, Hemliya Bavji, but it required major renovations, including the construction of a toilet, apparently the first in the village. Though the panchayat welcomed the clinic, several villagers refused to allow a toilet so near the temple, on religious grounds. To make matters worse, they also refused to allow trimming the sacred tree overhanging the building in order to build rooms on the roof for the healthcare workers to sleep at night. But after further talks and negotiations, they finally granted permission to build the clinic and trim the tree as well.
And so, in early 2013, AMRIT Clinic opened in Bedawal with a small team of qualified nurses and healthcare workers, who constitute the core of AMRIT Health Services (AHS) in the villages. They are supported by a doctor who visits once a week and is also available for telephone consultations on other days. Hoping for a view into the work of this organization—its context, its challenges, its benefits to the local population—my partner and I went for a visit in early August; our plan was to produce an introductory video about their work.
With Dr. Mohan, Niti Sharma, Manager of Operations, Himi, Fellow, public health, and Dr. Gargi Goel, a young pediatrician who had come out on a job interview, we drove ninety minutes from Udaipur city to Salumbar, the last little town where basic services—petrol, meals for purchase, rooms for the night—were to be found before we headed out into the fairly isolated villages of the remote countryside. From Salumbar, we continued for another forty-five minutes on narrow, broken or dirt roads to Bedawal, the first of two clinic sites we visited.
With little vehicular traffic, buffaloes and goats took up the slack. An occasional bus or jeep rattled back toward Salumbar, overloaded with people sitting on top or swinging off the sides, as this was their only available transportation. Maize stood tall in small plots receding into the hills and valleys on both sides of the roadway, and squatting among these fields were mud and stone dwellings with broad verandahs and rough tiled roofs supported by carved wooden beams and lintels. Droves of children in shabby school uniforms—mostly boys—milled along the roadside near the village center, laughing, playing. Electrical wires were stitched across the landscape, but we learned that much of the time they are dormant, sometimes for days. For me, arriving from the sticky heat of Delhi, the cooling breezes of this region’s modest elevations and its fresher monsoon air were invigorating.
Despite the goat sacrifice, Himi told us, one of AHS’s early challenges has been to gain the trust of the local people. There had never been qualified medical practitioners in these villages, but a particular brand of charlatan, known locally as Bengali Doctors, preys upon the people, charging hundreds of rupees to put patients on a saline drip and inject a drug cocktail that gives them a jolt, no matter their ailment. When villagers first came to the clinic, they expected the same treatment and were suspicious or dismissive if they did not receive it. And when the nurses asked only fifty rupees for a week’s treatments, the villagers scoffed. What kind of medicine can be so cheap? “Then they were afraid we might do some magic on them,” Himi said. Fortunately, as more and more people have been helped or cured by the efforts of AHS, the perceptions are changing.
Friends, we're excited to announce a big change coming in our lives: a month from today, we'll leave the United States to live in India for an indefinitely long time. Both of us (Usha and Namit) have resigned from our Silicon Valley jobs, which, while spiritually and intellectually dreary, were at least lucrative, and for this we feel very lucky indeed. This is a move that we've long considered and planned, so we can stop working for wages and take on new adventures in life.
What will we do in India? We'll do more of the things that we've long enjoyed doing, like reading and writing. We'll also backpack in India and in other parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. We'll try some new projects too, such as making documentary films and finding new ways to make ourselves useful to others. We share many hopes and aspirations for this move, but for Namit this will also be the fruition of a desire and responsibility he has long felt to be close to his parents in their later years.
We can't know just how all of this will unfold, since the change is huge and the uncertainties many. But we are keen to move into a new chapter of our lives and grow from our discoveries. India is a phenomenally interesting place to both of us. Namit grew up there, and we both visit often and lived there for two years from 2004-06, so we know the challenges we'll face — power and water shortages, bad driving, pollution, corruption, and more — but we also expect the compensating factors to be numerous enough. We'll be busy the next few weeks with packing and farewells. And by early May, we should be settling into a rental apartment in Gurgaon, a few miles southwest of Delhi.
—Usha & Namit
Folks, it turns out that River of Faith has done well, amassing 27K views on YouTube in its first 3 weeks [and 75K at the end of 6 weeks]. Which means it has even bested a whole lot of cat videos! Furthermore, I've been persuaded to offer it on Amazon.com for those who like DVDs, including institutions. Check out the DVD cover below (sans barcode and DVD logo). This should be up on Amazon in early April and ready to ship within days (I'll announce when it is). Also, for the first time ever, a magazine introduced me last week as "a documentary filmmaker". Watch out, you documentary filmmakers! :)
Update (25 April, 2013): The DVD on Amazon is now shipping!
NEW: River of Faith, a new documentary film about the Kumbh Mela 2013 by Namit Arora (56 minutes).
Last week I attended the greatest of the Hindu pilgrimage festivals, the Kumbh Mela, a riverside religious fair that takes place at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Bathing in the river during the Kumbh Mela is considered a meritorious act, cleansing body and soul, and it attracts tens of millions over 6-8 weeks, making it the largest gathering of humans on the planet for a single event. A hundred million might attend the 2013 event that opened on Jan 14 with about ten million in attendance, including me and Usha. Click on any photo below to see a lot more of my photos (with captions) from the Mela's opening days. Next month, I also intend to put out a travel essay and a video documentary on the Kumbh Mela, including many interesting interviews with naga sadhus.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
A few years ago, Usha and I spent twelve days in Uganda. We visited two national parks to see chimpanzees and other animals, the Ssese Islands of Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile, the town of Jinja, and Kampala. As far as possible, we used the average citizen's mode of transportation and made no advance hotel reservations—choices that I think foster a greater engagement with the locals. As I often do when I travel, I shot some idiosyncratic video footage mostly as an aid to memory, akin to keeping a journal. Watching it again recently, I thought: why not make an amateur documentary? That's just what I did and here is the result (20 mins; also check out some pictures).
Why "Pearl of Africa"? Apparently, Winston Churchill, visiting Uganda at age 33, was so impressed by its mountains, valleys, greenery, lakes, wildlife, and friendly natives that he called it the "pearl of Africa", and the name stuck. I have a rather low opinion of Churchill but I find nothing to quibble about in this case. I too loved my time in Uganda.
On our recent visit to the Dominican Republic, we passed through San Cristobal, a quiet city of a little over two-hundred thousand souls, in the shadow of its nation's bustling capital, Santo Domingo, which lies an hour-and-a-half to the east. Its one claim to fame is as the birthplace of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a brutal strong-man dictator, considered one of the worst in Latin American history, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. During his decades–long tenure, ordinary Dominicans were spied upon; tens of thousands of were abducted and tortured or "disappeared." Centers for torture were established and run by Trujillo's secret intelligence organization. And tens of thousands of Haitian laborers and those suspected of being Haitian laborers were brazenly massacred. Meanwhile, Trujillo was also building roads and schools for the middle classes, as well as transferring ownership of all the major sugar, lumber, and other agricultural industries to himself, his family members, or his supporters. Trujillo's family and supporters enjoyed outlandish wealth, while the campesinos and the laborers in the bateys remained in abject poverty with little hope of a better life.
Trujillo built two mansions in his hometown of San Cristobal, at enormous cost. His favorite, Mahogany House, was looted and vandalized after his assassination and now sits as an empty shell. The other, Castillo del Cerro, or "the castle on the hill," he rejected the first day he saw it and never spent a single night within. It has been converted to a police training academy, which seems fitting, since it looks like a prison from the outside. We stopped by there for a brief tour. From the ornate ceilings, after the fashion of European castles, to the gleaming marble floors, to the wedding-cake ballroom, to the imported, handcrafted tiles, it's clear the sort of opulence Trujillo enjoyed in his lifetime. Also on display is a replica of the electric chair that was regularly used to torture and kill his citizens. A large, evocative mural of a country dance is said to have angered Trujillo, because the party-goers look sad. We're told the artist was only painting what he thought was real, and that he fled the country in fear for his life. In another room, the molding lining the ceiling depicts tiny figures of people in the electric chair. Trujillo apparently hated that touch of inspiration, as well. I had to wonder whether the details that enraged Trujillo were intended to please him, or if they were a kind of silent protest.
Much of Dominican literature seems devoted to exploring this period of their history. For an oustanding example of Dominican literature in English, find In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel by Julia Alvarez recounting the story of the three Mirabal Sisters, dissidents whom Trujillo had murdered and whose deaths would galvanize his opposition. A Dominican film from 2010, Tropico de sangre (Rains of Injustice), covers similar territory from a different point of view. In 2000, Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, also wrote La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), about Trujillo's regime, his assassination, and its political aftermath.
The Pomier Caves are located within a ragged limestone quarry a few miles north of San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. When we visited earlier this month, it took us some time to find them, since there is no signage indicating the way to these 55 protected caves, nor that they represent the largest collection of ancient rock art in the Caribbean. Inside the caves the 6,000 pictographs and petroglyphs—the oldest of which date to about 2,000 years ago—were created over a period of 1,500 years by the Taino, Carib, and Igneri peoples. They had inhabited Hispaniola and the other Caribbean islands beginning about 8,000 years ago until their cultures were destroyed by European colonization, starting in 1492.
We visited the first three caves, guided by the local ranger. Inside the air was fresh enough to breathe easily, though it was humid, and in some spaces we saw bats darting around. It was absolutely dark and we could not have made any progress without the aid of our guide and a few flashlights. The floor of the cave started out wide, smooth, and flat, but as we went deeper into the caves systems, passing from one into the next, the going often got more challenging, the way suddenly littered with jagged rocks. Here we had to scramble up a jumble of small boulders. There we had to slide down a dry wash. Around us, the beams of our flashlights revealed deep passageways and cavernous chambers. Great stalactites clinging to the ceiling and walls, stalagmites spiking up from the floor, gave the interiors a lushly organic irregularity, like the inside of a monster's gullet. And as we walked, the guide pointed out the drawings on the walls around us. We were allowed to photograph only a single group (photo above), using our flashlights for illumination; we were permitted to use the camera flash only if it was not aimed at the drawings.
The drawings are mostly monochromatic line art, in "ink" made from a mixture of charcoal and animal fat, although there are also a few low relief etchings in some of the caves. They depict birds, lizards, human figures, and abstract designs. Many of the human figures appear to be holding long wands or pipes to their faces. Little is known about what the images actually depict, why they were painted, what they mean, or what purpose they served, since the cultures that created them were destroyed hundreds of years before the caves were rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century. However, based on apparent similarities with surviving tribes in Venezuela, archaeologists speculate that the figures of people holding long sticks to their faces might be representations of individuals snorting cahoba, a hallucinogenic substance that is inhaled through long pipes. Shamans may have drawn on the cave walls whatever was revealed to them during their cahoba ritual.
It was spine-tingling to be sitting there, mere inches from this neolithic graffiti. Amid the disorienting contours of the caves, the hot, wet breath of the darkness, we confronted the remnants of a culture, ancient and alien, their indecipherable message from across the ages. Such moments hold enough human familiarity and open mystery that it's almost possible to glimpse, from the corner of your eye, an unimagined range of the human experience.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
Some travel impressions prompted by the living and the dead of Varanasi, India.
In early 2006, I was on a train to Varanasi when my mother called from Jaipur. Terrorists had just hit Varanasi with explosions at multiple sites, including at the train station; many had died. Since I was going there as a tourist, she urged me to postpone the trip and get off earlier. I was traveling with my partner and two white American friends, both on their first visit to India. They seemed rattled enough and I worried about their safety. What if Hindu-Muslim riots broke out? We were ten nighttime hours away from Varanasi, so we had to decide fast.
The reality of the event sunk in further when an NDTV reporter and her camera crew got on the train. With time to kill, she began quizzing tired and bemused passengers about their take on the news. And she did so in an overexcited style that seemed to dominate live reporting in India. When she thrust the mic at me, I could only mutter something about my worry for my companions.
I persuaded my fellow travelers to continue. The terrorists had already done their deed; Varanasi was likely the safest place to visit now. Worst case, we could stay holed up in our hotel. Truth be told, I was also drawn to this unbidden frisson of travel. When we arrived in the morning, we found a part of the train station cordoned off by the police. I could see blotches of red on the ground. The driver of the taxi we took into town had witnessed the explosions: flying body parts, screams, the ensuing melee. He had helped take the injured to the hospital. But our decision to not abort our journey turned out to be a good one—the city remained calm and we moved around freely. I felt proud of my fellow citizens for being so mature about the situation. It was my first time in Varanasi as an adult, and the place did not disappoint.
Here is an excellent BBC documentary, Ganges, on the river's Himalayan birth and descent, its journey through the plains, and its end in the Bay of Bengal in what is the largest river delta in the world. The series focuses on the natural history and human life along the river's course. The three episodes embedded below (one hour each) are: (1) Daughter of the Mountains, (2) River of Life, (3) Waterland. One critique I have is that by concentrating the most beautiful and the rarest nature and wildlife footage, the series encourages the highly misguided impression that the environment along the river's course is robust and thriving.
An excerpt from Siddhartha Deb's portrait of contemporary India, The Beautiful and the Damned.
The highway out of Hyderabad towards Kothur village was still being worked on, with new overpasses and exits being constructed next to the lanes that were open to traffic. Vijay and I were halfway to our destination when we saw the man appear, standing in the middle of the road and waving us down. We were traveling fast, moving much too quickly to understand immediately what the man’s appearance meant. A few days earlier, on this same road, we had been stopped by two police constables. Assigned to guard duty at another point on the highway and left to fend for their own transportation, all the men had wanted was a lift. But the figure in front of us now was not in uniform, and his objective was far less clear, although I had the impression that he was part of the knotted confusion of people and cars that had sprung up suddenly on the smooth thread of the highway.
Vijay brought his tiny car to a halt, and the man loomed up in front of the windscreen, a dark, stocky figure dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He put his right hand down on the bonnet of our car. In his left hand, he held an automatic pistol, its barrel pointing up at an acute angle.
In a large mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, lies a crystal sarcophagus containing the mortal remains of Mao Zedong. Every day, masses of Chinese citizens line up on this largest of the world’s public squares to view and pay tribute to him. An immense, framed portrait of Mao gazes beatifically upon them from the high walls of the once Forbidden City, a palace fortress at the edge of the square. A few years ago, I too had arrived hoping for a glimpse of the man—the spectacle of Mao’s refrigerated body held for me nearly as much morbid fascination as my interest in his legacy and place in the Chinese imagination.
As it happened, the mausoleum was closed for renovation. Disappointed, I mused that perhaps the real reason for closing the mausoleum was to hide the evidence that Mao had been turning in his grave of late: watching China grind from feudalism to communism to capitalism in a mere half century cannot be good for his repose. If “communism” means a classless society with a centrally planned economy in which the state owns the primary means of production, then poor old Mao—as the man who fought for it, forged it, and upheld it for decades—became irrelevant long ago. And though the frozen Mao may still be revered, the pulse of China throbs now to a different beat.
For some years now, the zeitgeist in China has been closer to what Deng Xiaoping, a successor to Mao, neatly voiced in 1993: “To get rich is glorious.” And today it seems that the only thing still communist about China is the name of the party that continues to rule it with an iron hand; for while China’s communist leaders have embraced capitalism with an astonishing zeal, they have not allowed the free flow of ideas and information within China. Ordinary citizens are actively kept in the dark even about the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. As I stood on the square, among the crowds of locals and holiday makers, flying kites or striking “I was there!” poses in front of Mao’s portrait, it struck me that most of the people around me—and most Chinese nationals under the age of 35—do not even know about the event that transpired there.
This breezy BBC documentary (early 2011) explores the nature and impact of China's rising influence around the world, especially in Africa, Brazil, and the U.S., and how China is reshaping the balance of power among nations.
Over a million Chinese now live and work in Africa, running high-yield chicken farms to giant mining operations, selling goods, lending money, building infrastructure. Inevitably, they have also brought with them a range of cultural values and economic practices that cause friction at times. Pop pundit Tom Friedman says of the chinese: "what's most unsettling to most Americans is not their communism, it's their capitalism". That said, you can also see this two-hour documentary as a series of human stories from a rapidly changing world—from Angola, Zambia, Congo, Tanzania, Brazil, and the U.S.—and ponder the role each of us plays in the unfolding of the world as it does.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
With Syria in the news, I’ve dusted off an account I wrote a few months after my visit there in Feb 2001. I’ve also created an 8-min video from my archives, using music by Fairuz for soundtrack. While I look at contemporary Syrian society and politics, the bulk of my narrative is on Ugarit, a nearly 4,000-year-old city held to be the birthplace of the alphabet. We know a fair bit about it from its surviving clay tablets, written in this first alphabet. One tablet even has this timeless reminder to men: ‘Do not tell your wife where you hide your money.’
The road to Lattakia goes over the Anti-Lebanon Range. I had left Aleppo under a blue sky at noon; now a thick fog rolls in, tall conifers appear in the valleys, visibility drops. The pop Arabic music in the bus gets louder but does not deter my fellow passengers from dozing. Handsome villages with brick houses, clean streets, and small domed mosques appear now and again. The bus stops at a rest area with gift shops and restaurants and arrives in Lattakia by early evening. I take a cab to the city center and find a hotel. It is my tenth day in Syria.
Lattakia lies on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and is one of its most modern towns. I see well-groomed women flaunting their feminine charms in tight jeans, sleek coats, flowing dark hair, makeup, décolletage. It feels like Eastern Europe. The evening prayer from a mosque comes wafting down rooftops just in time to remind me: I am in an Islamic country. Its socialistic aims clearly run counter to those of radical Islam, virtually absent in Syria. Just days ago, curiosity led me to ask a few urban young men: which Arab country has the hottest women? The winner: Lebanon, Syria next, and tied for third spot: Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait. I imagine local young women waging a million mutinies daily—in dress, movement, occupation, choice of mates. Each new threshold crossed a potential source of angst and family drama. An intricate web of connections, customs, certitudes, all subject to modernizing change.