Cats, Tagines, and Rabat

This is a “factional” account of my travels in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. Days have been compressed and people have been merged; all events mentioned did actually take place.

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Ibn-e-Batuta, bagal main joota, pehene toh karta hai churrrr…

That song from Ishqiya about Ibn-e-Batuta’s travelling shoe is playing in my head as I inch forward in the immigration line. Jet-lagged, dishevelled, hungry and yet ecstatic to no longer be standing in the sub-Antarctic hell also known as the Riyadh’s international airport. An impossibly chic trio is in line ahead of me, chattering away in French. I look with awe at the guy’s platinum-blond Mohawk as I try to remember the little of the language I learnt in high school. Names of fruits, colours, days of the week, yes, no, okay, and the numbers one through ten. Not enough to get a conversation going or to eavesdrop on an ongoing conversation.

“Is it your first time in Morocco?” the immigration official asks as he scans my passport.

I answer in the affirmative, trying to re-arrange my facial expression in the best approximation of the photographs on that navy blue booklet and the visa in it. I have frequently been told, by well-wishers and haters alike, that I have the stare of a pisacha. This is the most stressful part of any trip, not the planning, or going without food, or lugging your heavy backpack everywhere, or walking till your feet are ready to abandon you, but the possibility of being turned away before you can even start your adventure. All because you arouse the same feelings as a Darth Vader-Lord Voldemort hybrid. I don’t have the energy to flash a 100-watt smile in order to allay any misgivings the immigration officer might have about me, so I settle for a 70% version of it. Enough to make me seem human, but not too much that it forces my eyes shut and I can no longer see what’s in store for me. He stamps the documents, hands me my passport, and welcomes me into the country with a wink and thumbs-up!

The ONCF train ride from Mohammed V International Airport to Casablanca is comfortable, uneventful and forgettable. I run into an Omani girl as I am disembarking from the train at Casa Port. She starts talking nineteen to the dozen, about her Indian friends back home, all their names, the tasty Indian food, the amazing Bollywood movies and other things my tired mind loses track of. Her group is also going directly to Rabat and I tag along. It’s Friday the thirteenth and this is my first mistake of the day.

In my defense, I did ask an official looking person if the train would stop at Temara before it reached Rabat, and it turns out he was as misinformed as the rest of us. But I did not know this then, and I congratulate myself on not having to wait in the heat for a train to Rabat to come along. It is a double-decker AC train, and my brain and body both are in total agreement that they would like nothing better than to set the heavy backpack down and recline on a seat on the upper deck. There aren’t many empty places but it is remarkably pin-drop silence. I split my time between gazing out of the window, watching the Moroccan countryside go by, and people watching. Across the aisle is a woman in a black abaya, accompanied by two small, colourfully dressed children with book bags, probably returning from school. They get down at the next stop. I catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean through the window on their side and the realisation slowly seeps through me that I did it. After months of thinking about it, planning for it, doubting myself whether I really wanted to do it, I was here. In Morocco. In Africa.

My reverie is broken when the conductor informs me that this train will not be stopping in Temara. I try to not take this as ill omen, a sign that my trip is doomed from the start, as I resignedly buy a ticket to Rabat, and curse my stupidity and my so-called Omani friend. I also shoot a quick message to Amina, my actual friend and host in Temara, informing her that I’m running late. She replies almost immediately, giving me new directions to reach her house from the train station.

My brain shifts to action mode as I figure out to how best to reach Bab El-Had from the Rabat Ville train station. The smartphone is barely alive, operating on dangerously low battery levels, and so I do what people did in the pre-Google Maps era. The first person I ask for directions turns around and asks another person who simply gestures to me to follow him. Despite my wishful thinking, I am not fluent in either Arabic or French and my self-imposed guide understands no English. How do I explain to him that I don’t want him accompanying me all the way to the bus stop, or heaven forbid, Temara?

We walk down the cobblestone path on Mohammed V avenue, past the newly inaugurated Parliament building, or so I’m told. Several Moroccan flags flutter in the wind, green pentagrams on fields of red. The guy is giving me a mini-tour of the place but my rising panic has rendered me temporarily deaf. Somewhere behind the Ministry of Justice building I am able to explain to him that I can manage it alone. I try earnestly not to come across as rude and ungrateful but who knows what my Shakaal expression conveyed to him? I ask security guards, traffic policemen, women exiting a shop for further directions and finally a young woman points me in the direction of the bus stop.

I cross the road and wait for bus no. 8. It is hot and crowded on the street. A man has set up shop on the pavement selling knick-knacks. Another woman approaches me to buy something I cannot identify. The bus arrives and Zineb, the woman from across the street who is now on the same side as me, motions to me to get on board. It’s an articulated run-down bus with broken windows. People are swarming in at both the entry and exit doors. There is no way I am getting in through that crows with a filled-to-capacity rucksack on my back. Zineb doesn’t seem to care and somehow drags me in by the hand. She miraculously also finds us seats. When things settle down slightly, I go to the conductor to buy tickets and promptly lose my seat, if you can call it that, with a gaping hole where the actual seat is supposed to be. In all my travels, I am yet to come across another bus that was run solely on optimism and never-say-die determination.

I hand over a 100 dirham note to the conductor and name my destination. My accent and lack of Arabic speaking skills get in the way. I try again, enunciating as much as I can, and finally fellow passengers are able to translate my Arabic words to him. He then wonders if that is really where I want to go, repeating the name again and again. Once I am able to convince him that it is really my planned destination, by repeating the name again and again with varying intonation, he says something I do not understand. I move on and ask/mime to him for change. Everyone around him tries to explain to me, in Arabic, what he’s saying and I still don’t understand. I go back to Zineb, crestfallen that I have paid 100 dirhams for a ride in this bus which, though a priceless and one-of-a-kind experience, is definitely not worth it. Zineb goes to talk to the conductor and promptly loses her place too, which is an genuine loss since she was sitting on an actual seat. She comes back with my change and after having requested the conductor, and everyone in his vicinity, to ensure that I get off the right destination. Just before she gets off at her own stop, she types out a message in English on her phone, and holds it in front of my face. Beware of pickpockets, it says, in many more words. I wave her goodbye, moved by the generosity and hospitality of this lovely stranger, knowing that I will never see her again and yet cherish this memory for years to come.

Beware of pickpockets. I have never been pick-pocketed or mugged before but today is the day of many firsts. You read about the warnings in travel books and but never does it occur to you that one day you will have your own sob story. Somewhere in the hustle to board the bus, somebody took my wallet. My habit of storing money in various places across my body and luggage ensured that I lost only 119 dirhams but it was still a blow to the ego. The crowd eases and I find a place to sit on the floor of the bus, hugging my luggage in a valiant attempt to not lose more things. An empty soda bottle rolls along the floor and people regularly thump the windows, doors, sides of the bus to signal the driver to stop. Time passes agonising slowly in the heat and a fellow passenger mimes to me that my stop is here. I thank her, disembark and call Amina, fervently hoping that I have finally reached my destination.

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Amina, friend and host extraordinaire, has prepared a veritable feast for me. She sets the table while I shower, the cool water washing away the grime and frustration. We sit down to lunch on couscous with chicken and vegetables, served in a tagine bottom with the finesse of an accomplished chef, accompanied by buttermilk sent to her by her mum in Errachidia. I savour the unfamiliar flavours as Amina fills me in about her life as a Ph.D. student. It’s been three years since we last met, on her solo backpacking trip through north India, but I feel a strong sense of ease and familiarity here in her apartment, as if our conversation never stopped. Fortified by good food and company, I take her up on her offer to tackle the city of Rabat again.

We catch bus no. 8 again to Bab El-Had and this time fortune smiles on me. It’s a regular bus, no broken windows, and hardly occupied so we are able to sit comfortably. I continue to pepper Amina with questions and she tells me all she knows about Berber history and culture. Through the window I spy a Starcups Coffee and wonder what their Caramel Frappuccino tastes like.

In no time at all we alight at Bab El-Had and this time I am actually able to see and admire the magnificent gate for what it is. It marks the entrance to the medina, the old city of Rabat, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once inside the walled city, we are engulfed in the hustle and bustle of everyday Rabatis going about their daily shopping. Women and men in colourful jelabas buying produce, selling babouche, inviting us to try their assortment of halva. Though more crowded than the modern streets of the Rabat outside, it is not as overwhelming as Aminabad under the afternoon sun.

We amble along the narrow lanes, soaking in the smells and sounds. I photograph the elaborate mosaic work on the walls of the shops, the square minarets jutting out above, the unique doors and shutters that Morocco is justifiably famous for. There are cats everywhere, strutting about as if they own the place, perched on top of the glass showcase containing watches, sleeping inside wicker baskets for sale, sunning themselves next to empty glasses of mint tea. Amina knows I am to buy a clay tagine for my dad and she takes me into a shop. I am of no help as she examines, chooses, haggles for and then buys the perfect one. I pack both parts carefully in my bag and we make our way out of the medina.

Our next stop is the Kasbah des Oudaias, destroyed, reconstructed and finally deserted by the Almohads. The best preserved specimen is Bab Oudaia, with its outstanding arches and elaborate carvings. I also spot a pair of old, rusty cannons nearby, flanking another impressive wooden gate. We walk through the blue and white alleys, residential houses and shops standing cheek to cheek with each other. Sari ke fall sa is playing in a shop selling paintings. Prabhudeva would have been proud! Doors of various shapes, sizes and styles, in myriad shades of blue, catch my eye. Amina waits patiently as I photograph each and every one of them. Even if my life amounts to nothing, I can rest assured that I have enough material to publish a coffee-table book on the portes incroyables of Morocco! We pass the lounging cats and make our way to the Plateforme du Sémaphore to take a break from the walking. Amina has packed some khoobz and date sauce from home and we enjoy a quiet snack while gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean. The river Bou Regreg divides the twin cities of Rabat and Salé, and we decide to walk along it to visit the Hassan Tower. Soon we are forced back into the medina by the freeway running alongside the river and we go via a section of the market that is selling second-hand goods, from CDs, radio transistors to gum boots. Le Tour Hassan was intended by the Almohads to be the largest minaret and mosque of the world. Unfortunately the sultan died before it could reach its lofty heights and a subsequent earthquake has left behind a red sandstone minaret, standing alone in a sea of shattered stone columns. The minaret is still a sight to behold with its intricate pattern, modelled on the Giralda in Seville and the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, and one can only wonder about the grand sight it was meant to be.  Adjoining the tower is the mausoleum of Mohammed V, first king of independent Morocco and grandfather to the present king. The entrance to the complex is flanked by two members of the Moroccan Royal Guard in white attire, mounted on white horses. It is difficult to decide who is more immaculately groomed, the guards or the horses? One of the horses is quite jittery and guard takes it out for a short ride, alarming some tourists, before resuming his position by the gate. The mausoleum is a white stone structure with a green tiled roof, an astounding specimen of Alaouite architecture. A guard is stationed at each of the four entrances to the mausoleum, and the one at the front entrance is most photographed, with tourists or Moroccan families but rarely alone. The guard at the left entrance frequently glances in his direction, probably missing the attention his friend is getting. The inside of the mausoleum is a spectacular sight, elaborate carvings and mosaic tile work, a brilliant combination of gold and blue.

On the bus back to Amina’s apartment, the conductor asks me where I’m from. I answer India and he looks uncomprehendingly at me. I try again with Bharat. He still doesn’t understand and I’m truly stumped. I want to say Hindustan but surely that is too obscure for someone who doesn’t know both India and Bharat. Amina comes to my rescue. Recognition dawns across his face when he hears her say the magic words- Shahrukh Khan! Hind, he exclaims, followed by a list of the Bollywood movies he likes. For the remainder of my trip, Hind is how I answer whenever anyone asks me this particular question.

We end the day with a dinner of aloo paranthas and sooji ka halwa. I follow my mum’s instructions to a T but it doesn’t turn out half as good. Amina doesn’t seem to mind, having been deprived of Indian food for too long. We finish with some mint tea prepared by her, with lots and lots of sugar, and I think back on the roller-coaster day I’ve had. It had begun in Riyadh and with several missteps, U-turns and cross-connections along the way, had ended in Rabat. The journey we undertake, like life itself, has the magical quality of sorting itself out just fine in the end. I had always dreamed of coming here, and finally, like Ibn-e-Batuta’s travelling shoe, here I had reached.

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A Not-so-Rough Guide to Morocco

It had been my dream to visit Africa. Any place would do as long it was classified within the continent. So much mystery and reactionary opinions surrounding a region. Add to it the socio-political connections between India and several African nations, a shared history of trade, immigration, decolonization and freedom struggle. I wanted to go to South Africa because of its connection with Mahatma Gandhi, Kenya to see the annual migrations, Botswana because of Precious Ramotswe, Namibia because Mad Max: Fury Road was shot there, Egypt because of the pyramids, Mali because of Timbuktu, the list is endless. Despite the increasing emphasis on India-Africa relations, it is not easy to fly into the region. Air connectivity is so unsatisfactory, it almost seems like a conspiracy to prevent tourists. Not that hordes are lining up to go. Many in India, a developing country aspiring to first-world status, believe that no country outside western Europe is worth visiting. Tell someone that you are travelling to Africa for fun, out of your own volition, and you will get looks of pure bewilderment. Fortunately for me, my family is game for all my unconventional suggestions and the three of us (my mum, brother and me) soon planned an 11 day trip to Morocco.

Why Morocco? Three reasons sealed the deal for me:

  • Fascinating mix of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish influences
  • Good weather for travelling in October
  • It was in Africa

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Our flights landed and took off from Casablanca which is why our itinerary was a circuit starting and ending with Casa. Our first night was spent in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, which is 1.5 hour train ride from Casa. From Rabat we travelled to Tangier and onwards to Fes, via Chefchouen. From Fes we went on to Marrakech and then back to Casa. We didn’t plan a trip to the desert due to paucity of time. Travel itineraries of Morocco are usually divided into a northern circuit and a southern circuit, and it was a conscious decision on our part to combine elements of both.

For accommodation we primarily relied on Couchsurfing. We found unbelievably generous and welcoming hosts for four of the five cities we stayed in. In Marrakech we booked a room in a riad near Djemma el-Fnaa via airbnb. We actually had a CS host in Marrakech too but she, unfortunately, suffered an injury in a paragliding accident. Ouch!

Public transportation is a really good way to get around in Morocco. It is extensive, easy to use and really convenient. Most people take and recommend the trains run by ONCF. The other option are buses run by private companies. Most will recommend the buses run by CTM or Supratours. We sampled all but travelled predominantly by buses run by local companies. There is a steep price difference between the local company buses and the CTM bus/ONCF train, and not much of a difference in comfort. My mum found the local buses way more comfortable than both the train or CTM bus. I feel the advantage that local bus companies enjoy over CTM is that they usually take the interior roads so you get to see the Moroccan countryside that is not accessible from the highways. Also, CTM buses are filled only with tourists and I prefer to travel the local way. The advantage that travelling by bus offers over taking the train is that you are assured a seat and some form of air-conditioning. The disadvantage is that buses usually take two hours longer to cover the same distance and you have to pay extra for luggage. The downside of taking the local buses is that they are harder to figure out, primarily due to lack of information. Their service is less frequent and the bus stations are not always located in central spots.

For travel prep I read the Lonely Planet and lots of travel blogs. The Sheltering Sky and The Man Who Knew Too Much were the movies watched while my book choice was Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, an account of the author’s travels in Morocco collecting stories. I didn’t get a chance to visit Dar Khalifa while in Casablanca though.

Should you visit Morocco? Absolutely! The people are amazing, food is delicious, it’s a wonderful, enchanting mixture of Africa and Europe. Long after you are back home, your heart will be wandering in a medina in Morocco.

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Stray thoughts:
1. The Moroccan embassy in New Delhi is not located in Sarvapriya Vihar, the address listed on its website. We found out the hard way after turning up at the aforementioned address, only to be told by the guard to go to Vasant Vihar.
2. In case of any doubts while filing in the visa application, feel free to email the embassy officials. They almost always reply.
3. Be prepared to have a lot of people shout Namaste at you as you wander about. This is the power of Bollywood. Also be prepared to have aforesaid persons sing really old Hindi songs for you. Example: Ram Jaane.
4. Communicating with people will be a problem if you are not fluent in Arabic or French. Not everyone speaks English. However, you will always find friendly people using a combination of English-French-sign language to help you find your way.
5. I read Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage during this trip.
6. Unlike in India, fellow passengers will freely share and accept food during journeys.
7. Haggling and bargaining should be a breeze for anyone used to the Indian system.
8. Tap water is potable.
9. Vegetarian options are available at almost all eating joints.
10. I was apprehensive after having read a lot of blog posts about female travellers being harassed but fortunately, we had only positive experiences.
11. Agent Vinod and Jagga Jasoos are the only two Indian movies to have been filmed in Morocco.

The Banned Santhal

I hadn’t heard of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar until the Jharkhand state government’s decision to ban this book. Like most bans on books, this one too is inane for many reasons. The book was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. Most Adivasis, whose sentiment are supposed to be protected by this ban, are beyond the reach of this collection of short stories written in English. Many people, including me, hadn’t heard of the book (or the author) and this ban helped us discover Shekhar and his works. It piqued my curiosity enough to read a book that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Adivasi is a collection of ten short stories, featuring Santhal women and men going about their lives. Most of the stories are written from the female point of view and shines a light on those who face double discrimination, by virtue of both their caste and gender. The prose is light and breezy, so much so that the atrocious events taking place don’t sink in until after long, because of the prosaic tone used to narrate them. Maybe this even, dispassionate tone is a ruse to help us swallow these hard truths easily, without choking on them. Most stories end abruptly and you are often left wondering about what happened next. It’s almost as if they exist in a vacuum, with no defined beginning, middle or end.

Shekhar’s stories are about ordinary people living extraordinary lives without realising that their lived experiences are not that of the mainstream. Or maybe the point Shekhar is making is that there is no mainstream; there is a Santhal reality and a very different urban Hindu reality. Our communities exist in isolated bubbles with hardly any meeting ground.

My favourite story is November is the Month of Migrations, which also happened to court the most controversy. It packs the most punch despite being only four pages long, and symbolises Shekhar’s style of calmly depicting the most heinous of atrocities. They Eat Meat! is surprisingly positive in an otherwise bleak milieu.

We outsiders are the real audience of Adivasi. It is our sentiments are meant to be hurt, our illusions of a free, progressive India that are meant to be shattered. This book shows us in a bad light, for turning a blind eye to those on the margins, for pretending that everything is good and normal. Read this book if you want an honest, authentic account of those you might have not thought about before.

Book: The Adivasi will not Dance
Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Location: Jharkhand
Language: English

Home stay in the Himalayas

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A beehive inside a wooden cabinet at host Anoop Singh Rana’s house

A light drizzle started as our Traveller came to a halt at the side of a mountain. I groaned inwardly as I realised that we would be making the ascent to Bhangeli village in the rain. It took us close to an hour, with multiple rest stops in the middle, to cover the 1200 m distance over a steep but manageable stone paved path. All sixty odd members of our group took shelter in the primary school compound of the village. One by one we were introduced to the families that would be hosting us for the night (I stayed in the house of Mr. Anoop Singh Rana’s parents). After changing out of my wet clothes, and assessing the damage caused by not waterproofing myself and the backpack, I joined everyone, back in the school compound, for the dinner that had been prepared by the villagers. It was an organic, locally sourced, simple and yet simply delicious meal of rajma (red kidney beans), chapatis made of chaulai (amaranth seed) and mandua (finger millet), and mixed vegetables (beans, pumpkin, potatoes among others). I can’t remember the last time I had such a wholesome and satisfying meal outside of my own home.  Soon we were briefed about the next day’s program and then retired for the night. As I lay in bed, under three layers of blankets, I thought how we were midway through the trip and the real work was yet to start.

Been There, Doon That? is Dehradun-based group that organises heritage walks around the city and neighbouring areas. In mid-September 2017 BTDT organised a two day trip to a remote village in Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand. This trip was part of a workshop conducted for the villagers of Bhangeli, introducing them to the concepts of homestays and responsible, sustainable tourism. We were to be the guinea pig tourists who would stay in their homes and who would be taken on treks around the village under their supervision and expertise.

Bhangeli is situated at about 8000 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas and is the starting point for the trail to the Gidara bugyal*. The trail itself, from Bhangeli to Gidara, is 8 kms long and the plan was to walk about one km of it. The first day was spent in reaching Uttarkashi from Dehradun. We were put up in Shri Kailash Ashram in Ujeli and spent the evening by the banks of the river Bhagirathi. Meals were provided by the ashram mess and we ate a dish made from raw bananas for dinner, something I hadn’t eaten before.

The second day started with a heritage walk around the city of Uttarkashi. It was ekadashi (the eleventh day of the lunar phase) and a fast was being observed at the ashram. Breakfast, therefore, comprised of a dish of potatoes and peanuts, another first! Our first stop on the walk the Kandar Devta temple. Kandar devta is the protector deity of Uttarkashi and hence this temple is located at the head of the marketplace. Incidentally, the old name of Uttarkashi was Bada Haat (big market) because it lay on an important trading route to Tibet. After the Kandar devta and Parshuram temples, we came to the main temple of the city, the Kashi Vishvanath temple. This is the important link between the cities of Uttarkashi and Varanasi. Both temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva and it is believed that if ever Lord Shiva has to leave his abode in Varanasi, he has a place to stay in this temple in the other kashi, Uttarkashi. Our next stop was the Ekadashi temple, built by Rajput kings. We then made our way to Manikarnika ghat (another similarity with Varanasi) on the banks of the river Bhagirathi and ended the heritage walk with the customary group photo.

After leaving Uttarkashi we travelled up the mountains and reached Gangnani, the nearest town to Bhangeli. Gangnani lies on the route to Gangotri and is a popular tourist spot because of its thermal springs. Two concrete tanks have been constructed, for the separate use by men and women, which collect the hot water from the spring so that people may bathe in them. After lunch at one of the river facing restaurants, constructed on stilts so that they were level with the road, we got back into our 12-seater Traveller and drove to the access point for Bhangeli village. Day 2 of the trip had started with the morning arti in Uttarkashi and ended in the quiet night of Bhangeli.

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Hot water spring at Gangnani, Uttarkashi

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we woke up bright and early and assembled in the school compound. The house I was put up in was almost the last house on the slope and it would take more than five minutes to cover the twenty or so metres to the school because of the gradient. We were divided into groups of 10 and assigned a guide belonging to the village. Thus began an almost two hour ascent, winding through the village and along the mountain side. Our guide pointed out the village temples, native medicinal plants and trees (walnut, rhododendron, banj oak) and chaulai cultivation. We came across a tribe of langurs and faced some competition with donkeys while crossing a small stream. To cross another stream, we had to take off our footwear and walk across the chilling water. Water from this stream was used to run the gharaat, a traditional water-powered flour mill.

What can I say about the views that hasn’t already been said before?

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It took us close to four hours to complete the circuit back to the village. We were then served a brunch comprising chaulai halwa (another first!) and a potato dish. Long after I have forgotten details about this trip, the one memory that will always come back to me is the wonderful food that I got to eat here. After our plates were cleared away and we had brought down our backpacks, came the sound of two drums beating. The village women interlinked hands and started dancing the traditional raso dance, joined by the menfolk in a line behind them. Some of us joined in the dance too, men and women, villagers and city-dwellers, dancing together as one big happy family.

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Some stray thoughts:

  • Garhwali cuisine gets a bad rep for being insipid and under-cooked in big cities so I’m glad I got the chance to sample the authentic version.
  • This trip was a massive success from the culinary point of view: raw banana, chaulai roti, halwa, potatoes and peanuts!
  • I was apprehensive that I would be contributing to the open-defecation menace for the time that I was in Bhangeli and was beyond relieved to find pour-flush toilets.
  • We had come over-prepared with our own steel utensils, sleeping bags, mats and what not.
  • There is no telecom reception but electricity is available in a limited manner.
  • “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”

* Bugyals are grasslands situated in the higher mountains. Villagers typically take their cattle and goats to these meadows in the summer and leave them there for 3-4 months for grazing while they return to their homes. Once autumn starts approaching, they again make the trek to the bugyals to bring the animals back to the lower elevations.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This is not a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. One can read it is as a guide map to the major civil and political movements taking place in 21st century India. The Kashmir insurgency, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the left-wing extremism in central India form crucial plot points in this story. Other political movements, the ones against big hydroelectric power projects for example, make cameo appearances. I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the insurgency movements in North-east India, considering the wide scope of this book.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, for me, was Anjum; the presence of a transgender protagonist. Not only does Anjum transition from male to female, but also she belongs to the minority Muslim community. By no means can I claim to have read a lot,  but a quick Google search reveals no mainstream book featuring a transgender protagonist. Definitely not in India. And you can’t get more mainstream than Roy, Man Booker Award winner who also features in this year’s longlist.

The action is divided between Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar and the Kashmir valley. While the Delhi section is concerned with Anjum’s journey to find peace within herself and her world, the Kashmir section is a story of the insurgency. Tilottama, the second protagonist, writes a Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar, a macabre documentation of the atrocities committed on the civilian population. She also devises the Kashmiri-English Alphabet to show how the warped the idea of normalcy can become if one gives it enough time.

This book gave me a lot to think about. I kept wondering, while reading the Kashmir portion, about the line between truth and fiction. The bit about the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen is true, and so is the practice of men being paraded, during cordon-and-search operations, in front of jeeps with their headlights on full beam, forming a kind of one-way mirror where they could be (mis)identified by informants sitting next to the driver. But is it also true that army men sell weapons and ammunition to the very militants they are supposed to be fighting? Or that the 2014 floods were used by the army as a photo-op and they didn’t really help the Kashmiri civilians if the media weren’t around to broadcast it?

Another sentence that disturbed me was in the preface to the book, about how the vultures are dying to satiate urban India’s appetite for icecream and milkshakes. I have been thinking long and hard about turning vegan and reading this line made me feel even more guilty for continuing to consume dairy products.

This book is not an easy read and it isn’t meant to be. A less charitable title could have been A Litany of Sorrows. It’s meant to make us think about where we are heading. And we have Roy’s beautiful prose to carry us through.

“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

 

Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Location: Delhi, Kashmir
Language: English

Reading Around India

Sometime last year I came across a book review of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World. Morgan spent the entire of 2012 reading a book from each of the 196 countries of the world and then wrote about her experiences. Deciding which regions to consider as countries, sourcing books from remote African and Pacific nations, the challenges posed by translated texts, the cultural hegemony of authors writing in English, and North American and British ones furthermore. I was intrigued and started compiling a list of the nationalities of all authors I had read. Not unsurprisingly, it was predominantly American, British and Indian.

Sometime before this book review, I had also come across the 666 reading challenge at bookcrossing.com. The challenge requires one to read a book from six countries from each of the six continents within the span of 365 days. That means a total of 36 books from different regions of the world. I started this challenge this year and six and a half months in, have managed to read a book from each of the six continents (apart from finishing the European section and being one book short of completing the Asian one).

Wholly due to these two reading projects, I read my first books from Africa and South America this year. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not my first book from the African continent but it made a point that stayed with me. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. In their own way, and following their own agenda. As responsible consumers of literature, it behooves us to read authentic first-person accounts or stories rather than an outsider’s version (imagined or otherwise) of what has happened. Just as we travel to remote and offbeat locations to discover more about the world and ourselves, we should also be reading books written in and by people on the margins in order to widen our horizons, along with providing a platform for these voices. I was in my late teens when I realised that almost all books I read were authored by Americans or Britons. Thus began a conscious effort to read more by Indian authors writing in English. I am now in my late twenties when again it dawned on me that almost all of my reading is confined to the US and Northern Europe. Hence a conscious decision to stick with these two challenges and diversify what I read.

A few days I came up with another reading challenge for myself (since I obviously need to add more complexity to my book selection policy!). Why not apply the idea behind Ann Morgan’s literary exploration to the country I call home? India has 36 administrative divisions and despite being bilingual I rarely read Indian fiction. Most of the fiction books I read are based in Mumbai or Delhi. So starting this month, I will be reading a book based in each state/union territory of India, preferably written by an Indian author, whether written in English/Hindi or translated into Hindi/English, and blogging about it. I might also review any compelling book I read as part of the other two reading challenges.

Looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations.

Marching the Morse

“What hath God wrought?”—dots
and dashes marching through space
to reach lonely eyes.

Samuel_Morse_1840Samuel Morse (1791-1872), co-developer of the Morse code, was a painter more famously known for inventing the single-wire telegraph system. This post has been written in response to the coolest blogging challenge ever.

Image and information sourced from Wikipedia.

It was a White Night—Part I

I was standing in ankle deep snow, trying to gain some semblance of understanding. The moon was hanging overhead, a luminous orb streaming light in my direction. The straps of my backpack were cutting through my shoulders but I was too cold to feel any pain. There were no streetlights because there were no streets. Just snow covered pathways leading into darkness. Not a single soul in sight. But I was not alone in this nightmare. My friend was a few paces behind me; same backpack on her shoulders, same confusion in her mind.

Self-recriminatory thoughts formed a line in my head and marched in a loop. Why did I choose to come to the Grand Canyon in end-December? Why did I not reach before sunset? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s trailer-couch? What if s/he turned out to be a psychotic mass murderer? What if s/he was not at home? What if s/he did not have place for us? Why didn’t I have a plan B? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Which idiot chooses the Grand Canyon, in winter, for the first couchsurfing experience? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Why was I doing this to myself?

Pushing aside the voice in my head, I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. Baby steps. Find the trailer village. Find the street. Find the trailer. Knock. Wait for the door to open. Let’s hope not to rinse and repeat.

It was cold, I was hungry, my friend was very nervous, I had the contact number on my phone but the battery was dead. Staying rooted to the spot was not helping. So we decided to move. Chose a random direction and started walking. In the dim moonlight we could make out the silhouettes of RVs and trailers. The wooden sign boards, half buried in snow, displayed an alphabet. This couldn’t be right. I was looking for street numbers. Maybe we were in the wrong trailer village. How many trailer villages were there? Will the shuttle still be running at this time? It then struck me, clear as the night sky we were standing under—what I had assumed to be a Roman numeral was actually a Latin alphabet. Armed with this knowledge and the hope that I wouldn’t end up sleeping in the snow tonight, I started walking. Though the snow, in the dark night, shivering with cold and fear of the unknown. Reached the end of the lane, made a turn, found the wrong street. Cut through the space between the trailers, frantically counting all the boxes, looking for the wooden sign boards. Finally reached the trailer we thought was The One, white and silent. Jumped the fence, managed not to fall flat on my face. Still silence. It seemed like no one was home. All I could hear was my heart hammering in my head. I took in a deep breath and knocked.

Written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge-

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/