Seeking Refuge: Nurgul and Baba

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My plan was to cross into India at Wagah that unfortunate Punjabi village designated by the British in 1947 as the frontier between India and Pakistan. From there I intended to move steadily eastward to Bengal and Orissa. I had three weeks of holidays and was eager to get out of the Land of the Pure.

A week before I left, my boss, a soft-spoken Swiss lawyer, instructed me to book a ticket to Karachi.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He muttered a bit and shuffled the papers on his desk. He started speaking then stopped. He let go a sigh before telling me that we had two ‘security cases’ that needed extraction.

“You’re the lucky volunteer who accompanies them.” His front teeth had a slight gap that made his smile hard to resist.

He filled me in on the details.

They were officials in the Chinese Embassy. One was Head…

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In Honor of Syria’s Dead: Ibrahim Keivo

With the shocking news of more killing of aid volunteers in Syria, I share some healing music from around the same area the atrocity occurred.

Harmonium

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Readers of this blog may know other parts of my story. In particular that for many years I was an ‘aid worker’.

I turned that hat in at the counter a year ago, relieved and pleased to be focused on new adventures. And though I had many ‘beefs’ with the industry, especially as my career progressed, I have never doubted or belittled the courage of local volunteers.

The backbone of any successful relief or aid operation is the support it receives from local communities. Local volunteers are so critical because they are usually part of the community that is being assisted and have a huge stake in making sure the aid is delivered quickly and efficiently.

But local people are also important because they understand the language and local dialects. They are familiar with the hidden political or cultural agendas that outsiders (like me and my colleagues) miss completely. They…

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Road Stories: Two Pandits of Bhubaneshwar

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Bhubaneshwar is one of three sites within a radius of 50 km famous for temples. A panda (priest) at one told me that Bhubaneshwar was once home to 125,000 of them, which only confirms that most such men are liars.

But it would not be an exaggeration to say old Bhubaneshwar is overflowing with heavy stone ruins. Some lie crumbled by a lake, others behind a wall and some next to the Post Office.

A city full of temples is passé in India. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a town that is not chocker block with shrines. But Bhubaneshwar’s temples stand apart.

One reason is their immense size. Another is their age. Most were built 700-800 years ago. A third is the crowd of mahantas, pandits and brahmacharis that swarm like wasps around each holy place.

As I approached a temple a group of white-robed priests launched themselves in my direction. They pushed notebooks showing the scribbled impressions and donations of other foreigners into my space. Yuki from Japan Rs. 150. Hank from Canada $10.

They were like blood suckers that drop off only when cash is handed over. ‘You should have given at least Rs 50’ they mutter after I scraped together a few Rs. 2 notes.

They left me alone to take some photos. Two fresh recruits approached but seemed to be only interested in conversation. No donation books visible.

One called himself Kuna. He introduced his friend as Bichchi. Kuna kept classifying women on a personal scale of ‘sexual’.

‘Western women are very sexual. Japanese women most sexual.’

He was full of obscure, scattered English aphorisms. ‘Every book as a cover. Every woman has a lover,’ was his favourite but other non-sexual phrases popped out regularly, too.

Bichchi was more interested in politics. One of the Patnaiks was in power. Another Patnaik was trying to squeeze him out now that he had the leverage of a new government in Delhi. Bichchi was confident Challenger Patnaik would be victorious in the end.

The main complaint against Ruling Patnaik was—as far as I could make out from their broken Hindi—his habit of cavorting with young boys. Either that or he drank or smoked something that was no good.

Kuna spoke up again. ‘Is there only one tiger in the jungle? They all do these things. Have you ever seen just one tiger in the jungle?’

They encouraged me to take some bhang (cannabis drink).

I declined. I was already light headed having passed a sleepless, mosquito abundant night at a nearby flophouse.

Kuna extolled the qualities of bhang but cursed heroin, charas and alcohol. The spread of these vices was, according to Bichchi, the responsibility of Pakistan. He saw a nefarious attempt to destroy the country. Apparently there was a growing number of addicts in Bhubaneshwar.

Kuna offered his own interpretation. ‘It’s good. We have 90 crore people here in India. If a few kill themselves with heroin, it’s good. It will help to keep the population under control.’

We chatted like this for an hour until the shade of Lingaraj, one of Bhubaneswar’s 125,000 temples, turned chilly.

I took my leave. I glanced back and saw Kuna and Bichchi make their way towards a straggly looking Asian tourist who seemed happy for some company.

Road Stories: The Points Man from Phulera Junction

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The sun blinked like a Christmas light behind the naked trees.

I sat on the floor of the carriage. The reeking latrine to one side and Prem Chand on the other.

The Ahmedabad Mail swayed through the Rajasthan desert in the direction of Ajmer. Reservations had been impossible. The only option was to travel fifteen hours in General.

Prem Chand had spotted me sharing a slice of a bench and beckoned me. He sat in luxury by the door on top of a heavy wool blanket. I hurried over to him but didn’t say anything. He lit an ochre bidi. I rested my head on my knees. It was not yet 6 in the morning. Fourteen hours more to go.

Prem Chand put out his bidi and addressed me an oblique fashion. “That’s a costly jacket.” His eyes were admiring.

“About Rs 200,” I said.

We swayed on in silence. The sun was climbing fast, racing to keep up with the train.

“Give it to me,” Prem Chand demanded.

His face registered deep hurt with my negative reply.

“I need it as a remembrance of you,” he countered.

“I have only this one. If I had a second or third one I would definitely give it to you.”

He seemed appeased. But out of the corner of my eye I could see him stare at me. His wry smile said, “I don’t believe you.”

I squirmed. Get the upper hand, I thought. I started questioning him.

He was travelling to Kishangarh. He was 26 years old. He told me he was married. I congratulated him. “How many children?”

“Two. Both daughters.” He was obviously conflicted. “Daughters are a great difficulty in India.”

As if even the topic was distasteful, and before I could ask why, he was telling me that he had almost gone to Japan.

“My brother had a cycle rickshaw in Jaipur. One day he met a Japanese lady and she said, ‘Come to Japan with me.’ So my brother came to me and said, ‘Come, I’ll take you to Japan.’ I told him, ‘No,’ but gave him Rs 700. One day the police came and arrested him and sent his wife back to Japan. Just like that it was over.”

“Why did they arrest him?”

“Bas. Aise hi.”

Aise is a versatile Hindi word meaning literally, like this. In his brother’s case it implied, just because.

“The police need no reasons.”

“But what had he done?”

Prem Chand ignored me and continued talking. He obviously took it for granted that no one questioned the police just as no one doubted daughters were a calamity. In India certain things just are. Aise hi hai.

“I had a rickshaw also.”

“Cycle?” I asked.

The hurt look crept back into his face.

‘Nahi baba. Auto. Auto. Auto,” he snapped.

I was embarrassed. I had wounded him twice in less than half an hour. His ability to recover, however, proved as good as his capacity to take offense. He waited for my next question.

“What do you do these days?”

Grabbing a black lantern he held it up and read aloud. His fingers traced the sloppy handwriting. “Prem Chand. Points Man 1. Phulera Junction.”

“What’s a Points Man?” My question seemed logical. But Prem Chand evaded me.

“I work night duty. 12 hours. 6 to 6.”

“But what’s your work?” I asked again.

“Points Man,” he smiled.

“Do you shunt engines?” I was now desperate to know.

“Yes. I help to shunt. And this and that.”

He fished another bidi from his pocket. I let the subject drop.

My knees ached from squatting. No seats had been vacated as far as I could see. The benches were so crowded the addition or subtraction of one person was undetectable. I returned my attention to Prem Chand

“How much do you make?”

“Three hundred and thirty a month. It isn’t enough for us.”

“You must have made more driving a rickshaw.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I made plenty of money. Plenty.”

Why join the railroad for less money if you were making more as a rickshaw driver, I wanted to know.

Yet again, he looked pained. Speaking slowly as if I were an erring child Prem Chand laid it out for me.

“There is no izzat (honour) in a rickshaw. With this job I have honour. Everyone used to yell, ‘Taxi, taxi’ before. It was shameful. Now, as Points Man even the Station Master greets me in the morning. Everyone knows me. Just come to Phulera Junction and ask for Prem Chand. They all know me. Now I have honour.”

The train was slowing and Prem Chand jumped up, wrapped the blanket we had been sharing around his shoulders and lit a bidi.

“You do you thing,” he admonished me. “Give me one rupee for chaipani.”

Glad to redeem myself in his eyes I pulled out the loose change from my pocket, 80 paise.

“Here, this is all I have.” I slipped it into his hand.

He flashed his wry unbelieving smile and melted into the crowd mobbing the train.