Category Archives: Travel

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

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From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

When Vikram Seth traveled through China almost twenty five years ago, the country was much less fashionable in popular parlance than it is today. Sinkiang and Tibet are likely to be far more accessible to the tourist today, possibly even to the hitch hiker, which is what was Seth’s choice incarnate – an interesting albeit woeful one, but without which the travelogue would likely have remained unattractive or half done.

 

Seth was a Stanford exchange student in Nanjing University when he wrote this book (1983) and the origins of his unconventional journey back to his home in Delhi for the summer vacation was a rather impromptu one – when he, tired of the limiting insights through a conducted tour, broke away from the school party to undertake this extraordinary detour on his own.

 

It is an engrossing read, not merely to discover the ethereal beauty of the harsh high desert landscapes of Western China and Tibet, but also for the human interactions – his bonhomie with Sui, the erratic but good natured truck driver with whom he spends the longest part of his trip, his travails on the way, the family he befriends in Tibet and their unenviable legacy in the gruesomeness of the Chinese occupation, and so on. It is probably well known that Seth, a polyglot, was quick to pick up Chinese during his stay in China (he has published a translation of Chinese poets for that matter) . This helped him immensely on the way, to talk to the people in remote places with little knowledge of the outside world, much less English.

He is observant of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people, despite the secrecy of its Government:

“Time and again, with no thought other than kindness, people have helped me along in this journey. And this experience is merely a continuation of what I have felt throughout my travels in China: a remarkable warmth to the outsider from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled.”

 

It is interesting to note that Seth compares the communist autocracy of China and India’s fledging democracy, a theme at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s successful novel The White Tiger. This was when Adiga was nine years old. Yet the similarity of their observations, although via quite different vehicles, is striking, and only helps crystallize the viability of such comparisons.

“I think about what the two countries have done for their people in the course of the last thirty years. One overwhelming fact is that the Chinese have a better system of social care and of distribution than we do. Their aged do not starve. Their children are basically healthy. By and large, the people are well clothed, very occasionally in rags. Most children in the eastern provinces go to school for at least five years; this is in practice, not just(as in India) on paper. Tibet will take a long time to achieve the standard of living of other parts of China; however, in this comparatively prosperous part of Tibet I have not, for instance, seen signs of malnutrition.

….

“I am often asked about the relative success of our two large overpopulated countries in satisfying the most basic needs of their people. What is sometimes forgotten when making this comparison is that, except for the greater mineral wealth of China (a result of its far greater land area), all the a priori advantages lie on India’s side. India’s needs are fewer, and its agricultural production possibilities are greater. First, less clothing and heating are required for the average Indian than the average Chinese: everyone in the north of China needs both a heavy overcoat and heating fuel in winter. Secondly, India has more arable land per capita, more sunshine for double and triple cropping, and a better potential for irrigation. Yet despite all this, the average Chinese is better clothed, better fed and better sheltered that the average Indian.”

 

Yet Seth is not unsympathetic to India’s achievements, its democracy.

“But the Indian achievement of the last thirty years has been in a different, more nebulous, and in a sense more difficult direction. The country has not fragmented: a whole generation of Indians has grown up accepting that an independent and united India is the normal state of affairs. In the first few years of a nation, that is already a great deal: one cannot expect patriotism.”

 

I wonder what Seth’s views would be today, with all the separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East. But while critical of censorship and infringement on personal freedoms following Chinese dictatorship, Seth lauds, and rightly so, the democratic framework in India, however fragile. We do hope to see it pay off in the future, though this appears a distant prospect till this day.

 

Finally, he concludes, rather abstemiously:

“I now see that China’s achievements are solid but have serious drawbacks; and that is about all that that can be said about India’s, too.”

 

Quite diplomatic. But undeniably true.

 

 

I seem to have gone off in a tangent while writing about a travelogue. But these were too relevant and inescapable in my perspective to ignore. Coming back to the travel aspect, Heaven Lake, from which the book derives its title, is actually a pristine lake in the North western province of Sinkiang. It is from here that Seth, deserting his school troop, retraces his path all the way back to Nanjing and then to Beijing in eastern China in order to obtain his passport, money, and a Nepalese Visa (which he didn’t eventually need, being an Indian citizen), thus completing a circuitous loop all the way back to Liuyuan, from where he continues further south to Lasha, then Kathmandu and home to Delhi.

 

I have an interest in Tibet, and have written earlier about an older, marginal turn of the twentieth century book by an European traveler (Amaury de Riencourt), who visits Lasha, virtually unknown then to Westerners, via Sikkim. Since then, Tibet has been far more exposed to the rest of the world. While the political aspect is almost unnoticeable in Seth’s book, it is delightful to read about Lasha once again, the city and its grand monasteries, their resilience and decay. In Potala, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism and once the residence of the Dalai Lama, Seth is overwhelmed by the inspiring experience of the mystical rituals.

 

One thing that distinguishes Seth’s book from the run-of-the-mill travelogue is the occasional doggerel. Besides their literary value, they are filled with quaint observations which are simply charming. Here’s a bit from a longer piece, which he had written while in the truck after a particularly difficult stretch:

 

Here we three, cooped, alone,

Tibetan, Indian, Han,

Against a common dawn

Catch what poor sleep we can,

And sleeping drag the same

Sparse air into our lungs,

And dreaming each of home

Sleeptalk in different tongues.

 

There’s one particular piece, of prose however, which struck a chord in me, perhaps due to the fact that I too, Mystic Wanderer, have been drifting away from my homeland, in this course of life. Seth is in Nanjing, before setting out for Beijing, and enjoys a valedictory meal with a friend, which includes some California wine. This makes him nostalgic, for California, and he observes:

“…I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”

 

How eloquent!

Incendiary Circumstances by Amitav Ghosh

Incendiary Circumstances is a collection of seventeen essays, written over two decades, on the many social and political crises besotting our world. Here, our world is mostly confined to South Asia, parts of South East Asia (Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia), and Middle East(Egypt, Kuwait), “Half-made worlds”, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, which Ghosh refers to in the preface. But “the incendiary circumstances of these essays are no longer exceptional anywhere in the world”, Ghosh illustrates through the short, ruminative piece on the WTC attack in New York, titled September 11, which, though seemingly banal, is quite effective and appropriate.

What sets these essays apart from being purely journalistic narratives is the touch of personal perspective that Ghosh adds, either by his close presence during the occurrences, or by contact with a victim he has personally known. Given his training as a social anthropologist and his profession as a fiction writer, some of the pieces read like stories almost, or certainly a mixture of memoir and travelogue

 

Terrorism, or repression as we have come to know in today’s world, is a recurring theme. Ghosh draws successfully from his rich personal experiences, though he is himself dubious about the fruitfulness of writing about such issues. In the preface he writes:

“…is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject? [Para] No doubt the reason that this question had a special urgency for me was because the “incendiary circumstances” of the title have been a part of the background of my everyday life since my childhood. … if there is anything instructive in the present turmoil of the world, it is surely that few ideas are as dangerous as the belief that all possible means are permissible in the service of a desirable end.”

 

Ghosh unambiguously heightens the intensity of an alarm, which to us, aware to a degree of the dire state of affairs, has been dulled to background noise in the frenzy of day to day living. The book, while serving as a chronicle of modern history in patches, also brings forth a sense of urgency in our awareness to these events and their significance in our lives today.

 

While many of the pieces spell a sense of doom, of a world at the edge of a cataclysm, there are diversions. “Tibetan Dinner” is his experience in a NYC restaurant where a Hollywood star (Richard Gere, I presume) is hosting a dinner for the cause of Tibet. During his meal, Ghosh recalls the Tibetan refugees in India, between looking up to the solitary monk being felicitated.

“When I next caught the monk’s eye, his smile seemed a little guilty: the hospitality of a poor nation must have seemed dispensable compared to the charity of a rich one. Or perhaps he was merely bewildered. It cannot be easy to celebrate the commodification of one’s own suffering.”

The essay titled “Four Corners”, continues on the theme of marginalized people in our modern world, this time for the American Indians.

“…The names of the dispossessed tribes of Americas hold a peculiar allure for the marketing executives of automobile companies. Pontiac, Cherokee – so many tribes are commemorated in forms of transport. It is not a mere matter of fashion that so many of the cars that flash past on the highway carry those names, breathing them into the air like the inscriptions on prayer wheels. This tradition of naming has a long provenance: did not Kit Carson himself, the scourge of the Navajo, name his favorite horse Apache?”

 

“The Imam and the Indian”, the last of the lot, is an encounter of with an imam (a Muslim cleric) during Ghosh’s stay in Egypt. While humorous, it poignantly reflects on the strange sense of irony in the interpretation of western progress in the rest of the world. The imam tries to belittle Ghosh in pointing out to the village crowd that Ghosh is from a place where they worship cows and burn their dead. The two get into a heated argument, where Ghosh says that they burn the dead in the West as well.

“The imam could see that he had stung me. He turned away and laughed. “He’s lying,” he said to the crowd. “They don’t burn their dead in the West. They’re not ignorant people. They’re advanced, they’re educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.”

“We have them too!” I shouted back at him. I was as confused now as I was angry. “In my country we have all those things too,” I said to the crowd. “We have guns and tanks and bombs. And they’re better than anything you have – we’re way ahead of you.”

The imam could no longer disguise his anger. “I tell you, he’s lying,” he said. “Our guns and bombs are much better than theirs…

So there we were, the imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West.”

 

Ghosh writes well, and one is awed by his scholarship and understanding of the issues he writes about, as well the vast spectrum of human populace he observes. He is honest in his assessments. Yet, when it comes closer to home, he provides an instance where his honesty is called into question. In the introductory part of the essay titled ‘The Fundamentalist Challenge”, he talks of how, in his own words, “intellectual pedigrees of most versions of religious extremism around the world today can be traced to [similar] moments of conversion”. He goes on to give some example, relevant to South Asia and Middle East. For the lack of anything else, he chooses to say this, for the case of Hindu extremism:

“Swami Vivekananda, the late nineteenth-century thinker who is today claimed by Hindu extremists as a founding father, was famously a rationalist in the best positivist tradition, until he underwent a dramatic conversion.”

This statement is ludicrous, not because of the claims of Hindu extremist groups, which is irrelevant, but in the manner in which it tends to imply that the conversion turned him into an irrational, as if Swamiji was a proponent of Hindu extremism thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The extremists may claim anything Mr. Ghosh, but don’t you, as a conscientious writer, realize the fallacy hidden behind your statement? Swami Vivekananda was a sage, a saint, and the “dramatic conversion” that your scholastic prose is talking of is bluntly termed as a spiritual experience, in the grace of his guru, the great, Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Surely Mr. Ghosh, you are aware of his secular and reformist influences on Hinduism?

The statement thus appears laughable to anyone but pseudo seculars out to prove a point. Or is it that too much of intellectual study blinds one from simple truths? The futility of all this scholarship is perhaps it leaves behind little else but interesting essays, some confusion and a dread of the place we call home.

A distant world, Part III : Siliguri

Read Part II

I am at last headed for Bengal. North Bengal, where I was born. Where I spent my growing up years. In Delhi, the plane sits on the runway, delaying our departure for almost an hour. Who cares about the North East? Backward, dilapidated, a laggard in the economic growth seizing the whole country.

As the plane prepares to land in the little airport, green fields, trees, and silvery gray of a sinewy river come closer, dotted with quaint little houses. No concrete jungle here, or an expanse of urban waste, or slums. But for how long?

Signs of change are visible here as well. A new road leading out of the airport to the highway, more vehicles and people. And of course the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws. We pass by the University campus of my childhood, its surroundings unrecognizable in the mushrooming habitations on both sides of the highway.

The small town where my parents live, is no longer that small. Besides multiplying traffic and people, the city is experiencing the same retail and construction boom going on in other parts of urban India. The town I knew is lost, hidden behind a throbbing, pulsating city of neon signs, swanky malls, newer cars and two wheelers, and people dressed more dandily than before, sporting global brands and contemporary, cosmopolitan cuts. But artifacts of the old are still visible, still vibrantly available. The decadent rickshaw wallah, lean and well muscled, but somehow never fed well enough, his hollow cheeks belying fashionable jogging trousers. The overcrowded bazaar, where one has to practice the art of skillful dodging, of humans, rickshaws and two wheelers, and at the same time balance oneself carefully in motion while ensuring not to step on a mashed fruit or rotten vegetable or discarded sputum. Roads are still quite freely used as litter grounds as much as for transportation, a thing quite common in most Indian cities. Sweep sweep sweep your own yard, and off it goes into the streets. I don’t understand how difficult it can be to collect the rubbish and dispose it in community bins. Waste bins, of course, are a scarcity. One would first have to have these set up in much greater numbers.

But there are perks. The fresh taste of Bengal, in sweets, in repasts, not easily available anywhere else. Rosogolla, misthi doi, rasmalai, singara, kochuri, rolls, chops and cutlets with rich, flavorful fillings, the list goes on. The roadside sabji market with really fresh produce at prices one could only dream of in the developed world.

 

I am home at last. After four long years. Closer to five than four. Among people whose language runs in my blood, which spread through my veins to imperceptible yet solidly permanent corners of my being, and which has not diluted by disuse. Back with my parents, who make me feel like a child, its needs easily taken care of at the drop of a hat. Their affection knows no bounds of geography or economy. Back in a country that is maturing into a fast growing economy to take its bold, confident steps in the liberal, global stage from the fledging, tottering ones that had begun over a decade ago. A country with deep roots dating back thousands of years. And myriad, complex problems of the present dogging its every progressive move. A country which, after hundreds of years of rape and plunder, is bouncing back, reshuffling its garb to emerge into its new avatar, to provide a shelter of peace and prosperity for its umpteen citizens, but being mired in conflicting forces of separatism and disintegration, for selfish political motives or genuine concern in underdeveloped sections, regions which are, should be, as much a part of any economic benefit.

It is a tough, uphill journey. But one India must see through. To honor its past. To cherish the present. To spread the vibrant, upbeat mood among more and more of its denizens in the future. I am, will be, a part of it, no matter how distant, in miles, I am.

A distant world, Part II : Delhi

Read Part I

 

I travel up north, to Delhi. Crowded city bursting at its seams. An excess of traffic and humans jostling for space in roads frequently interrupted with construction work. New roads, wider roads, flyovers, hotels. To accommodate more and more. People, motors, business. To claim more and more. Open spaces, green vistas to gray. Boom or bust?

I had been to Delhi once before, for a very short visit. And hated it. There really isn’t any genuine reason. My acquaintance with the city is too limited to pass an opinion. Perhaps it was the heat then, arid and enervating. It is cool now, being winter. But the city itself does not evoke anything conciliatory. Familiarity breeds contempt, so they say. In my case, the feelings for Delhi stem from unfamiliarity, though contempt is too strong a word to describe it. Disinclination is a closer word. Or perhaps aversion. A city I would avoid if I could. But there are places in Delhi I am eager to see, for their historical worth. Red Fort, Purana Quila, Tombs, gardens. The heritage of the great Mughals. The seat of power in the subcontinent for a thousand years. Or is it thousands? Indraprastha, the city of kings, the capital. The center of power, strategy and diplomacy. Yet somehow I feel all its heritage fails to give Delhi any character, unlike the distinctive airs of Kolkata or Mumbai. Unfamiliarity? I’ll have to wait, years or forever, to know, due to my disinclination and aversion. Certainly not in this trip, where I have about two days, which includes a Monday, when the Red Fort (and perhaps other monuments) are closed. Meanwhile, I’ll please myself with the opinion that Delhi as a city is highly overrated.

 

On Sunday, I visit a memorial originally built for the British soldiers in the 1857 uprising. This was later, in 1972, re-dedicated to the heroic revolutionaries.

1857 Memorial plaque

 

 

On Monday, to visit India Gate, I take the Delhi Metro, which is crowded, but fast and efficient, and clean. Cleaner and newer than subways in many mega cities. It is windy, the warmth of the winter sun somewhat diluted in its sudden surges. And dust. It is hard to find a place in the subcontinent without dust. The wind blows it around in swirls as we appreciate the magnificent structure of the gate, a dedication to the soldiers who lost their lives in the first world war. They no longer allow visitors through the gate, to avoid vandalism. A 24×7 flame (Amar Jawan Jyoti) is in vigil within it, to honor the departed, which one can now only see from far.

India Gate

The India Gate has come to be a symbol of India, maybe not as widely as the more illustrious Gateway of India in Mumbai, but certainly equally representative.

Read More (Part III)

A distant world – Part I : Mumbai, Pune

More than four years later. Closer to five than four. The very words I use to describe the gap after which I return to India, for a vacation.

It is a long journey, from where I reside, nestled in the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest of America, to the subcontinent. How many thousand miles? I forget to count, as giant jet planes guzzling who knows how many hundreds of gallons carry me. Over thirty five thousand feet. Forty thousand feet. To Europe. Germany, where I find my feet on the ground between changing planes. Then onwards east. South. From cold, frigid landscapes to places, barring those with substantial gains in elevation, where summer and winter merely makes a difference in how hot and muggy it gets.

Mumbai Pune ExpresswayIndia has changed. Is changing rapidly, with a growing, booming economy. Words I hear often. In the media, from friends who made the trip earlier, between now and the time the since the boom began, soon after I left the shores of my country of birth. Of which I am still a citizen.

And what does the country of my citizenship offer me, when I return after more than four years, closer to five than four? A haze. Smoggy cityscapes in Delhi and Mumbai, where I struggle to understand if it is fog or pollution which has made things blurry. Traffic scene just as unruly as I have ever known but have, in the past several years, been reconditioned into something more orderly. Better airports in transitory states. Cleaner washrooms in the toilets (at least in Delhi), which have tissue papers, air blowers, automatic sensor flushes. Signs of a progressive economy stepping into the global scene. Massive billboards have grown like unchecked weeds along the expressway to Pune from Mumbai. They sell new homes. Real Estate industry selling promises of lush green in a world severely different from the dessicated terrain through which the highway cuts across. Through the rocky gray yellow green Deccan plateau. 2 BHK, 3 BHK. With parks, children’s play areas, club houses, in a long list of features intended to attract people with far greater spending power than before. People who are not squeamish of taking loans which they will take years and years to repay. Or maybe not, like those who are reaping the benefits of the higher pays and a booming stock market. But where is the growing, booming economy where it is most needed? I still see people scrounging for scraps in rubbish dumps, living in shanties, seeking the cover of rubble and urban waste to defecate in the open. But then, I also see the homeless with hand painted cardboard signs under expressway ramps from where I come. Perhaps the effects of this growing, booming economy are not as pervasive as they are claimed to be. Yet. How many years will it take? A question as difficult to answer as its more Epicurean counterpart: why does the mind become so easily accustomed to new order and customs, in a few years consider as foreign what has been a part of someone’s system since birth?

Knowledge and perspectives enlighten. But what is revealed is not necessarily gloriously triumphant. Bitterness goes hand in hand with truth.

So what does it feel like, when I return, after more than four years, closer to five than four? Nothing. A strange silence where I was expecting joyous uplifting trumpets. The dusty Deccan plateau does not feel like home, though that is where I had lived for years before migrating west, to temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. I remember Bengal, where I was born, which I left behind. The lush greenery from the frame of the flight window on descent six years ago when I returned, after a shorter interval of absence from the country of my birth, whose citizenship I still possess. My joyful anticipation, the rise of an emotion I feel when dwarfed by ascending mountain peaks, by the clouds, trees and forests of a Himalayan vista. All that has become history. Soaked up by distance and time. Awaiting resurgence.

Read More (Part II)