Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Unplayed Piano - Damien Rice

In 2005, Damien Rice, an Irish musician wrote the song “Unplayed Piano” in support of the campaign to free the exiled Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. It was her 60th birthday and the 10th year of her house arrest.

"Come and see me
Sing me to sleep
Come and free me
Hold me if I need to weep
Maybe it's not the season
Maybe it's not the year...."

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 for her non-violent, pro-democracy struggles in Burma. She was placed under house arrest by the military dictatorship of the country without any charges or trial. Her crime: leading a people’s movement for democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi put the prize money in a trust to improve the health and education levels of the people of Burma.

"Maybe there's no good reason
Why I'm locked up inside
Just cause they wanna hide me
The moon goes bright
The darker they make my night"

She was put under house arrest first in 1989 but was given the offer for freedom if she left the country. She declined. The following year elections were held in Burma and her party won, but the military dictatorship nullified the process. The rest of the world protested but the military held their ground.

"Unplayed pianos
Are often by a window
In a room where nobody loved goes
She sits alone with her silent song
Somebody bring her home"

The period between 1995-2005 saw many ups and downs with her getting released, put on house arrest again and one time she was even imprisoned. She was detained each time for carrying out political activities for freedom which she was barred from. She never left the country for if she did, she would hot have been permitted to return. During this period her husband died in Britain, she could not meet him, he was not allowed entry into Burma and she decided not to leave her country.

"Unplayed piano
Still holds a tune
Lock on the lid
In a stale, stale room
Maybe it's not that easy
Or maybe it's not that hard
Maybe they could release me
Let the people decide
I've got nothing to hide
I've done nothing wrong
So why have I been here so long?"

I make this post today because since the past few days, hopes were building up
in favor of her release as her confinement ordered had expired recently. International pressure, urging the military government to review it in her favour went into deaf ears - the dictatorship has extended her confinement term, which is what the news says.

"Unplayed piano
Still holds a tune
Years pass by
In the changing of the moon"

I don’t know what more I can add to this, I really don’t know what more to say. Except that my sleepy brain at nearly 2.30 am in the morning is thinking about how in one part of the world a nation of people continue to struggle for their human rights while here in my own - in one of the largest democracies, politicians prepare grounds to divide people on the basis of caste lines.

I want to thank my friend Amin for bringing to me this wonderful song – unplayed piano. The quoted portions are parts of the song. It has been sung by Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

At the beginning of this month something peculiar happened. The internet service provider ran away with his entourage leaving behind woeful customers, I being one of them. On my part I tried to track him down and make him answerable but after a few unsuccessful attempts I gave up and decided to put my energies else where – what else, but at finding a new service provider. At first I felt really sorry to have lost my internet world but soon pulled myself together and decided that this was a fine chance to try and rake up another world. So I read. I finished reading The Kite Runner. It is easily the best book that I have read in the recent past.

Authored by Khaled Hosseini, the narrative is set in Afghanistan
and the US. It is a story about the relationship between two "friends" belonging to two different ethnic communities of Afghanistan - one dominant, the other, marginalised. Their relationship becomes yet more complex because one is the master, the other his “servant”. Not only that, the political milieu adds some more complexities to the relationship. The master is the "hero" of the story because his character simply fulfills what it takes to be a “hero” in a narrative. The character who captures the heart of the reader is undoubtedly Hassan, the Hazara boy, the “servant”. The essence of his being is carried throughout the story. The character of Hassan is immensely moving and it is very easy to respect him and be totally fond of him. I found that I developed a love-hate relationship with the hero of the story! One can’t hate him for too long because of his honesty. Also because of other things, let me elaborate a little later.

It is also a story about the relationship between a father and a son – a father who had rather not want a son the way he (son) was and a son who wanted to win his father’s appreciation, yet not be like him. How and in what direction the relationship changes over time has also been brought forth remarkably well.

At the backdrop of the story, the political situation of Afghanistan moves, chronicling over 30 years till about 2002 - from the last few years of the (40-year old stable) reign of Zahir Shah (that began in 1933) to the internal coup that overthrew him to the Communists and then to the dark period brought about by The Taliban. Some of the story is also based in the US where the father and son had to take political asylum in 1980 following the “Roussi” invasion. A part of the story is also told in retrospect.

My thoughts come back to the hero. I am quite convinced that his character is influenced to some extent by the author’s own. Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan and his family moved to the US in 1980. The hero is a soft-spoken literary sort, quite unlike the typical repulsive “masculine” male. He likes to read poetry, wins every poetry competition, loves to fly kites, loves to write, detests any Afghan sport that has to do with killing and does not retaliate at the neighborhood bullies. The most beautiful aspect of his personality is that even in his childhood, although he notices he is unlike the rough and tough kinds, he is most unwilling to change, he is just so secure with the way he is. At a point in his adulthood he is faced with situations where he has the option to either accept or reject his lady love when questions of her chastity etc. come up. Without any effort at any kind of debate within himself or otherwise, he promptly chooses to be by her side. In doing so he does not regard himself a martyr of sorts; he simply puts it saying that to judge a woman by patriarchal standards is something he was never socialized into – for he was never exposed to the “double standards” of men in his childhood, neither in his youth. His mother died at childbirth and father never married.

The narrative brings forth the sheer craftsmanship of the writer – the language has an irresistible flow – and conveying such complexities in simple language is an art I think and Khaled Hosseini in his debut novel, is a prototype of this thought. The words and phrases in native language finely blend with the English language – another very attractive element of the narrative.

Once begun, it is difficult to put down the book. In that, it has an element of understated mystery. Also it leaves you for some days with very warm thoughts. The Kite Runner is in my list of favorites and recommended reads :-)

Friday, May 26, 2006

When you go away - Bhartrhari

Am in a poetry mood today. This poem by Bhartrhari is dedicated to all friends.

When you go away

'Do not go' I say; but this is inauspicious.
'All right, go' is a loveless thing to say.
'Stay with me' is imperious. 'Do as you wish' suggests Cold
Indifference. And if I say 'I'll die
when you are gone', you might or might not believe me.
Teach me,
my friend, what I ought to say
When you go away.

(Bhartrhari, a poet from 5th-6th century India)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Trek Pictures

I realise how much pictures can be valuable and supplement a travel story like never before! Sadly I don't have many, in fact very few. I have uploaded some at my travel blog and I thought I would put up three of them from the trek, here. These are courtsy Iddo.

the flock o' sheep we met on the way. there is a small pool of stagnant water on the right, and many of them took a qucik dip before proceeding!!
the landslide over which we walked...

the waterfall pool!

Friday, May 05, 2006

McLeod Ganj

Hi everybody! I am back from a fabulous weekend trip to McLeod Ganj :) and that puts me in great spirits! The muscles of my lower limbs are still a bit agitated it seems but my fingers are raring to make a post… I was at McLo for a very short time, there are many things that I did not get to experience personally, yet, I write about them coz I found them interesting and worth sharing about.

A fulfilling trek

Yup, a large part of my trip consisted of trekking! There are a number of trek routes in McLo with varying levels of difficulty in terms of length of time to cover each, the nature of the path and the altitude. I was on a comparatively simple one that was around 12 kilometers covered in around 6 ½ hours and the highest altitude that we could get to was around 2300 meters.

Trek companions

A large part of my travels consists so much of different kinds of people of which I am so glad and grateful. My post will be grossly incomplete without writing about them. Well, I came over to McLo basically to meet my Estonian friend Kristina who has been, since the past one month, volunteering her time to teach English to adult Tibetan refugees in a Tibetan school there and also spending time in a play school with the children of migrant labor. She will be there for another month. Prior to my arrival, we had already decided to do a trek but didn’t know until a few hours before starting off that we would be joined by serious trekkers and some not as much – but all the same, all very lovely people. All the intros and the decision making happened in a café we were visiting the previous evening! So, at the appointed hour and place, seven of us armed with the required necessities met and we set off. The company consisted of Vim from Holland, Iddo from Israel, Heather from the US, Kripa and Bhanu from Mumbai, Kristina and myself. Most of them are volunteers on various social assignments while a few are there to help them relax and make important decisions in life and I guess, overall, all of us come to these serene locales to draw enrichment from it and add some bit of it into our lives.

Back to trekking

The route that we took, I shall call it the “waterfall” route coz it leads to a waterfall at some point after walking for some 2 ½ hours. This particular trek route consists of a concrete road uptil a small distance after which it becomes a trail on the mountains marked by white arrows on the rocks. Innovations can of course be made in the route but we stuck to the arrows. It was immensely exciting for me coz the trail kept changing its character every now and then… rocks covered with algae (over which I slipped once), rocks arranged like a little flight of stairs, a collection of rocks spread over a few meters, sometimes a little stretch of plain land as tho to give a bit of relief, steep and high rocks over which you needed to find a grip etc. At one point we came upon at least a 5 meter stretch of rocks arranged like a carpet that seemed to have landed up there as a result of a landslide. From time to time, we paused to admire the breathtaking scenery from various altitudes. I have never trekked this long over such terrain before and found myself always lagging behind!! But I am so grateful to my companions for their facilitation and, tolerance, of course. Bhanu, the seasoned trekker in the Western Ghats sure did pass on to me some very useful tips which I think I must summarize a little later.

The waterfall

After 2 hours I found myself longing for the waterfall and although we could hear the delicious gurgle of the water, it still seemed nowhere in sight. At last when I found myself sitting besides it, it felt so much like a reward. The water was freezing cold but there, of course, were people taking a few-second dips from head to toe! The waterfall is just like any other beautiful waterfall that we have seen in pictures and visited perhaps; it is the sheer physical experience of being so close to one of the grandest creations of nature that makes the feeling so special and alluring. It brought to my consciousness that there are such large forces at work and that my own existence is like a speck in the large scheme of things and even though such a small responsibility – at times it gets difficult to handle! It made me feel a trifle ashamed of myself and I felt glad that I was there absorbing some goodies from the bounties of nature – at least I would like to think so.

Back to the waterfall, on either side of the stream made by it, there is enuff room to set up tents and make an overnight halt – done on a full moon – well, aha! The very thought makes me crazy. Another interesting thing was this naturally made “landing” a meter above the stream on which there is a small tea shack. Upon our request, the owner of the stall gladly agreed to serve us “chai” where we had made ourselves comfortable on the rocks along the stream with the waterfall behind. This was pure bliss. Grandiose. The waterfall was like the climax.

Soon it was time for the decent. This was as nice as the first part of the trek except that at McLo, with barely five minutes to go before we could hit a restaurant for food, I got bitten by some leaves on my fingers when I accidentally held them for balance. These are plants on most of either side of the trail which sting like a wasp can do, when touched. The quickest way to get over the sting sensation (which is a pretty nasty one) is to leave that part of the body alone or at the most pour water over it and let it be. Scratching can make it get very bad. Anyways, half an hour later when we were sitting in the restaurant, I found myself using the stung fingers like nothing had happened.

Meditation walk

I must write about this wonderful principle because I tried it out in this trek. Meditation walk is derived from the greater spiritual traditions of “meditation” which simply means to be in a state of awareness by cutting down on the noise and chatter in the brain. By that measure, in easy terms, it means to not think about things and people and elements of life that you are not with at that moment and be able to appreciate your “present” surroundings and its constituents. This means that I am to put my entire concentration on my path, take every step in awareness and look around me and be in an attitude of gratitude. It also means that the only voices I let myself hear and react to is that of nature and those of my immediate companions. Looking at it from the other end, it also means that now that I am back to a completely different world, I should be able to take in that what is beneficial for me from it and sieve out the rest without any ado. In other words, not “miss” anything but find the balance between dichotomous worlds, thoughts and feelings – that is the way to spiritual empowerment, I think.

Some tips!

I thought it would be useful to put down some useful tips for trekking that I gathered and remember now!
1) To make walking less strenuous, always walk with a straight spine so as to distribute the weight of the body on either side.
2) To avoid scratches, blisters and plant bites, wearing covered walking shoes and full length pants helps.
3) Keeping water and instant energy givers like hard boiled toffees, chocolate bars, glucose biscuits etc. is extremely useful.
4) In order to avoid painful nails, clip them before a trek – long ones dig into the fabric of the shoes due to the continuous walk and can get very uncomfortable.
5) In order to climb steep and high rocks, use your hands to make a grip wherever there is a possibility on the rock to hold it at any place (I do not know what to do about the smooth ones :(

Well, the trek makes me want to go on more similar ones and challenging ones in the near future! I enjoyed it thoroughly.

McLeod Ganj in two days

This section will pretty much be a gist of my short visit. I arrived at McLo one afternoon and was especially happy to see Kristina at the bus stop waiting at the appointed hour. Soon we were sitting on a terrace café at a Tibetan restaurant surrounded on all sides by mountains, sipping chai, eating huge portions of noodles and chatting away. So, many of the things that I write has been simply gathered from conversations.

McLeod Ganj, in terms of geography, is in the state of Himachal Pradesh in North India. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, it used to be a garrison of the British before independence. A large section of its present population consists of refugees from Tibet, many of who are monks and they have helped to develop this small settlement into a spiritually advanced place. McLo also houses the secretariat of the Tibetan government in exile (politics a little later) and is the home of The Dalai Lama. The prevalence of a Buddhist way of life makes McLo a very spiritual place and makes many people from all over the globe come to visit it in search of peace.

There does not seem to be any dearth of accommodation as hotels are in plentiful. In addition to that, single room sets are available on rent for long-staying travelers who choose to have an independent unit. The only time that McLo gets really crowded and jampacked as I gathered from the Rough Guide, is during Feb./Mar. at the time of the Tibetan New Year.

The cultural life of the little settlement is quite enviable. Some of the cafes and restaurants have a programme of songs, spontaneous performances, discussions etc. on a weekly basis. It was in a restaurant called “Khana Nirvana” that we enlarged our trekking troupe over a live performance of flute, violin and vocals. There are two lines of one song sung that night by an Israeli performer that lingers in my mind. It goes:

“Mama I’m off to India,
don’t worry I won’t catch bacteria”.

On Jogibara Road, there are at least four “cinemas” that hold fours screenings each day of different films and documentaries – which from the list seemed to be issue-based documentaries, critically acclaimed films and bestseller entertainers. Among the Indian movies, Water and Raang De Basanti are very popular at this time. We watched a documentary called, “Escape from Tibet”. The “cinemas” are pretty interesting in the way they have been assembled – the screen is usually a flat home theatre system or a projector screen. At least 20 people can watch at a time. The “cinemas” are attached to restaurants, so one can have meals served right there watching a movie! Everything is great except that they never start and therefore never end the screenings on time. But given that one is not in a mad metro, the time lag only gives you the scope to catch another glass of chai over another interesting conversation and nothing is really lost.

At the lovely Buddhist temple in the little settlement is “staged” a discussion of the readings from Buddhist texts, every afternoon (except Sundays) for an hour. In addition to the verbal discussions in their language, the monks act it out theatretically. I am sure that would be interesting but I never managed to see it. Besides, McLo seemed to be always pasted with posters containing information on courses on acupressure, massage therapy, Hindi speaking, English speaking, Tibetan cooking, Buddhist studies, music, reiki etc. etc. etc. There is a public library, several book and video stores, lots of internet cafes and a museum as well.

With respect to food, McLo has no dearth of variety. While Tibetan food dominates and feels quite light and nice, I also saw French, Japanese and Israeli joints as well. The Tibetan bakery products are scrumptious and Kristina highly recommends the carrot cake, the apple pie in custard and the brownies (the brownies in chocolate sauce are “awesome” ;-) They were indeed yummy and full of calories – I am safely assuming that the spirituality of the place converts the calories into positive body food.

The Tibetan refugees

As most are aware, since China annexed Tibet in 1950 in a one-sided aggression, the country and its people have seen very bad times. Many countries in the world still do not recognize Tibet as an independent nation under foreign rule. International pressure is not too strong enough to get the Chinese government to withdraw from Tibet soil. About 3000 refugees cross over to India every year walking for 12 days over very difficult terrain. Many lose their lives, yet they come. The documentary that we saw had been made in 1994 and according to it, it used to take at least 30 days to make the journey more than a decade ago. But now-a-days there are guides. The refugees first halt at Nepal for a registration which is done by the UNHCR office set up in Katmandu. Nepal does not recognize Tibet as a separate nation, India does and refugees with the papers made in Katmandu are allowed to enter India. They find their way to New Delhi and most come up to McLo where they spend some time before figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Upon their arrival at McLo, they are addressed by The Dalai Lama who in an inspiring speech congratulates them at having made the arduous journey possible and welcomes them to Indian soil. Further, he tells them that they are among the lucky few to have got this opportunity and they must use their time in India to educate themselves and/but always be in a state of readiness to go back to their homeland as Tibet needs an educated mass of citizens to put fuel in its struggle for independence. Many have gone back too, the Tibetan population in McLo has come down considerably from several thousands over the years to about 2500 as of now. On this score, I felt really proud of my country that it has be able to provide this space and succor to a community of people made helpless by mindless violence and greed.

Many who come when they were children are adults now, they haven’t seen their parents and family for over decades, they are not sure if they would. Letters sent do not reach. Parents who send their little children every year with the guides do not send them with the hope of meeting them again. They are always prepared for the worst.

World pressure on China to free Tibet is rather mild despite the atrocities committed. According to the documentary, as per 1994 figures, the Chinese soldiers had already killed 80,000 monks and destroyed age old monasteries (reminds us of the Taliban and their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha). Many have been taken as prisoners of conscience and as political prisoners. The monks come under the former category. The Panchen Lama and his family have been kidnapped and hidden and it is now eleven years since the kidnapping. His 17th birthday was celebrated recently. One of the monks who smuggled into India samples of the torture weapons used by the Chinese on the prisoners, speaks volumes about the cruelty and meanness of the human race. It is so outrageously shameful that actually anyone can use those weapons on another made so helpless, that the assault goes unchallenged. Grossly unfair and barbaric.

The Buddhist temples and Tibetan homes are decorated with colorful prayer flags. These are like A4 size pieces of cloth on which is printed their prayers and these are clipped to a string and tied all over. It is believed that the wind will carry the prayers far and wide. The prayer wheel has the same philosophy. They are cylindrical in shape with the prayers written on them and they can be rotated. Some of Kristina’s students are learning English so that they are able to translate these prayers and make them available to a much larger extent. When The Dalai Lama is not attending political meetings outside McLeod Ganj, he holds prayer meetings and discussions which are very popular and anybody can attend. I did not get lucky on that score.

Charitable and development activities

A little way off on the outskirts of McLo is a jhuggi (slum) cluster of about 300 people. They are migrants from the state of Maharashtra and Rajasthan. They have camped there in search of livelihood despite unfamiliar mountainous weather that gets particularly harsh during the monsoons and the winters. They live in tents and in most unhygienic conditions. A Scottish organization has just begun working with them. A demographic profiling is on, at the same time the children are being provided education and a medical facility has been organized to provide free medical care. Besides, there is the Dogga School which from time to time requires volunteers.

An Israeli village

On the outskirts of little McLeod Ganj is a village called Dharmkot. It is a small village consisting of a young population from Israel. I would have loved to have gone to the village but from what I gathered, this is a place used as a retreat by young Israelis before them moving on. There is no particular reason why they go there, except that they go to many other places and this being a nice one – someone must have come and others may have followed. At least that is what I understood of the situation as of now!

Getting to McLeod Ganj

Either one can take a train from Delhi upto Pathankot and from there a bus till McLo or a direct overnight bus from Delhi till McLo. I did the former as I am not comfortable traveling overnight in a bus when I am alone. It took me around 16 hours. If this option is taken, it would be useful to look around for trains that start from Delhi, this way one can be sure that the train would arrive and leave on time. Usually such trains leave the Old Delhi railway station by 9:30 pm and reach Pathankot by 8:30 am the following day. Alighting at Pathankot, one has the option of freshening up at the waiting rooms on platform no. 1 and catch a hot breakfast at the railway restaurant down the same platform. The Himachal Pradesh bus station is just outside platform no. 1 and busses are available at frequent intervals. It is a 4 ½ hours journey by bus to McLo with one halt for refreshments.

Straight busses from Delhi are available from ISBT and one has the choice of the Volvo, a super comfortable bus and the ordinary. The travel time is a bit shorter.

Wrapping up…

I am definitely inspired by life at McLeod Ganj. There is this one and only chowk there – always a place of activity, where the busses stop, you can sit there and over any length of time you would know how many people have come to McLo and who they are and how many are leaving and who they are. Being in a place like India, yet, you can smile back at strangers who smile at you without any apprehensions, you can walk on the streets without any unwanted attention, you can have chai at low ceiling tea shacks with the words “Best Tea in Asia” written on the benches, these chai shacks recreate your college and university days, you don’t have to be in your best clothes or look prim and proper, no one is in a hurry to want you to leave the café, you can start appreciating and understanding the spiritual approach to politics, you can bask in the glory of nature all around you, gaze at the mountains that change color at least twenty times in the day… a wholesome life packed into a few kilometers of space – that is what is my impression of McLeod Ganj.

Ps: I am awaiting pictures from Iddo and Kristina, will put up some here when I receive them.
I now have another blog solely for travel experiences at whereareyou.net. I am inaugurating it with this experience – the account is pretty much the same. The address is