Thursday, February 5, 2009

From Assam With Love - The Glorious Northeast of India

All aboard the Rajdhani Train Express departing from New Delhi and arriving in Guwahati! Your journey will last two whole days. Surprisingly, the 48-hour trek is ├╝ber comfortable. I manage to read half of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1989). I make friends with an auntie and her bratty kids as I gaze, from the comfort of my sleeper class seat, across the neon green patchwork of mustard fields that span the rural landscape of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Within seconds of stepping foot on the platform at Guwahati Central Station, I am whisked away to a lodge nestled in high hills overlooking the Brahmaputra River. A cheetah skin hangs in the foyer. A tiger skin is sprawled on the floor. Deer heads line the walls. The wooden staircase that leads me upwards to my bedroom creaks most romantically. Archie comics, The Hardy Boys, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Burmese warfare, Nehru's biography; the book shelves are stacked.

The following morning, four hours away from Guwahati, I reach Kaziranga National Park. On the way, I wave at a rhino, four elephants, cranes, lizards, wild pigs, and sheep. We drive into Wild Grass Resort ( Mangoes, Chinese roses, betel nuts, guavas and Indian olives hang from their stems among the lodges. A local artist paints pottery made from his own hands. Adivasis (i.e. Aboriginals) of Assam perform ancient dances and earn a fair wage. I step into the colonial-style dining hall. Framed maps of Britain's India and watercolours of native ducks hang on the walls. On the opposite end of the dining hall and through a set of French doors, out onto the veranda, I see my intense and bearded companion, my old flat mate from England, deep in conversation; we will call him Haati Walla (i.e. Elephen Man) because conducts research on conflict between humans and elephants in this region. I drop my luggage and, before I am aware of it, we are exchanging old stories. Haati Walla was raised in this eco-tourist resort and I am excited to finally arrive in the world that built my exceptional friend.

Haati Walla’s countless friends, who offer countless gestures of friendship, welcome me with open arms. I lodge with a trio: Bipul the butterfly researcher, Swapna the physics lecturer, and Ranadeep the pre-law candidate. In the late afternoons, when the warm winds settle, we play badminton. During the evenings we pack ourselves into a roofless jeep, driving atop unlit dirt roads. Quite high above sea level, the stars are close enough to swallow. During these winter months in Assam, when the Bihu festival of fertility is celebrated, home-brewed rice beer (like an apple-infused Japanese sake) is served with platefuls of spicy potatoes and pork. We eat sticky rice, yellow lentils, duck, and local fish simmered in a sour curry. I speak with a little girl. She is dumbfounded by my Hindi (or maybe by my shaved head). In Hindi, I ask the girl "How old are you?" She is dumbfounded the Hindi language spewing out of my Western face and cannot muster the words to tell me her age. I ask her if she is 30 (which seems to snap the girl back into conciousness) and she blurts out in response: "are you out of your mind? I'm 11!" During the rest of the week, we conclude cricket matches with pints of beer, I ride atop an elephant during sunrise in search of wild rhinos, and we race through countless acres of tea estates.

Following, I reach Majuli for two days; the world’s largest river island, floating atop the Brahmaputra River. The journey from Wild Grass Resort to Majuli is an exhausting six hours of rough roads and water, but I am coddled by the goodness of Assamese folk the entire way. After two hours on a bumpy bus and 30 minutes on an even bumpier auto rickshaw (the bruise marks that freckle my head now serve as the state’s Barometer of Bumpiness), I arrive at Nimati Ghat (Nimati Port). From Nimati Ghat I ride a ferry to the island of Majuli. Aboard the ferry, I am befriended by a 22-year-old Assamese MBA candidate. He is friendly and has passionate opinions about Bangladeshis migrating into Assam. The wrinkly captain of the ferry asks us to present proof-of-payment and the MBA informs me that the captain, who appears quite ordinary, can speak in three tongues and is father to a chemist (i.e. a pharmacist). The young man sitting behind us, an army soldier from the state of Maharastra and stationed in Assam, appear enchanted by my spoken Hindi and excitedly joins our conversation. After three hours, the ferry docks at Majuli. The MBA departs towards his direction and the army soldier, who has come to Majuli for only a few hours (before having to head back to Assam proper to report to his General), sticks by my side. From the dock, we ride in a shared jeep towards the city centre of Kamalabari. Squashed into the hole of a rubber tire, I sit opposite a tourist from Spain, who speaks little English and is enjoying his fifth trip to Bharat (i.e. India). Once I reach Kamalabari, army soldier by my side, I meet my local contact, Dulal, who is a monk serving as head priest at the monastery Uttar Kamalabari Satra. Dulal is a modern monk. With his mobile in hand, he operates a newspaper and stationary store to finance maintenance of his monastery. I stay with Dulal in his monastery for two days. Seated cross-legged on the cool clay floors of the monks' huts, I eat from brass plates with the most primal utensil (i.e. my hand). I attend prayers during one of the 14 daily musical sessions of symbols drums and vocals and draw milk from the teets of the house cow.

During the ferry ride back to Assam proper, the same captain (with three tongues and a son of science) asks me to present my proof-of-payment. In English, he asks me if I enjoyed Majuli and I inform him that, yes, I did. In Hindi, I ask the captain if his son is a chemist and he replies, in clear English, 'No, he is not a chemist (i.e. a pharmacist). He is a scientist and he specializes in chemistry'. The ferry docks, the captain grabs my wrist, and he offers to drive me to the local city centre to eventually grab a bus to reach my home in Kaziranga; thereby bypassing three hours of local buses. I peep into the captain's car. A young couple and their 5-year-old are seated and are heading to the same destination. The sight of a well-groomed family makes me feel less apprehensive and I gladly accept the captain's offer.

After a week in Kaziranga and two days in Majuli, I reach Pathsala, a most authentic Assamese village, to visit the homes of my new friends, my lodge mates from Kaziranga: Bipul (butterfly enthusiast and bollywood dancer extraordinaire), Swapna (the physicist, whose theories, in his mind, will break ground once the length of his hair grows beyond his shoulders and to reach earth and literally break ground), and Ranadeep (mister law-101, whose freshly shaved head (razored to match mine) makes him appear more suitable for occupation as lawbreaker rather than aspiring lawmaker). Their homes, set within the depths of palm tree jungles, opposite acres of cauliflowers potatoes mustard green beans, are fantasies of rural fair. Morning, afternoon, and night we sip on hot Assamese chai brewed in milk extracted from the home cow. Local rice beer among youth is reserved for the evenings when parents retire to their own quarters. Mind you, the elders probably sip on their own private nightcap. Food is endless as are the smiles and hugs from each local in the village. Every three hours I am whisked off to another relative or friend of the family who are eager to welcome me at their front door, to seat me amongst their children, and to stuff my belly with creations from their fire-pit (like cylindrical rice cakes baked inside bamboo stalks called pitha). They each request that I return for chai at least one more time before departing Pathsala. One night I cook my wildly popular spread of Kashmiri food for a band of 15 brothers, cousin-brothers, and village-brothers.

By my fifth day in Pathsala, news has spread (like wildfire) that a non-local and foreigner is in town. That afternoon, I am stopped by the local paan walla (i.e. man who prepares and sells paan, a mouth-freshener consisting of betel nut wrapped around a leaf from a betel tree). He inquires fervently why we have not exchanged words yet. Our conversation does not last too long because he already knows my name, where I am from, my purpose for visiting (etc.).

Assamese hospitality should be touted as a tourist attraction in its own right!

*images have been captured by myself

Monday, February 2, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2009) – Dev Patel, Freida Pinto

The opening scene of slum children being chased by sweaty officers for illegally playing cricket on an airstrip is visually captivating. The children’s intrepid provocations towards the police are endearing. No other sequence in the film is as extraordinary. Consequently, everything else in the film is comparably ordinary.

The play between present and past tenses becomes predictable within minutes. The protagonist, working towards a million-dollar grand prize on a game show, is presented with a series of questions for which he digs into his life experiences to deliver every correct answer. An unnecessary love story is woven into the plot. The characters are neglected even the slightest opportunity to develop. And the film concludes with an awkward dance number that will make you squirm in embarrassment on the behalf of the cast.
Thank you to Anil Kapoor for displaying what little talent exists among (most) Bollywood actors by overacting all dialogue. And why exactly is Kapoor’s character (i.e. the host of the game show) insecure and scheming? Irfan Khan’s role gave him little space to flex his full talent.Music
Why is A. R. Rahman the only artist receiving applause for the soundtrack? Granted, the composition during the opening scene, entitled ‘O Saya’, is incredibly pulsing and very much connected to the narratives of slums in Mumbai, what with the screeches of steel slicing against Mumbai’s rails and the drum-beat crescendos that capture the hurried essence of life on the run. But this track is only as richly nuanced as are the vocals performed by one miss M.I.A.

She is funky, punchy, and modern. M.I.A.'s personal contribution to the film, one of her previously released songs entitled ‘Paper Planes’, is the only track worth international accolade. Her Oscar Nomination should have been for this track rather than ‘O Saya’.

*images courtesy of

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New Delhi - Reincarnation Nation

New Delhi has been built and re-built more than nine times. And after only nine days, this hectic town can instill within oneself that same sense of constant collapse and chaos. I have now surpassed nine weeks. I am Delhi and Delhi is me: well, busy, great, exhausted, tried and tested, exalted and buried, and resurrected!

A demanding city; personally, professionally, emotionally, socially (etc., Etc., ETC.).

The traffic demands that I step aside (honk, honk!). The vendors demand that I shell out my foreign earnings without discretion. The locals demand that I declare my ambiguous tongue and origin. All prospective employers from even the most non-corporate of sectors demand that we behave in a conduct that is strictly corporate. The ubiquitous armed forces demand that I submit myself to countless rub-downs when entering the metro, temples, parks (etc.). The cows demand that I hop-scotch around their droppings. The breeze demands that my throat endure gaseous ammonium evaporating off innumerable sights of public urination.

These demands eventually generate demands within myself: "Escape! Get out before you are consumed!" I reach Amritsar to savour warm and buttery gulab jamuns (i.e. a syrupy sweatmeat). I soak in the Arabian and therapeutic sunsets of Goa. I ride elephants through Assamese jungles. I am rebuilt and renewed! My mind clears. I am at ease. And my appetite for Delhi returns.

I pursue that return ticket to Delhi and still fetal flame burns out most quickly. The saying goes that who ever builds a new Delhi will lose it. Every time I build my new self in New Delhi, I lose it; literally! On top of the demands from the city, there are demands from the relatives.

The relatives demand that I justify unemployment. The relatives demand that I justify an academic qualification that does not bear the acronym of MBA or IT. The relatives demand that I justify shaving my head ("I am deeply devoted to Krishna"; that is my answer and I am sticking to it). The relatives demand that I consume a spoonful of ghee (clarified butter) for every spoonful I (attempt to) refuse. The relatives demand that I explain my comings and stayings and goings beyond that which their own children are never confronted with. The relatives demand that I be interested in conversing about the quality of the food served at a wedding, the size of the lawn rented out for a wedding, the necessity to book a wedding hall well enough in advance when a lawn cannot be sorted, the pros and cons between marriage to a Punjabi versus a non-Punjabi, the differentiation between a wedding that is pretentious versus one that is ostentatious (etc.). Subsequently, the relatives demand that I enjoy myself although I am uncontrollably (and undeniably) bored.

The relatives, the relatives, the relatives, the relatives…I give up! I will never stand tall in this capital (at least never for too long a time) when among relatives.

Delhi cannot escape this cycle of reincarnation (and neither can I, so long as I remain here) because, as history can attest, it is bound to permanent impermanence. Architectural remnants bear testament to the numerous resurrections and reinventions of Delhi. The elegantly crumbling Lodhi Tombs, leftover from the 15th century by the Lodhi Dystany, play backdrop to family picnics and shy lovers who sneak love-bites in the dead of day behind brush. Mughal structures, like the towering Qutub Minar, remain erect with rather romantic scars of neglect. Fast-forward to the British Raj and their Parliamentary edifices which now administer 'the world’s largest democracy'. Government offices have maintained their physique but many political critics might suggest that democracy in India endures considerable decay.

Delhi’s present narrative of reincarnation, under new found rules of market capitalism and freedoms of trade, remains much the same. Newly paved curbs crumble at the corners because contractors mix sand into the cement to pocket the savings. Steel frames envelop concrete and glass to construct sparkling new shopping malls that will soon close for business because vendors cannot possibly afford expensive commercial space void of rent control and, further, vendors cannot compete with the prices offered in adjacent bazaars selling comparable goods (though, not matched with customer service).

A day away from Delhi is a day spent well. Do not hate on me. Hate on the experience that is my Delhi.

*images have been captured by myself