LOVING INDIA-5 Varanasi


My eyes are watering and my nose is watering. I have an allergic reaction to the dust in Varanasi. πŸ™‚

On my way from the airport to the city I asked the taxi driver if Mayawati (Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh. a.k.a. Behenji, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party-BSP) had made any positive changes to Varanasi. Abhi to bahut gandagi nikali hai, he said. She has cleaned up a lot of the garbage. Mayawati is an interesting character. Autoctratic, despotic, crass or an effective politician? Depends upon your p-o-v. From mine I could see a lot of rubbish on the streets. If that is called ‘cleaned-up’ then it must have been worse before. That was my first impression of Varanasi. This is a historic, heritage city. A major tourist town, an important army base during the British Raj and generally the centre of the universe for all Hindus. Governments have come and gone, parties with varying ideologies have ruled Uttar Pradesh, why then has no one bothered to make Varanasi a better place? As an Indian I was livid at the chaos, the dust and the dirt. There was a shopping mall and SUVs but a complete lack of civic sense. And if the governments have not bothered to clear the mess then what are the people doing?

Varanasi is an intensely political place. All Indians have an opinion on everything. The citizens of Varanasi seemed even more opinionated and passionate. Ask the boatmen that navigate the Ganga every day. A bunch of them were repairing a 100 year old boat. Very skillfully hammering in nails and measuring with some ancient looking (or makeshift?) instruments. They looked like they were one with the ghats and the atmosphere of Kashi. They knew their Mother (Ganga) was dirty and they tried their best to look after her but it was not enough.

I asked my taxi driver about the riots. To those of us who live away from Uttar Pradesh Varanasi is the epicentre for Hindu-Muslim riots. Yet the last riot in Varanasi happened after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992. There was the bomb blast at the Shankar Mochan temple but no riot. Why? Because the people of the city rallied together to prevent politicians from exploiting the situation. Then why not the cleaning of the Ganga or paving the streets with tar? Or is it that way for Western tourists to feel spiritual within the s$%^t?

Yet I will go back again and again. I pray for the day Kashi is clean and beautiful. I pray for the day the Ganga is restored her divine water; for her devotees to realise that she is not to be abused. This lifestream that flows from the Himalayas. My first view of the Ganga left me breathless. Calm, serene and majestic. She flowed on and on as far as my eye could see. From the balcony of my guest house on Meer Ghat. As I walked that evening from Meer towards Assi Ghat I could feel her vibes. The patience of a loving mother indulging in her silly children who only take and don’t give. No wonder she shows her wrath in the monsoons. The politicians don’t feel it though. They are safe in their bungalows preaching ‘Hinduism’.

There are many things I could have done that first night in Varanasi. But the main thing for me was to pay homage to the presiding deity of Kashi. I went to the Vishwanath Mandir and stayed back for the last aarti of the night. When Lord Shiva is put to bed. The temple shares space with the Gyaanvyapi Masjid that Aurangzeb built. So of course it is a controversial place. No electronics, no nothing. You have to pass through very tight security with the female guards groping every body part. Just like entering Parliament House but then that is the Government of India this is GOD. πŸ˜‰ I am not a temple person. It is hard for me to go in and ‘pray’ in any particular place when the entire universe is a sacred to me. Human behaviour intrigues me though. Especially frenzied devotees. So I went in with the usual paraphernalia of flowers and milk etc. I stood in a line to see God and I bowed to him. I am grateful for all that I have. As I came out of the sanctum sanctorum the priest put a tilak (dot) on my forehead. Whisper your name and iccha (wish) in Nandi’s (Lord Shiva’s vehicle) ear he said. I replied that I had nothing to ask of God. He has given me everything. So, he said, can I have my dakshina (donation) then? Kaheka dakshina, I asked. Dakshina for what? For the tilak, he said. Temples are commerce, a business. Money grabbing brahmins fooling innocent devotees and making moolah. Does a person really need an ‘agent’ to communicate with God? What is it that Nandi will do that a direct application to Lord Shiva won’t? No wonder religion is so important to maintain power equations across the world. I have decided that I shall declare myself enlightened in a couple of years, shave my head, don saffron and dole out pearls of wisdom to the world. At least I shall make a lot money and travel in comfort! And think of the perks!

Varanasi is a place that evokes many emotions. Love it, get angry about the infrastructure, curse the politicians and then take walk along the ghats. The mad human activity will calm you and fascinate you. The temples, the mosques, aartis and azaans, co-existence, inter- dependence, Banarasi silks, the classical Hindustani music that floats through the air, spaced-out Western toursits in search of moksha, academics from Banares Hindu University looking for tomes at Harmony Books, Lebanese restaurant owners, louts, young kids coming up and saying ‘Hello Maydum’, the heritage structures, the business of death and many more things happening at one place all together is like a microcosm of existence. Varanasi is highly recommended and I am ever so grateful to Rebecca for pushing me to visit.

I took a ride on a cycle rickshaw from Assi to Dashashwamedh Ghat at night through the traffic and potholes. It was as exciting as the yak ride I once took on Chhangu lake in Sikkim. I latched on to the closest ‘holdable’ thing for fear of slipping. These are my little delights in life.

There are more to come in this trip. Tomorrow I take the Konkan Railway to my ancestral village. A long overdue visit to the Konkan along with my parents. I don’t know if there is access to the internet from the region. So I don’t know when I will write my next blog.

(I have lots of photos but will put them out only when I have figured out a way to give them an order.)

LOVING INDIA-4 In the heart of democracy.


Back to Bombay from Delhi. What a whirlwind trip! I stayed in Varanasi for a night. It is an addictive place. I will go again and again and take some friends. More about that in my next blog though. I know some of you are eager for me to share my experience about Kashi but this blog is about an absolutely rivetting experience in the heart of democracy.

It is not easy to govern a country like India. So complex so layered and so crazy. Historian Ramchandra Guha compares it to the European Union except that there are more languages and more people than EU. And it is a young democracy that is daily negotiating its identity and place in ‘glocally’. So how do elected representatives look after the people and make sense of it all?

One night in Delhi I was a fly on the wall during an interesting meeting of elected members of Parliament (Lok Sabha members), nominated members of Parliament (Rajya Sabha members), journalists, social workers, government officials and celebrities. They all wanted to bring to the attention of modern India the burning issue of malnutrition. One in in every two children in India is malnourished. It is a complex issue (as is everything in India) but what fascinated me was the camaraderie between opposing parties and the fact that this was a voluntary group cutting across political ideologies. They all knew the issue needed attention, they all knew that sixty years after independence malnutrition should have been eradicated from the country. Yet…

And then 29 February 2008 was one of the most memorable days of my life. I was in Parliament House, in the public gallery as the Finance Minister of India PC Chidambaram read the budget for 2008-09. I was there in the heart of the Indian Republic and democracy.

Parliament House is a huge circular building; an impressive colonial structure in which happen all things that affect India. http://www.indiasite.com/delhi/places/parliamenthouse.html

http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/

After passing through very tight security (they really do grope every body part) I was seated in the public gallery with a view worth a million dollars. Right in front of me was the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. To my right were the Opposition benches and to my left was the Government. PM Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, PC Chidamabaram…they all came in one by one. The Baba Log (young MPs) sauntered in. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Naveen Jindal…the senior members Kapil Sibal, Sushil Kumar Shinde…leader of the Opposition LK Advani…all dressed to the gills and very swishy swadeshi. (Of course the film star MPs did not turn up.) Then walked in the entertainer Laloo Prasad Yadav. I know the man has history but I really wanted to see him read the Railway Budget. Unfortunately I did not get a pass.

It was interesting to see the difference between the Opposition and the ruling party MPs. The latter were confident and a trifle arrogant and full of veteren parliamentarians. Most of the young MPs in the Opposition were badly dressed and seemed totally down market. I know one cannot judge a book by its cover but one would have thought that being in Parliament since 2004 might have instilled a sense of occassion in them.

So PC read the budget. Money to education, relief to women, some crores for this and some for that…and then came his googly. A total waiver of debt for farmers across India. Everyone knows about farmer suicides in India. It is a sad story. India is an agrarian society at heart and farmers the lifeblood. PC first spoke about small farmers. Before he could carry on pandemomium broke loose. ‘A pharmer iz a pharmer’, someone from the Opposition yelled. Then more of them got up and started shouting. So the governing benches got up shouted back. The Speaker kept requesting the Opposition to sit down and listen to the rest of the Budget. So on and so forth. Laloo got up. Arre baitha baitha, (sit down) he gestured to his colleagues. PN Sangma (NCP MP from Meghalaya, part of the UPA Government) came across from his sit and asked his colleagues to sit. The PM and LK Advani were silent. They must have seen this a zillion times before. I had not.

India can have a maximum 552 MPs including the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. From across the length and breadth of the country. Such a huge, diverse country with so many people. Some things work, some don’t. There are those who try their best and there are those enamoured of power. Then there are the cynical types and those who think they have not done anything worth speaking of. Rajya Sabha member and world renowned Indian film director Shyam Benegal said at a dinner table conversation that as a member of Parliament he has not yet done anything worthwhile for the country and that he still has the capacity to be shocked. Isn’t that a good thing , I asked him. Then you don’t get apathetic about anything. The level of cynicism is high he said.

Still the work has to go on. Policies are made but implementation is a problem. There is energy but it does not trickle down. Or if it is at the grassroots level it takes time to flow upwards.

That day in Parliament and the meeting before reiterated that noble intentions abound. Never mind that the Budget was populist and indicates early general elections and never mind as civilians most of us don’t realise that a good country is not about good government only. It requires participation from people.

LOVING INDIA-3 Perspectives.


It has been a little more than a week in India now. I am in Delhi and go to Varanasi tomorrow. When I left for India I told an acquaintance I was planning to visit Kashi (the Hindu spiritual name for Varanasi, after the Kashi-Vishwanath temple, I think :-)), he asked me if I wanted to cleanse my soul. My soul is already clean, really and every visit to India makes it cleaner.

It is not as if I am a nostalgic NRI (non-resident Indian, as we diasporic types are labelled). I don’t hanker after the ancient spirit of my motherland and get lachrymose over young boys singing the Indian National Anthem in Karan Johar films. Neither am I critical about the ‘deteriorating’ state of this country that is making nuclear deals and displacing farmers from their land to build car factories. I just revel in the crazy ambiguity of this large land that cannot be captured. (Nah, it is actually the food and the shopping that keeps me coming back for more :-))

Populism is a game played in every country. The Left does it, the Right does it. Narendra Modi did it, Raj Thakeray is doing it, Bollywood films do it. So are the Marxists and Communists. None provide solutions to the multiple levels of existence that are so apparent in India. In Delhi I observed people parking their posh new cars haphazardly at Connaught Place right under a dilapidated building that looked like a heritage structure. Do we need to start thinking about our surroundings at the same time as consuming to keep up with the Kapurs/Joshis/Sharmas or after we have depleted our natural resources and after we have exiled our own people to unseen places because they don’t fit our profile of the ‘new’ Indian? (Check out the Times Of India, once upon a time a respected institution and now a jingoistic mouthpiece for capitalistic nationalists.)

The debate has begun. Slowly, with baby steps. I find it reassuring. Let the mad consumption continue. I saw an interesting exhibit at the National Museum this morning. Astitva (existence) showcased heritage structures in Delhi that have been vandalised/encroached upon etc. On the other side of the hall was an exhibition of Pablo Bartholomew’s work from the 70s and 80s. Spaced out, socialistic, hippy individuals that seemed like wanting to take the country towards thinking for herself. (PB is a world renowned Indian photojournalist.) Interesting to say the least.

This juxtapositioning of thoughts and subsistence in daily life is what cleanses my soul. Really.

(And the food and the swadeshi shopping. Nothing like the Khadi Bhandar, FabIndia and Cottage Industries shops. I swear.)

LOVING INDIA-2 Parochialisms etc


So I spoke Marathi on the plane and was relieved not to be surrounded by only the Gujaratis and Punjabis of the world Yes we Maharashtrians are not adventerous. That is why Raj Thakeray rants against North Indians and how they are usurping all the jobs that the sons of this soil are supposed to do. We are so proud of our land πŸ™‚ During a conversation with a friend very closely associated with MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Raj Thakeray’s breakaway party from uncle Bal Thakeray’s Shiv Sena), I ‘accused’ him of engineering riots to kick out Biharis from Mumbai. He turned around and said that I am an ‘outsider’ too. If I act too smart I will be packed off to New Zealand πŸ˜€ Yes this is the state of displaced daughters of the soil. Jay Maharashtra!

Parochialism is a great way to create a sense of singular identity. Parochialism is a great way to push for recognition. Such as South Asia (and India). I watched the IPL (Indian Premier League cricket) auction live on television. MS Dhoni was ‘bought’ for 6 crore rupees. And so many New Zealand cricketers for so many millions. Has anyone in New Zealand seen that kind of money? Or are they so fixed on China that they don’t see how India (and South Asia) is a geopolitically, economically and culturally important region for the future?

Perhaps the politically correct liberal intellectuals are happy just creating space for migrants and patting themselves on the back for it? Multiculturalism is good. Not understanding it is harmful. Let’s have more Diwalis and Lantern Festivals it is easy, simple and government driven. Surely diasporic identities are more complex than that?

Sometimes even I am unable to comprehend the complexities of my life as an Indian and and an Indian New Zealander. I see the muliple levels of existence here and try to make sense of it all…maybe that is why it is easy to slot migrants and decide what they should be. And here in India it is easy to be a middle class consumer detached from government and governance yet complain about democracy.

LOVING INDIA-1


Right so I am still a Luddite of sorts especially when I am sitting at a cyber cafe in Chembur with little kids running around and the mossies biting at my feet…oh well I got the blog started and this self-indulgence will get better. That is a warning.

So the ‘Indiannes’ started right at KLIA. Waiting to board I see myself surrounded by Indian faces and voices. People behind me are discussing Langkawi and Bali and what seems like an old man insists that the former is better than Bali. A honeymooning couple disagree and a generally loud conversation follows. I smile and will myself not to look at them. WHELCOME TO INDIA πŸ™‚

On the plane I ask the man sitting next to me in Marathi. ‘Tumhi Maharashtrian aahat ka?‘ Don’t ask me how I came to know. I did. You know your types anywhere I suppose. ? It was a great flight. Great to talk in Marathi and not feel that you are surrounded by the Punjabis and Gujjus of the world. Yeah we Maharashtrians are not an adventerous type. So what?

The airport is a surprise. No stench of stale urine wafting throught to immigration. Really! Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is being upgraded and how. The staff are courteous and the carousels seemed to work. Indians are more comfortable with travelling internationally now, I think. So there was no rush in the queues (Aap qatar mein hain….you are in queue…ha! Standard line we Indians hear all the time.) I still have not subjected the airport to the toilet test that will happen when I leave.

And so out on the streets life was as is. Chaotic and crazy and hot and dusty…

Now after figuring out this blog my time at the cafe is up. But this is addictive so watch out.