New Wanderings. Part 4. Crossing Borders And A Vegan Dinner

Entzheim Airport, even though it is an international airport, is a one shack affair compared to Schiphol. My friend S was waiting for me and we were both pinching ourselves, like, did we not just have a long conversation on the phone about me booking my next holiday to France? And I am here, I am bloody here! 🙂

It was almost 6 pm. Her rickety car’s left side view mirror was missing and we were on the highway. First stop was a vegan restaurant where she had booked us a table for a meal cooked by Timo Franke. I’d never had a vegan meal before so I was curious. But more on that later. We were on the highway, one minute in France and nek minnit on the autobahn im Deutschland across the Rhine. The mountains of the Black Forest misting over as the sun set. It was surreal. As dusk fell we drove through German villages chocker with mansions and Mercedes. The last time I was in Europe the recession was just setting in but maybe these villagers always lived like that? The restaurant was in the middle of a paddock; ponies cantering about; pollen floating in the twilight. I had travelled from the bottom of the world, spent a night in Tokyo and was about to have a vegan meal in a paddock on the border of Germany and France. Totally how I visualise my life.

Veganism is new to me. I have yet to understand the philosophy of eating food in order to reject the commodity status of animals. I know Mahatma Gandhi advocated against drinking cow’s and goat’s milk because he did not want animals to be exploited but then that was part of his lifelong experiments with himself and his life; his experiments with truth. And he did care about the starving millions in India. I am not sure what modern vegans think about that. Many a discussion have I had with Western vegans and vegetarians about what such eating habits mean in a larger context and why they potentially spawn commercial exploitation of land, labour and human behaviour; whether animal rights more important than or equal to human rights etc. This topic is a post in itself and likely contentious. I have seen too many hungry, malnourished people to live by this philosophy alone.

However that does not take away from the lovely Timo’s passionate cooking. My first five course vegan meal was an unforgettable experience.

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Then it was on to Baden Baden in the rickety car. 🙂






New Wanderings. Part 3, Tracing Backwards. Last Stop Paris.

Actually last stop Hong Kong but that was only in transit and does not count. Except that I bought a bottle of booze and Tiger Balm, as you do. It is important for travellers transiting through HK not to buy their duty free alcohol from their starting point. HK customs will confiscate it. I almost bought some at CDG airport when the salesman advised me not to. There was this corporate/bureaucratic looking guy who had three bottles of very expensive Chivas etc taken off him while I sailed through customs. Small travel tip from moi.

So. I took the train from Strasbourg station to Charles De Gaulle airport. The last time I went to Paris I traversed the city on the metro but my dream of doing cross country via Eurail just did not materialise. This time it happened via the itinerary and there was not much time to think or take photos. We drove from Gerstheim and just about managed to get to the station on time with an irate steward waiting for me. (He gave me a mini lecture in ze marvellous French accented l’Anglais 😉 about almost missing the train.)  The Alsace trains are an entity of their own with painted carriages that trundle along the French countryside, quite majestic. I dozed off.

Two hours later I was inside Charles De Gaulle airport, an absolute behemoth.

The train station at Charles De Gaulle airport, like, two levels down.

The train station at Charles De Gaulle airport, like, two levels down.

I checked in and took the RER metro straight to Saint Michel. With five hours to spend on my own I thought it might be worth revisiting Paris. Had I missed the romance in this so called romantic city the last time I was there or is it just a myth like I thought?

The train ride was fascinating, just as I remembered it. Dingy little trains squeaking over the tracks, regurgitating commuters on to dark stations. If a cross section of train commuters can be a representation of a local populace then Paree is nowhere as haute and white as projected by and emphasised by global lore. Predominantly African peoples packed the train and the stations. The poverty obvious. None of the European countries have a comprehensive programme for refugees and migrants, especially poor, illiterate migrants, all of whom are left to fend for themselves and become French/German/Italian/whatever. Consequently ghettoised, ostracised and blamed for all evils. Integration is a two way street.  As I observed through the train, the housing dregs (how some buildings remained standing was a mystery), graffiti and the urban deterioration seemed like a symbol of the inability of the Western world to deal with post colonial globalisation.

Paris was hot that day. It had been a very warm fortnight late spring. After the lush, laid back surroundings of Alsace the heat and grime of Paris wore me down. I was carrying my merino jacket and a backpack full of winter layering for when I got back to New Zealand. Apart from the laptop and camera. (Ah first world tourist issues!) And Notre Dame was chocker with tourists. As if the whole world, mostly Americans, had turned up at the same time. I hung around, took photos, observing this congregation. There were the local Arabs, handsome boys dancing for an appreciative audience, charming the Americans with their French (I seriously doubt if even one American might have thought these boys were Ay-raabs, not that I am assuming it is from ignorance.) Then, as I went for a walk along the Seine, a couple behind me started having a lover’s tiff. They went on and on, I tried not to listen but they were quarrelling in English! C’est romantique oui? They should have tied a lock on one of the overbridges and thrown the key into the Seine. Only 5 Euros to end the row et je t’aime mon amour.

Then there were the Indians. It was nice. An indicator of disposable income, of increasing confidence in the ability to travel and spend. Never mind the awkwardness that generates or the discomfort of encountering a new culture beyond the ideas propagated by Bollywood . Family groups, mummy, pappa, munna, munni, aunty, uncle, and their munnas and munnis. Hanging by Notre Dame, gaping at the cuddling couples along the embankment, calculating Euros v/s rupees. A daughter was lecturing her mother on why they travelled to Paris. Did you come to complain or to see the Eiffel Tower? In Gujarati. The beauty of it, for me, is that I am this non-specific person few can locate so they don’t know that I can understand them. There is the occasional suspicious glance from other Indians but I appear too hippie to fit into any aspirational, upwardly mobile Indian mould.

Second time around in Paris and I know the romance is imaginary, an extrapolation of the need to perpetuate the homogeneity and singularity of a French identity. Some sort of cultural crutch. A narrow notion for an incredibly diverse city; squalid outer suburbs, inner city Dior and high culture including. And the French should know that already.

Thus I took the train back to CDG airport.

PS-The Bangladeshis are still selling roses in Paris.





New Wanderings. Part 2, Amazing Things That Happen

Amazing things that happen when you travel. A golden sunset over the French countryside turns it into a dreamlike landscape. The green of the trees and the grass reflecting multiple hues of this universe. Seems unreal.

Two days ago, back in Strasbourg, I had to pass some time as I waited for my ride back to Gerstheim. I had noticed an art house theatre near Homme De Fer, the big tram station, whenever I was in that part of Strasbourg and since that day too I was browsing through the shops around I thought it might be a good idea to watch a movie. I inquired at the box office, are you showing any movies with English subtitles. Non, she said, but we have a movie in L’Anglais. (Or so I deduced from her French.) Well then, may I have a ticket please.

I had no idea what the title meant. It was time to be surprised. And that I was. I spent one of the most magical one hour and fifty minutes watching a classic in one of the most beautiful art house cinemas I have ever seen.

Cinema L’Odyssée was built in 1914. It is owned by the city of Strasbourg who outsources the operations to private enterprise. It must have been grand in the old days and still has that air about it. Red velvet seats, carvings on the wall, an old projector, old film posters hung nonchalantly, and art house films. A real hang out place for snooty French cinema geeks discussing auteur cinema. There is an underground library dedicated to cinema and you can buy film posters. To me this was paradise, one version of it anyway.

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And then the film I watched, that I came upon by chance. Who knew. Grand Prix Special du Jury and FIPRESCI Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Johnny Got His Gun is a brilliant watch. Donald Sutherland plays Jesus Christ and is so cool 🙂

But another amazing experience awaited me. Reiterating the vast and myriad connections of humanity and culture.

As I entered the gates to the grounds of the Strasbourg mosque (see my photos here), two men and a young woman stepped out. My friend asked in French if we could go in and they welcomed us. Somehow the conversation continued in English, they asked me where I am from. I always say New Zealand but this time, I think it was their brown skin that made me do it, I said I am originally from India. One man started talking to me in Hindi. Namaste, kaise ho? The other said, ah Shammi Kapoor. I said, yeah. He died last year. The man replied that he was visiting London that time when he came to know. Then he broke into a song. Dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho jiyu to humne lakh haseen dekhe hai, (I joined in here) tumsa nahi dekha, ho tumsa nahi dekha. We all laughed, hi-fived and went our way. Strange how human beings connect. Not strange that commercial Hindi cinema, before it was exoticised by the Western world and became Bollywood, had a massive audience from North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, even old Soviet Russia. This man was from Morocco. The young girl with them was amazed at the conversation. My young friend Laura, a local and Alsace, was amused. Just before that I had been telling her that she should persuade her teachers at Strasbourg University where she is doing film studies, to include Indian cinema in the course. 🙂



Once More, New Wanderings. Part 1, Tokyo.

Someone once said, you can’t keep a wanderer from wandering, or something like that. I started planning my next travels even as I was swimming in the warm Pacific waters in Savai’i, Samoa. Which part of the world calls me, I meditated. Japan or South Korea were on my list and May seemed like a good time. Just before the non-stop, tiring days of winter when my appointment diary is full at least a week in advance. I enjoy visiting Asia, any part of Asia. It is home and yet I am an outsider, and I like that feeling. So that was a no-brainer. Until my friend Stephanie called. We met in New Zealand but she is from France and when she went back she would call me randomly on weekends because from France you can call any part of the world and talk for up to three hours, for free! So one Sunday morning, Stephanie called to chat and nek minnit I booked my ticket to France. But you have to go through Asia en route to Europe. Air New Zealand has a direct flight from Auckland to Tokyo and so I had at least ten hours before my next flight to Amsterdam.

The Tokyo of my imagination was a high tech city. Flash, futuristic, hyper-urbanised. It is all of that and more. It is old, cranky, creaky and unique.

A friend’s brother, a South Asian from Auckland who now lives and runs a business from Chiba, picked me up at Narita airport and drove us into Tokyo. The plan was to hang out and get a teaser of this great city, sleepover at his house and take the train back to Narita airport next morning.

My first lesson in local history-Narita airport was built on agricultural land where the farmers were forced off by the Japanese government. More than forty years later, the protests and resistance continues. I love such stories. It reinforces in my mind and heart that progress and development as we are taught do not happen as a consequence of ‘modernity’ but on the backs of human beings that are sucked into the vacuum of eroded history. How do nations and their polity plan their movement forward without considering the consequences? Mostly it is a momentary achievement for the capitalists who lobbied for it and make their money.

So we went towards Akihabara over the various highways paying toll along the way. This is the electronic district of Tokyo. There are fancy shops, little holes in the wall packed with all kinds of electronics and SEGA video game parlours. It is really old-fashioned. We parked the car near the station and took the train to Harajuku.

There was a gaggle of girls outside GAP in Harajuku. I suppose they were waiting for a celebrity to show up? There were onlookers looking at the crowd and then there was us, looking at the onlookers looking at the girls. 🙂 A fancy popcorn shop had a long queue just to buy popcorn and young men and women browsed through a very eighties style, garish shopping centre that has mostly local brands displaying wares in an unusual way. It is a mixture between kawaii and classic European. At the main crossing were three head banging youth and others holding up posters that said ‘Free English’. Ah, protesters, I thought. They want free English lessons from the government? Nein, nicht, no! They were evangelising rockers from a church called Free English!  And right across the road was a shop called Condomania 🙂

Evangelising rockers

Evangelising rockers


Dinner was sushi at a place where you can order the food via an electronic board and pick up bits from a train. I love sushi and this one was as yummy as it gets. There are restaurants on every street. Harajuku has at least three Italian restaurants within a diameter of one kilometre and for every Ramen noodle joint there is a McDonald’s.

By the time we walked to Shibuya the shops were closing and people were either going into clubs or seemed to be going home. The main crossing outside Shibuya station is a large scale demonstration of Barnes Dance and as we waited to let the surge of humanity pass us we came face to face with a South Asian threesome, one woman holding hands with two men. They stopped short, as if shocked to see fellow ethnics and their expression changed to ‘wanna-join-us?’ before they were pushed on by other pedestrians. 😉 Then there were the African-American dudes checking out the Asian girls and trying to guess who was Japanese and who was Korean. But mostly they are Japanese. From school girls in their knee length socks and mini skirts to middle aged office workers in their black suits. As if staying out so late at night before a hard day’s work next morning was just what they do.

You could tell the office workers coming out of the little restaurants, the men tanked up with saké, staggering on the streets with drunken stupor; the women still demure, or so it seemed to me. I don’t socialise with my work mates because I don’t want to see them outside of work but I suppose that is the reality for many people or how else can human beings interact in a fast paced existence that has ‘non-traditional’ social structures?

The unique Japanese fashion sense is visible everywhere. That Japanese women have different take on Western clothes, sui generis, is obvious, if you care to know, and I have been a fan and follower for a long time. Japanese men too dress like none other. Not only is there the genre of the pretty Asian, metrosexual male but the middle aged suits too, in their samurai testosterone mode, I noticed, were carrying female office bags. Yes, not man bags but feminine bags. An almost imperceptible shift of gender symbols. The Japanese wear haute couture and designer accessories casually without seeming aspirational like the Indians and Chinese.

The train rides on the Tokyo Metro were the highlight for me though. I love trains, I love train stations. And this metro is better than the London Underground or the Paris Metro. The trains are not fancy and the stations and bridges are old. Everything is clean or someone is cleaning it. But then the Japanese are inherently polite, patient, quiet and orderly (I say at the risk of stereotyping), so that makes the difference?

Once more in my eternal quest for place I discovered I could easily live in Tokyo. It is Asia but I don’t have to belong, multiculti, transculti, polyculti that I am. And that is the joy. Only wonder what I would do for a living.


Backpacking 701. Samoa.

It was time. Itchy feet urging me to figure out my next travel destination. Two years since I partook in any transnational perambulation with the intention of adventure and the eternal search for place. A colleague at work suggested one of the islands. A short break in the sun, away from the Wellington winter. The Pacific Islands have never been on my radar as a destination. The sun and sand and sleek, tanned, non-bathing bodies lounging at beach resorts disconnected from the locals is not my idea of a holiday. But you don’t have to do just that, my colleague said. Drive around the islands, visit the markets, go to church. Yeah, I never thought about that. Samoa in my backyard and I did not see it! So it was. Backpacking 701. Cheap, economical and keeping me on my toes.

There was a band playing at Faleolo airport as we walked out from immigration; a bunch of dudes in lavalavas strumming guitars at 3 a.m. Welcome to Samoa. Talofa lava.

The first ferry to from Mulifanuana Wharf to Salelologa, Savaii at 6 a.m. carries cargo. Passengers huddle around the sides, shielding themselves from the sun, watching the magical dawn over the Pacific Ocean.

Savaii is the bigger of the two main Samoan islands but less developed. Villages line the coast from top to bottom. I stayed at Jane’s Beach Fales, swimming in the Pacific Ocean and gazing out at the horizon enjoying the downtime. There was nothing else to do except church on Sunday. I have never been to mass and it was an interesting experience. The service was in Samoan and English. When the priest spoke about giving, he looked at all of us, the visitors, and spoke only in English. Geddit 🙂 After the service he individually thanked us for attending mass. Then, true story this, as narrated by Rusty from Glenorchy, the priest saluted Heil Hitler to an elderly German couple! They took it well Rusty said. Samoa has a history of German settlement before the World Wars but I am sure it was still not kosher eh? Okay, bad joke.

I took a taxi guide (Ropeti Paulo, phone 7254413) around Savaii and the state of the villages was interesting. They get poorer as one goes northwards. Lots of big churches every two villages and double the poverty. God seems to be taking a lot here, not giving. My guide talked about tsunamis, cyclones and bad weather getting worse. What he meant in his limited way I suppose was the reality of global warming. I also suppose few big economies would care if these Pacific Islands were annihilated. Just the other day a New Zealand court rejected a bid by a Kiribat man seeking asylum here. The first ‘climate change refugee’ in the world.

Three days later I was in Upolu, in the capital Apia. The bus ride from the wharf to the city was just like being on a Maharasthra State Transport (ST or eshtee as the locals call it) except that the bus was smaller and very colourful. Apia is a mixture of the rural and the urban with some gorgeous architecture thrown in. I stayed downtown at Tatiana’s Motel close to the bus depot, the flea market and shopping. Apart from generally walking around and absorbing the goings-on, as I love to do, there were two places I wanted to visit.

The Robert Loius Stevenson Museum is housed in the home he built. A gorgeous abode oozing history. After RLS died a German businessman bought it, then the colonial New Zealand government took it over before the first head of independent Samoa moved in and moved out. The story is that some crazy RLS fan offered millions for the structure to be restored to its past glory and be a museum. Good for us. 🙂 I re-read Treasure Island before visiting Samoa and my gosh was it fun! Now all his books are on my to-read-again list. (Trivia-RLS introduced pineapples in Samoa when he brought them over from Hawaii.)

The other place I wanted to see was the cigarette factory that New Zealand built. This was after ‘smoking is injurious to health’ became a public health issue globally (as a Wellington doctor working in the public sector told me). Samoans smoke a lot; everyone smokes, from old men and women to young people. There are a few hoardings across the islands that warn about the harmful effects of smoking but few pay heed. New Zealand already exports fatty meat leftovers to Samoa, America feeds Samoans Spam. Western colonial powers do have a lot to answer for apart from invading countries and creating empires. Anyway, I went hunting for the cigarette factory because I was curious. Very inconspicuous it was, behind the beer factory, apparently making Rothman’s cigarettes.

The cigarette factory in Apia. As close as I could get to it.

The cigarette factory in Apia. As close as I could get to it.

Fatty meats for Samoans.

Fatty meats for Samoans.

One thing very obvious in Samoa is the Chinese presence. Not the old Chinese-Samoans nor Chinese tourists but Chinese money. Samoa’s new parliament house is made from Chinese money, the roads are being built by Chinese money so is other infrastructure. My taxi driver back to the airport told us that the Chinese are even sending over labour to work at cheaper rates than the Samoans. Of course the quid pro quo being fishing quota because Samoa has pretty much nothing else to offer. So while post Kyoto protocol talks are stalled China has already depleted the oceans of fauna. And it is more than just being a big country with a hungry population. This is about global power and hegemony. Look at Chinese presence across Africa. (I think I should learn Mandarin beyond the four sentences I can speak *wink*.)

I loved Samoa. The people are lovely and warm. I loved the sound of the water, its changing nature and colour. It is definitely on my list of places to visit again. Like China, Hong Kong, Berlin, Sikkim and Dharamsala.

I love the anonymity of travel; the mere act of wandering in search of belonging but not quite. I see myself as an integral part of humanity rather than from a specific place. Samoans would ask me, where are you from? One taxi driver called me palagi (pronounced paa-laa-ngi, white in Samoan), another asked if I was half Samoan and half Maori and a third if I was a Latina or Spanish. Only one guessed my origins. Of course my tattoos confuse people even more. Can’t wait for my next expedition.

(For photos visit

First Week Of A New Life.

One week in a new city and I am finding my way around. Of course now I know the way to work, the short cuts to avoid steep roads and long waits at the lights on the morning commute to the motorway. It takes me between 20-25 minutes to get to work even with the minor jams on Tinakori Road. To an ex-Aucklander that is the time I would take to go from one end of the Ponsonby Road to the other at 40K during the morning peak traffic hours whether by car or on the Link Bus. This drive to Porirua is a piece of cake. So that is sorted.

After a week of unpacking and starting work it was time to go into the city and hang around, understand the bus routes and browse the shops. Wellington has some quirky fashion stores ranging from designer clothes to second hand, recycled, hand made everything. Wellingtonians dress more laid back than Aucklanders but what was obviously missing was the Asian influence. None of the kawaii, or the East Asian style Western clothes that Gwen Stefani tries so hard to copy for her fashion line Harajuku Lovers. Not even the East Asians on Cuba St. had that look. I guess I’d have to travel regularly to Auckland to get my fill.


But what one needs when settling in a new town is the Asian grocery stores. Where do I get my rice, my papads, the pickles, the savouries, the lentils? Will they be the same as in Auckland? Will I find packets of instant dosa and dhokla mix? Oh and where do I get my eyebrows threaded? Definitely not in the gora peoples’ beauty salons! Not at $20 a pop; not when I can get them done for $10 max.

Wellington is not as diverse as Auckland and I am probably going to have to travel further from home to get Asian groceries or my eyebrows trimmed. I do not even have any Indian female friends in Wellington and no point asking the guys. So it is going to be the trial and error technique. More grist for a blob post I suppose.

Nationo-chauvanistic-alism. Impressions of an exile. India 5

Salman Khan says nationalism is his religion. Not Bollywood PR speak, no. I watched, gobsmacked, the man himself on television say the thing just like one would say, “Keep Your City Clean” or “Hum Do Hamare Do” or “Do Not Spit”. Nationalism is a public-spirit-morality-love-your-country message. Jingoistic patritotic populist.

What is nationalism, I tried to ask. Tried because no one wants to have conversations pertaining to such topics.

Nationalism means loving your country (you silly thing)! Nationalism means feeling pride for INDIA. Nationalism means being the best superpower, kicking gora, chini and every other (especially Pakistani) arse. Nationalism=patriotism and all that. You know, like, proud to be Indian?

The Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy describes both patriotism and nationalism at length. Briefly, nationalism is (1)the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. Patriotism can be defined as love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots. The two often overlap, especially in political discourse, when such concepts have to be simplified for a supposedly not-so-smart hoi polloi and ultimately turning the psyche into ‘us versus them’.

So when Salman exhorts everyone to become nationalistic, he also means patriotic. LOVE YOUR COUNTRY! DIE FOR YOUR COUNTRY! WE ARE THE BEST! IT IS OUR TURN! This then becomes all about world power, domination, aggression and ultimately bad behaviour. I noticed. Along with being a fast growing economy, along with becoming flatter and flatter (as per Thomas Friedman), we also become obnoxious. Because all the other superpowers are like that. Look at America! (Say that with an upper middle class Indian accent.) The popular discourse of ‘us versus them’ then steering towards our own people. Urban versus rural, Hindus versus Muslims, rich versus poor, caste versus caste. Anything or anybody that looks like an obstacle in ‘development’ and ‘progress’ ultimately unpatriotic. The non-violent gentle soul that I am, I was shocked at the hatred Indians had for ‘others’.

In his book, The Idea Of India, Sunil Khilnani asks the question Who Is An Indian? Such a vast, complex country, a palimpsest (Jawaharlal Nehru in A Discovery Of India) is obviously difficult to govern. To then push the idea that mere economic development will cure all ills and ailments, that consumption will make us happy and malls the next destination for pilgrimage is bound to create the demon of nationo-chauvanistic-alism. The Indian media plays a big part. Bollywood booty shakes juxtaposed with rape cases and corrupt politicians along with the rise in food prices. Where is the time for reflection and introspection in between advertisements? And certainly not for temperate language. It is all about fear, insecurity, drama and money. I don’t know if any Indian television station has correspondents stationed in other countries. How can there be any conception of what this existence is?

I personally do not believe in patriotism. Nationalism is a useful notion only until a goal is achieved. After sixty years of independence, India and Indians do not need to either. Democracy and freedom come with responsibility and that has to be constantly discussed in the public domain. To be a world power we have to look within. To lead we do not have to be aggressive or harsh or try to control others. We also have to engage with the rest of the world. We certainly don’t want to be America or emulate her foreign policy or suck up to her. (But even in the West, the dialogue about democracy and problems continues.)

Whenever I tried to talk such I was told that since I’d left India for the West I was a traitor or sorts. So what gave me the right to opine? Because India is an inherent, non-negotiable part of my identity. Because I believe India can be a country to be reckoned with and not just in economic terms. Because India has the potential but only if Indians do serious introspection.

Jingoism is ugly and immoral.

One Of Those. Impressions of an exile. India 4.


It has been a long wait. The single flight coming in from Delhi was delayed consequently the outward bound flight is late. Impatient passengers clear their luggage through the x-ray machine; tagged and bound. The tiny airport abuzz and strangely disciplined for an Indian one. SAPNA goes in for police clearance. Her backpack full of electronics, a paper carrybag full of shopping and a precious Tibetan painting from Dharamshala.


SAPNA follows the routine. Electronics out of the backpack, into a tray. Carrybag with fragile contents carefully laid out horizontally on the x-ray machine. MALE POLICE OFFICER pompous. Now towards the female section for metal detection.


HENNA HAIRED FEMALE POLICE (HHFP) gives SAPNA the once over. Once again she is assumed to be English-speaking, ‘modern’ Indian. SAPNA takes off her two jackets.

HHFP (In English)

Why you remhowe jackets?

SAPNA(In Hindi)

So you can check me

HHFP (In English)

Did I ask you to remhowe jackets?

SAPNA (In Hindi)

No but…

HHFP (In English)

I nebher ask. Then why you remhowe? Wear them.

SAPNA quietly dons the two jackets. This is not the time to question logic and security routine. She is sad to leave Dharamshala but Delhi will be another adventure.

HHFP (In English)

Bhery good. Now I will check.

She runs the metal detector all over SAPNA’s body. Nods in approval, stamps the boarding pass and lets her through.


On the other side-which is also the exit to the runway. SAPNA carefully rearranges her cameras and laptop into the backpack, makes sure her precious painting is not damaged, nothing has been nicked and the luggage tag on both bags has been stamped. Another pompous MALE POLICE OFFICER looks on.


I know it is not in script format. Don’t know how to do it within this blog. 🙂

Dharamshala. Impressions of an exile. India 3.

Dharamshala existed in my dreams. For the longest time. Ever since I first encountered Tibetans. Way back in Bombay, during a non-existent winter (as Bombay winters are), laying out their winter wares on the pavements near Kala Ghoda. Imagine selling warm clothes to a Bombayite! Curious, I got talking to them and they told me about their journey from Dharamshala to my city. Sing-song Hindi, smiley, crinkly eyes. Then another said she had come from South India. Whatever little knowledge I had of Tibetan refugees, that bit, about a settlement in Karnataka, was news to me. After all, for the average Indian, in the days of Doordarshan, newspapers and the neonatal period of cable television, Tibetan refugees=Dalai Lama=hospitable, warm, fuzzy India + neighbourly concern. I was hooked; an invisible bond attaching me to these people from the Himalayas I know not why.  But journeys happen and how.

One day, out of the blue, or so it seemed to meine familie, I declared I wanted to work at the Tibetan hospital in Dharamshala. They thought I was mad. How could I leave Bombay and my home and medical practice to go to a ‘hill station’ ?!  I’d written them a letter see. In the pre-webbed India, where getting any information was like looking for a needle in a haystack, I had blindly written, on the blue inland letter of Indian Post, to ‘The Tibetan Hospital, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh’ asking if I could work at the hospital. I got a reply. Yes you may but only as a volunteer. They kindly included instructions on how to get there from Bombay and also a telephone number.  Could I get past the wrath of the family though?

Then I visited Sikkim. It was a trip offered to me by an uncle. He said Singapore I said Sikkim. So I was on a flight to Siliguri via Calcutta and then a bus to Gangtok, promising to call my mother everyday. Me and the backpack, one more nail in my ‘she-is-mad’ coffin. I can still feel it. Walking the streets of Gangtok, visiting Enchey Monastery, a yak ride on Chhangu Lake, going up to Nathu La looking over Tibet, the twisting Teesta river, Pelling, the shrouded Kanchenjunga…I bought my first mekhla, the traditional dress from North-East India, in a tiny village near Pelling. That was my second calling. When the Himalayas beckon you cannot ignore.

This year I was meant to go to Leh. The tickets and accomodation booked. Then the cloudburst happened.

One can say that the Tibetan refugees are doing well in Dharamshala (McLeodganj technically because that is where most of them live and that is where I stayed.) They are allowed to practice their religion, arts, culture, do business and go about their lives.  Peace prevails. Co-existence and tolerance exemplary of Indian hospitality.

The poverty is shocking. New Zealand has an annual intake of refugees from across the globe with a settlement process and follow up which is still not enough to ensure integration, where identity is always in crisis, mental health always an issue and the many manifestations of suffering unknown. What could be the state of a people living in limbo for the last fifty years? These people who followed their spiritual leader with the firm belief that they will return home one day but exist on an annual special permit?  Now a second generation is born in exile and the refugees keep coming, running away from torture and annihilation. Of course the tourists come too and they bring the money. So what? How many street stalls can you have selling the same prayer wheels and beads?

The chaos that is India is evident in McLeodganj. So is the ‘progress’-pieces of hill being cut to build malls and fancy hotels with saunas. Then there are the monasteries hidden in the by-lanes, full of monks who cannot speak a word of Hindi/English and who subsist by teaching Tibetan/Buddhism to white women in tight tee shirts and no bras. (Of course you get that in Varanasi too-with the marijuana-so spiritual tourism is not just about the Tibetans.)  It is the lack of status that broke my heart.  Old people with diapers and no teeth, ordinary people who want to go home, women beaten up by unemployed husbands, single mothers…newly born infants, just gorgeous and cuddly, who will probably never know home. Except in museums, fossilised.  All living where they don’t really belong or want to belong.

Yatha bhuta, anicca. Perhaps. But does that justify suffering? Would it be unfair to ask why India has not done more towards mediating talks between China and the Tibetans? Because offering space and place is enough? Because there are no ‘Indian’ refugees and hence we do not understand the psyche of displacement? (Post-partition Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the Kashmiris, tribals pushed out of their land, debt-ridden villagers migrating to cities…refugees.) Because it is geopolitically not prudent to engage with China on this? How about being a world leader in developing and maintaining human values? (But then we would have to have our own house in order no?)

I would like to believe that the Tibetans get their strength from Buddhism. The non-violence, the peace, continued grit and determination. To treat them like ‘temporary refugees’ and not being pro-active in helping them realise their homeland not only undermines them but also reflects on our own core values and spirituality. Superpowers are not merely economic.