Friday, May 30, 2008

Kashmir (1): Danger Danger

I spent my last few hours in Dharamsala watching one of the most fascinating Champions League finals in living memory. Sure, Liverpool vs Milan beat it for sheer narrative, but when have two titans clashed so closely or bloodthirstily? Chelsea were the stronger team, but United created more chances through guile, rather than just good fortune. A shame, I suppose, that it had to be settled so tragically, with John Terry slipping when everyone knew he was a dead cert to score the winner, and in the process expose the arrogance which continues to undermine Ronaldo’s claims to greatness.

As a Liverpool fan, though, it was some consolation to watch the drama unfold early in a Himalayan morning. The cricket-obsessed Indians couldn’t give a shit about football, which meant I wouldn’t be subjected to Old Blotchy One’s inane grins all over the newspapers in the morning. To make sure, though, I decided to follow that old backpacker’s cliché about getting away from it all, by heading somewhere where I wouldn’t have internet or mobile access: The Kashmiri valley.

So along with a few other Israelis – a young jazz musicians and a honeymooning couple, later to be supplemented by an itinerant chef – we signed up for a highly recommended seven day journey into the Kashmiri interior, organised by the Kashmiri Muslim family which ran our hotel in Dharamsala. All that was left to do was watch the football before setting off. But now, unfortunately, was the time for doubts to start creeping into Ran’s mind. His phone began to ring, it being alternately his girlfriend and his mother (a truly dangerous combination), telling him of new warnings that terrorists in Kashmir were specifically looking for Israeli targets, that it wasn’t safe, that he mustn’t go, that they’d keep ringing until he decided to drop out, that he…

He came in the end. But, as I lead you down into the valley, it’s this theme that I’d like to focus on. Why does heading into a conflict zone cause us to suspend our rationality? Why will we err on the side of caution when fearful of terror, but not for more sensible concerns like the perilous state of India’s roads? With all that by way of introduction, then, let’s go down into the valley.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Real

E.M Forster's seminal A Passage to India deals - amongst other things - with the problem of the 'Real India'. Is there such a thing, or is it just a construct of the sunbaked western imagination? And, if it does exist, do westerners actually want to experience it? Indeed, is experiencing it even possible? "I want to see the real India," cries Adela Quested, only to be greeted with an anonymous voice of cynicism: "It'll end in an elephant ride, it always does." Where do things stand today?


Dharamsala is not Dharamsala. It is Mcleod Ganj. Dharamsla is the transport hub down the road. Backpackers stay in Mcleod and the surrounding villages (chiefly Bagshu and Dharamkot). Mcleod was established as a British military base in the mid-1800s; with time, it became a place of refuge from the heat of the plains. Still, in their emails home, travellers write of being in Dharamsala.

A quirk of history has given Dharamsala its dominant character: The Dalai Lama's escape from China and the establishment of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Mcleod. Here the Tibetans have created an impressive little piece of Tibet in India - temples, political organisations, restaurants, cultural centres - broadcasting Tibetan soft power to the world and keeping the Tibetan issue on the agenda, while at the same time maintaining the area as a tourist centre.

They have been helped in achieving the latter by another quirk of history - Israel's compulsory military service. Dharamsala is about as far from life in the IDF as you could imagine, making it a perfect place for demobbing Israelis to come and detox. It would be no exaggeration to state that at least 50% of the western tourists here are Israelis. Dharamkot may as well be a West Bank settlement, restaurants serve falafel, and I have met at least one Indian here (a chef, no less) who knows Hebrew better than me.

The circle is completed by British gap-year students, wannabe European intellectuals, and ageing wanderers (complete with Keith Richards sun-glasses), all of whom are perfect customers for what Dharamsala has to offer: meditation, yoga, Tibetan medicine, astrology, stunning mountain walks, and large quantities of marijuana. A cynic, I came expecting a pastiche of Glastonbury, fell ill, recovered, has a surprisingly good time, but am nonetheless ready to leave, having brutally decided that this is too far from the 'Real India'for this particular wandering satlan.


I arrived in Dharamsala four days after landing in Delhi, fresh from Amritsar, shocked but seduced by the chaos of life inh the plains. I carried with me the assumption that 'the real' was a chimera, that the 'Real India' was whatever people in India do, even the tourists. This was a cop-out. In arriving here, I have left the real India behind.


The community the Tibetans have built in Dharamsala is the equivalent of the packed suitacase kept in the corner by the refugee, so that s/he will be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Despite everything that happens in their homeland, the Tibetans have refused to give up on the dream of return, while simultaneously managing to confidently forge a new future, one that may yet survive, no matter what.

However, there is still precious little sign of a symbiosis with their Hindu-Indian neighbours. While the Tibetans provide the culture, the Indians provide the services - cabs, hotels, food, drugs. This division of labour means that everyone can eat, but it doesn't necessaarily lend for an integrated community, and it certainly doesn't resemble anything else I've seen on my (admittedly brief) travels.

As for the backpackers, they're the oil that keeps the car running, and it is to them that questions about the 'Real India' should be asked most thoroughly. Forster was astute enough to recognise that a person's attitude to the issue can't be separated from their personal circumstances; Adela Quested is partly looking for the 'Real India' as a way of escaping the dilemma of whether or not she should get engaged. Here it's the other way round: travellers rush straight from Delhi to the hills, thus bypassing the Real India, as a way of dealing with their personal problems.

Aside from the post-IDFers (whose fucked-upedness should require no explanation), and the Gap-Yearers (still wide-eyed at the world), it is the veteran travellers here who have interested me most. While it wouldn't be right to go into details, suffice to say that I have heard truly awful stories here, stories which explain why people would seek escape from the world in the form of Vipassana, extreme spiritual practices, and heavy drug use.

I've no complaints about all this - each to their own. As I said, it's understandable. But it's not what interests me about this country. India has - against all the odds - been a place of redemption from time immemorial, and will no doubt continue to be so long into the future. Sitting eating my curry, though, reading the newspaper, I come across stories of farmer suicides and right-to-work activists murders, of a chaotic but dynamic economy and an ever-present stand-off with Pakistan. Call me dull, but this has been my idea of the Real India, or at least a snapshot of the issues that will determine whether this country plays out the century in glory or anarchy. My fear is that my quest to see it will be as fruitless as people looking for redemption in Dharamsala. But I may as well try. So next up is the question of conflict. Kashmir...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Da Shit

“You’ll get the shit. You’ll be knee-deep in the shit.” Tales from the Hood

Like death and taxes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, you somehow think it might pass you by. It is a badge of honour, a sign that you are an experienced traveler, this hope against hope, that the plague will pass by your door. You start in clean, packed restaurants, munching on dhosas and thalis. Your friend takes you out for dinner at the Oberoi, one of Delhi’s swankiest hotels, telling you that it will make a nice prelude to the grimier fare that awaits you further on up the road. Within two days, you feel confident enough to sit at street-corners munching on glorious tomatoe-paneers and naan bread, still amazed at the cost and the quality, knowing that this is better than anything you ever tasted on Rusholme’s Curry Mile. For four days, you live like this, feeding yourself handsomely for a pound a day. There is the occasional – how shall I say it? – substantial visit to the bathroom, but all remains solid, in order.

Then it drops. One morning, in your ‘Indian-style’ toilet, it flows out of your bowels like the Ganges. You do all you can to deny it, but the evidence is dripping there below you. Traveler’s Diarrhea – known in these parts as ‘Delhi belly’ – has claimed you as its latest victim. The moment you acknowledge this, the rest of your body joins in. Your appetite vanishes, although not before you rather stupidly grab a piece of chocolate cake from a ‘German Bakery’ across the road. You start to feel distant, your head clams up, the slightest movement feels like you are pushing against steel. You withdraw to your bedroom, defeated.

And then you do something stupid. Fascinated by the possibility that the Chabad House in nearby Dharampok is run by sectarians – those who, heretically, believe the Rebbe to be the Messiah – you decide to head up there for Shabbes dinner. In the auto rickshaw you hold on for dear life, knowing that, if the vehicle does not plunge off the edge, its sharp jerks will certainly kill you. You stagger out, gingerly, and head into the Chabad House. There, you exchange pleasantries with the Rabbi, finding respite in the playful chatter of the children. But by the time prayers begin, you are fading fast. Yedid Nefesh begins, and it is your cold which is fuelling your duchenning. You borrow a thick Tibetan shawl (more a fireplace than a jumper) from a fellow-countryman, and sink into your seat, trying to absorb the Rabbi’s words on chosenness, spiritual effort, and the shmita year. Pretty quickly, you can take no more, departing from the house of prayer before they have even sung Lecha Dodi.

Back at the hotel, your motto is that of a child on his first day at the Gulag: survive. The sheet is complimented with a blanket; you lie very still on your back, thankful you have asked Drew across the way to check that you are still alive come morning. Within twenty minutes, you have made your first visit to the bathroom; there will be a dozen more before dawn breaks.

All this is accompanied by a delirium, too banal to be a dream, too commonplace to be a nightmare. I am selling tickets for buses traveling around the Himalayas. As the evening progresses, as my bowels calm, I get better and better at it. By 2AM, by body having decided not to disturb me for the next five hours, I am the champion ticket-seller, having sold ten tickets to Kashmir. Then I am selling swords, I think. This is all accompanied by depression and doubts, and – in the more extreme moments – morbid fears. I am going to die alone in a hotel room in Mcleod Ganj, I think, I should never have come here, how can I have been so stupid as to have eaten those paneer fried in that weeks-old oil?

By morning, I have begun to recover, although my droppings are still liquefied. As I begin to write these lines, sitting with some Israeli girls in nearby Bagshu, my appetite has returned, and my strength is once more. Delhi belly’s visit has been sparingly brief. I guess I got my swagger back.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Golden Temple

Writing about a religious site is extremely difficult. On one level, it’s important to include an appropriate amount of information: saying I accidentally walked into Amritsar ’s Golden Temple with my head bare won’t mean much unless you know that visitors to the site have to cover their hair. On the other hand, though, this isn’t wikipedia – it’s stories you’re looking for, interesting experiences accurately rendered. So my aim is simple: to intimate to you why the Golden Temple is – quite simply – the most impressive religious site I have ever visited, a public space contemporary architecture can only dream of.

My guide through all this was Maninder Singh, an articulate young Rajasthani Sikh, who stepped in to explain to me the ins and outs of the temple, after a custodian told me not to lie with my feet facing the Hari Mandir Sahib (the temple itself). It was 22:00, and around me on the Pakarma (the marble walkway surrounding the pool), people sat relaxing, sleeping, playing and chatting, an atmosphere that acquired serenity precisely because it was so this-worldly. The Golden Temple is a holy place because the deity seems to be of secondary importance to the people who come to visit it.

After patiently answering my questions on Sikhism, Maninder and his cousins led me to the Guru Ka-Langar, the dining hall. This is a free, communal dining-hall, churning out dhal, rice and chapattis for up to 50,000 people a day. The eating itself is ritualized. You take your tin cutlery, before being led to sit cross-legged in long rows, where the volunteers come and dish out the food, accompanied by various words of liturgy.

Volunteering is a crucial aspect of running the temple. As soon as I had soaked up my last piece of dhal with the chapatti, Maninder whisked me off to hand out the plates. I was quickly struck by how many people took part in all this. It would be a touch too cynical to say that too many cooks spoil the broth, but seeing eight people lined up on bowl-giving duties did seem a little excessive. So Maninder led me off to the other departments, my volunteer experience rapidly turning into an organized tour.

In the bowels of the building, in an almost unbearable heat, people sat preparing the chapattis. Next to them, massive vats of curry were somehow carried to the dining area. The size and efficiency of the operation was staggering. $6250 a day – a snip! – spent feeding 50,000 people. There are booths to give donations for the Temple ’s upkeep, but absolutely no payment is asked of anyone visiting, and – it should be added – there are no beggars within the Temple grounds, something Maninder told me Sikhs are forbidden to do.

After the tour, promotion. Maninder felt I was ready to dish out the chapattis myself. Teaching me the ritual words, we fanned out amongst the pilgrims, baskets of steaming chapattis in hand, ready to be plopped into the outstretched hands of the diners. Their bemusement was, thankfully, exceeded by their encouragement, and I soon forgot I was a pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah, happily dishing out the chapattis like a seasoned pro.

I found it hard to comprehend this volunteer spirit. Aside from a few spear-yielding holy men, there was no sense of anyone being in charge. Because everyone (even I) felt ownership of the site, they looked after it like their own home. Where else can you walk bare-footed for hours, surrounded by thousands of people, with your soles not losing the pasty colour birth blessed them with? At 3AM, the places becomes a water-park, with hundreds of people swarming, bucket in hand, swishing and washing and reveling. A sight to behold, if you’ll permit me a cliché.

The water is so clean, I even bathed in it, at 4AM. Beforehand, I entered the temple itself, a kind of dolls’ house, or a particularly exquisite female bedroom: people sitting on each level, playing instruments or reading the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), oblivious to the crowds, inhaling the sweet incense.

The Golden Temple is an extraordinary non-commercial public space, one which provides food, shelter, space and meaning to its visitors. I know of no secular building which fulfils this function, and would argue that it is vital to build one. All you architects out there, the challenge has been set…

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A word on Jaipur

When the bomb went off in Jaipur, at 19:25 on Tuesday, I was in Amritsar, hundreds of miles to the north, having Sikhism explained to me by Maninder Singh, a Rajasthani (of which more in a couple of days). What surprised me, although it shouldn't have, is that life went on as it did before. The streets thronged, while everyones' faces reamined glued to the cricket. My mind wandered to the motherland. If a bomb like the one in Jaipur went off in Beer-Sheva (another desert city), the whole country would be on the phone, checking that their loved ones were OK. Broadcast of a basketball match would be interrupte with live reports from the scene. Stupidly, I expected to see something similar in India. But then (how could I forget?), this is a land of over one billion souls, while Israel is home to a mere seven million.

There's a more interesting point to be made, though. Terrorism - in its rational form - is successful only if it can impact on the civilian population, to change their behaviour enough in order to draw concessions from the government. In a country the size of India this is a near-impossibility. To use the callous language of risk assessment, sixty dead in India is but a statistic. Granted, this was an attack on a tourist area (albeit in low season), but it is clar that none of the occasional bomb attacks here in the last year have affected the country's routine. From my brief experience of the travel system here, it is clear that there are many soft targets. But it is hardly worthwhile for the government to strengthen security to the degree that has been done in Israel, for example. This - from the amoral perspective of rational political considerations - is what makes terrorism in India even more inexplicable than elsewhere, and - I think - goes a long way to explain why th authorities have had such trouble solving similar cases in the past.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Setting Forth

Maybe this is a snapshot of globalization - Amman Airport, Gate 6, 11 May, 20:15: Two sets of passengers sit side by side. Straight ahead – Indian labourers with just the clothes on their backs. Where they come fro, and what they have done in Jordan, I do not know. They do not even seem to have passports, merely bulky yellow papers, travel documents, ‘in lieu of’....Behind them, keeping their distance, travelers to Delhi. A trickle of Indians and Jordanians sit amidst a gaggle of Israelis, who can now count me amongst their number. There are scraggly-haired backpackers, and sophisticated veterans – always perched on the edge of their seats, as if ready to dispense advice anyone who is willing to take it. Reading material includes ‘The Economist’ and ‘The Five People you might meet in Heaven;’ one woman is reading a particularly arduous looking volume, but my eyes cannot strain far enough to see what it is. There are laptops and notepads, iPods and a steady chatter, appropriately muted, for we are in Arab lands. Ahead of me, the young men headed back to their birthplace sit quietly, without any hand-luggage, as if readying themselves to get on a slave-ship. Maybe this is a snapshot of globalization, two tribes from different dimensions passing through, backs turned, knowing that the thoughts which would stem from actually looking in each-other’s faces would destroy all our worlds.


Royal Jordanian is my new favourite airline. First-class leg room for all, you wonder if they remember that this is supposed to be a business. The price for all this is a slightly more interactive service than I am used to. Before take-off, our stunning Indian hostess – all Bollywood make-up and deliberate contortions of the neck – stoops down to solemnly ask us if we are ready to take on the responsibility which comes from sitting by the emergency exit. Bravely, we accept the duty, allowing her to enthusiastically launch into a briefing of what to do if the plane crashed into the Gulf. “What if you run off?” asks the cynical businessman to my right. “I will be the last to leave,’ she insists, allowing an air of wounded pride to wash over her otherwise unperturbed face.

I sit in the middle, to the left is one of the aforementioned labourers. In the absence of a common tongue – he is briefed in Hindi – I try and give him a look which tells him, that, in the event of emergency, I will be fearlessly by his side, shepherding the passengers to safety before the plane sinks into the sea. He looks at me cynically, slips off his sandals, and curls himself up like a mole in a burrow.

Half an hour into the flight, there is a minor commotion, one that brings us full circle. There is some confusion in the seating arrangement, which results in one of the labourers being led towards his correct seat nearer the front. He is supposed to sit next to a middle-aged woman, make-up like North Tel Aviv but dressed for the East, a neat portrait of the tortured Israeli bourgeoisie. I have no idea why she was traveling to India, and shall resist speculation. But her reaction to being sat next to this young man quietly returning to his homeland appalled me.

I could not hear what she said to the stewardess. Just one word, spoken repeatedly and scornfully in Hebrew to her male companion, told me all I needed to know. Reach, smell. While she spat her complaints, the man stood oblivious in the aisle, not understanding what was being said. A deal was soon made, with the unoccupied seat being taken by a young Israeli backpacker, with the labourer taking his place with the other Indians.

So what’s wrong with a woman not wanting to sit next to someone who smells? A fair point. But every action has a context, a context that often extends far beyond the ultimately insignificant details of the original incident. In this case, the woman had no way of avoiding sitting next to the man without illustrating the stark inequalities which ha brought them both to this place. Call it her bad moral luck. It meant she should have quietly endured a slightly smelly flight across the Middle East. Instead, she kicked up a fuss, sniggering about the man’s defects in a language he could not understand. Because she could not communicate with him, because she could not explain to him her problem, she should have put up with it.

This story has al the more resonance, I think, coming on a flight to India. Because one thing every western traveler to the subcontinent knows, before even booking a ticket, is that the journey will involve encountering the most brutal of poverty. This reality demands constant moral examination and thought. If you can’t deal with this before you have even arrived in the country, you should think long and hard before setting forth.

Monday, May 12, 2008

On the road

One of these men spends his days hustling hard, on the grind, keeping it grimey.
The other is a rickshaw driver.
Wandering Satlan is in full effect.
Tachles to follow...