Thursday, January 17, 2013

"An engrossing, personal view of the public events that have shaped India's recent history"

Check out Som Nath Dhar's memoir of public events from 1946 to 1984, from the partition of the country until Indira Gandhi's assassination. Events he covered as a journalist or witnessed as Nehru's personal assistant. As a government servant, an intelligence officer, as head of All India Radio news.

Starting with first-hand accounts of the violence unleashed by partition on both sides of the divide, the book takes us through independence, the unfolding Kashmir conflict, early nation-building, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru's death, Indira Gandhi's rise to and consolidation of power.... And much more, ending with Operation Bluestar and Indira Gandhi's assassination.

"Dhar writes from the heart without abandoning the head: this fusion gives the book a readability many others in the genre lack."
-- Kirpal Singh, Director, Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University

More info here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Monkey Business in Malaysia

Travel Stories
Monkey Business in Langkawi, Malaysia, June 2012

My husband and I don’t get to travel together too often now that my elderly parents live with us. But we decided recently that we would brave a very quick holiday together on an island resort quite close (by air anyway) to Singapore, where we live.

So off we went for a “long weekend” (actually Monday-Wednesday) on the Malaysian island of Langkawi. We stayed in a lovely resort, where we were given a nice large room with a fabulous view of the bay below us. Green hills along two sides of the bay and rainforest just behind our room on the other side.

On the morning of our second day there, we went for a guided walk through the rainforest. Being Malaysia, it was nice and easy, along a proper path, but we did get to see langurs, limurs, grasshoppers and various kinds of birds. Incidentally, a langur in south-east Asia refers to a rather small monkey – in sharp contrast to India, where it’s a very large monkey with a red behind (it’s a distinguishing feature, ok?). I know these creatures quite well because my cousin and I were once chased through the streets of Ranikhet by one of them. In the long ago past, of course.

Anyway, to get back to our walk in Langkawi. We ended our walk by walking along the beach, beside the resort, where we saw quite a few of the larger Macaque monkeys. Some of the members of our group nodded sagely when our guide told us the monkeys sometimes enter the rooms.

Although this was meant as a warning to us to keep our windows and balcony doors closed, secretly I thought it would be kinda cool to be visited by a monkey.

The day wore on, with sea and sand and chatting on the beach and so on. The next morning, after some more vegging out in our beautiful surroundings, we got ready to leave the resort. I stepped onto the balcony to take in the sights and sounds of the sea one more time. I took a few last pictures with my phone. As I stepped back into the room, my finger must have hit some icon on the phone. Suddenly it started playing the one song I have so far managed to download – Allah hoo, a beautiful Sufi song sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song always transports me into another state. Pretty soon I had my eyes closed and was swaying to the familiar words and Nusrat’s beautiful voice.

Suddenly I heard a “chir-chir-chir” sound. I opened my eyes to see a monkey standing by our mini-fridge unwrapping a chocolate! For a brief moment I was torn between the urge to shoo him away from the fridge and clap my hands in glee. Not to mention switch from music to camera mode on the phone. The first instinct won and I literally yelled “shoo shoo” at the monkey. My husband came out of the bathroom where he had been packing up our toothbrushes and all, and added his voice to mine. The monkey quickly retreated through the balcony door.

My obsession with recording everything now took over. I closed the door, but started clicking. The monkey quickly moved off the balcony, but then, much to my delight, he came back again. He seemed wary of my husband and me, watching us intently from the other side of the door. But he wouldn’t go away.  Then, tentatively, he stretched out an arm and reached for something in a corner of the balcony. I realized he had dropped a small part of the chocolate, still in its wrapper, on the balcony. On his second try, he was more courageous, reaching all the way to the wrapper, picking it up and licking off the chocolate. Then he disappeared.

It was the perfect going-away gift, that visit from my monkey friend. I marvelled at how well trained and focused he was – he must have come in quietly, made straight for the fridge, opened it and grabbed the biggest of the chocolates. It was only the sound of the unwrapping that gave him away.

I forgot to tell Reception to charge us for one chocolate. I don’t think they did.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Srinagar, Part I - The Mountains

Srinagar, May-June 2012
PART I – The Mountains

The most striking thing about Srinagar is the constant companionship of the mountains. Wherever you look you see the Himalayas, majestic and still.

For 41 years, that was my strongest memory of Srinagar. Then, last month I went back to the land of my ancestors – and there were my old friends, the mountains. They must have seen so much trouble in the intervening four decades… But they did not seem to me to be looking down into the valley; they appeared to be more preoccupied with greeting the clouds every morning and reflecting the changing light of the sun through the day. Serene. Beautiful. Uplifting.

I’d wake up before dawn to the sound of the azaan and beautiful recitations, presumably from the Qoran, coming from somewhere nearby. I’d look out of the windows of my friends' house in the foothills of the Zabarwan “hills” – hills to Kashmiris, but mountains anywhere else in the world. The mountains would still be wearing the night like a dark shawl – perhaps a dark blue shawl rather than a black one, but still dark. I’d fall asleep again at some point listening to that beautiful recitation which, to my untrained ears, sounded rather like a Gita path. Having lived near mosques in Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta had in no way prepared me for this peacefully soul-stirring recitation.

I’d wake up again around six. I’d look out of the windows again at the mountains in the bright early morning light. Sleepily, I’d reach for my camera, hoping to take some sense of the beauty of the mountains with me when I left Kashmir.

The mountains were there with me for every moment of my six days in beautiful Srinagar. Even when I went to bed, I knew they were watching over me. On my first morning in Srinagar, my friend drove me to Pari Mahal, which today is a fabulous six-tiered garden on a hillside in the Zabarwan mountains, scattered about with old stone arches, walls, steps and other surviving structures from the 17th century. Originally a Buddhist monastery, Pari Mahal was rebuilt as a school for astrology by Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s oldest son, in 1650.

The beauty and scent of the flowers was overwhelming. So were the views of Srinagar from the various terraces. On the top terrace, I sat awhile on a low wall and surveyed the beautiful city and the surrounding mountains.
As I looked at the mountains I thought fleetingly once again of the stories they could tell, but the thought passed as quickly as it arose. These mountains were above all those worldly goings-on, I thought, they were a link between the earth and the sky, but an upward link, there to help us rise above the mundane and the petty, towards a higher reality, a better way of being…

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Singapore Notes - Lakshmi's Blessings for the Hajj?

There’s a shop in Kampung Glam, somewhere between Arab Street and Haji Street, that sells everything you might need for the Hajj – prayer mats, skull caps, even sticks of neem that can be used to clean one’s teeth during the pilgrimage.

It’s not an unusual shop in this part of Singapore, an area presided over by the Sultan mosque and specializing in Malay, Arab, Turkish and subcontinental Muslim fare (including some fantastic food, incidentally).

But there is one thing a little unusual about this particular shop. If you look past the prayer rugs towards the back of the shop you notice pictures of the Goddess Lakshmi, a baby Krishna and a small, but distinctly Hindu, altar. The shop is run by Pankaj and Ramesh, Singaporean Hindus of Indian descent.

Does this deter their Muslim customers from shopping here in preparation for the Hajj? Not usually – at least not Singaporean Muslim customers. “We have our loyal customers who have supported us for years,” says Pankaj. After all, he says, this just happens to be his trade. “And we treat all the items with great respect,” he explains.

There was one customer who wasn’t convinced – not a Singaporean, as Pankaj is quick to point out. He selected a prayer rug and a few other things and then, as he was about to pay for the items he noticed the pictures at the back of the shop. He felt he couldn’t buy items for the Hajj from a non-Muslim and left without the things he had selected.

Pankaj and Ramesh take such incidences in their stride. “It’s the customer’s choice,” says Pankaj philosophically.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Life in Singapore

Taxi blues...

Ordering a taxi in Singapore is so easy because of the cab company's wonderful automated system. The system recognizes your number and offers to send a cab to your primary pick-up point (usually your home or office address). You just have to press 1 and hey presto! your cab is ordered.

Except when that automated system gets messed up. One of the hardest things for me has been trying to get the company to register my name. Pamposh would be impossible, so I shoot for Pam. But there are similar Chinese names in Singapore: Bam, Tam, Pan and Tan. For some reason, Pam is the very last choice of the operator.

What's in a name, you say - just settle for Bam or Tam or Tan. I did. But then the cabbie who was sent to pick me up would invariably look at me suspiciously and grill me about my name, phone no. and general antecedents. Not the cabbie's fault - after all you don't expect to see a big Indian woman when you've obviously been sent to pick up a petite Chinese lady. Who's this other woman trying to steal the cab?

So, I called the cab company. After several minutes of "P for Poland" etc, they finally agreed to put me down as Ms. Pam. Great! No more suspicious glances from cabbies.

This blissful state of affairs carried on for several months. Then, suddenly, for no reason I could fathom, the company started sending cabs for Mr. Ho Ming. Who is Mr. Ho Ming?? No-one knows. Boy, this one was much worse than Bam or Tam or Pan. I do NOT look like a Mr. Ho Ming!! Not ever.

In one case, I actually had to ask the cabbie to call my mobile phone (the company gives the driver the customer's number) and answer it in his presence when he rang! Only then did he grudgingly allow me to step into his cab.

So last night I called the cab company again to ask them to change their records. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'd like you to change your records please. You seem to have someone else's name for my phone no.
Operator: You want to change your name?
Me (a bit taken aback): No, my name is still Pam. I just want you to change your records.
Operator: Ya, ya, change your name.
Me: Yes, please change my name. (This is easier, I thought.) Please change it to Pam. P for Poland...
Operator: T for Thailand...
Me (unable to stop myself): How do you get Thailand from Poland? (Then, composing myself): No, no, P for Poland...

And so it went.

Let's see what name shows up on the cab driver's screen next time. If it isn't Pam, I hope it's something fun and exotic.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 3 - The Forgotten Temples

The magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, are the major attractions of a World Heritage site near the city of Siem Reap. But temples - some older than that - are in fact scattered all around Siem Reap. Not all are marked on tourist maps.

My recent visit to Cambodia was an official one to see development projects, including some near Siem Reap. My colleagues and I decided to visit a village not far from one of the major highways in the country. Not far in terms of kilometres from the highway, that is. In fact we ended up doing a 45-minute bone-rattling drive on barely discernible paths - sometimes not discernible at all! I would have suggested turning back, but there was nowhere to turn.
We spent an interesting 45 minutes in the village, visiting a textile weaving scheme that builds on a traditional skill to create modern designs and provide greater income to women. As we finished, we let out a collective groan in anticipation of the drive back. On a whim, one of colleagues asked the women if there was a better way back to the highway. And there was!

So we took this better route back. I have never been so thankful for a dirt track! Bumpy as it was, it was heaven compared with the drive out along the practically non-existent path. We were so happy we were almost shouting in glee. Then, suddenly, we rounded a corner and found much more cause for joy. Two old temples in the middle of nowhere! Amazing. There were no deities in these small temples, but to my untrained eye they looked like old Hindu temples. The temples were built with the large stones typical of Khmer architecture.

There was also part of a wall and several broken columns. There was a one-room modern building near the temples and a Buddha statue, also from recent times, placed in the open next to the old temples. So some people were aware of the old ruins. But there was no sign of an archaelogical authority or government agency.

Of course, these simple, probably older, temples don't begin to compare with the glory of Angkor Wat or the Bayon. But on that hot afternoon, after the gruelling drive to and from the village, they were like a gift. A beautiful sight for sore eyes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 2: Restaurants.

New food is one of the joys of travel. After many years turning more and more squeamish about trying new meats, I decided to enjoy Cambodia's rather "daring" cuisine. My Cambodian friends seemed to find something new for me to try at every meal! And it was all delicious.

Usually one of them would introduce the more exotic dishes. One day he just told me we were eating deer meat, which I know and like. So I was happily tucking into the dish. The meat was accompanied by some lovely crunchy stuff - a bit like very crisp onion rings. When I was halfway through this delicious dish, my friend casually said: "Oh, and I forgot to tell you, that stuff with the deer meat is red ants." Wow. It tasted rather good, I must say, but I don't know that I would have tried it had I known what it was - known before I tried it, that is! Anyway, great food in Cambodia.

The restaurants were interesting too, everything from the roadside eateries to the huge, tourist-bus-oriented buffet restaurant with a cultural show. Lovely dances.

Equally interesting was the decor in this roadside eatery. A couple of different styles, to say the least. Don't miss the giant mushrooms in the corner. Globalization or clash of cultures? Hmm.