When we went to New York in spring we flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. There was a layover at Addis Ababa and the onward flight picked up passengers going to Lomé in Togo.
The man sitting beside me was Togolese. I confess I know nothing about Togo except that it is a tiny country sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria, along with another small country. Ivory Coast? Benin? I asked him when we got into conversation later. Benin, he said.
When I asked what language they spoke in Togo I was surprised to hear it was French. I said, “ You all don’t speak anything else? I mean, what is your original native language?” He said, “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” and shook his head sadly. I said, “Hmmm . . . They did that to my country too, but the English language they left behind has fortunately proved useful in some ways.”
I found out later – from the net – that they speak about forty different native tongues, but French is the official language. From 1884-1914 it was German; from 1916-1957 it was English and French as they were colonies of the British and the French. Togo was the heart of the slave trade in Africa. Now the UNGA has listed it as the saddest country in the world in its World Happiness Report. The meaning of his terse “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” became perfectly clear in the light of what I learned.
As we approached Lomé he looked out the porthole in the fond way one looks at one’s child. Lomé did look pretty from the air – low buildings, many with blue roofs, lots of greenery, and no tall buildings at all. One wide asphalted highway ran down the middle of the city. Untarred roads of warm reddish-brown compacted mud crisscrossed the city. Maybe they were meant to let rainwater percolate down and recharge the water table.
When I got up from my aisle seat to make way for him to exit I said, “Your city looks so pretty – and I love the colour of the soil – is it iron-rich?” He said “No. Phosphorus – we have lots of it.” He smiled and gave a quick wave as he walked down the aisle towards the exit.
We flew back home a month ago, again by Ethiopian Airlines. Same route in reverse: NY – Lomé – Addis Ababa – Bangalore. We landed at Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. It was cold, and we thankfully got into the coach for the 5-minute ride to the terminal.
I found a seat beside a young Togolese woman with a bright-eyed, smiling baby excitedly bouncing on her lap. The baby reached out and touched my arm with his tiny hand. I asked his mum how old he was. He had just turned eight months. She told me his name and he recognised it when I called him. I stretched my hands towards him and he crawled into my lap smiling his cherubic smile. It was nice that ‘stranger anxiety’ hadn’t set in yet, though it was due, I thought. Wrong! He immediately struggled to go back to his mum! I handed him back and wished her “Happy Mother’s Day” as that day was Mother’s Day.
I casually said kids grow up and leave home before you realise it, and she was lucky to have so many years ahead with this baby.
To my surprise, tears welled up in her eyes and she told me that she was visiting Bangalore for the baby’s medical treatment. He had a hole in his heart. I asked, “At Narayana? Dr. Devi Shetty?” She nodded. By then we reached the terminal and the coach stopped. As we left our seats and walked towards the exit I couldn’t think of anything adequate to say except express my hope that the surgery would go well and the little one would be fine.
She looked scared and doubtful, on the verge of tears. In a bid to comfort her I told her that Dr. Shetty was my senior in medical college and he was a good surgeon even then, and yes, I had watched him operate, so maybe she should trust he’d do his best, and try not to worry too much.
Now I hope Narayana Hrudayalaya lives up to my endorsement. I have no personal experience of the place to draw on, and the reputation of an institution or individual found online is not reliable. If you look me up, www.medindia.net will tell you I am an orthopaedic doctor, while another site gets my specialty right but says I have zero years of experience!
I came across this touching piece of writing while clearing out a cupboard last week. It had been left on the table in my office one morning along with a signed note and a glass of orange juice from the hospital cafeteria. This was perhaps twelve years ago.
The Chinese proverb, ‘A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song’, that I had quoted in a book I had written for children in 2006 – and which is the tagline of this blog as well – made him think, he says. I think that merely served as a prompt for what he has brought out so beautifully from deep within his soul . . .
In November 1988 I met a little Kashmiri boy of about eight in a local bus in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.
Unasked, he informed me in Hindi, “I’m Pakistani”.
I naïvely asked why he was visiting India.
He gave me an insolent look and said in a curious singsong voice in Hindi, “I will live in India, I will eat of India, but I will remain Pakistani!”
He surely didn’t come up with that himself. It even had a tune like a much-repeated jingle, the kind that you can’t help saying like it sounds on TV, like ‘washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma’.
And this was in 1988, about a year before the Kashmiri Hindu genocide.
I think the whole system on which Jammu & Kashmir runs is rotten from top to bottom, from the top person in government to indoctrinated kids like this. You don’t expect a fine yield if a wheat crop is affected by blight when young shoots are emerging; the grains will be nubbins. And it looks like it’s been this way with such children in Kashmir since 1947.
This was not all. On a sightseeing trip around town our bus once got stoned by a bunch of people. Another time, when the tour operator had stopped by a shop that sold silk sarees and scarves, we saw our bus suddenly lurch out of its parking spot with some of our group trying to scramble up its steps. We were still inside the shop. Local men were chasing the bus and pelting stones as the driver increased speed. The shop-owners hustled us to the back of the shop and hastily downed shutters. Then they called for a cab (or maybe somebody’s car), peeped out furtively and sort of smuggled us out into the car. We were too dazed to even ask what happened. These people might have been average Kashmiris protecting us – Indians from other states – the way the rest of India is now trying to protect Kashmiri students from angry, unhappy citizens baying for Kashmiri blood, or they might’ve simply been trying to protect their own property.
So you see, stone-pelting in Srinagar is nothing new. I saw it with my own eyes in 1988. Thirty years ago.
One evening there was an explosion in Lal Chowk in the city centre. Luckily, we were staying in the cantonment area in an Army guesthouse a few kilometres from downtown. We weren’t affected except for having to make a number of phone calls (by booking trunk calls using a land line, no cell phones those days) to our anxious parents and others who knew we were in Srinagar. I can only imagine how much anxiety families of army and CRPF men posted at Jammu & Kashmir live through.
Like most Indians I am deeply saddened by the killing of more than forty jawans by an Indian hireling of a bunch of subversive elements. Their modus operandi is simple: a psychopathic coward programs a less intelligent being to kill. Adil Ahmad Dar is described as a shy, introverted high school dropout with average intelligence. A perfect candidate for a fall guy.
Like an agent convincing a flop actor that he has hundreds of fans, his handler wooed him with dreams of success and fame, and a place in a mythical heaven. So he agreed to ram a car loaded with explosives into a convoy of his own country’s soldiers. Before doing this he recorded a little speech and put it on the internet. His fifteen minutes of fame. Poor little minion, a weak Indian kid whose diffident soul fell prey to a depraved person’s machinations.
Tourism is all that Kashmiris have. They don’t produce anything that we can’t easily get from elsewhere. For example, we get apples from Himachal Pradesh and we import walnuts from the US. And the wool for Pashmina shawls sold in souvenir shops in Srinagar comes from Ladakh, not Kashmir. But Kashmiris get most of their daily needs from the rest of India.
A genuinely important cash crop they grow is saffron. Indian saffron is considered the best, supposedly better than Iranian and Spanish saffron. Apparently saffron crops are currently suffering because of corm rot and a lack of water. A little R&D might help the saffron farmers of Kashmir, but who will set up a lab in a place like that?
When I visited Kashmir in 1988 I was advised to avoid buying saffron because what they were selling as saffron was actually a box of hair-thin strands of cardboard dyed red! What a perfect metaphor for Adil Ahmad Dar and his ilk.
A few days ago I was at Trichy, a city about 350 km from Bangalore. One of the places I visited was the Rock Temple. The Ganesha temple stands on a rock that is 3.6 billion years old! This is considered one of the oldest exposed rocks in the world and belongs to Earth’s infancy, the Hadean eon. It’s only a few million years younger than the world’s oldest exposed rocks that are in Australia and Canada apparently, and a lot older than the sedimentary rocks of the Grand Canyon.
As I stood outside the temple at the top I felt the ancientness of India in my soul. Looking down at the town spread out below me I was overcome by the sense of transience that assails me now and then. The spot where Trichy lies has been inhabited for hundreds of years; there are references to its existence in records from 2nd century BCE. A lot is known about Trichy from the 5th century CE, when it was ruled by a string of kings from different dynasties. But two thousand years is actually not a very long time.
When you come down to it, India is just a 100 km thick layer of crust-and-mantle floating on the Earth’s surface. It’s called the Indian plate and is half the thickness of the more robust China plate. Underneath it is viscous gunk that can liquefy anytime and send the Indian plate sliding under China! Geologists say our little chip rifted from Africa about 55 million years ago and was rapidly scooted northwards by mantle plumes deep under the ocean till it rammed into China, partially slid under China, and created the Himalayas.
The Indian tectonic plate doesn’t have deep lithospheric roots unlike the China plate. I imagine India spinning its wheels trying to find purchase, pressed against China by subterranean forces. On the surface of the earth India and China squabble over tiny bits of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. They are forced to diplomatically make the relationship work like two fifth-graders punished with detention for fighting over a desk to sit at. One day the whole of India could suddenly slide, i.e. subduct, under China and cease to exist! This is probably the wrong lens through which I should view international relations, but when I hear the things people running the world say, I wonder if the economics of oil and weapon sales is the only lens that is approved.
Knowing that I live on this fragile little piece of the earth’s crust gives me a sense of impermanence regarding our continents with their tidily drawn lines that separate countries into independent entities, each with its own government, people and culture. We confidently declare there are 195 countries. We live like it was this way since the beginning of time. And we make nukes to ‘protect’ ourselves from our bogeymen countries, when the odds are already stacked against our little Lilliputian race of Homo sapiens.
It took four eons to reach where we have. One eon is about a billion years. Should any of us even consider damaging the one and only beautiful, fragile blue-and-green marble we call home? Imagine if we could think of ourselves as Gondwanites, Laurentians or, even better, Pangaeans with no borders, or even merely earthlings!
This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!
We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.
By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.
We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms wending their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.
A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.
The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.
Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!
The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.
Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.
In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!
The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.
This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.
Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.
This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.
Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.
There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.
The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.
First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.
A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.
There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.
One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.
The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.
In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.
The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!
Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.
On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.
As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.
One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.
I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.
At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.
The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .
I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.
However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language – Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.
A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.
And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pic below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.
We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!
I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .
I could hear someone talking loudly when I neared the little fitness park at the lake this morning. It sounded like a speech. No, it was more like a sermon. People were exercising on the machines as usual. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to the man. In fact, it looked like they were avoiding eye contact with him. He went on, nevertheless. As I got on the cardio-walker to get the morning stiffness out of my legs, I tried to figure out what was happening here.
He was saying he loved to hang out at this lake whenever he came to Bangalore from Delhi, his hometown. He told us we were lucky to have the famous Bangalore climate. True, it was a beautiful June day. Then he began talking about yoga. I zoned out for a bit. When I got back to listening he had moved on to how Indians should not be divided on the basis of religion because all religions are routes to one god and all religions are about being good human beings…
He spoke in Hindi to an almost exclusively Tamilian audience, most of whom neither know Hindi nor wish to learn it! At least, that’s the impression given to the rest of India by Tamil Nadu politicians. Luckily for him, though, most Bangaloreans know some Hindi. He ended his talk with an extra-loud “Bharat mata ki…” and waited for the crowd to respond exuberantly with a “Jai!” The exercising people gazed at him in bewilderment. He smilingly cajoled his listeners into shouting “Jai!” Finally, people smiled tentatively and shouted “Jai!” after him three times as going along with him was the easier way for a bunch of sleepy people at that early hour.
A man slowly got off his machine and ambled over to the preacher. He asked in very basic Hindi, “Do you think there is a god?”
The preacher answered with a smile: “I don’t know.”
“Then why are you talking about him?” There was an edge to his voice.
People stiffened and looked warily at each other.
The preacher kept his smile in place and said, “See, we are having a discussion, we are not going to get angry.”
The man backed off a little, then muttered, “We are always being told to pray to god, to not fight. So when the rest of the world keeps progressing, we keep praying, nothing else…”
He walked off to another machine. After a while he called out to the preacher, “What happens to people when they die?”
The preacher again said “I don’t know” in his mild tone.
“Oh, shouldn’t people know where they are going when they die? You should…” He slid off his machine and bore down on the preacher.
One youngster, apparently anxious to head him off from an aggressive confrontation, called out to the man in a neutral conversational tone, “Why don’t you read some books and find out? Don’t you read?” I expected him to round on the kid but he shook his head and said “No”. He slowly looked around at all the people watching him. He seemed to be in a daze, as if he had just come out of a trance and realised what he was doing. Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
Meanwhile, the preacher had started singing a song in Hindi. The lyrics were on the same lines: Indians are one people, all religions lead to one god, all religions try to make their followers into good people. He was on his own trip in a happy place inside his head, where subtexts and undercurrents didn’t exist.
I left the fitness park and continued down the path to finish my walk. When I passed that point again on my way back he was still singing, and people seemed to have accepted him as a part of their lives for one morning.
Meanwhile, I thought about the other man’s questions. He was obviously fed up with god and didn’t have the patience for platitudes early on a weekday morning. But the preacher was evidently in the middle of a peak experience and had a strong urge to share it with the rest of humanity, and he happened to pick our quiet fitness park for sharing his joy and goodwill!
The paths of people unknown to each other crossing like this, unexpectedly, to create uncomfortable situations, is the stuff of sitcoms, not of an early morning walk in the park. As I walked towards my car, the moment when the man’s face registered annoyance at the preacher’s “I don’t know” stayed stuck in my mind, with the rest of us frozen in our places like a tableau on a stage.
It was lovely being back on a nice big ship again after sixteen years.
My husband’s a captain on a VLCC, or very large crude carrier. It measures 330m x 60m. That’s thrice the length of a 100m sprint track and maybe as big as one of those islands that mysteriously spring up in the South China Sea overnight!
Here are pictures of the anchor chain, and the spare anchor stored on the main deck. The accommodation is about 200m in the distance.
I had no access to WordPress during my month-long stay aboard. But, seriously, I had nothing to write about because I mostly write when I’m riled up. I read, watched movies and enjoyed the company of the other people on board. The food was great and the best part is that I didn’t have to cook it myself!
The deck officers and engineers were from different countries and the crew, including kitchen staff, was Filipino. Diversity of this sort makes for interesting conversations. I love how my mind stops being preoccupied with my usual worries and frees up space for all the new information that is invariably shared, mostly at the dinner table, when everyone gathers together after work.
Igor, the chief mate, is from Dubrovnik in Croatia. Apart from the well-known collective headache caused to the people of Dubrovnik by tourists after GoT was shot there, life in his city is good. The Croatians I sailed with in 1990 had been a worried lot as Yugoslavia was in the middle of a bloody civil war at the time and was breaking up into many small states, one of them being Croatia. Igor happily told me all about his wife, kids, parents – and even in-laws! – and I got to see snaps of all of them. What a lovely, doting husband and father, and what an adorable pair of tiny twin girls!
Ante, the third mate, is from Split, Croatia. He was reserved, but as we were often the only two people having lunch in the saloon at noon he would talk to me. He told me he had worked on cruise ships before switching to tankers. Really? Did he have to talk to passengers? He answered in his characteristic grumpy style, in that European accent that sounds so innocent and childlike: “Buth I usually avoidh them. They ask the sa-ame sthoopid questions, in the sa-ame ordher – ‘whath is your name, how long you sailing, where you from…’” His brilliant blue eyes filled with disgust at the mere memory of it. “Here I don’th have to thalk to anyone!” But as he continued to talk about Split and his life there whenever we were at the lunch table together – and even smiled occasionally – I guess ‘anyone’ didn’t include me.
Living in India where the population only goes up and up, I was surprised when Samuel, the second engineer, told us that the population of his country, Bulgaria, is falling! From nine million in 1985, to seven million now. Why? Because of the economic collapse after the fall of communism in 1989, and because of Bulgaria joining the EU in 2007. So where did two million Bulgarians go? To Germany, along with two million Romanians! If Germany accommodated them, plus all the refugees it’s been taking in, maybe Lady Liberty should be relocated to Germany from New York, especially with Trump’s new policies!
Dinner table conversations with Samuel and the Egyptian chief engineer, Tareq, were fun actually. I miss them. Samuel’s wide-ranging topics – from Baba Vanga and Akashic records, to movies and documentaries, to recent research in tech for studying the mind – were always engaging. Since Tareq’s communication style didn’t allow for nuance, he made some pretty interesting, but jaw-dropping, statements! Really, the way different people express things can leave you totally surprised. The electrical engineer, Kris, who is from Poland, was once telling a group of us about some scientific work on black holes. He got frustrated because he couldn’t get the name of the scientist, went bright pink with the effort, finally slouched in his chair, bent his neck to one side and proclaimed, “That guy!” Of course, it was obvious that no disrespect to Stephen Hawking was intended.
I spent forty minutes every evening with the deck cadet, Llorenç, to add a little to my meagre knowledge of Spanish. Llorenç is from Mallorca and speaks Catalan and Spanish. We wrote out conversations for translation around our own experiences. I wanted to learn to say things in preterite tense as I had only done lessons in present continuous when I attempted to learn Spanish before. This way, I could talk about things that have already happened in my long life rather than simply give a commentary in present continuous!
Before I met LIorenç I knew nothing about Mallorca except that it’s a tourist destination and that Rafael Nadal is from there. Now I feel as though I’ve spent a few days with Llorenç and his girlfriend on their island, visited their new apartment, and seen all his favourite haunts. Mallorca is now a place that I think of warmly; it’s no longer just a smudge on a map.
I loved being a part of this little community. It was like a family. Most nights, especially moonlit nights, I used to look out of the porthole in my cabin and feel very peaceful as the ship quietly sailed along the course set for her. I knew that our conscientious young second mate, Daniel, had carefully set the course, and it had been double-checked by the captain. I knew that Ante, Daniel and Igor, during their watches, would be monitoring the radars and other instruments carefully up on the bridge through the night. I felt safe ensconced in my bunk, with the ship rocking ever so slightly. There was the slightest vibration from her engine – a comforting sensation – as she made her slow progress out of the Gulf, crossed the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, squeezed through the traffic of the Singapore straits, then sailed up north through the South China sea, to finally reach Ulsan in South Korea over twenty days.
I loved the clarity of knowing that the ship had only one thing to do: transport tonnes of crude oil from Kuwait to Korea. Everyone worked towards this one goal in a perfectly coordinated operation.
When we neared Ulsan the pilot came in a pilot boat and the crew lowered the pilot ladder for him. He climbed on to the deck and went up to the bridge to guide the ship towards the SBM (single buoy mooring). The engineers down in the engine room monitored the main engine as per the commands given from the bridge control.
Then, two tugs made sure the ship wouldn’t ride up on to the buoy. Around then, the loading master arrived on a boat from the port.
The chief mate and his crew set up the equipment for cargo transfer on the main deck, the loading master coordinated between the ship and the shore, the deck officers took turns at manning the Cargo Control Room, and the entire operation was smoothly completed over several hours.
We had a chance to go ashore by boat at Ulsan port. The ship chandler, Mr. Bak, who supplies our ship provisions, took us around in his car.
We got to see a bit of Ulsan and try Korean food.
As we were driving down a city road Mr. Bak reverently pointed to a wall that seemed to go on for ever: “Hyundai factory.” A bit further, another never-ending wall: “Hyundai port.” Eighty percent of the cars on the road were Hyundai, including the one we were riding in.
Ulsan was preparing for Buddha’s birth anniversary on 18th May. Buddhist temples were decorated for the occasion.
Just a thought as I end this nostalgia trip: One of the sentences I had written out for my Spanish class with Llorenç was ‘I couldn’t bear to get rid of it (my old moped).’ He translated it as me sabía mal tirarla. I asked why me sabía mal, not me senti mal. He thought for a moment, then placed a fist over his tummy and said, “No… it’s like… bad food…” I thought about it. There are things you feel in your gut, and not through your senses, so you can’t use sentir, I suppose.
Me sabía mal. This is how I felt when I walked down the gangway for the last time. As I sat down in the boat that would take me ashore to catch a flight back home, I looked out at the ship that had been my home for a month, until it disappeared from view.
Shippees maintain that friendships on ships are only up to the gangway. True. They can only rarely sustain friendships that are forged over three or four months of working together. But I will treasure the delicate threads of memory of the time spent with these guys. They are bits of colourful weft woven through the largely neutral (beige? teal? mauve?) warp of my life. For this one month, they were family, and I’ll feel the warm glow of the camaraderie I shared with them, whenever I think of them.
We’ll be boarding this ship and sailing out of the Persian Gulf tomorrow, bound for Korea. I’ve been in and out of this narrow channel so many times in my life that it brings back a flood of memories.
There are two that stand out.
It was Christmastime in 1990, and my husband was chief mate at the time. Our ship was anchored at Fiumicino in Italy. As we had a couple of days free Capt Milo gave us time off to visit Rome, 32 km away. We bought a map, chose the places we wanted to see, plotted a route and walked to most places, covering many miles, dossing down at a pensione at night.
When we returned to the ship after two days, completely tired out, we heard the shocking news that Operation Desert Stormwas likely to be launched by US-led coalition forces on 17th January in Iraq. Ship life those days was pretty isolated and we barely knew what was going on in the outside world. As our next port of call was going to be inside the Persian Gulf Capt Milo had decided that I should sign off the ship at Dubai, just a little way into the Gulf, but far enough from Iraq-Kuwait to be safe. That was going to be around the 10th of January.
When we reached the Gulf of Oman we had another shock. There were dozens of American naval ships massed around us. War was no longer something we only heard about on the radio (those days we got television only in port) but was right here, and these ships were a part of it.
I disembarked at Dubai — along with two other crew members whose tenures had ended — and flew home.
What happened to the ship after I left? She remained anchored in the Gulf of Oman for over a week awaiting voyage orders. On the 19th she sailed into the Persian Gulf to load cargo at Ras Tanura. My husband tells me that they passed an American aircraft carrier with her attendant fleet of frigates. He saw fighter jets take off from her deck. Jets from US army bases in Saudi also flew across the night sky frequently as the bombing usually happened at night.
Another vivid memory is of the time in 1993 when our ship sailed out of the Persian Gulf loaded with crude oil from Ras Tanura in Saudi, for discharge at New Orleans in the US. What happened as we sailed out of the Gulf is something that still gives me goosebumps and I’ve written about it an earlier post.
We eventually signed off that ship in Dubai. My husband and I were amused to hear our toddler son’s excited observations about land, after having been on a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) for four months without ever going ashore.
“So many Christmas trees!” He had only seen the tiny tree set up in the saloon at Christmas!
“So many aunties!” There had been no other women on that ship!
When we returned to India we were baffled by his homesickness for the ship, when he would cry to be taken back ‘home’, and would only be placated by watching the videos we had taken during the voyage.
On Friday we left Kuwait city behind and drove southwest down Route 70 towards the Saudi border. There was a sand storm, not a severe one, and the sky was reddish-brown to the east.
In some places the sand glowed golden in the ethereal light.
We reached a wide expanse of desert where there were several cars parked haphazardly. We pulled over to see what was there. All-terrain bikes (ATV) were available for hire.
People were riding them at top speed across the miles of flat sandy desert and up and down gentle slopes. We had a go too. Half an hour of riding at a good speed with no traffic (and certainly no traffic jams of the kind I’m used to in my home town Bangalore) and no kerbstones to set boundaries, was exhilarating. Liberating.
Kids were amazingly good at handling them! And they were having good, clean fun outdoors too.
We drove further to what we think is the Al Ahmadi ridge where we saw a family picnicking near their parked car, a common sight in Kuwait.
There were a couple of people walking on the escarpment, deep in conversation. Nice place to have an interesting conversation actually.
Some men had ridden the ATVs all the way up the road to the escarpment from the place where they were being hired out.
We drove back down and took Route 70 towards the border of Saudi Arabia. The storm had driven sand onto the road and it was piled on the hard shoulder.
It was a great day!
Note: No photo has been edited. This is exactly how the world looked that day.
We’ve been living in Kuwait City for about a week now. Living because we’ve been given a furnished flat by the company my husband works for. Which means shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning and laundry to do, unlike staying which means hotel, sightseeing and eating all meals out.
It’s a quiet, fairly spacious, flat in downtown Kuwait City. The sea front is just 10 minutes away on foot. On Friday evening – which is the weekly holiday here – we took a long walk along the beach. It was also the beginning of the Liberation Day weekend, the 26th anniversary of the end of the First Gulf War. A quarter century ago a lot of adults living here now were kids or young adults and have memories of the war. There is an awareness and appreciation of what it means to be free, and it comes through in the energy you feel swirling around, a feeling of relief and joy that conveys they don’t take freedom for granted. The parents’ indulgent expressions as they watch their kids run around freely seem to say “thank god they can have a childhood like this.”
Families were out in full strength fishing, flying kites and having picnics. Nobody has picnics in Bangalore any more, so happy families eating biryani sitting together on sheets spread on the sand was a heartwarming sight that brought back childhood memories.
There was a cool sea breeze and the sun set in blue-grey and gold, understated spectacular, like discreet jewelry.
It rained all Saturday, so we stayed indoors.
Sunday brought great weather and celebrating crowds out into the streets. Kids were dressed in the colours of the Kuwait national flag.
We were warned by locals that the kids would be hurling water-filled balloons at people on the sidewalk. We took the risk and had a couple of near-misses, but it was fun being out there among happy people. It was fun to see kids throwing water-filled balloons and squirting water at passing cars using water guns, thoroughly enjoying themselves.
We spent the evening in the historic Souk Al-Mubarakeya market that sold everything from toys, fabrics, garments, vegetables, fruits and spices – to gold. Lots of gold.
We peeped curiously into a shop selling what looked like wood chips. The young owner invited us in for a sweet (in plate in the corner of counter in pic) and a shot-glass sized tumbler of Kuwaiti coffee that is brewed along with cardamom and boiled till it is reduced to a thick decoction. No milk, no sugar. The shop sold pieces of the bark of different trees brought from Assam in India for burning like incense in homes here. He told us he had lived in the US – mostly in LA – for six years as a student. He missed the burgers at In-N-Out the most, and in a burst of loyalty to In-N-Out, he disdained McDonald’s as “only for the homeless!”
The market encloses a vast square surrounded by small eateries. It was packed with diners and we found it hard to find a table. Mountains of food on huge platters kept arriving at tables, borne aloft and deftly served by agile and expert waiters. What a sight! (pic below)
The evening ended with a short fireworks display with infants screaming in terror at the din. I remembered how my kids had cried in fear on their first Diwali and smiled to myself. Rites of passage . . .
The 26th is also considered part of the Liberation Day although 25th is the official one. That was the day in 1991 when the last few Iraqi soldiers who remained at the Kuwait airport had been vanquished.
Yesterday was the 26th. We walked to Kuwait tower which is about 5 km from our apartment block. The scenes were exactly like the day before: kids, kids, kids running around everywhere, squealing and shrieking with joy; water-filled balloons splattering, water guns squirting, flags flying, cars adorned with flags cruising, happy families picnicking on the little grassy spots that must have been carefully nurtured as nothing seems to grow here except date palms and petunias!
In fact, on the way to Kuwait tower I was surprised to see a stray hollyhock plant in full bloom in a square little flower bed outside an office block. Was it planted and forgotten? Its stem was bent at right angles and lay parallel to the ground. What a pity. She could’ve been ‘the stately lady hollyhock’ if someone had watched over her.
Anyway, it was another lovely evening both in terms of weather and the festive atmosphere. Walking back, we passed the marina where rows of dhows were tied to the jetty. It looked beautiful lit up the way it was. All of Kuwait City did, in fact.
Tomorrow the city will return to normal: kids will go to school, men will go to work and women will tend to their homes and children, I suppose. And the streets will be swept clean of the colourful debris of celebration, the rubber balloons gleefully tossed and abandoned.