Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kabul - 2

It was a cold morning. Cold by my standards of course. We had slept upstairs. While JP slept in one room, Aj and I shared another. I, of course, was given the single bed that stood in the middle of the room, in honor of being ‘older’ and being a woman. Aj had made his bed down. JP did his magic trick with the heater… half an hour of clanking while he ‘taught’ us how to work the monster. We never learnt, of course. During our whole stay, our hopeful pokings at the heaters never convinced them to light up… it was as if the heaters waited for JP, like forlorn lovers, waiting to be set alight with his magic touch! JP would regularly scowl at Aj, probably wondering why a strapping, young six-plus-two could not light a measly heater… and our shared hilarity, barely suppressed, did nothing to quell JP’s temper, possibly only fuelling it more!

So … it was a cold morning. And we came down to a flask full of tea. JP was going out of his way to be nice to us – I mean, we knew the French and French idea of hospitality, after all. Our cumulative experiences in Paris had sent the community many, many notches down in our esteem. But then, that is another story. And while we were sipping tea, JP came in with Naans. Foot long naans. Our breakfast. And we munched at this different tasting naan with a little cheese and jam. It filled us up quick…. And while we lazily hung around, JP tried to coax us into going to work… Our walk to our work-place meandered through Karte Chaar. That is what this area is called, said JP. The streets were lined with rundown looking shops of various kinds, so much like home. Many of them vied with one another playing loud music, another one like home. Was that Hindi film songs being played?! Did you see that, said Aj. Wasn’t that a picture of “Tulsi”? That’s when we realized the Bollywood had quite invaded Kabul… the shops fronts were lined with posters and pictures of Apne Log… It felt odd. One usually was used to ‘looking up to’ everything non-Indian.. and here we saw people crazy and idolizing about India!

The French Embassy was fairly unassuming. The office even more so. It was simple and nothing like what an opulent, lush, overly self-important, Indian Embassy would look like. We were introduced around to the ex-pats and Afghans alike and set up quickly at two tables. We were in business. You have to give it to the French. They knew how to put you to work quickly and efficiently.

We quickly discovered that our Hindi worked. Most Pashtu Afghans knew Urdu and thus were able to understand Hindi…. And happily we chatted to Kamal, Ghulam and others. We also met Gerard and some other French girls who managed JP’s project. JP was the Architect. The French were re-building the Teachers’ Training Institute and the ‘french’ extension to the library in the University. Both of these were in Kabul. JP was also building the Juvenile Home at Herat. And off we went to see these works.

The TTI was already constructed and in use. It felt like any normal institute teeming with the energy of young people. JP gave us a nice introduction to the building, showed us the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, explained to us his basic approach and the reasoning of his design. He had, he said, kept as much as possible to the original design. The roof was traditional. The old foundations were kept and the new structure built over them. And just by keeping the old foundations, as they were in good condition, he had managed to retain the original flavor of the building, because that automatically determined the shape and size of the structure.

There were some anomalies, of course. The ‘auditorium’ looked very ‘western’, oddly out of place. The chairs completely alien. Why so? Everything, JP said, had to be imported from France. Every chair, equipment, window-frames… you name it. JP said that there were no good artisanal workers available anymore. People had lost their crafts and skills… and the ‘quality’ of what they churned out was far below par. I had my share of questions... Why couldn’t the local people be trained? Why couldn’t France be more patient? Couldn't the project bolster the local economy? Why weren’t any locals on the team, except in ‘assistive’ and menial capacity? These questions did not pop up just then, of course. They slowly started taking shape over the week… as we went to project after project… of every country, of every type … and faced the same method, the same rationale, the same approach. Over time, my discomfort slowly and steadily increased.

The next day, vague suspicions began to sprout when I talked to their ‘Finance’ person. She handled the money and the funds of the project, she said. I, curious as ever, and wanted to hear other ‘stories’ of her experience. She told, quite innocently, that she had no previous experience. She was actually a kindergarten teacher. She was out of work and on dole and she was assigned this job as a ‘volunteer’. My stomach churned. A kindergarten teacher? On dole? Handling millions of euros of an architectural, construction, and International Co-operation project? I couldn’t quite digest this.

Our talks with K and G revealed more. What work did they do? What was their role in the project? And by and by we discovered that they were the ‘interface’ of the project. Basically all "international projects" had the same approach... the ex-pats ‘executed’ the project with local ‘partners’. The local ‘partners’ provided the linkages to the local bureaucracy, markets, suppliers, labourers and workers, and filled them up with the local ‘lingo’. The ‘interface’ was also a euphemism, which I only realized for what it was, after our own post-tsunami reconstruction finished. The ‘interface’ basically trouble-shot, pulled out the chestnuts from any local fire, took the brunt of any local ‘troubles’ and basically was the ‘frontliners’ that kept the ex-pats safe and protected from local bureaucratic and legal hassles. But then I am being unduly catty, and acerbic. Should I be a little more compassionate? I couldn’t be. For it only got worse.

While an internal disquiet was taking birth, we continued playing ‘happy guests’. We played Hindi songs from our laptops… and before we knew it had the whole office surrounding us, chatting and sharing excitedly. People had forgotten (thankfully) that I was a woman, and talked freely to me too. GB came out of his cabin, wondering what the commotion was about… and saw to his amazement, his quiet-as-death office transformed to a lively, happy, energetic interactive space. The French kept their reactions to themselves. In all this G invited us to lunch at his home the next day. They were having some ‘function’ and his whole family from all over was gathering… would we like to come? Of course! A traditional Afghan function? Who would ever miss an opportunity this??

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kabul - Arrival

The whole journey from Delhi to Kabul was filled with excitement… filled with many firsts. My first sight of the Himalayas, my first sight of snow-clad mountains, my first visit to a war-torn country. I knew not what to expect. We were literally going in blind. With no information whatsoever on JP (our host) or anything else. If JP didn’t come to the airport, we might as well be dead.

Aj couldn’t have been a better travel companion. I was meeting him just a second time, the first time was in Paris, where we hadn’t interacted much. A travel veteran (which I only discovered later), he patiently listened and tolerated my incessant chatter… oh look at this ! oh look at that! Please please click this photograph!... and so on. It never occurred to me that he must have been very much amused at my childish excitement… but then Aj being Aj, he could be nothing if not sweet.

The first sight of Kabul was amazing. It was nestled in a ring of high mountains. Couldn’t quite ‘see’ the city… no high rises… no smoke… no ‘signs’ of a metropolis. Before we knew it, we landed, and through the window we saw lined, aircraft upon aircraft, of every shape and size – fighters, bombers, helicopters, rescue-planes. We were quite stunned at the reality of what it meant to be at war.

The airport itself was impossibly small – not even bigger than the airport in my city. Felt as ancient too. The general aura of the place was frightening, tense.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we sighted T. (He was the French-end projects guy). With him was JP. And what a guy! He fit to ‘T’ every description of a M&B hero. Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome… and a guy who worked in difficult conditions! I was totally smitten, of course. We piled into his rickety car … while T recounted his week at Kabul. The sights, sounds and smell felt so much like home, yet so alien. Billboards advertising cellphones, televisions… armoured cars… armoured car? hello was that an armoured car??? Oh gosh!

Men wearing pathanis, a completely different dress-code. Not many women around, though.

We came to the road that was passing by the American Embassy. And that was my another first – an encounter with sand-bag walls, electrified gates, tortuous, lethal looking somethings embedded on the road that would tear the tyres apart in a jiffy, if one tried to ‘run’… no running away here… and massively built, grim faced commandoes with the military specification machine-guns. We were searched. Papers examined. Clipped questions. Stuccato answers. JP looked like an Afghan. He did not look like the normal white man. Hence the questioning. We were passed through … My respect for the ‘rebels’ grew… these guys, with their out-of-date technologies, and lack of ‘resources’ could circumvent such organization?! Wow. What was brought home then was that clearly the hares were much smarter than the hounds, in any situation… that a bunch of underfed, ill-equipped, in-hiding, on-the-run brigands could bring down and keep an organized, well-equipped, well-funded, well-fed, healthy, and strong ‘structure’ running in circles… something to be said for them after all. Sides and politics not withstanding.

That journey from the airport to JP’s place was a journey through lifetimes, a journey in education. Crumbling walls. Shell-shocked buildings. We were completely bug-eyed and as shell-shocked as the buildings! What are those pock-marks on the walls, I wondered… “bullets..”, said JP with a sideways look. Oh! (JP was also the strong and silent type, I forgot to mention!). But more shocking than the war-torn buildings was the ‘normal’ life that seemed to thrum and thrive around. People went about their daily business. As if nothing had happened. Children played around on the footpaths. People shopped on the streets. Life like anywhere else.

We reached JP’s place. A ‘regular’ RCC structure. Big. Empty. Cold. We will light the heater, said JP… and for the next half-hour we gathered around the ‘heater’ and watched while JP tinkered and coaxed an ancient, time-warped, grey monolith …and brought it to life, to the collective sigh of relief !

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Trees seems to have their own character... shaped by wind, rain and sun and their own destiny, they twist and turn or stand tall or spread wide and strong... each tree will have its own stories to tell... the many years it has seen pass, and what it has watched go on around it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


In the fields ... organic, pesticide free and ... yummy !

Village Khatuaha, Samasthipur District, Bihar.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In the Middle ... as always.

Prem Sankar Singh, is a performer of the first order. Amazingly articulate, and entrancingly theatrical, he held us rapt, in the grip of his agitation about Kala Pani. He agonized, energetically, about the pains and travails, the Sugar Factory brought to the people of his land, as it spewed its poisonous waste into the water-logged lands around in the Runni Saidpur block.

Prem Sankar Singh, promised a 'jail bharo' agitation in January. The People were at the end of the tether, he said. To this, Ram Sevak Singh piped up "jail bharne se kya hoga ...? pehle bhi kuch nahin hua hai, aur abhi bhi kuch nahin hoga..." meaning what will happen with this? nothing has happened before and nothing will happen now. "Bihariyon ka khoon garm nahin hai...", he disparaged at the helplessness of the people.

Prem Sankar rose fittingly to the occasion. "Hum madhya-wadi hain ...", he continued. The people of this land are moderates, and have always walked the middle path, he defended. Look at Ram. He didn't go off at the deep end. He stood at the shores of the ocean, and tried negotiating with Ravan. Give back my Sita and we will go away, he had said. And Krishna? What did he do? He went to the Kauravas, on behalf of the Pandavas. Give us 5 villages, he said. And we shall not fight. And Buddha was of course from here. He attained his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.... So how can we fight? It is in our nature to seek compromise.

Hmmm. Had never thought of Bihar to be madhya-wadis ... especially considering the tales one gets to hear of the rule of the gun. But then, one learns new things every day.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two ancient men and a quirky generator

It was 11.30 in the night. The fog swirled around us, blanketing everything. Visibility (what visibility?) was reduced to probably 10 feet. And Sunil, our most capable driver, was concentrating driving on the narrow, narrow roads, perched high above the ground.

Satyendra kept calling up, trying to find directions. Yes, we were trying to find our way to the Ashram, in a foggy dark night, with directions being given over the mobile phone. We couldn’t see anything in front of us, leave alone make out turnings, little pagdandis, left or right. Satyendra was certain we would find the Ashram, while I was equally certain we wouldn't. Doubts crowded in my head, while John happily gurgled at the back, the edges of his anxiety firmly blunted by a good drink.

And while we were looking around for the lanes and bye-lanes of the given directions, Satyendra carried on with his commentary on the side ... we were crossing Bangaon, he said. Bangaon is a most unusual village. In deep, remote Bihar. Almost all the IAS officers of Bihar and some of the best bureaucrats spread out in India came from this village. Don't ask why. But this village was blessed by Maa Saraswati.

Finally we found the 2 electric poles, standing side-by-side. I mean, where else would you find two poles standing side-by-side ??? We stopped. Totally, hopelessly lost. Stay put, said Rajendra Jha, I will come and get you. And we waited and finally we saw a bobbing, pale torchlight !! Saved !!

We made our way into the Ashram, pretty much dark, a lone small LED lamp battling valiantly against the dark. And Baba came out from inside the depths of some cavernous room. They proposed to put on the generator. They clanked around, under the pale light of the torch, while I sat inside that cavernous room, shivering and trying to keep warm. And finally, after 15-20 mins of energetic clanking, loud discussions, we were told there was no fuel !! So we went to sleep. A very comfortable bed indeed, in their training centre. A mosquito net. Many blankets. And we all slept, warm as bugs.

Morning revealed to us, what, thankfully, the night did not reveal. These two men, the guardians of the Ashram, were ancient !! One at least 70 while the other over 85 !! These two were staying alone in this remote ashram ????

But they were no ordinary men. They were people who had walked side-by-side with Vinoba Bhave during his Bhoodan Movement, had worked alongside Gandhiji during his satyagraha. They regaled us with memories and incidents of the Bhoodan movement and satyagraha. Real, live experiences, no history book chapters were these. And they had done some wonderful work with rain-water harvesting - the megh-jal abhiyan - the rain-water campaign.

And they were so generous, so so wonderfully hospitable. Baba (yes, the 85 year old), was spry and could leap across steps to quickly serve hot rotis before we could even finish the word. Old, did I say ? Think again.

And the generator? It did start, with a good drink of a litre of petrol. We needed it to charge our cameras – modern day, equipment, which gasped their death, at fading batteries. Huh.

The Temple of Ugra Tara

One evening, after we had finished our work for the day, we looked around for chai. Unexpectedly, we were near the temple of Ugra Tara. And, surely, we went in.

Tara is not only an ancient Hindu Goddess but also one of the most important Buddhist Goddesses.

Apparently, the term Tara, from the Sanskrit root 'tri' means deliverer, saviour, to "take across" a river, an ocean, a mountain or any difficult situation. Tara also means 'star'. Hence she is the star of our aspiration, our muse who guides us on the creative path.

Ugra Tara, just after her daily,
ritual "bath"

Ugra Tara, is her aroused, or demonic form. And apparently, she loves liquor, meat and utter devotion. Animal sacrifices, of goats and cows, are common. Goats are sacrificed regularly, while cows are sacrificed during Dasshera.

Yep. The animal sacrifice place. The big one is for
the cows and the small one for goats.

Apparently, Ugratara temples are extremely rare in this part of the country. As far as it is known, there is no other regular temple of Ugratara anywhere in Bihar, although the image of Tara particularly of the Pala period have been found at various places, including Kurkihar in Gaya district. The worship of this rare deity at this inaccessible village excites curiosity.

Ugratara is also known as Maha-Cina-Tara and this later Buddhistic image has been imported to India from Tibet through Nepal. Saharsa district is quite close to Nepal. The frontiers of Saharsa district and the district of Saptari in Nepal adjoin.

Ugratara is an image of Tantric culture.