Saturday, June 1, 2019

Social Contract (The Caravan)

The Hyundai Santro that picked me up last December at a bus stop at Oon, a small town in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, had a bumper sticker that read, “musli ki kripa”—musli’s benevolence. Unlike the usual references on bumper stickers, musli was not some local deity. It was, in fact, an herb, a cash crop cultivated by farmers of the region, which is widely used for Ayurvedic medicines and sold at a price as high as R1,500 per kilogram. As we drove to the village of Raibidpura, Deepak Verma, who owned the car—he was the sole car owner among the farmers in his village—proudly claimed to have brought this unconventional crop to the village.

It was not musli, however, that had brought me to Raibidpura. I first heard about the village, in 2017, when I learnt about how its residents were excelling at contract bridge—a four-player card game, generally perceived as a game of the urban elite. Located just over twenty kilometres from the district headquarters, Raibidpura was predominantly a village of farmers. Deepak told me that the majority of the farmers in the village, which has a population of around five thousand people, belonged to the Gurjar community, which is classified as Other Backward Classes in Madhya Pradesh.

Raibidpura is not a typical Indian village. The farmers here have experimented with non-traditional crops such as musli. The crime rate is negligible. A significant part of the population consists of schoolteachers. Mass weddings are often held, to help lower expenses. And then, there is the obsession with bridge. The game, which is believed to have arrived in India in 1904, has been an integral part of Raibidpura’s culture for over five decades now.

(Read the remaining text of the piece here!)

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Postcard from Mattur (The Indian Quarterly)

We step down from Talguppa Express onto the platform of Shivamogga Town Railway Station at 5am. Still adjusting to the light after a short night’s sleep, I squint at the illuminated minarets of a nearby mosque.

My husband and I hail an autorickshaw to traverse the 10 kilometres to Mattur—popularly known as Sanskrit Gram. It is Eid-e-Milad today. Shivamogga is decorated with strings of tiny green bulbs twined over trees and networks of suspended green prayer-flags which seem to bring crescent moons and stars closer to the earth. The only constant sound is the vroom of our rickshaw. For the last few kilometres to Mattur, the dark road becomes narrower, as if squeezed by the areca nut and coconut plantations on both sides.

Our destination, sans sufficient street lights and signboards, is at a missable turn. We have a room reservation at Sanskrit Bhavan adjoining Sharda Vilas School. We are welcomed by an illuminated statue of the Goddess of Learning, poised and decked-up for our early morning arrival. The Bhavan houses four spartan rooms (named after Sanskrit scholars: Vyasa and Valmiki with attached bathrooms, and hot water facilities, Panini and Chanakya without amenities). The village is otherwise devoid of any hotels or restaurants.

Mattur is a hamlet in Karnataka inhabited by about 350 Brahmins who live in a designated cobblestone square. The Brahmin men wear their traditional white cotton, two-part attire; long tuft of hair on crown of head; three horizontal white lines (tilak) on forehead; and walk mostly barefoot in their quarter.

I sit with one such man—Lakshmi Upadhyay—on the ghat by the river Tunga. Upadhyay is a Kul Purohit (family priest by lineage), invited by people in villages and cities alike to perform rituals for life events such as birth, house-warming, marriage and death. “We are like jokers in a pack of playing cards who are common to all and who can be joined with any item,” he says, referring to how they are prerequisites to various family occasions.

Read the full article in April-June issue of IQ available at your nearest bookstore! The online version is here.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Arms and the flag (Reader's Digest)

Alex Tivane was angry. The Mozambican tourism professional opened the Paint application on his computer and erased an element from his national flag. That element was an AK-47. "I painted the best approximation of the background colour over the gun," Tivane, who has been using the revised image as his profile picture on Facebook ever since 2013, recollects. According to vexillologists, Mozambique does not have a flag code (a law that lays down a description and specifications of the flag).
It is the only country in the world that showcases a modern firearm on its flag. The other elements on the tricoloured flag include a hoe representing agriculture, with it crossed against the firearm and superimposed on an open book symbolizing education, and all three overlaid on a star, which stands for international solidarity. Flag expert Bruce Berry at the Southern African Vexillological Association (SAVA) specifies that 4 per cent of national flags depicted weapons on their flags in 1999, according to the paper 'VEXISTATS: A Statistical Overview of the Colours, Symbols and Designs of National Flags in the 20th Century' that he presented at the XVIII International Congress of Vexillology. However, he adds that all the weapons on flags except AK-47 (which has been in use since 1949) are antiquated; for example, a spear on Kenya's flag, dagger and sword on Oman's flag, and arrows on the US Virgin Islands' flag. "Mozambique's flag is the only one to feature a modern automatic weapon," Berry says.
The AK-47 on Mozambique's flag is symbolic of the war for its independence, which was finally granted in 1975, in which the Russian firearm was used. However, the gun on the flag does not just remain as a souvenir of the past; it is very much relevant to present-day Mozambique. Two years after the country became free from Portuguese rule, a civil war between FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) and RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance) broke out, which lasted for more than 15 years.
Aly Sattar remembers a specific day during the civil war as if it was yesterday: 14 February 1991. It was the day he lost most of his family to the bullets from AK-47 -- his father, infant sister and toddler brother. They were travelling in a convoy to neighbouring Malawi to escape the war. The incident, however, did not turn Sattar against the weapon that killed his loved ones. He says, "The AK-47 is a sign of victory from the Portuguese colonizers, it can or will not be removed from the flag."
While the civil war has officially ended, FRELIMO, which is the ruling party, and RENAMO, which is the opposition party, continue to fight for power -- harming many civilians like Tivane. His work entails promoting tourism in Mozambique. When the unrest escalated in 2013, Tivane says, tourism in the country was severely affected. As a consequence, Tivane's clients -- hotels, lodges and resorts -- mothballed their properties, closed down or stopped paying him. He wants peace in his country for his business and the tourism industry to resuscitate. "We can't have peace if we revere arms," Tivane says referring to the AK-47 on his national flag.
The AK-47 has been a part of the Mozambican flag since 1975. (The current design was adopted on 1 May 1983, and bears close resemblance to a FRELIMO flag.) FRELIMO, which led the war for Mozambique's freedom with AK-47s, has been the ruling party post-independence till today. In 2005, the government initiated (with a push from RENAMO) a public competition to redesign the country's flag, especially to take down the gun from it. While allowing leeway for creativity, the submissions were mandated to
incorporate the following themes in the design: the blood shed in the struggle for independence, national unity, peace, democracy and social justice, and the country's wealth. A jury was appointed, 169 entries were received and a winner was chosen.
The winning entry, among other changes, replaced the AK-47 with a red ball to represent the bloodshed. Jose Forjaz, architect and graphic designer, who designed it, says, "We were given a theme that fixed the motives to be represented in the flag: the blood of our heroes, the riches of the land, the sea and peace. I interpreted those elements designing the black profile of Mozambique's coastline, the green of the land and forests, the blue for the sea, the red ball for the blood of the heroes, the golden stripe for our mineral richness and the white stripe for peace. This was too abstract for our members of parliament … even if the jury declared it the best submission. I felt that I could contribute to a progressive image of the country." The parliament with FRELIMO in majority did not give its approval.
The contest could not change the flag of Mozambique, but it could have subconsciously influenced Tivane to make the change, at least on his computer. He has put up the flag that he designed (sans the AK-47) as icon of the 'Travel Safe in Mozambique' page on his portal.
(The article is featured in September issue of Reader's Digest. You can read it online on RD's website here!)

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Monday, October 10, 2016

The Persian Way (Travel+Leisure)

When Homa Rastegar moved to Munich, Germany, the driver of her taxi from the airport happened to be a fellow Iranian. At the end of the ride, she offered to pay but the driver refused to accept the fare saying that he cannot charge her as Rastegar belonged to his country and that she had just arrived at the new city.

Even if Rastegar had moved to Tehran, Iran, she would have most certainly encountered a similar episode. However, if Rastegar was aware of her culture’s particular aspect at play here, she would have recognized that the taxi-driver was merely practising tarof.

(Read remaining article in October issue of Travel+Leisure (India & South Asia) magazine!) 

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Monday, August 8, 2016

In this country, a no means yes (Conde Nast Traveller)

A random day in December 2003 in Sofia, Bulgaria: Justin Chapmans was waiting for a minibus to take him to the Hadji Dimitar district. When the bus arrived, he asked the driver for his destination to which the driver signalled him to board the bus. In response, Chapmans shut the door and the bemused driver drove away.
Chapmans, an engineer and real estate professional, had recently moved to Sofia from Canberra, Australia, and wasn’t familiar with the local language. He thought he could get by with some body language. Big mistake!
For most of the world, a head-shake from side to side denotes a ‘no’. Bulgarians, however, do that to convey the affirmative. Strange, perhaps, but there’s a reason. Some version of the following tale explains how Bulgarians reversed the meaning of the head-shake: during Ottoman rule in Bulgaria, the Turks were forcing locals to accept Islam by placing a sword on their necks. In this situation, nodding up and down to accept the conversion could mean a slit throat. So, to affirm, they shook their heads sideways.
Read rest of the article on CNT's website here!

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