the road to partition

Preparation for this trip included reading literature (Canadian authors, of course) situated within or directly related to India. Many years ago, my first memorable exposure was Anita Rau Bandami’s, The Hero’s Walk. Paradoxically, I have a limited recollection of the plot but enough to recommend it to others. More recently, I was subsumed by Anosh Irani’s The Parcel a tough and difficult account of enslaved prostitution and The Song of Kanunsha the story of organized, exploitative begging in Bombay. This past summer was the perfect opportunity to tackle Rohinton Mistry’s more than 700 page opus, A Fine Balance. It’s story recounted the divisive caste system and the persistently discordant gender norms; it’s universal message for thriving, or at a minimum, a lesson in survival.

M.G. Vassanji’s latest novel, A Delhi Obsession, was released in September, providing one more book to contribute some understanding of our destination country. Numerous two page bed side reading evenings, including one re-start, amounted to only about thirty completed pages by the time our plane took flight. A late evening departure and the allure of in-house movies meant the first substantial reading happened here at Basunti Lodge, after a few days in Amritsar. The delay proved fortuitous because the experience of the city and it’s history, particularly it’s central place in the Partition, has enriched and illuminated M.G. Vassanji’s story.

In short, one protagonist, Munir Kahn, is a recently widowed writer whose Muslim family immigrated from Kenya, having escaped the city of Delhi. His wife was Scottish and they raised a daughter in a non-denominational Canadian home in the city of Toronto; early on in the book, she marries an American Jew. Seeking to rekindle a creative morass and rediscover his Indian heritage, Munir visits Delhi and encounters the second main protagonist, Mohini Singh, a Hindi woman in an unhappy marriage to a traditional business man. Their affair is the subject of much personal introspection with the backdrop of the growth of Indian nationalism under the baggage of the Partition.

Entrance to the Partition museum

We learned the details of the Partition on our visit to the museum where the graphic details are displayed in texts and images, first hand accounts of Sikh and Hindi slaughter at the hands of the Muslims. With the independence of India from Britain, Pakistan to the west and Bangladesh to the east were created as Muslim states along semi-objective border lines, an announcement which precipitated the largest mass migration in history. Despite the depiction in the museum, the atrocities occurred on both sides. The constant reminder to Munir prompts him to respond, “no point in telling [them] that there was killing on both sides.” Estimates of the numbers, according to the 1996 edition of the Lonely Planet, informative reading here on the shelves of our Basunti hosts, range from a quarter to half a million dead. The shadow of the Partition remains long and the rise of nationalism, one of Vassanji’s motivation to write his book, can only resurrect the violence it brings.

The stadium and crowd of India

Our second experiential lesson was a trip to the Wagah-Attari border, equidistant between Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar. There is a mock display of posturing and strength between the respective armed militia separated by iron gates, in front of 30,000 people daily, to lower each country’s flag and ending in a quick handshake supposedly reminiscent of the agreement to draw the precise border line.

Marching before the crowds

Each side has a permanent u-shaped stadium to house an audience and atmosphere akin to a football (soccer) match. Raucous singing and chanting, pumped up by a circus master, drums and pulsating music, vendors selling drinks and popcorn. Each side takes turn parading out their soldiers and at other times competing with each other to be the loudest and most boisterous; all seemingly in good fun, and and in spite of the history of the Partition.

Whereas others in our party viewed the whole exercise harmless and a healthy form or country pride, Olga and I saw it as a prelude to the potential rallying of the troops in response to not unprecedented government aggression in the wake of rapidly rising nationalistic ideology.

Lest we forget.

guess who’s coming for breakfast

Entrance to the kitchen

4:30 am.

David welcomes me with a good morning, asks if I would like a tea. Every day begins in the kitchen in preparation for the upcoming meals of the day, including fresh baked loaves of bread, my reason for rising at this hour: to witness the work of our host here at the Basunti Lodge. David pours the water, adds the sugar and then starts gathering all the necessary material for baking.

Raju arrives, exactly on time, 4:40 am. He has been working for David’s family for thirty years, beginning with their tour company for the mountains, north of Dharamshala, Raju’s home. Familiar greetings in hushed voices; not whispering, just loud enough to be heard but not enough to disturb the morning. Raju begins with the fruit juice, cutting each in half, gathered from the trees grown on the property, squeezing them through the hand leveraged, sturdily built, Italian presser.

David sifts the flour to catch any extras which it may contain from the locally sourced, stone grist mill. He kneads the dough by hand on the beautifully non-stick granite counter, because the mixer makes too much noise for this time of the morning. The dough goes on top of the fridge where the heat from the motor will help it rise faster. Raju has since moved to the other room which appears to be the original with its brownish orange tiles while David remains in the other half, an apparent addition of screened windows, and a roof of thin slate supported by bamboo. Here sits most of the equipment and the exit to the cold shelter. The two don’t speak much; they know the routine.

Cleaning, peeling, slicing, dicing, chopping, shredding consume the next hour.

back kitchen

With my presence, David ventures into a number of different areas of discussion, largely to my probing, some to pertinent observations. Meals, he explains, have become more complex because food allergies are common. David attributes the phenomenon to the environment; I think it is the result of obsessively clean, protected living. That thought launches us into a recall of our upbringing where we were sent outside to play, fend for ourselves and come back for supper, or before dark. A question about the vegetarian diet at the lodge leads to a warning about eating meat in India because of the inconsistent supply of electricity to keep it adequately refrigerated. Meat is dubious; vegetables are safe. A reminder of the novice local electrician who eventually learned his trade after being sent flying across the room from shock.

The dough has risen allowing for the mixture of walnuts and raisin in one half of the severed mound, pumpkin seeds for the other. Nothing is measured; a handful of this, a tip of that, and a pinch here,  folded into the dough then plopped into the pan, seam side down and placed atop the warming convection oven for the next rise.

Time for the next cup of tea, one of which David will bring to his home for Izzy as she awakens.

The modern equipment has taken much preparation more predictable but the essence of bread making remains and not as complicated as others might suggest, or so says the finalist, winner of 100 British pounds, for the 1980 Sandwich Maker competition held at the Savoy Hotel in London. At 6:35 am, David has determined that the bread has risen to the perfect height and the loaves are popped into the oven.

David excuses himself as he heads outside to stem off a rogue monkey who has been eating from his garden and diminishing his salad crop. No luck in catching him; oh well, continue with the preparations.

Everything in place, on time, so the bell rings at exactly 7:00 am beckoning the guests to come for tea and coffee. I go to the top of the building to catch the sun rise, amidst the wafting fragrance of fresh, baking bread.

Another new day begins.

a road runs through it

Travel day.

We left the city of Amristar on the next leg, this part by vehicle. Our experience on the train, and the view from the road shows extensive flat lands in this part of the country. Not the wide open fields of Canada’s western provinces where the only sight across the long span of wheat is a grain elevator; rather, here the expanse is divided into numerous forms of vegetation, checkerboard fashion, defined by a furrow of dirt or a cropping of greens to walk in between. It is a country of proportions which can be managed with manual labour occasionally aided by an animal driven cart. Trucks are used; farming machinery exists; but the work is completed with the hoe and the knife and the shovel.

In between the roads run through small towns where the shops hug the edges; people and vehicular traffic navigate through the narrow passage, checking the wares, the blindspots, the gaps in flow, the opportunities for passing, the chance to make a move, the avoidance of the lights coming at you. Cows are more abundant, taking their rest here, there or in the middle, where it stares at the vehicles, not blinking, and cars swerving, not slowing.

Sign at the gas station pit stop.

Our vehicle emerged from one such village, and they appeared: the mountains. Suddenly, without warning, the flat lands colliding with the snow topped peaks in the distance. Now the trees appeared closer, the view was shorter, the roads more rugged. Slowly we began our ascent, winding along an increasingly rugged road crossing the border into another state, greeted by monkeys.

The first glimpse of our destination burst upon us crossing the dam; to the left a vast open valley divided by a river; to the right a broad span of water dotted with islands, back dropped by the Himalayans; above us wide open sunshine. Then the turn into, seemingly, a dirt driveway, except it kept going, and going. The road became a path, washed out in parts from the just finished rainy season, marred by rocks and holes and branches; curves around corners, teetering close to a precipitous drop, the van banging, rocking, swaying, inching forward. Stop, reverse and there, the sign, Basunti Lodge. Greeted warmly we found our spot for the next eight days in our room with a view.

The view from our room. Note the snow topped mountains just beyond the clouds.

We have arrived.

on golden temple

Amritsar is known for it’s history especially for the impact of the partition (subject of a future blog), and as the home of the Golden Temple. It is the Vatican to the Sikhs, with all the splendour and ceremony and reverence.

The Golden Temple

More than a visit, our time was a pilgrimage witnessing the devotion and passion of the Sikh community to the place and the beliefs. We were accompanied by a guide who seemed to mix history with religious expectations and personal philosophy as Mirander walked us through the gates and into the palace of gold. Two elements of dress were required: your head needed to be covered (my hat did not count) and you must walk in barefoot. I don’t recall an explanation for either but it created a sense of humbleness.

The temple itself was a scene of singing and prayer, bodies limp in adoration, heads bowed in deference, voices raised in joy. We walked around the centre where elders (?) chanted, many responded, while others lay prone. And people kept moving as many, many more were behind and following for their time. Regardless of your own beliefs, religious or otherwise, devout or sceptical, the place inspired reflection of ones place within the world, questions of one self and our role, conscious or not.

Golden Temple at night

Our day tour included a back room look at the 24 hour kitchen which serves 80,000 people each day with food and drink. It is the most demonstrative action of the Sikh devotion to service. Volunteers working like a human machine to provide the sustenance to the relentless throngs.

Men at work
Women making roti

To describe our experience as unforgettable would somehow diminish it.

Awe inspiring is better…

Spiritual. Yes, spiritual.

tuktuk

For the last couple days we have been moving about the city in a tuktuk; think of a motorcycle with encased in a metal, covered chariot. They vary in size from two to four to six person seating; and the operative word is seating, because we have witnessed them overflowing with bodies beyond the recognizable capacity. The drivers manage the organized chaos navigating bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, people and cows. And with nary a stop light to be found, every moving motorized object honks and squeals itself into place, jockeying for an advantageous position, flashing lights of warning and squeezing into their destination. Driving is more of an art than a skill.

Our first chariot

Each ride has been an adventure. The first night our group split into two tuktuks. Despite assurances neither knew our destination. They were ready to drop us off in a large square, surrounded by shopping, (which was the object of our venture) but not the agreed spot. Loud negotiation, a change of tuktuk, and wild gesticulations and we nudged back into traffic. We alerted our driver to our destination on the other side of the road separated by a median. He conducted a u-turn and passed the store, again. We urged him to stop, and walked back after paying 200 rupees, the equivalent of 4 dollars for a 45 minute, unscripted tour of Amritsar. The ride home was by the Indian version of Uber, called Ola, via a telephone call from our waiter at the restaraunt, for 84 rupees ($1.60) in five minutes.

Another adventure began in the pouring rain, four of us jammed into a two person tuktuk for a negotiated 100 rupee ride. Elbows hanging out for the two on the edge, the ride was going to be uncomfortable, and wet. The windshield wiper was not working for the driver as he hunched forward, squinting through the streaking water, inching through the jam. His counterpart stopped us, shouted there was a mistake and offered us another two person tuttuk for 200 rupees, but this one had flaps. For perceived safety sake, we switched vehicles with two on the seat, two facing backwards sitting on the edge of our drivers seat. Heavy rain and flooded streets, doused by waves of water from passing cars, our minute chariot driver raced to our destination, himself soaked. He turned into our guest house, the entrance flooded with five inches of water. Honking incessantly, the gates were finally opened and we were able to depart on drier ground. We paid him an additional 100 rupees.

View looking backwards at another tuktuk going down the same street

There are more comfortable ways to travel, where you don’t breath the fumes or sit face to face with your companions or look in the eyes of every passing motorcycle driver; but, the tuktuk is the best way to experience the streets of the city as a passenger. To paraphrase the band, Immaculate Machine, I loved you for your tuktuk.

last train to Amritsar

Early this morning, 6:30 am to be precise, we left our hotel with the same driver accompanied by an assistant from the travel agency who’s only responsibility was to get us on board the train to Amritsar. It is a 447 km, six hour “express” ride, which turned out to have numerous stops along the way. A delay getting through the traffic and a long line to pass security had us feeling anxious but we were assured we would make the departure time. The line passed a number of people sleeping on the ground, separated from the floor and the elements by only a thin wool blanket. Our escort explained they probably missed a train or it was cancelled; and could not afford to wait inside. We thought they were homeless.

We rode Executive Class Chair Car which has the sound of luxury. While clean and spacious, the title did not match those expectations except by comparison to the other India rail options. Clearly the quality of the train and the class of cabin is measured by the size of the windows. Narrower glass versions, only a 1/3 the size of our 8 by 4 foot view, were for first class; second class consisted of even smaller cutouts, without glass, encased in bars with elbows and arms hanging out from overcrowded compartments. For protection from the elements, passengers would need to roll down the battered metal shutters.

Image
Executive Class

I really don’t know if the other classes had access to toilets, but I am sure they did not have choices between the Western style or the other. The latter wasn’t labelled but a peak inside showed a stainless steel hole in the floor.

I also imagine the other cars did not receive the breakfast of the Executive. We were served by the same two moustachioed, expressionless servers who balanced the tin tray in their left hand while distributing or collecting with the other, stopping every few seats to balance the load. They traversed back and forth in the car, shelling food on the first pass, gathering the leftovers and dishes for a breakfast which stretched from 7:30 to 10:00 am. In order, we received a tetra pak of buttermilk, followed by a bottle of water with a paper cup. Shortly after we were served tea with biscuits and later a bowl of Kellog’s Cornflakes with warm milk. Lastly we dined on a two egg, plain omelette on finger chips and boiled peas, topped with a final serving of tea. All in all, a hearty and civilized meal.

First Tea
Egg breakfast

We decided to take the train to Amritsar rather than fly so we could talk about the train experience. The sights along the way were an eye opener, but Olga and I both commented on how many aspects reminded us of our bus ride in Mexico, or our driving through cities in Tanzania. The train crawled out of the city past mounds of refuse, grossly pocked brick walls, shanty towns of various material, and laundry strewn in every which direction. The scene was similar outside the city as the sun struggled to pierce the smokey haze enveloping northern India. People were scattered among the debris standing, squatting, walking, seemingly aimless. Long abandoned factories, half built houses, and garbage abound.

At one stop we witnessed a grandfather brandishing a big, broad smile with a colourful bouquet of flowers as he welcomed his family with hugs and kisses to the city. They all walked off the platform, arm in arm, talking and laughing with blissful joy.

The scene reminded me of the essence of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “You have to maintain a balance between hope and despair…In the end, it’s all a question of balance…. There is always hope – hope enough to balance our despair. Or we would be lost.”

and so it begins

The plane left Toronto November 4 10:30 local time, an hour late, landing in Delhi the next day at 10:30 pm. Twenty four hours squeezed into 13, consisting of two and a half movies, an attempt at reading, spurts of shallow sleep, a somosa snack and two airplane meals. The lyrics from David Bowie’s Space Oddity kept repeating in my mind: And here, sitting in my tin can, far above the world. I don’t know if the earth was blue, … or black for that matter since those along the windows kept the blinds closed. The flight tracker showed us traveling across the Atlantic, south of Iceland, through the Scandinavian countries, north past Moscow then south into the series of ‘stan’ countries, over Kabul and arriving in Delhi. Were it not for these details, the flying tin can could have taken us anywhere. We are in India.

Already well past midnight, our vacation starts with a short night sleep and a wake up call at 6:00 am so we will be prepared for our driver to pick us up at half past the hour in order to get to the train station on time.

and so it begins…..

anticipation

We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
Carly Simon

In less than 48 hours we board our flight to India. Preparations for the trip have been a long, drawn out process of ensuring every detail has been considered and/or a plan is in place. Permission for vacation time was obtained six months ago, which prompted the purchase of tickets; arrangements with a travel agency in India were secured for hotel and transportation needs (it will be a planes, trains and automobile trip); insurance was purchased for the “just in case” circumstances; vaccinations have been reviewed (no, malaria pills are not really necessary); and rupees have been obtained for the non-credit card purchases. The check marks on the list now outnumber the blanks.

The mention of vacationing in India to others immediately prompts a sense of excitement and sometimes envy for embarking on such a long journey into an unknown land. The conversation then turns into a series of “don’ts” and cautions and words of advice, some grounded in experience and others founded in media images. Don’t drink the water or eat fresh salad for fear of contamination. Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket and certainly do not carry significant cash. The pollution in Delhi is particularly high; the streets are packed so be extra vigilant; watch for the beggars and thieves preying on tourists. Raised eyebrows ensued when we mentioned a five hour train ride from Delhi to Amritsar. Are you going to hang from the side or would you rather ride on the top? Don’t fall asleep and chain your luggage to prevent it from being stolen. But don’t worry, you are going to love it; the trip will be life changing.

Worry also persists on the home front in accounting for the more than three week absence. The neighbour will pick up the mail everyday and put out the garbage. All the bills have been posted for payment. Outside, the preparations for winter are in place; inside, the rooms have been cleaned as if guests were arriving. All the arrangements have been made for Olga’s 101 year old mother: an agreed schedule of visitors has been confirmed, including a priest; the emergency contacts have been arranged; the location of important documents have been identified; and the messages to be repeated with each conversation have been memorized.

Preparations won’t end until the cabin doors are closed and the plane leaves the tarmac, the point of no turning back.

We are tired anticipating what might be. The trip itself is still far off, distant, unreal.

my writing history

Several years ago I had the opportunity to join a work related visit to China. I had traveled before, mostly to Europe for personal vacation, but a trip to East Asia seemed to be a wholly different world. I wanted to share that experience with my family so each night I wrote an email home describing the day. Initially the content was a list of activities but as the electronic letters accumulated, my writing expanded into observations particularly of sights or practices which appeared out of the ordinary, at least to my western eyes. All of these emails were saved and every once in awhile I reread them and smile.

I have been very fortunate to have returned to China on several occasions, as well as Tanzania, and have continued the practice of writing home each night. My readers grew to selected colleagues, extended family and as importantly, my father. Dad was always keenly interested in these exotic destinations, particularly my very brief incursion to Uganda in 2017. But by then he had lost his capacity to speak and writing became my one consistent and durable form of communication to stay connected from a distance. Indeed I took to writing a note to him on a card each week and sending a postcard from wherever my personal and professional travels took me. My Dad passed away in the spring of 2019 and the writing of notes and postcards stopped. I have retained all of them and in rereading I realized how they form a memoir of sorts, a marking of the events of my world – some profound, some mundane, some needing to be read out loud, others to be savored privately.

my writing history encapsulates the spirit of this blog and my motivation to continue telling stories, to sharing my experience in writing and in pictures.

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