Monday, January 21, 2019

From ‘Travels in a Dervish Cloak. Adventures in Pakistan’ by Isambard Wilkinson



…..Islamabad …..the expatriate cliché was that the city was ‘twelve miles from Pakistan’, the distance to the nearest ‘real’ city, Rawalpindi ….. ‘half the size of Arlington cemetery but twice as dead’ was another witticism….

…Pakistan ….For although a Muslim state, it was riven by the Hindu caste system its inhabitants disavowed; thus Rajput looked down on barber and barber on the darker-skinned Christian and lower-caste Hindus, who were traditionally ‘sweepers’, street cleaners. The North-West Frontier and Baluchistan were overtly tribal with most matters settled by councils rather than the courts and administration inherited from the British. Even the feudal, plain provinces of Punjab and Sindh ran along the lines of tribe and caste. The writ of the government was feeble in most of the country, which hung together loosely on a dog-eared colonial structure of cantonments, district commissioners, railway signalmen and post office clerks. It also seemed to adhere to the empire’s old prejudices as laid down in its gazetteers………where ethnic groups and peoples were classified in such categories as ‘Criminal Tribes’.

The Nawab [of Bugti] had regaled us with tales of the Baluch, a warrior race who, with the Kurds, he said, traced their origins back two thousand years to Aleppo in Syria.

Balaach, the greatest medieval Baluch warrior hero, held that ‘War is looked upon as the first business of a gentleman and all Baluch are gentlemen.’

…….Punjabi is a language that lapses into profanity regularly….

….Partition ……..A Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wrote, ‘This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled, this is not that long-looked-for break of day’.

Much of the country’s officialdom runs on Johnny Walker Blue Label, despite Pakistan’s law, which forbids the Muslim population to drink alcohol……….The least remarkable thing about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam (‘Great Leader’), once one accepts that much of the Muslim world runs on Johnny Walker, is that he ate pork, drank whisky and smoked fifty Craven A a day. More notable is that through sheer bloody-mindedness he created a nation-state. ….He was born to a middle-class Gujarati-speaking family of provincial merchants from the Shia Khoja minority. ……..Although Islamists had always hated him because of his moderation and secularism, most Pakistanis saw him as a sainted figure, blessed with the sort of virtues that are praiseworthy in others but undesirable for oneself…….he was a modern, liberal, stiff, secular, not very religious type of Muslim of Shia origin and his creation was a feisty, backward Sunni Muslim state dominated by Punjabis and Islamists.

Pakistanis lionize Akbar as a great Muslim leader, but in truth his legacy is unpalatable to Pakistanis official view of itself as an orthodox Sunni state…….there is some doubt whether he even died a Muslim ………he didn’t believe in the existence of Satan; he found Arabic religious commentaries on Islam muddled and contradictory; and he questioned the story of Koran’s genesis, doubting its heavenly origin and treating it as a historic document in a way that Islamic scholars five centuries later are only beginning to dare to consider.

The evening bore the usual hallmarks of a decadent Pakistani gathering. Vast joints of hashish were rolled; vast joints of hashish were rolled; vats of whisky sloshed down throats; and plans made for a journey that never took place.
There was much bragging, servility and sycophancy. ………And small, largely fabricated …….victories were celebrated.

Ghalib………whom many Pakistanis recite with passion and at length:
Na karda gunah ki bhi hasrat ki milay dad
Ya Rab agar un karda gunahon ki saza hai

Do give me praise for regrets of sins uncommitted
If there is to be punishment O Lord for sins committed

…Punjab …..a wheat basket divided by the bloodiest events of Partition; home to beefy backslapping ploughmen and the supplier of soldiers to armies for centuries. In spirit, it is earthy, humorous, with a firm grasp of realpolitik. ‘Don’t eat shit with a spoon, eat it with a spade,’ Punjabis say.
The country’s most affluent province, due to its agriculture and textile industry, is in many places as backward as any part of the country.

Multan ……its old reputation: a city of heat, dust, beggars and graves. …….the city’s two main saints’ shrines ……Rukn-i-Alam ……and ……..Bahawal Haq…….
The tomb of Bahawal Haq (also known as Bahauddin Zakariya) is an immense bastion of fired bricks……Haq’s tomb was erected near an ancient fire temple built by Hindus. It had once been home to a golden statue of a sun god which had been smashed by various invaders, several times repaired, and finally destroyed by the Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The fire temple itself was destroyed again and again over successive centuries. Its last remains were finally extirpated in revenge for the destruction by a Hindu mob of the Babri Mosque in India in 1992.
……..Even 800 years after his death in 1262, Haq’s direct descendants own thousands of acres and wield considerable political power locally and nationally, his sainthood having been handed down from father to eldest son.

……Haq was benevolent as well as powerful. ‘If you give something to somebody,’ he once said, ‘you should give it with a flourish.’ It’s that flourish that you see all about you in Pakistan. It is in the salute to a stranger from a man working in a field; the hand that offers a stranger a seat or some food on a bus or train … or in the thwack that a minion gives to a fellow underdog to impress a new master.

Manners, charade, theatre, acting our roles with due aplomb; in Pakistan these things are as important as water, or more prized than the truth.
The magnificent dome covering the tomb of Rukn-ud-Din Abul Fath, known as Rukn-i-Alam, ‘pillar of the world’, gleamed like a white prayer skullcap. Supported by a brown brick octagonal drum that rests on a colossal, wider octagonal bastion, all ringed with strata of blue tiles, it is perhaps the fourth largest dome in the pre-modern world after Hagia Sofia, St Peter’s and Gol Gumbaz……….

In Pakistan the local name for Alexander, Sikander, is never far from people’s lips.

………I changed the subject by canvassing his views on politics………It was a game I often played in cities, asking for opinions about politicians, partly because I was always surprised by the forthrightness of the replies, and partly for the pleasure in seeing that the urban masses were under no illusions about their leader. In the countryside, where feudals exerted influence on every aspect of life, people were more circumspect……

He was the master of the Pakistani florid introduction………..

When he’d finished eating, he stood up to leave for some midnight appointment – here people work at all hours except the morning. Everybody instantly dropped their bowls, plates and forks ……and followed…….A scene that could have played out at Louis XIV’s court, it revolved around the Punjabi worship of power – nobody wanted to appear less than the most loyal of fawning disciples, nor to miss out on a morsel of favour that might fall from their lord’s hand.

…..the village. It was the usual Punjabi contrast of immaculate interiors and exterior squalor…..

Millions of Pakistanis were living in a state of medieval superstition, ripe for manipulation by mullahs, politicians and bogus holy men.

…..gouging one of his ears with a car key, as many Pakistani drivers like to do.

….the disregard with which well-educated

….the disregard with which well-educated Pakistanis so often treat their poorer compatriots.

…the old mixed culture of Pakistan, whose tolerance of heterodoxy was particularly strong in Sindh, a place suffused with Sufi spirit, where the lines between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and non-Muslim blurred.

….Chitral falls within the Pathan-dominated North-West Frontier Province …….the locals, ethnically , were Kho, speakers of Khowari. Known as Agha Khanis, they belonged to the Aga Khan’s Nizari Ishmaeli Shia Muslim sect, which here had adopted some of the ancient shamanism and ritual of the Hindu Kush and become a faith apart. Locals viewed both Shia and Sunni with some ambivalence. They believed in the transmigration of souls and they had their own mystical, ethical and metaphysical books (mostly written by their mystic, Khusro). Any elder could perform a marriage ceremony; people freely drank wine; and they were not fussed about the manner of slaughtering animals. ……now, Siraj said, an increasing number of Pathans were migrating to Chitral, raising fears that they would bring their violence with them.

…..the fairy-abode mountain of Tirich Mir stood centre-stage, a reference point for all Chitral. It was the stunning tower of rock ……The British traveler Wilfred Thesiger, recalling a landscape visible from its peak, of grassland, brown patches of bog and glittering water, wrote not long before he died .

The vast majority of the twelve million or so Christians in Pakistan traced their ancestry to the ‘untouchable’ Hindu Chuhra caste from Sialkot, Punjab, where mass conversions took place during the 19th century under British rule.

Its never long before a visitor to Pakistan is regaled with the following stanza, which is sometimes, probably erroneously, attributed to Khushal Khan, a great Mughal-era Pathan poet and warrior: There is a boy across the river/whose arse cheeks are like the pomegranates of Kabul in spring/alas, the river is wide and I cannot swim.

In his The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1905), the British soldier-turned-yogi Francis Yeats-Brown ……..noted while serving on the frontier in Waziristan, that ‘Sex life is more necessary in a hot country. The hysteria which seems to hang in the air of India is aggravated by severe continence of any kind. At the end of Ramadan, for instance, my fasting squadron used to become as lively as a basket of rattlesnakes.’

…..a Graham Greene line: ‘Scruples of cleanliness grew with loneliness like the hairs on a corpse.’

I set off …….to the shrine at Buner on the edge of Swat, the resting place of Pir Baba, a saint madly popular among the Pathans. ……..taking refuge in the fabulous gurdwara at Hasan Abdal ………shrine of Pir Baba ………The saint’s history is obscure…now Pir Baba is revered as a cave-dwelling philanthropist and mystic who had set up a leper colony in these hills….when the militants arrived ……They had driven out the area’s Sikhs and Hindus, who till recently had united with Muslims in gatherings, which included women of all those faiths, to worship here through the night in bewitched vigils of chanting and devotion.


From ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ by Kevin McCloud



[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Tour - The term "Grand Tour" refers to the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip of Europe undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperon, such as a family member) when they had come of age (about 21 years old). …….. the Grand Tour was primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry……]

Historically, visitor’s didn’t even come to France for the food: it was oily, garlicky, over-spiced and over-sauced and frog’s legs were viewed as a poor substitute for good, honest Protestant roast beef. They came instead for a crash course in Continental culture at the first stop on foreign soil and an opportunity to acquire the requisite manners and appearance for entry into foreign courts.

Built by Henri IV from 1605 to 1612 to designs probably by Baptiste du Cerceau, the Place des Vosges represented a concerted effort to create coherent cosmopolitan splendor in a city that was generally claustrophobic, chaotic and cramped. This was the first formal square as we know it with terraces of identical houses on four sides. It was built for the Parisian nobility, who had always resided in country chateaux or ‘hotels’ (private houses) scattered throughout the city ……In a radical departure from the norm the thirty-eight houses were all built to the same design ……..the Place …..architecturally it put Paris on the map. ……..the square ……it is a true square – represents the city’s first real attempt at town planning and was the prototype for countless city squares across Europe…the square’s uncanny resemblance to Covent Garden Plaza…..

……..farm-produced Parmesan cheese, which is one of the world’s finest ……Parmezan, as it is known – or Parmigiano Reggiano – is the pride of Parma and the surrounding area. …..In the medieval allegorical work The Decameron, thought to have been written between 1350 and 1353, the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio dreams of ‘a mountain of grated Parmesan cheese on top of which there were people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli’. The playwright Moliere begged for a chunk of it on his deathbed. Napoleon was a big fan and Samuel Pepys famously buried his Parmesan in the garden to protect it from the Great Fire of London……it was a costly indulgence for English gourmands.
Its appeal lies in its unique flavor – deemed to embody ‘umami’, the so-called fifth or ‘savoury’ taste……..It is also pretty unique among cheeses as one that consumes all the lactose from the curds and so its acceptable to those with lactose-intolerant stomachs.

……..Vicenza, an extraordinary city……..

Venice was variously described by visitors as ‘a stinkpot, charged with the very virus of hell’, ‘more noisome than a pigstye’ and ‘cursed by nauseous air’. The dirt and stench was overwhelming – the shit, piss, cooked food and dead animals were not collected by night soil men but dumped in the canal to be hopefully swept out to sea or collected by inland farmers for fertilizer. But to most British tourists the real source of astonishment was the air of moral abandonment and casual depravity.
In 1358 the Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be ‘absolutely indispensable to the world’……..Thomas Coryat put the number of courtesans there in the early seventeenth century at 20,000…….

Florence, Firenze, the flowering city, may be the cradle of all that is noble and cultured in the Western world, but only because it was one of the world’s great capitalist cities. ……..no Grand Tourist could fail to be amazed by one building in Florence – one towering structure that dwarfs all others and still dominates the city – the dome of the cathedral. The Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flower) was begun in the thirteenth century by city fathers ………At the time they were confident that someone would develop the technology to span the huge hole in the roof, but by 1400 nobody had – until Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up to the challenge…….It is still the largest masonry dome ever built …….It delivered an engineering masterpiece which was to inspire both Michaelangelo’s St Peter’s and Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s. …… Brunelleschi’s dome was not just a technological wonder; its size and height make it visible for miles, even from surrounding cities. …..the Duomo’s superdome gave Florence a giant personality. Almost a century later……..it was Michaelangelo who defined the essence of contemporary Florence. Firstly with his statue of David – a High-Renaissance hero on a truly colossal scale – and then with the Medici Chapel…..Commissioned at the end of the 1400s by the Medici family, the wealthiest and most powerful of the wealthy bankers who climbed out of the Florence power-cradle to become rulers and popes, the Medici Chapel is extraordinary, both architecturally and as a statement of power. ….. Where Brunelleschi’s dome was a symbol of Church and State, the Medici dome was all about the enforcement of a dynasty and unabashed personal power. And there are many that have found and continue to find such personal architectural statements offensive.

…….most Grand Tourists were simply smelly. After weeks spent travelling in a crowded carriage in the summer heat the baths must have been a godsend. This was before the days of deodorant, and opportunities to bathe en route were few and far between. Travelers had to resort to wiping their armpits, groin and teeth with a coarse linen cloth doused in vinegar – the antiseptic of yesteryear…..

Rome …….Pope Sixtus V and his architect Carlo Fontana had laid out streets and boulevards in the 1580s…….In the 1530s just 30,000 people inhabited a city built for a million, leaving space aplenty for the popes to implement their extraordinary vision for a new Papal City on an epic scale………..If you want to remodel a city, a fire that destroy’s 13,000 buildings clearly isn’t enough. You need a city which is empty, as Rome was. It also helps if you’ve got a despotic monarch or emperor as Paris has had in its time. Or best of all, a pope. We hardly ever got it right in Britain because our cities weren’t laid out by despots – and they hadn’t been laid aside to crumble for a thousand years. They were busy vital places that had grown from villages and towns and it was hard to reinvent them in any other than their sprawling form, grown as they had on principles of the free market and freehold ownership. The only real exceptions are Bath and Edinburgh – eighteenth century model towns laid out on a truly grand scale and done so on huge speculative scales.  ……..Presiding over all this papal splendor were two magnificent epic domes – the Pantheon and St Peter’s – and the tiny, but equally perfect, Tempietto.

Although the Pantheon, the most famous dome in the world, has been converted into a church, no amount of Christianizing it can hide the fact that it is powerful, primal, and pagan – and does anything but make one feel virtuous. It is gigantic and mysterious, like it was created by devils – and was indeed known as the House of Devils at the height of the Grand Tour. Renaissance thinkers believed it had been constructed by demons, not humans, such is its scale. ……The oculus – the hole in the Pantheon’s roof – is as wide as a three-storey house is high. ……the tiny but famous tin-pot Tempietto, built by Bramante, the first architect of St Peter’s in the early sixteenth century. It has been called the most perfect building in the world.

……….the Temple of Vesta, an unusual (at least to the eighteenth century eye) circular building composed of columns.
The temple sits above the wide plain of the Campagna, beyond Rome, a plain with a rich history…….The temple itself is an exquisite Corinthian edifice and it seduced and inspired countless visitors…..the celebrated view of the Temple of Vesta was (and still is) magnificent…..

…….remodelling swathes of British landscape, is exactly what inspired young aristos like Henry Hoare II, the son of a wealthy banker, who ……..created in the 1740s one of the most idyllic landscapes in the world on his family estate at Stourhead…..created a 100-acre fictional paradise. He damned the River Stout to form a great lake, directed his gardeners in the art of ‘painterly’ landscaping, and generally proved just how much effort was needed to get the natural look……..It is still there, the first English attempt at a 3-D reproduction of a Claude painting, replete with temples, a bridge, grottoes and a lake. Every device needed for a re-enactment of any scene from classical mythology, and still today, in my view, one of the most exquisite pieces of landscape design ever carried out.

Hadrian’s Villa is perhaps the greatest rural palace of Antiquity. Built between AD 118 and 128 by the Emperor Hadrian, it was a dazzling assortment of thirty or more buildings on a 300-acre site, with the hills of Tivoli as a scenic backdrop. Much of the architecture was inspired by monuments elsewhere in Hadrian’s vast empire, particularly in Egypt and Greece. It was constructed and staffed by thousands of slaves.

Robert Adam….found perhaps the most useful and inspirational ideas at Hadrian’s Villa. Here, as at the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace at Split, which he visited ………are the expressive ideas that he was able to import to Britain, market and promote to huge success …….Adam hoovered these ideas up and presented them in a new coherent style of design and decoration that we still marvel at today and associate, more than any other style of building, with the great English Country House.

The area around the Bay of Naples has been a magnet for the rich and famous since the days of Ancient Rome…….As you might expect from a population which has spent thousands of years at the mercy of a capricious volcano, the inhabitants of Naples were, and are, astonishingly superstitious…….many Neapolitans lived – and still live – in abject poverty. In the eighteenth century, of a total population of 300,000 an estimated 40,000 were lazzari – a tight-knit class of paupers who survived on the streets, picking pockets for a living…….

Until the mid-eighteenth century almost nobody went to Greece. It was part of the Ottoman Empire and was not an easy and safe place for the Western traveler……….

Lord Elgin’s misdemeanours. His most audacious act, the ‘liberation’ of the Elgin marbles……..Elgin oversaw the removal of countless Antique treasures, including around half of the surviving sculptures in the Parthenon. And he destroyed parts of the building in the process………Elgin claimed the moral high ground, arguing that his actions were designed to preserve the ruins from mismanagement by the Turks and to ‘improve British taste’…….The legality – and moral probity – of Elgin’s actions remains in dispute. The New Acropolis Museum contains an empty room awaiting their eventual return. …….

Greece is cursed with few forests and blessed with much good marble.

Set in verdant pinewoods with commanding views of the sea, the Temple of Aphaia exemplified the Greek approach to the site. Where Roman architecture was more urban, its external expression often amounting to little more than a single façade, the Greeks conceived their temples as three-dimensional objects in the landscape. Imposing from every angle, they were placed on mountain tops, between symmetrical hills, in valleys, and on mounds, depending on which god or goddesses they represented.

The cave on Antiparos in the Cyclades Islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea was one of many natural wonders ……….a truly astonishing site. The oldest stalagmite in Europe, thought to be 45 million years old, marked the entrance to a cave which burrowed down into the rock for a 100 metres or so, leading to an underworld fairyland of rock formations and stalactites……the cave had, in fact, been famous for over two millennia…….

The inevitable and dreaded part of every Grand Tour involved crossing the Alps, via any one of a number of high passes: the French Petit or Grand St Bernard Pass, the pass via Mont Cenis or a variety of routes through Switzerland………Chamonix opened its first guest house in 1770 and by 1783 it was receiving around 1,500 visitors each summer…….the first luxury hotel was built in 1816….

……..St Gotthard’s Pass. One of the most famous and dramatic of the Alpine passes…..English mineralogist Edward Daniel Clarke….tourists were still a rarity when he took the Gotthard route from Basel to Turin in 1793.

Wordsworth……..his description of crossing the Simplon Pass, which appears in Book VI of his autobiographical magnum opus The Prelude, is one of the finest things he wrote.

….the construction of Europe’s first mountain railway, from Vitznau to Rigi, in 1871, followed by the Arth to Rigi railway in 1875, transformed Alpine tourism……..

….the legendary Mount rigi sunrise, which was – and remains – the highlight of Thomas Cook’s Alpine tours.

……St Pancras Station: a cathedral of steel attached to a masterpiece of Gothic architecture……..constructed in 1868 by the engineer William Henry Barlow, the train-shed boasted the largest single-span structure to have been built at the time, and was a miracle of Victorian engineering.

………..one of the most exciting and influential buildings of the eighteenth century turned out to be James Gibbs’ Gothic Pavilion at Stowe…………


From ‘Mappillai ….an Italian son-in-law in India’ by Carlo Pizzati



Italians ……..saying……. ogni mancata è persa. In romance, every missed opportunity is a lost one.

………Tamil Nadu, where aggression, like sexuality, is kept mostly where it belongs: repressed.

……Chennai has the worst traffic in India…..Driving in Chennai is one sure cure to its main defect: it’s a boring city, unless you work for organized crime and political parties, which is often the same thing ………

The international investors or businessmen I met………when asked what its like for them to do business with India have inevitably replied: ‘Difficult’.
India is no doubt amongst the most unethical places to do business in the world today. …….Legal agreements are not truly binding, thanks to the connivance of authorities and a court system that is often reliably for sale.

In Italian fare l’Indiano, to act like an Indian means to feign total indifference.

‘Oooo, I’d love to go to In-di-aaah, but I’m so scarrrd…’
How often do I hear this phrase in Italy?

Increasing waves of migration from Asia and Africa have brought out the old fascist and racist spirit in the land of pizza/pasta.

……actor and all round wonderful guy Kabir Bedi played a courageous, egalitarian Malaysian pirate in a majorly successful TV series in the ‘70s. Wherever he shows up in Italy he’s still greeted by 40 to 50-somethings who sing to the top of their lungs the refrain of the opening credits song of Sandokan, an Italian six-part television series ………..He achieved more with that TV hit, than 70 years of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

………Tamil, one of the most symmetrical and smooth skinned people you will find in this planet………

That touch of humanity I’ve experienced even with the busiest doctors in Chennai is central to the cure, maybe not as central as competence in your specialization but I’m convinced it contributes to healing.

People living in immigration-based countries like the US, Canada or Australia naturally smile more. These frontier societies, where initially there was more anarchy due to little presence of state authorities, developed the need to quickly signal to strangers the message: ‘I am a friend (Please don’t shoot me!)’
And that is why there’s such a thing as the appropriately named ‘Pan-American Smile’, the forced-polite wince of flight attendants – deadpan eyes………..Then there’s what could be called the Asian smile, with wide differences within that category………….
In many non-immigrant based countries, like Russia, China or Japan, smile is often only for friends, not strangers…..Many Russians are averse to smiling in public. As Maxim Gorky famously stated: ‘The main thing you see in an American is teeth.’ …….the notoriously morose Russian border guards are instructed to smile more. And so are the famously unfriendly French tourist authorities. …….Koreans say ‘He who smiles a lot is not a real man.’ Ancient Romans said laughter abounds in the mouth of a fool.

Indian brides are not supposed to smile as much as Western brides, it is believed, as Indian macho culture values female shyness, and a more serious expression is expected…….Outspokenness and an extrovert attitude have not historically been very appreciated or rewarded in traditional Indian culture and public speaking and communications skills have not been extremely encouraged either……..

In fact, India, Argentina and the Maldives associate public smiling to dishonesty more than other cultures, according to the Polish Academy of Science, and Japan, India and South Korea also associate happy smiling with less intelligent people.
Personally, I see a lot of smiles in the land of the Dravidians. I am actually impressed by the serenity and availability of smiles in South India, compared to the more challenged Indo-Aryan North.


From ‘ScoopWallah. Life on a Delhi Daily’ by Justine Hardy



India ……..Much of its survival is amidst apparent chaos and regional anarchy is perhaps due to the cultural shrug summed up in the Hindi expression jo hona hai hoga …….a smiley acceptance of everything, from the deeply sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

Perhaps I felt a little as Kipling did when he wrote to a friend in 1883: ‘I am in love with the Country and would sooner write about her than anything else. Wherefore let us depart our several ways in amity. You to Fleet Street …..and I to my own place, where I find heat and smells and oils and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable.’

………Lhasa Tibetan, a gunfire language from the people of peace.


Monday, November 5, 2018

From ‘India. A civilization of differences. The Ancient tradition of universal tolerance’ by Alain Danielou



ईशा वास्यम् इदं सर्वं यत् किञ्च जगत्यां जगत्
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्य स्विद्धनम्
ईशावास्य उपनिषद

I – In a world where everything changes [where nothing is permanent] the divine is everywhere present [in flowers, birds, animals, in forests, in man].
II – Enjoy fully what the god concedes to you and never covet what belongs to others [neither their goods, nor their talent, nor their success].
-          Isha Upanishad……

Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion. It is not even a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word. What binds Hindus together is a common search, the utilization of all perceptive, intuitive, and intellectual means in the attempt to pierce the enigma of the visible and invisible world. It is an effort to comprehend our deepest nature and our role in the cosmic order, so that we can best fulfill that role collectively and individually.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

From ‘Crossing the Shadow Line. Travels in South-East Asia’ by Andrew Eames



The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room
-          Blaise Pascal, Pensees

In the first half of 1982, 5,700 murders were recorded in Thailand. Police seized 481 weapons, including 135 automatic rifles and 206 hand grenades……Bangkok accounts for the vast majority of all criminal activity in the nation, just as it accounts for most of the nation’s industry. Every year the Bangkok police arrest an average of 20,000 prostitutes in the capital, only to release them again; the state cannot afford to feed them any more than their families in the provinces ……

Bangkok’s Chinatown still bears the mark of the Chinese, even though integration here is more complete than that in Indonesia or Malaysia, and the Chinese Thais all have Thai names.

Soft drinks always come in bags in Thailand. Bottles are in short supply and no drinks vendor will let a customer take one away.

Chiang Mai and the provinces of the north only became regarded as the property of Thailand by default: no one else had a better claim. Even now the northern Thais have their own dialect and regard themselves as a race apart. Further up the hillsides behind the northern Thai villages live seven major distinct hill-tribes, even further removed from control at Bangkok. In fact, laying aside the troubles on the Kampuchean border and the communists in the south, the hill-tribes are the government’s main security worry……….Although the tribesmen are now incorporated into the body of Thailand they are not Thai. Most of them originate from the province of Yunnan, in southern China. They are wandering farmers by tradition, because their slash-and-burn type agriculture destroys the forest land. When the tribes first settled in the area it was then all contested land. Burma, China, Laos and Thailand all laid claim to ownership, and now that the borders are fixed there are tribes in all four countries. The principle of a national frontier makes no sense to the people up above 1,600 feet in the rain forests; they only understand the need to plant at the end of the rains and shift when the soil is exhausted. They owe no allegiance to any country, and no country has ever done much for them – which is as they would wish. They are hardly conscious even of today’s borders, which follow no natural barriers. The 1,100 miles of Burmese / Thai border is particularly hard to police.

Solitude – lack of family and friends – is regarded as a terrible fate throughout Asia.

No one in Thailand ever seems to be called by their proper names (except apparently by angry mothers)…….

Two turbaned Sikhs – a rare sight in Thailand – boarded at one stop with large bundles of textiles that they were touting from village to village.

Many children in Asia will run crying from matsaleh (the original Malay word for white man) simply because the only vision they get of white society and behavior is through the crime series they see on TV, where each starts with a murder and ends with a fight.
Mersing is a fairly typical small east coast fishing town. The Chinese control everything that makes money: they own the taxis at the taxi-stand, the boats that line they creek, the Japanese cars that line the streets, the larger shops, the restaurants and the hotels, and all despite the fact that they are discriminated against in the nation’s bumiputra laws, which are tailored to try to encourage more Malay involvement in the nation’s economy.

I hated Singapore when I first arrived……They way in which the old shop houses were razed to the ground to make way for further shopping centres seemed to me a wanton destruction of basic Singaporean culture. When the oldest mosque in the city was demolished there was hardly a murmur of disapproval in the press. ……..there were always rumours in Singapore, largely because the press was muzzled…….three different ethnic groups (Chinese seventy-six per cent, Malay fifteen per cent, and Indian seven per cent) that make up the island’s population……Sometimes I found the children quite frightening. Unlike the adults, they had no experience of another society with which to compare Singapore. They rarely travelled, and they had no counter-argument to the messages put across to them in their repressed society – nor even an appreciation of the need for debate. ………..In 1984 eighty per cent of graduate women were remaining unmarried, reputedly because Chinese menfolk were not keen to marry women more intelligent than themselves…….

A large proportion of cheap industrial labour was imported from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Factory workers crossed the causeway from Malaysia every day- they were not allowed to become resident in Singapore. Every three weeks Thai workers returned in busloads to Thailand to renew their visas. Many of the higher management positions were filled by Europeans and the expatriate population of Japanese was second only in number to that of Los Angeles. Construction workers were imported from Korea, but by agreement with the government they were not allowed on to the streets. Buses took them from their work-sites to “rest and recreation” in the seedier parts of the city……..No one can deny that Singapore’s track record is impressive. When it became a nation …it was …..fifty per cent mangrove swamp and jungle.

Racism was another issue on which the government was particularly sensitive………..the Malays, Chinese and Indians may not have mingled readily, but they did live together in relative harmony. It was the government’s policy to distribute the different ethnic groups evenly around the housing estates; no ghettos were allowed.

In truth I envied the Singaporeans for their green and clean city, their bus-services and their police efficiency. I envied them their food, their hotels, the then strength of their economy and the cheapness of their telephone bills. I envied them their new airport and the way the post office handled their mail, and I admired my students for the diligent way in which they noted down carefully whatever I said or wrote in class.

……..Java……the densest agricultural population in the world with over 1,500 people per square kilometer……cracking of joints – many Asians do it as a habit……..They are easily superstitious, the Indonesians……….Older people on many of the islands often don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, the new national language, and many of them speak Dutch as fluently as they do their own dialect…….on the island of Alor alone there are reputedly seventy different dialects.

Kumpung Hijau was a Muslim village, and made quite a contrast to the Hindu villages on Bali. The sand was dirty, the houses poor, the people much less free and open. For us as foreigners the pockets of Catholicism on the islands gave us much the best reception. By the end of our journey we had all developed a slight antipathy to Muslim strongholds, which generally were a good deal friendly. On one of the later Muslim islands (the further from central Indonesia and the more remote the people, the more fanatical the isolated religions seemed to get) a couple of boys threw stones at me whilst their parents looked on indulgently.

…………Komodo Dragon …….is in fact a monitor lizard, the largest and fiercest of its kind…….It lives only on three islands in the world – Rintja, part of Flores, and Komodo……Every now and then the beasts show their power by eating a local or a visitor.

…….Lamakera, a whaling village on the other end of Solor …….The villagers had an unusually perilous way of hunting: the spear-thrower stood on the bows until the whale was close enough, then jumped on the animal’s back before stabbing it with his spear. The boats were often dragged huge distances before the whales died – and sometimes the spear-throwers themselves died too.

The population of Darwin was a strange mixture. The town was still very much a frontier outpost, and seventy-five per cent of employment was in the administration machinery that kept it going. The employed section of the community was relatively small, however, and the civil servants were easily identifiable by their neatly pressed shorts and their white socks which never fell down. There was also a significant population of Asians, but these Asians did not stop and smile at white men. …….I found the sophistication of the Asians in Darwin rather disappointing. ……Darwin seemed a sleepy backwater…….like an eddy between two whirlpools. Out of the Australian whirlpool drifted a wide variety of young people who for some reason or other couldn’t handle life in the mainstream, whilst out of the Asian whirlpool came odds and ends who were united by one factor – they had managed their paperwork cleverly enough to enable them to stay. ……..But while most of the white drifters were unemployed, the Asians were largely well set up in a variety of small businesses.

…….like everything else in Australia the mosquitos were enormous.

The people of north-eastern Thailand are particularly charming despite being the poorest in the country……..

Thai dining-cars are a delight, and this was no exception. Fresh purple table-cloths and fresh purple orchids; cheap, quick, good food, and plenty to look at. Here were number of business-women with half-empty bottles of beer between them; beer-drinking women are a very rare sight in Asia, but in Thailand the women are a force to be reckoned with.

Durian have a very distinctive smell, and no airline will allow them on board. One wag likened the experience of eating the fruit to eating an old raspberry yoghurt in a French urinal!

In Bangkok sex is presented as public entertainment…….

‘No sir. This is Padang Bawah. Ipoh is thirty kilometres from here.’ Judging by the accuracy of his language he must have been an Indian.

Kali Gandaki is the deepest river gorge in the world and the path is narrow and treacherous, the route is still the steadiest ascent from the countries of the south of Tibet, and large numbers of mule trains and porters move along its length.

Even the transport was depressing. Where Burma had horsecarts and Thailand had trishaws, the rickshaw-wallahs in Calcutta just used their own two feet. For me this epitomized the lack of humanity in the city – and even in the nation.

I found Calcutta hard to take ………..streets were full of tiredness, tragedy and filth, and partly because the Indian culture was too large and too new for me to want to attempt to assimilate it at this late stage in my travels.


Friday, July 27, 2018

From ‘Slow Boats to China’ by Gavin Young



‘Greek captains never will use a chart,’ E.M. Forster wrote on a Mediterranean cruise ………. ‘Although they sometimes do have one aboard, it is always locked up in a drawer; for as they truly say, it is nothing but paper and lines, which are not the least like the sea, and its far better to trust to yourself, especially in parts where you have never been before.’

……the contrast between a Greek harbor and a Turkish one, even the difference in the Greek and Turkish attitudes to life. In Greece anyone can wander down to the quayside; it is impossible to imagine anyone in seafaring Greece being arrested for wanting to look at the sea or at ships. Kusadasi [Turkey] is small and of no military importance, yet a cloud of police surrounded the gate, and big-chested loiterers in jeans and T-shirts, obviously plain-clothes men……..By temperament, Turks are lockers-up and lockers-out. …….Few Turks seem to think the world is a happy place.

Most Turkish boys, particularly those working in hotels, yearned for jobs in Germany. They said they wouldn’t hesitate to marry any German girl – ‘She could look like a sausage’ – if it helped them to get work permits there. Many did marry for work permits, and were the envy of their friends, who had to stay behind in Turkey and go through their military service.

‘…………Turks ….are a bit quiet, reserved, but Parisians are much more so.’

Turkey is a cat country. In Ephesus you come across them everywhere………

The Smyrna waterfront is spectacular.

By then he [Ataturk] must have begun his slow decline into terminal cirrhosis of the liver. The heavy-drinking Turks are not hypocrites; they have never held the manner of Ataturk’s death against him.

Turkish music is the perfect Oriental music for Westerners. Much Arab music is too snaky, but the Turkish variety thumps along merrily with zithers, or slows to a gentle berceuse for lutes and two-foot flutes; it is, on the whole, simple and melodic and can be whistled.

…….the countrymen of Ataturk, who possess one of the world’s finest cuisines……..

Turkish Cypriot friends had told me that many of them, particularly the young, were disenchanted by the crude manners of the mainland Turkish soldiers.

A Turkish Cypriot friend once said to me, ‘There are men here of thirty who are still virgins. Muslim tradition prevents them, on pain of death or a terrible beating at the hands of the girl’s brothers or rather, from touching a Turkish girl. They’d do anything to get their hands on a foreign girl, but, of course, its not always possible. You have no idea of the intensity of the frustration here.’

Cyprus is friendly. On the Greek side they overcharge tourists, no doubt, but, while Turkish attitudes are often surly or take-it-or-leave-it, Greek Cypriots usually smile and are usually helpful.

……the Egyptian saying, ‘God has given earrings to those who have no ears.’

Egypt is a very poor country of great charm and spiritual resource, and it deserves better times and at least minimal riches. The receptionists had charm too – like most Egyptians – and deserved a richer country.

Incidentally, if you fall from a big ship – or even from a relatively small big one – your chances of survival are virtually nil. Sea, wind and engines would overwhelm your cries, and you could wave until you were blue in the face but a ship’s wake or a swell would hide you. Once overboard, ten to one you’re a goner.

Soon they pulled themselves back to the normal, vociferous world, and resumed their animated chatter – which, for peasant voices born and bred to carry long distances across villages and fields, meant something more like raucous shouting.

It was an interesting experiment in human transplantation. Iraq, rich in oil and land and poor in population, and Egypt, nearly destitute and barely able to support a population that seemed hell-bent on doubling itself in a few decades, had come to an agreement. I had seen fellahin [Egyptian peasant] from the Nile clumping about the riverine towns of Iraq, easily distinguishable from the native peasants by their browner skins, round-necked galabiehs and speech (the accents and idioms of Egyptian Arabic are as strange to the Arabs of Iraq as the English spoken in Kansas is to the people of Yorkshire). But not only fellahin were transplanted. Young Egyptians with some minimal experience in hotels in Cairo are to be found in the hotels and restaurants of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. It is good to see them there, because however adept or inept they may be in their work they are always cheerful; Egyptians are inveterate jokers. Iraqis, on the other hand, like the English, feel that waiters’ work is mysteriously demeaning to the soul, and work off their humiliation on the diners.

………like many Egyptians, he was a man of much laughter and kindness; he was also very serious and a passionate talker.

In Jedda, attitudes to foreigners – any foreigners, not only sea travelers – depend largely on the whims and personal relationships of individual Saudi officials.

The official puritanism of the Saudis involves depriving even passing sailors of so much as a glass of wine or beer, while behind their high marble walls the Saudi elite make merry with their cellars of smuggled Scotch.

Like Cubans, Filipinos are easygoing, irrepressible people, and their country is an uproarious mélange of spontaneous song, easy sex and flamboyant spirits highly spiced with a strong dash of day-to-day mayhem, mostly by shooting.

Jedda hotels are always full of affluent pilgrims or businessmen. People come to Saudi Arabia to find God or gold; there is nothing else there.

The Saudis were, almost to a man, deliberately rude and unhelpful, he said. ‘They actually put obstacles in your way for the hell of it. Yet if they want something from you, they expect you to go miles out of your way on their behalf.’ There was only a hint of indignation in his diplomat’s voice. ……. ‘As we all know, they have all the money,’ Dr Watson said with a sad smile. ‘And, as we all know, we need it, don’t we?’

Ask ten urban-dwelling Saudis directions, and you’ll probably get at least six different answers and four arrogant shrugs – and, if you cant speak Arabic, you’ll get no answers at all.

Most blacks in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are descendants of slaves brought over from Africa……… Slavery in Saudi Arabia was a strange system. Despite an official ban on the practice, there were slaves there until quite recently. The term can be misleading. In Arabia slaves often became affectionate servants rather than the pitifully ill-treated human beings we read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Furthermore, eventually a faithful slave was almost invariable rewarded with his freedom.

Abha! The capital of the Asir province on the northern Yemen border, a mountainous but watery region…….It was a region of some of the loveliest villages I had ever seen, with miniature skyscrapers that were really mud towers with small shuttered windows. After sunset they glowed like dolls’ houses……The people of Asir were short and dark……Abha …….It was cool up there after the desert; the food was good; and the girls, who were beautiful, went about unveiled and often bare-breasted…….

……..Saudi Airlines office …….I ……survived a stiff dose of rudeness from two Saudi clerks, and finally bought a ticket to Bahrain from a jolly Pakistani from Lahore.

I realized with joy that people like my taxi driver existed – exceptions to the evident rule that wealth and its arrogance had deprived too many Saudis of all grace, generosity and tolerance.

….flights….. ‘All go on time,’ he grinned, ‘except Saudia. With Saudia, some prince comes along with eleven persons and everyone is turned off the flight.’

When I pointed to a group of Pakistani labourers and said, ‘Once all the work was done by the Yemenis, and by black Takrunis from Nigeria,’ he answered, ‘The Koreans are the strongest workers now.’
‘Pakistanis?’
‘Lazy, lazy.’

Twenty-five years ago Dubai was little more than a mosque, a modest palace, a shipping office and a clump of palms. No census has been taken in Dubai for some time, but estimates circulate of an immigrant population that outnumbers the Arabs of Dubai by ten to one. The vast majority of the expatriates are Indian or Pakistani…….

He repeated bleakly, ‘Desperate I am saying. You know, I’ve been back to Pakistan only once in two years, and there’s no sex for people like me here. The prosses have all gone.’
‘Prosses?’
‘Prostitutes – girls and women, mostly from India. The Dubai government sent them off home, so now there are only the air hostesses………..The go only with the hotel’s front-office managers and assistant managers, who have more money……..the Filipino girls……They all make jigajig with Arabs for money’

Maudsley said bluntly that, though British seamen probably weren’t any less good at sea than others, and perhaps just as good, they certainly could be a liability ashore, delaying the ship. This was the downfall of British seamen. ‘My last job ……..Terrible trouble we had with the Brits – knifings, fights, arrests. Its always been unusual to have no trouble with British seamen. You have to have someone standing at the top of the gangway when they come back on board, taking bottles off them. We’d have to go around all the brothels to rout them out, and they’d be hiding under the beds…….Of course, the Scawegians (Scandinavians) can be the wildest cowboys, but the Brits always seem to find the lowest dives possible. The British seaman has always had a reputation ashore.’

You cant argue with a Baluchi demonstrating hospitality; they are among the most stubborn peoples of the world. In my distant days as a shipping clerk in Basra…….. Baluchis had been much prized as watchmen, as much for their stolid honesty and unshakeable devotion to whoever employed them as for their physical toughness.

It is odd how, to the half-wakeful brain, Baluchi sounded like English, and once or twice I started up, thinking that someone had said something to me.

There was no place for enmities or secrets aboard Al Raza. She had no cabins, and no one could steal a little privacy behind closed doors, for there were no doors. The eight men slept, in shifts as their watches dictated, on small wooden bunks in four partitions two feet high and opening onto each other. Every word, every action was public property except in the thunderbox (toilet), and even that was not soundproof. But there is no privacy on any Asian native craft between Suez and the Sulu Sea. Asia is no place for privacy.

Ghani Adam asked, ‘Why do you travel with us on Al Raza when you can fly?’
I would have liked to quote Graham Greene about ‘the universal desire to see a little bit further, before the surrender to old age and the blank certitude of death’.

There are only two Master Attendants in the world; one is in Colombo, the other in Singapore. All other ports have harbor masters. It is not clear why. In ‘The End of the Tether’, Joseph Conrad writes of the Master Attendant in Singapore:
A Master Attendant is a superior sort of harbor master …a Government official, a magistrate for the waters of his port…..

………the Baghdad Gate (an old and still-existing trade with Iraq accounts not only for this name but also for the Muslim population of Colombo).

Between Sri Lanka and the Maldives were great sub-oceanic trenches, some perhaps thirteen thousand feet deep.

……..pan, the tiny sandwich of betel leaf, areca nut and lime that all Asia east of the Gulf chews……

……..though I had been glad to sail with Maldivians, somehow the crew lacked the spirit of other seamen I had met. Was it shyness, wariness or xenophobia? Shyness, I think. The Maldives have always been isolated, and the islanders have little knowledge of outsiders. Today fifteen or sixteen islands of the archipelago have been turned into tourist resorts. But everything has to be imported……….so the resorts are horrifically expensive and have little to do with the people of the Maldives………

These Tamils are far more open, friendly and less shy than the Maldivians ………Physically they are not so different.

Tuticorin’s population consisted of Hindus and Muslims as well as Catholics, he said, but the non-Catholics were shopkeepers or workers, while those involved with the sea were, to a man, members of the Church. ……….Tuticorin is surrounded by flat land as white as snow. ……..The salt here is marvelously pure,’ the chevalier said. ‘In fact, one third of India’s salt comes from Tuticorin.’

For some reason, Tamil eyes often seem larger and brighter than other people’s. Like all Asian seamen, Tamils seem to be compulsive washers.

………..Andamans ……… ‘Elephants here are imported from Assam. They’re less temperamental than the ones from Burma…..’

Captain Sujit Choudhuri lived up to the standards of no-nonsense friendliness I had come to expect from Indian masters like Dennis Beale, Bala and John. In fact, now that I think about it, I found this quality in all the masters I met between Cyprus and Singapore. It is as if ships’captains live at some isolated level of self-assurance, philosophically removed by a life sandwiched between sea and sky from the landlubberly pettiness of the rest of us.

‘We are Kurds,’ they said gruffly.
When I asked them who they preferred, the Shah or Ayatollah Khomeini, they answered, ‘Both are bad. The Shah is looking too far forward, Khomeini too far back – he wants to see 700 AD in 1980.’

………Chinese faces began to turn a deep pink, the inevitable and undisguisable effect that liquor has on pale Oriental skin.

…..among the young Malays, homosexuality is not rare.

…..passed three young Malays who pranced and giggled in women’s dresses. Bushey said, ‘Malays don’t mind that sort at all. They accept transvestism as quite normal. ………..Wonderfully tolerant about that, the Malays. Good for them…….’

…….the waters of South-east Asia are full of waving, smiling people.

The mountains of Sabah rise up like a series of tidal waves, with Mount Kinabalu dominating the skyline at fourteen thousand feet, the highest peak in South-east Asia.

…..ships’ officers are an easygoing, friendly – though often bitchy – lot with an interest in talking as a safety valve for the restrictive nature of their monkish existence. Relationships on ships are generally easy and casual, and antipathies are kept well in hand, even ashore.

The headlands and forests of North Borneo remain as mysterious and reticent as ever. ……These are the shores of the Land Below the Wind, as Malay sailors still call the wilderness of Borneo because they lie ten degree below the typhoon belt from Japan to Luzon.

The superintendant, a stout and friendly Malay ……….. ‘Lets say that the Sulu pirates are not as bad as the Thai pirates in the Gulf of Siam. They don’t rape all the women they capture, and don’t kill all the men. I can’t say I’m sure of the percentage.’

He spoke with the Hispano-American accent that distinguishes a Filipino from a Malay.

The others washed their mouths as most Asians do after a meal, swilling water around their tongues, using their fingers as toothbrushes to rub their teeth, and spitting over the side.

Frank …..took me to the harbor. There one realizes what a seafaring people Filipinos are; the bustle of the port was greater than anything I’d seen since Singapore. Zamboanga is not a big city, but its port serves all the south-west of the Philippines.

The ship’s decks are covered by folding beds or bedrolls with hardly any space between, so men and women of all ages are stretched out side by side. ….Young men and young women lie together, their brown skins almost touching, but this doesn’t seem to create any problems; no one takes advantage of anyone else. Such a mess of humanity on the deck of a shipful of Arabs …..would soon create a shambles of spit, dirty paper, bits of food, babies’ pee. Here people eat and drink from flasks or beercans, smoke, peel fruit – and then clear it up. There is no squalor or smell. Once again I notice the extraordinary cleanness and almost finicky neatness of people in South-east Asia. Their clothes and bodies are always clean; they never stop scrubbing themselves. They don’t seem to sweat much, and even the men’s bodies are virtually hairless., which I suppose helps. They think Europeans smell of death. To me, Asians smell faintly of straw-green tea, a pleasant smell. In the eastern Mediterranean or the Red Sea a ship’s toilets are soon clogged and stinking, the floors awash with urine and vomit. How do they get so much of their shit on the seats and walls? On m.v. Jhuvel, at 11.00 p.m. off Zamboanga del Norte, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the toilets are immaculate.

Compared with Manila or at least the southern Philippines, Cebu is a quiet, unhurried place that pillows its cheek against the soft folds of a mountain range and seems to doze.
…… ‘Anyone who says he’s busy in Cebu is a liar. People work harder in Luzon ………where life is more insecure. It is harder to find work there, and they are frequently visited by typhoons that sweep away hillsides, bridges, even dams. Cebu is a city of the semi-retired.’

There is a saying in Manila: ‘Filipinos have survived Spanish and American domination: four hundred years in a convent and fifty years in Hollywood.’

………. ‘Curry ship’ means any ship from India.

‘Boys throw stones at frogs in sport,’ wrote Plutarch. ‘But frogs do not die in sport, they die in earnest.’