Repost – A Day In Ladakh

As promised, I’m putting up an old post on India. This one I originally posted just over five years ago, so you might not have read it.

Wednesday 13th April 2005

This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.

I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.

I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.

And black coffee.

‘Pot?’

How big is the pot? I ask.

‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.

My coffee arrives. In a glass.

The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.

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It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.

The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.

At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.

We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.

I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.

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We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.

Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?

No, but there are still many coming.

I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.

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Back for tea and a bucket shower.

Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…

Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.

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I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.

I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.

Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.

This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.

The Cold Caller (3)

Previous parts can be found here (1) and here (2)

‘What is it, Sahil?’

‘It was a threatening client, sir.’

‘So, you know how to deal with them, don’t you?’

‘It is not so easy. He is very difficult, he knows me.’

‘I do not think that is likely. Why do you think it?’

‘He knows my name, sir! And he calls me! Even on my mobile!’ My voice had suddenly got much louder, and a couple of my colleagues turned around to look at me. I found myself shaking and knew that the supervisor saw it too. I had lost control.

‘Take the rest of the day off, Sahil,’ he said at last, coldly. It was clear that he did not believe me. ‘Go home and rest.’

‘Yes, Sir.’ I got to my feet and headed for the exit without another word. What could I say? At the door I passed Raveena’s brother, who smiled and said ‘Hi’, but I just mumbled a hello and pushed straight past him, hardly registering his presence. Once outside, I walked towards the metro station intending to go straight home, but decided I could not face getting on a train at the moment – perhaps it was the thought of being in a confined space – so I walked past and went into the Botanical Gardens. I switched off my phone and spent the next hour or so just walking around the gardens, hoping to clear my head.

When I had tired of that, I began walking towards my colony, eventually taking a taxi for the last part of the journey when my legs began to feel tired. As I walked up the steps to my door, I remembered my phone was on silent, and fished it out of my pocket. Glancing at the display, I saw I had half a dozen missed calls. ‘It can stay on silent for now, then,’ I thought, and went inside.

I made myself some supper, and after I had eaten it I sat watching the TV, until I realised I had no idea what the programmes were I had been watching, and switched it off. Then I took out my phone and began to scroll through the list of callers. As I had expected, the majority were from a caller who had withheld their number, but there was also one from Raveena and, after some hesitation, I switched my phone onto normal ringtone again. I thought of calling Raveena but decided that I could not face speaking to her that night. Then, as I sat looking down at the phone in my hand, it rang again. Automatically, I answered it.

‘Hallo?’

‘I am losing my patience with you, Sahil. Do you want me to make things really difficult for you?’

‘I…’

‘My…colleagues, shall I call them, are not as patient as I am. They would like to deal with you differently. They are not as polite as I am.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ He had broken me, and we both knew it.

‘Go home, Sahil. Go back to Delhi. There is no place for you here. Take your things and go. While you still can.’ He rang off, and I sat holding the phone in my hand, feeling terribly small and scared.

I jumped as the phone rang again. For a moment, I did not answer it, but then I saw that it was Raveena’s number. Still I hesitated, afraid that this fellow might even be able to make it appear that he was calling from her phone, but then I told myself that I was being ridiculous, and I answered it.

‘Sahil,’ Raveena’s voice was urgent, ‘I heard Kiraat calling you. He was in the next room. What is going on? I could not hear him very clearly, but it sounded as if he was threatening you. Please, what is going on? I am frightened by this!’

‘Kiraat? It was Kiraat calling me?’

‘Yes, I have told you so, Sahil.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Oh, my goodness, Sahil! How many times must I say it? Yes, it was Kiraat.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He is still in the next room, talking with our father. What has he been saying to you?’

‘Just…give me a minute, Raveena, to think.’ I sat holding the phone as things dropped into place in my head. It was so simple, really. Kiraat was a software engineer in my own company. It would all have been so easy for him to do. I took a deep breath. ‘I will tell you everything.’

Raveena said that it was too late in the evening for me to go over to their house, and to leave it until the next day. But it seems she then put down her phone and walked straight into the next room and confronted her brother. He did not deny that he had been the caller and said that he agreed with his parents that she should marry a man of their choosing, and that I was not that man. They had quite a quarrel, and it was only when Raveena declared that she was quite prepared to move in with me without getting married first, that her father said ‘Okay, let us meet this boy of yours, tomorrow.’

I had thought my job interview had been tough, but it had nothing on that interview. I was surprised, then, when Raveena’s father said ‘Let us see, then, how your job goes and if all is well in a year’s time then maybe, just maybe, we will give you our blessing.’

At work, my supervisor informed me I would be under observation, as he put it, for a while, but I did not really notice any difference. No sooner had I arranged my desk and switched on my computer terminal, than he had disappeared to another part of the office. I lifted the receiver and called the number at the top of the list on my screen.

‘Hello, Mr Cuthill? My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not!’ I caught my breath, and felt icy fingers creeping up my spine. ‘You’re probably called Kapil or Ravi or something like that. You’re in India, aren’t you?’

Slowly I released my breath.

‘Mr Cuthill, this is most important! I am calling you because your computer is running slowly and there is a problem with it that you must address!’

It was good to be back to normal.

If you enjoyed this story, you can find more in The Night Bus, my collection of short stories and poetry available on Amazon, along with Making Friends with the Crocodile, a novel about how society treats women in India. Both can be found here.

 

The Cold Caller (2)

Part 1 can be found here.

For a couple of days, the incident was always at the back of my mind, but slowly I began to forget it. It must have been about a week later, when they called me at work. I had just put down the receiver after making a sale, when the phone rang.

‘Hello, David? Or Sahil, should I say? I thought that you’d forgotten me.’

‘Who is this?’

‘Don’t you know? Can’t you remember? You called me last week. My name is Williams.’

‘I…’

‘I thought that I would call you to let you know that my computer is running absolutely fine.’

‘Oh…’

‘I really appreciate your concern, though, but it was unnecessary. So I’ve saved myself some money, haven’t I?’

We are taught that if we have a difficult telephone conversation, then we should try to take control, and so I tried that now, as if the caller was just another difficult customer.

‘Mr Williams,’ I attempted to sound far more confident than I actually felt, ‘might I ask where it is that you are calling from?’

‘Can you not remember? Oh, I suppose that you have so many numbers to call. Mine is a Delhi number, Sahil. Do you remember it now?’

‘There is really no reason why I should, Mr Williams…’

‘As I have just told you, I really do appreciate your concern, and I am pleased to find that you are so obviously such a kind and conscientious fellow. I am sure that, in turn, you will be pleased to learn that because of that I am going to be taking a keen interest in your career, so I will be keeping a close eye on you from now on.’

The line went dead.

Like every other line in the building, my telephone was simply an extension number, so there would not really be any point in my getting it changed. The caller might have asked for my extension, or they might have requested me by name. There was no way to find out which it was. For a moment, I thought of telling my supervisor what had happened, but decided it would sound foolish and he would probably not believe me, anyway. I’m not sure I believed what was happening at that point, either, but I did feel a little scared.

Two days later Mr Williams called me again. This time, his tone was rather different.

‘Hello, Sahil. This is Mr Williams here. Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘Look,’ I tried, ‘where did you get hold of my number?’

‘You are not answering my question, Sahil.’ His voice was soft but unpleasant. ‘Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘I don’t think that is any…’

‘Do you know, Sahil,’ he interrupted me, ‘that many people do not like aggressive salespersons calling them up and trying to coerce them into making purchases? Trying to get them to part with their money for no good reason? I have been thinking about that, and I have decided that a nice fellow like you really should not be in this line of work.’

‘I am not going to be lectured at by you!’ I said hotly. ‘I demand that you tell me…’ I realised that the line that I was talking to was dead.

That evening he called me at home, on my mobile. Often, if the caller display indicates a number withheld, then I don’t answer. This time, though, I did.

‘Sahil,’ said the familiar voice, ‘I hope you are thinking about what I have said to you.’ Desperately, I stabbed the button to end the call, and then stood in the middle of the room, staring down at the phone. I couldn’t think clearly; I just felt an awful panic. ‘This is stalking!’ I thought to myself. ‘And no one would believe me if I told them!’ It was no good my thinking it was impossible for him to have my mobile number, for he clearly had.

My phone rang again maybe another dozen times that evening before I switched it off completely. Then, in the morning, I noticed that I had one voicemail message. Although I knew who it would be from, I still listened to it. It was very brief.

‘I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, Sahil.’

I tried my best to act as though there was nothing wrong at work, but I found it very difficult to focus. All went as normal, however, until the afternoon. I had been back at my desk for no more than five minutes, and just put down the phone when it rang again. I hesitated and then, as it might well be a supervisor calling, I knew I had to answer it.

‘Hello, Sahil. Do you think that you can hide from us for ever, then?’

Us! I shivered, and my mouth became very dry. I looked around desperately, noticed that a supervisor was nearby, and silently I beckoned him over. I thought that if I could keep the caller talking, and hand the phone to my supervisor, then ‘Mr Williams’ would at the very least say something incriminating. Unfortunately, though, just as the supervisor reached me, the phone line went dead.

Final part to follow.

The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

In My Head…

For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.

And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…

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Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.

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Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

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I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

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But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

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Dammit.

Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

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First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

A Little Village in Northern India…

Having bludgeoned all my readers with posts about Making Friends with the Crocodile recently, I thought it would be only fair to share a few pictures of villages in Northern India for the benefit of those who have not been there. It gives a flavour of the (fictitious) village I write about in the novel.

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Village street

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Pigs foraging on waste ground

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Morning

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Farm

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Hindu Temple

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Sunrise

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Village outskirts

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Hi jinks during the festival of Holi

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Goats at rest

Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

Wordy Wednesday 2

Coolie – now there is a word that is remarkably offensive; offensive not so much because of what it is, but the implications behind it.

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The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus: unskilled native labourer in eastern countries and gives the word’s origin as perhaps from Kuli, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat, India.

Hobson-Jobson, the 1886 Anglo-Indian Dictionary, has rather more to say upon the matter.

It gives the spelling as ‘cooly’ and the definition as follows: a hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly’s condition very near to slavery.

It goes on to give further definitions and details of the word, and then makes several suggestions for its origin. One possibility, agreeing with the Oxford Dictionary, is that it derives from Koli, the name of a caste or race in Western India who frequently carried out these tasks and who, the dictionary reports, had long held a reputation for ‘savagery, filth and general degredation.’ This would make its origin analogous to that of slave, which is presumed to come from the racial term Slav.

But it suggests the waters are rather muddied by a couple of similar words in the Sub-continent: In Southern India a Tamil word Kuli signifying ‘hire’, and Khol is a Tibetan word for slave.

And then there is also a Turkish word kol meaning a slave while, more specifically, kuleh  means ‘a male slave, a bondsman’.

But back to the implication. It is impossible to get away from the colonial undercurrents with this word, as brought out in the Hobson-Jobson definition above. So to use the word to describe a person or persons today, is to call them a servant or slave of a foreign overlord.