Jagot Chekanidhara, the subject of my latest NYT post and the father of my host family, died this morning at his home near the Dorpang River in upper Assam.
Two weeks ago he developed a respiratory infection. At the local health center eight kilometers away, he was diagnosed with low blood pressure, and given an IV drip and a vitamin shot. We took him home, and the next day he was admitted to the North Lakhimpur Civil Hospital, in the district capital, where he was diagnosed with anemia and given blood transfusions. The doctors at both hospitals were diagnosing his symptoms and not treating the infection that was causing them.
By the time we took him to Guwahati one week ago, he was in septic shock. After a bumpy nine-hour ambulance ride, he was admitted to the ICU at the privately-run Dispur Hospital, one of the best in Assam. For five days, the doctors pumped him full of medicines to cleanse his body and regain the function of his major organs, which were shutting down.
Every night that Jagot was in the ICU his wife slept on the floor of the waiting room. She would not rest in a lodge just thirty second walk from the hospital’s front door. During visiting hours each day, she would look at her husband hooked up to the respirator and walk out of the ICU muttering “bhal na hoy”, he will not get better.
Saddled with 4,000 USD in medical bills, his family decided to take him off ventilator support and bring him home to die. Nine bumpy hours later, we arrived by jeep ambulance to his home. It was past midnight and half the village was assembled on the front porch to meet him. He survived another day.
His body was laid out where he used to milk and feed his four cows. We sprinkled petals from his flower garden on the white sheet covering his body.
The pyre, built in the middle of his sandy fields, was ready within two hours of his death. As his body burned, his two sons, Satya 14 and Sunil 17, looked on in shock.
The sun setting beyond the tea gardens washed pale colors into the sky and gave the Dibru River an ethereal sheen.
Self-taught ornithologist and photographer Sanjay Das was pulling into the ghat with a boatload of thirty school children in matching red woolen sweaters. Sanjay had guided the students on a field trip through Dibru Saikhowa National Park, his home-turf.
Though having seen Ganges river dolphins hundreds of times (he’s participated in dolphin surveys on the entire course of the Brahmaputra in Assam), Sanjay excitedly reported that the kids saw three today.
After a meeting in Tinsukia town with a local NGO worker, I arrived at Guijan ghat, the entrance to Dibru Saikhowa National Park, in time to enjoy a last sunset on the Dibru River. Later in the evening I would head back to Guwahati on the overnight Rajdhani Express.
Firewood gathering expeditions in country boats were returning to the ghat laden with bundles of sticks. Once the women hauled the bundles up the steps of the ghat, they loaded them onto their heads or bicycles for the walk home.
After nearly three months in Kolkata, I was itching for fresh air and natural surroundings. I found both in and around Dibru Saikhowa National Park on an early-morning bird watching expedition and an afternoon boat trip the following day.
Dibru Saikhowa, a salix swamp forest, is an island in the Dibru River in upper Assam. Home to the endangered white-winged wood duck, the park is known for its diversity of birds, many of which are rare like the www duck. The other draw is Gangetic dolphins that swim in the channels around the island, especially at the confluence of tributaries.
On the side of a workshop about climate change adaptation, I made an early morning bird-watching visit to a wetlands area adjacent to the park called Maguri Beel. Ruddy Shelducks (pictured) flew into gatherings of Asian Openbill Storks. Bar-headed geese, one of the highest flying birds in the world’s skies, convened off on their own. Purple swamphens nestled in the hyacinths that locals had installed to attract the tiny fish they love to fry.
The day after the workshop, I joined two Guwahati-based journalists for an afternoon boat ride on the Dibru River and a stroll on the island park.
We launched from Guijan Ghat where, in one corner, a crowd of men conducted the afternoon’s fish trading. After weighing the catches on a balance scale, middlemen slid small silvery fish into plastic buckets and metal canisters by the hundreds. Schoolboys then jockeyed the fish to a waiting jeep.
On the water, residents of the riverine island crowded into a country boat. One gentleman in a purple checked lungi hoisted his clunky bike onto his shoulder and stepped aboard. With the boat loaded, the boatman began poling his way across the 300 meter wide Dibru River channel.
We headed downriver in our own boat. When I visited here two months ago, the river was swollen with the last wave of a particularly bad flood season. Now the water level was much lower, exposing a slightly eerie riverine landscape with a base of grey sedimentary deposits.
At the southern edge of the island, the bank made a vertical drop to the water. Looking at the sharp edge from our boat on the river, we could see the precariousness of this island’s existence in the sandy composition of its banks.
The Brahmaputra River and its tributaries like the Dibru River are constantly making and breaking islands like Dibru Saikhowa by eroding the loose sedimentary material and depositing it elsewhere along the river’s course. The four hundred or so residents of this island, among an estimated million people who populate around 2500 river islands in the Brahmaputra basin, are at the mercy of this geomorphological churning.
It is in this riverine environment that I will be investigating my Fulbright project on climate change adaptation for the next nine months.
My compartment was pleasantly chatty on this overnight train trip to upper Assam, except for an Assamese granny who sat near the window and flashed a goofy grin when someone said something funny.
Two guys headed to Dibrugarh sat across from me: a final year med student at Dibrugarh Medical College and a 51-year old State Bank of India employee.
Next to me was a 31-year-old Naga lady, heading home to Dimapur for Christmas. She has lived in New Delhi for a decade, first as a student at Delhi University and now as a research analyst for a US-owned executive search firm.
“You’re a headhunter”, I responded, before thinking about who my off-hand comment was directed towards. She is a member of a tribe from Nagaland, where headhunting used to be common practice.
Male warriors collected human heads as a symbol and source of their courage.
The practice has by and large stopped, but the label “headhunters” remains attached to the tribes of Nagaland.
When I began apologizing to my fellow train traveler for making a joke linking her profession with her tribe’s fearsome reputation, she stopped me. “It’s OK. We’re proud of it”, she said with a reassuring smile.
She was excited to see her family in Dimapur. This was her annual visit; her last time home was last Christmas.
The final member of our compartment, a quiet but well-spoken Naga guy who I bunked across from on the upper berth, had been home much more recently. He studies at a college in Bangalore, and had returned to Nagaland during “the Northeasterners exodus” in August when tens of thousands of people from the Northeast fled from other places in India over fears that they would be violently targeted.
These fears of mass violence against people from the Northeast, fortunately, never materialized. But it showed the potential for electronic communication to whip up hysteria—the threats to the Northeasterners had spread through mass SMSes.
My Naga co-passengers had already alighted in Dimapur when I awoke at 4 am to disembark at Tinsukia into cold air and a horde of rickshaw wallahs ready to bid for my fare.
In the far corner of a parking lot outside the Guwahati train station, I peed in a fetid creek. Nearby, men working the night shift were unloading 55 kg jute sacks from a cluster of trucks. While in midstream, just 10 meters away from me, a drunk guy sat down on the cement curb separating the creek and the parking lot to slap his kid. By the time I finished peeing, he had already given him two hard whacks.
A woman, presumably the drunk’s wife and the mother of the six year old, was trying to talk him out of taking his drunkenness out on the boy. The tumultuous trio made a sorry sight. Likely derelicts, their clothes were torn and dirty. The man’s beard was, for an Indian male, uncharacteristically untamed.
The wife’s pleadings took on a more urgent tone after he broke a beer bottle that he had found nearby and began threatening the boy with it. To the woman’s more aggressive prostrations, he broke off more of the bottle and made an unserious lunge at her neck with the remaining jagged shard. Then he went back to threatening the kid with the glass.
I scanned the area—the few people watching from the periphery weren’t looking like they were about to do anything. I stepped in (while still maintaining a safe distance).
“Araam se, dada, araam se”, I said in my most coaxing Hindi, settle down, big brother, settle down. He looked me in the eye. “Kya hua, bolo”, I asked. Tell me what happened.
He looked up, and my foreign face seemed to bewilder him. Perhaps it was his first time speaking to a videshi (foreigner). He temporarily snapped out of whatever nightmarish intentions were driving his rage. But he still held the piece of broken bottle.
“Bottle wahan pai rocko,”, I said, pointing to the creek. Put the bottle there.
He looked at the creek and then at the bottle. His demeanor remained calm, and he seemed to be considering my advice. So I pressed him further.
“Bottle pani mei dallo”, I said encouragingly. Throw the bottle in the creek. Apparently convinced, he flicked the broken bottle he was still holding into the creek.
But I guess a moment later he began wondering why he had listened to this firangi who had just appeared out of the night. He started hurling slurred aggressive mumbles towards me.
By this time, another man had arrived who seemed already acquainted with the drunk guy and his traumatized family. This man caught my eye and motioned for me to go as he stepped in between the drunk and myself. I did.
Across the parking lot, nearer to the train station, middle-aged career military men milled around camouflaged school buses. I approached one of them. “There’s a really drunk guy over there beating his kid. He has a broken bottle. Who knows what he will do”, I told him in simple, deliberately pronounced Hindi.
“This happens here” he responded with a half-smile.
Next I tried two “on-duty” policemen sitting in chairs even closer to the railway station. I made the same entreaty for them to investigate the matter. Unfazed, the older cop have directions to the younger one who then walked off in the direction of the railways station—in the opposite direction of the violent drunk.
As I entered the station, I was feeling shitty that I had not stuck around until the child was safely out of his father’s grasp.
Amongst a thick crowd of waiting passengers and motley ensembles of luggage, I found a piece of empty platform on which to lay down a piece of old newspaper and sit. To one side, a group of army men lounged on top their jumble of foot lockers and gunny sacks. We were all waiting for the overnight train to upper Assam. It was running an hour late.
Seven years ago, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged off a car rally in Guwahati that was bound for Indonesia. Yesterday, that rally, in its second iteration this time in the opposite direction, officially ended (“flagged down” in rally terminology) in Guwahati.
For the ASEAN-India car rally, eight ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and India fielded teams to drive identical Mahindra 500 SUVs from Yogyakarta in Central Java to the capital of Assam in Northeast India. On the way, they clocked over 8,000 km and passed thru eleven countries.
The Assam State government pulled out all the stops for the “flag down”. Dance troupes from every state in Assam gave a choreographed tour through the “Seven Sisters”, as the regional grouping of seven states is called. Assamese rocker Joy Boruah excited the thousands of school kids in attendance, bused in to fill the stadium’s stands. And the Assam State Police’s Panther Unit performed daring tricks on their Royal Enfield Bullets.
The rally, a diplomatic publicity stunt commemorating twenty years of India-ASEAN relations, was intended to promote connectivity between Southeast Asia and India through northeast India. “Northeast India is not an enclave, but a gateway between Southeast Asia and India,” said the Commerce Minister of Cambodia, speaking at the rally in Guwahati.
In the twenty years since India initiated its “Look East” policy, it has tried to link the subcontinent with Southeast Asia through Northeast India. Geographically and culturally, this makes sense, but it remains an elusive aspiration.
Myanmar’s isolation and wars with ethnic armies on its periphery have put a block on India’s land connectivity to Southeast Asia. But its recent reformist attitude and increasing openness marked by India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s historic visit in May could change all this.
Still, hurdles remain. Drama ensued in the Northeastern state of Manipur a day before the rally was to reach its final destination in Guwahati. An organization representing the Kukis, a minority tribe in Manipur demanding a separate state, threatened to blockade the national highway and halt the rally. The blockade never materialized, but still the threat served to highlight ongoing ethnic tensions in Northeast India.
Blockades and bandhs¬, or general strikes, have become the preferred tactics for a multitude of political organizations and are commonplace in the Northeast. They are a drag on trade, contributing to the slow pace of economic development in the region.
And then there’s the actual roads themselves. Rally drivers reported good road conditions (the best in Malayasia), except in parts of Myanmar and northeast India.
Isyanto, a member of Indonesia’s rally team, recalled especially poor road conditions in a hilly section of Myanmar after just crossing over the border from Thailand. “The road is stone, not pavement. It’s 100 or 200 meters down with no fence. If you slip the car, you are dead.”
Yet Isyanto’s fondest memories of the rally came from these same parts of Myanmar where the road conditions were the worst. “In Myanmar, people are very poor but they welcomed us sincerely with smiles and food. Whatever they had, they gave to us.”
Members of Indonesia’s rally team.
An Assam State Police bike stuntman dressed as a clown.
To light the funeral pyre behind him, this boy dragged bundles of long thin sticks here by lashing the front end to the end of his handlebars.
On my way to the metro a baby was crying on the footpath. She was lying on a sheet of yesterday’s newspaper, bulging plastic sacks of her family’s belongings piled behind her.
For twenty meters down each way of the footpath there were no people, let alone someone attending to this upset child. Likely her mother was sorting trash just around the corner, the curious toddlers assigned to watch their little sister having wandered off. I thought about comforting the child, but, instead, turned away and walked on to enter the metro station.
I was already in a funky mood due to my destination, and the crying baby was disconcerting. But my reaction was oddly reassuring. Not trying to comfort her meant that I had already put up an emotional shield and was ready for the night.
I was on my way to the oldest and largest brothel area in Kolkata—Sonagachi.
An NGO worker in a different red light district in Kolkata said that if his organization tried to do the same work in Sonagachi “they would all be dead in a week.” The brothel owners would see to it.
Only NGOs doing health work are tolerated there. Earlier in the day, those organizations were likely doing AIDs education work. It was Saturday, December 1st, World AIDs Day.
I had commemorated the occasion in a smaller red light area near the famous Kalighat Mandir. All of the sex workers there were invited to New Light, a shelter supporting the prostitutes and their kids, for an education program and special lunch. As a volunteer at New Light, I also attended.
The celebration afforded me a rare opportunity to speak with these women. In the evenings on my way to tutor their kids at New Light, I pass them in their thick make-up and eye-catching saris waiting for customers at the entrance to narrow alleyways. I don’t even make eye contact with them most of the time; with only a few do I have light conversations in Bangla.
But today they were cajoling me to photograph them with their children and with each other on New Light’s sunny terrace. Inside the shelter, we sat together listening to New Light founder and head, Urmi Basu, honor each staff member. Sitting beside them, I asked about their age and where they came from and how long they had lived in Kolkata.
A slim, 28 year old, mother of three, said in fluent Bengali “Jokhon chota, Nepal theke eshechi”, when I was small I came from Nepal. She was serene, and I thought I would try to dig deeper into her past by searching for a childhood memory. I asked her whether she ever thought about the mountains of Nepal, but she shrugged off my question like it wasn’t even a thought. Her life, and her business, are in Kolkata.
I connected to other women by talking about their respective children at New Light whose liveliness and warmth I have come to love. “Apnar khub bhalo chele achey”, I said to one (you have a very nice boy). “Badmash”, she corrected me with a betel-stained smile, “[he’s a] naughty guy”.
So why, following a meaningful afternoon meeting these women, would I then, come nighttime, visit Sonagachi?
In 2010, while a graduate student in Washington, DC, I wrote a country report on India’s human trafficking situation for an anti-trafficking organization. Doing that research gave me an understanding about sex trafficking and prostitution in India from 30,000 feet. I learned that there are three million prostitutes in India, up to 40% of whom are below the age of eighteen. That’s over a million child prostitutes. The scale is staggering for a statistic in which even one is too many.
Though knowing statistics like this one, while useful, can provide a false sense of knowing the problem. The perspective from 30,000 feet needs focusing through firsthand observation. To go deeper, I needed to visit.
This trip to Sonagachi was to be a step in that direction. My goals were to make initial observations and get more comfortable moving around in the seedy milieu.
In the Kalighat red light district where New Light is located, the prostitutes are almost all over 25, many of them past their “prime” (as pimps and patrons derisively say in that line of work). They are not the fresh trafficking victims arriving daily into Kolkata from other parts of India and Nepal.
To see this, I would have to go to Sonagachi, where brothels so vast and windy you can get lost in them hide recent trafficking victims from nobody who is looking for them.
You know when you arrive in Sonagachi. Prostitutes are everywhere. Many were dressed in sarees. Others wore miniskirts or tight western clothes in outrageous colors.
I immediately clung to a seasoned paan wallah to ask the lay of the land and gain my composure. After swigging dark rum I carried to help keep up my nerve, I started walking past the prostitutes lining the road, going deeper into Sonagachi. I busied myself with keeping a mental count of prostitutes I passed. When I counted a hundred—in less than a minute—I abandoned the effort.
At the doors to crumbling buildings, groups of five or six prostitutes scanned the road for customers. They threw lustful glances, called out “you fucking me”, and even grabbed me by the clothes. One wouldn’t let go of my left sleeve and the bracelet of cloth thread on my right hand.
I thought back to the group of 16 and 17 year-old students from America with whom I tied this bracelet in July as a pact to work together during our month-long trip in Ladakh. The sex worker that wouldn’t let me go is a year or two older than those students. “Asho”, come, her grip tightening even more. I repeatedly told her “didi, ami chai na” (sister, I don’t want), but this was not convincing her to let me go.
Using physical force to free myself might have caused a scene. I called out to her madam who was standing in a nearby doorway. The old woman, probably herself once a prostitute, arrived on the scene to admonish “her” girl. The young lady’s grip loosened on my bracelet.
In Sonagachi, there are prostitutes that stand on the street and find their own customers, and there are prostitutes that are kept in brothels. Pimps bring customers inside the brothel to choose from prostitutes that are lined up or to browse inside rooms where prostitutes are waiting.
One pimp standing at the door of the brothel used his “girls from Himalaya” as his selling point. “You fucking, one thousand rupees” (about 20 dollars). He gave me his word that he would not pressure me into buying sex, and I entered the brothel.
Groups of three and four girls in their mid to late teens were relaxing on big beds in a row of four pink rooms. They were listening to earphones, fixing each other’s hair, and chatting. You could mistake them for teenage girls anywhere else—if not for their sordid surroundings in Sonagachi.
Outside, groups of giddy guys, not past college-age, prowled the lanes. Older men, who in India were almost surely married with children, passed alone. A teenage son struggled to carry the weight of his father who was slumped over his shoulder, drunk and mumbling nonsense. Packs of men loitered, leaning on bikes, spitting paan, and smoking.
The stench of piss mingled with smoke from cheap tobacco. A sex-worker lewdly called out to a middle-aged guy, embarrassing him so that he quickened his pace.
Another guy came from the other direction, grabbed the butt cheek of another sex worker, and nonchalantly waived off the abuses she showered on him without missing a stride
Focusing my eyes on the lane’s periphery, at least once a minute I saw sex workers lead men to tiny rooms tucked away in dark alleys.
When I left Sonagachi and passed the last prostitute hanging on the periphery, I text messaged my girlfriend, Melati, who is currently working in Indonesia. “OK, I am out of there. It’s a piss hole where I am sure angels have died.”
Estimates for the number of sex workers in Sonagachi are all above 10,000. But this number may soon fall. Innovation in one of the oldest professions has caused areas like Sonagachi to struggle.
Wider access to mobile phones has directly connected customers with sex workers who make house calls. The newspapers here are filled with advertisements for “massage” services listed next to mobile phone numbers.
This has granted sex workers a greater share in their earnings and given them greater authority over customer selection and practicing “safe” sex.
But it has also made AIDs prevention work more difficult, as Gardiner Harris recently reported in the New York Times. The rise in sex work arranged by mobile phone has dampened demand in brothel areas like Sonagachi and its equivalents in Bombay and New Delhi. With sex workers now dispersed throughout the city, public health workers no longer have a concentrated area in which to distribute condoms and increase awareness of AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections.
It’s painful to justify the existence of neighborhoods like Sonagachi. It’s a horrible place. But burning it down won’t incinerate the demand for paid sex, and it’s true that AIDs awareness campaigns focused on Sonagachi and other areas have been effective in curbing an impending epidemic.
The morning after my visit to Sonagachi I took five boys from New Light to Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens on the banks of the Hooghly River. We gawked at the world’s largest banyan tree, laughed at the swooning couples hiding under bushes, and picnicked on masala chips, chicken, and winter oranges beside the Hooghly. Their energy and antics preoccupied me from thinking about what I had seen in Sonagachi the night before.
After dropping off the boys at the shelter, I saw one of the sex workers who I had chatted with at the New Light celebration. She was scanning the road for early evening customers, and we passed in silence. Our eyes connected, and we greeted each other with a quick tilt of the head.
I was walking home past the Kalighat metro station just beyond the stretch of sidewalk where I saw the baby crying. Hoping to confirm the baby’s well-being, I walked slowly past the cluster of families cooking and relaxing on the walkway. A toddler serenely approached me with a stick in his hand. On the end of the stick was a docile sparrow. When I bent down for closer inspection, the boy brought the sparrow to his chest, caressed it, and held it out to me with a soft smile.
The evening tutoring sessions at New Light—a shelter for the kids of sex workers in the Kalighat red light district—kicks off with five minutes of meditation. The students sit in sukasana—their backs straight and eyelids closed. Their forefingers and thumbs form a point towards the sky in chin mudra. It’s a daily repose, from the students’ often chaotic lives in which they face tough challenges at home and in overcrowded schools.
Some days, they transition into their evening study with a yoga session. From the three year olds to the eighteen year olds, students stretch to the sky, lunge, and twist. Tree pose is an unbalancing act that sends toddlers careening into one another and giggles around the room. But now standing upright, with eighty pairs of hands in prayer position, there is—just for a moment—stillness in the New Light world.
In a crude Styrofoam raft, Ganesh paddles around a giant clay arm sticking out of the river. The arm is the remains of a Kali idol that was immersed a week ago during Kali Puja. Ganesh is a 24 year-old with sharp eyes and a sad, goat-teed face looking for plastic bottles and other recyclables that he can sell.
He lives in the community of super untouchables between the Kalighat cremation grounds and the stinky Adi Ganga river that feeds into the Hooghly. Members of this community tend to the cremation ground. In caste hierarchy they are the dirtiest of the dirty—lower in the untouchable social strata than even the trash collectors and latrine cleaners.
Ganesh swivels his Styrofoam raft to sift through another pile of debris, and I catch sight of the words on the back of his shirt: “Attitude comes in little packages.”
Beside the river along a cement buttress for the bridge to Alipore, three young ladies from Ganesh’s community slosh buckets of water. Puja, 15, is shampooing her hair. Sopna, Puja’s older sister, is rinsing the clothes she just scrubbed, and 13 year old Jamuna is cleaning plates from lunch. Every now and then their cleansing activities devolve into splash fights.
Their water source is a big leaky pipe that runs overhead along the bottom of the bridge to Alipore. A tarp is jerry-rigged to catch some of the leakage and channel it into a steady stream to the ladies’ below.
Putul is 12 years old and lends deeper meaning to “street artist”. On a stretch of pathway in South Kolkata she lives with her family alongside at least a dozen other families. I found her drawing in her notebook one Saturday afternoon, oblivious to the din around her—groups of men smoking, shouting and playing cards; toddlers scurrying around dripping snot; mothers frying vegetables in pungent mustard oil; and pedestrians not noticing any of this.
I printed these two pictures and presented them to Putul with a small pack of colored pencils.
Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, is mythologically the time of year when the mother Goddess Durga visits her ancestral home and triumphs over the forces of evil.
Tearing up the streets and tapping into the electricity grid, communities in Kolkata build pandals—structures that house Durga and her god-children during their ten day visit.
As communities vie for the best pandal (and an ever-expanding list of awards), corporate India has put its weight behind the festival. Imperial Blue whiskey, Tata Docomo internet, and Lux undergarments all sponsored pujas this year and took credit by plastering the streets with linoleum advertising banners.
With the corporate sponsorship, budgets have grown and the pandals have become bigger and more elaborate. Many cost over 50 lakh rupees (about 100,000 US dollars), and construction can take two to three months with teams of 20 to 40 workers.
This year, one puja even became a tool of West Bengal’s foreign diplomacy. Flanked by dragons, a giant bronze Buddha-face towered over the display of Durga and her family. The consul generals from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Thailand attended the inauguration of this Buddhist-themed puja. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee rolled up to deliver a speech. Tibetan Buddhist monks and a dance troupe, invited by pandal organizers from Darjeeling, looked on.
Still, there are hold-outs. For example, Babuda, the General Secretary of a south Kolkata neighborhood, opts out of the corporate puja and instead relies on money from his neighbors to fund a modest pandal. In front, families lick kulfi as Babuda explains, “This is a time for the community to unite. Why do we need such a big display?”
And even at the increasingly lavish shrines, the actions of visiting devotees remain the same. A father holds his daughter up for a better view. Teenagers capture the moment on camera. And many close their eyes to the crowd and structure to pay respect to the goddess within.
A sculptor in the north Kolkata neighborhood of Kumartuli paints the murthi depicting evil.
Murthis are transported through the streets of Kolkata.
A giant bronze Buddha in southern Kolkata.
Durga and her family sit on a lotus below a beehive.
With its theme of scales, this pandal in Shyam Bazaar compels visitors to question the weight of what they hold dear.
Papier-mâché birds make a light overhead detail in one pandal.
Durga portrayal takes on the abstract as thousands of the goddess’ face form the scales of a fish.
A Brahmin offers evening prayers to Maa Durga at the pandal in Babuda’s neighborhood.
Amidst a boisterous crowd, one lady worshipper finds a peaceful moment to gaze up at Maa Durga.
*Note: This post comes out of Melati’s visit to Brian in Kolkata during Durga Puja in October. It is a rare collective effort during these months apart. We have also put it up on our joint blog, Tadi Pagi, which documents our time in Indonesia.
To a blind man it would sound like Kolkata is being bombed from all sides, if not for the tell-tale fizzle after the fireworks.
On Divali, the festival of lights, Indian youth—from ragtag street boys to the primmest of princesses—do everything they can to get their hands on sparklers, rockets, and bombs, so that they can strike that match and wait for it go pop, fizzle, or boom. For a night, everyone has become an aspiring pyrotechnician.
Yes, it’s certainly dangerous, but beautiful also.
From the roof of a 15 story building, a spray of embers showers up into the foggy winter night sky and fountains down the length of the building.
Blazing bottle rockets zip past each other at 60 degree angles to the ground. One narrowly misses clipping the roof of our building. Maybe we are being attacked.
But it’s a celebration proclaims the next professional grade firework that rockets above Calcutta and lights up the night sky. It originates from the heart of a nearby residential area; the roofs of apartment buildings are being used as launching pads.
On the last day of Durga Puja, communities immerse Maa Durga and her god-children—Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, and Ganesha—into the Ganga, sending them home.
“See you next year”, they call out in Bengali.
On this last day of the festival, Vijaya Dashami, married women smear red powder on Maa Durga and each other. As these painted women lead the processions down the ghat to the river, they dance. Drummers beat a fast rhythm as the idol bearers spin Durga seven times before immersing her in the waters of the Hooghly.
Trucks arrive at the ghat every couple of minutes laden with more Durgas and accompanying entourages.
As another Durga descends the ghat, workers drag immersed goddesses out of the river and throw them into a growing pile of disfigured murthis. Due to concerns of polluting the river with lead paint, this year the murthis are taken out of the river as quickly as they are put in. Later they are taken to a dumping ground on E.M. Bypass Road.
Note: This post is a collective effort with my partner Melati. She visited me in Kolkata for Durga Puja and currently works as a journalist based in Indonesia.
After a bird crapped on me, we wandered upon the flower market in the shadow of Howrah Bridge. As usual, the sellers weighed out kilograms of marigold blossoms from huge mounds set out on tarps. But this being the 8th morning of Durga Puja, lotuses were also being sold by the hundreds. On the transition between the 8th and 9th day of the festival, Sandhi Puja is performed and 108 lotuses are offered to Maa Durga.
Note: This post is a collective effort with my partner Melati. She visited me in Kolkata for Durga Puja and currently works as a journalist based in Indonesia.
During Durga Puja, the mother goddess Durga returns to her ancestral home and defeats evil in an epic battle. In honor of her homecoming, nearly three thousand temporary structures pop up in Kolkata, blocking traffic and poking holes in the street.
For a week, this economic backwater of a city hosts one of the world’s largest street festivals.
The temporary structures are called pandals and they range from a simple shelter to a lavish temple. These pandals house the murthi, or sculptures of Durga and her divine children Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesha (Ganpatti), and Kartik.
Just as people in the West stroll around to see Christmas decorations, in Kolkata residents and visitors walk and ride throughout the city to see different pandals during Durga Puja. They call the half sight-seeing, half pilgrimage “pandal hopping”.
Since the 1970s communities have competed for the best, most creative, and (now) environment-friendly pandal and Puja scene, but only in the last decade has corporate sponsorship pushed the biggest of them to become major architectural undertakings. For instance, this recreation of a Gujarati temple in North Kolkata:
Pandal artists, in consultation with Puja committees, choose themes to represent in the pandals. This year, themes included..
Muslims complete their final prostration during Jumu’ah (Friday afternoon prayer) on a street in Lal Bazaar, Central Kolkata during Eid-al-Adha.
“The Feast of the Sacrifice” honors Abraham’s submission to Allah when he intended to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
In India, Muslims sacrifice a goat (elsewhere they sacrifice sheep, cows, and camels) to commemorate Abraham sacrificing the ram that Allah had provided so Ishmael would be saved.
Here the festival is also called Bakra-Eid. Bakra in Urdu means “goat”.
Eid Mubarak (a little late).
Where do Buddhist monks from Darjeeling, the chief minister of West Bengal, and the Consul Generals from Myanmar, Thailand, and Bhutan all meet?
At a pandal inauguration, of course!
The Durga Puja committee for one south Kolkata neighborhood decided to portray Buddha in their pandal this year.
And not only did the pandal have a Buddhism theme, but organizers also setup a small Buddhist temple beside the pandal where monks from Darjeeling chanted devotional prayers.
It is a testament to the elasticity of Hindu religious practice that a structure housing one of the most revered deities is created to honor an entirely different religion.
Towering above Durga and her god-children was a giant bronze face of the Buddha.
To complete the odd spectacle, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rolled up to officially inaugurate the pandal. School children greeted her and she was the first to offer prayers to Ma Durga.
The Consul Generals from Myanmar, Thailand, and Bhutan stood nearby as foreign dignitaries for the occasion.
In the days approaching Durga Puja, the walkways along Rash Behari became nearly impassable.
Salesmen hawking saris, jeans, and dress shirts—along with fake gold jewelry, children’s books, and culinary tools—crowded the sidewalks. For Durga Puja, Bengali Hindus buy new clothes for themselves and their family members.
Wedged in between clothing stalls, chaat, momo and khati stands catered to hungry shoppers. Chai boys navigated the crowds with steaming kettles and handfuls of clay cups. The salesmen needed the chai boost to keep up their constant banter, calling customers to them and then completing the sale.
A Bengali friend informed me that Bengalis don’t feel that they are shopping until they bargain, and thousands of intense negotiations were taking place on these sidewalks. Teenage girls switched from giggly gossip to hardcore bargaining once they had pinpointed the shoes that would complete their new outfits.
At a particularly famous sari shop on a corner of Rash Behari, a line thirty deep formed at the door. On the top floor, ladies fingered the woven silk of Kanchipuram saris and agonized over which patterns and colors would suit them, their daughters, and their nieces. Mustached salesmen unfurled one sari after another, as the rejected ones piled high on the counter.
Outside, plump Bengali aunties waddled through the crowd clutching three shopping bags and trailing lines of small children.
On a line of plastic stools, young women sat with arms extended to receive mehendi work on their hands.
Oblivious to the rush of the crowd passing her by, one ten-year old girl in a red satin dress sat on a stool transfixed by the henna patterns sprouting across her hand.
In cramped workspaces, they sand the breasts of goddesses, paint with gold dust, and glue artificial hair.
A few weeks ago when I visited the artisan colony of Kumartuli in north Kolkata, murthi (idol) makers were putting the finishing touches on months of work. Durga Puja, the biggest festival for Bengali Hindus, was a mere two weeks away.
Sculptors had already packed murthis in crates and sent them off to Bengali diaspora communities in the West Indies, Switzerland, and the United States. Now they were hurrying to finish the murthis that would be housed in pandals sprouting up all over Kolkata.
A skinny gentleman trots down the lane pulling an obese teenage girl barking into her cell phone.
Kolkata is one of the last places in the world where human-pulled rickshaws still transport passengers and goods. In most places they have been replaced by cycle and engine powered rickshaws, but in Kolkata around 15,000 rickshaw pullers still remain.
Introduced to Kolkata in the late 19th century by Chinese merchants, the hand-pulled rickshaw has become an iconic symbol of the city. Citing humanity concerns, the government has attempted to ban this form of transport, though rickshaw pullers and traditionalists have successfully resisted.
For the next three months I am living in Kolkata and learning Bangla (or Bengali) at the American Institute of Indian Studies.
Soon I will begin teaching children that live in a nearby slum at a makeshift school in the parking garage of the income tax building. This will help me learn Bengali faster.
Why learn Bengali if I will be researching in Assam where people speak Assamese?
These first three months in Kolkata are supported by the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language scholarship. The U.S. State Department does not list Assamese as a “critical language”, though Bengali is included.
Bengali and Assamese are related languages and share a script. Therefore, learning Bengali now will make it easier for me to learn Assamese later. Also, Bengali Muslims have migrated to Assam and many do not speak either Hindi or Assamese.
Already knowing Hindi allows me to communicate with most people in Assam, but amongst each other they speak Assamese, Bengali, or tribal languages like Mishing. To understand community meetings and casual conversations, it’s important to have a grasp of these languages.
A week before he had 131 buffalo. Now he has 8. The others had washed away with the floods and drowned or are far downstream. For the last few days, this middle-aged man has been wandering those downstream areas in search of his buffalo.
Like others in this area, he has lost almost his entire livelihood and savings in the flood. In another area we visited downstream, the leaves of tea plants were covered in mud. The plants will die, the owner of this small tea garden glumly said as he washed his wardrobe of the same mud.
His wife pointed to the high water mark on their house with a hand gnarled from decades of picking tea leaves. Rising to over five feet, the water had not spared their stash of paddy, which they were desperately trying to dry in the mid morning sun.
Without the tea to cultivate, they have no way to earn money. Without the rice, they have no subsistence food.
26 September—In Dholla, school has been canceled for the last week. Like in many communities of Assam, flood refugees in Dholla congregate in a school for shelter.
Here classrooms contained families squatting among their belongings in plastic bags. One classroom was turned into a field hospital and a young mother was receiving IV fluids as her three young children sat glumly around her. Under a yellow tarp, a relief worker was cooking giant vats of lentil and rice.
1,338 people have taken refuge at the school. Many have little to go back to: Their fields have been destroyed; their houses washed away; and their cattle drowned.
The army doctor was nervous about the prospect of a water-borne disease like cholera spreading here. He lamented the limited supply of broad-spectrum antibiotic available to the local administration. Were an epidemic to happen “and a 1,000 people became sick tomorrow”, there wouldn’t be enough medicine to go around.
I continued upriver, skirting past Sibsagar where a bomb had exploded outside a cinema hall a couple days earlier killing two people. At the edge of Dibru Saikhowa National Park near Tinsukia town I met Sanjay Das, a park guide and self-taught ornithologist.
We hopped on Sanjay’s boat and traveled across a small branch of the Brahmaputra to the village where Sanjay grew up. Patches of water still remained where floodwaters that inundated the village earlier this week had yet to recede. The rest of the ground was mushy mud. Planks of wood snaked from one house to the next, forming narrow walkways on which kids scampered and adults carried out their daily tasks.
We visited one small barn where three cows live. Flooded out of their house, the cow’s owners were also now living here on a platform they built—along with all of their belongings. They had been living in the cowshed for four days.
But these people might consider themselves lucky relative to their neighbors. Other houses had completely fallen into the river. Erosion was eating away at this island. In just this monsoon season, the island had become over a hundred meters skinnier.
Back in the boat, headed up this four hundred meter wide channel of the river, I spotted a splash, and then another one. These splashes were too far away from the edge of the river where men were net fishing.
As we neared the confluence of a tributary, Sanjay asked me if I had ever seen the river dolphin before. One time, two years before on the north bank farther down the river. But that was only a single, brief glimpse.
Sanjay directed the boat driver to cut the engine. Dolphins began emerging about a hundred yards away. Only the juveniles jumped high enough to completely clear the water.
With his telephoto lens, Sanjay tried to get another amazing shot of a dolphin for a half hour. With eight or nine dolphins in this school, one emerged at least every thirty seconds. But the dolphins’ narrow noses pierced the air and were back under before it was possible to click the camera. I eventually resorted to my small camera’s video function as the sure way to capture a jump.
Sanjay had recently participated in a dolphin survey on the Brahmaputra by the environmental NGO Aaranyak. They counted only 300 in the 1,000 km stretch of the Brahmaputra in India. It was lucky for us to see so many at once.
Back in Guijan, over two hundred flood-affected people were jostling to get relief materials at the small government distribution center. Each family was being given five kilograms of rice and one kilogram of lentils. When I asked a group of people whether this was sufficient, the response was unanimously negative.
A government worker was using a metal can to scoop the rationed amount of rice off the cement floor and into crumpled pastic bags that people brought with them. Another worker added a small bag with the kilo of lentils. One bespectacled grandmother clutched on to the rations she received and pushed her way out through the crowd behind her. The next one to emerge with supplies was a teenage mother cradling her infant inside her left arm and rations in her right.
Between National Highway 37 and the river, flooded paddy fields glistened in the setting sun. From Guwahati I was traveling upriver on the south bank of the Brahmaputra.
Just after nightfall we entered Kaziranga National Park, home to the one-horned rhinoceros (only found in Northeast India and Nepal), a couple hundred tigers, and herds of elephants.
Beginning just before the park, villagers had set up make-shift tents on the road. Their homes were submerged under flood waters and this was the highest point around. When we passed at dusk, the women were preparing dinner and men squatted in small circles smoking beedis and chewing paan. To fend themselves from traffic, they fenced off their asphalt “yard” with sticks. But this would be little help if one of the numerous trucks failed to see them.
As we drove deeper into the park, our headlights began to pick-up hog deer, a smaller species than we have back home on the East coast. The deer waited in groups of two and three, and it wasn’t clear whether they were trying to cross the road or also positioning themselves on the highest point around.
The next morning I read on the Assam Tribune’s front page that floods in the park killed twenty-two animals, including four young one-horned rhinoceroses.
The loss of people was almost as high: “Flood scene worsens in State, 18 Dead” was the newspaper’s headline. This round of floods, the Tribune reported, affected about a million and a half people in over 2,000 villages. 400,000 of these people took relief in 421 camps around the state. I was on my way to upper Assam where some of the heaviest flooding occurred.
The clerk at the Superintendent of Police office that registers foreigners, an “aunty” with folds of flesh flowing out from the midriff opening of her saree, sidled in around noon. She slurped tea and munched biscuits before turning her attention to my application. I waited impatiently through this bureaucratic ritual, biting my tongue with the curses in Hindi I had learned while living for seven months in Bombay. My forms finally accepted, I glanced up at the moldy mounds of files above the clerks’ desks that now were prime nesting grounds for rats. After three hours of effort, my file would likely join these.
Less than a week earlier I had flown from Jakarta thru Singapore (passing a leisurely couple of hours beside the airport’s koi pond) and onto New Delhi where I enjoyed the hospitality of Davidson Economics Professor Dave Martin and his wife Elizabeth. Then I flew back eastward to Guwahati, the capital of Assam, to register my presence with the authorities as a foreigner on a research visa.
Now here I was at the office of the Guwahati Superintendent of Police right on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. While waiting for the clerk who registers foreigners to arrive, I hung out in a cramped cement building that is a measuring station of the Central Water Commission with two monitors are posted around the clock to monitor the level of the water.
The scene looked grim as did the monitors: At 50.46 m, the river was flowing almost a full meter above danger level with a rising trend. For so late in September, this was strange. By this time, the monsoon was almost always petering out. But lately the monsoon has been acting funny: coming early, staying late, and dumping huge amounts of rainfall at once.
Earlier in the morning, the CWC monitors had received a call from a station way upriver in Arunachal Pradesh that reported heavy rainfall and a deluge of water. In upper Assam it had been raining nonstop for two weeks, and this meant that the water causing significant floods in upper Assam would likely soon inundate Guwahati. The river monitors here were on flood watch.
I am back in India on a Nehru-Fulbright Fellowship to study climate change adaptation on the Brahmaputra River for nine months in rural Assam. Before beginning this research, I will live in Calcutta for three months learning Bengali and Assamese at the American Institute of Indian Studies.
In July, I led a group of sixteen and seventeen year old high school students on a month-long trip in Ladakh to study sustainable development.
After a nice visit back with my folks in New Jersey, I rejoined Melati in Indonesia, and we ventured out to remote islands in Eastern Indonesia with white sand beaches and incredible coral reefs. We spent an idyllic ten days living in a shack on the beach, snorkeling, and grilling fresh fish over coconut husk coals.
On our way back to the real world, we stopped off at a biennial gathering of Indonesia’s royalty to dine among kings and princesses. As the costumed royalty processed to the feast serenaded by Disney music, we posed as press and churned out a photo essay for the Jakarta Post.
Perhaps to balance out the highs of the trip, I nursed a staph infection on my left foot for the two weeks that followed. For a week I rode into a clinic in Jakarta to receive antibiotic from an IV and get black, necrotic tissue scraped out of an increasingly big hole in my foot.
11 pm 4 Aug
We are stranded in Tak.Upon arriving at the Tak bus station, we learn that the minibuses to Mae Sot have stopped running for the night. Eleven hours and three buses after leaving Mai Sai, we are stopped short of our destination.
As Jabin and I dine on ‘cup of noodles’, a guy with a minivan tries to tempt us into paying him 25 bucks to take us the final hour and a half. On the flat screen television hanging above us, the fishing channel broadcasts from America a giddy southerner catching bonefish on a Key West flat. I’m jealous.
The minibus service resumes in the early morning; it looks like we are here for the night. Despite our situation (tired after a day of bus travel and without a bed to sleep), group morale is still pretty high. Mirza tries not to let on that he is disappointed we won’t have a proper dinner, but Jabin and I laugh as he sulkily stalks around the bus station snack stand looking for a suitable meal.
There are nice, wide wooden benches we’re going to sleep on. We are only worried about the restive dogs milling around and the security of our baggage. Mirza volunteers not to sleep in order to keep watch.
2 Aug: I woke up to the reality of Burma today. Burma’s rich endowment of natural resources has become a curse in the hands of nefarious leaders. At a café in northern Thailand, an expatriate environmental NGO researcher explains how this curse creates looming catastrophes and those already in progress.
An abundance of tropical hardwoods, especially teak, has encouraged massive deforestation. Open-pit mining has poisoned the streams leading to the natural areas that are left. The government is ravaging the environment while the local citizens receive no benefit from its exploitation. Often, the citizens are raped and shot as the Burmese military sweeps in to “secure” the resource sites. By all indications, the leaders are profiteers who lack any regard for their citizens’ welfare.
Now, the Burmese government is turning its exploitation to hydroelectricity from mega dams. This morning, the dam building is on the top of this environmental NGO researcher’s mind. He points out existing and planned dam sites on a map published by Burma Rivers Network (http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/home-mainmenu-1.html). The government has 25 dam projects in progress. These dam sites, we would learn in later interviews, correspond with increasing militarization in ethnic areas including those currently in violent conflict.
Chinese companies are building most of the dams, though Thai and Indian companies, as well as a Swiss engineering consulting firm, are also participating. Myanmar’s energy hungry neighbors are eager to overlook the government’s abuses as they bids for shares of Myanmar’s energy resource wealth.
I ask the researcher his opinion on the international community’s sanctions regime. When I was researching this topic at SAIS last Fall, the current debate in Washington was questioning the sanctions approach after its failure over two decades later to either reform or bankrupt the regime. But this researcher explains that, while sanctions have failed to improve the situation, they have also reduced the extent of the damage. He fears that if the sanctions are lifted then a flood of European companies will accelerate the already unsustainable pace of natural resource extraction and environmental damage. At the same time, he acknowledges that the investments of Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, particularly China, are more than sufficient to sustain the excesses of the military regime—as the development of dams illustrates.
If international sanctions should not be lifted but will never solve the problem, then what is the way forward?, The question feels awkward as I ask it; the challenges seem too big to take on in such a restricted political space (discussion about these kinds of issues inside Burma warrants arrest or worse).
In his response to my query, he turns the conversation from geopolitics to local forces, which he sees as the primary actors of change. Local groups of concerned citizens, according to his approach, must mount legal challenges against the corporation’s use of natural resources. He calls these “localized actions”. The role of outsiders in this approach is to help build capacity for these local groups to monitor resource extraction and understand their legal rights. Unfortunately, these rights are highly diluted in Myanmar’s legal code, the judicial process is far from fair, and any significant challenges to state authority are, at the moment, futile and will be squashed.
3 Aug: Pudgy Pastor Max hands us ears of boiled corn out of a plastic bag, which we munch on this bus headed to the northernmost town in Thailand. We met Pastor Max at the bus station in Chiang Mai where we started our day’s trip and now again further north at the Chiang Rai bus station. We’re all headed to the border town of Mai Sai where Pastor Max, still in his thirties, ministers to a church community, half of which are Burmese immigrants.
Over a delicious, spicy lunch at the Mai Sai bus station, Pastor Max lays out the challenges facing his Burmese parishioners, mostly Shan migrants. The children are allowed to attend Thai schools, but when they graduate, the Pastor explains, “NOT THAI” is stamped on their diplomas and they are refused Thai work permits. They cannot obtain legal work in Thailand, nor are their diplomas recognized in Burma. “They are caught in between”, says Pastor Max, and many, he says, turn to unskilled labor earning a hundred baht a day and even sex work.
Yesterday at a coffee shop in Chiang Mai we met an expatriate director for a migrant labor NGO. A grizzly veteran of the international NGO world, she grumbled “I’m anti-anti-trafficking”, when asked about the extent of human trafficking on the Thai-Burma border. A very small percentage of all migrant workers are “trafficked”, though it attracts a disproportionately large share of attention and resources given to the plight of migrant workers. Less than one percent of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are trafficked, but a large majority of them face harassment in the workplace and lack access to government services such as schools and hospitals.
Since official work passes are issued in conjunction with an employer, migrant workers have little possibility to seek better working conditions and wages. The NGO for which this lady works supports migrant workers legal cases. Despite new legislation granting migrant workers more rights and better access to the Thai justice system, employers have been ordered to pay less than 10 percent of the total damages claimed by migrant workers. The situation was far from perfect, but she emphasized that it had vastly improved from the situation fifteen and twenty years ago.
After lunch with Pastor Max, he gives us a lift in the raggedy (though very clean) church van to a hotel near the checkpoint on the Thai side. It’s nearing 6 pm when we reach the checkpoint. On the Thai side, people heading into Burma queue up in the rain. They are holding umbrellas in one hand and a motorcycle or bicycle handlebar in the other. School kids in green uniforms and red and white ones wave to me from packed vans. Chock-full pick-up trucks and vegetable sellers pushing handcarts are all trying to get back across to the Burma side before the checkpoint closes at 6:30 pm.
A motorcycle pulls a rickety metal cart in which a blue-vested six year old sits on a white tarp, blue border pass in hand ready to present to the border officials. His action figure backpack lies beside him in the cart. A lady on another motorcycle jockeys it forward in the queue, her two small daughters are seated behind her. Plastic shopping bags dangle from the cycle’s handlebars, and a black umbrella sticks out of the front basket. They present blue temporary border passes to the guards and shuttle through.
30 July (Part Two): A dark-skinned, mustached man with south Indian facial features fries balls of ground, spiced chickpeas over a small bucket of coals. A green plastic net basket in which he places the finished pakora to drain tops his two foot high, portable contraption. He is meters away from the international border demarcating Burma to the west and Thailand to the east at Three Pagodas Pass in the Tenasserim Hills.
Indeed, Jabin finds out by speaking to him in Tamil, the pakora seller’s family had, three generations ago, immigrated to Burma from Tamil Nadu, a state in southeastern India. Eager to surprise him with the little Tamil I know, I ask, eyappadi irukinga? (how are you?). Nlar caen (I am fine), he replies without hesitation and unenthused. A young boy close by pokes samosa in his sizzling wok (see photo, taken by Mirza).
Though this border is closed to international travellers, Burmese workers flow by. One lady swings a metal dhaba container (her lunchbox) from one hand; a teal colored umbrella is hooked around her other arm. Another, dressed in a green poncho and pink helmet, pushes a red scooter around the red and white striped gate. Many of these people come across the border to work by day in small Thai factories offering cheap wages and return every night to the homes on the Burma side.
For thousands of years, people have flowed through this pass, carrying tradable goods, ideas, and guns. It is a vital connection point linking south and southeast Asia. Some historians say that in the third century Buddhism entered Siam from India through this very place. Burmese armies started coming through here ten centuries later, including the ones that ransacked the Siam kingdom of Ayutthaya in the eighteenth century. The “Death Railway” connecting Bangkok and Rangoon to supply Japanese troops in World War II, ran through Three Pagodas Pass.
Today, only a small segment of the railroad track remains here on the Thai side of the border as a remembrance (though perhaps these are a replica of the original). We bend down to inspect it and one of the MWO workers bends back some grass to show an engraving in the steel: “CARNEGIE”. Nearby, the three pagodas for which the pass is named stand in a line on a circle of grass and are draped in yellow, orange, and pink cloth. Touristy shops offering gem jewelry, teak carvings, and snacks ring the outer edge of the circle.
As we leave the border on the three motorbikes—I am now piloting one of them—the drizzling rain picks up to a pour. We veer off the main road back to Sangkhla Buri, and ride past kilometers of rubber plantations. The rain is shellacking us as we pull up to a monastery built into a side of a hill (see photo, taken by Mirza). Once we take permission from one of the monks to enter, we hesitantly proceed into the extensive cave complex where at one time Japanese soldiers in retreat took refuge. Now the monastery’s monks and nuns meditate in these caves.
Past drippy stalactites—some almost met by stalagmites emerging from the cave floor—the passage way opens into a large space. A small pagoda, a golden Buddha statue, and a white Buddha statue line the back wall of the space, and some plastic sheeting lays in front of them for kneeling and prostration. A couple candles and a small vessel of flowers are placed in front of the white Buddha.
Thru another passageway, up about twenty shaky wooden steps supported by scaffolding which, at first, I’m hesitant to trust, is another meditation space. This one is smaller and has only one two foot high Buddha statue. A bulb dimly illuminates the space. I’m alone, but then a nun in a simple white shirt appears at the top of the steps. Silently, she approaches and ascends an eight-rung ladder leading to an un-illuminated, narrow passage way. She disappears into the darkness for meditation.
As we return to town, the rain continues to nail us. I squint my eyes in an attempt to keep out the drops stinging my face—while still trying to maintain visibility. We stop at one of the MWO worker’s house, and we gorge on palmello and the red, hairy rambootan. We dip the palmello segments into a mixture of salt and dried chili and sample spicy coconut milk curry with thin, white local noodles. This family keeps an Asian Palm Civet as a pet—the animal that poops delicious coffee beans—and he runs around the property and up a durian tree.
In the evening, we meet with a couple Burmese journalists that work for Irrawaddy Media and collect news from the “inside” (Burma). One speaks about the illegal and lucrative timber and mining trade happening in Mon state and the gems, mostly jade, coming out of Shan state through Mae Sot (where we will visit in another week).
Then the conversation turns to the ongoing fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic rebel armies. Now the Army is fighting the Kachins, north of Mon state. Though a few of these ethnic armies have pretty advanced capabilities—the Wa and Kachin ethnic armies, according to one journalist, now produce their own guns and ammunition—they are still much weaker than the Myanmar military, supplied with Chinese arms. The ethnic armies do not cooperate against their common opponent, the Myanmar military, a product of the ‘divide and rule’ tactics practiced by the Myanmar junta. Now the military fights with the Kachin, but the Mon know that soon enough, once the military defeats the larger ethnic armies, they will renege on the current ceasefire and resume fighting against a Mon ethnic army that has not fought in over a decade. In a month or three or five, Mon refugees from a renewed conflict will likely stream across the Three Pagodas Pass and amass in the border area—pushed out of Burma and not welcome in Thailand.
30 July (Part One): Splash! My morning bath is in the Khao Laem Reservoir. I jump in a few meters from where we slept. The water is warm on the surface, but just a couple feet below it is noticeably cooler, even cold. I hop aboard a country boat moored to our house raft, untie the line, and move in frenetic circles before I learn how to wield the stubby wooden paddle and navigate a straight line. Above, young Thai couples on weekend holiday from Bangkok and saffron robed monks traverse the bridge. I spot a group of Thai girls pointing and giggling at my steering difficulties. Blushing, I paddle away from the bridge towards a lone fisherman, casting and retrieving his hand net from a squat at the stern of his tiny skiff. Otherwise, I am alone on the placid water.
Breakfast on spicy noodles, peanuts, and pork—sprinkled with lime juice. The three of us (along with two workers from Mon Women’s Organization) start for Three Pagodas
Pass in a light, on/off rain on a few motorbikes, Mirza and Jabin’s ponchos flapping in the wind. We pass rubber and teak plantations, then a steep, densely-vegetated hill throwing off morning mist (see picture, taken by Mirza from his bike). We slow down at a checkpoint where roadblocks are setup. The Thai security personnel wave us through.
Just before we reach the border, we visit a monastery where seven monks and fourteen novices live. Thirty kids from Karan and Mon and Burmese migrant families attend school at the monastery as well, and these kids are horsing around the large prayer hall as migrants from Burma living in the local area prepare a special meal of noodle soup for Buddha Day (which occurs two times every fifteen days). Paper prayer flags of different (now faded) colors with various cut-out designs are strung together from the wooden rafters below the sheet metal roof.
The noodle soup is dished out in green, pink, and white plastic bowls and served up to the kids sitting across from each other in two neat rows as well as to clusters of adults sitting throughout the hall. We are introduced to the head monk. He sits in lotus position at the front of the prayer hall, draped in a saffron-colored robe and chewing a wad of paan. We make casual conversation with him (for a head monk, our local guides explain, he is very informal). Spitting out his paan into a nearby plastic bucket, he rolls up a stubby cigarette from coarse tobacco and some sort of pliable, dried leaf. He strikes a match and takes a puff. The acrid smoke hits the air.
We move to a classroom off the side of the monastery (an English lesson on vowels still up on the whiteboard, next to a three foot gold colored Buddha statue) where we meet two economic migrants, a young couple with bright smiles which they break into often. They work in a nearby shoe factory. The husband, thirty years old, has shoulder-length hair, crooked, betel-stained teeth and is dressed in jeans and a spotless white polo. The lady, twenty four years old and slim, sports a purple polo and light, white cardigan sweater. They would not be out of place window shopping at your nearest mall or strolling arm in arm to the buffet table at a country club, but their preppie appearance and frequent smiles betray their difficult lives.
They traveled here from Yangon with high expectations (as of yet, unmet) for more economically rewarding work, bribing their way through checkpoints inside Burma. In Yangon, their psychology and chemistry degrees were of little use in obtaining high-skilled work, and they ventured here, just across the border, based on stories they heard of higher paid (though still unskilled) work. Now they work in a shoe factory earning in baht the equivalent of $2 a day alongside children as young as thirteen years old.
They carry no passport, only their Myanmar government issue ID card and factory ID, both of which they show us. These documents allow them to cross the international border, a few hundred meters from where we are meeting, but not past the Thai checkpoint (which we crossed on our way) into the town of Sangkhla Buri and the rest of Thailand.
They are working now to put together enough money to go to Bangkok, for which they will need to pay 15,000 baht ($500) to human traffickers. But to gain any skilled work in Bangkok, they will need to learn Thai. The lady mentions she also wants to learn English and computer skills to better her employment prospects, which she may do in night courses if she can manage the tuition costs.
At the end of the meeting, we wish them well, and Jabin and one of the MWO workers give them a lift on the motorbikes back to the small shoe factory. We re-enter the prayer hall and sit in a circle on the wooden floor to partake in the Buddha Day lunch: “local” noodles, fish in a green broth, tamarind, fried garlic, hot pepper, all mixed together. Super tasty. Children play and giggle around us as the locals insist we help ourselves to seconds out of the serving bowls. A coconut sweet for dessert, which Jabin enthusiatically remarks is nearly identical to a sweet made in his native Kerala. Then we set out from the monastery for the short walk to the Three Pagodas and the international border.
29 July: I decided back in June to make a stop in Thailand on my way back to the States to attend my good friends’ Dao and Constantino’s wedding, scheduled to take place at Dao’s hometown of Trang in the south of Thailand. Jabin and Mirza, who I worked with at a New Delhi think tank in 2007, had been contemplating a research trip to northeast India, but, prompted by my travel plans, made an impromptu decision to switch their travel itinerary and research agenda to Thailand.
Mirza called me on 22 July and asked if I could get to Thailand by the 27th and join them for a week and a half of research on Thai-Burma border issues before I needed to head south to the wedding. Excited at the prospect of traveling with these old pals (and experienced research hands), I immediately put together an exit plan for northeast India—where I was teaching, swimming, and fishing in a tiny tribal village—so I could join them.
A week later, the three of us are boarding an early morning mini bus in Bangkok headed for Sanghkla Buri and the historic Three Pagodas Pass. Mirza and I are making our first trip to Thailand. Jabin visited six years earlier with a Czech friend to hit up the tourist spots. Mirza and Jabin conducted field research together on the other side of Burma on its border with northeast India where they explored issues involving the Chin community.
We are all newbies to the Thai-Burma border and are about to get a crash course. I couldn’t ask for better travel partners. Jabin, ten years my senior, is a China hand and Mirza an expert on northeast India, including his native Assam. They are both upbeat, quick learners, and flexible. Most importantly, they are equipped with well-developed senses of humor.
We reach Thong Pha Phum, halfway to Sangkhla Buri in a quick couple of hours, but make a critical mistake when we board a big red bus for the second leg instead of a mini-bus. Rather than taking another two, three hours max, we reach Sanghkla Buri after another seven hours, including a leisurely two hour lunch stop at a roadside pavilion pit stop (part of which I pass snoozing on a wooden platform next to our bus conductor flipping through a Thai newspaper). The slow progress of the big red bus gives us plenty of time to enjoy the lush mountainous landscape of the journey’s last leg as we inch our way towards the Burmese border.
We finally arrive in the late afternoon, nine hours after leaving Bangkok, and are greeted at the bus stand by a guy and lady, both in their twenties and workers of the Mon Women’s Organization, our local contact here. We pile on two motorbikes and putter to the MWO office, run out of the bottom floor of a residence, where we meet the rest of the local staff. Mon is the state in Burma that borders Sangkhla Buri, and a significant amount of Mon migrants are working in the area between this town and the Burma border.
After our initial introductions, we walk twenty minutes down to the reservoir formed by the Khao Laem Dam. Thin at this northern portion of the reservoir, a wavy wooden bridge around 200 meters long spans the banks. We head down the near bank to a grouping of twenty house rafts and walk across seven or eight of them to the one we’ll occupy for the next couple nights (see picture, taken by Jabin). After we are treated to a delicious dinner back at MWO’s office and stroll the bridge, the three of us lay out on the deck of the house raft, preferring the night air to the three rooms prepared for us. There, we chat about girlfriends and professional ambitions—decidedly content to be in a strange land floating off to sleep. (In the morning, Mirza is first up, and takes a picture of Jabin and me still snoozing).
27 July: On two hours of sleep, but perked by new surroundings, I head out into Bangkok with Mirza, Jabin, and Anuwadh. We board a ferry on the Chao Praya River that cuts through Bangkok and head downstream past red-roofed pagoda temples with gold flourishes, white high rise condos, silver office buildings, and rundown riverside mansions once elegant in their heyday. Long, thin boats—rainbow stripes zig-zagging their hulls and awnings—cut across the fast-flowing muddy waters, ferrying passengers from one bank to the other, their long-stemmed outboard motors chugging and fuming in the humid late-morning air.
An elderly Thai passenger opens a bag of yellow curry and spoons out pork and vegetables, it’s pungent smell reaching me five rows down wind. The ferry slows in deference to a fleet of long boats paddled by young people in matching colored uniforms—a blue shirted boat, pink shirted boat, etc. We pass under the Rama 8 bridge, suspended by golden-colored cables, and disembark at the furthest stop downriver the ferry makes.
At the ferry pier, Bobo—a fast-talking, personable, and pudgy friend of Anuwadh’s who makes his living trading stocks on the Thai stock exchange and never removeshis handless cell phone earpiece—meets us. He takes us to a nearby, open-air restaurant where we dine on steamed fish presented in a pool of soy sauce (one for each of us), pork and chicken curries, and stir-fried vegetables.
We head out after lunch in Bobo’s car towards Ayutthaya, the old Siamese kingdom originating around the 14th century, and explore its dilapidated temple complexes. We try to imagine how the headless, broken Buddha statues once looked before invading Burmese armies ransacked the kingdom in the 18th century. We also visit newer temples, one with a giant golden Buddha, and gaze at elaborate wall paintings depicting events in the Buddha’s life. Above us hang ornate cloth lamps and red cloth gold embroidered Chinese characters. In front of the altars, banana tree trunks into which devotees poke thin wooden sticks rubber-banded with twenty and hundred baht notes.
It’s hot and we decide to purchase popsicles outside one temple complex from a pushcart. Jabin chooses durian flavored popsicles for us (see picture for the actual fruit), and the seller unwraps a four inch long block, slices it in two, and inserts wooden sticks to make the popsicle. After his first lick, Jabin’s facial expression turns sour. He hands it to me, and my reaction is the same. Mirza takes three licks, mutters something about it tasting like some terrible medicine he once had to stomach, and shunts the popsicle into the crook of a nearby tree. Meanwhile, Bobo and Anuwadh are enjoying theirs, despite our protests that this is the worst thing we have ever tasted.
When I write about this experience to an old Asia hand, he urges me to give it another try, in unprocessed form and with a proper guide. “It’s a bit like sex” he emails, “kinda disgusting to contemplate, at least at first, but quite enjoyable in practice. And the more you indulge in it the more it grows on you.” Still, the smell is incredibly off-putting, and later we spot signs on the Thai subway reminding riders that bringing the ornery-looking, foul-smelling fruit onboard is unlawful.