Avaes Mohammad

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In Uncategorized on October 15, 2009 at 12:59 am

Its strange how stuff ‘just happens’ sometimes.  Stuff you might imagine would demand arduous efforts, involving long periods of intensive, gruelling research, testing expeditions even or at least concentrated flickering through towering piles of dusty, light-bleached books. But sometimes?  Sometimes it just happens.  It’s given.  On a plate.  A gift.

To discover my cultural heritage!  That’s why I set out on this wondrous journey.  To discover parts of me I feel are scattered over the face of this globe.  To collect those fragments and see whether they can actually be put together, not unlike a jigsaw.  Hoping the final image, in its completion, will serve as a mirror that truly reflects.  But I’ve also been using this opportunity to steadily explore another very particular and heart-felt passion of mine: Music.  To be specific, Sufi Music:  The music played across the world by a sect, or more simply, a group of Muslims who might sometimes identify themselves as Sufi’s.  Wikipedia, that omniscient lighthouse of all truth, defines Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”  I associate it with a type of Muslim that’s quite chilled out in the way he/she lives their life.  Someone with manners, who’s caring towards people they know and people they don’t, someone with a sense of humour, who isn’t afraid to smile and I suppose most importantly someone who’s unashamedly in love with God/The Divine and for whom that relationship of Love is real, tangible, human.  For some Sufis this feeling is so powerful it demands expression.  Some paint, some write poetry and some express their love through music.  Sufi Music.

My family aren’t Sufis.  At least not formally.  No-one whirls uncontrollably as a matter of routine.  No-one goes to a ‘special centre’ to do ‘special things’ but I have been raised in a family who respect and have befriended Sufis and their philosophies.  It was a Sufi Saint who facilitated the marriage between my parents and named me before I was born, thereby predicting my gender.  My father was born in Karachi, he’s Pakistani.  My mother was born in Mombasa, she’s Kenyan.  Nevertheless, one of the things they do have in common is their innate love for this music that elevates them both into mini-states of ecstasy and transcendence that all at once makes you feel you’re standing in the shadow of the Divine.  There’s no mysterious ritual to it.  You just have to turn it on, press play, and I see them both lifted upon winds of bliss.  I know because either by nature or nurture, I’ve inherited this too and understand the significance of the shutting of their eyes, the swaying of their heads, their gentle, syrupy cries.  Simply by pressing play.

Nevertheless, even though the effect might the same, the forms of Sufi music both my parents bring with them are different.  My father, being South Asian, brought Qawwali to our home.  Ecstatic Sufi poetry sung, screamed, sometimes shrieked in uncontrolled moments of passion, over cyclical hypnotic bass-heavy beats that drive through to your inner most core.  And resonate.  The style of Qawwali my father listens to is wild, unhinged.

My mother brought with her the East African tradition of Mawlid.  Choral singing from rows upon rows of voices with piercing melodies so beautiful they converse with stars.  In unison they sing the greatness of God and his Prophet Mohammad, accompanied by simple yet intense rhythms played from the Persian Frame Drum, the Douf.
Qawwali is to be watched as much as heard and some of my earliest memories involve my father bringing home the latest VHS’s of Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian for us all to watch and hear together.  My mother and her East African friends would come together at certain times of the year to transform a terraced back room into a Mawlid Hall and amongst the smoke of Frankincense, emit their songs of praise.  A woman would walk between us all, spraying rose water.  Angels, I was told, like sweet smells and no doubt, angels would have been amongst us, listening.  Using music to feel God was a very normal part of our family’s living.

The point here being that the same tradition of Sufi Music existed for me in two distinct forms from childhood.  Each one coloured by where it had come from.  Deep Pakistani red with dusty brown overtures and luscious, wet Kenyan green.  Yet they both had exactly the same effect.  Their core was the same, they both lifted and fed our hearts while still remaining wonderfully independent: each upholding the peculiarities of it’s own distinct beauty.  How much has Sufi Music been altered and affected by the culture it’s exposed to?  This has remained a constant question for me while on this journey.  And so far privately from this Blog, I have walked through dark labyrinthed alleys and even desolate ‘jungles’ to find my answers.  Slowly I’ll unpeel all my discoveries.  I begin though with the following fortuitous discovery presented to me in Kutch.

‘There are Africans in India!  They’ve been there for generations!!  When I saw them I was amazed.  They look exactly like they’re from here.  Zanzibari!  I’m sure they were all Zanzibari.  But they speak the language and dress like the Indians there.  Still  though, they’ve kept parts of their African culture.  They have this incredible Goma, this drumming and singing and dancing.  They’re mostly Muslim you see. They perform Goma during anniversaries of their Saints.  It’s not Indian.  You see it and its African.  It’s just African.  The way they move, the music, the drumming.  It’s something they’ve kept.  They’ve come here you know, We’ve seen them.  They came here to Zanzibar to perform Goma, but I would love to see them in India.  I never have!  I don’t now where they are.   I’d love to but I don’t know where they are.’

Farouq my Zanzibari friend told me of this supposedly elusive people of African origin in India.  The Sidis.  But in fact Sidis have been following me around for quite some time now, since before the beginning of my journey.  Around three years ago a musician friend of mine discovered their presence in India from the internet.  He was keen to visit them and study their rhythms at the time in an attempt to gauge the Indian-African hybridity of their art.  When I arrived in Nairobi in April this year, Zarina and Zahir, editors of the magazine ‘Awaaz’ which represents Indian Kenyans, showed me an article highlighting the Sidi community in India.  I’ve been to South Asia before and I remember seeing Sidis in Karachi, where they seemed relatively integrated into Pakistani society.  So I already knew people of African descent lived in South Asia but the Goma Farouq spoke about in Zanzibar intrigued me:  Even if only as an example of a people who have lived in a ‘foreign’ land for generations, having seemingly adopted all the customs and culture of that land but have still maintained aspects of their original culture.  It fascinated me.  And as this journey progressed from Kenya, to Zanzibar and then to India, one day, as I was sat quietly in the front yard of my distant family in Mandvi, Kutch, my uncle Khaliq nonchalantly utters…

‘The Sidis are starting their Goma tonight.  We should go.  You’ll like it!’



‘The Sidis.  It’s an Urs (annual festival) celebrating one of their saints.  They’ll be performing their Goma.  Goes on for three nights all through the night.  Fancy it?’

‘er…yeah.  Okay then.’

‘Okay.  Starts late.  We’ll leave tonight.  It’s only down the road.  Charge your camera.’


Simple as that.  An encounter that could have taken arduous research and testing expeditions, just happened.  Was just given to me in the style that so much has been on this journey:  A gift.

Khaliq is out.  It’s eleven and I’m agitated.  The English in me can’t actually cope very well with the etheral quality time has in Kutch.  Khaliq comes back.

‘Are we going?’

‘Er, yeah.  We’ll just have tea.’

‘Won’t we miss it?’

‘These things are on till dawn.  Relax!’

A lesson in relaxation later and with bellies warmed by hot tea, I straddle the back of Khaliq’s scooter and we snake our way through blackened alleys that are controlled by a whole different species at night.

There’s an absurd timeshare agreement on these alleys.  By day they’re governed, unarguably, by humans.  All other species are well aware of this.  Cattle move aside while the two legged ones full of purpose stride exuding ownership over these crooked pathways.  Too narrow to fly through, birds even fly safely out of range, the odd crow only perched on the edge of a building roof, humbly peering.  Mounds of litter gather at the alley edges so even insects are well out of the way.  They leave us alone and we leave them alone. Generally.  Except of course for dogs.  Herds of stray dogs.  An infestation of them, mainly of once-upon-a-time good labrador stock.  Very good stock in fact…imperial even.  These packs of now rabid mutts, it is believed, are direct descendents of those personal pets kept by the British when they ruled over and lived in India.  Once India won her independence and the British began to leave, most of them left behind their pets, knowing they wouldn’t have survived the months-long journey over sea.  And so they’ve remained: the last symbol of the Raj:  Golden-haired, rabid and mangy.  Of one-upon-a-time good stock. The English culture of loving dogs doesn’t really exist in India.  The dogs here, chased, spat upon and thrown stones at, even by the smallest children, are mere ghosts of their brazen and well-nourished English cousins.  Abuse and revulsion, their daily bread on these Mandvi streets.  But every dog indeed has it’s day, or in this case, it’s night, because once the day disappears and members of the two legged species scurry back to their stone hovels, the balance of power quickly shifts.  Discovering strength in numbers, now the streets and alleys of Mandvi are undeniably the terrain of dogs.  Ferocious, like an urban street-gang they sprawl themselves brazenly over this town, now able to outstretch limbs, spread with confidence over an entire width of an alley, each cluster guarding its own patch.  Periodically from the safety of your bed, you hear packs racing through the alleys while howling and shrieking to reinforce their claim over darkness.  Walking at night isn’t advised.  Especially alone.  It’s not a mere bite you have to fear, but the rabies that will likely come from it.  And so we travel by scooter, fast.  Upon every turn there’s a new gang of disaffected canines, eager to wreak their vengeance on the two-legged ones.  Khaliq is well versed in how to deal with them:  full throttle!  We swerve, turn and accelerate ourselves through their sharp-toothed threats and eventually cross a bridge to safer pathways.

There’s more light here.  The streets are decorated, mosque domes are adourned with fairy lights and there are people hanging out, under trees and in courtyards.  As we ride deeper in, the sounds of drums pulsate through the air, beating with fervour.  We ride deeper still and now the drums are accompanied by loud singing and chanting.  A sudden swerve to the left and we stop.  Hordes of people are gathered around the door of this Shrine, covered with multi-coloured lights.  The sea is just to our right and the sound of drums, singing and choral chanting thicken the air.  It’s a festival atmosphere, people bustling to get inside, some just happy to hang around on the edges outside, smoking, the smoke of different flavours.  We jostle and I push my way through the crowd and somehow, through the shoulder charges, ducking and quick footedness, I make it to the front.

It’s difficult to explain my first impressions: Wonderstruck, as though I’d found treasure from just playing in the sand.  I’d discovered something I had no idea about, that I never knew existed.  Not only had I discovered a face of India and I suppose the world I knew nothing about, but also a form of Sufi devotion, through music, singing and dancing that was completely new to me.




Men and women of African descent, dancing collectively in a circle, chanting a chorus whilst drummers imposed themselves from the centre of the deceased saints’ courtyard.  Singers singing into microphones, fairy lights colouring-in the night with richly elaborate draping cloths.  A big bang of colour, drums, dance and singing so riotous you’d be forgiven for thinking yourself at a rave.

Singer:        Bolo La – Illah (Say there is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah     (But One God!)
Singer:        La – Illah    (There is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah    (But One God!)

I can’t help myself become overcome with joy and appreciation to hear and see this, the most basic and defining creed of Islam, being celebrated like this.  Through music, dance and colour.  For it to be deemed worth celebrating like this is still an incredible and actually quite radical concept for me to get my head around, though when you witness it, seems all so natural.   And human.

Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor
Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor

Collectively they sing and chant the name of a deceased Sidi saint.  Whether this is his shrine we’re all at or that of one of his siblings’, I’m unsure.


As well as those singing, drumming and dancing, there are many more surrounding us, sat on the floor, hanging from trees, stood in the crowd, watching from walls, everyone dressed well, especially those dancing, women dressed in colourful printed and embroidered Kutchi clothes and jewellery.  Those dancing, drumming and singing seem mainly from African descent, the Sidis, though there are those who are more obviously Indian among them too.  Those taking part by watching are mainly obviously Indian, though there are some Sidis among them too.

This goes on all night.  Some people tire from dancing so drop in and out of the circle, careful to ensure the circle itself never stops.  Some tire of singing so pass the microphone on.  The following night exactly the same happens, though at another Sufi shrine, of a sibling of the first saint, still in Mandvi.  I know that this saint is female.  The celebrations remain here for two nights.  On the fourth day however, people meet in the afternoon at the shrine of this female.  Frankincense clouds the arena and a ritual takes place involving a woman circling a flagpole outside the saint’s shrine.


The woman circling has her face covered and is being lead.  We’re about to begin a four-mile procession, marching through the streets of Mandvi to the edges and beyond till we reach a shrine of another sibling from this Sufi family, located amidst a ’jungle’.


The woman with her face covered walks in the centre of this procession, temporarily carrying the spirit of the sister-saint who’s tomb we’ve started from.  Drummers lead, those following chant and the procession literally halts traffic as we make our way, occasionally stopping in shacks for tea.


‘We’ve only moved to Mandvi town quite recently you know.  We were in the jungle before that.


Well where else do Bwana’s (Africans) live?  Bwana’s (Africans) live in the jungle.’

The guy organising all of this walks with me.

‘How did the Sidis come to Mandvi?  Was it slavery?

No.  No not slavery.’

From what I’ve read and the people I’ve spoke with, the Sidis have had a generally marginalised existence in India.  A society where social status can still generally be ascertained by skin colour, it’s not difficult to guess the position most Sidis would have occupied on the social ladder.  Some Sidis did come to India as slaves, some however, were also migrants and adventurers of the Indian Ocean. There’s a particularly inspiring historical account of Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian born Sidi slave who rose to become a successful military commander in India.  Today, although they largely consider themselves Indian, the Indian government would rather have them viewed as exotic foreigners that can serve as a valuable tourism commodity.  When I speak to Ali the organiser though, I can’t quite get over an African-looking-man speaking Kutchi more naturally than I.

After quite a trek that saw tarmaced roads turn into dust tracks and pastille coloured buildings into earth-toned trees and bushes, we arrive into the ‘jungle’.  It’s a forest really, if you’re gonna be picky about nomenclature, but for us, it’s a jungle.  It’s certainly wild enough, an untouched sea of thorny bushes and enclosing trees.  It’s late afternoon and the sun has dropped.  We’re backlit by mystic orange as streams of amber pour at us from across the horizon.  I’m beckoned to come quickly by Amma Ma, my elderly relative who made it here before we did and suddenly the bushes step back and allow space.  Another courtyard appears at the feet of a pastille blue painted tomb for our final Sufi saint.  It’s already started, the drummers have arranged themselves in the centre whilst men and women collectively dance and chant together in a circle.  Many people watch from the sides and from slightly afar.  This is the culmination of three nights of Goma and the atmosphere takes on wild passion.  The drumming seems harder, the bass heavier, deeper, the circling faster.  An excited, frenzied resonance drives everyone that little bit harder today.  Some are being driven that bit harder still.  For some, the rhythm, the words and the dance ignite a ‘paranormal’ experience.  A Haal.  Literally translates as A State.  For those who connect with the Goma enough, it becomes possible to temporarily be possessed by the spirit of the Saint we’re visiting.  These people, mainly women, dance uncontrollably, unhindered, separate from the circle with their faces covered.  Usually people are by their side to shake them back to their former selves or pour water in the event of severe physical convulsions.  It happens a few times.  People just carry on dancing.  It’s normal, the paranormal.
















I’m beckoned by people eager to know what I’ve been doing with my camera and to have their pictures taken.  I join in on the local banter, still laughing to myself at my excitement to find people who look African, but are speaking Kutchi far better than me and even my parents.  It’s getting dark so we wrap it up.  A respectful row forms facing the shrine to offer final salutations to the saint.  A one legged man jumps so his chest falls onto hot coals.  I stop taking pictures.


We all walk back together, young, old, male, female, ‘Indian-looking’, ‘African-looking’, with an electric-tiredness in the air you’d expect if you were returning from Glastonbury.  A glorious full moon appears.  I stop with Amma Ma, my 14 year old cousin and a random old woman for street snacks and tea.



Kutchi Wedding Video

In Uncategorized on September 1, 2009 at 1:56 am

When words fail we summon pictures to lyricise, to cross the t’s, dot expressionist i’s.  And so the magic, warmth and many coloured, sparkling joy created to celebrate the wedding of two brothers in Kutch was relayed through the power of still image in the previous post.  How about though…if those pictures moved?  Hmmm…I wonder!

Its amazing that I was invited and allowed to share in these festivities as though I was part of it too.  I usually feel like a spare part at weddings, unsure of where to stand, who to talk to, when to congratulate and for how long…

‘Congratulations!  I can’t believe you did it…you eh?  God!  I bet you can’t believe it yourself…what happened?  you got her pregnant or summat?…only joking!…well lets hope it all works out eh?  I mean i’m sure it will like…I  just mean…i hope it does..’

I don’t usually get invited for photographs with the happy couple.  Never quite understood why.  Anyway, i was touched at how easily the family here allowed me to feel part of the procedings and gave me free reign to point my camera lenses wherever I desired.  Through text, photos and now video i’ve tried to share just the genuine buzz and happiness everyone was feeling.  How readily people were letting their hair down Kutchi style and collectively dancing in exhuberance for the sake of something really worth celebrating:  Two people coming together as one.  Ahhh!


In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 6:54 pm

During my time in Mandvi, Kutch I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding.  It was the most fun and certainly the most colourful wedding I’ve been to in a long time and it took place in the household of my Uncle’s friend.  By caste, this whole family are musicians and as such felt duty bound in providing the best music and most glorious party Mandvi has seen in their collective lifetimes.  It became a question of honour.  A gigantic chandelier and three whole nights with traditional Raas Dancing, Dandia Dancing with sticks and some of the most incredible musicians in the region roaring riotously each night till dawn certainly kept the families honour intact.  This is definitely an occasion where pictures speak louder than words.  Two brothers from that family were getting married together…


Raas Dancing



Raas Dancing


Raas Dancing


Raas Dancing




Raas Dancing?



Raas Dancing


The two brides getting down with it!




freaky deaky dancing...just as traditional!





Dandia Dancing


Dandia Dancing



Three Musketeers


Bride 1


Bride 2









India: DHRUB (050709)

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 6:36 pm


My father was born in Karachi.  He’s Pakistani.  My mother was born in Mombasa.  She’s Kenyan.  I was born in Blackburn and I’m English.  But all three of us speak Kutchi.  This is the language we speak at home and this is what binds us to one another.  Despite our individual cultural differences, when we sit together in one room we have this in common: the Kutchi language and with it, Kutchi humour.  Maybe this is why I feel so comfortable in Kutch, because this one land can hold us all in one place equally.  East Africa is mine and my Mothers.  Pakistan I share with my Father.  But in Kutch all three of us can walk and feel a part of it.

Not far from Mandvi is Mundra, a walled town on the southern coast of this region.  Today it’s a bustling, overcrowded, quite filthy place that has been suddenly jolted into the industrialised world with the building of a major sea port.  Indians from all over the country have rushed to move here in order to milk the cash cow and in the process are bruising it.  Mundra is the town that my paternal ancestors moved to Karachi from.  In 1990 my Uncle showed me which house our ancestors originally lived in, but I wouldn’t be able to remember how to find it now and the town looks so different from then.  Back then Mundra was as sleepy as Mandvi is now.

My father’s side of the family are Turks.  Kutchi Turks.  As if this pot hadn’t enough ingredients already, let me throw in another hard hitting spice to create yet another edge with which to tanatalise tastebuds of cultural cuisine.  Centuries ago, actual centuries, a group of Turks from Central Asia, somewhere around Bukhara in present day Uzbekistan, came to India.  Some people say they came as warriors, others say they came as part of an entourage lead by a Sufi saint today buried in Mundra.  One account tells of this entourage assisting local Kutchi’s in a battle against a community of cannibals.  I’m not sure how they got here and what they did when they arrived, but somehow, whether by conquest or reward, they were allotted a whole village with some of the most fertile land in the whole of Kutch.  Dhrub, a magical oasis of coconut and date palms, banana plants and peacocks lies only a few kilometres away from the dry, dusty plains around Mundra and is still today exclusively the home of Kutchi Turks, the descendents of those original settlers.  In a country where tribe and lineage is still a mark of status and sometimes destiny, these people have attempted to remain ‘pure’ by intermarrying for generations, thus maintaining their centuries old identity as Kutchi Turks.

My father never married a Kutchi Turk.  Out of circumstance rather than choice.  Maybe I’ll share the details later.  As such, I’m ‘impure’.  Strange how I have parents that look similar, have the same language and eat the same food even but yet, I can still be considered a half breed.  Only in India…I hope.

The wedding in Mandvi that took place within the household of my uncles’ friend had taken up a lot of my time but the day before I  left Kutch I was adamant I’d make a trip to Dhrub  and Mundra.  Khaliq came with me and we boarded another Toofan to take us there, crushed like cattle once again.  In India there’s music everywhere, beaming out from temples, shops, homes, trucks, buses and of course people.  The guy I have my right thigh pressed firmly against and whose left elbow is secured against my own ribs is blasting tinny, treble high renditions of bollywood classics through his mobile phione, while singing along with full passion for nobody elses pleasure but his own.  He does this like it’s the most normal thing in the world.  And in India it is, in fact it’s appreciated.  A caravan of camels go by, there’s a road being dug and elaborately dressed and decorated women carry away the rubble on their heads.  Slowly, this deserted, neglected land gives way to the occasional Palm Tree standing tall and then I know we’re close.  We get off and cool down with sweet sugar cane juice a couple of kilometers outside the edge of Mundra.  I was in these parts for the first time in 1990 when I was only 12.  Back then it was nothing here but sand as far as you could see and the occasional tea stall with idle men speaking idly on idle matters.  The port has brought new buildings with shining shops and glass walled offices that reflect the harsh light of the sun and so stand glistening like jewels of imported modernisation.  Dusty jewels alone in the sand.

A rickshaw takes us past the serenity of Rasa Peer’s Shrine, down that straight road from where I saw a snake being chased by a mongoose as a child.

‘Do you want Dhrub the farms or Dhrub the village?’

I didn’t know there was a village.

‘The farms.  Kader Bhai’s farm…the one where his wife lives.’

Kader Bhai was my father’s cousin somehow and died a few years ago.  As a child I had stayed with my family in his grand farm  that mainly grew dates.  Hard, fibrous, sweet dates, yellow and red.  Dhrub dates are famous all over India and get shipped as far as Bombay.  The water here is sweet they say…makes the dates sweet too.  As well as dates though I remember coconut palms, guava and  also fig trees in this magical, shady haven where pink, bright yellow and white flowers blossomed, between which peacocks justify their vanity with dazzling displays of monsoon dancing.  ‘Sange Varee’ the farm was called, except my widowed aunt doesn’t live there anymore and has moved to a smaller adjacent farm since her husbands demise, still with white flowers, figs and palms, though less grand.

We do what I’ve done this entire journey to track down her farm…ask people.  A few near misses later and we find the gates everyone talked about.  A young girl answers our Salaams suspiciously.

Is Emna fui in?  I’ve come from England.

Er…yes.   She’s taking a bath.

We’re given water to wait on the verandah with and it is sweet.  After a second glass of water an old figure hobbles to the front door with a zimmer frame and with a warm demeanour offers her Salaams.

Wa’alikum Salaam.  I’m Avaes.  Shaffi’s son.

She bursts into enthusiastic smiles and approaches me as energetically as her zimmer frame will allow.  As is the custom, I kiss her hand and we sit close to one another.  If I’m honest I never really expected such a warm reception.  I wasn’t sure she’d even know who I was.  I’d only met her as a child when there was no zimmer frame and a tall, enigmatic husband by her side I’m sure contributed to her straighter gait .  Fresh, ripe, luxuriant figs are brought out onto the terrace and we speak endlessly about what it is I do now, my family, Africa and of course the subject of my marriage.

‘We can arrange a nice Kutchi girl.  You’re here anyway.  Do you want to see some?’

Another ‘aunt’, another one of my fathers cousins is at the farm next door.  In her retirement years she chooses to split her time between Dhrub and London.  We arrange to have Lunch with her, on their terrace, amidst their date palms.  As we get out of the car I fail to recognise her, standing aloofly facing us from afar.

‘Say salaam to Ma’, I’m ushered.

As I approach and the face on tall shoulders begins to fit an image in my mind, she cries out


Another old aunt I haven’t seen since childhood that remembers me.

‘Who is it?  Go on…guess!’ Dares Emna Fui.

‘I already did.  I knew as soon as he walked out of the car’, she states proudly.

‘How could you tell?  I couldn’t.’

‘He’s blood.   Of course I can tell.’

Blood.  A symbol of murder, destruction, heinous violence and also closeness, kinship, predestined belonging.  I was raised with the  belief that ‘blood’ was carried through the father’s side.  A child takes the fathers name and is a seed propagating the fruits of his fathers identity and heritage.  The mother a mere vessel, noble enough to forsake her own identity for the sake of this worthy task.  I was young, maybe only 14 when my maternal grandmother told me I could only really be associated with my fathers family, I couldn’t be considered there’s.  That’s simply how things were done.  Fair enough, but I still felt I’d been robbed of my connection to any maternal ancestry.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why I never visited her in hospital before she died.  The professor however, who I met in Mombasa, one of the things he shared with me was this piece of Islamic teaching…’Don’t forget the mother’s side as it is powerful’ he quoted the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, as saying.  On the day of judgement all people will be called by their mother’s name…not their fathers.  When people speak to me of blood I know my blood is cloudy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Dinner is served, amongst which is Makati Seenya, An East African sweet and airy  fried bread.  Both aunts were Ugandan refugees at the time of Idi Amin and still hold close their memories from there.

‘So how long you staying?’

‘I leave Kutch tomorrow’

‘And you call this visiting us?’

‘I’m going to Khwaja’s shrine in Ajmer.’

Mention of the saint pacifies them a little.

Emna fui asks again.

So what of your marriage?

I’m in no hurry?

No  hurry?  How old are you now?


Thirty!  So what you waiting for now?…Hey!  You haven’t got a white woman have you?

No.  I haven’t got a white woman.

You sure?


Good!  Coz they’ll only give you trouble, trust me.  Pick a poor girl…you’ll give her a  better life and there’ll be no trouble either.

After dinner the fella whose farm it actually is shows Khaliq and I around.  With camera in hand I stroll with them, the fella, a local copper, complains about the lack of  rain and how the dates are smaller every year.  There’s a crash.  I look around and can’t believe the fact that a real-life peacock, brazen as day, has just forced its way onto the farm through a hedge.  My jaw is still on the floor by the time I realise I need to take a decent picture but by then this vision of beauty darts straight back out again.

They’re everywhere, the copper says.  No they’re not, I think to myself.  The hard dates we pick off the trees are delicious and for a moment or two I fantasise about my own farm with sweet water running through, date palms, white flowers in bloom and peacocks dancing in monsoon showers.







We join the old brigade again and this time I sit next to the older, taller aunt, Seru Fui.  You’d never believe what she wants to talk about…


So what of your marriage?

I’m in no hurry

No hurry!  How old are you now?

He’s thirty and he says there’s no hurry

You’re thirty and you say there’s no hurry!  So what are you waiting for?…hey you don’t have a white woman back there do you?

No.  I don’t have a white woman.

Good!  Coz they’ll only give you trouble…mark my words!

I laugh it off.  That way I’m not disagreeing and offending them,  but neither am I agreeing and appeasing them.

It really is a shame you can’t stay for longer or I’d have taken you to Mundra and showed you where your ancestors used to live.

That would have been great.  Another time I hope.  I really want to be back soon.  Who was it exactly that left though?  from Mundra?  Do you know?

I’m not sure.

What did they do?  Do you know that?

Ships.  They worked on ships.  That’s why they went to Karachi.

The day was running on and we needed to also.  After the hand kissings and well wishes, we say goodbye.  The copper gives us a lift to the edge of the village and on the way remembers someone he thinks I have to meet.  I’m not as bothered as theoretically, the whole village is supposed to be somehow related.  The motorbike carrying three people swerves suddenly to the right.

Look who i’ve brought!

An old man with bottle lensed glasses and stooped back hobbles towards us…

Tell him…explain who you are!

I’m Allayas grandson, Allaya from Kara…

Allaya’s grandson!  What are you doing stood up?…Sit down! Sit down!

The old man rushes inside to call out his wife, after which he sits close to me, eyeing me up and down, looking particularly bemused the point at which he meets my hair.

Do you work in films?

I’m a writer.

Yes.  You look like you work in films.

He relays a whole list of Kutchi Turks in England and doesn’t hold back his disappointment when I admit I’ve never heard of them…supposed members of my paternal clan.  His wife, wrinkled but still young looking, loud and brash, sits with us.

Allaya, your grandfather…what a man!  I was still a girl when he used to come here.  He’d come  a lot…the border was easy back then.  He’d come regularly.  Once he took me back with him, to Karachi.  I said I have no visa though!…he said I wasn’t to worry…on Karachi port he knew everyone!…he took me through like his own child…no passport, no visa.  Nobody asked him anything.  I think he worked there.

He was the labour officer there.  In charge of the coolies.

I find family difficult enough without taking on board  an entire tribe and I still feel uncomfortable with the idea that you have to care and be close to someone purely based upon associations of birth, associations you have no control over.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this moment and felt glad for visiting these people.  It provided me with a little snippet into the life of my grandfather and in so doing, made me feel closer to a man of whom I have no memories of my own.

India: MITHA RE PA… – WE’RE SWEET… (020709)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm


‘Mitha re pa Kutch ja maroo! Maroo re mitha,  Kutch ja maroo’

We’re sweet the people of Kutch!  The people are sweet.  The people of Kutch.

So goes the folk song.  Kutchi pace of life is relaxed.  No hurry to do anything or go anywhere.  Tomorrow is the name of that mythical place where things get done, but wherever tomorrow is, it’s a place far from Kutch.  In the mornings people go about their business of opening shops or going to market, but in this seriously chilled Kutchi town, there’s no urgency man, no urgency at all.  Take for example the day my uncle Khaliq receives a phonecall from a business partner in Bombay:

10am: ‘You need to go to Hyderabad to meet a client.  It has to be you and you have to go this evening.’


‘Let me think about it’

2pm:                 ‘Are you going then?’

I’m thinking about it.

5pm:                 Look…you need to stop faffing!  It has to be you…we can’t trust your guy down there.  Leave this evening.


Okay.  I’m thinking about it.

7pm:                 What’s going on Khaliq?  Aren’t you taking this seriously?


Of course I’m taking it seriously.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.

10pm:               So what have you thought?

Hmmm.  Well…it’s too late now and I’ll have missed the last train, I think I’ll go another time.

Khaliq is around 34 years old and one of the youngest in his household.  He lives in a house with three of his sisters, an older brother, his older brothers’ wife and child, his mother and also an aunt.  The house has two bedrooms and a general kitchen/dining/living area. The space outside is well used, a yard where you can relax, light a stove and cook, hang the washing, keep a cow, catch the breeze… that kind of thing.

I came here for the first time only three years ago, I was taken out of my hotel by Khaliq one morning and I suppose, ‘forcibly abducted’ into their home.  If I’m honest it felt strange to have these ties of kinship imposed upon me, especially ones that were so tenuous, but I was curious.  Many things are different, many things hold differing weight between The West and The East.  One of which is the concept of family and the weight that word holds.  The ‘family’ I have in Mandvi, Kutch, come somewhere from the lineage of one of my great, great, grandfather’s siblings.  I don’t even know which one.  I’m aware that in the ‘West’ this would be considered too far removed to be of any real relevance anymore, bothering to stay in touch may be considered too bothersome but these are exactly the clashes I frequently find myself torn between in this part of the world.  Within such clashes are sometimes my greatest moments of illumination too.   Despite the western cynicism I arrived with, I was very quickly overcome with feelings of humility and also a little shame when faced with their genuine affection and excitement at seeing me, another offshoot of a common ancestor.  A prodigal son again, I only ever received the warmest, sweetest of welcomes from them all.  It felt good to be amongst them once more, the welcome even warmer this time, tinged though with a sadness that hadn’t been before.

The eldest of the brothers, Sultan, had died since my last visit.  He was young still, only in his 40’s.  The subject of his loss still raw and an undeniable void had been left ringing between their walls.  The mother greeted me with a limitless smile on her lips but also glistening eyes that soon shed their load before me.  Sultan and I were fond of each other and he wasn’t here to greet me this time.  When we’d spent time together we were like two excitable little boys, his smile infectious and childlike.  In the evenings he’d sit with me after dinner and pour over me his enthusiasm, generously beaming smiles and laughter towards me.  His wife gave birth to his third son shortly before he died.

I’d arrived only a little while after his little boys’ circumcision and so found him running around the house the whole time exposing himself from the waist down, trying desperately to achieve some relief for his wounded little self.  He’s certainly Sultan’s son, many evenings I’d play my drum, which I bought from Zanzibar, accompanying either Khaliq or Aqil on the santoor, while this excitable little boy danced his naked, shameless self into a laughing frenzy.

The family’s main occupation is the maintenance of a local Sufi shrine, which seems to involve cleaning, praying, lighting incense, organising annual festivals and feeding/housing the needy on occasion.  There’s no fee associated with this for them but they’ve been doing it for generations and that’s reason enough to still be doing it now.  Both Khaliq and his brother Akil work also.  Khaliq is a bit of a wheeler dealer from what I can make out and Akil is a beautifully talented engraver.  He carves signs out of marble and stone for mosques, temples, graves, etc.

They’re a great collection of people and I love being around them.  Khaliq, although I only met him for the first time three years ago, seems much closer than he actually is.  We share so many interests and it’s incredibly easy for me to spend time with him.  He doesn’t talk a lot, he’s not the small talk type. A calm, quiet persona, he loves poetry and will happily spend an evening reciting his favourite verses to me by the lake.  He loves music even more and plays both the Drums and Electric Santoor, though less passionately since the loss of his brother.  He enjoys quiet walks…along the beach, to the lake, or just through that road that takes you to the edge of the town where nobody lives.  Particularly in Khaliq’s company, I feel as though I’m around someone I share something with, even if it is just a love for music, poetry and idle walks.  But these are things I’ve never been able to share with other, closer members of my maternal family.


The old aunt in the family, Amma Ma, she’s a riotous personality!  She must be in her eighties but still so full of life and fun.  I’d see her taking charge of the shopping in the morning and would often bump into her just strolling, striding around town, rhythmically chewing down some fruit with a hop in her step.  As she enters the house she’ll bounce past me and slap her palm loudly against mine, a mischevious smile in the corner of her mouth.  It was her that told me of my family tree, how all the men in the family had been ‘Miyanjis’ before my grandfather, both in Africa and India…this meant they lead prayers in the mosque and taught children to read the Qur’an.  In return they lived off whatever the community could give them to eat and wear.  She also told me that it was my great, great grandfather, Osman, who originally emigrated from Mandvi to Zanzibar, aboard a ship similar to the ones I’ve seen being built in the shipyard.  Why did he emigrate?  To escape Djinns…

‘They were all Miyanjis, for a long time…Osman’s father Ibrahim, Ibrahim’s father Adam…all Miyanjis.  Djinns!  When your great great grandfather Osman lead prayers, Djinns started to pray behind him…and then they started appearing before him…they wouldn’t let him go…obsessed with him they were.  He couldn’t take it though.  One evening they took him to their own area, on the edge of Mandvi into the jungle, for him to bless one of their newborns…he only realised what they were when he arrived there…in the middle of them all.  He ran back scared out of his wits.  Then he started seeing them everywhere…on the street outside here…everywhere!  So he took a ship…went to Zanzibar to escape them…that’s why he moved to Africa.  That’s how your grandfather and your mother and everyone ended up there.  The Djinn followed him though.’

Djinns.  Creatures mentioned in the Qur’an that live on earth like humans, but are created of smokeless fire.  Usually invisible to the human eye.

‘We’re really glad you visit us you know…if we see each other then we know who our family are…if we don’t see each other then how do we know, isn’t it?  Your great great grandfather, Osman, who went to Zanzibar…he used to come back…to see the family here…then your great grandfather Abdul Razzak…we called him Bwana Kuba here…there they called him Dada Miyanji…he used to come too on the ships…a few times…I saw him as a child…hard man he was…hot temper…he’d bring his wife too…but your grandfather!…he never came….not once!…he was always too busy in Africa with (puts her thumb to her mouth as though drinking from a bottle)…lost in it he was.  And then no-one from his family came for a while.  But we’re glad you’ve come.’


Kutch is a special place.  Tucked away in a corner, amidst its very unique type of beauty, it still holds all the values my parents had told me about, that I’d grown up with as fables.  I grew up hearing about places where people were warm and relaxed, where smiles were liberally shared commodities and friendships were esteemed, honoured and considered life-long, regardless of race, creed or caste.  These are the stories of East Africa I’d heard from my mother and also about Karachi, which I’d heard from my father.  Tucked away in a deserted corner of India, in a land I can lay some claim to, these values are still very much alive and that reassures and heartens me.  It heartens me because I think such values may be possible within me.  In 2003 when thousands of Muslims were butchered by right-wing Hindus in the neighbouring region of Gujarat, the people of Kutch still went to Dargah together, Hindu and Muslim, they still caught a breeze at the lake together, Hindu and Muslim and they still commemorated Diwali and Moharram together, Hindu and Muslim.  This reassures and heartens me because it shows me it’s possible.

In Mandvi, my typical day was thus.  I’d wake up around 7:45 and rush to the beach by autorickshaw to meet Imran and Baadal.  Imran was my horseriding instructor and Baadal my horse for an hour every morning.  With the wild Arabian Sea hammering huge waves to the side of me, I learnt to ride Baadal up and down Mandvi beach every morning.  I now know how to make a horse walk, trot, gallop, turn and stop.  The first few days were difficult as Baadal resented being told what to do by a stranger, a stubbornness I completely understand, but slowly we connected and soon he felt like a friend.  After horse-riding by the beach, I’d meet Khaliq back home for breakfast.


So where shall we go this afternoon?

Dargah! (the saints’ shrine my relatives look after).  There’s a good breeze there.  I’ve got a couple of people to see but I can do it from there and you can write.

Later in the day.

Where do we go now?

The lake.  There’s a good breeze there.

Still later in the day.

Where shall we go this evening then?  I’m hungry.

The sea.  The breeze is really good there at this time.

If the days were relaxed and gentle, the evenings were wild and riotous.  I was lucky enough to be there at the time of both a wedding within a family of one of Khaliq’s close friends and also an Urs, an annual celebration of a Sufi Saint from amongst the African community who have been settled in North-Western India, probably as long as Indians have been settled in East Africa.  Both events equated to many late nights filled with singing, dancing, music and in some cases outer body experiences.

India: PANJO KUTCH – OUR KUTCH (200609)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm


It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Overcast, grey and quite cold.  Absolutely perfect!!  Just over 48 hours ago I was in the stifling heat of Lahore, Pakistan, where I remained for a week.  Temperatures were around 46C and by order of the government, electricity is turned off every alternate hour.  they call it Load Shedding.  No fans.  No AC.  Those who can afford Air Conditioning in Pakistani cities abuse it this time of year to the extent that the National Grid simply can’t cope.  Fat, trousered behinds comfortably cooled on leather swivel chairs and padded settees, behinds that can afford their own generators anyway and so ensure an unhampered coolness to waft between their well-pampered buttocks.  While the rest of Pakistan waits in those alternate hours, unable to do anything but sweat.  And wait.  Nevertheless I remained in magnificent Lahore, which I’ll speak about later, for a week.

After a month in the kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sensory overloads that are the cities of Northern India, even Lahore seemed a welcome respite.  Despite my best efforts though, the heat simply didn’t provide favourable writing conditions for an adventuring artiste as I.  I lie a little.  It wasn’t just the heat.  It was also the fact that Lahore, with its outrageous generosity, is an incredibly easy place to make friends and with its splendid beauty is an equally easy place to distract yourself into with them.  And so after a week of fighting several losing battles, I’ve torn myself away into the peace, serenity and absolute magnificence of the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram Range of Mountains, by the Chinese border.  Purely for the sake of my art of course.  It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Grey and quite cold.  Beautiful!  From outside my window are golden brown barren mountains, the clouds have wrapped themselves around the snow covered peaks, as though they haven’t met in a while and demand some ‘us time’.  Forests of fruit trees spray against the mountain base.  It’s cherry and apricot season.  Big, sweet Marks and Spencers type cherries are everywhere and I pick them on demand, no green aisles, no checkout till, no money even…just the best cherries i’ve ever tasted and it’s all part of the legendary hospitality of this misunderstood country.  The Hunza river, confident, strong and eternal roars magnanimously just below me, feeding into the mighty Indus only a few kilometres downstream.   On my journey up here I’d followed the Indus up from the North West Frontier Province region and couldn’t help a deep feeling of admiration towards the river’s sense of purpose.  So forthright, so committed to its objective, so assured in its direction, I was in awe of it.

As well as my passion for mountains however, I’m actually here to catch up on my writing.  India, where I was previous to Pakistan, demands that you look.  That you hear.  That you touch.  That you are touched.  That you speak.  That you’re spoken to.  That you shout.  That you’re shouted at.  That you scream, that you smell, that you taste and that you get out of my fuckin’ way!  Now!!  With the uncompromising petulance of a brat, it demands.  Constantly.  For a month I was victim to these demands.  If writing material is what I was looking for then I simply had too much and it’s only now, over a week after leaving India that I feel I’m able to write more about my time there.  The dust having settled.  I arrived in Bombay and have already shared my incredible introduction into the country.  In Bombay I met with artists, performed my poetry at various venues around the city, hobnobbed with the ‘cultured’ and ‘hip’ middle classes and spent most evenings enjoying the company of Raju and his community of friends on the side streets of Colaba.  Laughing, singing and being sung to but like with most things, especially on this journey, I had to leave.  But I left so i could go somewhere else.  I left so I could make my way towards Kutch.  It’s the base root of this journey in a way.  The region which hosts the language both my parents speak, which also hosts ancestry from both sides of my parents, from where my forefathers and foremothers originally emigrated.

It was Tuesday the second of June I think when I entered the Kutch region of India.  I woke up around 6am from the berth of my train so I could take in as much of the landscape as possible from the window.  The Rann of Kutch in North-Western India is Frontier Land, the last point at which sand can still be attributed to this noble Bharat-Desh and bear the sacredness of Indian identity before it turns into conspiring, terrorist sand of the enemy, Pakistan.  Some sand lies on the edge though.  Some sand is blown in the wind.  But that’s the enemy within sir.  Traitor, problem-sand.

Like the other Wild West, Kutchi land is also arid.  The train strides like a Mancunian through this expanse of scorched desert, markered by barren hills.  Cacti sit with elegance by the side of the road, accompanied by occasional small green bushes and round mud huts, littering this serenity of red earth and dark hills.  Red earth and mud huts like those between Nairobi and Mombasa.  Some farm land is occasionally seen, but not much.  The train finally ends its 16 hour marathon in Bhuj, the capital of Kutch.  From there I was to get down to Mandvi, on the southern coast of this area by the Arabian Sea, the town of my maternal ancestry.  Once more though, coincidences provided me with good company.  In the booth next to mine were a father and son from Mandvi itself, actual friends of the family I still have there.

The train pulls into Bhuj and people collectively ignore the idioms of rail-safety and choose instead to jump on and off train tracks in order to cross platforms.  My Mandvi travelling companions and I begin the day with breakfast…freshly fried ganthia, green chillies, chutney and jalebi.  A cup of tea later and we board an aptly named Toofan, (Storm), the local mode of 4×4 transport to help us cross the deserts and hills into Mandvi.  The same rules of public transport have been following me from Nairobi…get as many in as possible…and then some more.  It’s only an hour long journey to Mandvi and its joyous.  Trains provide a smooth feeling of watching from afar, of aloof linearity, whilst driving embraces the contours of the landscape, sharing its joys when smooth and comfortable and also its pains when steep, rocky or hilly.


We cross dusty roads, barren landscape at first.  Cacti peer in to see who’s arriving.  Occasional white cows meander.  Red earth glows.  A gentle wind blows and loose earth is displaced around the landscape, without actually changing though.  There’s space.  And in that there’s so much beauty.  Humble but no less profound than any other beauty I’ve been fortunate enough to witness.  There’s not a lot of anything but the sparseness out of the window overwhelms me with peace, security and a strange feeling of understanding.  Like I understand this landscape.  I’m not sure what I understand about it, but I know it.  It looks like the language I speak.  It echoes with the humour my family shares.  It looks like the colour of my parents’ skin, sometimes.  The land is extreme, but it’s soft also. and against this stillness, everything else is just further highlighted.  The ripple of a snake against the roadside, the lines in the man’s face sat next to me, the smiles.  We cross through small towns with buildings painted in pastille shades of blue and pink.  Jain temples with rainbows trapped in their walls.

‘Ha salaam alaikum.  Ker aay?  Khaliq!  We have your relative with us…we should be at the bridge in 15 minutes.’

As we get closer to the coast, green introduces itself onto the canvas too:  Green crops that reflect the light of the sun and that earthy green atop ubiquitous date and coconut palms.  They’ve become ubiquitous for me lately anyway and here they signal the presence of that great contradiction: desert oases.

Fifteen minutes later and we arrive at the bridge.  The other side of it is Khaliq, my ‘uncle’ sat on his scooter, his white shalwar kameez flapping in the cool sea breeze.  I get off the Toofan and Khaliq and I embrace tightly.

‘You look exactly the same’

Except he’d got a bit fatter.

‘So do you’

Except my hairs a lot longer.  Three years ago he came to my hotel room when I was staying in Bhuj on my own.

‘Salaam alaikum.  We’re related.  I’ve come to pick you up’

Or something like that anyway.  He looks well nowadays but also burdened with a new sense of responsibility since his older brother died two years ago.  He loads the scooter with my bags and I look to the left of us to see the great wooden ships they still handbuild here according to centuries old designs.  The same ships I had seen in Mombasa and Zanzibar.



In Uncategorized on July 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Picture 013

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living on the edge

suits you sir!

suits you sir!

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the city the sea comes to see

the city the sea comes to see

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asia's largest launderette...and not a 20p piece in sight!

asia's largest launderette...and not a 20p piece in sight!

between things

between things

Raju the Prince

Raju the Prince

Haji Ali's Tomb

Haji Ali's Tomb

the path over water to Haji Ali

the path over water to Haji Ali

Prem Chopra, Raju the Prince and Babu Moosa

Prem Chopra, Raju the Prince and Babu Moosa

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Gate of India

Gate of India

Too Indian to be let into a British Hotel, so he built his own...The Taj Hotel

Too Indian to be let into a British Hotel, so he built his own...The Taj Hotel

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street partying

street partying

sweet street serenade

sweet street serenade

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The Queens Necklace

The Queens Necklace

India: SALAAM BOMBAY 3 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Salaam Bombay 3 


My first afternoon in Bombay.  After a wash and a change of clothes I’m ready for the city.  My first stop…Haji Ali.  A floating mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, built off the Bombay coast upon the Indian Ocean itself.  An elevated, crumbling path leads the way, which when the tide comes in is swallowed whole by the water, leaving only the mausoleum visible: an enchanted, floating palace.  As is the tradition with Sufi sites, it’s a sacred place for people of all castes and creed.  In 1990, when I was 12 years old, I made a wish here when I visited with my mother.  The wish came true.  I thought one of the first things I’d do on my first trip back is pop in.  Say hello, say thanks.  Maybe make another wish. 


I walk for two hours down the majestic city coast of Bombay, street kids competing to out-strut me as they walk past.  When I finally make it the place is heaving…like carnival.  The crowd pushes, dodges and swerves around itself in an effort to maintain forward progress on this narrow stretch.  The ocean glides itself all around us and we feel as though we’re gliding all over it.  The edges of this stretch hosts a whole industry maintained purely by the Saint’s mausloeum.  For visitors to adorn the tomb with, vendors sell flowers and elaborately decorated sheets of cloth with verses of the Qur’an sewn into them (Chadars). There’s also music, food, drinks and even a guy who’ll engrave your name onto a grain of rice.  I think it helps identify which grain goes where on the dinner table.  Where there are no vendors, there are beggars.  Of all age, affliction and gender they sit as manikins of meekness: filthy and with clothes torn in all the right places so as to show off amputated limbs and shocking skin conditions with full appropriateness.  It’s all part of the industry, feeding off the visitors desire to look good in front of the saint and God, they make good business. 


The tomb itself is mad crazy with a rush of people pushing, crashing and crushing against one another around the raised grave: desperate to approach and kiss one of the Chadars adorning it.  People arrive seeking blessings for newborn children, pleading for their deepest wishes and desires to be met, generally praying for a better life.  Directly outside the tomb, Qawwali singers sing songs of divine praises and after a private moment inside, I sit listening with five delicious samosas: my first Indian meal for 10 rupees only.   


As I walk back along the path on water there are less people…I see the beggars better.  One man sits topless and motionless displaying a shocking skin condition as though he were an exhibition piece (Turner Prize worthy?).  Five men, all rocking, lie on their sides, forming a well-structured circle: one singing praises to God, the rest providing a chorus, two of whom are frantically waving their handless arms in the air: a well choreographed piece all in all.  Just a little further on, one man simply sits alone, by the side of this path on the sea, gently waving his own handless arms.  My hand reaches into my pocket as I feel compelled to give a couple of coins, not entirely sure whether it’s charity or whether I’ve just paid for a freak show… Salaam Bombay.                     


The following Monday morning I run around all the banks I can find for some over the counter assistance.  None can help…none can give me money on either my bank card (the signature had faded) or my credit card (the signature didn’t match my passport).  One fella tells me there’s a Barclays in the Worli area of Bombay.  A one hour bus ride later and after frantic running around trying to find it, I finally spot the blue eagle. 


‘Sorry…we don’t have access to UK accounts…you’ll have to call your bank in England’






‘Can I at least use your phone…I’m not sure I have enough for the phonecall.’


‘Come with me.’



I’m brought sweet tea and cool water but after speaking to someone who confirmed my account had indeed been frozen, I was put on hold.  I remained on hold.  For fourty-five minutes.  It was Bank Holiday Monday in England.  Eventually I was asked to put down the phone.



‘Come back tomorrow though and I’ll help you out.’



At least I’d sorted free phonecalls to the bank.  So my 4 hundred and something rupees were all mine…to eat, drink and travel with.  I had a gorgeous and filling Indian Thali for 28 rupees only!  I bought a packet of cheap Indian beerees instead of cigarettes for eight rupees.  Tea for three rupees only.  I could live like a king!  My greatest expense was regular water for twelve rupees a bottle and one coca cola a day to ensure I didn’t feel like a complete tramp: twenty rupees.  I had everything I needed.


I bump into Raju the guide where I met him the first time.  He’s pleased to hear the cops helped out, said he was praying I’d be okay and took me for tea.  My half smoked beeree lies on the table for me later.  It rolls off…I’m about to pick it up.



[Following In Hindi]


‘Let it go manhey!look!…if you need anything…don’t be shy, just ask me!….money, food, charas, drink…if you wanna smoke a cigarette instead of these fuckin berees…if you wanna eat Non-Veg I’ll take you Bare Miya’s, the best Non-Veg place in Bombay…you just let me know…just make sure you don’t squash the heart my friend…you have to do what the heart says always …always do what the heart says!… here…have a cigarette.’






‘Thanks yaar…[I put my arm on his shoulder]


‘Mate, when I came to this city there were people who kept me upright.  I know what it’s like…I’ve seen those days and it’s not easy and I only came from the village…you’ve crossed waters to get here…no-one is anyone’s in this city…[Beat]  maybe if I have to go abroad one day, someone’ll help me out.’



As we walk, two men in their fifties sat on parked motorbikes call us over.  They’re friends of Raju and he tells my story.



‘The hotels here don’t want anything to do with Pakistan anymore.  The Taj has a fuckin sign at reception…’No Pakistanis!’.  It’s sister-fuckin right though…I’ll tell yer straight…if my nephews even came here from Karachi I’d tell ‘em fuck off…Mother’s Cunts!…they ain’t staying with me…fuck that!…Pakistanis…they’re the biggest fuckers on earth…I know coz I know them!



This is Musa.  A skinny, sweet looking guy.  ‘Man of the world!’  Nice smile, generally gentle, friendly and very funny.  He’s a Muslim with family in Pakistan.  Maybe that’s why he feels he has to make a show of condemnation.  Maybe he means it.



‘Oi brother in law! (i.e…I’m having your sister) Not all fingers on one hand are the same are they?…so not all Pakistani’s are like that lot either…some of ‘em are good….these were only a handful of  lads.’



This is Prem…’With love, people call me Prem Chopra’ (a famous Indian Film Villain of the 70s/80s)…a short, dark, funny fella with dark glasses…always smiling and always succeeds in making me laugh…He’s Hindu so maybe he feels like he has to make a show of understanding.  Maybe he means it. 



What the fuck you goin’ to Pakistan for anyway?’


‘Same reason I came to India.  I’m a writer.’




‘…He’s gonna write…’








‘You’re not going to meet with any terrorists are you?’



Paranoid that everyone in Colaba is listening for my response, and not unduly, I bow my head, put my palms together in front of Prem and shake my head from side to side.  We laugh.



‘So get your parents to send you some money man…through that Western Union there.  You got parents ain’t you?’


‘Yeah I got parents…but I’ve got my own money in the bank…I don’t wanna ask them if I’ve got my own money…if I can’t get it in a few days I might.’


‘Tension’s not to be taken!  This shit happens…you need anything…you let us know yeah…fuck tension though…don’t take that fucker!  Money, charas, drink, food…we’ll sort it for you…just say!  Pay us back later or don’t, makes no difference to us…we’ve seen it all man…every fucker in the world comes through Bombay…and when they do every fucker comes through Colaba…they got to…we stamp the passports nowadays Mothers Cunts!’



They all laugh like there’s an angle to the joke I’m missing.



‘There was this one white fella.  German I think.  Been robbed…took everything the bastards…didn’t have enough to eat even…I said come with me…took him Majestic…got him a thali…12 rupees back then…’Eat Thali!’ I said.  I gave him a whole tola of charas (1oz), cigarettes, papers, a few thousand rupees.  Got him a nice room too.  When that fucker’s money came in, you wouldn’t believe it…he gave me a thousand dollars sister fucker!  Thousand dollars!  Now…whenever he comes Bombay he looks us up…isn’t it Musa?’



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Then there was this other sister fucker…German I think…been robbed…I did the same yeah…sorted him proper…gave him a whole tola of charas, thousands of rupees…good room…looked after him…but this fucker legs it…he just did one…don’t even know where or how…never seen him again!…isn’t it Musa?’ 



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Makes no difference to us.  So…if you need anything, let us know yeah’


‘Thanks.  I will.  But I’ve got three, four hundred in my pocket still. I wanna make that last.  When it runs out and I need some, I’ll ask then.’


‘Yeah…Yeah…it’s important!  Look…for this day or two, eat thali’s, eat vada pau’s, instead of Marlboros for 100 rupees, buy beerees for eight.  Take buses…look…a person…a human…is that which can cope with any situation…who knows how to handle themselves with little money and also knows how to handle themselves with lots of money.  That’s a person!’



I got through to the fraud department the following afternoon and had access to my money within ten minutes of speaking to them.  Within the first half an hour of having my money back, I’d got a taxi back to Colaba, bought a glass of fresh pomegranate juice and a box of 20 Marlboro Lights.  Within half an hour I’d spent the equivalent of what I’d spent in the last two and a half days:  300 Rupees!  I sat laughing to myself, drinking juice and smoking a cigarette…Salaam Bombay, Salaam!                     

India: SALAAM BOMBAY 2 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Salaam Bombay 2  


The cash machine in the Indian airport doesn’t want to be my friend either.  So I walk away and change my fourteen dollars into rupees.  Even the money exchanger looks disappointed at the amount I have.  Our hands cross and I’m left with just over five hundred rupees. 


I’ve been to Bombay once before: with my family in 1990.  We stayed on Mohammad Ali Rd, I remember as it’s named after my father’s favourite poet and my favourite boxer.  Okay…Mohammad Ali Rd.  With three bags and a drum I walk out of the airport towards the bus stop.  The airport is the same as any other airport.  Beautifully clean, polished and trolley-friendly flooring that provide a deceptive introduction to the city.   Beautifully moustached and dominating Armed Guards that don’t.  I make my way to the bus stop and after jumping on and then being thrown off a few buses, I finally figure out which bus I’m to get and board successfully. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Avaes:             I wanna go Mohammad Ali Rd 


Conductor:      10 rupees.


Passenger:      Give him twenty rupees day pass…you can go round all Bombay, all day with that!


Avaes:             Er..yeah…twenty rupees day pass please


Passenger:      [with a huge smile]  See…I just saved you money!



Mohammad Ali Rd is filthy but glistening.  Harsh but friendly.  Cut-throat but life affirming.  Very damn quickly I discover this is true for most of Bombay. 



[following in Hindhi]


‘Salaam.  Uhm…I’m from England!  I’ve been travelling across East Africa for a couple of months now and I arrived in Bombay this morning.  You see I have an English bank account but it’s been frozen. Now there’s no problem. I have money!  The ATM even showed my balance.  I reckon they just think it’s got stolen so all I have to do is call them.  Today’s Sunday though right, so I can’t today, but tomorrow.  Tomorrow I will and when they free my account I’ll have money again.  I can pay you then I promise.  Tomorrow or the day after.   But I can’t pay up front.  I can’t pay today.  500 rupees is all I have in my pocket and I’ll need it for food and the phonecall tomorrow.




…500 rupees. Pay up front only!


…Pay half up front!


…I’m sorry…we can’t help…No-one will.



One fella just purses his lips together, looks down as though reading an imaginary book and flicks his hand at me like he’s shooing a mosquito.  I tried all the guest houses in Mohammad Ali Rd, but Bombay demands you pay up front.  I even managed to get myself in and then out of a minor scuffle and so thought it best to leave this area full of merciless Indian Film Villains.  As I try to figure out my next move I walk past a guy with one eye sat by the side of the road who gave me directions to a guest house earlier. 



[Following in Hindi]


Did you find the guest house?


Yeah.  None of them’ll take me





I explain.



Oh.  But you have the money?


Yeah.  I do.  I reckon I’ll get it by tomorrow even but no-one here wants to know.  [Beat]  Maybe I’ll just have to stay out tonight.


Hey!…Look!!  Sleeping on Bombay streets is no easy thing.  The city’s teeming with street kids.  They’ll rob you of all your stuff and there’ll be nothing you can do about it!  Listen to me and get yourself inside somewhere!     






Where you from?




England!  You have a British Passport?


Yeah.  I was born there.


So you have a green card then?  You can work there?




Can I see?  Your passport?



He looks at me like a child wanting sweets and although I know it’s the stupidest thing to do, I still find myself taking my passport out of my pocket to present to a one-eyed stranger on the edge of a rat infested Bombay street.  He stretches his hand out.  I stretch my passport out.  Holding firmly.



I won’t run away with it.



And I choose to trust him.  Because trust is currency between strangers.  So I let my grip go and his eyes light up as he delicately caresses through the pages in my passport.  He returns it.



Look!  You need to stop carrying that around with you, d’you hear?!  Someone’ll run away with it and get 10, 000 rupees for it on the street. 



He gives me directions for Colaba, the area where most tourists stay.  Maybe the hotel owners there’ll be more understanding.



Take the 124 or the 125 from that bus stop opposite.  And if you need anything, I’m here.  My name’s Kader.  I’m here everyday, I look after this parking lot.



I arrive at Colaba and the sun has started to blare.  With all my luggage and not having eaten yet, I’m tired and desperate to find a place to put my stuff down in.  I search for a private agent I’ve been told can give me some money, provided I show him my bankcard.  Sounds dodge I know.  As I’m looking and asking for him, a hawker walks over to me. 



You okay?  Want hotel?…I’ll take!



I ask about this agent after explaining my situation.  He’s never heard of it, thinks it sounds dodge too but helps me find it nonetheless.  We don’t find it.  Luckily I think.  So he takes me to the local cheap hotels. 


This hawker:  He’s called Raju.  He’s 32, though he looks 25, married and with two kids.  The eldest is 15.  He’s skinnier than me even and lives in the slums nearby making his living as a guide for tourists.  Raju, is the informal version of the name Raja.  Raja means prince. 


Raju takes me to a hotel explaining my situation. 



[in Hindhi]  ‘He’s in trouble man…sort him out…he’ll pay you later for sure innit…do him a favour man.’



The lad at the counter says the manager’s asleep and he’s afraid to wake him in case he gets a beating.  We move on.  Raju’s helping me with my bags now.  He runs off ahead through a crowded narrow bazaar, with a bag that has my laptop, camera and documents in.  But I trust him.  As I turn around the corner he’s waiting for me, ushering me up a steep, dark stairway. 




[Following in Hindhi]


‘Help him out man.  He’s in trouble…he’ll pay you…when he gets the money he’ll pay you for sure but he has nowhere to stay for now…look he’s been running around all Bombay all morning man!…do him a favour.’


[The lad at reception stretches himself, thereby appearing as cool as possible]:

‘Go on then…what the fuck?…even if he eats a couple of thousand, what the fuck?!  I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket… the guy can stay.’



Fuck it!…Who’s seen what tomorrow looks like?…If I help you today, maybe someone’ll help me tomorrow…Life’s a bitch enough…No tension!:  This!  This is the spirit, the huge, throbbing, pulsating heart of India that I know.  That I love…Salaam Bombay!   


He shows me around a room.  It has my own bathroom, a working TV, AC and a fan. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Will it walk? 


It’ll run.



I drop my bags in and a security guard follows me.  He wants to check my bags. 



‘I’m sorry…we have to do this now.  Since you know…what happened.’



He’s talking about the 4 day siege last year in Bombay, where allegedly Pakistani terrorists had been implicated. 



Yeah course you do.  No problem man.  Look.



I help him through my stuff.






I walk back up to reception to sit with the lad at reception (also called Raju) and Raju the guide.  An Indian film is playing in a corner and traffic screams its eternal presence three floors below us.  As we’re sat, chatting, Raju the receptionist goes through my passport to record details in his book.  Suddenly, his face changes.  It’s all screwed up like a little boy just been slapped.  I hear a Duh! Duh! Duh! from somewhere: maybe the film on TV, maybe the film in my head.  He calls Raju the guide over and whispers stuff…I hear:  Take him and Pakistan



Is there a problem?


Just take him.


But what’s the problem?


I can’t do it…not now…just take him back…somewhere else…I want nothing to do with this.  Nothing!  I want fuck all to do with it.


What’s the problem man?!



Raju the receptionist takes my passport and flashes one of the visas at me…









And?  And what? 






Look its not as though I’ve been…check…there’re no entry or exit stamps…I’m gonna go to Pakistan after India!  It’s not like I’ve just come from there.


I want nothing to do with Pakistan or Pakistani’s…not after what happened.  Now it’s best if you just take your stuff and find someplace else.



I shrug my shoulders and take my passport back.  I have no desire to waste time upon bullshit prejudice.  ‘But then…where the fuck you gonna go fool?!’, a foul-mouthed voice in my head shouts out.  ‘Nobody else even wants to give you a room and that’s before they’ve seen your Pakistani Visa!’



I ain’t gonna do anything am I?…. 


Look man…he’s not even been to Pakistan…He’s British isn’ he? 


But his next trip’s Pakistan!  It’s got nothing to do with you doing anything…every night a copper comes here to check the passports and the books…if he sees anything to do with Pakistan he’ll rape my arse!  Fuck that!  It’s better you just go…I want fuck all to do with it!


Look…You’ve trusted me this far…so what’s wrong now? And what the fuck’s wrong with going to Pakistan anyway?  Indians go too.






Where do you think I can go from here anyway?






Look…The only way I can let you stay is if you get a letter of no objection from the Cops.  I don’t want my arse raped…Simple!  If you get that we can talk…But if there’s no letter, find some place else!



Raju the guide offers to walk me to the police station, so I pack my bags again and put them back on my shoulders.  As we walk to the station, only five minutes away, I recognise the streets suddenly.  I look to the left of me…I recognise that building, that red tiled dome…those small towers…that architecture…I’m in the shadow of the Taj Hotel!  That’s exactly where the gunmen were based last year, where they wreaked their bloody four day havoc from.  I walk on and that’s Leopold Café…another scene of murder and wreckage during the siege.  No wonder.  This is the centre of where it all actually happened!  Where the allegedly Pakistani gunmen were based and distributed death from.  No wonder they’re uptight. 


Raju won’t come into the station but wishes me luck.  From the films I’ve seen I walk in expecting to find torture scenes, coppers with their feet up drinking tea and power hungry mini-dictators.  But disappointingly there are no torture scenes and the copper I speak to is actually rather helpful.  Although cops sitting around drinking tea are to be expected globally I think.  I’m speaking to the big boss man…I don’t know his rank but he’s the only one with no uniform and walks like he own the place.  He was on TV during the siege too, I recognise him…he spoke no English then and he speaks no English now.  After explaining my situation and what happened at the hotel, I say the hotel staff are scared of the cops and what they might do if they let me stay.  He smiles from under a bushy moustache but says he can’t issue a letter of no objection as he knows nothing about me.  I badger him a bit more… ‘My only option might be the street for a night!’…



‘Oi!  Come here!!’



He beckons a cop away from his tea and orders him to personally escort me to the hotel and then assure the hotel staff into letting me stay.  No sooner has he given the order than he walks away abruptly, utterly confident in the power of his command. Suddenly I’ve gone from being a broke backpacking bum to having a personal Police Escort to handle mine very own affairs.  Rather!  The hotel staff make a point of saying they’re letting me stay purely on the Police’s instruction and then order tea for me and the Cop.  This, ladies and gentlemen, the tale of my first cup of sweet, sweet, Indian tea…Salaam Bombay.


In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Bada’i Zanzibar…Salaam Bombay!


Yesterday, Sunday morning, May 24th 2009, 4.45 am, we’re awakened by the pilot. 



‘…With a temperature of 17C, the weather in Mumbai is hazy…’



Out of the window it’s still night.  Butterflies crash like a crescendo against my stomach walls as lights are cued into the frame.  The plane descends slowly and Bombay: City of Dreams, spreads herself open to me: Bright yellow and white streetlights sparkle against the black like an Indian Film Heroines’ Sequenced Sari.  Enraptured, a little boy, my celluloid dreams manifest to greet me.  The plane, descending lower and lower, follows a dusty amber hue.  The dust clears.  From an aerial view, all the glory of a Bombay slum is revealed and begins to give chase relentlessly all the way to the runway edge…Salaam Bombay!       


The plane lands and I wait outside it for Sreenath whom I met at the airport in Zanzibar.  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have made it this far…


…One day earlier…Saturday 23rd May 2009, approximately 11.30 am, Zanzibar.  I’m due to fly in just over 4 hours so it’s as good a time as any to run to a bank and get cash for India.  Sorry.  This transaction has not been honoured!  I go to another bank…No money.  Still another bank….still no money.  I desperately halt a taxi to rush me out of the winding, confining alleys of Stone Town and to the Central Barclays branch…No blasted money!!  Charging inside, I plead with the Bank Staff…I’m a UK Barclays customer for God’s sake! 



‘Sorry sir…we’re affiliated with Barclays in name only really…unfortunately you’ll have to call your bank in the UK.’



Except I don’t have enough cash for the phonecall.  The paradox is lost on those in uniform and I’ve gotta leave soon anyway.  I haven’t even packed!  With the cash I have on me, I pay the taxi.  The rest isn’t enough to pay my hotel bill anyway so I agree with the manager to pay half for now with a promise to pay the rest when this has all cleared up.  Everyone at the hotel wishes me a warm goodbye and Abu, the hotel carpenter helps me out with my bags.  We embrace and hope to see each other again.  Bada’i. 


The Tanzanian shillings I have left, I convert to dollars.  Fourteen.  I’m about to enter a country, a new city where I know no-one with just fourteen dollars.  A little voice of mischief in my head laughs, ‘let’s see what happens’


After check-in at the airport I impress myself by talking an official into letting me onboard with a drum I bought.  As I and my world take a moment to celebrate this small victory (Avaes: 1, Authority: 0) the earth suddenly halts.



Take it then.  But check in the big bag.  And then go pay your airport tax before immigration.



Airport tax!  What in funk’s name is that?! 



In Zanzibar you pay it in cash at the airport sir…Thirty dollars!           



[Once the earth resumes rotation]



Look mate…I’m not being funny yeah, but I can’t pay it…simple!  The machines aren’t giving me any money today…I’ve tried them all…and you lot only accept cash.  I’ve got fourteen dollars and that’s all, and I’m gonna need that for India anyway.  So look, I’m sorry yeah?…but I just can’t pay!






They won’t let you on the plane without paying sir.


Look brother!  What exactly d’you expect me to pay with?  No-one told me I gotta pay thirty dollar to leave… all I got is what you see…fourteen dollars…take my shirt and my shoes if you want but I ain’t got thirty. 



He thinks long…I think I’m winning again…My minds eye sees the scoreboard about to flip over…(Avaes: 2, Authority: Isn’t playing!)



Well sir…You’ll just have to borrow it…there are people here going to Bombay…borrow it from someone.


You what?  How’m I gonna ask someone for money who I don’t even know?…I’ll tell you what…It’s your idea!…So you lend me the money!  Go on!!  You lend it us then and I’ll pay you back!’



Eventually I walk away.  To think, as arguing isn’t helping.  I met someone in Zanzibar who might be able to help.  Upon calling, she says she can give the money but has no car.  Wait! she says.  I’ll see what I can do and call you back.



The flight leaves in about an hour.  The guy at the counter comes over to me. 



Any luck?


I’ve called someone.  Dunno.


Look sir.  That fella over there.  He’s going to Bombay. Ask him!


But I don’t know him man!


[frustrated] Okay!  You do it your way then!!



I stand looking at the man texting into his phone.  My height, short haired Indian fella.  Not much older than me.  He seems dismissive, aloof.  He seems gentle, friendly.



Excuse me.  Hi.  Are you travelling to Bombay?




Sorry to have disturbed you but I’ve been instructed by that gentleman over there to ask if you can help at all.  I’m also travelling to Bombay today but can’t pay the airport tax.  I don’t have enough and no machine in Zanzibar will give me money today.  Now I know I have the money there…


…You sure?


Yes.  I’m sure.  The bank must have frozen my account coz they think it’s got stolen.  English banks do that sometimes when it’s used abroad a lot…so I need to ask someone to lend me the money…


[while texting]  I’ll pay.




[looks up]  I’ll pay.


…Thanks… Thank you very much.  I’ll of course pay you back when we get to Bombay.





And that was how I got to Bombay.  ‘Filmi’ even before I arrived.  So when we landed I was waiting for Sreenath outside the plane and we walked through immigration together, where he told me about his wife and son that he hasn’t seen for three years.  He gave me his contact details before catching his connecting flight to Hyderabad.  Another debt I’ve collected.  Another act of kindness from a stranger.    


I walk towards the exit, ready to lose myself in the folds of that Sequenced Sari I saw from above, as much as fourteen whole dollars would allow.