Avaes Mohammad

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

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

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

MITHA MAROO

‘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.’

[Pause]

‘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.

[Pause]

Okay.  I’m thinking about it.

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

[Pause]

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.

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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.’

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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.

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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

PANJO KUTCH

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.

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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.

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India: IMAGES OF BOMBAY

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

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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