Sunday, October 29, 2006


Rumtek, Sikkim

Our escape to the hills started in Gangtok the capital of Sikkim but aside from a few points of interest such as the Museum of Tibetology and Enchey Monastery, Gangtok is not that interesting. The government is quite keen to be seen as an ecological state, so there are strict rules such as "plastic-free state" which means shops are not allowed to give out plastic bags. However, the streets are still quite dirty as Bengali tourists in particular chuck anything and everything on the streeet, as they walk along with their large families. The Sikkimese are a kind and gentle people, of Nepali, Bhutia, and Lepcha tribes. They are quiet and reserved. The traffic and broken roads do make it hard to negotiate the hills... the whole town is built on a large hill, so everything is uphill or downhill. Hard on the legs if you not used to it. They call themselves the "Switzerland of the North".
We stayed two nights and then went 24 kms out of town, in a two hour jeep ride to Rumtek Monastery, the headquarters of the Karmapa, similar to the Dalai Lama, in that he is the head of one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the political head of all of them, but he is only the religious leader of one of them. The Karmapa is 21 years old, and the 17th incarnation of Karmapa. However, he is not allowed here. He is in Dharmsala with the Dalai Lama, due to political problems.
In Rumtek we stayed a very clean and well kept hotel for $10 and $6.50 each for two rooms. Meals were about $1 each. We went to the monastery but aside from the ceremonies, we had a great time hanging out in the monks' café, speaking in broken English, Hindi and Nepali. The kids were invited to visit the monk's quarters and attend a smaller meditation in the dorms. The next day they played soccer with the monks for three hours... it was the monks' one day off and they're crazy about soccer. It was so beautiful, with millions of prayer flags flying heartily in the breeze about the soccer field. The Karmapa had allowed the field to be built 12 years ago, and since it's on a steep hill no chance of bulldozers. So the monks excavated the whole field by hand, into the hillside. It must have taken months if not years, but there it is, on top of small hill, surrounded  by temperate forests and fabulous Himalayan views in the distance.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Gangtok, Sikkim

We are currently in the capital of the state of Sikkim, Gangtok. It has about 25-30,000 people all sprawled on hillsides overlooking a valley. We in the foothills of the Himalayas. The air is so much cooler and the traffic is nothing to speak of in this small town . The Nepali culture is quiet and unassuming, and the change has done us good. We did a quick tour by taxi of the Tibetology Museum and two monasteries, as well as some other touristy places. Today we leave for Romtek monastery 25 kms or 2 hours out of town in a shared jeep. There we have to find even more peace and quiet. The idea that all of this is just one big illusion, in line with both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy is more than I can fathom. There's a fine line between philosophical acceptance and complacence. I am searching for that fine line. Our food and lodging continues to be incredibly cheap. We eat a good meal for the five of us for less than $10 canadian dollars, and a clean, decent hotel room for 2-3 people with hot water and a TV is $10 as well. However, you wouldn't want to watch TV - old Hollywood and Bollywood flicks, interspersed with endless commercials to achieve perfection and happiness with the right product.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Beyond Kolkata

Well now that we have celebrated Diwali (fireworks, lights and crackers for the kids) and also Kalipuja, very similar in activities to Durga Puja, except that it's Ma Kali. The kids have had what I consider a great exposure to Kolkata, becoming quite conversant with the luchi-walla (the guy on the corner who sells you a quick meal of luchis and potato curry for 8 cents), where to buy misti-dhoi (sweet yoghourt), and the sweet shops in general. They have bought books at the Oxford bookstore, and are quite comfortable navigating the streets, with its hairy traffic patterns. We are off to the north tonight, on a train, with six bunk sleepers. Tomorrow morning we will be in the hills near Darjeeling or Sikkim, eager to enjoy the cooler weather and cleaner air.

Monday, October 23, 2006


My kids' blog

My children have started their own blog... you can go to if you want to read it from their perspective.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Despite the impression I may have given hitherto on this blog, India does have many fine qualities and things, and people. It's not that I don't notice these things, but Internet time is short here, and I write about that which leaves the biggest impression on me. But I have been contemplating what may come across as my "negativity" to readers.
Which brings up the question of love/hate, and the right to, and privilege of, criticism. A relative of mine, in sales, and therefore predictably full of sales jingos, brought up the question of whether the glass was half full or half empty. He thinks that I was saying that the glass is half empty in my impression of Kolkata, rather than looking at all the beautiful things that Kolkata had to offer. He loves his city and that I do respect and admire. You really have to love Kolkata to see beyond the obvious. But this is true of anything. You cannot really understand something, anything, if you don't love it. The act of loving changes the knowledge of that thing or person being loved. And sometimes, as you get to know something, or someone, you start to love.
But to reduce an impression to a question of a half empty/full glass is absurd. Even as I am grateful and appreciative for the half full glass, it behooves me to look at why it is half empty. To only look at the full glass, and simply ignore the empty is a form of denial, one supported by easy jingos. If I wake up and bitterly regret the half empty glass every day, then it's a real problem of attitude. But to wake up, appreciate the half full glass, then work on how to fill the other half, is a problem of action.
I do have some rights, as a person of Bengali origin, to take a hard look at things. Bengalis have lots of problems in Kolkata. I have a right to have my impression. Aside from larger questions of economics, the environment etc. on a cultural level they, or should I say "we", have some serious problems. So far, I have had very few conversations in which there was a reasonable dialogue. I did not feel heard, as I am often cut off in mid-sentence, my thoughts wrongly guessed at, and then wrongly addressed, shouted at, in the name of love and enthusiasm, and last, but not least, ignored whenever I say something that is a bit unusual. When I say something ever so slightly unorthodox, the subject is usually changed.
On the other hand, I find myself defending Bengalis to insensitive American tourists, recently on a tiger sighting expedition. The utter insensitivity of suggesting that I throw a toffee in midair so that a tourist could be amused at the sight of little Indian kids scrambling for the one toffee was so utterly revolting, I had to hold myself back from engaging in a verbal diatribe which would have completely gone over her oafish head.

She also said it was simply so obvious that people should throw garbage in a bin and not on the street, that she had no idea why they weren't "getting it". Her body language was one of disgust. I agree with her completely that gargabe belongs in bins, but for her to suggest that they were so intrinsically dense that they were not able to "get" the obvious, was really offensive. I said, somewhat gently, that things were not so differnt at home. That people at home should know how obviously bad it was for the environment to drive Hummers and SUVs and live in humongous houses, but that they did it anyway. She changed the subject too. Sigh.

Monday, October 16, 2006


To make or not to make art

A friend of mine in India said
"You have to get in and find the sparks and that takes time. There are places with spirit and hope." He also explained the logistics of refugees streaming into Kolkata over the last fifty years. From the rural underemployed sectors, from droughts, flooding, Bangla Desh...they have all been streaming in competing for what little Calcutta has.
I do know all the reasons, of course, and I also know about economics, demographies, etc. and my need for compassion, personal growth, patience, endurance, and I have even been here before a few times since I moved from here at the age of 7, in 1963. Yet this time, I feel no movement in my head or heart and that itself makes me cry, whereas actual poverty somehow does not make me cry.
Strange, and curious.
I do know there are many sparks. I spend my days being a tourist, when I am not with my loving, but dysfunctional family. One of my children, Bashu, likes to give out small change to everyone. He does not do this because he feels guilty, he just thinks it makes sense. The other likes to buy sweets for the children every now and then. I take photos, with permission, and show it to the children, who get a huge blast out of seeing their own picture. I have bought oil pastels and paper tablets, to do art with anyone spontaneously, but I have not had the heart to do so. I spoke to Mehdi in Canada today, and he is brilliant at this sort of thing, drawing out self esteem and self worth in children, and he said that these activities should only happen in a safe and well defined relationship. When he did so in Sri Lanka, he did not have any other relationship with the kids, and this kept things clear and un-muddy. Once you give out money or sweets, etc. the relationship is altered in a way that compromises the outcome of self-esteem through art making. So in a sense I was relieved, because I don't wish to wear too many hats, and I do not wish to wear the art therapy hat and do a third rate job.
Leaving Kolkata, I know things will change. Now Diwali or Kalipuja is upon us this weekend, another huge festival of the goddess Ma Kali, and then we will retreat to the cool hills of Darjeeling and perhaps Sikkim. There are of course children everywhere, who want to play and draw and have fun. And of all things, I do like being with children best. I would rather that than see museums and memorials and temples. They are alive. Like Zen koans say, throw away the book of teachings and be. Likewise, disregard dead monuments and see the children, alive and playing.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Recycling and Freecycling in Calcutta

There won't be any need to freecycle for many scores of years in Kolkata India. You cannot leave anything without it being taken, used, repaired, sold, sold again, taken apart for parts... you name it.

There are people here who are garbage pickers... an unsavoury profession, yes, but that is how they make their living and when you are hungry, there really is no choice.

Garbage is collected in two ways... there are few garbage cans. People just throw stuff on the street as they walk along. Or they empty their garbage out their house/apartment window into the gutter or into bags which are then put out on the street. Then at night, people come by to sweep it up into larger bags, which then are hauled to various street corners, where they are dumped. Then men, women and children pick their way through mountains of garbage for paper, plastics, useful items, and recycle them in one fashion or the other. They walk barefoot high up amongst a mixture of kitchen compost, junk, paper, plastic, toxic materials, sharp objects, filth and dust. It is shocking. What is left over is picked clean of organic matter by cows, crows, stray dogs and cats. Then what is left over is hauled away and then pigs go through it in a bigger dump.

If you have an appliance that is broken, say a toaster, which can be bought new for $10-$15, then instead of chucking it like we do, it can be repaired for as little as fifty cents or a dollar. So no need to dump stuff. Or if it is not repairable then someone will take it apart for parts and use it for something. When you live on the sidewalk and a tarp is your roof, and you cook stove is a clay pot with coals and sticks in it, then you can use just about anything.

Entire families live a few hundreds feet from our house on the sidewalk. They eat, live, work, play and socialize right there, in a sea of noise, with diesel-belching autorickshaws, taxis and rickety old buses. We are incredibly rich as we walk by. I don't know what to do. I can't feel anything sometimes. I don't know what is appropriate. If it is inappropriate for me to have a cup of coffee in a local upscale Starbucks look-alike for forty rupees here (one dollar), knowing that limbless beggars are outside the air conditioned café, waiting, then how is it any more appropriate to have a $2 coffee at Cha Cha Java in Parksville, just because it's far away and they are out of sight? At least this way I am fueling the local economy. It's difficult. The air is dirty, the place is completely overpopulated, with a population of more than 15 million people, with a city that is designed for perhaps one fifth of that. But in some strange way, they are recycling much better than we are. Nothing much is wasted.

There are many forces at work. Poverty has many roots, including pure economics, but there are also so many entrenched belief systems, about who is deserving and who is not. In fact this is not much different from Parksville, where we attend workshops to work on our well entrenched lack of self esteem. We get life coaches and therapy, to reprogram deep set notions that we are not deserving of love, health and prosperity. We have so much in common, our two communities.

Everyone has a business, or shall I say, scam. We all carry on somehow. Our various burdens are much different, but we have the same drive to live, prosper and multiply. To have sex. To eat tasty food. To look good. To play.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


And another day

It's hard to feel anything some times. Part of me wants to b e proud of my father's heritage, of my childhood, and the other part of me wants to take a large heavy duty power washer to the whole city, to buildings,  sidewalks, bridges,  shops, everything. I love powerwashers.  They use water and electricity to clean, clean and clean. I am no clean freak, but the layers and layers of soot, diesel exhaust, dirt, grime, is unbearable at times.
I try  to be philosophical, but it's hard. I wouldn't know how to work here and have hope. Not even the little things I do give me hope. They are less than a drop in the bucket. The beggar children may be poor and malnourished, but they aren't stupid. They know how to play the game....  beg,  pester, badger, delay you,  pull on you, do the woe-is-me routine, "food auntie, auntie!', till you are sick of it.  My cousin says he doesn't give money, but may buy them some food, such as  a wrap (known as a roll here and avaiblable everywhere as  fast  food) , but even as I did that , the boy stuck the wrap in his pocket and kept asking for more money. I had seen him frisk a younger boy,  perhaps  6 years old, and almost had him strip naked in do wntown Kolkata, lest he be hiding and keeping some of his begging earnings. Real operators. Amidst $6000 surround sound  systems in Bose shops and the Grand Hotel, and $10,000 wedding sarees,  limbless beggars, old men, lying studiously on the sidewalk, strategically placed between hawkers of cheap shirts and global dollar store junk. It's all too familar.  I feel angry that nothing has changed.  I talk to everyone, to the Oxford book shop coffee shop employees (like Starbuck/Chapters ), to the traffic cops, the chawallahs, our security doormen,  the little kids who I teach how to shoot a photograph and to family members.  They are all aware of the problems, but I see no one expressing any vision or enthusiasm to change things.  I know they are out there, but they must be in the minority. I saw some young Greenpeace volunteers handing out pamphlets once but when I told the optician, who was preparing glasses for my son,  about their efforts, he said they were all "garbage".  He was a most educated and affable man, and he announced that all the food in the city was "garbage'. When I asked him what he was doing to change things, he changed the subject.
I see people preening themselves to look beautiful as they step out for the evening. Great attention is  paid to matching earrings with the clothes,  well coiffed hair,  surrealistically beautiful clothes,  cavalier and dashing looks amongst the men, but  then they step out on a sidewalk  that is broken and treacherous with potholes, dog  crap,  plastic bags,  and all manners of  fruits and vegetable peels and many other assorted debris. And they don't notice the absurd dichotomy as they pursue what Romeo and Krishna have pursued for thousands of years: romance, love, glitter, the momentary seduction.

Monday, October 09, 2006


Too hot to handle

Kolkata is mercifully quiet and the air is wonderfully breathable today. That is because a general strike has been called from 6 am to 6 pm for all shops and commecial vehicles including taxis, autorickshaws, buses, shops ec. There are a few private cars running around and the occasional passenger-less cab. It is amazing how peaceful and well ordered things can be. Usually a ride through the city is a breathtaking experience as every driver is an expert driver, honking heavily 50% of the time, spewing out dirty diesel fuel into the air, dodging pedestrians, motorcycles, dogs, cows, rickshaws, driving on whatever side of the street is necessary to get ahead.
Today, you can feel the stillness in the backstreets as cats yowl at each other and dogs lie on the hot cement for their afternoon nap. Even the beggars and poor people who live on the sidewalks have to relax today. We also went to shop for groceries yesterday in anticipation of the strike day where no supplies would be available. We decided to go to a nearby western style mall, at Goriahaat Mall, and buy stuff we were used to, instead of our usual fare of luchis and potata curry from the local street seller. I felt quite guilty shopping in an air-conditioned mall, buying extravagant goods. However, even with the higher prices, our total grocery bill came to less than ten dollars, when the same would have cost us $30-40 back home. So you can imagine that eating out is very cheap... you can eat out all the time for less than it costs to buy groceries in Canada. However, there are many ranges of prices, and to get the lower prices you have to settle for a less than pristine restaurant. But the food is good, and you get accustomed to everything with time.
I think perhaps my age is making less resilient. The heat and pollution and humidity is getting to me, but it doesn't seem to bother the kids as much as me. However, we are extremely fortunate as we have our own private spacious airconditioned apartment, which doesn't make me feel guilty as at all. I know that if I had grown up here, I would adjust faster. I do know that Calcuttians (is there such a word?) love their city very deeply, being attached to all its aspects, the good, the bad and the ugly.
I asked  a few people what they would change if they could change one practical thing... and I got
Street infrastructure
Make people love each other

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Durga Puja

We did have other accommodations in Calcutta (Kolkata) proper, but our family really wanted us nearby for the annual Durga Puja celebrations which I can only compare to Christmas. It's four to five days of intense activity centered around the goddess Durga, an incarnation of the goddess Parwati, who comes back to the earthly home of her father and mother, a short time after her wedding. This is a custom for new brides in India. Brides, after a few months, come back to their mother and father to stay a while, and when it's again time to return to her husband's house, there is much tears and joy. And so, ornate depictions of the goddess in 3D are built in temporary temples, throughout the city, often only 3-4 blocks apart.  I will post pictures as soon as possible. Then she is immersed back into the Ganges river, amidst huge amounts of fanfare... which we luckily videotaped. You can google Durga Puja for more information. The celebration is especially important for Hindu Bengalis.


Kolkata first day

We have already been in India since September 22nd and I simply haven't had a chance to write. But here we go. We landed in a blast of heat in a run down airport in Kolkata, and at that moment, for me, nothing had changed in India after 23 years. It was comforting in a way, as it would be hard to come back and find radical changes. But no, there was still heat, noise, dirt, potholes, cows, and people doing back breaking labour. Cha-wallahs, cows, fornicating dogs, and brilliantly coloured saris amidst it all. We drove immediately to Howrah, where my cousin lives. We were extremely tired as we had been on an overnight flight from Dubai, which means we didn't sleep at all. He had obtained a flat for us near his house, so we could be close together to socialize, but it was a bit of a shocker for the kids, Ryan especially. We were on the floor in a tiny 400 sq ft flat, with very primitive toilet facilities, complete with lizards on the walls, and cockroaches in the dark corners. I have seen it before and it doesn't bother me, but with our lack of sleep, the heat, the dust and sleeping on thin cotton mattresses on the cement floor, well, it was hard to sleep. After a few hours sleep we were awoken so we could sleep at night again. Our family was most thrilled and welcoming.

I was overcome with emotion at seeing my aunt especially. She is 78 and the person perhaps closest to my father, who passed away in 1995, excepting perhaps my mother, who was certainly the closest to him. I cried, and she cried. And she was so sweet to all of us. I love her. At four foot ten, she is tiny and cute, and I want to pick her up and hold her and take her back home with me.

More soon...

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