Monday, May 23, 2005

going bats

Last night a little bat flew into our house. And started flying around in eccentric orbits around the potentially lethal whirling dervish blades of the ceiling fans.
It looked really small even with wings fully outstretched and flapping.
Not scary at all.
Except that its seemingly suicidal sonar meant we could have had bat blood sprayed all over us. A rather unedifying prospect.
So we switched off the fans.
And after a few more minutes of potential kamikaze, our little bat flew to the floor and flopped down, instead of as expected, hanging upside down from the ghastly chandelier.
Perhaps bats have a finely developed aesthetic sense too…

All of us huge humans bent over to take a look at the little bat, which wasn’t more than two inches long, and well, looked like a mouse. The German word for bats seemed to be the perfect description of our harmless looking ear wagging specimen – fleidermaus – flying mouse. Now mice, with all their disease carrying propensities, are considered cute. Not so bats, who essentially get rid of bugs and pesky mosquitoes. Bats get associated with Dracula, with vampires and with Batman. The cutest bats ever got was the 60s Batman TV serial, and that is just, well, insulting! And if the English drips with devilish associations, the Hindi word itself for our flying fellow mammals is dripping with malice and disrepute – Chamgadar.

We went to bed with our eccentric two inch guest still flopped out on the floor. What with visiting stray dogs, the occasional wasps nest, and now bats, it’s quite the menagerie we live in…

And for those who’ve been wondering where I’ve disappeared to… Been busy, and also guest blogging on Chapati Mystery as Bulleyah; once a week. Have to still figure out the balance between the two blogs. In the meanwhile, if you don’t find me here, you will find me at CM, once a week.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Dard di Raunaq, or why i should learn Punjabi

Because Pash wrote in it.
Because Rabbi sings it.
Because of Bulleh Shah.
Because of this -

Ki pata-thikana puchde ho -
Mere sheher da na Tanhai ey
Zila: Sukhan-navaz
Jeda daak khana Rusvaai ey
Oda rasta Gehrian Sochan han, te mashoor makam Judaai ey
Othay aaj kal Abid mil sakda ey -
Betha dard di raunaq laai ey.

What address do you ask for?
My town is called Loneliness.
District: Lover of poetry.
Sub-district: Loss and longing.
The Post Office is Disgrace and
The way there is to get lost in thought.
Its famous monument is Separation
Abid can be found there these days
Sitting, and making pain a lively spectacle.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Dasht e Tanhai

There is no explanation for it.
An ache can come and grip you in the middle of what to all appearances is perfect contentment.
A phrase can revolve endlessly in your head.

Wilderness. Desert.
Loneliness. Melancholy Solitude.

The wilderness of solitude.
The desert of loneliness.

Just a castaway I am lost at sea-o
Another lonely day no one here but me-o
More loneliness than any man could bear…

Alone in front of the computer.
Writing about terror.
The telephone rings to ask of already paid bills.

Dasht e Tanhai.
Rescue me before I fall into despair-o…

How can I bring a tongue to all the unsayable things in my life?

Monday, May 02, 2005


In my bedroom window, as a curtain, hangs a flag.

It is green red blue, all primary colours, with what looks like an olive branch in the middle of it all.

I saw the flag in December 2003 and fell in love. I had to buy it. The man who was selling flags, by the kilo, didn't know which country it was. You don't have to when you're selling flags by weight.

In Alang they sell everything by weight. Or almost everything. Where we bought the flags from they were also selling gas masks, industrial washing machines, old VHS tapes, sofa sets and clocks. Earlier, in the morning, at another shop, we'd met a doctor from Jammu who was here to scrounge around for surgical instruments.

They break ships in Alang. 'Break' doesn't quite cover it. That implies an end. The death of the ship. But that's not what happens in Alang. Every part of every ship that comes in to Alang is instead given a new life, endlessly cycling and recycling in the world. A ship is carefully taken apart and away in three months max - the steel plates of its hull, its lifeboats, its furniture, its TV sets, its wallpaper, its cutlery, its life preservers, its surgical instruments, its lights - and then sold. The debris of ship breaking spreads in an organised sprawl radiating outwards from the breaking yards by the sea, all the way to the edge of the highway, six kilometres away.

There is a lot said about the hazards of working in Alang, about the toxic waste, about dumping. Almost nobody tells you how serenely, surreally beautiful it is.

Trapped in the cage of the skeleton ship
All the workmen suspended like flies
Caught in the glare of acetylene light
A working man works till the industry dies

We rode into Alang in a three wheeler auto full of workers getting to the ship breaking yards. The sun was coming up. They were carrying lunchboxes and wearing protective boots. One of them had a burn scar across his face. The signs on the walls advised precaution and protection - helmets, boots, gloves, and condoms. Alang is a lonely place. A migrant town, workers from UP and Bihar coming for the higher wage that the risk and the skill brings them; buying the highest number of Philips transistor radios in Gujarat, to listen to Hindi film songs on All India Radio. FM doesn't play in Alang.

We passed the docks with their hulks of ships. Some just towed in and blocking the sun, some half dismantled, some just skeletons of girders floating, silhouetted by the sunlit sea.. Our one camera had been taken a long time ago. We reached a pebbly beach, with a stream flowing through, and ships being deconstructed on either side. Ahead the sea. Behind, across the road from the ship breaking yards, endless onion fields. Yellow hats bobbing on the ships in the distance, the occasional flash of an acetylene flame, a girder cut loose, swinging from a crane, a man balanced atop it.

… The flag must have come from a ship like this, flying the colours of an unknown country as it came to be beached in Alang. Someone had written 'Ethiopia' on the back, on the narrow white synthetic strip with the eyeholes where it was hoisted from. But Ethiopia it wasn't, unless they'd changed flags pretty recently.

Questions unanswered, and flag packed, we continued our holiday, and I returned to Delhi, with the flag's nationality not being the only uncertain thing in my life.

So the flag remained, packed away, until finally it came up in my bedroom window about a month ago. And I took some time to search and found the flag on the net. Paradoxically, or maybe not, labelling it Ethiopia made geographic sense, but historically speaking, was probably a really bad idea. For the flag was of Eritrea.

I read on the net - the colonization by the Italians. The British takeover and usual fuck up. The liberation struggle. The ethnic strife. The resurgence of war, which finally only ended last year. The history of a ten year old country hit by war and drought and despotic rulership… and getting by?

Why would any ship fly an Eritrean flag?

There is actually a connection between terrorism and piracy. One could argue that this goes back to groups like the Dutch Sea Beggars, but to choose modern organisations only, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the Somali National Movement, and the Somali Salvation Democratic Front have all been accused of piracy within the last twenty-odd years. (The NPFL are perhaps the only people still flying what could be termed a pirate flag: their vessels apparently sport the banner of the organisation, which is red, with a black scorpion on it.)

There is also a connection, then, between 'piracy' and shipping registry', at least in the case of Liberia -

The UN's investigating panel based its findings on a trail of payments made by the Virginia-based Liberia International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR). LISCR registers foreign vessels to fly a Liberian flag of convenience. It is the second-largest registry in the world, with 1,724 vessels registered under the Liberian flag. Thirty-five percent of all oil tankers fly a Liberian flag, as well as numerous cruise ships and other cargo vessels. Registration gains ship owners cheaper taxes and fees as well as less restrictive maritime regulations.
Liberia, in turn, earns millions from the use of its flag. LISCR last year channeled $18m to Liberia's government - a quarter of the West African nation's revenues.

Would it make similar sense for Eritrea, right there on the Red Sea Coast, to make money by registering ships under tis flags, when so much else is/was going wrong?

The world is a great and terrible place, as Kim's Lama said, but meanwhile the flag of Eritrea flies proud in a window in Jangpura. And leaves me without any sensible way to conclude this post, except being tempted to sing, 'The answer my friend is blowing in the wind…' and being deservedly boo-ed for that.

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