Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad

Eleven years ago, here in Ahmedabad, a frenzied mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim neighborhood called Gulbarg Society, killing 69 people, many of whom were burnt alive. It is widely believed that the violence was, if not state-sponsored, then state-sanctioned by the government of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Police at the scene did little to prevent the violence.

That day’s events, along with the rioting, looting and killing of subsequent days, are a black mark in the history of modern India. “Not simply tortured, raped, and burned, their body openings were also penetrated with sharp weapons and their genitals mutilated,” writes Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, in his recently published book “Pogrom in Gujarat.”

photo-13I picked up Ghassem-Fachandi’s book as part of my reading assignments in coming here. I’m finishing up today, the massacre’s anniversary and the passages detailing victims’ reports are harrowing. He happened to be in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots and subsequently followed up on what he saw and the conversations he had, detailing how and why Ahmedabad’s become increasingly polarized. It’s a fascinating personal account and I found his interpretations interesting. It certainly has given me a different perspective of Ahmedabad which is largely based on a small world view composed of my family’s experiences. (He happens to be a Muslim of Iranian descent but could avoid being caught up in the “you’re-with-us-or-against-us mentality because he grew up in Germany and now resides in America. He was considered a foreigner, though he writes that he did move away from the Hindu part of Ahmedabad where he lived to a Muslim area.)

Gulbarg Society is now abandoned. Survivors have understandably moved away to rebuild their lives in other places. In the last week stories have appeared on a public rift between those families and a particular NGO that had apparently been working with them. They asked Ahmedabad police to prevent NGOs and media from visiting Gulbarg so that they can mourn quietly. “Every year after such functions, various schemes for rehabilitation of victims, financial support and support for reconstruction of houses are announced by these NGOs which are never implemented,” said a letter signed by 15 people, according to an article in DNA.

One of those promises, they say, is that the Citizens for Justice and Peace had promised to purchase all the houses damaged in the riots at market prices in order to convert them into a museum. “But nothing has happned in the last 10 years and we are living without any financial support or any other support as announced by these NGOs,” according to a letter the families wrote to authorities, as quoted in the story. “These NGOs are also involved in making documentary films on our society and showing it to international bodies and have obtained huge grants in the name of providing financial and legal support to us.”

“We are living peacefully and do not want any support from these NGOs who have done nothing for us,” DNA reported the letter as saying.

I had thought about going over there to try to speak to those who still lived in the area, to get their perspectives. My intentions were good but I realized I would be little more than a rubber-necker, gawking at their tragedy. It’s not like I’ve covered this tragedy over the years; my only connection is that my family is from Ahmedabad and that I would happen to be in the city during the anniversary.

On a related note, Snigda Poonam wrote on The New York Times “India Ink” blog about the just-released movie, “Kai Po Che.” Based on the Chetan Bhagat novel “The 3 Mistakes of My Life,” the story is about three friends in Ahmedabad and events that lead up to communal riots that evoke 2002. In her post entitled ” ‎’Kai Po Che’ and the Strange Case of the Vanishing Villain,” Poonam writes that while the book holds government officials accountable for their part in the riots, the screenplay, which Bhagat helped write, whitewashes such involvement.

“In turning his decidedly political book into a feel-good Bollywood spectacle, Mr. Bhagat has, on the face of it, done nothing less than rewrite history in favor of Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi of the B.J.P., who has been dogged by questions over his role in the 2002 riots,” she writes. Bhagat defends the screenplay saying the project is “a Bollywood film” and a collaboration of several people.

The post offers conjecture that perhaps Bhagat toned it down because he wanted to stay in Narendra Modi’s good graces. That could well be true but I struggle to understand why. Maybe covering news for all these years has left me jaded but is Modi really that compelling? And I think Bhagat misses an opportunity here. So what if it’s Bollywood. Yes, there is a lot of fluff out there but some films have tackled difficult subjects smartly and with humor. (The movie O.M.G. comes to mind.) Shame that Bhagat couldn’t work a little harder to produce a film that might have helped to move the conversation forward on such a black incident in Gujarat’s history.

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The swastika

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

Symbols

Symbols

This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

Porbandar Scenes

Porbandar, a port town located on Gujarat’s western coast, is known for being the home of Mahatma Gandhi and his family home is now a shrine/museum to his life. The home’s rooms are quite small. Climbing between flights along claustrophobic staircases reminded me of my visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. A swastik marks the floor in the room where Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. We also visited Sudama Temple, named after a childhood friend of Krishna, and I walked through a swastika-shaped maze on the temple grounds. Traversing the maze is supposed to wash you of your sins. The day we were there, a Friday, was also the Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and a celebratory parade wound through the city streets. Considering Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance, I thought the timing brought a nice addition to our visit.

Junagadh

Junagadh is mostly known as a base station for visitors to Gir National Park or for pilgrims who make the trek up Mount Girnar – 9,999 steps to complex of 866 Jain and Hindu temples scattered across five peaks. We arrived at the pilgrimage’s base in late afternoon. Climbing Palitana’s 3,800 steps took Dad and I the better part of a day so we decided this time to pay homage from below and explore the Taleti instead. The scene was the opposite of Palitana’s crush. A few pilgrims loitered about, some getting foot rubs from the masseurs who plied their trade en route. But the dholi-wallahs were gone, their dholis stacked alongside a billboard in Gujarati that advertised dholi fees by kilogram. The more you weighed, the more you paid. This seemed totally fair considering the rather hefty  people we saw being carried in Palitana.

Junagadh itself is divided into an old and new town, the older part located mountainside and called “Uparkot.” We visited the old fort/mosque, just down from the temples at Girnar. The fort, which is thought to be 2,300 years old is today little more than walls and ceiling; the sculptures of animals and people carved into pillars are largely worn down by time.

We also visited Adi-kadi Vav, a well built in the 15th century that is carved out of rock down 120 stairs. Legend has it that after the well was found to be dry, the royal priest said that water would only be found if two unmarried girls were sacrificed. Adi and Kadi were chosen and so the well is named after them. Visitors hang colored cloths and bangles on a tree nearby in their memory.

I most enjoyed the part we almost skipped. On paper, the Mahabat Maqbara seemed like another old building left to disintegrate. Built by Bahadur Kanji as a tomb for his predecessor, Mahabat Khan, it is a surprisingly well-kept example of Indo-Islamic architecture. I walked up the spire of this onion-domed tomb taking pictures for longer than I would have expected.

A day in Diu

Out of the rural marshes of southern Gujarat sits a national police checkpoint. This marks the entry to the island city of Diu, a former Portugese colony that like, Daman and Goa, were acquired by the Indian government in 1961. The three are union territories and are not governed by the states’ governments in which they lie.

The Portugese established Diu in 1535 as part of its far-flung colonial empire. They did not want to cede their colonies even at Indian independence in 1948 and by 1961, Nehru ordered the Indian military to invade. The Portugese garrison surrendered after a 48-hour bombardment. Today, Diu is a popular beach resort and, along with Daman, the only place to buy alcohol in Gujarat, which is a dry state. The Portugese mark can still be seen in the city. During an afternoon, Dad and I prowled around Diu Fort, visited St. Paul’s Church and Makata Lane, where many Portugese merchants had built their mansions.

Just outside of town, we visited Gangeshwar Mahadev, a cliffside Shiva temple. The legend is that five brothers came to the area but had nowhere to worship before eating. So they created five lingas or stones, generally used as representations of Shiva, set along the waters edge. Sheshnag, the serpent God, is carved in the rock above and watches over the lingas. Each night at high tide the risen waters cleanse the temple, leaving it fresh for each new day’s offerings by devotees.

Another interesting fact about Portugal’s former Indian colonies: When they left, they decreed that residents born there before December 19, 1961, when it ceased to be a part of Portugal and became an Indian territory, would be deemed Portuguese citizens, a right that could be extended to two generations of their descendants.

Off the grid in Gopnath

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

DSC_9408Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

There was no one else about. He opened the door to room #3. Monastic, and not in a good way, came to mind. Thin mattresses were set on marble platforms attached to the wall. No rugs covered the cold tile floor. A peek into the bathroom confirmed my next suspicion: the 12-inch tall geyser would mean a cold shower or no shower at all.

Ramesh came by to say that lunch would be ready shortly so we waited outside, sitting on the porch steps, lazing like cats in the sun, and lowering our expectations regarding the meal. But we were jolted. Our food was delicious. The Katiawad menu set up on the plastic table was bountiful, hot and perfectly spiced. Through a doorway off in the corner, I spotted a small kitchen where two older ladies were making fresh rotlo on a cast iron griddle.

IMG_2411We returned to the courtyard after lunch, this time taking our plastic chairs with us. There is a playground in the middle and on the far left, cliffside, is a large wooden bungalow, faded and paint-cracked from seasons of salt air and monsoon. Built in the 1940s, it served as the beach house for Krishna Kumarasingh Bhavasingh, the then ruler of Bhavnagar. I got up and urged Dad to come with me and poke around. The house itself is locked but we walked through the yard and upstairs to the roof terrace. I stood near the balustrade – careful not to lean against it as it didn’t seem very stable – overlooking the sea and imagined royal parties here. Like many of India’s heritage sites, it’s in desperate need of upkeep. It looks far older than its 70-plus years.

We returned to our chairs and sat and talked, our voices the only noise to disturb the sound of breeze, waves and birds. After about an hour, the driver motioned us to the car. We were going into “town” to visit the local temple. Built around 700 years ago, it is one of the few, if not the only, temple to host two flags: a white flag signifies a temple devoted to Vishnu. The saffron flag denotes a shrine to Shiva.

DSC_9396Gopnath is also the place where it’s believed that Narsinh Mehta, a 15th-century Gujarati poet-saint, attained enlightenment. His poem, “Vaishava Janatho,” was Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite.

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je [One who is a vaishnav]

PeeD paraayi jaaNe re [Knows the pain of others]

Par-dukhkhe upkaar kare toye [Does good to others, especially to those ones who are in misery]

Man abhimaan na aaNe re [Does not let pride enter his mind]

Vaishnav…SakaL lok maan sahune vande [A Vaishnav, Tolerates and praises the the entire world]

Nindaa na kare keni re [Does not say bad things about anyone]

Vaach kaachh man nishchaL raakhe [Keeps his/her words, actions and thoughts pure]

Dhan-dhan janani teni re

We returned to the “hotel” at sunset. The weather had changed; the wind had turned cold and it was getting brisk. Dad and I intended to read and get to bed early – not much else to do in a place without even phone service – but we ended up talking until midnight, bathed in Dreamsicle-colored light, until the howl of high tide reminded us it was time we got some rest.

Wild Gujarat

The only wildlife I had experienced on previous trips to Gujarat were the ones meandering around Ahmedabad’s crowded streets: bulls and cows, goats, packs of stray dogs. But our Saurashtra itinerary included visits to two national wildlife parks, Velavadar National Park, outside of Bhavnagar, and Gir National Park in the southern part of the state. We’re not talking the abundance of the Serengeti here. But each park is home to a number of mammal and bird species native to India. I’m glad that Gujarat has designated land for national parks and ostensibly funding preservation.

The star of Sasan Gir is the endangered Asiatic lion. Unlike its African cousin, the Asian lion does help the lioness and hunts for food. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any on our official safari. The next day we went to the Sasan Gir Interpretation Zone, which is sort of a mini-safari park, where the lions, along with other species, are kept in a combination of large fenced-in and open-space areas. That’s where we caught our glimpse of the big cats.

Both parks need some improvement on the customer-facing aspects of their experience. At Velavadar, a guide couldn’t be bothered to take us around, so we drove ourself through the park. This worked out fine for us, setting aside that this approach means no informed commentary on the wildlife. But what about if some less scrupulous visitors decided to drive off-road and into the animals’ habitat? Sasan Gir was more organized in that at least guides and drivers were made available. Their process is a little cumbersome. For some reason, the park eliminated reservations for the limited number of Jeep places available for each day. So, we had to get in line three hours in advance. Dad and I were the last two to get a place and many of our fellow line-waiters ended up waiting for nothing. I have to think some enterprising Indian software programmer could do a public service and design reservation software for Sasan Gir.

It’s interesting to read on the Gujarat Tourism’s website on Sasan Gir the candid comments by the Forestry Department on what it feels are its challenges to maintaining the preserve. Farmers from the 97 villages that surround the park often graze their livestock within the protected forest while tourists who visit the park as an “afterthought” exert pressure on the infrastructure and do little of benefit to the park or the lions. That’s an interesting assertion. I’d love to know what sort of support park officials would like from visitors.

The website also brings up a very Indian challenge. “The presence of several temples inside the park also puts strain on the ecosystem, as visitors to them also demand accommodation and infrastructure that often conflicts with the park’s conservation goals, leading to great controversy and political tension between park management and temple management.” Unfortunately, given the mounds of trash so carelessly thrown out onto the streets every day, I sadly see how difficult it must be to have these temple-goers in the park. I’m not saying that all devotees are leaving a trail of trash behind them, but I think it’s true that Indians generally have yet to behave responsibly when it comes to the environment.