Old Ahmedabad

The Ahmedabad founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 was a walled city made up of communities called “pols.” These are self-contained communities with only one or two entrances, gates that could be closed at the first sign of communal trouble. They also feature secret passageways among themselves that are difficult to discover unless someone points them out to you. The pols still follow communal lines: ones for Hindus, Jains, Muslims.

The homes have intricately carved window coverings, doors and balconies, features that don’t exist in modern architecture. “The old city had a concealed drainage system which in parts is still in use,” according to the website of Vaarso, a cultural heritage website. “Key points had wrought iron poles serving as escapes as vents for the subterranean tunnels. Each pole was crowned with a directional arrow indicating a nether bifurcation of the tunnels, this forming a dotted map of the entire system.”

Each home or “haveli” was built on a “tanka,” or water reservoir. “Rainwater harvested from the multi-leveled, jig sawed rooftops, brought down in a series of copper pipes, filtered through a layer of charcoal, lime and pebbles found its way to the storage tank” according to Vaarso. To compensate for felling trees, residents built chabutras, where residents leave grains and water for birds. “The ‘pol’ gradually transmogrified into virtual fortresses of calm and safety as the hold of the Imperial court in Delhi weakened and skirmishes and fiefdoms arose waving banners of defiant revolt and independence in various parts of a fractured kingdom, assailed internally by ambitious and disgruntled warlords and externally by flexing colonial European powers in an elusively notorious search for spices and a controlled amalgamated assimilation of territories,” Vaarso says.

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Holi

The mad warriors of Holi 2013. Ellisbridge, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They pounced on me like vultures swooping on fresh carrion.

On the night before Holi, my aunt and her two daughters-in-law gathered silver matlas filled with water, and a thali with popped dhana and a few coins. The sun had already set and we walked in the darkness to what was – surprisingly, in the urban density of Ahmedabad – an empty field next door where an adolescent-sized bonfire about eight feet high licked towards the sky. People were already gathered around the fire and my relatives exchanged subdued greetings with them. What was just neglected urban pasture a few hours earlier was now holy ground, a place where good was beating back evil.

The story goes that Hiranyakashipu, the great king of demons, was granted a boon by Brahma that he could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra.” (I’m not sure exactly why a God would grant such a power to a demon king but perhaps it was all part of the let’s-all-get-along movement among the divine and the damned at the time.) Anyhow, Hiranyakashipu began to think a little highly of himself, as one  might since even death did not now have power over him, and demanded that he be worshipped as a God. But his son Prahlad refused. He was a devotee of Vishnu. So Hiranyakashipu  ordered that his son to be put to death by fire. Prahlad would be held on a pyre in the lap of his sister, Holika, who herself had a boon that fire could not harm her.

Instead, because of his devotion Prahlad was saved while his sister burned. Thus, the beginning of the “Holika dahan” that takes place each Holi eve. Small effigies are placed in the bonfire to represent the siblings, one made of highly flammable material while the other is fire-resistant. This was a darker side to a holiday I knew only as a light-hearted frolic when we would throw colored powder and water at each other.

The colors come the day after, on Dhuleti, and mimic the frolics Krishna had with milkmaids, known as gopis. Today, people go from house to house, color-bombing and throwing buckets of water on friends and family. We had set out for another cousin’s house yesterday only to find when we got there that he had run away! So, sporting our shades of hot pink, purple, green and yellow, we zipped along Ahmedabad’s unusually quiet streets for a food stall and enjoyed vada pav.

A small moment of hope

DSC_0380For all of the real economic progress that India has made, poverty and hardship are harsh realities for many Indians. A recent story in the German magazine Spiegel is a rather merciless illustration of the gulf between have and have-nots.

There are government services and social aid but a variety of corruption and inefficiency means squandered resources. Indifference is both a coping mechanism to deal with the vastness of the need and a tool for some individuals to be able to simply concentrate on what they personally can be responsible for.

Earlier this month, I visited a facility run by the Bharat Vikas Parishad which manufactures artificial limbs for the poor. My dad had made a contribution to them in my grandmother’s name and he received a letter asking him to be there to help present a limb to a handicapped person.  Since I was here in Ahmedabad, Dad asked me to go.

We weren’t sure what to expect. Was this to be a formal ceremony of donors and recipients? It turns out that most Sundays the group hosts an open house of sorts where disabled people are welcome to come in and get fitted for prosthesis. The Parishad puts up fliers at temples and in other public areas advertising the service.  (It also runs a mobile facility that travels out to rural parts of the state.) When the limb is ready, the recipient travels to Ahmedabad for pickup. This was the point of the letter and on this particular Sunday, things were, not atypically, running late.

So we visited with Praful Velani and about half a dozen of his fellow trustees who gathered to discuss charity business over masala chai. He gave us a tour of the place. Artificial legs and hands painted a mocha brown to resemble Indian skin tones were scattered about. He showed us an oven used to heat the limb’s final shape in place, a swastika painted on its door to bless its operation. DSC_0368

The group’s main charitable effort is providing the limbs and they seemed earnest in their desire to help out fellow Indians who were less fortunate. One of their projects is a sort of matchmaking service where they try to encourage marriages between disabled young people. “Many of these young men earn good salaries and would provide a good home,” he said. For the young women, such a marriage could be a lifeline. It is often toughest convincing the parents of disabled girls, he said, as they are used to considering them “damaged” and of no use to society since a “normal” family wouldn’t consider them eligible to marry their sons.

The group has given 1,100 people an artificial limb in the last year and its estimates that about 1 million people in India don’t have a hand or a leg. We then met Kantaben Rabari from the village of Jetpur, about 150 kilometers away. She’s 35 and a housewife, and she had lost her right arm in an accident. My family’s donation was used to build her a new arm. As she tried it on, she wiggled the new fingers as she tried to loosen the bracket that controlled them so she could sip from a cup of water, and I was humbled to meet her.

‘Tales of Tears’

Saturday night I went to see a play called “Tales of Tears,” staged by a local group called “Apna Adda.” The story is about a man who is on trial for raping Muslim women during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. His daughter, a lawyer, is convinced it’s a case of mistaken identity and much of the play is set in the courtroom as she cross-examines state witnesses, Muslim victims, who attest crimes they say her father has committed.

tale

I won’t tell you how it ends. If you are in Ahmedabad and they have another performance, you should definitely see it. The cast performed Saturday to a packed house. Tickets were oversold. When the lights came up at the end, several people were sniffling and/or had tears in their eyes.

After the show, we had a Q-and-A with the cast, a remarkably candid discussion on the riots and why we should or should not still be discussing them. It very much felt like a reconciliation panel; the comments were sometimes raw and emotional but honest. One man got up to ask what good does essentially picking open a healed wound do? His opinion was the minority and I appreciated his willingness to, one, show up to the performance and, two, to step up and start a conversation that might be perceived as hostile by a majority of those assembled.

His comments prompted several responses along the lines of “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” – an opinion I largely agree with. Also, it seems to me that the city and its residents must come to terms with what happened in some way. Indian justice will move slowly. Perhaps very few of the victims will see their tormenters pay for their actions. But how can a city merely brush aside – whether it be in the name of progress or “moving on” or what – the idea that their neighbors, friends, even family members are capable of such terrible violence? Many of the perpetrators were not say, hardened criminals or conventional psychopaths. Yet there was something psychopathic about what these people were able to do to fellow human beings.

In the decade since, Ahmedabad has moved on by increasingly compartmentalizing itself along religious lines. Muslims live in Muslim areas and Hindus in their own for the most part. I tagged along with my cousins to see some new apartment buildings constructed to meet the high demand for middle-class housing in the city. The new neighborhoods were being constructed along communal lines; Urdu and Arabic names on the buildings meant for Muslims; Hindi or Gujarati names for those meant for Hindus. It’s not the fault of the developer. They are only providing their customers the product that they want to buy. But I found it disheartening to see.

So it was interesting to hear from the actors in this play. Most of them are in their early 20s and prior to joining the cast their memories of the riots in 2002 consisted of “5 days holiday from school and no ice cream” being available with shops closed. One of the student actresses said that just before taking on the role in which she plays a Muslim riot victim, she  decided against taking one rickshaw home one night “just because the driver was Muslim.” That was her perspective of Muslims: other is not to be trusted.

Her participation in the play, she said, helped her realize the prejudices she didn’t even know she harbored.

Among the audience, a British-Indian woman, who said she had moved back to Ahmedabad with her family a year ago, said she was shocked at the fixation of people on caste and the general derision of “other.” She said her neighbors had strongly discouraged her from hiring a maid who happened to be Muslim and that her children were constantly being asked – even by schoolmates – what their caste was. In Britain, she said, questions on castes are not raised. “They don’t even know,” she said.

(I was introduced to Apna Adda by Zahir Janmohamed, an Indian-American by way of Africa, who happened to be in Ahmedabad during the riots. He’s now living and writing part of the year in Ahmedabad, working on his book on his experiences then and the conversations he’s having with Hindus and Muslims about that event today. I read one of his columns in The Times of India and he was kind enough to respond to my Twitter message. Follow his work!)

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.

Looking to the Skies

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I was 10 years old, on a family trip to India, when I first learned about Kite Day. Imagine, a holiday just for flying kites. Everyone was out on their rooftops flinging thinner-than-paper-thin kites into the air. The sky was littered with pastel diamonds, bobbing in the breeze. It was a day of simple joy, enjoying the mild Indian winter, out in the sunshine with family and friends, flying – and cutting – kites.

The festivities relate to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn) and takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice (between December 20th and 23rd) that marks the starting of Uttarayana, which means northward journey of the Sun, according to Gunatit Jyot. It marks the start of harvest season and is generally considered a good time to begin a new endeavor – like perhaps a trip to Gujarat!

I wasn’t so fortunate in actually flying the kites. Despite able assists from my cousins who launched the patangs in air for me, my line-tugging skills only resulted in the kites’ fall to earth. So, I sat back, took pictures and enjoyed watching them fly their kites so high as to be mere specks of color in the sky. I cheered along when they dueled with another kite, each player furiously tugging the string to be the first to cut off the other. Eventually the cry of “lapet!” would ring in the air, signaling victory and we would watch the colored paper, now deflated, slowly drift back down to earth.

Because Uttarayan is a holiday on the solar calendar – unlike the rest of our auspicious days which fall on the lunar calendar – Kite Day happens each year on January 14, fixed. So, why do we fly kites to mark this day? Gunatit Jyot suggests: “The act stands as a metaphor for reaching to their beloved God, the one who represents the best.”