Divine Dwarka

Dwarka sits on the far western tip of Gujarat, of India itself. In the evenings, the sunset bathes the shore and Arabian Sea along Gomti Ghat in deep orange light. As the home to the ancient kingdom of Krishna, Dwarka is one of the four holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Dwarka, along with the island of Beyt Dwarka just offshore, is dotted with temples including the Jagat Mandhir, or Temple of the World, which was supposedly built by Krishna’s grandson more than 2,500 years ago.

 

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‘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.

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.