Travel

Sights: Andheri

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Reflections: Witness, Memory

He stood behind us as N. tried to teach me roulette or whatever it was in the same way that he tried to teach me the bus routes or anything- mumbling endlessly to hear his own voice. I despised him completely, but maybe I didn’t know it then. He watched the screen as N. played, clearly, or not so clearly he was waiting for the low stakes unit to be free so he could use it. N. would walk away at times to see the television thing or something and I would slide in so the seat was saved for us. The man stood there for a very long time, 10 or 15 minutes right behind us without any inclination to communicate. It was interesting. Somehow he got to speaking, I forgot how. I think he made a recommendation to N. and they got to talking from there. He warned me against gambling, said he’d been at it for 12 years, or was it 14, and said it leads nowhere. I asked him why he did it, he said he came when he had nothing to do, and was there most nights. Well dressed Eastern European with a Muslim finish- Albanian, Bosnian, he must be, I thought. There was too much in London for me to wonder what he did, if I did I do not remember. I told him I had no interest in gambling, was only accompanying N. because it was 2, 3 maybe 4 am and what else was I supposed to do.

An oriental girl massaged some guy’s neck on the corner machine for a pound a minute. I was staring at the television where the roulette wheel was streaming live from the floor on the ground level. Or something, I don’t remember what I was watching but I was watching intently. Something hit the back of my head. What the fuck? I look around, there’s a pen on the ground beside me. The Albanian is waving a hand a couple of rows behind me- it was him. He had wanted to break my concentration he thought I was being drawn into the game. Or maybe he just couldn’t see the screen. I moved away.

Hours later, I am bored and I’ve just had a cigarette on the little balcony overlooking a minute portion of the bustling night. I’m looking to write, I think it’s a good time to. I find a sofa with a guy sleeping in one corner, I take the other side and settle down with my book and find my pen. The Albanian guy is coming up the stairs, he spots me and says hello. I’m ready for some conversation and I depend on people to sense that and I guess he does; he looks exhausted- an hour or so later he’ll ask me how old I think he is I am 3 years off but that’s his weariness I was accounting for. We talk, I don’t remember what, what I do comes up. I tell him I’m a photojournalist, I’ve been telling everyone that. He doesn’t discount it. He makes me an offer. He has a story he says, and he’ll tell it to me in full, God knows we have time, if I can tell where he’s from. Bosnia, I’m wrong. I know he’s not Albanian. He gives me 3 chances. Says he knows instantly where I’m from, I feel fucked and know if I don’t get it right I’m not getting what I guess I was brought here for. Serbia. It’s the same thing you know, he says, Bosnia, Serbia. Why, how do I think he’s from Bosnia? Semiotext(e)? Why? I just do, I’m usually never wrong, and never with South East Asians. I tell him I’m from the wrong part of the world to be able to tell him where he’s from. I wonder, today, months later, if he was going to tell me the story he told me had I not made it out. He gave me a clue, he was Muslim- Algeria, I said, he said yes, I said no and he showed me id. It said Algeria. I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t have guessed it. I was eager to hear the story- this is what he told me.

When he was 18 he faked some papers and joined the Algerian police against his father’s wishes, I think he said it paid well. This was the late 80’s. The Islamic party had been elected unexpectedly. The country was still reeling from the French, who had fucked them and slaughtered them and the people wanted to get as far away as possible now. A civil war kicked off and people were killing people again. His unit would dress up as Mujahideen and slaughter villagers and outskirts people to inspire hatred towards the Islamic party, it must have worked. He said it got real bad. ‘Brother killing brother’, made real how he said it. A country fighting to become what it wanted to.They found out and started killing police. All government workers- teachers, politicians, whatever. They started killing off his unit. Three attempts on his life, they tried to kill him but couldn’t somehow and he left. I don’t remember the details, did someone try once to slit his throat. I think someone shot that man. I don’t remember. I think it was a boy. Another attempt had two cars full of armed men raining bullets on his car.

I think he left his family behind. He never admitted to killing anyone himself, or being involved in the dressed up in disguise killings he was telling me about. He moved to London without a thing and he’s an accountant or something now. Won 60 grand at the casino once. Or was it 30? He said they start watching you if you go over 40, and then they want you to leave and they’ll kill you on your way home if you don’t. It’s a mafia business, he said. He told me his name. I’ve forgotten that too. I only met him once, and all the things he told me are lost to the world now, through me. But all that remains is sacred, because it happened. He said his friends who were there were having a meal and some French guy, 20, came in and everyone was wild and the French guy kept saying ‘but I had nothing to do with it’.

But that’s not the point. I faltered, and no irreparable harm was done, and no amount of Baba O’Riley can bring back the moment lost into nothingness, my careful signing hand, too busy to choose- I refused it then and it left. ‘No take it with you’. Last cigarette to remember it by, but it’s borrowed; the 24 hour pharmacy does not sell them downstairs, but they sell chocolate. All wrapped up like a shiny pretty thing, all dolls. But not that thing I like. And the fear I felt in the afternoon when I was thinking, that’s also gone, gone too and I’m safe here, for now because no one’s been asking me to leave. When I do leave I’ll have to leave without it, his story, so many stories because I’ve lost them- I was a witness and I’ve moved on. Now one lone mosquito stirs the air in this room and is my only concern. I don’t remember what happened in Algeria or how it affected me. I don’t remember the names of the people or the political parties and hardly recall anyone’s motivations and who got killed and who nearly got killed or how- though someone told me, I’ve forgotten. I keep these things as I keep air. I keep many things as I keep air, not the least of all many other people. What was his name? Come on Baba O’Riley, tell me his name too. I just don’t remember.

Sights: Kurla

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He told me what he wanted to tell me, how he had no one and things like that. I listened for a while and smiled a lot, not sure what he made of that. Dried blood on his hand, he said he carried a corpse to the hospital- works for the railway, 40 years. I think anyway, it was very hard to understand him. I touched his foot, it was awful and charred with dirt I don’t think will ever wash off him completely. Again, how long has this man got to live? I forgot his name too. Towards the end, it had gone sour, as he spoke agitated to me, accusatory and aggressive as I began to take his picture, I realized I was a hawk and he had just made me, there was absolutely nothing I could offer this man. Blood flew off his nose onto his pants, I had brushed a fly away from the horizontal gash on it but it had returned and I couldn’t care less. Who gives a fuck about him?

Sights: Belfast, Amazing

Steel wall leading into Protestant side, shuts after dark, sometimes for good

Steel wall leading into Protestant side, shuts after dark, sometimes for good

I’m freezing on the ferry, all wrapped up like an eskimo; I won’t go inside. Ireland is coming, I’m dreaming.

I’m writing a story for a short film, it goes something like this, from a boy’s perspective- I flattered myself the bulge of a pack of Marlboros in my pocket. Tom’s mirror was quite expansive and presented an awkward view of his room from the wall. I wondered if my friend was influenced by this strange repetition and if it confused him as it often confused me, or perhaps he revelled in it. Was he very much in touch with who he was? Where would he hide to aspire? How can you lie in bed and dream when you can see yourself, your world and all of it at the flick of an eye? How, where, do you hide from yourself?
There’d been riots in Belfast and I’d caught the news a month ago and I wanted to see it before I left, it seemed the only interesting place in the UK, where people were still deciding things- what flag to wear, who to be. Every place else there I found dead, miserable in hopeless certainty- I blamed it on the architecture- so rigid and permanent, no one could imagine the place as anything other than it was, that it had been for many years. A fucking bore.

I thought I’d make a short film in Belfast- about a group of middle-class Catholic boys that go on a bicycle trip and get lost in a Protestant neighbourhood on the eve of a riot. So I go to Belfast, the fare is cheap and the passage beautiful.

John looks out at his city

John looks out at his city

(Belfast is brown in the rain) At the bus station, John, my host comes over to meet me. This guy has walked out of Hemingway and is exploding with drama and information. Just outside the station, he walks me through Bill Clinton’s arrival at the much bombed Europa Hotel and the signing of the peace treaty that put a relative end to the civil conflict that had raged in Northern Ireland for over thirty years. The way to his exquisitely decorated apartment is short but vivid with life and culture- culture like in this particular neighbourhood no one locks their front doors, because it’s all Catholic and extended family-like, and so no one has to fumble with keys in a fire-bombing.
John shows me a map of the city carved out as Catholic and Protestant camps- go there see that, be careful here, don’t go there. I take his advice the first few days. I see walls, walls like I haven’t dreamed of and here they are in a modern European city- 20 foot high with barbed wire to separate communities and prevent violence. Taxis from one side won’t go to the other. The bus routes are split between two companies, each representing one side. Smells like Beirut.
A SPAR cashier wishes me luck finding a job, I tell him I’m not looking for one.
Never been more aware of what, whose, area I’m in than I was in Belfast- you just had to look. The flags on the streetlights- Irish for Catholic, Union Jack for Protestant. You had to look at the graffiti on the walls, it was always there- I told John it was like in Life of Brian with the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People’s Front all horribly at war with each other- there were dozens of these groups, all different, all the same.

John walks me through the most fortified neighbourhood in the city, Short Strand- place looks like something from The Walking Dead- huge walls, barricades, CCTV- or, uhh, Finchley. I ask him why IRA dissidents (when the IRA got the boot in 1997 after the cease fire, it became the ‘Real IRA’ and the government became the new ‘IRA’ that now hunt the ‘dissidents’ from the ‘Real’ one) are tolerated in areas like this and he said because they have guns, and when things get bad, they bring them out and they’re needed.

Derry, or Londonderry- depends on who you ask

Derry, or Londonderry- depends on who you ask

The Protestants are insane. Some strangeness aside, I never felt afraid in the Catholic are as, but these Unionists are fucking loonies. They constantly hold parades, march up and down their neighbourhoods in military buff with drums and trumpets under their flag studded streets.
I tell John about my short film, he said it’s happened, didn’t turn out well. He leaves for Dublin, I watch Cabaret on his tiny television. It’s a great film and I love it- John had played me a song from it- Tomorrow Belongs to Me, about the rise of the Nazis, illustrating the Belfast situation. It’s apt. I want to go to Dublin.
I go to Derry. A barkeeper gives me a bunch of postcards with great photos of important people on them- Spanish anarchists, South American freedom fighters, a photograph of a wall of photos of Chilean poets. At the bar I also meet a miniature artist. That is, an artist who paints miniatures. Landscape? I ask. Portraits. Now I’m always interested in miniatures.
I go to Dublin. They stop the bus and take me to a police station because I don’t have the right VISA. I feign ignorance, they leave me at a bus station, deporting me, ‘Go back to Belfast’.

I go to Belfast, it’s amazing. John keeps the photocopy of my ‘denial of entry’ as a souvenir. He takes me to a bar. A guy is getting drunk with his friends. Then we are friends, his name is Stephen. Mo chara! They have this funny thing in informal social settings in Belfast, they only ask your first name, I suppose it keeps things simple. I’m talking to Stephen about the ‘Troubles’, he tells me his mother used to work at the Europa Hotel, it got blown up when she was in it, a British soldier was helping her out, he, Catholic, rushed, or his brother did, and took his mother from the soldier because he didn’t want anyone to see her being helped by a Brit. He’s drunk and asks the bouncer to tell me stories about the IRA, the bouncer looks like he would know, and politely avoids the subject. The night is good and the place is too, but this could have gone badly. I make a note- be careful who those you talk to talk to.

Stephen 'Higgies' after some 12 pints of Guinness, 4 shots of Vodka and a whiskey- what's this thing in my hands?

Stephen ‘Higgies’ after some 12 pints of Guinness, 4 shots of Vodka and a whiskey- what’s this thing in my hands?

Got an email from Stephen recently (well not that recently) – ‘I am only writing back to you now as I just recently got my arms blown off in an I.R.A style bombing, hope all is well with you.’ I was right, I as Indian do have a lot in common with the Irish. We were both under the yoke of the British. We starved.
Boondock Saints.
They found a bomb on Jamaica Street. I go out looking for St Anne’s Primary school, scene of vicious riots in very recent past. I find the sport bar John told me about (Don’t go there, he didn’t say, but something to that effect). Windows are bricked up because they used to toss grenades in. Very IRA pub. I start talking to some people. We go into the back where we can smoke. The stories. They tell me everything I know, I pretend to be a social worker. I pretended to be a social worker and got to talk to a local NGO at length about the rehabilitation of children through art, so they can learn to live together. I told them I was something something Indian riots work with children. I got tearful. It was honest tears, funnily. Still have the literature. Must be priceless here. Rotting in my suitcase.

At the bar they say, you don’t know what it’s like, you walk to the bus stop and get on the first bus. We’re worried about you, this is a terrible place to be curious. Someone offers me a job, I decline. Fool!

'Our revenge will be the laughter of our children' Bobby Sands, Irish freedom fighter

‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ Bobby Sands, Irish freedom fighter

I leave. I walk towards the bus stop, it’s a terrible place to be curious. I turn around and walk deep into the troubled neighbourhood. Someone was watching me from a maroon van as I studied the wall art, IRA martyrs, some taxi driver who was shot for ferrying people around on a crucial day on a strike day. I walk walk walk. End up on Jamaica Street, where they’d found the bomb maybe 2 or 3 days ago. Quiet residential. Bikes in the yard, little children being loaded into cars. Strange place. Catholic.
I walk. Spitball. Little kids, ass! I congratulate him on his aim, suddenly they’re all over me, something like 10 year olds. They’re curious, I tell them I’m Indian. Are there tigers in India? Snakes. Yes. Yes. We walk, I ask them about their relationship with the people across the street, it’s an interesting location, just across the main drag begins a sprawling Protestant hood. They say they both mostly keep to themselves. But some kid crossed over and was beaten up recently. It’s wonderful, I’m getting what I want. We split, I cross the street into the Protestant side. It’s insane. I ask the kids there for directions, three younger ones, 2 older ones about 15 on bikes. The younger ones tell me, the older ones stare at me, a very strange expression, incredulity. How the fuck, they can’t imagine, did I just do that? Just crossed over from one side to the other like it was NOTHING!!! Blew their minds. Strange place.

I get on the bus, I feel sick. Too many flags, too many names, abbreviations. This is 2012.

I’m learning how to look. It’s incredible, difficult. John says read the last paragraph.

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Sights: Mumbai Local

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January, I’m leaving Azad Maidan and crossing the busy intersection that separates it from the CST terminal, making it halfway before a two-way wall of traffic forces me to take shelter on the divider. I guess I could have taken the underground walkway- being early in the year and still cool, I wouldn’t even have had to wade through the thick murky heat of the pressurised subway for the 2 minute walk to the station, but having spent most of last week working and sleeping among 10,000 odd people at a Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao relay fast, I’m not exactly adamant at the prospect of spending any more time than I have to in human company. Funny thing then that I’m about to board a local.

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I get onto the cargo and goods compartment of a train heading to Kurla. I don’t see him get on, but this beautiful kid swings past me as the train pulls off and attaches himself to the handlebars at the door- he’s wearing a large, torn red jacket vivid in the bright yellow light of the winter sun. The morning is soothing, and the boy sailing at the door and his jacket billowing behind him make an image that can take me anywhere.

The men start bothering the kid, I think for a moment one must be his father but realize that he’s not. There’s suddenly a hint of concern, the same that accompanies a street animal in peril and little more. The sudden lapse of apathy is stifling, almost unnatural in this city- the kid feels it and leaves at Dadar, disappearing into the peak rush, forever lost from the hearts and minds of all present in that compartment. A dark old man tells me he was on something, I’d have thought glue but he said it was something they snorted. They, running around getting high and wandering the trains all day long. I thought he was someone’s son, and he had dust on his face and dirt clinging to his bare feet and legs like it wouldn’t ever come off. He was at ease though, on the open ledge, flying as the train did, and I really could see him go.

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This post is a part of the #Vote4Children Blog-a-thon on Youth Ki Awaaz. Find out more at: http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/vote4children

Sights: Chembur

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Peering at the LCD, he congratulates me on the picture as he puts his shirt back on. I feel the familiar wave rise- oh, all y’all are too easily impressed. As he adjusts his collar, I catch sight of some discoloration on his neck, and suddenly it’s far too late to unsee the two slits that run across his throat. He smiles, a wide, satisfied smile with a twinge of something I can’t quite place, and says something to the guard standing behind him- we’re at a side entrance of the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. My eyes drop to the preview panel on my camera, I can’t believe I missed that. His body is a map of scars running like snakes in patterns too organized to have been a product of chance or accident. I look up, what the fuck is he still smiling about? He tells me his name. Rajesh. Ramesh. Raju. Come five minutes and I won’t remember. I take the guard aside, my mind flying to thoughts of maniacal gangland torture, some kind of incremental punitive measures ripped off all screwed and twisted from second-hand rumours of the East; there are, after all, a few hundred odd meters of roadside shacks lining the perimeter of the golf course and this is Mumbai. I ask the guard.

‘What did he say,’ he asks back, I don’t realize it’s a trap.

‘Too much alcohol,’ I reply.

‘Then that’s all you need to know’

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A few weeks later, it’s around 2 AM and I’m returning from a December 6th B.R. Ambedkar service with a few gangster types (Jai Bhim!); one of them is trying to convince me that doing it with a homosexual doesn’t make you one too, since it’s ‘normal’ for the other guy. Not entirely sure how to counter the argument, I try to enjoy the chill night air and relax. The road is unlit and deserted; unrecognizable at this time, but my present company lays all fears to rest- I’ll be perfectly fine for the next half hour.

There’s a glow in the distance, at a bend. ‘They’re burning a body there,’ one of my companions points out. I realize I’m on the same road as before as we pass the entrance of the golf course. Not sure how to bring it up to the fellows, whom I suspect would probably know something about the guy I had photographed, I tell them about the last time I’d been on this road and I’d seen this guy with these scars…

‘Yeah, he does that to himself’

‘He does that to himself?’

‘Yeah’

I don’t even recognize him in this picture. Some gone boy… where did he find that face? I’ve adjusted the picture, made him gleam like a car. But that’s not the man I met that day, who’d taken off his shirt for a photograph that I didn’t know I was about to take. I don’t even remember his name.

I lost you son. I wonder where you are now if you’re even alive. But I guess in this city you can say that for a lot of people.