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Dear Dominik

by Jibunnessa 

Posted: 20 April 2003
Word Count: 3763
Summary: In 1996, I travelled alone across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In 1997, I wrote an email to Dominik Wujastyk (a great bloke, Sanskrit scholar and expert in Ancient Indian Medical History), which mainly talks of this journey.

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Dear Dominik

I take it all back! Watching ‘Stones of the Raj’ yesterday was a particularly enjoyable experience. Although viewed through the thick haze of a most pleasant flu, I found a ‘dear friend’ walking around and talking about a town that I’d really grown to love … Gwalior. Not only was it manageable in size and have cinemas full of tiny children all acquainted early with Manisha Koirala and other glamorous figures of Bollywood … and refusing to stop crying! But, there is also the wonderful fort! I liked Raja Mann Singh’s palace but I loved the Sas and Bahu temples. There was something deliciously ‘secret garden’-ish about the place, as I walked up the almost invisible steps and sat secretly, silently admiring the vista through the arms of many women and other particularly lovely carvings. I loved it! My own little world … undisturbed by herds of fluorescent shorts, leather thighs or long lenses! A perfect, cosy corner of the universe for removing all the dead skin clogging up the inside of your eyes!

Although, to be fair, I found most of India (at least when and where I went) free from such endearing creatures … except for when I was in Varanasi. As I stood on the roof of my hotel one morning, admiring the Ganga and watching the playful non-langur monkeys in next door’s tree, I spotted a group of these in classic formation tramping through a family’s private grief, taking pictures of the smouldering remains of a loved one. Is nothing sacred?

Returning back to Gwalior, of course Dalrymple didn’t actually talk about any of these, or the tomb of Tansen with its famous tamarind tree … except to mention the fort in passing. Well, Raj or no Raj, with such a delightful place up the hill, who could resist NOT restricting themselves to the Scindhia’s grand architectural (some would say folly) endeavour. For me, I can see why it didn’t work and I agree with Dalrymple’s summing up.

But, Gwalior was also memorable because, outside of Pakistan (where I was always ill … often very!) this was the only place, during my 10 week journey through the subcontinent, where I became ill. But, they say that every cloud has a silver lining. I don’t know about that! But, as a person particularly fond of clouds, I think the timing of this one was, in a way, perfect! Besides, with my fascination for diseases, it’s only fitting that I should have first hand experience of tropical ones … from a very personal perspective! …Alas, one major drawback was that I wasn’t able to go to Agra!

As I liked my cheap and cheerful hotel in Gwalior and the manager there was a young guy you immediately wanted to adopt as your brother (and as I didn’t want to be bothered by the sort of people that bother you in towns where there are a lot of tourists), I decided to go to Agra only for a day trip rather than staying overnight.

The plan was to take the very early morning train and return as late as possible. So I went to bed at a very reasonable hour with these thoughts fructifying in my mind… I would see the Taj again! After so many years! Being a great fan of marble and having only recently seen a large ivory model at the Lahor Qila … I was excited! But, I awoke again very shortly, shivering uncontrollably … my whole body aching. All I could think of was “I’ve got malaria!” It was a long time before things were vaguely ‘normal’, but I was so, so thirsty! So, I rang the bell and a poor man with a sleepy smile, cheerfully brought me a cold drink from the fridge downstairs. My plans now stopped fructifying! I desperately needed sleep and I needed to find out what exactly happened … and was it coming back?

…So, imagine my surprise (a miracle almost! …I’m convinced!) when I was introduced to Dr Sanjay Kumar, a ‘permanent’ resident. Not only was his room more or less opposite mine, but he was also a 99.5% look-alike of Dr. Zhivago (well …Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago!) …one of my all time favourite films! … And he was going to take personal care of me (no smutty intentions! …I assure you!) Now that’s what I call ROOM SERVICE!!!

One curious point about Dalrymple’s programme yesterday … Where were the hijras on the train? I distinctly remember not seeing any anywhere else in India, except on two train journeys: one from Delhi to Bhopal and the other from Gwalior to Delhi. Both times, I was sitting alone on the seat parallel to the window. After clapping, calling me Madhuri (as in Dixit), getting increasingly agitated at my reluctance to part with money, telling me that Bhagwan was going to take everything away from me and giving me a flash intented to shock me into submission, they generally went away! I’m convinced that they were there on the Gwalior to Delhi train where Dalrymple accompanied the Scindhia politician … now ‘commoner’ and ordinary man. I’m glad they weren’t filmed though. It would have been very easy to have an exotic, mystical, ‘The India Experience’ as a backdrop to the programmes. Thankfully, this is being done less and less nowadays!

I was going to restrict myself to Gwalior on account of yesterday’s programme, but I’ve already mentioned Varanasi. So, if you’re still awake, or managed to wake up again during this mini epic I seem to be writing, I’ll just say a few words about Sanchi and Puri.

Have you ever been to Sanchi? I’m sure you probably have. But, if not, then let me say now that it’s one of my favourite places. Those magnificent stupas with the wonderful Mauryan carvings. I loved them tremendously! And what a lovely place! A quiet, tranquil, friendly little village with pawpaw trees, frangipani, jackfruit and tiny crabs and little, striped squirrel walking past your feet … and rain! Lots of it!!!

After the tremendous heat, traffic and almost surreal, salt-encrusted, dust-blown landscape of Pakistan, the epic border-crossing journey to Amritsar, the bus to Delhi, the frantic dashes through town looking for somewhere to change money at such early hours of the morning (I had a train to catch at Nizamuddin Station …quite soon!), finding myself in the top hotel in Delhi completely filthy from the dust that blew in through the windows of my overnight bus --- lots of snooty ladies with clean children, giving me looks of disdain in the cloakroom … After all that, the heavy rains and the cool winds that blew into my room at night … were a pleasure to die for. I can still close my eyes and taste the sensation on my saliva.

The train from Delhi took me to Bhopal. It was raining, it was dark. I had a rucksack on my back and I was tired. I walked here, there and back again, looking for the right spot from where I could take a bus to Sanchi. I arrived in Sanchi late at night in the middle of a characteristically charming power cut, mud and rain everywhere, and being pursued by a pack of dogs in the pitch dark … for all I knew, they hadn’t eaten for the last ten days! … I wasn’t going to turn on my torch and tell them where I was. Although they’d obviously already smelled my armpits by then and getting ready for the kill!

But, I managed to spoil their fun, eventually wake up someone at the Buddhist resthouse I was planning to stay at, and get some sleep.

I loved that place!!! Another month later, and it would have been booked up with Sri Lankan Buddhists and I would have had to stay at the ‘Tourist Bungalow’. I have a strange allergy against anything with the word tourist in its name, except perhaps a ‘tourist information office’ …they’re kind of handy (assuming it’s the ITDC variety and not the pretend variety!). Anyway, the resthouse was a place of great tranquillity and humour. And any place that lets me have a whole dormitory to myself for 40 rupees, calls me sister and lets me sit at their veranda to watch the fruit, and flowers, and crabs and creatures of the flooded world on either side of the covered walkway, while they brought me tea and biscuits and generous helpings of vegetarian food at no extra cost … not to mention the warmth and humour and general homeliness … gets my recommendation any day!

Most people in India assumed I was Hindu, while most Pakistanis were most interested in trying to find out. I travelling alone, and not wanting to get involved in any heated controversy, didn’t go out of my way to dispel such thoughts. Of those Indians that did find out to the contrary, most expressed great astonishment or just initially thought I was having a ‘laugh’ with them! One woman on a train (I don’t know what it was about me) suddenly said “you are Muslim?!” She was surprised. Only a few minutes ago, she told me how very proud she felt to be talking with me …’an independent woman of the world going out to seek knowledge’ as she saw me. And yet, as she said, she had always thought Muslim women as backward. But to be fair, she and her cousins were so nice to me … both before and after the revelation! Lovely ladies!

In Puri though, I boarded a rickshaw, with the knowledge that I knew nothing of Hindu religious custom, and therefore couldn’t go into the ‘Hindus-only’ temples. I thought that especially in the present political climate, it might be a ‘little’ unwise to go in, to be caught red-handed as a Muslim ‘tricking’ her way in. But I didn’t actually want to wear a label around my neck saying ‘Muslim’ either. So, when I found a middle-aged man in close-cropped henna and white dhoti, running alongside my rickshaw, offering to show m around the whole temple complex for 5 takas (he meant rupees, but, as I’m sure you know, most visitors to Puri are Bengali), it would have been very easy just to go along with it. After all, I am Bengali! As far as he’s concerned, a Hindu from Calcutta.

There have been a number of times when people, realising from my accent, that I was Bengali, wanted to immediately whisk me off to the nearest Durga temple for pooja, or start telling me about a most historical Durga temple (where none of the original features were left!) which was only a few hours away by bus and not to be missed!

But, getting back to the main story …it was such a natural order of things there: you arrive by rickshaw; a friendly, henna(e)d dhotiwala greets you; takes you to a nice man who takes your shoes; you go into the temple complex; buy flowers for pooja and then do all the things that people do in Hindu temples. I got as far as the shoe collector, and still knew nothing more about Hindu religious ceremony than what I’d learned from Bollywood. So, I confessed! …My dhotiwala was disappointed! The shoe collector was disappointed! I was disappointed!

At first, my potential guide didn’t believe me, and then when he believed me, he asked me, with an enormous air of disappointment, how I became a Muslim. I told him, the same way he became a Hindu. He didn’t understand, so I explained! In any case, he was disappointed with my honesty … if only I’d kept quiet, we would have been inside and he could have made some money!

As we walked up to the top of the library building opposite, he made it abundantly clear that he didn’t like Muslims … because they slaughtered goats! “When the right government (BJP) comes in, there will be NO Pakistan, NO Bangladesh and NO slaughtering of goats!” I told him I’d never slaughtered a goat in my life! He told me, I never needed to. But conceded to liking me, when I told him I liked everyone.

In a strange sort of way, I had sympathy for what he was saying. Here was a devout vegetarian to whom the image, the act, the very idea of goat-slaughter must encapsulate, at a very basic level, ‘all that is wrong with Muslims.’ Suddenly an image of his image of millions of Muslims all slaughtering goats, flashed through my mind! … And memories of Pakistan came flooding in! They seem to like their food mainly of the meat variety and preferably swimming in oil … more the better! Even food you normally wouldn’t expect to associate with oil, didn’t escape its mighty impact. Budget food, except those snacks sold outside museums, railway stations, etc were very, very, very depressing. The only vegetable that seemed to be considered edible was bindi and even then it was cooked in dalda, so that most of it stuck to the roof of your mouth.

I lived on fruit and coca cola, and the occasional Chinese clear soup. I was always ill, so I don’t know where I got the energy to walk up hills all day to look at interesting ruins, while living on just water and plums. And the stomach-churning smells that confronted you from the oily contents of pavement karahis, as you walked through Peshawar Bazaar. I think the men were frying tripe. I had to hold my breath, which is a shame, because nearby Afghan and Pashtu shops displayed varieties of aromatic spices and green teas which would have been nice to smell …had they not been over-powered by a stronger adversary!

So, when my overnight bus from Amritsar to Delhi stopped at an eaterie in Chandigahr (the first proper meal in India!), the parathas and vegetables I ordered tasted like the most delicious food I’d ever tasted in my whole life. Nobody would ever be able to recreate that moment of pure ecstasy again! … I wanted to smell the food in my dreams! This was the shape of things to come! Gastronomically and meteorologically, I found India much more agreeable! But, as an aside, I was also very struck by how different the two sides of Punjab were. The Pakistanis were much more laid back and friendlier (in fact amongst the friendliest and most generous people I have ever met!), while the Indian side immediately felt greener and cooler simply because the roads were better maintained and the environment seemed to have been treated with greater care.

So, leaving Bangladesh out of the equation for the moment, there developed in my mind a dichotomy within the subcontinent: hard to digest, meat-swimming-in-oil Muslim food; wonderful, wonderful variety of Hindu vegetarian food. This idea was later (post-Puri) further strengthened by finding an excellent vegetarian restaurant in Varanasi and eating in a Muslim area during a day trip to Jaunpur. I did manage to get vegetables, but it wasn’t as good and lumps of meat seemed to be much more popular!

So, when in Puri, the time was right for me to approve of the disapproval of goat-slaughter. Just the thought of their bits and pieces ending up in a Peshawari pavement karahi for unsuspecting dysentery victims to walk past and die! In any case, I take pleasure in trying to be nice to people who don’t like me (the group I represent that is: female, Asian, Muslim, middle class …..) …as long as we’re talking about simple ignorance … not violence or the incitement to violence! I think it comes from a mixture of a smug feeling of rising above such primitive base hatreds and a naïve belief that you can (even ever so slightly) change the world by your own example … showing the friendly, human face of ‘THE ENEMY’. On the one hand, I think this is a load of old twaddle, on the other, I still find myself NOT punching people’s noses, NOT shouting obscenities and NOT spitting in their faces … or any other colourful methods of expressing my opposition to their opposition to me!

…But, I do have to say that I find middle class bashing really boring, and I take great issue with anyone trying to treat me as a ‘little woman’! Here the difference I encountered between Pakistani and Bangladeshi attitudes towards lone, female travellers very interesting … and often reaaaaaaaaaally frustrating!!! While Pakistanis were sometimes unduly concerned for my safety, they tried to help as far as possible in order to minimise any potential problems. In Bangladesh on the other hand, it seemed that my travel was a problem and everything that could be done to make things difficult, always was done! I was threatened by customs officers at the Benopol border. If they wanted to (…so they said!), they could stop me from getting back into India (which was my purpose for being there then) unless the District judge from the area where I was born, gave permission to say that I, as a SINGLE, FEMALE, TRAVELLER should be allowed to cross through to Haridaspur. The gist of it being “we have the power! So, lick our buttocks and we may show mercy”. Perhaps they just got a kick from exercising power, or may be I was expected to start sweating profusely and wave loose notes under the table.

Enormous amounts of fuss was created when I went to the Khulna Forestry Office to get a Sunderbans permit. Lots of “hai! Hai!” and problematic faces! I spent the whole morning talking to officers ….. the Saaarrrrs, who felt it absolutely vital to waste my time talking about nothing! They used the weather as an excuse to give me a wimpy permit. The waters would be far too choppy for me (but, evidently not for the 2 MALE tourists I saw the following morning) to go too far … so I should really do a day trip. It was only the next day that I realised exactly how wimpy my permit was. I was only supposed to go a short distance to a nice sedate clearing where spotted dear were being kept within an enclosure. I suppose they were expecting me to walk out in my frilly sandals and get out the picnic things!

These were only the tip of the ice berg of Bangladeshi annoyances. My first night in the country was spent at a dak bungalow in Chiliharti (closest border town to Siliguri and Darjeeling), where men with testosterone were trying to break down my door … And nobody heard a thing!

In Pakistan, people sometimes appointed themselves or their friend as my unofficial bodyguard, because of undue concerns about my safety … it was kind of endearing! Not to mention helpful! Especially in Pashtu-speaking areas where they could communicate with local children and tangawalas for me. They also knew the sources of local spring waters and were able to run off and refill my bottle. And later on, when their wife gave me tea or their mother sacrificed a chicken especially for me … as guest of honour … and then I found myself sitting on a big chair watching guests arrive and then settle down, while women in colourful costume and bowls of flame and fresh flowers on their heads, danced to the beating of drums and the rhythms of traditional Pashtu songs. It was dark, it was amazing, it was one stage of a Pashtu wedding ceremony. I was very privileged to accidentally find myself there!

Despite some monumental annoyances …mainly bureaucratic or corruption-based (i.e. greedy customs men), my ten week journey was definitely an experience worth remembering! But, remembering the anti-goat-slaughter-wala from Puri, when I read the 13 July Sunday Times Magazine article on child sacrifices … I felt deeply upset, but I also felt duped! Images of animal sacrifice and naked Calcutta children rolling around in the blood were montaged in front of my eyes with the helpless screams of infants and the slaughter of goats for food … and the words “when the right government comes in, there will be no Pakistan, no Bangladesh and no slaughtering of goats!”

I’m not saying that he engaged in any of these disturbing activities, but he must have, at the very least, known about the animal sacrifices, when he made his goat declaration to me. I felt very foolish for having felt any sympathy for the possible misconceived basis for this man’s hatred of a large section of Indian society … a section with which I am inextricably linked. Especially as sacrifice has been a key part of many ancient ceremonies like the Asvameda …and I knew this! And yet, setting aside the politics and gently removing the veneer of differences (his dislike of Muslims and my dislike for the disliking of whole communities of people) that separate us, we could have quite happily sat together and eaten some tamatar daal with bhaat … laughing and joking! But time, and my suspicion towards his persistent insistence that I stay the night in his ashram rather than returning to Bhubaneswar as planned, …stopped this from being possible. The girl that got killed by a Buddhist monk while staying at a temple in Thailand, was a very important player in maintaining my scepticism. And Dalrymple’s 22 June Sunday Times Magazine article on Vrindavan only confirmed how right my decision had been!

Your search for Balwinder Singh reminded me of the German tourist who turned up at Arundhati Roy’s mother’s house in Aiyemenem.

I think the characters I’d like to meet are the ‘seven flushes’ Mrs Puri, Dr Jaffrey and of course Balwinder Singh. Although, I don’t think I’d bother to try and find them … it would only spoil the pictures inside my head! But, if I had a time machine, I’d like to meet Tughluk and see what the exodus to Daulatabad was really like or dress up as a eunuch in the Mughal Court and keep my ears firmly to the ground … as long as that is, I can always come back again!

I hope you, at least vaguely, enjoyed my email. I enjoyed writing it. Although I didn’t realise it was going to be so long.

I’m going to have to go to sleep now, and I’m sure you have more vital things to do!

So Goodnight!

Take care

All the best (:-D


---summer, 1997

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Comments by other Members

Jibunnessa at 09:56 on 20 April 2003  Report this post
Guys, in 1996, I travelled by myself across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

This is the email I sent to Dominik Wujastyk (a great bloke, Sanskrit scholar and expert in the History and Interpretation of Ancient Indian Science - esp Medicine), where we chat mainly about my journey, but also refer to William Dalrymple's wonderful book 'City of Djinns' and his programme 'Stones of the Raj'.

I hope you find this both engaging and amusing at times.

Anyway, this has been submitted with a smidgeon of trepidation.

...So feedback, but don't brutalise :)

Richard Brown at 11:15 on 20 April 2003  Report this post
There's so much of great interest in this piece and, as Jibunessa suggests, there's a strong streak of subtle humour. Having visited the sub-continent many years ago I found the writing very evocative. It would, I think, certainly be worth editing from e-mail, stream-of-thought, mode into a possibly marketable travel article. I don't know how many Muslim females travel so extensively on their own but it sounds like a brave and rare thing to me - definitely worth reporting. All I would suggest, if the proposed piece is to be for a general readership, is the addition of more explication. Of course it's fine, in an e-mail to someone who knows the cultures well, to use indigenous languages but I would appreciate some on-going education!

Jibunnessa at 13:29 on 20 April 2003  Report this post
Yes, I agree that if this was in a different format then explanations would be crucial. In this case though, I really felt it important to be true to the email that I'd sent Dominik.

Would you like a glossary?

Glad you like it.

roger at 07:57 on 21 April 2003  Report this post
Oy,Jib, I do funny, you do deep & meaningful...let's keep it like that, shall we? (Don't like D&M people doing funny when I can't to D&M, it savages my ego.)

Seriously though, this was a really nice piece...lots of sounds, smells, and conjured pictures, all intertwined with a gentle sort of humour, the sort that I, being more of a whoopie cushion type, can't do.

Hate you!

Jibunnessa at 11:29 on 21 April 2003  Report this post
Whoopie cushion left on English teacher's chair ...aah, those were the days (misty-eyes, runny nose,...)!

Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the nice comments.

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