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The Thunderbolt Kid

I was introduced to Bill Bryson by my daughter when she brought home “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” from her school library. It was/is probably the most hilarious memoir I have read. I have since bought and gone on to read quite a few of his other books, each one as good, or even better, than the last. From ‘A Walk in the Woods’, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, ‘Down Under’, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and ‘Notes From A Big Country’ to ‘Notes From A Small Island’, which I am currently reading, Bryson’s particular brand of irreverent-but-at-the-same-time-serious writing/humour has had me in splits for many an hour.

Since I’ve not updated my blog for quite a few months, I thought I might as well share a few lines from the latest Bryson I am reading. These are lines from ‘Notes From A Small Island’ which, in 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, was chosen by voters in UK as the book that best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. The lines I am sharing have nothing to do with the main subject of the book, which is an account of his trip around Britain and his hilarious observations of the British people, their habits and their idiosyncrasies. It made me wish there was someone like him amongst us Mizos who could write about our own sometimes self-centred, self-righteous, sanctimonious society in his typical irreverent manner.

As I said, these lines have nothing to do with the subject of the book and, in fact, came in abruptly in the midst of his description of life in rural Britain. A sort of philosophical rambling, seemingly unrelated to the subject, but somehow blending into the narration. But I digress. So here goes:

The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy.

First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Did you know that each time your father ejaculated (and frankly he did it a lot) he produced roughly twenty-five million spermatozoa –enough to repopulate Britain every two days or so? For you to have been born, not only did you have to be among the few batches of sperm that had even a theoretical chance of prospering – in itself quite a long shot – but you then had to win a race against 24,999,999 or so other wriggling contenders, all rushing to swim the English Channel of your mother’s vagina in order to be the first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were. Being born was easily the most remarkable achievement of your whole life. And think: you could just as easily have been a flatworm.

Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. Soon you will cease to be once more. That you are able to sit right now in this never-to-be-repeated moment, reading this book, eating bon-bons, dreaming about hot sex with that scrumptious person from accounts, speculatively sniffing your armpits, doing whatever you are doing – just existing – is really wondrous beyond belief.

Third, you have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace and ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’ will never be number one again.

How can you not love this guy 🙂

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A Cremation in Tokyo

It took us about two hours to reach the crematorium in Ichikawa. The funeral service had almost ended by the time we reached. Our pastor had already performed the last rites when we entered the hall where the service was being held. We made it just in time for his final prayer after which we filed past the coffin as those gathered sang ‘Abide With Me’. His wife and young son had arrived for the funeral just a few hours earlier and the hall was filled with her wailing as his bewildered young son looked on.

Though I had expected just a few mourners from the Mizo/Zohnathlak community, there must have been about fifty or so mourners all dressed in black. Most of them were from the Burmese community with representatives from some NGOs dealing with refugees in Japan. He may have been all alone when he met his Maker last Saturday but he certainly was not alone on his last journey.

Next to the hall where the funeral service was held, across a corridor, was the electric crematorium. After the service, we were led to a big hall which was separated from the crematorium by a huge ceiling-to-floor glass wall from where one could see five identical steel doors looking very much like elevator doors which turned out to be the crematoriums. Our pastor led the small funeral procession consisting of his wife and son and close friends into the crematorium as we watched from behind the glass wall.

We watched as one of the steel doors opened at the press of a button and the coffin which had been placed on a trolley slowly moved inside. It was my first ever experience of a cremation and for some reason had expected some huge fire and brimstone kind of sight as the crematorium doors opened and the coffin was swallowed up. But it was nothing like that as the coffin slowly disappeared into what looked very much like an elevator. I half expected some passenger to emerge from the elevator-like doors as they were about to close. And, just like that, it was over.

Our group of mourners then trooped over to another part of the complex, to another hall which had typical Japanese-style long low tables where one had to sit cross-legged as well as a more conventional long table with chairs. We quickly filled the hall and commenced waiting for the cremation to be over so we could collect the ashes, or so I thought.

We were served typical Japanese oolan-cha (Japanese green tea) as we waited. A good and opportune time for a lengkhawm, I thought. But the time was used for the leaders of each community that had come together to stand up and say a ‘few words’ of condolence at the passing of a brother. There were words from the Zomi Christian Fellowship, the Burmese Fellowship, two other Fellowships (from Burma/Myanmar) and lastly, words of thanks from Pu Tawna on behalf of the Mizo Fellowship. In the event, with the lingua franca being mostly Burmese, except when his wife gave a very moving short speech in Mizo thanking everyone for being there, I had no idea of what was being said. But I felt myself being absorbed into a strange feeling of camaraderie, of being amongst brothers, of being one community.

After about an hour, we were informed that the cremation was over and we were escorted to still another hall where another ceremony awaited. The same trolley (for want of a better word) in which the coffin/body had been swallowed into the crematorium was now placed in the centre of the hall. In place of the coffin/body, there now remained only white bones with ashes all around. The hall, unexpectedly, smelled of burned wood – not unpleasant and not what I had expected, though I did not exactly know what I expected. In a typically Japanese ceremony (so I was told), two mourners with a pair of chopsticks each picked up a bone from the trolley and placed in an urn placed upon a table next to the trolley. We walked up to the trolley in pairs and, with the wooden chopsticks placed there for the purpose, solemnly picked up one of his bones and placed it into the urn.

It being my first experience of a cremation, I think I had expected something like a small mound of ashes, or that an urn or container with the ashes would be handed over to us. Coming up to the trolley with the white bones starkly visible and in contrast to the white ashes all around was a complete surprise for me. I think it dramatically brought into focus the fragility of what we call life. In almost the twinkle of an eye, a fully recognizable human body with its own unique face and features had become just a pile of brittle bones.

And so, a life once full of hope and dreams for the future ended in a faraway land.  He had dreamt of the day when he would be able to once again hold his wife and son whom he’d last seen when he was a six month old baby. They came, finally. But he was no longer able to hold them. The few hours that they were finally able to spend together was with him in a coffin, just a strange, pale, ashen face to a three year old son who will grow up never having known him. And, for his wife, an indescribable loss with only bittersweet memories remaining.

Back Home, For a Day

The Indigo flight was supposed to land at Imphal by around 9 am, and I greatly looked forward to having my morning meal at home and catching up with family and friends well before noon. But old Mr. Fog refused to loosen its grip on Delhi that morning and by the time we took off it was already past 1 pm.

To cut short details of trying to jack up an Indica car with a screwdriver to change a wheel which blew up about 5 minutes from Imphal airport even as the sun was already setting on the horizon, the arrival of good Samaritan-friends with whom I managed to hitch a ride, the startling sight (at least to me) of soldiers in full battle gear patrolling the highway on foot at regular intervals, it was already dark by the time we reached Churachandpur.

As we passed Tuibuong and drove into town, Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ came to mind:

The old hometown looks the same

As I step down from the car

And there to meet me is my mama and papa

…..Its good to touch the green, green grass of home

After so many years, I was back home.

As we drove up what we used to call Sielmat ‘lamtung’ (steep road), I could not but notice how a road which once seemed so steep during our childhood that to bicycle up it without stopping used to be a great achievement now seemed so ordinary and not at all steep. Compared to some of the roads where I occasionally jog in Tokyo, my old Sielmat lamtung seemed quite tame and the thought that I could probably jog up from the bottom to the village field without breaking a sweat crossed my mind 🙂

And so, just as 2008 was drawing to a close and after a gap of more than 6 years, I again set foot in the only part of the world that I can fully call home. That I never fully felt ‘at home’ in the real sense of the word during my too short stay there is another matter. Though seeing my parents, especially my mother, after more than two years was a real comfort, the visible presence of so many soldiers in full battle gear on the streets and the road from the airport to my hometown made it difficult for me to feel at ease and at home. Maybe I was there for too short a time, and maybe it was only me, but I sensed a general feeling of insecurity, a feeling or sense that something bad was about to happen at any time. Especially at night, in the absence of streetlights and, for that matter, electricity, which, I was told, came on alternate nights, that also till around 10 pm. Quite a contrast to a place like Tokyo where people take such things so much for granted that they probably do not even have the word for load-shedding in their language.

For those of us who left home at a time when the highways needed no patrolling, I guess the image of ‘home’ remains that of lazy, carefree summers when we’d fish and hunt with out home-made catapults to our hearts’ content and one could go anywhere at night without fear. Those days are just memories now. Even my short, two nights’ stay is just another memory now, as I sit here in faraway Tokyo trying to make some sense of the many conflicting thoughts and feelings that engulfed me during my short visit home.

Though I did not have the time to see places or meet old friends (except those who managed to spare the time to visit me at home), it was exhilarating to be able to breathe the clean, unpolluted air of home, of my beloved hills, to look up at night and realize that there are stars in the sky and that the moon does shine more brightly than in the city. Everything felt the same, unchanged, at a standstill.

For the one day I was there, it felt as if I had been transported back to the early 80s, before I left home. The same buildings, same lack of infrastructure, same lack of electricity, same dusty roads, same water problem, same cooking gas supply problem, same daily struggle for survival and, I suppose, even the same sermons, same periodical crusades, occasional revivals, same nightly church services, same annual conferences. It was all oddly comforting in a way but, at the same time, indicated the almost complete lack of general development and change in our society, community, church and state as a whole. Like a stagnant pool or a broken record repeating the same song over and over again.

Though I had no time for any detailed interaction with anyone, the overwhelming feeling I had from the few conversations I managed to have with a few friends and relatives was that of despondency, a sense of quiet desperation, of being trapped. But I must admit at the same time that they themselves probably had no such feelings because they have become so used to their situation. It was just a feeling I had, looking at them and their situation from my position as something of a casual visitor. Having had some experience in living amidst some of the most highly developed societies and economies as well as having seen and tasted to some extent some of the highest living and working conditions, the fact that they still managed to laugh and crack jokes at the slightest provocation and generally seemed content with life made me realize that there are some things in life that cannot be quantified and the yardstick by which we judge the quality of life is not the same everywhere.

I now live, at least for the next one or two years, in one of the most developed societies and arguably the most technologically advanced city in the world with all its attendant material comforts and facilities. But there are so many things that we miss on a daily, almost constant, basis. Carefree conversations and that incomparable feeling and contentment of being amongst real friends, for one. The special camaraderie and companionship that can only come from shared experiences and a common root and language, for another. These are just a few of the things that make life worth living and, in that context, life back home does not seem so bad and, in fact, much more worth it sometimes.

It was a sunny morning, the day I left. A last look at my brother and parents, my mother waving with tears in her eyes, another goodbye and last wave, and we were off. Except for the usual stop just after Bishenpur to water the roadside hedge-fence, we drove without stopping and reached the airport well in time. We drove past small towns and villages – all so familiar and still more or less looking exactly the same as they did all those years ago during my college days in Imphal when I would rush to catch the last bus to Churachandpur every Friday evening to spend the weekend with family and loved ones at home. The scores of security personnel at almost every curve on the road the evening I came home were conspicuously absent that morning. Maybe the early morning winter chill or it being the last day of 2008 had something to do with it, but the day seemed that much more better and brighter.

Dreaming in Hmar, Writing in English

Barkha Dutt, one of India’s best journalists and MD of NDTV once wrote that she speaks Hindi and English, but dreams in English. I basically speak English and Hmar but still dream in Hmar. My children also speak English and Hmar but they dream in English.

As human beings we all need to belong. As we grow up we learn and unconsciously imbibe values from our parents, friends and the society that we grow up in. The values and traits we imbibe as children remain with us for life. We may ultimately live in a society very much different from the one we grew up in, but the ideals and values imbibed as children remain with us. They are imprinted in our subconscious, for life, for better or for worse. This is the reason that we dream in the language that we dream in. Because our dreams reveal our real and true personality. We cannot control our dreams – they come unbidden and show us what we really are deep down inside.

We are defined by the language that we dream in because the language of our dreams is the basis of what or who we are. The new Zohnathlak generation, especially those who have grown up away from home (and there are quite a few now), dream in a language other than their mother-tongue. They may speak Hmar/Mizo or whatever language they use at home, but they now dream in an alien language. Most probably it is English, or maybe even Hindi for those who have grown up in places like Delhi.

Does this mean that our new generation, especially those who now dream in a foreign language, are less Hmar or Mizo or any of the communities that make up the greater Zohnathlak community? If so, what are the implications for our society? What exactly do we mean by being a Hmar or Mizo anyway? Is it solely the ability to speak the language? What exactly do some, especially in Mizoram, mean by classifying people as Mizo-1, Mizo-2 and so on? Is being Hmar or Mizo by blood enough? Considering the times we are now living in, with many of our young generation now living and working away from home, these are relevant questions that, I think, we will have to seriously ask ourselves sooner or later.     

That who we are as a person and a human being is shaped by the values and experiences imbibed during our formative childhood years from our parents, friends or society in general, is amply demonstrated by the world that our subconscious minds return to in our dreams. I have had the privilege of living and working in as many as three continents and more than half my life has been spent in societies as different as can be from the world I grew up in. But when I dream, I am mostly always back in the world of my childhood, with old friends many of whom I haven’t met for the past 10/20 years. Old loves and dreams from my youth and childhood remain ever present in my subconscious.

Physically, I may be living as far away as is possible from my society and home, but mentally and in my dreams I have never left home. That is why I have my doubts that my children will ever be Hmars in the same way that I am a Hmar. Because they dream in English, and the world of their dreams is so far removed from my world that I sometimes seriously doubt that I have a place in that world. Though I still think that I somehow still fit into their scheme of things, I know that the reality could be quite the opposite and I may have to brace myself for some shock in the future.

Just some stray thoughts running through my mind as I sit in front of my computer listening to Remkimi Cherput telling me about her ‘perkhuang zaitin thiam’ this Sunday evening.

Tokyo 30 March 2008  

Calvin & Hobbes

When I read the newspaper, the comics page is something that I never miss. Even my choice of a newspaper depends to a large extent on the comics that the paper carries. This is one reason I love the weekend papers because they carry more comics and cartoons. The more comics, the better. Peanuts, Garfield, B.C., Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, Blondie……. the list goes on and, on top, at least for me, stands Calvin and Hobbes – I just love this kid and his wild imagination. Bill Watterson, to me, is a true genius.

Knowing my love for Calvin, my son bought me a Calvin & Hobbes book from his school last week and it was the best gift I’ve received in a long time. It was so unexpected and totally out of the blue and such a pleasant surprise that I wanted to hug him there and then. But I managed to refrain myself because he’s a big boy now, taller than me, and at an age where getting hugged by his dad would be the last thing he wanted. Had he asked me for anything that I had the means or power to give at that moment, I would have happily given it to him. But then, he didn’t and simply said that he saw it at the book sale they are having in school and just bought it for me because he knew how much I love and enjoy ‘Calvin & Hobbes’. But then there’s an electric guitar he and his sister have been eying for some time and, who knows, this was one of their ways of softening me up for the kill! 🙂

The book has a forward written by Garry Trudeau which is so good that I just have to share extracts from it:

“….Watterson is the reporter who’s gotten it right; childhood as it actually is, with its constantly shifting frames of reference. Anyone who’s done time with a small child knows that reality can be highly situational. The utterance which an adult knows to be a ‘lie’ may well reflect a child’s deepest conviction, at least at the moment it pops out. Fantasy is so accessible, and it is joined with such force and frequency, that resentful parents like Calvin’s assume that they are being manipulated, when the truth is far more frightening: they don’t even exist. The child is both king and keeper of this realm, and he can be very choosey about the company he keeps.

Of course, this exclusivity only provokes many grown-ups into trying to regain the serendipity of youth for themselves, to, in effect, retrieve the irretrievable. A desperate few do things that later land them in the Betty Ford Center.

The rest of us, more sensibly, read Calvin and Hobbes….”

Trudeau is the author of ‘Doonesbury’ another of those long-running cartoons/comics that appear daily in many newspapers especially in the West. It is also one cartoon/comics that I never read, despite my love for the genre. For some reason, I just can’t ‘get’ the whole thing and simply skip it whenever and wherever I come across it in any newspaper.

Musings On Language and Food

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world – Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are two languages that I speak fluently (at least, I think I do) – English and my mother tongue, Hmar. I speak enough Hindi to make myself understood in office, and to get around any place where Hindi is understood. To my eternal shame, I don’t speak Meitei, except for a few words that enable me to eat and buy the bare essentials – even though I did my graduation from DM College in Imphal. In my defence I can only say that my roommate was Achet, an Ao Naga from Mokokchung, Nagaland and all the guys I used to hang out with in college were Nagas. Since Achet knew even less Meitei than me we would all converse in English. But, I am ashamed to say that by the time we graduated, Achet had picked up more Meitei than me. I was the only one stuck in something like a time warp – after my more than two years’ stay in Imphal, I never progressed beyond ‘Chak cha bara’ and ‘Si kaya ra?

I remember an incident when I went looking for eggs to buy. Those were the days when PLA and PREPAK had just started making their presence felt and all shops would close down along with the sun. Since it was already dark all the ‘vai/mayang’ shops had long closed down and the only shop open was a Meitei shop. It was a provision shop also selling fresh vegetables and looked like a shop that would stock eggs. I entered and looked around. Either the shop didn’t sell eggs, or they were kept well out of sight because I could not spot any eggs that would have enabled me to point to them and say in my perfect Meitei, ‘Si kaya ra?’ Since I didn’t know the word for eggs in Meitei, I could not even ask for them. I felt too ashamed to ask ‘Anda lei bara?’ because I was so obviously a local, so I bought a kilo of potatoes and told my roommate that they didn’t have eggs. I later on learned the word for eggs in Meitei, which I have never forgotten. I returned to the shop a few days later and with my newfound knowledge, asked for eggs. They appeared magically from beneath the counter and we could finally make omelets.

Having matriculated from JN Model School, Churachandpur, I could also speak Paite quite fluently by the time we were in Class 10. I still more or less fully understand Paite, but it has been more than 20-25 years since I last used the dialect, and I am now unable to use it like I used to. Like anyone else who has grown up in Churachandpur, I can also understand most of the dialects spoken by the greater ‘Zohnathlak’ community such as Vaiphei, Thado-Kuki, Gangte, etc. Being a Darngawn and having been exposed to Lusei/Mizo, also known as ‘Darngawn-Sâptong’, since childhood, I read, enjoy and fully understand any novel, book, newspaper, or magazine in Mizo. But I find myself tongue-tied and somehow unable (or unwilling?) to actually speak in Lusei/Mizo, even though I have absolutely no problem in understanding the language. Having spent more than three years each in Morocco, Italy and Mozambique, I have also picked up a smattering of French, Italian and Portuguese – enough to at least tell the difference when someone speaks in any of these languages.

There are people who pick up and speak a language within a few months. Because I am most certainly not one of them, I admire and envy this capacity of theirs to absorb and speak a new language within no time. I greatly admire multi-linguists – people who can switch from one language to another with effortless ease. The multi-linguists I have known have all been extroverts, generally above average in intelligence, and good conversationalists. They are usually the talkative type, innately curious by nature and easily make friends. As an introvert and someone who rarely opens his mouth unless absolutely necessary or unavoidable, I suppose whether I am a multi-linguist or not would hardly make any difference!

The best way to really understand and appreciate any culture is to first learn its language. Language is an intrinsic part of culture and is the medium through which all the characteristics, traits and ethos of a people or society find expression. We are usually more inclined to learn the language of a people or society we admire. Which probably explains why most of the drunks during my childhood, especially the really drunk ones, used to speak in gibberish, which was supposed to be ‘English’.

Then there are societies and people like the French who only speak their language and look on other languages with disdain. Things may have changed since August 1989 when I first stepped foot in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, Paris, enroute to Morocco as a naïve, newly married young man. The Air India flight touched down in Paris late, as usual, long after most of the airlines had closed their counters. We were supposed to catch a connecting flight the next morning and had been booked into some hotel by Air India. By the time we got down from the plane and collected our baggage, the Air India counter had closed and most of our co-passengers had left.

Stranded and all alone in a strange city with a new wife, apart from it being the first time we were traveling abroad, I roamed around the big terminal looking for some counter or anyone speaking English whom I could ask for assistance in getting to whichever hotel we were booked so we could at least rest for the next few hours. I spoke to a few well-groomed Frenchmen none of whom spoke English, or maybe refused to speak English.

Growing up in a remote corner of India where our exposure to the wider world, especially the West, was through the few English movies that occasionally showed in the one cinema hall in town, or the magazines and newspapers that usually arrived a few days late to the only news agent in town. In those days even just going to the cinema was considered as something only ‘bad’ boys and girls did, and, apart from saving the coins and occasional one rupee notes from our pocket money to be able to afford the Rs. 1.50 ‘middle’ tickets, one went at the risk of being found out. Apart from the ‘middle’ class tickets being basically the only tickets we could afford, there was the question of buying some snacks during the intervals which also cost as much as the tickets. The choice was usually between sitting in the ‘middle’ class and having some chanas during the interval or sitting in the ‘balcony’ seats without any chana. From the perspective and the situation and the time we grew up in, we thought that all Westerners spoke English. Even now, after having lived in non-English speaking countries for several years, it still feels somewhat strange and surreal to find Westerners, especially whites/Europeans, unable to speak English at all.

Perhaps those Frenchmen really did not understand English, but I had the feeling that they fully understood what I was saying. The only reply I received to all my pleas for some information and assistance was in French. The only French I knew at that time was the numbers 1 to 10 and ‘Comment allez-vous?which, obviously, were not of much help. Coming from a society where people go out of the way to try and help strangers, the cold and aloof attitude of the French people (at least the ones I met that night) was a real shocker. After going round the terminal a few more times and unable to find anyone speaking English, we ultimately spent the night sleeping in the airport lounge with our suitcases for pillows.

I know that the few people I met that night do not in any way represent Paris or France (they probably were just fellow travelers passing through), but my impression of Paris and its inhabitants remains that of a cold, unwelcoming and pretentious city. We passed through Paris three more times during our three years’ posting in Morocco. But they were only to catch the next flight either to Rabat or to Delhi and we never got to see anything of Paris. Though I can say that we saw the Eiffel Tower, but from a distance, for about five or ten minutes, from the window of the airport shuttle bus that we had to take from Orly to CDG to catch our connecting flight. Also, we did not have to sleep in the terminal the next time we had to spend a night before our next flight. Fully prepared and properly briefed, we managed to find our way to our hotel, which turned out to be the Paris Hilton. I suppose it was some compensation for our last botched overnight stay in Paris – and I can say that I have stayed at the Paris Hilton.

It was also the first time I tried sushi – I still remember the unexpected taste of raw fish on my tongue as I looked around for ways to unobtrusively spit it out. With memories of our somewhat humiliating sleepover in the CDG terminal in mind and finding no suitable way to spit it out without offending others in the restaurant, I somehow managed to swallow it. Though they are not on my list of favorites, I have since eaten more sushi and come to like or at least tolerate the taste. The first time I ate raw jellyfish at a Korean friend’s house in Maputo over dinner, I remembered my first sushi. But having become a little bit wiser to the ways of the world and strange foods, I knew what to expect and even had more helpings as it was prepared with a lot of Korean spices and red chilli powder, which gave it a somewhat kimchi-like appearance, and the raw fish smell was suitably camouflaged by the spices.

The worst food I have tasted has to be the raw oyster (supposed to be good for the libido, according to Italians) at a friend’s New Year party in Milan. The fresh lemon juice that was supposed to hide the extremely strong raw fish smell and taste only seemed to make it worse and I can say with all certainty that it was the first and last time I will ever eat raw oyster again. Whether it did any good to my libido, I don’t know. Those were the days before Viagra and I’m sure quite a few Italians must still be thanking Pfizer.

 

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