Archive for March, 2012

Some links

March 10, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



On Feb 23, N.P. Ashley, who teaches English Literature in Delhi University, wrote: ‘ I found your experiential account of the Sikh Riots of 1984
an extremely powerful and more importantly, tellingly effective piece
in documenting communal carnage. As a Malayalee, I do know that the
tales of the 1984 carnage, which give us several insights into the DNA
of mob terror, are not very well known in Kerala. A person with a
modest background of inclusivist activism, I translate works
pertaining to the field as part of engaging with communalism. Hence I
translated your article into Malayalam and one of the leading
newspapers in Kerala is keen to publish it in its sunday special.’

I was glad to give Ashley my permission to proceed and the article was published a couple of days ago in one of Kerala’s most important newspapers, Kerala Kaumudi.

On Feb 8 Ashley wrote:

‘Please find below the link to the Kerala Kaumudi Newspaper’s weekend.
The second and third pages have the article with your photo.
This paper is one of the most influential papers of Kerala. As they gave my phone numbers I got a lot of calls/messages expressing people’s deep experience of reading this piece. Many of them were very moved by the narrative (The editor also said he got a lot of calls!)
I am glad I did this translation and I must express my immense sense of gratitude for your kind consent, which made this publication possible. Thanks a lot.’

From Chicago Mary McKay, who has many connections with the city’s libraries, wrote that she had sent my post on Kabul’s libraries  ‘to our e-newsletter editors who included it this week. (This is the newsletter that goes to 50,000+ librarians.) Here’s the link to the actual newsletter, and screenshot is below:


From Baltimore Capt. Robert McCabe sends this link to an interview in the Asian WSJ:

The Moment Amitav Ghosh on How a Novelist Recreates History – Scene Asia – WSJ


Rilke’s Castle

March 8, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



One morning, in Ljubljana, I wake and remember a line: ‘To stay is to be nowhere …’


Between southern Slovenia and eastern Italy lie the Dinaric Alps and a region (Kras) that has lent its name to a kind of rock: Karst, which is typically associated with chalky soils and underground limestone caves.

The road from Ljubljana to the Adriatic Sea winds through sleepy villages













with cozy restaurants












that serve fresh local meat and produce: mushroom soup












and goulash of wild boar, with gnocchi.














The border, barely noticeable, skims by and the road dips down to the edge of the Adriatic Sea before rising towards a castle,






Duino, forever enchanted by Rilke’s Elegies.


Maybe what’s left for us is a tree on a hillside we can look at

   day after day, one of yesterday’s streets,

            and the perverse affection of a habit

that liked us so much it never let go.






A path, named after Rilke,











climbs through the forest
















to the cliff






he used to walk along every day







– in fair weather and foul, says Albert Kos, a Slovenian lover of literature.















It seems right that I am there with Matthias Göritz,









a young German poet and novelist: for him, as for me, this is a mystic mountain, sacred to Rilke’s memory.







This is the time for what can be said. Here

 is its country. Speak and testify…



In one direction the coast stretches towards Trieste,












and in the other, towards Venice.













I think about the magic that allows verses, written in this place,














to speak their way directly into the hearts of poets half a continent away, in Bengal. I think of Buddhadeb Bose’s marvelous translations, taut and resonant; I think of Shakti Chattopadhyaya’s renditions, wild and  hypnotic.

I think of Nirmal in The Hungry Tide  for whom the Duino Elegies are a scripture, a personal anthem that make this






rhyme with this:







Look, we don’t love like flowers

with only one season behind us; when we love,

a sap older than memory rises in our arms. O girl,

it’s like this: inside us we haven’t loved just some one

in the future, but a fermenting tribe; not just one

child, but fathers, cradled inside us like ruins

of mountains, the dry riverbed

of former mothers, yes, and all that

soundless landscape under its clouded

or clear destiny – girl, all this came before you.


(Trans. A. Poulin Jr.: Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus).


Ljubljana: Lyric City

March 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)





Among the younger generation of Slovenian poets, Aleš Šteger






is one of the best-known.









His recent collection The Book of Things† was translated into English by Brian Henry and won a PEN prize for the best translated book of poetry in 2011 in the United States.


In Hayrack he writes, memorably:


“Slovenian heroes sacrificed their lives

So their sons could freely dry

The contents of their skulls

In the Alpine breeze of the hayrack’s rungs

The vast meadows are their souls.

Cows chew and shit them

And out of cow shit their souls grow

Still more beautiful and succulent.Ӧ


According to Aleš, Slovenia is a country that derives its sense of identity from poetry. The main square






in Ljubljana, the capital, is named after the country’s national poet, France Prešeren.




In this sculpture the poet is courting his Muse.















Slovenian poetry, Aleš says, is more lyric than epic (the latter being the preference of some other Balkan countries – Serbia, for instance).






Ljubljana is certainly a city to inspire lyricism.









It has a charming Opera House,












picturesque streets,












quaint houses,














a splendid fort on a hill,

















imposing university buildings,













a gracious Philarmonic Academy,















and the entrance to its Parliament celebrates the human body with a frankness that would be inconceivable in New Delhi or Washington.








The city’s appeal being what it is, it’s difficult to fathom why this former mayor of Ljubljana







looks so disconsolate (perhaps he was the sole epic poet in this city of lyricists?).








Did Aleš have him in mind, I wonder, when he wrote:

“Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide

Because of one misplaced sheet?

The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?


“The history students who bit the professor’s neck in an exam

Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?ӧ



But even an epic poet would be tempted to flirt with the lyric muse, I suspect, if he took a stroll along the Ljubljanica River,















where unexpected installations







festoon the alleyways










and streetside vendors assemble installations that illustrate  their country’s history through collections of coffee pots








– Turkish cezves rubbing shoulders with Italian espresso-makers.






And the flirtation with lyricisim might well end in wedlock if the poet found his way to a riverside restaurant



that serves a superb soup of Slovenian mushrooms.










Aleš’s wife, Maja Petrovic-Šteger,







who has studied and taught anthropology at Cambridge, tells me that Slovenia’s other passion, almost on par with poetry, is mushrooms. Her mother, she says, can spot a mushroom from her car while speeding down an expressway.








The soup was good enough to remind me of another high point in my own mushroom-sampling career, which was in a village called Xizhou







in Yunnan, China,





where on market days











local mushroom collectors offer an astonishing assortment of  mushrooms, freshly gathered from the surrounding forests (which contain more varieties of oak than anywhere else on earth).















In a matter of minutes the little eateries around the market















transform the mushrooms












into lyric verses.
















But what Ljubljana yields to Xizhou in the matter of mushrooms, it regains through its proximity to the sea, being only an hour from the Mediterranean













– which is what makes it possible for Boris















to serve a grilled branzino
















so fresh that your mouth could be the net that caught it.

And then it turns out that Aleš is the founder of a festival called Days of Poetry and Wine. He orders a bottle of Rebula white from Goriska Brda and when:

“What was stored in safety escaped.

It swooshed down the throat like emptiness into the bottle.Ӥ






Who knew that wines like this, steely, with just a hint of frosty fruit, were made in Goriska Brda?









The meal ends with a confection that takes me back to Ghazipur and Sea of Poppies: poppyseed cake, apparently a specialty of this part of Slovenia.








How many of Slovenia’s lyrical verses were sprouted from poppyseeds, I wonder?


I walk away with a renewed understanding of the difference between poets and novelists: no one will ever start a festival called Days of Prose and Wine.





† Boa Editions Ltd., Rochester, New York, 2010.

Hayrack, The Book of Things, p. 67.

ß Coat, The Book of Things, p. 48.

§ Cork, The Book of Things, p. 63.



Zorastrian Kabul

March 5, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (0)



Shernaz Italia,




who is, along with Freny Khodaiji, one of the producers of the film of The Hungry Tide writes:


Apropos your post dated March 3rd Mountains and Riverfront:

Navroze is indeed celebrated in Afghanistan today, the amazing thing is that they don’t quite know why or what the origin of these celebrations are!  Other than in Kabul, there are still around 9 Zoroastrians families living in Afghanistan in the province of Balkh. Their physical and facial features are of the region. They hide their identity by having two names – one local and one Zoroastrian, they wear the local garb, speak the local language, yet retain their Zoroastrian identity. A fire in the hearth is also the holy flame! The celebration of Navroze is an affirmation that the Zoroastrian presence was so strong in the past that a major festival is still celebrated as a national one. Not only was the presence strong, as you will see below, most historians believe that Zarathustra died there; some also believe that he was born there. The following (most parts taken of the net) is a brief history of the Zoroastrian presence in Afghanistan:

A major part of Northern Afghanistan was under the Zoroastrian influence during the middle period of Aryan history – as the Aryans moved west from Airyana Vaeja towards present day Iran – Bakhdhi (Balkh as its is known today) became the principle kingdom of the Aryan confederation of kingdoms called Airan, and the city of Balkh was its capital. As the seat of Aryan rule moved westward to what is the Iranian province of Khorasan today, Balkh became part of greater Khorasan and remained an important regional capital as well as a cultural and trading center

According to Firdausi’s Shahnameh, it was during this middle period of Aryan history that Zarathustra came to the kingdom of Bakhdhi. According to some accounts, Zarathustra made Balkh his home after King Vishtasp of Bakhdhi became a patron king of Zoroastrianism. By these accounts Zarathustra also died in Balkh at the hands of a Turanian invader. Some authors conclude that in addition to Bakhdhi / Balkh being one of the areas of Zarathustra’s ministry, that he was also born in Bakhdhi / Balkh. Today, the site of the kingdom and its ancient city is called Balkh, and the once mighty kingdom has been reduced to the fairly small province in Afghanistan. Balkh’s provincial capital is now Mazar-e Sharif, a city some twenty kilometers east of Balkh city.

The Naubahar / No Gombad ruins located just south of the city of Balkh are variously described as being those of a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a fire temple that was converted into a Buddhist temple and then into a mosque. ??Various Islamic authors such as twelfth and thirteenth century CE Islamic authors, Yaqut Ibn-Abdullah (al-Rumi) and Shams Ibn-Khallikan, note that the Naubahar structure was a Zoroastrian temple. An earlier tenth century CE author, al-Masoudi, adds in Muruuju dh Dhabab that Barmak, the ancestor of the renowned Barmaki (also Barmakiyan) family was a Magian (magi, Zoroastrian priests – a name that Islamic authors gave Zoroastrians) and high priest of great fire-temple at Naubahar.

Cheshm-e-Shafa. The City of Infidels

In the spring of 2008 French and Afghan archaeologists announced that they had uncovered the ruins of a vast, hither-to unknown, ancient city at Cheshm-e-Shafa, the City of Infidels, some 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the ruins of Balkh fortress. They found centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds from the recent civil war on Cheshm-e-Shafa’s wind-swept mountainside.

The name, City of Infidels, suggests the locals knew that this was once an important Zoroastrian city. The team uncovered a 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple dating back to around the 6th century BCE. An Afghan working at the excavation was anxious that media coverage could bring the unwanted attention of extremists to the site.

In the predominantly Tajik northern Afghan province of Baghlan, about 32 km (20 miles) on the road to Mazar-e-Sharif, are the ruins of the Atashkadeh-ye Sorkh Kowtal a 1st century Zoroastrian fire temple believed to have been built by the Kushan emperor Kaniska whose statue was found within the temple. ?The ruins have since been plundered, statues stored in a museum smashed by the Taliban, and artifacts looted. French conservationists have pieced a statue of the king together.

Built on the top and side of a hill, the temple complex would have been an imposing site, before its destruction, towering over the vast valley plains below. It was accessed by a long flight of steps leading to a stairwell, above which was a monumental stairway some fifty five meters high, rising in four flights, flanked by four terraces, to the temple on top of the hill. ??The stairs led to a temple containing an 11m. X 11m sanctuary – a cellar – in which there was a platform flanked by four columns, and on which rested a fire altar.


Mountaintops and Riverfront, Kabul

March 3, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (8)




Kabul is a city of dramatic vistas.




These shots were taken from the summit






of a hill called Bibi Mahro, which is at the centre of the city.

The hill is topped by a forlorn swimming pool














which was built by the Soviets, during the war.













At its feet, like tribute to a latter-day Ozymandias, lie the decaying bones of












of  once-fearsome armoured vehicles,


The hill is also a park, and I was told that during Nauroze thousands of families gather there to celebrate the festival.

It is comforting to think that this city, which has buried the traces of so many past civilizations, still celebrates a tradition that goes back to Zarathustra and beyond.


Even in winter many people come here to walk their dogs. This one is a special fighting dog,






which is why its ears have been cropped so short.

Dog-fighting is a lucrative business in Kabul, and the fights draw men from all walks of life: warlords are said to be among the most enthusiastic spectators. The fights are held every Friday and some people win (and lose) fortunes betting on dogs. This dog has won several thousand Afghanis for its owner.






The Kabul River is the city’s lifeline and runs through the city’s centre. On one of its banks sits a market








that is perhaps the most striking work of architecture in Kabul.








It is known as the Timurshahi,






after the maqbara (mausoleum) of Timur Shah, which is also on the river.








Nearby is Pul-e-Bagh Umumi, which is famous for its pavement bookstalls.















A little further on
















is the lively Murad Khane neighbourhood,













so called because it was given as a grant to Murad Khan, a leader of the Kizzilbash














who are a community of Uzbeg Shias.
















There are many blacksmith’s shops














festooned with freshly-forged wares.















It is an area of narrow doorways

















and sharply angled alleys.
















One of the alleys houses the Fairoz Koh Family Health Center.

















The clinic, which is supported by  Canadian and US  aid agencies, treats several hundred patients every month but is still unable to provide treatment to everyone who needs it.















The clinic is linked to Turquoise Mountain Arts which has restored many houses














in this neighbourhood.













It also runs a school that teaches ceramics












and other crafts to young Afghans.













A selection of in-house crafts is on sale in the organization’s showroom.

























Back at the Pul-e-Bagh Umumi is the Spinzar Hotel.
















The Restaurant Jaam is inside.























It serves excellent Kabuli pulao,










Shaami kababs,












awshak (vegetable dumplings),












mantu (meat and onion dumplings),












and a delicious cabbage relish called ‘karam’.












The host’, whose name is Roila, has spent years working in India (in Karnal).




When he tells you his food is the best in Kabul you do not feel inclined to doubt it.




Kabul, the National Gallery of Art

March 1, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (2)



The National Gallery in Kabul doesn’t have many visitors



especially in winter, when the unheated galleries are bitterly cold.














But the building, which is overlooked by one of Kabul’s many hills, is a fine one















and has been restored by the Greek government as a national gift to the people of Afghanistan.












The staff is small but its members have tended the galleries diligently, against great odds.













The galleries are each dedicated to an Afghan artist, most of them from the first half of the twentieth century. Ghulam Mohammad Menangi is one of the artists whose work is on display; he died in 1935. According to the curators he was one of the first Afghans to paint in the Western style. Evidently he took this mission rather literally for even his subjects were European – many of the paintings on show are of European cities and landscapes. But there is an interesting portrait of Habibullah Khan (the erstwhile owner of the palace that has been turned into the National Archives [as described in an earlier post]).













The painter Abdul Gafoor Breshna painted Afghan landscapes.












There are some striking watercolours by Karim Shah Khan (like several other Afghan artists, he was also a musician and composer).













There is a fine self-portrait by Qurban Ali.















One of the galleries











features interesting













portraits of Afghans.








Sobra Rahmouni, who is  a painter herself, is the Deputy Director of the National Gallery and has worked there for 27 years.



I learnt that the Taliban had destroyed two hundred and ten of the Gallery’s paintings. But the staff succeeded in concealing many of the Gallery’s artworks which is how some rather unexpected paintings managed to survive, like this one.














Despite the mass destruction of paintings, the Gallery remained open during te Taliban years. The staff continued to come to work although only a few inocuous flower and landscape paintings remained on display.


One of the few works in a contemporary idiom is by Tukhi, an Afghan artist who is now living in India. It was perhaps the single most memorable work in the gallery.
















One of the rooms is dedicated entirely to past rulers,

















including President Najibullah.














Most of the paintings however, were of the last ruling family, including this one featuring Nadir Shah (who was born in Dehra Dun).














Here, as in many other places I visted in Kabul, a nostalgia for the monarchy was clearly in evidence. I was told that this nostalgia was quite widespread in the country during the warlord years. It is odd but true that during their rise to power the Taliban too professed to be keen on a restoration of the monarchy (Emirate). There are some who say that one of the reasons why people did not resist the Taliban as vigorously as they might have is because it was widely believed that they did indeed intend to restore the monarchy. It was only after they had seized power that it became clear that their monarch was to be none other than Mullah Omar.




ucuz ukash