Category Archives: Travel & Experiences

A family trek in Ladakh: 4 days of wilderness, solitude and bonding

“Out of your comfort zone”

These were the words that stood out for me when Rikzin briefed us an evening before our trek. We were to walk about 45 kms over 4 days, cross a pass at 15000 ft (4570m) above mean sea level climbing up from 11,800 ft (3200m) and we were to descend all of those 3,500 ft in a single day! But none of these numbers featured in that briefing we got on. We were, instead, taken through the mechanics, the process. What we would carry into our bag packs: water, packed lunch, sun screen, cap, etc and sandals for river crossings. What the campsite would be like: tents, sleeping bags, kitchen amenities, how we would shit… The only numbers we got, and we held on to these closely, was how many hours we would walk: 3-4 hours on day 1, 5-6 hours on days 2 and 3, and maybe 7+ hours on day 4 on the descent. We listened in rapt attention, especially the kids (aged 14, 14, 11, and 10). I remember thinking this was going to be a challenge. I remember feeling a flutter of excitement in my belly! In all of my 42 years on this planet, I had never gone camping and slept in a tent before and I felt every bit as excited as I had been on my first airplane ride or my first roller coaster experience!

What followed simply blew my mind. This had been the most physically arduous and mentally challenging experience of my life. And yet, at the end of each day, I felt a sense of calm as if I was destined to achieve. No matter how much I struggled while walking, I had not an iota of self doubt left at the end of each day’s journey. I discovered that the mountains and the unique sense of solitude and peace that nature offers, is empowering and transformative in a way that modern ‘world travel’, with its kaleidoscope of sensory experiences, cannot be.

Day 1: Stepping over stones, learning to breathe

We drove to Stok village in two slightly beat-up Maruti Suzuki Omnis. Right off the bat, the kids decided to be their own gang, riding in one car while the adults were assigned to the other. At the starting point of our trek, the sight of the 20-odd mountain horses being loaded with stuff, was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t realized what a massive logistical exercise it is, taking a group of city folks into the mountains! The sun beat down quite harshly on us that day and we sat around a joked, waiting for permits to be issued and the loading to finish. Suhani and Aadyaa, our youngest duo, put up an impromptu performance of a rap number they had been composing the past couple of days while we drove all the way to Pangong Tso Lake and back. Srijaa and Udai, the older kids, obliged and we have a few funky posed pre-trek shots from these moments.

We had a late start, mostly because our travel companions showed up late at the starting point, and it was very hot as we walked up along the Stok river past village homes and quaint home stays. The older kids set a robust pace, while we took our own time, enjoying the gradual fading away of human habitat and taking in the spectacular beauty before us. The walk involved stepping over large stones alongside gurgling water and though the climb was gentle, it was taxing on the ankles and knees. My pace dropped as we walked and the younger kids went ahead of us, accompanied by Govindji who was the man in charge on this trek. After two hours of walking, I started to struggle in earnest and it took effort to keep the breath steady and handle the harsh sun and dehydration. Yet, almost before we knew it, we hit the campsite at Changma and saw that much of it was already set up! The children had already reached and were busy with popcorn. Soon they were at the river, splashing about in the water and playing with Wilde, the dog from Stok village who had accompanied us all the way here. We also walked over and introduced ourselves to other campers nearby and befriended Adrian, a South African teacher who was traveling with schoolchildren from Jakarta. A long discussion on trekking in the Himalayas and the experience of working with local communities ensued. In a separate chat, Govindji lamented the lack of government infrastructure for trekkers.

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Ladakh’s green valleys strike a sharp contrast in its brown landscape and we enjoyed the experience of walking out of one into the brown-ness beyond

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The flora alongside the river and the path that cut through the topsy turvy stones

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Heading into the gorge

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One step before the other!

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Doggedness is all you need here…and when you are literally being encouraged by a dog friend, it’s a new kind of fun!

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Pen and ink sketch of the campsite.Wherever I could, I doodled and sketched, and maintained a diary through the trek. Those entries have helped me immensely in reconstructing the trek for this post.

 

The campsites were made as comfortable as possible by the organizing team at Ladakh Sarai. The first to be set up were kitchen and dining tents, then two toilet tents that essentially offered some privacy and the option of a metal seat over a hole in the ground! A special mention for the excellent quality of food and the thoughtful preparations made by Chef Norbu, whose talent at cooking with minimal resources was surpassed only by his dazzling smile and affection.

After a good meal (mutton, dal, rice, vegetables, and an exotic chocolate-based dessert! wow!) and some time spent by the bonfire, we prepared for the night and zipped ourselves into the tents. The kids decided to sleep in one tent and seemed quite comfortable and cozy inside but for me, the first night was an adventure that involved grappling with a sleeping bag, fighting off claustrophobia and the fear of having to go out into the cold and pee!

Day 2: Walking over ice, gaining confidence

Even so, the next morning dawned bright and fresh, but not super early. We got ready quickly, breakfasted and packed to leave. The children were sent out onto the trail 30 minutes before us. Govindji had briefed them well and all four of them were to walk in line with the older ones forming the edges and the younger ones in the centre. He took them to where the trail began and sent them off and that enduring image of them setting out on their own, excited and confident an thick-as-thieves, is imprinted in my mind as one of the best memories of the trip.

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Govindji got back and packed us off too, then moved on to the arduous job of winding up the camp and sending the horses onto the next campsite. The four of us- Rahul, Rishi, Shubha and me- walked to the trailhead and stood there gaping at the sheer climb ahead of us. Believe me, it was a path fit for mountain goats, but we braved that first climb by channeling all our learning from Day 1, pacing ourselves out much better, breathing evenly and most importantly, by discarding the idea of failure. After going over the first pass, we rejoined the path alongside the Stok river and from then on the climb was more steady, more scenic. We found ourselves in a narrow gorge, the jagged form of the mountain seemed to towers over us and almost close in on us, framing a patch of bright blue sky.

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Small victories, great joys!

After maybe 90 minutes of walking, we spotted the children ahead, bright colourful dots arranged in a neat row at the edge of a sheet of glacial ice! The ice beckoned us and though the kids were gone by the time we got there, our energies were revived by the excitement of walking over ice. Shortly afterward, we reached a river crossing and found the kids waiting for us there, eating their packed lunch. From this point, those intending to scale Stok Kangri took one path towards base camp, while we took another path that climbed higher and higher on the edge of a mountain that overlooked the frozen parts of the river, many hundred feet below.

This bit of the trek was difficult too, demanding a sure footing and strong sense of balance. At one point, we were climbing up on all fours. Once again, the children did remarkably well and I was definitely the straggler. But by this time, I didn’t care. I was starting to get the hang of this.

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We reached an extremely windy campsite. Everything was threatening to fly away and the team was struggling to set it up. Our kids had been smart and ensconced themselves inside the cozy and warm kitchen tent, where they helped out by peeling onion and garlic and cutting vegetables in industrial quantities. Learning from Day 1, we all ate the delectable pulao that cook rustled and then hung around the dining tent and wherever else we could find respite from the winds. The kids huddled inside their tent from where sounds of talking, giggling and eventually singing emerged!

[The children’s] chirpy voices, sometimes in conversation and other times in song, served as a fitful background score for a brief rest. Rahul napped while I read some, but the tent was too warm and eventually we have found refuge in the dining tent, sheltered from the howling wind which is literally sweeping our things away!

Diary entry, 16 June, 2018

The afternoon was considerably brightened by the surprise arrival of Rikzin, who had caught up with us and would be with us for the remaining part of the trek. The other bright spot was the baby marmot that emerged from his subterranean home from time to time to peer at us in frank curiosity. Out there on the hillside opposite us, the camp staff helped me train my binoculars on a marmot pair cavorting around and sunning themselves.

By sunset, the exhaustion of the day and the substantially higher altitude had begun to take a toll. The cure for crankiness, headaches and general despondency was apparently hot and peppery garlic soup, which Govindji gently urged the children to drink. Dinner was early and delicious, this time with chicken, dal and vegetables followed by a friend banana and cream dessert!

We had walked a lot more, gained considerable in elevation and I had not rested in the afternoon; so the night was spent negotiating a slightly better relationship with my sleeping bag and sleeping a little bit better. And also losing the fear of visiting the toilet in pitch darkness!

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The starkness of this campsite was beautiful, but also harsh

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Kitchen elves!

Day 3: Scaling Matho-La, accepting solitude

We woke up to a teen birthday (Srijaa’s) and the day started with wishes and hugs, and bonhomie over tea and breakfast! Aadyaa decided to walk with us instead of going ahead with the children. She had been a bit more affected by the altitude and the cold. Rikzin set the older kids off on a brisk pace and we went back along the partially frozen river. This was a day of spectacular views, mostly uncaptured on camera because of the arduousness of the climb. As we pushed toward the Matho La Pass, oxygen levels dropped and it became harder to walk.

It was a morning in which I found myself retreating into myself. The solitary and silent walk set off a train of introspection that had me thinking deeply about my goals in life, and the meaning and impact of ambition on myself and my loved ones. I found that while Rahul and my dearest friends were in plain sight, some ahead and some behind me, what really mattered was my own dogged determination to plant one foot before the other. I also felt a lot of my anxiety about my PhD leaving me. Working full time and pursuing a PhD program has meant that I am constantly worrying about not doing enough, being distracted and falling behind. But out there on the stark mountainside, I realized the only thing that mattered was to keep moving ahead. I felt light in mind, even as my trudge became slower and heavier, my breathing more laboured.

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Colours and texture that are imprinted in my soul

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An unending shifting landscape of texture and form

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Getting closer!

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Undeterred

Reaching Matho La pass was not just an endorsement of our endurance. We were treated with an enchanting view of the snow peaked mountains on the horizon and between us and that range of peaks lay a green valley dotted with flowers and all manner of plants, with the grazing dzo scattered here and there! The entire group was enchanted and relaxed. We sat in clusters snacking and chatting. We laughed and hugged. We clicked pictures and we strolled and ambled till we reached our campsite, the prettiest one yet.

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thumb_IMG_8576_1024thumb_IMG_8574_1024thumb_IMG_8573_1024In the camp, a leisurely afternoon was spent ambling by the river (and some us actually managed to dip in those icy waters), reading, playing cards and story cubes (a story building game) and working on puzzles. The camp took time to set up as the horses reached late, offering us an opportunity to enjoy the grassy glade we found ourselves in, the prettiest campsite of all!

Rahul and me waited it out sitting on a rock and watching, as the crew set ip camp. Particularly interesting was the mind who minded the horses.. His rugged and wind-worn features and his slight build seemed typical of most ‘horse men’ we encountered in Ladakh. He whistled and hummed as he wound up the saddled and other paraphernalia, occasionally changing tone to call out the horses who were grazing nearby. There were certain sounds to send them away and calls to calm them down, and maybe others that we could not understand.

Diary entry, 17th June

The highlight of the evening was the feast to celebrate Srijaa’s birthday. Norbu’s phenomenal talent was unveiled to us as he awed us with a carrot cake with chocolate topping, mutton momos, pizzas with a do-your-own-topping option, noodles and chilli paneer, all on a regular LPG gas stove! How we ate that night! And how we appreciated the heat from the bonfire, made of dzo dung, before we settled into our tents for the coldest night of all.

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Sleeping at 14000 ft (4270m) was an interesting experience and I dealt with my tent issues by simply spending an hour in the middle of the night reading on my Kindle while Rahul snored, instead of pestering him about my sleeplessness and discomfort as I had done the last two nights!

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Day 4: Enjoying the bounties of nature, testing my endurance

We walked over 18km on this last day of the trek. My shoes came apart and I did about a third of that in sandals, which meant hurting ankles and extreme exhaustion. We woke up to snow flurries at 14000 ft and came down to the sweltering sun of the valley. We crossed the river a dozen times, and our water bottle (its name was Vinod, yes we named our water bottles!) tried very hard to sacrifice itself to the river but we were adamant on saving it.

We experienced the largest diversity of flora in our time in Ladakh on this last day, the widest array of landscapes too. One time, we walked on a sliver of the mountain, with a steep fall away on either side. The feeling was spectacular but we worried intensely about our vertiginous companion, and spent some tense moments which fortunately ended in a short burst of relieved tears.

We saw pashmina sheep stuffed into a pen high on the mountains and met shepherds who were carrying back firewood supplies on donkey backs. Another time, we met nomads walking from Leh to Zanskar with enough words of Hindi and English on them to have a conversation!

Overall the descent was easier on our lungs but harder on knees and ankles, but we felt like we had to take in the sights and enjoy each part of the journey. Both Udai and Aadyaa walked with us and I remember the day as a kaleidoscope of images, conversations. The last several kilometres when extreme fatigue had set in, I was amazed at watching Aadyaa. All of ten, she walked alone, choreographing a dance number in her head, oblivious of her rhythmic gait, arm movements and expressions!

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Countless river crossings

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Udai contemplates the flowing water

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A moment of repose

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Traveling long distances for basic supplies is only one part of the hard life that Ladakhis lead

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A classic Ladakhi scene

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The river bed and the sky

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Yes the JCB is in Ladakh too, here its helping lay a water pipeline to Matho village

As the monastery of Thiksey came into view in the distance, signalling the end of the 4-day trek, I found myself wishing intensely that this would never end, even as my feet screamed at me to stop immediately. At Matho village where we ended the trek, I felt happy and numb at the same time and all I could think of was a hot shower and a bed!

Back at the hotel, reunited with the others in the group, we conceded that the real stars of the trip had been the following: 1- The kids, who didn’t whine even once and banded together through thick and thin; 2- Govindji, whose advice and gentle persuasion tided us over many rough patches; and 3- Norbu, without whom we would not have had the kind of wholesome and soul satisfying nourishment we had through these four awesome days. Finally, a word on Rikzin’s enthusiasm, thoroughness and sheer passion for Ladakh and its outdoor treasures. To him goes the credit for preparing the kids (and us) mentally, putting the ambitious trek together and making sure the city slickers made it through just fine!

Solace and solitude in Stockholm

It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!

I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.

Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.

Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.

 

 

Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.  Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.

References:

  1. https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
  2. http://permanentwalkabout.com/blog/2016/7/5/little-xiaobei-chinas-africa-town
  3. https://qz.com/1081203/china-in-africa-guangzhou-is-a-global-city-for-african-entrepreneurs/
  4. https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/young-arabs-get-down-to-business-in-china-1.404155

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.

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Exhibition space

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The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J

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Alice Cohn

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Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.

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Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation

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A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.

Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

Centre Pompidou: Sensory overload!

Despite a longish four weeks in Paris, its hard to shed the feeling of being a tourist. For there is truly so much to do in this city and so little time to do it in if you put in regular work hours. So I woke up on Saturday morning with determination. And my destination was the Centre Pompidou, which celebrates its 40th year in 2017.

Armed with a online ticket, I set off on a meandering path, certain that I had plenty of time. I got in a couple of quick sketches and a detour through Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie, which are within a massive Gothic complex that once was a palace but is now the Palace of Justice, housing judiciary functions. I even grabbed a delightful lunch, sitting solo on the sidewalk, enjoying the rare autumnal sun.

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The online ticket was to be on no use whatsoever, but the long wait in the line that snaked across the massive square in front of Centre Pompidou offered me a chance to take in the mind boggling structure before me. All steel tubes and pipes, it is a geometrical and structural orgasm created by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini in the spirit of an “evolving spatial diagram”. The project was part of a larger renewal plan for the area which included the controversial relocation of the giant meat market that was inside Les Halles, which now houses a transport interchange and shopping centre. This facility was to house a museum and a public library that extended the dream of Andre Malraux (author and France’s first Minister of Culture Affairs) to decentralize art and culture. I can imagine the design being met with utter horror by the conservative Parisians, because it sticks out like a sore thumb like a disruption, offering no continuity whatsoever with the surrounding urban form nor showing the remotest respect to the heritage around. Instead it soars up, in white, blue, red and yellow, unapologetic and grand. I was to realize its true impact only a day later when I traveled to Belleville in the northwestern part of the city and saw it glisten from the top of Boulevard de Menilmontant! I read later that the architects saw their chance to bring in new ideas to capture the mood of Paris post the massive political unrest in 1968 that nearly destabilized the country. For them, the bold design signified a changed thinking.

[Click here for some delightful pics and thoughts shared by the architects on the Centre’s 40th anniversary]

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Once inside, I felt like a child in a candy store! My first stop was the massive and impressive retrospective of David Hockney. The British artist is 80 this year and the show had works on display since he was about 17 years old. The span of styles and the bold statement his art is left me overwhelmed. I was in that strange state of feeling filled to the brim and drained out at the same time! And this is when the gorgeous views offered by the building rescued me. I wandered the terraces for a while taking in the city sprawling below me, recognizing the monuments on the skyline and appreciating the strange zig zag roofs of Paris.

And then, I delved into the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. I had already soaked myself into the works of the avant garde artists at the Musee d’Orsay in my first week here and later at the Musee l’Orangerie. Now I felt like I was taking that journey forward, moving through the Dada, Cubist, Fauvist, Expressionist, Surrealist, de Stijl and ‘Return to Order’ phases of modern art. An impressive collection, the vast and modern spaces of the museum have much to add to the experience, and its frequent terraces offered timely relief. Unlike the other museums, there was something informal and easy going about the Centre Pompidou. Even the staff was not in uniform and sat around casually, unlike the alert and stern security that is standard at museums across the world.

Walking away from the museum, I just did not feel like heading home. There was too much inside my head, swirling shapes and blocks of colour, too much energy! So I wandered through the lanes in the Marais and treated myself to a glass of Chardonnay, as is fitting at the end of a glorious museum-filled day in Paris.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

A ‘brutalist’ China Town and the Parisian ‘bo bun’

It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.

I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.

IMG_4400IMG_4409IMG_4408IMG_4407IMG_4401IMG_4396Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.

One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

A Parisian party and the realization that my smartphone need not be my security blanket anymore!

Earlier this week, I had the marvelous opportunity to be part of a Parisian soiree. The occasion was a housewarming celebration of a senior researcher in the lab I am visiting. The house in question was a beautiful apartment in a 19th century building adjacent to Gare du Nord. The neighbourhood was fiesty. Crossing the road outside the station, my eyes swept past a dosa joint and a sex toy shop among the usual cafes and tabac stores.

We punched the code and entered a hallway with the most gorgeous mosaic tile floor. A service elevator, perhaps no longer functional, marked the days gone by when servants had separate entrances. Carpeted and curved stairs led to level 1, while a square stairwell with wrought iron rails led the way further up. The red carpet, slightly frayed, was placed as a runner at the centre of the stairs and a wrought iron gas lamp, no longer functional, hung all the way from the ceiling far high up till where we stood waiting to alight.

We did not need to find the house. The voices and music wafted down to us. Pushing open the door, we walked into the lobby, where now stood a modern kitchen. The proud owner explained to me that in the original apartments, the kitchen was located at the back of the house, connected to the chambers through a long corridor and of course with a separate access for the staff. In the modern avatar, those alleyways have not been retained and usually one of the bedrooms is converted into a kitchen. This particular bold placement of the kitchen, right at the entry was refreshing to the owner, who thought it fitting with a modern lifestyle that has “nothing to hide”!

We walked into the main living area of the apartment where the party was on in full swing with much ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ wine flowing and a typical French spread of cheese, cold cuts, bread, dips, grapes and olives. The room was striking, with white walls divided into broad panels and a high ceiling. The street facing side was full of open windows, through which the city’s sounds and smells streamed in. But more striking than the room itself was the fantastic art that it was filled with. Oils, bright and somber, figures, portraits, expressionistic landscapes and number of sculptural pieces too, modern as well as ethnic, from Asia and Africa. I was enchanted. Looking around at the house still being set up, I found more paintings, frames lined up against the wall, waiting to find their spot. Inside, in the study, two fantastic male nudes looked impassively onto the mass of handbags and jackets that guests had dumped there.

Being the only person who couldn’t speak French was an initial advantage. I took many moments to soak in the atmosphere. The Parisian academics had understated style. They were all here directly from work, so nobody was overtly dressed or made up. But there were subtle touches. A statement neckpiece here, a colourful scarf there, a dress instead of the usual pants. Conversation flowed easily. These were people who had known each other for a while and the comfort was easy to see. It also absorbed me seamlessly.

I must have had long conversations with half a dozen people I hadn’t met before. Some had halting English on them, others were more fluent. Another colleague teasingly chided me for not making some effort with my French! With each of them – historians, geographers, anthropologists – I found some common interests, which only goes to show the depth and breadth of their own experiences. This was an educational experience, packaged as a genteel evening of socializing. The conversations indicated how India, is history and present, has a nuanced place in the world. I felt a bit sad about the reductive understanding of India that is being bandied about in everyday life and politics today.

At some point in the evening, I got an education on organic wine, its making and its distinct flavours, particularly the nuance that comes from its inherent instability. I found that fascinating and I’ve been thinking about this since then. The notion that food must conform to some set standard, rather than its natural range, is something we have all adopted without really thinking about the implications it has for our environment band our lives. I thought about the experiments with growing organic food that some of my friends have been engaged with back home and how much of a movement organic and local food is here in France.

At some point in the evening, a large group had seated itself on the rug around the centre table. The rest of us continued to hover around the dining table. The seated group reminded me of parties back home with close friends and family. The lack of formality, the deep and engaged conversations, the congeniality, made me immensely happy to be there. I felt strangely at home. The only thing missing was singing!

It was late and people began to leave. Goodbye pecks and thank you’s filled the room. Through the evening, I observed, not one person had checked their mobile phones. No pictures were posed for and no selfies were clicked. I think perhaps the host had taken a few generic ones. No one went back to their social media feeds even. Phones remained firmly inside those bags, in the other room. Mine too! And this, perhaps, was my biggest takeaway that evening. The realization that I, like many of us back home, use my phone like a security blanket. To combat any unexpectedness and awkwardness, and to draw a cocoon around me even as I remain present in society. It doesn’t need to be this way. Part of the reason I could have those meaningful conversations with people I had not met before was the absence of the phone and the presence of participants in the here and now, without distractions. I’m holding onto that lesson with new resolve!

Travel memories: Boots that tell a story 

As I laced up my boots this morning, in my little Parisian studio, I was transported to that magical evening in Quito last year when, entirely by chance, I happened to buy them. In that moment, Paris blended into Quito and I hugged myself, thankful for the opportunities, and holding close that all consuming love for travel and adventure. 

Back to that October evening in one of the highest cities in the world. The altitude must have made us dizzy, my friend and I, because we were giggling and chattering like schoolgirls as we walked back from the craziness of Habitat 3, a large conference on sustainable urban development that the United Nations had organised. The day’s events had overwhelmed us, and we were looking for fun. My brown boots, bought lovingly my Rahul a few years ago in London (hilariously via a series of whatsapp messaging that flew across the world as his colleague modelled each pair in a succession of shops in suburban London) were beginning to fall apart. On a lark, I entered a footwear store we crossed. This was no ordinary shoe shop selling mass manufactured shoes made half the globe away! Nope, this was a shoemaker’s atelier, where each piece had been handmade with love and care. I was over the moon! Looking around, I saw this pair. Black military boots that looked like they would be super comfy. And they were, perfectly fitting too! 

I refused to take them off and the shoemaker was thrilled. He showed us his entire workshop. He babbled incessantly in Spanish regardless of whether we understood him. He kept calling me “Chica” with great affection, making me sit and pose with my new boots as he tried to click pics from his really basic phone, staring myopically into it. Finally, after my dear talented friend had bargained sufficiently, we had a final obstacle to overcome. Change!! No one takes a 100 dollars easily in Ecuador. So we put shutters on the shoe shop and marched down to the local grocery store, where change was available. Here, we were accosted by excited cries of “Namaste, meri jaan!” by local girls who had apparently picked this up from an Indian friend! We walked away in total elation. Boots bought and adventure had. 

All of this flashed before me this morning. I missed my friend a little, and I hugged myself a little. My boots felt snug and a new city beckoned…

My boots with dear friend’s boots. Pic clicked months later in Delhi, as we shared that good story once again!!

Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!

A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy. 


The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged. 

The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary! 

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