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And now for something completely different

This year’s EOTY (end of the year) bike ride started at Guwahati, Assam, and ended at Miao, Arunachal Pradesh. The route (Guwahati, Mangaldoi, Dekhiajuli, Pabhoi, Majuli, Sibasagar, the coaltown of Margarita, Miao, followed by a visit to Namdapha Tiger Reserve) stretched along the north bank of the Brahmaputra till the river island of Majuli and then crossed over to the south bank before entering Arunachal. Moving from west to east, Assam seemed to change from day to day. The profile of the local population gradually changed (from Bengali influences to Muslim dominated to Axomiya hindus to a greater tribal composition as one neared the Arunachal border). As did the houses, diets and local markets.

Some pictures. That snap you see on top left is the endangered Pygmy Hog. The beneficiary of what is described by my biologist friends as India’s only successful wildlife reintroduction programme. The two snaps below it were taken as we (three friends and me) pedalled towards Majuli. The snap of haystacks in the middle was taken on the second day — en route to Orang National Park. The snap on the top right? That is the sort of house we saw in the initial days — houses with attached fishponds.

The snap of a bridge, mustard fields and the setting sun? That was taken en route to the ferry for Majuli (which stars in the next snap). The two misty snaps were taken the next morning in Majuli as we cycled to catch a ferry from Majuli’s eastern bank. That was a morning to remember — us cycling on the fine sand of the Brahmaputra’s riverbed, with the mist swallowing up everything beyond 20 or so metres. The next snap, of my sand encrusted cycle, was taken after this ride.

That shack you see was a place where we breakfasted shortly after getting off the ferry. The gent wearing the adidas sweatshirt was running that eatery along with his wife. The two people below him? We met them, at another tea-stall, on the way out of Sibasagar. Ditto for the young man from Bihar selling cakes, puffs and pastries from his cart. Around here, the houses had changed. We saw fewer houses with ponds. Most houses had a canal running out in front with these cane bridges over them.

Then came Margarita. And that is where the next set of snaps — like that of the vegetable sellers, including the one with the coal mine in the background — were taken. Around here, the houses (and the profile of the local population) had changed yet again. And then, we entered Miao. The vertical snap you see was taken inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve. The rest were taken in local markets in this part of Arunachal — the first set of women are selling, among other things, local turmeric. Rs 10 for each page’s worth. In the snap to the right, you will see what looks like white cookies in plastic bags. That is yeast, using for making local rice beer called Loh-Paani.

In the final snap, the woman holding up that newspaper belongs to the Apatani tribe — look at the facial tattoos. She was eating jalebis when I took that snap. This, of course, is little more than a random sampling of snaps. That week of cycling left us with more impressions than what a quickly-written blogpost can handle.

PS: It was a good break. No email. The phone on DND. The brain caught a break from its usual ADD, spending hours at a stretch cycling or reading. Two notable books from this trip: Jon Prochnau on the adversarial reportage by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Mal Browne and others during the early days of the American quagmire in Vietnam. And another on Aristotle’s staggeringly accurate (and sweeping) effort to make sense of life’s diversity on Earth.

PS: You will have to forgive me the multiple snaps of my cycle — my Surly Cross-Check is tough and beautiful. And I keep photographing it.

PS: And here is a blogpost on the trip by my fellow cyclist Vidya Athreya.

Reading Zygmunt Bauman

during these months spent on #eartotheground, one of the largest social processes my colleagues and i have written about is this rising intensification of caste and religious identities.we saw that in punjab. and we saw that in tamil nadu. our story at tamil nadu advanced an hypothesis that stagnant economic fortunes of the intermediate castes combined with an improvement in the status of dalits when they left farm labour for construction labour, etc, in a rapidly urbanising tamil nadu.

but how did that newfound equivalence translate into an intensification of caste/religious identities? did what freud called “the narcissism of small differences” kick in as equivalence increased? was it something else? right now, i am reading “modernity and the holocaust” by sociologist zygmunt bauman. there is a bit in there where he talks about modernisation, and how it began to erode the social and legal barriers between jews and christians…

“modernity brought the levelling of differences — at least of their outward appearances, of the very stuff of which symbolic differences between segregated groups are made. with such differences missing, it was not enough to muse philosophically over the wisdom of reality as it was- something christian doctrine had done before when it wished to make sense out of the factual jewish separation. differences had to be created now, or retained against the awesome eroding power of social and legal equality and cross-cultural exchange.”

this created a problem for the anti-semites. new differences needed to be created. how was that done? they knew religion alone could not provide an enduring foundation for the differences sought to be created. religion itself was becoming a hostage to human self-determination. and so…

“under conditions of modernity, segregation required a modern method of boundary-building. a method able to withstand and neutralize the levelling impact of allegedly infinite powers of educatory and civilising forces; a method capable of designating a ‘no-go’ area for pedagogy and self-improvement, of drawing an unencroachable limit to the potential of cultivation. if it was to be salvaged from the assault of modern equality, the distinctiveness of the jews had to be re-articulated and laid on new foundations, stronger than human powers of culture and self-determination. in Hannah Arendt’s terse phrase, Judaism has to be replaced with Jewishness: ‘jews had been able to escape from judaism into conversion; from jewishness there was no escape.”

now to get into more detail.

Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web

most of the time, this blog is just an online dumping ground for my articles. this article in the guardian has me breaking that pattern.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.

so much of this article makes sense to me. i miss the early days of blogging in india. i grouse at this barrage of trivia (and the attention deficit disorder it induces). as a reporter in this internet age, i wonder about these social media algorithms pivoting around, as the piece says, newness and popularity which have left the information my peers and i bring out facing a very unknown social life. how do these articles travel? given that everyone is neck-deep in news/trivia, how much of our stuff gets read?

by the end of the december bike ride, i had decided to slow down. to spend less time on twitter, check email less often, buy fewer books, certainly not rush to buy new books but wait to see if their fame survives even when the hype cycle exhausts itself, to get the brain to spend longer on discrete (and hopefully meatier) thoughts, and — this is connected through the notion of focusing on more real things — learn to carry out more complex repairs on the cycle like trueing its wheels.

at the end of the scroll project, i have to reach some conclusions re the utility of reporting in this age where social media is strong, the public seemingly more inwards-looking and our regulators (who are supposed to give the press its muscle by acting on its reports) decidedly indifferent.

the brain is idly dreaming of a cycling trip at the end of the scroll assignment.

maybe then.

RIP Priya Thangarajah

my friend priya passed away last november. since then, the brain has circled back to her repeatedly. in fond, sad remembrance.

For more on her, two links (one and two) and this old image.

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and now for something completely different

For a few years now, I have sneaked off every December for a relatively long bike ride. The brain gathers all manner of stresses and tensions as each year vends along, and it has seemed like a good idea to leave email, twitter and other horsemen of the ‘constant connectedness’ apocalypse behind and hare off somewhere on the cycle by the end of the year.

This year, two friends and I pedalled from Pune to Goa. Nine days of cycling, clean air, no email, simple food, kokum juice/soda, coconut water, sugarcane juice, homestays, heat, ferry crossings and old tar roads that rose and fell along the hills, plateaus and valleys of the Sahyadris.

A most delightful time was had. Especially up on the plateaus with their gently undulating roads, the occassional glimpse of distant ocean, and acres of golden wild grass growing amidst black basaltic rock. Cycling through these plateaus, with the heat in constant attendance, made for some meditative moments.

Am appending some pictures. Have to get some of these framed. Just so that I remember this ride. Especially those hours up on the plateaus. Those were almost transcendental.

Here is wishing you a restful end to 2015 and a great 2016.

revisiting the overloaded archipelago

at the mayabunder jetty. (the photo sums up my life with almost literal exactness. a beautiful planet, anthropogenic activity, dead biodiversity – that is a dead sea krait at the bottom of the photo – and me watching biodiversity haemmorrage away)

for a while now, i have been trying to go on a cycle ride at the end of every year — have succeeded three out of four years. in 2014, biologist vidya athreya and i went to the andamans. and i came back and wrote this story about cycling up the islands.

The friend is a biologist curious to see what the forests in this archipelago are like — the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were connected to what is now Indonesia before rising sea levels cut them off. As such, not only are life forms on the isles closer in origin to Indonesian than Indian ones, their geographic isolation has resulted in the creation of several species unique to them. As for me, I am looking to get into shape. This is also my second trip to the islands — the first was a reporting assignment in 2004 just before the tsunami. The ride is a chance to see how the patterns I spotted then – water shortages, over-population, and decimation of the indigenous people – have unfolded since.

on the whole, not much has changed on how we manage the islands. see this 2004 story. also see this article, by biologist tr shankar raman, about travelling along the ATR.
ps: the link is to a pdf of the page. my colleagues at et — anirban, manoj, kamal, sunil and amrit — have consistently designed stunning pages for my full page stories. this is just the latest in a long chain. if you want the online version of the article, go here.

photos from here and there

other photos from the trip (see earlier posts)

10,000 years ago, the glacier hiding in the clouds in the distance extended all the way till the wooden walkway. as it retreated, the glacier left behind a natural dam of the soil and rocks it had been pushing ahead of itself.

at lake louise, canada. 10,000 years ago, the glacier hiding in the clouds in the distance extended all the way till the wooden walkway. as it retreated, the glacier left behind a natural dam of the soil and rocks it had been pushing ahead of itself. glacial melt, trapped by the dam, is what created lake louise.

walking in the cotswalds, uk.

walking in the cotswalds, uk.

this is one of the strangest sights i have ever seen, (still in the cotswalds)

cotswalds (this and the one below). this is one of the strangest sights i have ever seen

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more from the cotswalds. this was taken shortly after we passed a sheep shearing pen. the cotswalds, incidentally, are also increasingly home to the very affluent. the other striking thing i saw was a farm left fallow, with native species growing rambunctiously. this was partly due to an EU subsidy that tries to control food production by paying farmers not to grow -- something i first heard about in yes prime minister.

more from the cotswalds. this was taken shortly after we passed a sheep shearing pen. the cotswalds, incidentally, are also increasingly home to the very affluent. the other striking thing i saw was a farm left fallow, with native species growing rambunctiously. this was partly due to an EU subsidy that tries to control food production by paying farmers not to grow — something i first heard about in yes prime minister.

jezebel, at a soho pub i visited.

jezebel, at a soho pub i visited.