There are more than 864 million goats in the world, around 140 million of which live in India. More than a handful of those have found their way to the streets of Delhi, where they are raised for meat and milk, and where some also run wild, galloping excitedly past startled pedestrians.
Archive for the South Asia category
I came across these bicycles on Janpath, in Central Delhi, not far from Connaught Place. They were resting just outside a construction site, so I assume they were owned by workers. What caught my eye wasn’t the bikes, though, it was the woven plastic baskets hanging from each of their handles.
Sweep your eyes across any world map or globe and, unless you squint closely on the ocean expanse just west of India, they can be easy to miss: a chain of about 1,200 tiny islands marching almost in a straight line, from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Chagos Archipelago to the south — the Maldives. With a population of only 350,000 spread over one of the most geographically dispersed landmasses of any state, the country is about as far as possible from a byword for “crowded”. Malé, the capital, is an exception.
With around a third of the country’s population primarily located on an island that’s less than six square kilometers large, the landmass the city occupies has now been entirely urbanized. Save the occasional landfill project, that’s left the growing settlement with nowhere to go but up; aerial views reveal a city that looks like a miniaturized, tropical Manhattan that’s somehow drifted into the south seas. In fact, the Maldivian capital is more densely populated than its famously vertical stateside twin; Malé is actually the fourth most densely populated island in the world (Manhattan, by comparison, is only seventh).
The Maldives’ official tourism website has even begun promoting its “spectacular skyline of candy-coloured skyscrapers” alongside the upscale resorts on which the country’s economy depends most heavily. But total urbanization has actually become a serious problem for Malé; it’s left the city’s population virtually nowhere to flee in the event of flash floods. Monsoon rains turn its streets into waterways on an annual basis; the Maldives are the world’s most low-lying country, with no place more than three meters above sea level. The real wake-up call came during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when two-thirds of the city were entirely inundated by the sea.
So great was the tsunami’s impact on the Maldives — 50% of its GDP was washed away over the course of a few hours — that it unleashed pent-up demands for political reform. Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, was swept into office in 2008, bringing to a close the the 30-year regime of Maumool Abdul Gayoom. The top of his agenda quickly became climate change; as he successfully made clear to much of the world in the coming years, rising sea levels were due to turn the Maldives into the blank spot on the world map that so many had accidentally perceived.
In the central courtyard of Nizamuddin’s Tomb, in Delhi, stands a beautiful white building. Pillars support an ornate canopy with an onion shaped dome. Its underside is finely painted with swirling greens and reds: a floral pattern. Crowds push between the pillars, straining to reach the golden chamber at the centre. Inside is a bed-like marble platform, the pillars at its corners stretching up to the ceiling. A bright lumpen cloth lies on the platform, like a covered body.
I watch the people circle slowly around it. Some bring wreaths of flowers and drop them delicately onto the cloth. Others stroke, or kiss the four smooth pillars. They appear hypnotised, their whole minds consumed by the spiritual experience and solemnity of the occasion.
The tomb was built to commemorate the Saint Sheikh Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Chisti shortly after his death in 1325. Nizamuddin practiced Sufism -– a form of Islam that emphasises embracing god within life. He offered food and spiritual education and was revered for his kindness and tolerance of different people. Since then, the original buildings that comprised his tomb have been rebuilt several times, but the place has retained its power.
I first encountered the tomb through fiction, in the short story ‘Royalty,’ by Anita Desai. Describing the buffalo’s innards that “hung like curtains” in the butchers’ booths, and the air “rife with raw blood and the thrum of flies”, Desai wonderfully captures the atmospheric approach to the tomb and uses this to express the turbulent emotions of the story’s characters as they encounter it.
For me, the journey to the tomb is as wonderfully overwhelming as its destination. In the crowded and ragged neighborhood where the tomb is located, also known as Nizamuddin, poverty and strong Muslim spirituality jostle together. After work one evening, I join the scrum pushing their way onto a spluttering old bus and hung on as it lurches its way south to get there.
Varanasi. Polaroid on canvas (2011) by Lionel Muñoz
Varanasi. Polaroid with 669 film (2011) by Lionel Muñoz
Kerala. Polaroid with expired 669 film (2011) by Lionel Muñoz
In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.
Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.
While railways are the nerves and sinews of India, rivers are the lifelines linking the cities and towns in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Last spring, I was in Dhaka, the congested capital, with my brother. The city of 14 million people lies on the banks of the Buriganga. After getting lost in the atmospheric narrow warren of streets in the old city for a few hours, our perspective eventually opened up upon reaching the wide, pitch-black river. Dozens of small canoes were parked on the trash-strewn riverbank. Skinny boatmen in lungis beckoned out for business with raised hands, offering to take people across. A one hour cruise can be had for a little over a dollar, probably less if you’re a miserly jerk who wants to argue over pennies.
Nothing embodies the way India is modernising like the Delhi Metro. Opened in 2002, the system’s clean, marble floored stations and smooth, linked-carriage trains rival those of the most developed cities across the road.
The network has changed city life. Destinations that once took hours to get to on the traffic clogged roads can now be reached in just a few minutes. Parts of the sprawling city that you’d once never consider visiting are suddenly easy to discover.
For some the metro has offered even more radical changes. A lady in a bright sari stands at the base of the metro escalator. She peers forwards at the moving steps with a look of terror on her face, shuffling slowly towards them then backing away. She is confronting the modern world perhaps for the first time. She reaches out with her foot towards the step, but then changes her mind and backs away to the stairs. She will remain traditional a little while longer.
While Hong Kong’s rush into the future means sweeping away much of the past, in Delhi something different is happening. The city is becoming stretched between the very modern and the still thriving traditional cultures.
Some cities ravaged by war slump into decline and desperation. Others rebound with as much vigour as before. Kabul seems to be the latter, which is not surprising considering its 3,000-year history as a crossroads of culture, commerce and empire. In this clip from documentary film Kabul Transit, the camera floats through the streets of the Afghan capital, past hawkers selling tea, lunch, fabric, chickens. Men dash across the street pushing wheelbarrows or pulling wagons piled high with boxes. People are everywhere. Like turn-of-the-century New York or present-day Shenzhen, it strikes me as being a kind of hustler’s city, where everyone is trying to aggressively make up for time lost to poverty and violence.
If only the bus were a little more red and a little less boxy, I could have sworn I was in South Kensington or Knightsbridge in London rather than in Mumbai. The double decker bus, the Victorian Gothic architecture — a common inheritance of the British empire that is at once familiar and strange. I did not spend long enough in Mumbai to explore further the lingering British influence and how it had been adapted to local circumstances.
I wonder if people on their first visit from Mumbai to London have that same mix of feelings of déjà vu and novelty.
Paharganj is a mix of crowded makeshift homes, budget traveler hangouts, and the odd chunk of decaying heritage. It’s also an example of what happens when a section of town is left to its own devices with little consideration for urban planning.
A few centuries back, Paharganj was a grain bazaar populated almost exclusively by Muslims, a short walk outside the walls of Mughal Delhi. Today, most of the Muslims have gone, but here and there are the domes of an old mosque, fronted by an ugly concrete structure, squatted by several families, or converted to a budget hotel. Most hotels in the neighbourhood are unauthorized windowless dives who steal water and electricity from lesser mortals. Wires and plugs dangle all over, and the shoddy structures look as if they’re about to collapse onto themselves.
The noisy main bazaar is congested with kerosene-powered motorcycles spouting black fumes, three-wheelers, cycle rickshaws, cows, carts, and the occasional car squeezing through. I even saw an elephant rambling through at 11PM, its driver asleep for the night on his back. Wide-eyed shellshocked travelers, fresh off the plane, can’t see beyond the noise, cows, and raw sewage. Then there’s the old India veterans, dreadlocks down their back, also shellshocked, but in a different way — they took a wrong turn on their long strange trip and ended up in Delhi. Both of these groups feel like they’re in transit — Paharganj is an unfortunate stop on their journey to somewhere a little more scenic or relaxing.
Street scene in Dharavi. Photo from the Economist
“Around 6am, the squealing of copulating rats—signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai—gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (“Shashi”) Kawale’s rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man’s sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.”
It’s not the most flattering description, but the Economist’s December 19th story on Dharavi is actually a remarkably sensitive portrait of Asia’s largest slum, revealing a particularly complex social and economic space that is now threatened by redevelopment.
One million people live in Dharavi, which is somewhat incredible when you realize that it covers just one square mile. Although conditions are rough, life in the slum has improved remarkably over the past several decades. Part of the reason for that is that it has become an important economic centre, containing an estimated 15,000 single-room factories and functioning as the centre of Mumbai’s jewellery, textile and recycling industries. All of the trash thrown away in Mumbai passes through the workshops of Dhavari, where it is sorted and sold. For the slum’s residents, the line between home and work is blurred, since many living spaces also double as workshops; every inch of Dharavi is put to great use.
Government planners don’t approve of slums like this; they never have. For at least a decade, Mumbai’s officials have been trying to get rid of Dharavi. What they overlook, however, is the innovation and entrepreneurialism it produces. Dharavi is packed with an almost unimaginable number of people, but it’s also full of small businesses that were built by the most marginalized members of Indian society. Most are poor migrants from the countryside. For them, living in a slum, where living conditions are squalid but opportunities are immense, is the best way to improve their lot.
Potters at work. Photo by Akshay Mahajan