Potatoes and Chillies in the New Year

First Published in Countercurrents.org. Click here to read

“Oddly enough, it (potato) was introduced to the Himalayas by two Irishmen, captain Young of Dehra and Mussoorie and captain Kennedy of Simla, in the 1820s. The slopes of Young’s house, ‘Mullinger’, were known as his Potato Farm.  Looking up old books, I was surprised to learn that the potato wasn’t known in India before the nineteenth century, and now it’s an essential part of our diet in most parts of the country.”

— Rain in the Mountains (1993), Ruskin Bond

Potatoes thus, unified the gastronomic history of mankind as did the writer Ruskin Bond, who adopted a country that suited him and wrote of the love, kindness and warmth he found in local hearts. Or, perhaps, did the country adopt him? I do not know which would be the right perspective. The basic thing is that even chillies, which make Thai, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines not just delicious, but also add to the zest or spice of these, existed only in Latin America till 1492, when Columbus bit his first chilli! Food has actually connected the whole world together and spices have been added to create a wide array of cuisines that tempt our palates. Now potatoes grow everywhere as do chillies!

Despite the world being united by chillies and potatoes, as this year draws to a close, I am left wondering at the way humankind has got clumped into little boxes because of the mutations of a tiny virus. But if this virus is to survive, it will have to mutate to become endemic, and continue to share the Earth with man, as do other viruses. However, more than the dangers posed by the virus, the thing that really frightens me is the change in global perspectives towards foreigners and the acceptance of leadership that is questionable. The fact that the global community continues mute over the ‘annexation’ or ‘take over’ of countries by those who were considered extremists earlier is alarming. This silence does not do away with the mute suffering of the people in those regimes. I do not know if and when history will smoothen out the rough edges and give an opportunity to these challenged victims to rise up in rebellion against might and intimidation. How much will the people suffer before they speak up and rebel to come to their own? Do they even realize that some of the world, which is better off, views them as sufferers and worse off than those who totter under inequalities while servicing the privileged?

This lack of realization is something that has been written about earlier. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) puts the muteness and unawareness of those who suffered quietly in perspective through the voice of his ancestor, an African slave called Kunta Kinte —“ It took him (Kinte) a long time, and a great many more parties,  to realise that they (his master or owner and their friends) didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream that the White folks were having,  a lie they were telling themselves; that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilised with one another without treating as human beings those (slaves) whose blood, sweat and mother’s milk made possible the life of the privilege they led.”

Let me put it in further perspective. That the slave owners were ‘kind’ and ‘good’ to the slaves but would not allow them the freedom to live outside the boxes defined by their own rules which allowed the owners to treat the slaves as their personal property, was something that many of those victimised by slavery did not understand till much later. The concept of xenophobia was widespread as both the Africans and the Americans suffered from major biases rooted in colour and an inability to accept different or foreign ways of life. In Roots, Kinte was from a highly regarded and respected family in his village in Africa. To them the ‘toubab’ or the white man was as much of an alien as the Africans were to the American slave dealers, who stole and sold them as property. Do we have instances of such xenophobia and unacceptance now — long after the outlawing of apartheid and slavery ? How much have things changed in a world unified by potatoes, chillies and spices? An interesting question to ponder.

These days, when democracy takes precedence over all else (even human needs) and huge conglomerates employ many workers, social media is said to be creating an awareness among all people connected by it….

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Where the Journey Begins…

The first thing you notice when you drive out of Johannesburg is the vastness of the landscape. It stretches in endless fields of grass that flow in the breeze like the lion’s mane. Patched with light gold and green against a vivid blue sky, it is a restful experience after the toils of the city.

The savannahs of Africa rolled out a welcome to us as we journeyed to check out a part of the continent where mankind originated… after all it was the original home of our ancestors and that is where we all belonged… between Ethiopia, where lived Lucy, and South Africa, where were unearthed more bones of our ancestors who lived there many thousands and millions of years ago. We only moved out to populate the world about a hundred thousand years ago….

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Museum at Maropeng

We went to Maropeng to familiarize ourselves with what is known as the Cradle of Humankind. Maropeng rose out of the landscape like the hills that dotted all of this area. It was covered with green grass and resembled a small hillock. Only, we went inside this hillock to a museum that exhibited the bones found in the Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind are a series of underground limestone caves which stretch 47, 000 hectares 50 km to the south of Johannesburg. Prior to 2010, it hosted more than a third of hominid fossils dating back to 3.5 million years. Here they found the skull of Mrs Ples, a 2.3 million year old fossil dug up in 1947, little younger to the 3.2 million year old Lucy found in Ethiopia. The most remarkable thing about the museum was that it started by telling us we were all united!

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Bones of Homo Naledi

The skull is exhibited in the Maropeng visitor center and museum along with the latest bone findings of the Homo Naledi from the Rising Star Cave Systems. The Rising Star caves housed bones of 15 hominids belonging to a new species in the hominid genealogy, the Homo Naledi. While archaelogists argue whether we have a direct link to Homo Naledi, what I found most interesting in the Maropeng museum was it stated the obvious at the entrance, “We are one species”.

I loved the way the museum posters and write-ups said all mankind is united under the banner of the homo family.

Then we went to explore the Sterkfontien Cave where had rested the bones of Mrs Ples(a 2.3 million old Australopithecus Africanus dug up in 1947). We were welcomed to the ‘home of mankind’ by fellow human guides … only they looked different and spoke better English than what I am used to hearing in Singapore. They began the tour by welcoming us to our homeland! That was most marvelous… it was the first time we were in Africa and yet what a warm welcome!

The caves are actually not visible outside. They lie below the grasslands and hills. The caves are dimly lighted and a have constant temperature of 18degrees Celsius. We had to wear helmets with lights. It is not possible to go through these caves without guides, as people have been lost when they have wandered off on their own, I have heard.

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Here rested the bones of Mrs Ples

We saw the place where they found Mrs Ples, strange rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. Sometimes, we needed to crawl because the roof was so low and, sometimes, we needed to slide down smooth rock formations. We could not see much. One of the most interesting things was an underground lake. It had very clear water but we were not allowed to touch it, as this is a protected world heritage site. The guide shone her torch into the water and showed us eyeless worms. They were squiggling near the edges! As we slid down the last rock slide, the guide turned off the light and the cave was plunged into frightening abysmal darkness. We could not see our own hands! Perhaps this is what Allain Quatermain and his friends experienced when they were trapped in the treasure caves of King Solomon’s Mines

I have never been caving but after the sweat, darkness, physical exertion and fear generated in my heart, I would still want to go back into more such caves. It was a cathartic experience. When we came out, I felt so fortunate to be alive and well! I experienced a sense of victory. I felt like an adventurer out of Indiana Jones, Laura Croft, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Solomon’s Mines. It gave me a sense of achievement to have survived what Mrs Ples or the less fortunate Homo Naledi could not survive. The guide told us that one of the possibilities was that these ancient creatures had fallen into sinkholes created by the large system of limestone caves in Africa! And in those days, there was no rescue and no lights inside the caves!

While, the Maropeng experience gave us a sense of being one species, the newly opened Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, made clear how men drew borders and hurt his fellow creatures to have what they considered a comfortable life.

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At the Apartheid Museum

Sub-Saharan Africa had remained untouched by the outside world till the fifteenth century when Bartholomew Diaz found the Cape of Good Hope. After that ‘Gold, Glory and God’ found their way into different parts over the centuries. It was sad to see how the African hunter-gatherer culture was annihilated to a large extent by the colonizers who sought to raise the standards of the local population by cultural imposition. This must have been one of the bleakest periods in human history as with the help of technology and gunpowder the colonizers ‘tamed’ the colonized, worldwide. And it was only twenty years ago that South Africa was officially rid of apartheid. There were artifacts from the past and photographs documenting the plight mankind suffered.

Near the Apartheid Museum, is the Gold Reef City. This is an amusement park made out of an abandoned gold mine. It has good places to eat and it had rides for youngsters, preserved homes of European gold diggers and abandoned gold mines.

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Inside the abandoned gold mine

The abandoned gold mines were the most interesting to visit. We descended 75 meters into the bowels of the Earth in a miner’s lift. The mine was evidently 4 kms deep. However, it had to be abandoned as it started filling up with water faster than they could pump out. Again, here a guided tour was imperative. Our guide showed us how the miners and overseers worked, dynamite boxes and first aid kits. We could hear the water flow all the time underground and we even saw it seeping through the walls.

This cave or mine was an easy stroll and did not generate any feelings of terror, as did the cave of Mrs Ples. Of course, one has to be free of vertigo, claustrophobia and heart conditions to make this descent. The lift is open and you can see the walls of the mine as you go down. It is an interesting experience.

The homes of the miners were like European cottages with an occasional raucous cry of the hadeda renting the air. Hadedas are one of the most common birds in Johannesburg. You find them everywhere, in gardens, on trees by the roadside… and once they wake up, they make sure everyone wakes up as they keep calling out… On my first day in Johannesburg, I was shocked to hear their call!

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Hadedas

These creatures roamed the gardens of the miners and posed for pictures.

One of the quaint things we saw was a cup with a rim to hold up moustaches in one of the parlors! Unfortunately, we could not get a good picture of the cup due to it’s positioning. We had to look at the homes and objects through glass windows that restricted us only to the corridors of the homes. My younger son was fascinated by an ancient bathroom, a long drop!

Sandwiched between Johannesburg and Kruger Park is the scenic Panorama Drive. It passes through scenic Transvaal country. We stopped at a place called Dullstroom for lunch. This was a colonial settlement and looks like a little European town. Dullstroom is known for its trout. The place reminded me of a little town I had seen twenty years ago in USA called Helen of Georgia. It had the same old world charm with the addition of excellent trout that we had for lunch. The service was good and the bathrooms, like elsewhere in South Africa, very clean!

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The Old Transvaal Inn at Dullstroom

Along the Panorama Drive, we saw another abandoned gold farm, now called Bourke’s Luck Potholes for the strange holes hewn into the rocks. This is located a few hours drive from Johannesburg and very close to the Kruger National Park in an area called, Mpumalanga. The Potholes are named after the gold digger who bought this land to mine gold. It is at the junction of the Blyde River, the river of joy, and the Treur River, the river of mourning. The Treur is a tributary of Blyde but was named the river of mourning in 1844. A group of Voortrekkers under Hendrik Potgieter was thought to have been lost as they sailed down this river. Hence it was named Treur, mourning. However, when they returned from Mozambique along another part of the river, it was christened, Blyde, the river of joy.

The rocks at Potholes are hewn into formations like Swiss cheese or potholes. The colors of the rocks range from white and black to red and yellow. The currents are really strong. The ultimate beauty is the wide and high waterfall that gushes over these formations. Potholes, despite its strange nomenclature is one of the most beautiful spots in the world.

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Blyde river Canyon

A little further down north is the Blyde River Canyon. This is one of the largest canyons in the world (according to Wikipedia) and, surprisingly, very green. It is a remarkable sight!

Along the canyon are the three Rondavels, a curious mountain formation that looks like thatched huts or rondavels. These formations are a result of erosion. The three geological formations along with the flat-topped mountain were at one time referred to as ‘The Chief and his three wives’. The flat topped mountain was named Mapjaneng (the chief) after a legendary Bapedi chief who defeated the invading Swazis in a battle near here.

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The Three Rondavels or ‘The chief and his three wives’

The three peaks (from left to right) were named Magabolie, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto, after his three wives.

The Panorama Drive along the Blyde River transports one to unusual landscapes which haunt the senses with their uncanny and stunning colors and appearance.

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View from God’s Window

God’s window, another attraction along the drive, is supposed to be very scenic with a fabulous view. It is scenic but after Potholes and the Rondavels, you wonder why they call it God’s windows… It has a great view but to me the Potholes were the most amazing of all God’s creation.

The distances in South Africa are vast. And it is truly glorious to have the feeling of endlessness that stretches out through the laid back landscape and the open clear skies. Their sunsets and sunrises leave one amazed. The panorama of the colors range from purple, yellow, gold, orange, blue and it seems the horizon has been set aflame.

While motoring around the vastness and beauty of South Africa, one feels the stretch and the call of the infinite universe. One falls in love with the vastness and beauty of this unique creation we call our home, the Earth.

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An African Sunset

In Quest of a Home…

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My home is anywhere under the blue skies. I enjoy drifting like a cloud, exploring the world and in my thoughts the outer space. I see no boundaries… no limits in space or time…no barriers of cultures, language, religion or politics…

However, when recently a friend asked me why I was not contributing to develop my home…the place whose language I use as my mother tongue and where my ancestors had paused for a considerable period of time, I grew defensive instinctively. I tried to condense my life… Then, I started to say that I believe in mankind and not borders…and therefore lacked a need to belong or to be tied down to a region. I explained I try to help people in need wherever they are irrespective of borders. I see myself as a citizen of the world, a term coined by my fourteen-year-old more than half a decade ago…

The simple answer would have been do I consider the place my home…? I have never lived there. My great grandfather moved out… and none of his children returned to the region, leave alone his grand children… his ancestors had lived there for probably a little less than one and a half centuries. Before that, they were in an area that now belongs to another country…The first time I visited the city for a few days was when I was sixteen. Subsequently, I have visited the town a number of times because I really like the place. The issue now is that for the last twenty-five years, I have not even lived in the country I was born. For, more than the last couple of decades I have been roaming the world. I have lived in a number of countries, including China…

And yet stories are made and songs are sung to glorify Man’s homing instinct. John Denver’s song… Country road take me home to the place I belong…is a song I liked all along… but perhaps I like it for the ‘blue ridge mountains’ and the ‘… river’, for ‘the misty taste of moonshine’… I am not quite sure…

I love L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, again a story that centres on the protagonist Dorothy’s need to return home. I almost wept when Dorothy after her adventures in the land of Oz clicked her magic shoe clad feet and repeated, “There is no place like home. There is no place like home…” and she was magicked back to her home in Kansas…to the farm…and to aunty Em…Dorothy’s whole adventure took place because she wanted to return home from where she had been deposited by a swirling tornado, in the wonderful Land of Oz with it’s rainbow, Emerald Palace and magical creatures…

Analysing my tendencies, I would probably have continued in the Land of Oz like the wizard, who could not leave because the balloon did not take off…yet the story is about Dorothy and not the wizard…

There is something magical about visiting unexplored lands, a kind of promise that opens new horizons for the mind and heart. I loved reading the travels of Marco Polo, even though it may have had it’s biases. Tagore has a song that says  “kothao amar hariye java neyi mana, mone, mone…” ( “I can lose myself anywhere in my mind…”).

…And I do find myself getting lost in the mists of time when I read Marco Polo. Those days they wandered in search of trade through so many lands fraught with so many dangers. Then, at some point Marco returned home facing more adventures, weaving more fantasies (he talks of unicorns the size of elephants, cannibals and men with tails!). Despite his wonderful adventures he returned home, first to be imprisoned, then to become a merchant. But, what endears him to the world is the retelling of his marvelous adventures by his co-prisoner Rustichello da Pisa…

Sometimes, I wonder if all our ancestors had returned to their home, like Dorothy and Marco Polo, where would we all be? In the heart of Africa where mankind originated, where Lucy danced in the wilds? And how many people would the continent support? If we also retained our original culture and homes, what would we be like?

Perhaps, that is why this summer I am off to find answers to these questions in the rolling plains of Savannah grasslands that beckon me with the lure of endless mysteries… I am off to explore the part of the landmass where our ancestors originated…

The land that was first populated by man rolls out an invitation to explore why we all did not return home or why we developed other parts of the world which we spread out to populate over centuries and millenniums…and not our original home…

 

 

 

Book of the Week

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Title: Heart of Darkness
Author : Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899 as a three part serial in Blackwood Magazine. It is the story of a journey of exploration on the river Congo into the heart of Africa. Though the book has been condemned by some as a misrepresentation of the country, I would see it more as a journey of the protagonist, Marlow, into his own inner psyche, which is critical of the colonial culture among other things.

In the beginning of the story, Marlow states,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Marlow continues to have this stance through out the book as he journeys into the heart of Congo in quest of the elusive Mr Kurtz, who was not just an ivory trader but also  a remarkable man. When he finds Kurtz , the legendary figure is sick and on his deathbed. He gives Marlow a bunch of letters from his fiancee. Finally, when he died, he cried out  the horror, the horror. Was he denouncing a horrible vision he had, or the horrible life he had lead, or the horror of dying in the way he did? Just before he uttered these words, Marlow, who was with him  on the journey back , describes his last facial expression.

 I saw on the ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.

Kurtz had been also doing a report on Suppression of Savage Customs. Just as the conquistadors in South America had exterminated the local population for gold, glory and God with advanced weaponry, the ivory traders were intent on conquering the local population for ivory, glory and God. Anything unfamiliar was seen as savage and, therefore, bad. It had to be replaced by customs acceptable to the ivory traders and invaders. To me, through this story, Conrad has successfully exposed how invaders not only loot the invaded country off it’s wealth but also destroy the local colour and culture.

Kurtz ‘s was an impenetrable darkness. The darkness highlighted in the book, I would say, refers to the blackness of the ivory trader’s  psyche which sees anything different as negative. It also refers to the intent of the invaders who defeats the local population to harvest their resources, in this case ivory, and drain the conquered country of their wealth. Darkness refers to the ignorance and obtuseness of the invader to the needs of the invaded, who living in harmony with the nature around them, have evolved a culture and lifestyle best suited to mankind in that environment. What goes on in the the name of development is a cultural imposition and not a harmonious cultural intermingling. And this is something that Conrad has critiqued repeatedly in this book.

Marlow himself fell sick. So, all the perceptions he has about the locals are from the perspective of a semi-conscious sick man. He had to be nursed back before he could return the letters to Kurtz’s fiancee, who is absolutely in the dark about Kurtz’s cruelty and viciousness( Kurtz had shrunken heads of natives on poles at a certain distance from his post in Congo). She only sees Kurtz as the penniless lover who went into Africa to make money and, thus, be accepted by her family. She says, Men looked up to him( Kurtz)–his goodness shone in every act.

Marlow keeps her in the darkness about his last words too and says he died with her name on his lips because she wants something– something–to–to live with. She is also the opposite of darkness and her hair glows with a golden light.

This is a book that makes me think. It makes me wonder if development means the same thing to all the people of the world, if what we judge to be good for ourselves would be good for others. To me, it is a cry for tolerance of things unfamiliar and new. It is a call to be positive and open to all cultures, religions, races and life.