Monday, December 22, 2008

dreams of grandeur

This is about Xian, China.

The hall is huge. Very wide, and twice as long. The ceiling, so high that even though there are over two hundred people inside here at the moment it just swallows up their words, dimming them to a dull murmur, like a distant waterfall.
Everybody is looking at the men in the pits. Terracotta men. Warriors whose weapons — spears, swords, bows and arrows — are no longer in their hands. Some of them are whole but most wear signs of their battle with time, missing bits of nose, ear, chest, leg; leftover smudges of once-bright colour.
They’re tall men, of noble bearing. You know it just by the expressions on their faces — chins up, looking squarely at whatever the future might bring. They stand in neat rows, protecting the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who became the ruler of China in 246 BC.
Emperor Qin is credited with building a unified law-abiding nation — he defeated six kingdoms and built the first version of the Great Wall of China. He survived three attempts on his life and perhaps, as a result of them, became obsessed with the idea of death.
Some say that he died looking for Peng Lai, a mythical land of immortality, inhabited by the undying. He started the construction of his mausoleum and the Terracotta Army that was to accompany him in his battles in the afterlife, several years before his death.
The army was discovered fairly recently, in 1947, when a farmer digging a well in his field found pieces of terracotta arms and legs.

Imagining the possibilities
Inside Pit 1, listening to the guide’s story, it’s easy to let the imagination wing its way on a flight of fancy.
After the first few thousand warriors were excavated, the uncovering of the remainder was halted until a way could be found to continue the process without submitting them to the ravages that occur when they come in contact with air.
Looking at the row of warriors peter into a bank of soil, covered with tarpaulin, it’s easy to picture hundreds, nay, thousands of sombre-faced warriors standing in the dark, dank underground all the way to the tomb, about a kilometre away.
The imagined picture lends greater grandeur to what I actually see before me.

Old world charm
The Terracotta warriors maybe the reason why Xian figures on almost every tourist itinerary to China, but it’s not all there is to this city. Xian was once the starting point of the Silk Road, known as Chang’an in those days. Traders from along the route, Persia, Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern countries, came to live here, giving rise to the city’s Muslim Quarter, a tight knit group that exists even today, lending Xian its distinctive character.
Head here in the last of the evening light, so you can see the lights come on. Everyday is a festival here, with music and lights and dancing. Stalls that sell all kinds of foods, and nuts and souvenirs. Each step of the way you find something that catches your eye. Clay flutes that look like little pots. Crickets in tiny cane cages, like keychains — in Xian, the sound of the cricket is considered musical and brings luck. Don’t miss the ‘jing gao’, the rice cakes, and ‘shi zi bing’, the city’s famous parsemon cakes. Xian is also home to its distinctive dumplings — little doughy bundles of full of delicious meat and veggies, each bite soaked with flavour.
A tiny lane off Muslim Street leads to the local mosque. Here, the stalls come closer together and the bargaining is fiercer. Chinese kaftans and cheap cotton t-shirts compete for attention with antique silver and stone jewellery that is a unique mix of Chinese and Muslim designs. Narrow streets crisscross and run into one another, turning in on themselves in to a maze of bylanes.

A time for celebration
Walking out of Muslim Street, it feels like you’ve left behind a older century and entered a new one. Xian has the wide streets and well-behaved traffic that is typical of most Chinese cities. Broad sidewalks and boulevards encourage aimless strolls past the Drum tower and Bell tower at the city’s centre. Each inch of the monuments is lit with tiny yellow lights, looming in the night as the backdrop to so many Chinese kites snaking skywards through the evening breeze.
In the square between the two Xian landmarks, a boisterous celebration is on, celebrating the launch of a new energy drink. There’s music and contests and ice sculptures, and streams of melt water at our feet. I like the lemon flavour more than the orange, and as I nod my approval, I get offered a second; ‘Welcome to China’ says the beaming face attached to the hand extending it to me.
Suddenly the music changes to a more steady, urgent beat, and tall beautiful models walk on to the improvised ramp, their heels clicking in time with the music.

A slice of life
Xian’s two main streets cut the city into four quarters, like an orange, The Bell and Drum tower like the pits in the centre. Heading east down Main Street, I walk past the more modern shops, the McDonalds and the KFCs, the international brands that are booming in a China where suddenly everybody has more money to spend on clothes and eating out. And then all of a sudden are the souk-like bylanes. Offshoots from the streets full of designer labels that meander into no where — displaying women’s knick knacks like hair clips and cosmetics on one side, and fresh meat and seafood and nuts on the other — and beckon to you in with the friendly babble that your can hear from far away.
It’s these little surprises that make Xian the sort of place where you want to finish off the main sightseeing spots on your agenda quickly, so you can spend the rest of your time walking around, exploring. It tempts you to stop and watch the kites soaring in the sky, to listen to the haggling at the shops, watch the musician’s fingers fly over the holes in his clay pot flute, to sip a beer sitting at the park benches and take a late night walk on the lit ramparts of the city walls.
It also makes you wish you were in the city on a Wednesday, so you could find out for yourself if the rumours you heard of boisterous noisy cricket fights held during the weekly market in the Muslim Quarter that could put the cock fights of old to shame are true.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on December 6

Saturday, December 6, 2008

see what I saw

After eight hours of crouching by the side of the Taj, scouring its left profile, picking out every wart (there were few), examining every window, every corner, seeing the front was overwhelming.
I’ve looked at this facade so many times before. Quick glances while walking in; slow examinations while standing at the seafront promenade engrossed in conversation; complete awe when I saw it in the distance, from the harbour ferry coming back to Gateway. Its bright façade looming in the smoggy, orange night; a solid block of light in Mumbai’s twinkling coastline.
I looked at that facade again that night. Darkened. Slowly, as the fact that the naval commandoes had managed to push the terrorists to the rear left corner of the building sank in, a light or two went on in some rooms. Some occupants (they’re hostages now, my brain interjected) were waving at their windows, seeking the attention of the firemen already setting up their ladders to evacuate as many as they can.
It was an incongruous sight. Frightened, harrowed faces framed at windows that looked into comfortable rooms. Tasteful fabric and classy furnishings witnessing their fear, smelling their sweat.
Towards the left of the front façade, no lights went on. But the windows were lit in a golden glow there as well, this one dancing in the still night. (It was a very still night. I remember being surprised by that again and again during that night. Maybe the import of what was happening, weighed in on everything). A fire set by grenades that was put out by the seven, eight, nine fire engines that showed up; only to flame up again with every loud explosion that shook the silent night.
The road in front of the Taj has scorched patches at periodic distances, where grenades were dropped. The windows of a car are shattered. (Only one; why didn't more break?) .
A man in a white shirt walks over the scorched patch I’m staring at. He’s talking on the phone, coordinating the rescue efforts or something. Maybe he’s a hotel official, maybe a cop. As he walks, he looks up at a lit window where a woman and a girl are waving a white handkerchief. They want to be rescued and are trying to catch someone’s eye. They’ve been noticed, but no one has the time to stop and reassure them that their turn will come and their nightmare will get over. The man spots them and waves back, without a break in his stride.

In the morning, I was thirsty and my ankles hurt. So much.
Not my knees, from crouching behind a pile of concrete paving blocks all night. From crouching, as I moved slowly in the dark.
Not my butt, from sitting constantly on the pavement. Getting up every now and then to stretch my legs, to try to see more. But mostly concentrating on staying out of the way of the operation and being a mute witness.
Not my eyes, from staring nonstop. Trying to adjust to the night and see more. From blinking less. From seeing wave after wave of cops, armymen, commandos go in and, some minutes and gunshots later, the return trickle of injured men.
Not my ears, which had just learnt to distinguish the sounds of an AK-47 shot from that of a pistol or a rifle. That rang with the sounds of the periodic grenade blasts, slowly learning to judge the distance and direction more accurately.
My ankles.
I remember cursing the flatmate’s cat. Two days before, he’d bit me in the left heel. I maintained that he was having a nightmare and it was an involuntary reaction, cause one second he was asleep, the next he bit me, and then he was asleep again. But during that vigil outside the Taj, I cussed him as I stood there, shifting weight from my tired right foot to the left, and then back again immediately, cause the left hurt too much.
I remember the sorrow and the distress of the crime reporters when they confirmed the news that Kamte, Salaskar and Karkare were dead. Heads collapsed into shaking hands and, for a moment, the silent night was even more silent. Then they were back at work: Discussing the ramifications of the deaths, the TV journos calling in their reports, in that screaming-to-be-heard-above-the-crowd-and-noise voice they use.

I remember the waiting. Most of that night was about waiting. Waiting to piece together what was happening in other parts of the city and understand the magnitude of the attack. Waiting for the next grenade to be thrown. Waiting for the next round of firing. Waiting for the next injured man to be rushing out of the Taj, waiting for the next batch of hostages to be freed, waiting for the naval commandos, waiting for the firemen, waiting for the NSG, waiting far the tear gas, waiting, waiting. Waiting for it to be over.
I remember having our hopes pinned on the NSG. Wait till they get here, then it’ll be over in a couple of hours. They’ll be here at daybreak, and then the terrorists won’t have any place to run.
I was looking at a pigeon sleeping on a window of the Taj all night. I realised it was daybreak when I discovered that many more pigeons were now sharing his perch. Just minutes before dawn the NSG commandos, in their crisp black, had slunk into the Taj. Half an hour went by; there were gunshots. Another hour, and some more intermittent firing. With each gunshot the pigeons took off from the Taj, circled the sky above it, and returned to the same spot. The naval commandos brought in more ammo, more tear gas. More time.
At around 8:30 am, I decided to end my vigil. I wanted to see it through but I was tired, physically and mentally, and no longer so sure that with the NSG here it was just a matter of hours. My phone had been off all night, I knew people were worried. I went back.

ps. There are more things I remember. As I find the words for them, I’ll add them on.

pps. For C, who worried all night. See what I saw.