Saturday, May 13, 2006

Subcontinental Summary

Whenever the BBC want pictures of bearded, foaming-at-the-mouth, gun-toting Pakistanis burning effigies of Bush and American flags they invariably come to Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's eastern province of Balochistan. That, along with Balochistan's reputation for tribal conflicts and lawlessness (many areas of Balochistan and the NWFP are effectively off limits, not just to foreigners but ordinary Pakistanis as well, because Pakistani laws cannot be guaranteed there and instead tribal laws rule), made me slightly apprehensive before coming. But, as with all preconceptions, my worries proved totally unfounded. In fact Quetta is the cleanest and most organised city I have come across in all of Pakistan, and perhaps even the whole Subcontinent (Islamabad doesn't count as it's only home to bureaucrats, diplomats and NGOs, and they're not real people). Street names are signposted and it is possible to walk the entire length of the main street along the pavement without having to step onto the road due to encroaching street stalls or roadworks; a feat unheard of anywhere else on the Subcontinent! Apart from the lively bazaars there's very little in Quetta for the average tourist to see, but I had to check out the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) museum. Partly because it's free, but mainly because of several fossils that have been found in the area that provided the "missing link" between land mammals and whales, an erstwhile favourite point of attack for creationists trying to discredit Darwinian evolution. Ambulocetus natans (the walking whale that swims) and Pakicetus inachus are famous in evolutionary biology circles are usually housed at the GSP museum. Unfortunately they're on an extended visit to the US and so I had to make do with photos and the remains of Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived. The museum has everything that embodies, in my opinion, ought to be like: no multimedia, just rows upon rows of specimen cases with oodles of information and a passionate curator, running the place on a shoestring budget, who is only too happy to give you a little personal tour.

Anyway, now is the opportune moment to summarise my thoughts and impressions of my 6 months here on the Subcontinent. My first observation, however, is slightly off topic (though not much) and has to do with nomenclature. Sometime in the recent past it has become the norm in Britain to call people from the Subcontinent Asian, rather than Indian, as used to be the case, probably to defuse complaints from Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. But personally I find it stupid, not least because Asia is a vast continent that stretches from Irian Jaya to Istanbul. But that aside, Pakistan and Bangladesh are extremely recent political entities that were carved from territory that was for centuries known as India, and its inhabitants even referred to themselves as Indians. The drawing of a line on a map can't change millennia of shared history and genealogy. On top of that it should be Pakistanis that call themselves as the term originally referred to the Indus river and the lands immediately surrounding it i.e. modern-day Pakistan. Anyway, that's my tuppence worth on the subject of political correctness applied without due thought. But on to the meat of the subject: India (the Subcontinent).

Where to start? it's difficult to summarise a region that is home to a fifth of the world's population, but I'll start with a topic that is very close to my heart (less than 15cm) and forms an integral part of any true travel experience: food. I've already touched on Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan cuisine (not that great, unfortunately) and so will concentrate on Indian and Pakistani. In the UK we consider ourselves connoisseurs of Indian fare with curry having become the national dish and there being more curry houses in Britain than traditional chippies. And that is true, to an extent. We are accustomed to many of the dishes, though often they are altered for European tastes. However, we only really know north Indian, Pakistani and Mughlai cuisine (and the top end of that, because for the most part people generally only eat roti and dhal) and know little about south India cuisine, which, for me, stands head and shoulders above the rest. My particular favourite were south Indian meals (also the singular, as in "can I have a meals please?"). Often served on banana leaves (which adds to its exotic appeal) and eaten by hand meals vary from region to region, restaurant to restaurant and from day to day (i.e. restaurants change their meals every day). The basics remain the same though: rice, several different vegetable options, tasty coconut chutney, tangy lime pickle and sometimes curd and mithai (sweets), depending on price. And the price is very reasonable, usually around 20p and, best of all, they keep topping you up with veg, rice and chutney until you burst, a la Mr. Creosote. Delicious. Though I must say that my body is finding Pakistani food more "wholesome" than its Indian counterpart as my bowel movements have gone from dubious to championship winning.

A less pleasant, but necessary, part of travelling in India is seeing the poverty. Every country, including developed ones, have their disenfranchised poor eking out livings on the margins of society, but the chasm between the haves and have-nots in India is jaw-droppingly enormous, and a blight on the country. The squalor endured by inhabitants of India's shanty towns as well as many of its rural poor is inhuman. Even Pakistan, which scores significantly lower on the UN Human Development Index, doesn't seem to have such extremes of poverty (though I may be wrong). It seems a shocking indictment of a democracy that has supposedly had a left-leaning government for most of its life is unable to provide basic amenities for the majority of its populace. Despite the external investment and influx of tourists (almost non-existent in Bangladesh and Pakistan) the government seems to be incredibly adept at squandering this money to the detriment of its own people. Of all the regions I've travelled through South Asia is the one I'm least optimistic about with regards to the future of its people. In Latin America democracy is consolidating after a long period of autocracy and things, by and large, seem to be headed in the right direction; similarly for Southeast Asia; and the standard of living for the Chinese is increasing before your very eyes, and though personal freedoms may not be being acquired at such meteoric rates they do seem to be inching along at least. Here, on the other hand, you have Sri Lanka which is locked in its perpetual conflict with little sign of things abating; Bangladesh has so many problems that one wouldn't know where to begin (not that the ineffectual politicians are likely to set aside their squabbling for long enough to even think about it); things might be getting better for India's middle-classes but the majority has little to look forward to; and Pakistan, which seems to hold such promise, is riven from within by internecine and sectarian conflicts. I hate to be a pessimist, but I don't see blue skies for the foreseeable future. One example of this malaise is the fact that almost any extended conversation with a twentysomething Subcontinental will invariably touch upon the subject of how one gets visas to work or study in Europe, as they all want to flee their own country. Staying with politics (though on a less heavy subject) here's an interesting little factoid: despite women having a marginal sole in public life on the Subcontinent (less so in Sri Lanka), all four countries have had female prime ministers (in Bangladesh both the PM and the leader of the opposition are women), a feat not accomplished by more emancipated countries such as the USA, France or Australia! Though, to be fair, they were all either wives or daughters of previous prime ministers.

Many strange anachronisms have also been retained from the days of the Raj. I've already mentioned some turns of phrase that disappeared along with crinoline in Britain but that are still going strong from Karachi to Kolkata. Lawyers in Chennai still wear constricting cravattes, black and white outfits and even wigs throughout the sweltering heat of Summer and the well-to-do still frequent exclusive clubs and gymkhanas. But the most pervasive and pernicious legacy is that of bureaucracy. It is impossible to get anything done without having to fill out a form and getting 3 different people, whose sole purpose seems to be to drink chai in secluded, hard-to-find corner offices, to stamp it. Even the supposedly simple task of buying a train ticket involves (at least) a visit to two different booths and the filling out of an application form. The bureaucracy seems to feed upon itself and each person's goal is to get a bigger desk and a longer, and more obscure, job title, which is there only to confuse people so that the person has less work to do. I once, on the quest for the office of the "deputy chief commercial officer – passenger", got lost in the bowels of Pakistan Railways HQ and spent ages walking past rows upon rows of dingy little offices, each with its shrivelled occupant idly twiddling his thumbs. The lethargy and inertia was almost oppressive.

But I have to end on a light note; my Indian idiosyncrasies. No visitor to India can ignore the Head Wobble. An essential component of communication throughout India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, though not so much in Pakistan, the Head Wobble perennially baffles visitors. It can mean yes, but it can also mean no, perhaps, I'm not sure and even hello. Not that foreigners will ever be allowed to decipher their secret code. Not only that, but it seems to require the control of muscles that I’m not even sure I have because no matter how hard I try I haven't yet been able to execute a single wobble. One very common gesture that is quite straightforward to understand is what I call the Hand Twist. In it the right hand is held up (at about chin level) and twisted through 90 degrees whilst simultaneously curling the fourth and fifth fingers (leaving the other three at right angles to each other). The Hand Twist means "what?", although a surprising amount of nuance can be added, from sarcasm to surprise, depending on the speed, style and general body language; and because of its ease it is a gesture I have quickly adopted into my vocabulary and am hoping to import back to Britain.

But that's it for South Asia and another country (Iran) and region (the Middle East) await. Onwards and westwards!

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