Sunday, January 24, 2010

Er...camels, anyone?

This morning on television, I saw the Border Security Force camel contingent practising for the Republic Day Parade on January 26.

Ha, ha, I said to myself, look, camels. How quaint.

The TV camera went behind the scenes, and showed little snippets of the camels stirring at dawn, and interviewed their proud moustachioed handlers. Delhi is cold and foggy right now (lots of flights and trains cancelled today); but the BSF camel contingent was up early, preparing the camels for the day's rehearsals. There are three months of daily rehearsals, as a lead up to Republic Day. And the men interviewed on TV were proud of who they were and what they were doing.

The camel parade is a colourful spectacle. They do look good, you know? The camels are all brightly tasselled; they have this brass band, and the camels march smartly to the drummers. They're even in the Guinness Book of World Records, for being the world's only camel band.

But to me, this sort of pageantry has never been particularly interesting - in fact, I find the Republic Day Parade really boring. I can understand the need for it. Every country needs to say, look, we're big and strong and guess what, my tanks (or camels!!) are better than yours. It's one of these feel-good things, I suppose, not just to reassure your own population, but also tell the rest of the world not to mess with you.

But I was more interested in finding out what the camels did when they were not parading.

As it turns out, nothing. These 100 are purely in showbiz :) They're a special set of camels, chosen for their haughty demeanour, much like their men are chosen for their moustaches. I kid you not. "No moustache? Sorry bro, you just don't cut the mustard." (The mustard reference is my idea of a pun. These men have to wax their moustaches every day with mustard oil, he he).

So anyway, while these 100 vain camels are kicking their legs smartly to music, there are another 700 not-so-vain camels behind the scenes that patrol our sandy desert borders with Pakistan. And it's a loooooonnnng border, stretching across multiple states.

Before 1965, the Indian border with Pakistan was patrolled by the state army. After 1965, when fighting broke out in the Rann of Kutch, a special unit was created - the Border Security Force, or BSF.

Have you seen the Rann of Kutch? Imagine an endless vista of flat land, dry as dust and baking hot. For three months in the monsoons, the Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh, when the rains bring moisture and the ground is inundated. The rest of the time, it is dry and caked; but there's moisture underneath, so it makes for difficult terrain (in fact, they're having trouble building fencing along the border there, because the ground gives way, and it is difficult to find purchase).

My friend Amit (who does really cool travel shows) clicked these photos in the Rann of Kutch while on a shoot. This is the Little Rann, not really the border, but you can see what the ground is like.

But obviously, this is good camel country! A camel costs 90 rupees a day; and doesn't need expensive diesel, or spare parts. Or repair shops or gas stations, all of which are impossible in this area. And - it has a good sense of direction :)

So everyday, the camelmen patrol the borders, up and down, looking for any signs of Pakistani presence. And, on the other side, there's a similar camel contingent in Pakistan, looking for signs of Indians (we are, after all, two sides of the same coin).

Here's a photo from Outlook India's special feature on the camel contingents of the Border Security Force. This photo is from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, also desert country, but with a terrain quite different from the Rann of Kutch.

These then, are the working camels of the Border Security Force, moody, muzzled and tough. They're cranky creatures, apt to bite, and the camelmen use gur to coax them into better moods. I rather like them!

So I propose a toast - a toast to the working camels of BSF!! When we watch the prancing colour of the camels on Republic Day parade, I guess we should really remember who the real heroes are.

- Deepa

P.S. In 2007, the UNESCO asked the Border Security Force for 100 trained camels, for peacekeeping in Sudan. I don't think that proposal went anywhere, but obviously it means trained camels make horse sense (yeah, yeah, another bad pun, he he he).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Non-Resident Indian

A large number of my friends and family live abroad. In the Brahmin community that I come from, this is quite common. In the 80's many went abroad to study engineering or computer science, or to do research. Most found jobs and stayed back, returning briefly to India to marry and take wives back with them.

Most of the Indians we know abroad are first generation immigrants. Almost all are well-settled and successful, with well-paid jobs and beautiful homes. They are, as a group, quite well-integrated into the countries where they live.

But the one thread common to all of them, is that their hearts and souls are still Indian.

They are Indians, because their initial years were lived in India. Whether you grow up in a small town, or a sleepy city, or a big bustling metropolis, growing up in India is an experience that shapes you, defines you. The friends you make at schools and college, the often over-protective family that cloisters you, the extended community that you love to hate...the weddings, the festivals, the food, the weather, the crazy conversations over cricket, the laughter, the bitching, the rants about the bureaucracy - all of these define you.

So it's not surprising that almost all of my family and friends living abroad make visits to India, every couple of years. Most speak fondly of the country they left behind, and are nostalgic about the food, festivals, family and community get-togethers. As they grow into their forties and fifties and sixties, the nostalgia gets stronger and stronger, and the trips often more frequent.

But their children - second and third generation migrants - are a different matter altogether. They were born abroad, and their passports mark them as a different nationality. It's not just their accents that sound different - their slang, their jokes, their TV programmes, their food (yes, food is a big thing) - are all different. Just as my generation was shaped by India, these children have been shaped by the countries they live in.

They are, at heart, not Indian - although their well-meaning parents have sent them for Sanskrit classes, or music and dance lessons. These children will never know or relate to the many little anecdotes that bind Indians together - Ajit jokes, or the magic of Sholay, cricket.

Instead they are world citizens, global in their outlook, as comfortable with sushi as they are with tacos or nasi goreng. My nephew in New York learns Mandarin. A friend's daughter learns the cello.

The rational half of me recognises that this is a good thing - that as people migrate and spread and intermarry, many of the artificial boundaries that separate humans from each other are blurring. This is surely good for the planet.

But the other half - the emotional half - sharply mourns my personal loss. These are my friends and family, and their children, now strangers to me. As I head into my forties, I want to be surrounded by these people. Instead, they are far away, and we are each forced to move on with our personal spheres, intersecting occasionally. Digital images and facebook updates take the place of flesh and blood meetings or evenings spent over drinks, debating and laughing.

I feel especially sharply, the loss of my family. My nephew and niece, twins, were born in Cinncinnati a few months ago. I have not seen them yet. Another will be born in San Diego and I will not see that child either. I cannot gather them to me, or rock them to sleep, or tell them stories.

Even though my life is so full, I feel a sharp sense of loss. It is even worse for older people. I know elderly parents in India whose children have migrated abroad. Their days loom empty and lonely, without the sounds of grandchildren. Their visits to their family are complicated by unfriendly visa rules and alien surroundings.

All migration brings loss, yes. From village to city, or from one city to another, migration is difficult on those left behind. But migration abroad seems to have a finality, a severing of common ties, language, food and culture, that is harder to cope with. When asked, "Are you Indian?", my nieces and nephews in the US are going to answer, "No, we're American." I have yet to come to terms with that.