Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Who am I?

Who am I?
I wish I knew.
Maybe I will, when I get to 79 or 104.
Not sure yet, though.

I was born in free India. But I believe I belong wherever I happen to be.
I’m Bengali by birth, south Indian by choice, and have lived in Bangalore/ Bengaluru since May 1992.

I love children. And the world of the word – written, read, spoken or imagined. I’m addicted to wandering around the globe, around India and way beyond.  

I write books, by choice. I'm an independent journalist, too. 

Over the past four years, I’ve come across dozens of folks who’ve asked me: “Why don’t you blog?”  

So, here's my first blog. Launched on an unusual day, February 29, 2012. Through it, I hope to be able to share chance encounters, conversations, stories beyond route maps, questions beyond guidebooks, all that lights my path as I travel, within myself, without myself. Inner journeys mean as much to me as physical distances do.

I realize with certainty that, as I travel, I’ve grown addicted to the unknown. To wrong turnings. To getting lost. To looking up into the eyes of a stranger across continents, who helps me find my way back ~ and becomes my friend for the next decade or more. To my (sometimes wobbly) centre. To my search for myself.

This blog, I think, will be about places… people… arts... food… stories… images…. I hope it will backtrack through time, location, close encounters….. and who knows what else?!

I’ve chosen to call these meanderings … MULLED INK!

Will you travel with me through this collage of memories and moments? Be my friend? My reader? My guest? My guide? Or even my companion in wonder?  

Travel/ People: Train from Paris

Travel broadens one’s horizons, as every footsore adventurer knows. But not always in terms of mileage covered, plastic meals ingested, railway window records of scenery traversed, fellow travellers communed with, or sites, sounds and history jotted down for posterity. Why, then, does a traveller set out again and again, no matter how fatigued by the queue-pocked schedules, the diverse discomforts encountered or the silent surprises of legends come alive?

It could be for the chance encounters. The special moments beyond the momentary. In short, because of journeys beyond landscapes.

Join me in this one.

 Original sketch by Chandranath Acharya

Weary from being footloose and fancy free in the streets of Paris for a whole week in 1997, I longed to get back to northern Italy, from where I’d branched out to see what I could see. The Eurorail second-class coach to Milan was icy-cold that night, my companions as travel-weary as I. A pair of Italian high schoolgirls from Vicenza – Lisa and Cristina – made a joke of the fact that they had missed their earlier train by minutes. The bearded Argentinian artist in the fourth seat joined us in Italian between long sips from a hip flask, while the Italian girls helped me to bridge the language barrier.

Suddenly, the door was flung open. Conversations froze in mid-sentence. A chinky-eyed, tanned and burly man in sloppy jeans and an oversized jacket entered, hastily arranged his bags on an overhead rack, then treated us to an orchestra of snores as he fell asleep across a seat-and-a-half in minutes – obliterating our chances of catching a wink that night. But that’s before the comedy in real life began.

The ticket inspector entered and checked our rights of passage, while our companion slumbered on. ‘Signor, biglietti, tickets…’ The eyes opened for a moment, then the sleeper slumped into a more comfortable pose. ‘Signor,’ the official pleaded. Our fellow traveller groaned, then signalled that he had no ticket.

The inspector could take no more. In a torrent of Italian, he levied a heavy fine, double the fare in francs. The traveller opened his wallet and waved a 50 franc note – it was all he had! At that, the official disappeared – only to return with a colleague in tow. They briskly filled up forms for the fine and demanded the traveller’s passport. In response, he produced a little black booklet. That drove the officials into a huddle. Did the face match the photograph? They looked puzzled. Once the forms changed hands, the officials vanished down the vestibule.

And the stranger sighed, turned, and fell asleep once more. As his snores reverberated through the coach, our friend from Buenos Aires regaled us with Argentinian folk cures for snoring. With a jerk, the sleeper awoke, unlocked his suitcase and produced not only his tickets but a Mexican passport.

Silence. Could we believe our eyes? ‘If you had a ticket with you, why didn’t you show it to the official?’ Cristina demanded. Our compassion, either drunk or drugged, just shrugged. We all joined in her queries.

We had to resolve this mystery. Why would someone with a valid ticket want to pay a fine? And what was the document he had used in lieu of a passport, the painter asked. It proved to be a…. Vatican card!!

So, our companion was a priest in training! Shocked, we coaxed the Mexican into showing his tickets to the official, which he did with great reluctance. But he forgot to have his penalty forms cancelled.

‘Why should I worry about the future in the present?’ he asked.

What an unusual character! Long after he had disembarked, he provided us with conversation and mirth all the way back home.

(A version of this article appeared in Sunday Herald, Bangalore, in May 1998)

Travel: Myanmar ~ The land of the golden smile

The south-facing, smiling Kassapa Buddha at the Ananda Phaya at Bagan, Myanmar

AT THE heart of Myanmar lies a golden smile. In November 2011, we glimpsed it on the glorious Buddha images across the land. But the smile equally lit up our young guide in Yangon, as it did children at play among the famed Bagan ruins. 

The days since our return have been packed with positive political news from Myanmar. Cause for celebration? Not yet. Because sub-texts shadowed our six days in the country, yet unspoilt by mass tourism, making it difficult to share our experience in high-definition black-and-white.

Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) shares borders with China, Laos, India, Bangladesh and Thailand. It has been my dream destination since I was a child. I'd read of fabled royalty decked in rubies and jade, of the Mon civilisation, of the Bagan kingdom dating back to 1057. I knew Myanmar had natural resources such as petroleum, timber, lead and coal.

I was aware of how the military junta had ruled since a 1962 military coup. But since March 2011, Myanmar has been a unitary presidential republic, led by former general Thein Sein. Its administrative capital shifted from Yangon to Naypyidaw, 320 km north, in November 2005.

We fly into Yangon from India. The first impressions are clean streets, disciplined people, and crumbling colonial buildings reminiscent of north Kolkata. Right-hand driven, ancient Nissans and Toyotas rattle past our bus. We see little evidence of littering, road rage, or the traffic chaos of Bengaluru.

What's Yangon's population? Few at bustling Bogyoke Aung San Market know for sure. Myanmar's last official census was held in 1983. Guesstimates say 16 million live in the former capital, out of 58-80 million across Myanmar. 

 A detail of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

In the footsteps of karma-driven locals, we seek solace at the 2,500-year-old golden Shwedagon pagoda, which soars almost 100 metres above Yangon. Its history? Burmese merchants Tapussa and Bhallika visited the Buddha shortly after he attained enlightenment. He gave them eight hairs from his head, which they gifted to their king at Okkalapa (now Yangon.) He enshrined these relics in a 20-metre pagoda. Since the 14th century, the pagoda had been rebuilt several times. It dazzles at night with a ceremonial vane and bud, bejewelled with 3,154 golden bells and 79,569 diamonds.

Monks chant, drums roll, lamps flare and dim as a procession winds past various lamp-lit shrines, heralding the full moon. Smiling gently, beatific worshippers offer lotus blossoms and squares of gold leaf with reverence. 

It was at the Shwedagon that Aung San Suu Kyi, the global face of Myanmar, made her first public speech on August 26, 1988, to an audience estimated at between 30,000 and a million, catapulting her into history. Standing by its monument to martyred students from 1988, I tune into another tale — of a struggle for a three-year Myanmar passport.

Amidst the smiling Buddhas, tucking into green tea salad, or learning of age-old thanaka cosmetic paste, we cue in to proliferating child trafficking and human rights abuses. Our bus cannot pause for a moment outside 54 University Avenue, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi's residence. We are forbidden to record images of the army or the police. 

 The landscape at Bagan by day

Do shadows constantly mask facts? It is tough to tell in this nation of 85 per cent Therawada Buddhists. In historic 41 sq km Bagan in central Myanmar, on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy river, 500 km north of Yangon, we glimpse the ancient capital of Burman and Mon rulers between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Bagan's green landscape is dotted with 2,217 temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins, the largest Buddhist site globally. Following a devastating earthquake in 1975, UNESCO has restored over 200 monuments. India sent in over $20 million worth of conservation aid. But UNESCO has refused to recognise Bagan as a world heritage site, citing government restoration as unscientific.

Ananda Phaya, built in 1105 AD by King Kyanzittha, is one of Bagan's four surviving temples. At its entrance, vendors sell local crafts — including lacquerware, sand paintings, and woven longyis. They include children of four or six, peddling their own drawings on ruled notebook pages. “Only $1,” they plead, hungry-eyed, “only 1,000 kyat.” 

The temple houses four giant gold-covered Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, architecturally fusing Mon and Indian styles. Eight monks, locals say, told their king of how they meditated in the Himalayan Nandamula Cave temple. With the aid of Indian artisans, they replicated the symmetry of Bengal and Orissa architecture. Later, the king executed the monks to ensure no future copies. Within the temple, niches celebrate Buddha's life in stone. Jataka scenes are embossed on terracotta tiles. In the plains around, hardy Israeli desert trees ensure that bird droppings do not ruin the restoration. 

 A buggy in Bagan, drawn by horses of originally Assamese origin

But post-dusk in wondrous Bagan, its buggies drawn by horses of Assamese origin, pitch darkness falls over the local town of Nyaung-U and its 12,000 inhabitants. Though our hotel has 24/7 air-conditioning and dial-up Internet access, reality bites. A small village nearby has just three LED lights. The town's lone hospital, constructed by the Russians decades ago, boasts of two doctors and a dentist. Monks ensure justice, in lieu of its single lawyer. The elderly refuse hospitalisation, fearing that the generator heralds the god of death. Around Bagan, most people — whether scholars, waiters or puppeteers — earn daily wages, according to reliable sources. 

But some are visibly more equal than others. A general's son-in-law has built a dissonant convention centre amidst the ruins, while another general has constructed a ‘duplicate' palace to perpetuate his own glory. All because Bagan was once the ‘Land of Victory.'

 A modern hotel complex amidst traditional dwellings on stilts at Inle Lake

These truths, however, blur on the idyllic freshwater Inle Lake in Shan State, 22 km long, 11 km wide, and 1,328 metres above sea level. Birds skim the water at shoulder-level as our five-seater motorised boat propels us towards our hotel on stilts. Over 254 recorded bird species thrive in these protected wetlands.
From the 18 surrounding villages, traditional fishermen bypass weeds and water hyacinth to snare carp. They stand upright on one leg, the other wrapped around an oar. Floating gardens of lake-bottom weeds, anchored by bamboo poles, bob with the tide, rich with tomatoes. Often crouched twenty to a boat, villagers paddle by.

Whether Intha, Shan or other ethnicities, smiles greet us. At the Five Buddha Temple with its gold-leaf wrapped, feature-blurred statues. At the world's only lotus silk handloom centre. At the floating market where flexi-tailed lucky fish ear-rings are a good bargain. At the once submerged Inn Dein pagoda complex. Or even from the briefly glimpsed brass-hooped, long-necked Padaung tribal women.

Reflecting on Myanmar as we glide over Inle, I wind back to a chance encounter on a Yangon Airways flight. With Eindra, a young woman of Burmese origin, whose family relocated to the US three generations ago. Her US-born 50-plus parents, both professionals, now yearn to return to Myanmar, to spend their golden years with their extended family.

Perhaps their lens on Myanmar is double-faced. Like the south-facing Kassapa Buddha at the Ananda Phaya. Solemnly meditative from one angle; from another, he smiles, reassuring worshippers that all sadness must pass. He seems in sync with the beautiful, tolerant people of Myanmar. For theirs is indisputably the land of the golden smile.

Changing face of Myanmar (updated November 2011
December 2: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes a 3-day visit to Myanmar, where she met both Aung San Syu Kyi and General Thein Sein. She carried letters to both from President Barack Obama. This is the first major US political move in a country isolated for over 50 years.

November 18: Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) decides to contest all 48 seats in the forthcoming by-elections.

November 17: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) clears Myanmar to chair the bloc in 2014, as a reward for recent reforms.

November 16: Suu Kyi meets President Thein Sein to press for the release of 6,300 political dissidents as promised by the State media. Only 200 are set free.


Military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wins the first election in 20 years. The National League for Democracy, headed by Suu Kyi, boycotts poll.

November 6: Suu Kyi released from house arrest. The Nobel peace laureate has spent 15 years and 19 days of the last two decades in detention.


Military junta crushes peaceful demonstrations led by monks and students. Thousands imprisoned.


Over 3,000 shot dead during student demonstrations in Rangoon. Thousands arrested.


General Ne Win stages a coup. Myanmar has been under various types of military rule since then.


Burma gains independence from the British. 


July 19: Bogyoke Aung San (Suu Kyi's father) assassinated in the Yangon Secretariat, along with six other ministers. 

Fast facts
Tourist season: November to February 

Currency: Kyats. Approximately $100 = 76,000 kyat. A local meal costs about 3,000 kyats (less than Rs 200). 

Internal airlines: Yangon Airways, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, among others. Airport security lax. But good in-flight service. 

Local special foods: Green tea salad. Mohinga (fish soup).

Main tourist sites: Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan, Pindaya caves.

Tested travel agency: Mya Thiri Travels, Yangon. 

Warning: Credit cards, Internet and international mobiles do not work. Local handsets/ SIM cards can be hired at the airport for $50 each. 

(This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line 'Life' supplement in December 2011)

Travel: Ladakh S.O.S.

The breathtaking Himalayan landscape from a hotel window in Leh, Ladakh.

Ladakh, to me, is a state of mind, not a mere destination. This home-truth kicked in during an eight-day ‘moderate to difficult’ September trek through the unforgiving landscape of the Markha Valley, along with two friends and nine strangers, mainly Bangaloreans.

What do I recall of my first trek ever? The dizzying glimpse of snow-meringue peaks as we fly into Leh, the capital, at an altitude of 3,505 metres. The acclimatisation routine over 36 hours at the scenic Oriental Guest House at Changspa. The awareness of jettisoning urban routines as we move on, step by step, breath by breath, brushing aside thoughts of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema).

 Puff-puff... pant-pant... trying my mountain legs, as Norboo ~ who is very helpful ~ carries my backpack

From the Spituk valley, we — six men and six women, accompanied by our intrepid, fleet-heeled Ladakhi guide Norboo — take an abandoned jeep track alongside the flowing Indus and tag behind mountain ponies saddled with provisions and our baggage. We face gusty winds, a hard drizzle, and the sun ablaze amidst a stark yet mystic terrain. Wind-sculpted craggy peaks summon higher powers to mind. In the rare atmosphere, one watches with disbelief as the rock formations morph moodily from mauve to violet to copper-blue.

After two long days on foot, the body signals weariness beyond denial. We cross narrow paths that sweep through the Hemis National Park (home to the rare snow leopard), sip tea at parachute-tent restaurants, where local women vend Maggi noodles, roasted barley with apricot kernel, and even hand-knitted sweaters.

We sight blue sheep, shaggy yaks and marmots en route to the Ganda La pass at 4,970 metres. By the third morning, I find myself astride Ta (Ladakhi for horse), led by Tenzing, a smiling teenager.

With young Tenzing, who led the horse named Ta.

The single house in Yurutse village on Day 2

Local sights and insights

Destinations, locations, maps blur en route. Mental shorthand replaces these. Pale lavender two-sleeper tents. Double-layer sleeping bags fit for the Siachen glacier. Bio-breaks in deep-hole Ladakhi toilets or in the shadow of a rock. No baths for eight days.

It’s Spituk to two-house Jingchen. Jingchen to Gandala La base camp via Rumbek village. Over Ganda La pass with its stunning view of towering Stok Kangri to the east, the ashen Zanskar range topped with snow to the west. Stumbling on to Skyu, with its single monastery amidst barley fields. Past autumn-rich willows and rare poplars in the untamed Markha valley, fording its river on horseback. On, on and on again to Thachungtse, where Hankar herdsmen spend their summers in stone dwellings. Beyond it lies the Gongmaru La pass at 5,200 metres, and blue lake waters leading to the Nimaling pasture.

 Siddhartha, who spent some years at high school in Bangalore.

Siddhartha, a young Ladakhi who spent eight years at a monastery, shares local insights. He points to the grazing tzu, crossbred from the yak and the local cow. He identifies brown chukor birds that scurry across the slopes. He stops at wild roses, like tiny pomegranates on their bush. He handpicks sweet-sour seabuckthorn berries, the base of Leh Berry juice. Out pops a glimpse of courting rituals: of how a young woman woos her Ladakhi man by arriving at his dwelling with a copper jug of chhang, the local barley brew. She weeps until he allows her family in to begin negotiations. Can this be true?

Buddhism imbues our trail. At our first ‘mane’ wall, we learn to circumambulate clockwise around the mounded stones, some inscribed with “Om Mane Padme Om”, which travellers can add to. The stupa-like chortens at village heads are revered lama relics. At Ganda La, we add to the fluttering prayer flags and, led by Norboo, collectively chant “Ki ki so so largala” thrice so that winds disperse our positive energies to the universe!

Cold fear! 
Riding to Thachungtse on the fifth afternoon, I shiver in the drizzle that soaks the cap through. Tenzing hands me a hailstone. Within minutes, a gentle snow begins to fall, icing over all colour on the trail.

Our morale ebbs as we make it to the camp. In the large, blue dining tent, we fish out dry clothing: a pair of woollen socks, a thermal vest, rain-proof pants. We turn quick-change artists in a corner.

The sleeping bags are soaked through, reports Siddhartha. Accompanying a horseman, he backtracks to the nearest village for blankets and razais for the night. No news of him for hours. Norboo sets out in search of him. The minutes seem like hours, even days. The temperature drops to minus 3 degrees Celsius. Sonam, our cook, conjures up a warm dinner, even kheer, to boost our spirits. But our stomachs are knotted with fear.

We relax when Siddhartha and Norboo turn up, still smiling, bearing warmth — and hope!

A fellow trekker, who fashions precision-machined components in Bangalore, takes charge.

Two brave souls opt for the lavender tents, as a dozen of us huddle in the dining one. Our day packs hold down its sides.

We toss and turn on damp ground sheets under blankets. All night, we take turns to knock the snow off the tent top. Some say their last prayers; some will the nightmare away. Intuitively, I guess that tomorrow will bring a reprieve.

 Ta looks for food at Thajungtse, where we were snowed in

Can an army helicopter rescue us, asks one. But we don’t really have an emergency at hand, argues another. Besides, there are no radio signals at Thachungtse, not even a mobile network. The nearest motorable road is at least two days away.

Return to warmth

At daybreak, we turn back from Gongmaru La. We allow the ponies to lead us towards home-stays at Markha, then Skyu. Serpentine mountain paths are now treacherous rivers of slush from the melting snow. I send a prayer skywards as a rein-less Ta heads down a slope, clutching onto the saddleback for balance and concentrating on the peaks, the serrated, smoky clouds.
Dismounting as the slippery path narrows, I freeze with fear. Siddhartha comes to the rescue, takes my hands and step by slow step, we crab-crawl sideways past the worst bends. How long did that take? Perhaps just minutes, but it feels like a lifetime.

 The gleaming copper vessels of a warm, welcoming Markha Valley homestay kitchen

In the warm home-stay kitchens, gleaming with copper utensils, the mood turns upbeat. We look forward, not back. I try some staple local fare — roasted, powdered barley or tsampa, into which Norboo stirs some sugar. At Markha, we dance to Ladakhi songs in the kitchen. Whirling around a Skyu campfire, we play antakshari, while Sonam surprises us with pizzas off his kerosene stove!

In reverse gear, we journey to Chilling, far away from Shang Sumdo or Martselang, originally the last lap of our trek.

A jeep awaits us across the raging Zanskar river. No bridge in sight. Winch-and-pulley drawn, a primitive cable car — which resembled a wooden crate draped in aluminium sheet — takes us across, two at a time.

On terra firma, I realise I’m no natural-born trekker. Nor would I ask for a second chance in Markha. Yet, I must respond to the call of Ladakh. Mainly because of its incandescent landscapes, its ever-giving people. Should I try the Nubra desert at 3,500 metres next? Only if I can walk no more than four hours a day, if I can pause to daydream on this lonely planet, perhaps fashion a haiku. For Ladakh is now a state of mind.

(This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line 'Life' supplement on November 28, 2008)

Travel/ Issues: Across the Dead Sea

IS THAT stained glass that I see before me? Or is it the Dead Sea at first glance? Are the dusky shadows playing tricks on me? It's almost impossible to tell at about 6 p.m. in November 2011.

The water shimmers. The sky, on fire, takes its cues from the sea. Luminous oranges, reds, purples, and indigos play over its stillness. The dome of the sunburnt sky kisses the waters, which glance back at the clouds with light.

That was a lyrical, charged half-hour I’ll never forget.

On a five-day Indian media familiarization trip hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board, there were some facts I knew about the Dead Sea. That it is 423 metres below sea level, the deepest known hypersaline lake. From Jordan, it laps at the shores of Israel and the West Bank across the brilliant stillness. 

This water body, 57 km by 18 km, lies in the Jordan Rift Valley. Its main tributary is the river Jordan. The water in the Dead Sea is ten times saltier than sea water (I know that from a gulp I swallowed by accident while trying to stay afloat). The relaxing bromine in its air is 20 times more concentrated than anywhere else, while the air around is eight per cent richer in oxygen than at sea level.

Its mineral-rich waters and rich, black mud have attracted visitors since time immemorial, including Herod the Great and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. German and Austrian citizens today can avail of Dead Sea therapies, courtesy their health insurance plans!

But – here’s a worrying thought – the water level in the Dead Sea is dropping by 30 cm annually. That’s because Jordan and Israel utilize its waters for industry, agriculture and domestic use.  Scientists fear that the lake may be dry by 2050.

                                                                              *      *     *

While sunset-gazing at the exquisitely-appointed Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, I had other matters on my mind last November. Scenes from the Arab Spring surged to the fore. A grotesque image of Gaddafi’s death in Libya… closely followed by Hosni Mubarak’s end in Egypt… the ebb and flow of unabating civil strife in Iraq.

I rejoiced in the historic and natural beauties of Jordan. But inevitably against the backdrop of the ongoing anti-Assad turbulence in Syria. Lurking in the backdrop was the fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Today, I worry about the stalled peace process between them, initiated by King Abdullah II of Jordan just months ago.  

How many blockades of relief ships will it take before Palestinians are allowed to live with dignity? How many more homes will be bulldozed before the cries of innocent Palestinian children caught in the crossfire are heeded?

I remind myself that Jordan’s political neighbours are: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

                         Itaf (to my left in black) with me and Jenny from Peru at FOJO in Sweden, 1999.

Consciously, with deep sadness, my mind flits to my friend Itaf Yousef across the Dead Sea. A Palestinian journalist, we met during the ‘Women in Journalism’ seminar at FOJO at Kalmar (Sweden) in the fall of 1999. We were in touch erratically since then. But she has fallen silent for the past decade.

I have no clue if Itaf still lives in Ramallah. Or if she is still alive. Or if her two sons ~ they must be 20-plus now ~ are doing well. All I know is that I admire the sheer courage and tenacity of her life on the West Bank.  

My thoughts surge back to her last email in 2000. Itaf wrote about taking her two sons – then 9 and 11 – to Ramallah town, north of Jerusalem, on a day that began ordinarily enough. Her neighbour’s son, their classmate, came along too. One boy needed a haircut. Another needed to swap his library books. The third needed football boots. Everyday chores, did you say?

Mission accomplished, Itaf set out on the drive back home. En route, a Jewish settler from the barricaded houses around took a random shot at the vehicle. The result? Her neighbour’s son had to be rushed to hospital with a hole in his stomach. I just wanted to share a normal day in our lives, she wrote.

More recently, I came across Rafeef Ziadah, a Canadian spoken word artist of Palestinian origin. I feel strongly enough to share her voice and her thoughts here through her poem, 'Shades of Anger.' 

As I thought of Itaf, looking over the Dead Sea  last November, I heard another voice in real time. After I’d put down my camera, our gentle, caring Jordanian guide Abdul spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “When I look across the water, I see occupied Palestine,’ he says. He still has family on the West Bank.

In a trice, he transports me back to an inter-house debate at our school in Jaipur when I was 13. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I guess it was about the state of our world.

I recall saying, “I don’t like the world we’re living in. I wish we had a world without countries or borders, passports or visas… I wish children my age from Palestine and Tibet could come home and live with me. I think we could be friends and play together, and create the world we want…. I could share my room, my school, my city, and my country with them... I really would....”

I was startled when the judges for the debate (padres from a Jesuit school in Jaipur), gave me the best speaker prize. And said they were surprised to find such radical thoughts in one so young. I didn’t know what ‘radical’ meant then. I had to later look it up in a dictionary!!!

Even today, I haven’t moved too far away from my worldview at 13. I can’t imagine the pain of being a person without a country. Can you?