Sunday, 17 March 2019

To Begin at the Beginning....

After a multi-delayed flight (from Kuala Lumpur), and having four hours to get over that experience, entering Dhaka (Bangladesh), was also anything but plain sailing. I had, innocently, opted for a VOE (visa on entry), to be obtained after landing and before exiting through Immigration. This had been mainly because of my experience in others countries, which had led me to believe that a VOE would probably be easier. It was a bad choice.

To prepare in advance, I had dutifully downloaded the visa form from the Bangladesh Visa site, on the World Wide Web. I had typed the relevant information, name, date of birth, who my father (deceased) was, who my mother (also deceased) was and all the other very personal information required, onto that electronic PDF. All this with due care and attention, and had been terribly proud of my use of technology. I had securely attached the three, somewhat severe, requisite photographs onto the (printed out) form and made certain that the required 50 USD had been enclosed, as I had folded the form and placed in my yellow Cambodian fishing next bag (designed in Italy), next to my passport and travel documents. There that was done.

To say that obtaining a visa upon entry was a disaster, is an understatement. I spent nearly as much time trying desperately to get the visa (to begin my stay), as I had spent in the air. I had joined a queue. The sign, indicted that the queue was for visas. After maybe half and hour, with the queue remaining static, a gentleman with a tag around his neck, approached me. He had motioned for my documents. I had given them. This very plain, nondescript, individual had taken one look, looked sceptical and had asked me just where I had obtained the form from. I told him “The Embassy visa website”. “Cannot use it” he replied. I wanted to argue, but reason gripped me and I followed as the gentleman led me to a stack of forms. “This one, then there, and there.” He had pointed to a cubical, wherein sat a gentleman receiving money, and handing out receipts from the Sonali Bank Limited (Landing/Visa Fee Deposit Slip). Then he pointed to a different queue. He added “I can make this go faster for you.” “Sorry, pardon, I don’t understand.” I innocently replied. “I can help you, no need to wait.” Then it clicked. I was being asked for a bribe. “I’m sorry” I said “I am not a rich man, only white”. The last was said sotto voce. He disappeared.

Next, I paid, not 50 USD as I had been lead to believe, but 52 USD (ie USD 50 + VAT 15%) or so the receipt slip informed me. You can have VAT even on visa charges? Well, apparently, you can.

And, so, I joined another queue. It too had appeared static, but had been, in fact, moving at a very minuscule pace. There was something vaguely reminiscent of both Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, and any number of Franz Kaftka’s stories about this whole mis-adventure. I had finally reached my destination, after countless people had pushed in front of me and had gained visas to multiple passports, long before mine was considered. I was a foreigner, alone, without the advantage of the local lingo, my hands were metaphorically tied. All I had was my patience, and that was slowly ebbing away. I had recalled a friend’s recent experience with visas in China. He was kept over night. It was this sobering thought which prevented my ‘Englishman abroad' attitude. I had stepped forward, hopeful. I had even gave a brief smile.

My passport had been snatched from my hand. I was given the third degree. Why was I wanting to enter Bangladesh. For what purpose. Where was I staying etc etc etc. Hmm, all that information was on the form I had just given this very officious Police Immigration ‘gentleman’. Firstly he had wanted to deny my visa. The visa I had just paid 52 USD to obtain. So. I had challenged him. He had gotten angry, and had re-started his interrogation. Where was I staying. I had told him I was staying with a friend. He had pointed to the address I had written on the form. “Here”. “Yes, there” “No hotel” “No, I am staying with a friend and their family”. His look told me that he, obviously, did not believe me. “This their telephone number” he had barked. “Er, yes.” I had been begun to doubt my own name by this point. He had given a snort. Challengingly he said “I will call this number”. He had obviously thought that I was lying, and that the telephone number would prove not to exist. It had rung. He had spoken in his own language, then had thrust the phone to me. I then has spoken to my friend and had asked him to put my host on the line. He did. I had handed the mobile phone back to the Police Immigration official. He had grunted, then stamped my visa. As he was giving my passport back to me he had hung onto it, momentarily, grinned, and said “I give you until the 9th March”. My return flight was on the 11th. He had taken a very petty revenge, for being caught out.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Pink Tea with Honey

The clarion call came. It was cousin/sister, and no we don’t have cousin/sisters in England, we have sisters, or cousins, but this is Malaysia and they are Chinese. Could we head up to Penang for an advertising shoot, for a business she is promoting. Why us...well I leave that to your imagination.

On Wednesday evening the North/South Highway was quiet, for once, and the five hour journey sped by. We entered Penang in the late evening and had the pleasure of staying overnight at The Northam All Suite Penang, along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (previously North Beach then called Northam Road after Northam in England’s Devon). The only thing which really irked me, was the government’s compulsory RM10 tourist tax per night and a further RM3 because it is a’Heritage’ area. Don’t they know that tourists come to Malaysia because it is cheap!

The suite was spacious, with a vague Art Deco air - wooden finishings and rattan furniture. If I were staying longer I would have be glad of the large writing desk, but there again if I were staying longer I would not have been happy at the multiples of RM 10 adding up for each night stayed. Across the road the only eatery open was a food court - The Northam Beach Cafe, serving not quite the Penang food people flock to the island to try, coupled with a very weak ‘Elvis’ songster trying to compete with his chosen music. After a long drive, it was a disappointment.

Morning came and we went, to our ‘shoot’.

As mentioned copious times (elsewhere), I am not a heath spa, feng shui, lets all hold hands and chant Om sort of person, much to my other half’s disgust (as she is). However, I am all for being pampered, and if that pampering includes attractive young women from Myanmar with sweet smiles, tender touches and video/still cameras with their crews, so be it.

To get on my good side, and yes I have been known to have a good side, I was inundated with beautiful drinks comprising of blue pea flower ice cubes, and cream soda. Did my other half let slip that I am a fan of cream soda, I wonder. The drink colour, a pale blue was entirely suited the ambient music. Although ambient music might bring recollections of irritatingly boring lift or supermarket muzac, this was not that, but more towards Brian Eno or Amethystium of which I do approve. So marks for good drink and good music so far.

And yes, I was promoting a spa. Life has its little jests.

I was be-robed in white towelling, and motioned to sit in an adjustable chair. The aforementioned young lady from Myanmar was charged with massaging my feet and calves, all for the cameras, slow mo and stills. Curtains were opened, and closed, pink ‘tea’ (in a charmingly transparent teapot with matching cups and saucers) was placed on a table between my other half, and I. We were requested to look this way, and that, turn, pretend to read a magazine, pretend to drink tea, turn again, look at your better half, smile, laugh. It was all much too much like play play to be taken seriously.

That Thursday morning we were treated very well, but time rushed up, clapped us on our backs to remind us that we had to scamper back to Kuala Lumpur. And then it rained. Driving, the deluge became so bad that the car’s windscreen wipers could barely keep up with the torrents of water hitting the windscreen. I peered out, trying to see, but the road ahead had become one white sheet with falling water, as if in some strange horror film fog. It was then that we realised that it was time to take refuge at a wayside facility (in Malaysia these are called R&R - rest and relaxation). Generally speaking there are few rest stops on Malaysian highways which are actually worth the effort of stopping. The food in these areas is generally cheap and cheerful, without the cheerful. The R&R we chose was no exception. We attended to various bodily needs and chatted about the lack of diversity in the cuisines on offer in the rest stops of this very diverse, multicultural county.

It was time to get back on the road again. Time to get my better half to work. Only, a short way along the North/South highway, now heading South, we ran into a traffic jam. This mega-jam lasted more than several minutes. Vehicles were backed up, moving at a snail’s pace. After some lengthy time, the traffic picked up speed. To our left, and no doubt due to the heaviness of the rain, a truck had overturned and was being hauled back onto its wheels as we passed. It was sobering. A chilling reminder to take care on the roads in heavy weather. With a huge sigh ‘she who must work’ dropped me off home and went on to her art class.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Finished my writing course

Great course..........I want more, and more, two three four, and more, two three four, and more

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Forgotten Cities of Delhi by Rana Safvi - A Review

All 322 pages, plus half-gatefold card covers of Rana Safvi’s book ’The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ reached me, from India, in just four days (two of which were weekend). Harpers Collins Publishers India had, indeed, done me proud to rush off this astounding book to arrive, in Malaysia, so quickly. A diminutive motorcycle courier had stopped by our electronic gate. He had thrust a small ‘Aramex’ parcel at my wife, who just happened two be in the front garden at the time. ‘It is for you,’ she called as the young motorcyclist rode off. For me? But I rarely receive parcels. Then, as my wife handed over the white paper parcel with the legend ‘HarperCollinsPublishersIndia’ at the bottom, the thought struck me, ’The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ had arrived. Wonderful, now to perchance to read.

India, but especially its capital - Delhi, keeps drawing me back. I had first set foot in India in 1996. It was a trip to see the sea, in Goa, and to ease myself gently into that ancient land full of mystery and mysteries which, at first glance may appear ‘full-on’ and a little daunting. Goa, as it turned out, was just what the doctor ordered.

I have visited many places in India since. My first visit to Delhi was in 1998, as part of a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour starting at Delhi, then visiting the glory of Taj Mahal, outside of Agra, and the wonderful Hawa Mahal or ‘Palace of the Winds’ (Amber Fort et al) in Jaipur.  It was then time to return to Delhi, for a day, before flying back to Britain. When the time came to go, I wished that I could stay on, like William Dalrymple, for a whole year in Delhi (as recounted in his ‘City of Djinns’, 1993).

I recall standing (literally) at a crossroads, staring up into the orderliness of Lutyen’s (New) Delhi, remembering photos of my father there. He had stood, not to attention as a lowly British sergeant erect in his uniform, but as a man, taking a casual stance, sans his military hat, in the city that he loved. The era in which the photograph was taken, was at a time (1930s) before my father had heard of his recall to the British Army, which was to pull him away from Delhi, away from his billet at the Red Fort, and away from the New Delhi Police and his application to serve with them. Despite over a decade in India, once wrenched apart from that city and that sub-continent, my father never did return. In 1998, I stood at that crossroads in his stead.

My second engagement with the glory which is Delhi, was with thanks to the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), requesting me to read some of my poetry at the ‘Commonwealth Literary Meet’, in the October of 2010. It was a wonderful time and a further opportunity for me to wander the vastness and antiquity, of Delhi’s cities.

Rana Safvi and Harper Collins India have given me another excuse to return, this time through Rana Safvi’s writing and myriad photos by Syed Mohammad Qasim which grace the book ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’, the second part of Rana Savi’s ‘Where Stones Speak’ trilogy. Delhi calls to me time after time. Delhi is where Allen Ginsberg, after sightseeing for a week, met the indomitable Kushwant Singh for ‘literary tea’ (‘Indian Journals’, 1962-1963) in a great meeting of minds that I wish that I had been party to, and Delhi is where I shall, inevitably, return one day.

‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’, is certainly a book that I wished that I’d had when wandering that city during my 2010 visit. Safvi’s work is painstakingly precise in its accounting of the various Delhis, and all-encompassing in its scope to include not just Delhi’s past cities, but also its individual mosques (such as the ‘Mohammad Wali Masjid’, discovered in Siri (also known as Dar-ul-Khilafat or seat of the Caliph). ‘Mohammad Wali Masjid was once a treasured mosque, but had been used for many years to store fodder not for the soul, but for cattle, unfortunately it has that in common with many of the ‘finds’ by Rana Safvi’s and Syed Mohammad Qasim. Safvi’s book reveals not just past glories, but intriguingly romantic structures promising to become present day wonders.

In conjunction with Syed Mohammad Qasim’s affirming photography, Safvi leads the viewer/reader into an astounding history of India’s capital (National Capital Territory of Delhi). Together, writer and photographer make known the beauties of ancient architectures such as the Tomb of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (founder of India’s Tughluq dynasty, died 1325 A.D.), and the quiet serenity of Lal Bangla (now adjacent to Delhi Golf Course) at Sundar Nagar, comprising of the mausoleums of Lal Kunwar (the mother of Shah Alam II), and Shah Alam II’s daughter Begum Jaan. Section six of ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ unveils the sixth citadel of Dehli - Dinpanah/Shergarth (p181), now Pragati Maidan. Author and photographer show the ruins of a ‘Hammam’ (a traditional Mughal ‘Turkish Bath’) adjacent to the Sher Mandal and within the Purana Qila (or Old Fort). Those Hammam remains are a touching site, situated near to the marvellous Sher Mandal, and within that ancient Indian fortress of Purana Qila, and a poignant reminder of much of India’s northern heritage.

If you are visiting Delhi, or are a confirmed Indiaphile, ‘The Forgotten Cities of Delhi’ by Rana Safvi and profusely illustrated with photographs by Syed Mohammad Qasim, is a must have. Short of actually having Ms Safvi accompanying you on a series of marvellous adventures in and around India’s northern city of Delhi, and its present day capital, the book will guide you. True it will be no substitute for the edifying scholar herself, or for Dev Anand from Vijay Anand’s film adaption of R.K.Narayan’s ‘The Guide’, but in place of these the book will carry you into myriad adventures as you witness, for yourself, and come to love Delhi’s ‘forgotten’, but now remembered, cities.

Martin Bradley 5th July 2018