Village of Hodko, Kutch Province, Gujarat, India | December 31, 2005
Based on past diary entries, I really don’t mean to sound like a self-indulgent party girl because that is definitely not the way my life really is. I just try to fill you in on the unexpected facets of life in Kabul, and much of it seems to revolve around intriguing people and events, not really the day to day grind of the workshop or the harsh realities that have almost, or I should say certainly, driven me to the brink of insanity. But I promise I will give you a better window into that world, including a proper journal on the lives and personalities of my embroidering ladies.
Just a couple of weeks ago in Kabul, while shivering miserably in the office because the space heater had run out of gas and I was waiting for the refill tank to arrive, I looked down at my hands and saw something really upsetting – what looked like a hundred cracks on my skin, some of them leaking slight blood as a result of having hit a wall or a desk or just from the dry air. The conditions in Kabul in winter are unimaginable to the outsider. By comparison, most other third world countries seem like a vacation in Tahiti. What one has to understand is that the country’s malfunctions are attributed to so much more than sheer poverty. 25 years of conflict have pulverized the place and have created a psyche, not just a government, devoid of public works, civil society, and all the other societal elements that lead to the creation of roads, electricity, sewer systems, clean streets – all the things that we take so unbelievably for granted elsewhere. The place is PURE ANARCHY! And looking down at my wretched little hands, I could say that Anarchy was taking its toll. My entire personality in the past few weeks had deteriorated to a state of uninterrupted hysterics and hair pulling. I could be tipped off by almost anything and began to question, I mean REALLY question, whether I was doing well in the mental health sort of a way. It was just too cold, too dreary, and there was NO electricity EVER. The Ministry of Power had decided to inaugurate the season’s cold weather with the sudden and total disappearance of city power. One can tolerate such conditions for one week, two weeks, but after one month, you start to exhibit the behavior of a desperate and somewhat crazed person. And I at least could shell out $20 every day, get generator fuel, and bitch relentlessly about its poor performance and noise pollution. But what did normal folks do in this hellish cold? The average Afghan certainly did not have $1500 lying around to buy generator, much less pay its fuel charges at $3.50 a gallon and rising. The Pakistani earthquake had forced the Pakistanis to withhold supplies, cutting off one of the two main supply arteries into Afghanistan and leaving Afghans to face what seemed like a 2 Afghani a day hike in prices. Traumatizing all around. If God forbid, the generator fuel ran out at night, or I felt too poor to turn it on, I would go about my business with a kerosene lantern. And that is what the locals did. No wonder these people woke up early and left work so bloody early – not being able to flick a light switch on makes a colossal difference in the way people schedule their days.
It had already been decided that I had to leave for India soon to check up on a new lot of woven fabrics. Every time that I allowed the Indians to send me things without first examining them, it was all curses and drama when the boxes were opened in Kabul. Disastrous color interpretations and false fiber combinations would all be wrapped up and shipped to Kabul, laboriously cleared from customs and brought to the workshop where nothing could then be done about them. With the disastrous weather as encouragement, I decided to leave immediately. It was the cold, it was my sadness over the robbery (yes, there have been many gaps in the diary entries) and my (hopefully temporary) loss of faith in the country, the disappearance of many friends for the holidays, my own personal doubts about my ability to manage the operation at a higher level, etc., etc., -- it had all reached a head.
I barely made it out of Kabul. My nerves were so pinched that I it seemed as if I was just itching to do something belligerent before getting out of there. At the airport, I unexpectedly ran into my dear friend Timur. There was no place for him to sit next to me in the crowded waiting hall, except that there were four large backpacks stationed on four seats next to me, their owners nowhere in site. I knew who the owners were, though – the thuggy Dyncorp mercenary guys on their way to back to Hicksville, USA or wherever they came from, for the holidays. They were such utter and complete war-monging $&!@%&’s that they had staked out their “area” (or “secured the perimeter” in military speak) though dozens of people were standing up around them for lack of seating. I asked that one pack be moved so that Timur could set, but got a chilly response. But aha, their usual intimidation style was not going to work on me that afternoon where I was so riddled with rage and frustration that I could have kicked an elephant. The only problem was that these guys are the real thing – nasty cowboys who get into brawls, tough talk, conceal weapons, blahblahblah….overall just a nasty bunch (though one must never generalize because I’ve met very sweet ones too just trying to make a living). Timur kept nudging me to back off, but finally, one of them came and removed the pack to cool tensions. I turned around and said “sit down!” to Timur, watching him do it with great reluctance.
My work in Delhi finished in about 8 days. But it was only December 28th and Kabul would be no less bearable than it had been a week before. There was time to kill and a strong urge to feel sorry for myself by doing something melodramatic and contrarian to the rest of the world’s New Year’s fever. Like spending New Years in a desert…alone! I grazed the Lonely Planet India and zeroed in on Gujarat, a romantic but less commonly visited state south of Rajasthan best known for its handicrafts, its industry, and a disastrous earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2001.
It’s now 10:00 pm on December 31, 2005. I am sitting in a hand blockprinted tent with mud walls, mud floors, and mud chairs, under a hand-quilted blanket covered in hand appliqué work. Some strange and lovely looking Kutch boys outside were just trying to sell me leather hats that looked more Mexican than anything I’ve ever seen in India. I’m listening to the Shocking Blue on my computer and outside there are drums and probably a local performance of some sort. There is nobody else at the camp except a happy go lucky middle class Indian family and the locals themselves. It took 7 hours to drive here from the capital of Gujarat. It is so remote by Indian travel standards and so close to the Pakistani border that foreigners are required to register with a special office (though I didn’t bother). The village is called Hodko and it’s been set up as a site for “endogenous tourism”. I haven’t seen much yet, but I can’t wait -- have a feeling it’s not going to disappoint.
The people of Kutch, live in the Great Rann of Kutch, a bleak salt desert formed on a massive land fault that has created such bizarre natural phenomena as land-locked mangroves and salt flats inhabited by wild asses. When people think of one of the more exotic visual images of India, they think of those women with the 15 bracelets on their biceps and multi-colored blouses covered in mirror-work. Those are the people of Kutch. They seem similar to the Sindhis on the Pakstani side and the feeling in general was that I was on the edge of somewhere. Sometimes, it can be such a joy to be alone.
After a detour to a haunted palace on the beach a few hours south of here, I will return to the capital of Gujarat, Ahmadebad. There I will be joined by Suphala who is coming for a classical music festival with her Ustad, Zakir Hussein the tabla maestro. It was a total coincidence that things worked out that way. I didn’t think there would be enough in Gujarat to keep me for so long, but sometimes, it’s the obscure that is the most captivating. I’ll just sit in that lovely and irresistible hotel in Ahmadebad, House of MG, and sip sharbats with endless flavors homemade ice cream and see where the tides lead….