From ill-advised dips in volcanic lakes to dis-pleasure cruises on whaleboats, Neil has suffered for his art. Check out some of his yarns here.
For the archived blog of Neil's Afghanistan trip click here.
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The Brahmaputra Literary Festival
Guwahati, Assam, 2019
The Brahmaputra River flows 1800 kilometres from its origin in Tibet to the Gangetic Delta in Bangladesh before mingling with the waters of the Bay of Bengal. In Assam, set in the north east of India, it passes through the city of Guwahati, home to the Brahmaputra Literary Festival. Now in its third year, the festival invited authors from across India and from 20 countries around the world including, Latvia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Argentina, Myanmar, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Lithuania, Tunisia, Latvia, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, Singapore, and Australia. In December, I received an Invite to the third Brahmaputra Literary Festival in. How could I refuse.
Sponsored by the Publication Board Assam, the festival brings students from universities, colleges and high schools in Assam to listen to writers talk, not only about their work, but the ideas behind their work. Festival Artistic Director, Rahul Jain (probably one of the loveliest guys you will ever meet, and certainly one of the hardest working), said the idea behind the festival was to expose the young people of the area to fresh ideas from Assam, the rest of India and the world. One group I spoke to, headed by their teacher Ratul Lahon from North Lakhimpur College, had travelled over 400 kilometres to be there. Entry to all sessions at the festival was completely free and a lunch was provided to everyone free of charge. Rahul Jain simply stated, how can you think when your belly is empty? Surely it was no coincidence that this literary festival was held during the weeklong puja (festival) honouring Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and learning.
The writers were treated like rock stars with their faces on banners around the city and huge mugshots on billboards and posters around the festival site. It was difficult to move from between session or to the authors’ lounge without requests for ‘selfies’ (yes, that concept has truly made it to India!) or autographs. The festival site was a pop-up space in the grounds of the Srimanta Sankaradev Kalakshetra cultural centre, composed of huge cotton covered ‘tents’ holding the session venues and book outlets. Each writer was assigned a volunteer guide (mine was a 22 year-old, fourth year law student called Arunabh Sarma) and a car with a driver who would take them to and from the festival and on impromptu shopping trips for tea and silk.
On day one of the festival, we saw Cambodian poet, Chheangly Yeng, struggle with tears as he read his poem about the rain never falling where it is needed most. As a metaphor for the change so badly needed by his people, it was an emotional moment and an amazing entry point for me. His fellow panelist, Phina So, bravely attempted the translation into English but was also moved to tears. The next session was from three Bhutanese writers whose humour reflected the Gross National Happiness of their country but who also veered into unexpected territory with a poem titled Menstruation from Chador Wamgmo.
Day two saw me speaking on my first panel, Travel and the Writer, with Govinda Prasad Sarma (India), Rajiva Wijesingha (Sri Lanka), Aman Nath (India), Devapriya Roy (India) and Pier Narandara (Thailand). The lively discussion took us from travelling India on 500 rupees (around A$10) a day as a ‘broke couple’ to backpacking across southern Africa as a young single woman. A standout moment during another session (Prisoners of Conscience) was when Burmese writer, Nyi Pu Lay, talked of when, deprived of reading material during his time in prison, he would read the unrolled slips of newspaper used as cheroot filters. He was caught when he read his cousin’s obituary and relayed this to his family. Believing he had smuggled reading material into prison, he was thrown into solitary confinement.
By day three, we were festival veterans. We had made friends, exchanged contact details and participated in more group selfies that I thought was humanly possible. I had two sessions that day; the first called When They Write About Us with Rajiva Wijensingha and Juan Sklar on our novels about India. I spoke of my experiences with writing The Honeyman & The Hunter – a novel based partly in the Sundarbans area of the north east and inspired by my mother’s childhood in colonial India. Juan told us of the frustrated narrator of his Spanish language novel Nunca Llegamos a la India (We Will Never be in India) and proposed that India is, in fact, many places at once. Rajiva spoke of his trips to India and of the complicated relationship between his country (Sri Lanka) and its much bigger neighbour. In my final session for the festival, I moderated a panel on Pitfalls and Pleasures of Writing Across Cultures where Gabija Gruisante, Juan Sklar and Franco-Tunisian writer Hubert Haddad. Hubert spoke only French and was translated into English, which added another beautiful layer to the discussion.
It was a sad goodbye on the fourth day in Assam. We had made many new friends and were ready to smuggle brave new ideas back across our borders. I was continually surprised by the quality of questions from the young people in the audience. Never once did I hear ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’; instead, they engaged fully with the speakers, posing difficult questions and receiving considered responses.
On the way to the airport, I visited the world’s smallest inhabited island – Umananda – home to a 300 year-old Siva-Parvati temple. I crossed the Brahmaputra River on a ferry with Aman Nath the Delhi-based writer whose curiosity and humour made the experience doubly rewarding. As I stepped down into the temple nook holding Siva’s statue and placed some coins at the feet of the great god, I hoped I would be back next year for the fourth Brahmaputra Literary Festival.
My profound thanks to Rahul Jain (Festival Artistic Director), Maninder Singh (Chairman, Publication Board Assam), Pramond Kalita, (Festival CEO) and the Government of Assam for inviting me to the festival and for making me so welcome in your beautiful state. My thanks also to V.B. Pyarelal, Suman Dev Chaudary, Dikshita Purkayastha, Moni Kongkana Dutta and Jintumani Tahbildar for their incredible organisational skills. For more information on the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, visit http://blfguwahati.com/
These Small Fears
Kabul, Afghanistan, 2009
I call my mum while I am watching a game of football at Ghazi Stadium. It is curse to be two places at once. I picture her sitting looking out at the Towamba Valley, the cragged face of the Jingera bearded in mist. She is drinking coffee and doing a crossword. Eleven down, A supporter of extreme doctrines or practices. She pencils in extremist. An impending feeling of danger, evil or trouble. Resting her pencil on her lip she looks up to grasp the word. Fear. Quickly the spaces fill. Kidnap. Bulletin. Anguish. Her pencil tears through the paper.
What can I tell her that I haven't already said? I am okay. I will be okay. I am sitting watching a game of football. Two local teams. Yes, it's true the Taliban used the ground for executions. I am glad I didn't show her the photos of amputations – how the Taliban used surgeons and anesthetic to follow sharia law. Or the fuzzy videos of beheadings, stonings and shootings that took place in front of families watching them as pre match entertainment.
Those days are gone.
I smile at the man next to me. The right leg of his trousers is folded, pinned at the knee. His arm swings over an aluminium crutch.
I turn away and squint at the pitch. Kabul is at nearly 1800 metres and there is no refuge from the heat. The blinding, searing, phosphorous light tears the skin from the backs of my hands. Under my four-month beard, I am tired and sun-fucked; full of dust and worry. I don't tell my mum this. She has been praying for me. She has her own personal god who listens to her long lists with patience. Much like my father.
I think of my own kids and all the dangerous things they may do. I think of the fear that hobbles a parent. How you want to cry out when they hang by their legs from the monkey bars or freewheel down that long, tar hill. It begins somewhere there and I suspect it never ends.
The letter I wrote to my son sits in a drawer in my sister's house. It was directed at his future. I was whispering to the man I knew he would become.
I hope you live a life without fear; that you are not afraid to take chances, to be brave. I don't mean this in a reckless, daredevil sense. I am talking about the acts of people who believe in themselves and their abilities do things that matter to them, and to the world. Do not listen to what others say, trust yourself.
I hang up the phone. There is nothing left to say. The sky is blue. I am eating well. The streets are broken. There are women in torn chadors begging in the parks. Guns are not allowed in the ballroom of the Intercontinental.
The man with the crutches takes my hand, then presses his own to his chest. His name is Rafi.
'Kabul Bank is khob [good].' He aims his crutch to the team in blue. Giant portraits of bearded rulers stare down at them grimly.
'How did you lose your leg?' I ask. He shrugs. Maybe he doesn't understand my English. Or maybe he is saying, it doesn't matter. There are thousands like me.
When the team finishes their star jumps, their sprints and backwards runs, they crowd around the centre mark. Twenty-three heads follow the coin into the thin, dusty air. It flashes a warning at me as it goes. Be careful, it says, even here you are not safe.
When I was young I was never allowed to go to football matches. I was born in Glasgow and my team was Rangers. It was the nineteen-seventies and sectarian violence was a team sport. Celtic was the Catholic's choice and when the teams came together at Ibrox or Parkhead (Parkheid) blood would flow. It was not uncommon for fans to carry chibs, small knives, and to attack anyone they saw wearing the wrong colour. At eleven years old, I was bailed against a wall by two classmates who accused me of wearing a crucifix. It was a plastic knife pendant I had pulled from the pages of a comic book.
But my best friend was a Catholic, the poetically named Gino Celino, whose family ran a fish and chip shop in Partick. We fought over the inattentive, solemn Audrey McInnes, sitting in cold Scottish puddles on the promise of a kiss. But we never went to war over religion.
It was my mother who informed this. She had no time for the Troubles that were tearing at Northern Ireland. On the weekends, in our aluminium caravan on the banks of Loch Sween, we would get the news from Ulster on a black and white TV. But my father would change the channel and I would snuggle beside him and watch gunslingers of a different sort, do battle in the Wild West. There is safety in distance.
Once, my mum had been a Protestant girl in a Catholic school. She had dreamed of heady rituals: the mouthing of a wafer so thin it could be a slice of Christ's body, a layer of his skin; his blood; the mantra of Latin; the catechism; incense caught in the folds of her neatly pressed skirt.
It was a religion complicated by India. She was born there and lived until she was sixteen with the bloodthirsty Goddess Kali, with elephant-headed Ganesh, and with the Queen of Fevers: Shitala Devi, the Goddess of Smallpox (and leprosy and syphilis). When she left India, she packed these small fears, these rituals, with a slip of lucky cobra skin, a ring of elephant hair, in her shipping trunk and carried them to Wolverhampton in the English Midlands. There she developed a system of belief based on ladders, open umbrellas and the number thirteen.
The coin hits the ground and the captains shake hands. The teams run into position. Kabul Bank is playing into the sun. I give a small grimace of solace to Rafi. Kabul Bank takes possession and drives hard at goal. But the other team's defense pushes it wide for a throw-in.
The buildings outside the stadium are like ripped cardboard, and above them rise the hills of Kabul. A shantytown of mud houses collapse down their dusty slopes. They are built by returning refugees and at night are lit by illegal electricity, by kerosene lamps and candles. In the daytime, small children carry water in goatskin bags and strings of bottles in the grinding heat. And as evening comes, I have watched their small kites lift from rooftops.
Finally the heat forces me from the stadium. I say farewell to Rafi and take the steps. A muffled roar signals a goal and for a moment I consider going back. But it is pointless. I have already missed the action.
Outside, men are unloading rolls of rubber matting from the top of a bus. Behind them is a huge football on a billboard. It is bigger and brighter than the sun. It is the colour of grain-fed eggs. The caption reads: It's not what I play, it's who I am.
A chador-clad woman floats into the frame as I take my shot.
Tea at The Mama Najaf Chaikhana
Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2009
I meet Simon Biney at the Mama Najaf Restaurant in the dusty main bazaar of Bamiyan. I am late and accompanied by two minders because the Police Commandant has ordered me not to wander alone after dark. Bamiyan is the safest district in Afghanistan but, the Chief was at pains to remind me, there are still bad people around.
Simon is sitting crosslegged on the floor of the chaikhana (teahouse). He is sipping serenely from his cup of green tea, surrounded by gruff, bearded men - truck drivers, itinerant workers, ne'er-do-wells. My guardians, Tahir and Yasin, eye him suspiciously.
'Salam. Nice choice of place,' Simon says by way of greeting.
I look around at the torn, stained carpet; walls greasy where the heads of many travellers have rested. He nods. 'It's a truck drivers' restaurant.'
'Is it dangerous?' I whisper.
He shrugs as if danger is relative. And it is here, in a country where violence and life often connect.
I met Simon on the Couchsurfing website - where travellers find free, comfy couches to doss on, in far flung corners of the world. Although his toshak (bed) was already taken, by a dozen local carpenters, he offered me tea and kebob; '... that's minimum', he added.
When I'd arrived in Kabul to research my third novel, I was frustrated at not being able to get to my destination, the Bamiyan Valley (only 180kms away). Simon advised me 'If you take a car or a taxi, make sure you go through Parwan valley, and not Wardak. The first is almost safe, the second is full of talebs and G.I. Better to avoid.'
I tell him how safe Kart-e Parwan, the neighbourhood where I stayed in Kabul, seemed. He tells me in the Alley of the Butchers, very close to my guesthouse, two of his friends, French journalists, were captured the year before. Foreigners are worth money. Sometimes a lot of money. In a country where a policeman earns less than sixty U.S. dollars a month, it is a great temptation to become kidnappers.
He pours me a tea and I ask him what he is doing here, a twenty-six year-old Frenchman living among the locals, speaking Dari, dressing in a shalwar kameez. It turns out he came here directly after study to help retrofit houses using passive solar design principles.
I ask him about his opinion of aid workers in this country. He goes silent for a moment, looks into his swirling green tea, pops a small boiled sweet in his mouth.
Then he tells me a story about two members of a large agency being helicoptered in from Kabul to visit the lapis-blue lakes of Band-e Amir, 75kms to our west. They had two four-wheel drives with security personnel arrive before them, possibly sent from Kabul - a fourteen-hour trip over terrible, dangerous roads. The two foreign workers got out of their helicopter, ate their pre-made lunches, drank their bottled water, gazed at the impossibly blue lake, then returned to Kabul. The frightening cost of this exercise typifies most foreign aid work in Afghanistan. It makes Simon angry. How many orphans could this money have housed? How many widows would it feed?
A man comes around with a battered exercise book and asks us if we are staying the night. After hours, these chaikhanas turn into rest houses. The food mats and teacups are cleared and men curl into question marks on the carpet. Simon says it is time to leave.
His motorbike is hard to start. It is a cheap copy of the Pamir (a locally produced bike named after a mountain range). His is called Panir which translates as 'cheese' in Dari. I hop on the back of the cheese-cycle and we ride over the river. There is a crescent moon out and a poetic spray of stars above the niches that once held the giant Buddhas, before the Taliban came. It is hard for me to picture young men like Simon settling for life anywhere 'normal' after living in such a place.
Lamalera, Indonesia, 2001
In July of 2001, I started a two month journey through the Indonesian archipelago researching my novel Indo Dreaming. This was pre Bali bombing; I got home a day before September 11. This was a safer world, although Indonesia was in the middle of an election and there were many other dangers.
In two months, I travelled on dodgy buses and ferries and ate questionable food. I climbed an active volcano with a spear-toting local and swam in a volcanic lake with liver flukes and giant carp. I met Bob Marley look-alikes in Flores and thought I was going to die of dangerous water and terrible transport in Sumbawa. I surfed over coral and cringed at cockfights in Nusa Lembongan, and watched shadow puppets flutter like moths in Yogyakarta. And when I sat down to write my novel in 2002, all those places, people and experiences drifted back; much like the ghost my main character, Goog, was searching for in his journey of discovery.
Although the Lonely Planet guidebook gets a gentle mocking in my novel, it was through its pages that I first tasted Indonesia. One place in particular stood out - a speck of island off the far eastern tip of Flores. Its name was Lembata and, from a tiny village on the windward-side, people still hunted the largest animals on earth from the most un-seaworthy boats.
Lembata nestles between the volcanic islands of Solor, Adonara and Pantar at the far eastern tip of the Florenese island chain. I reach Lembata by boat from the town of Larantuka on the main island of Flores. On board, motorbikes are stacked in the bow, seasick chickens lie limply on deck, the smell of clove cigarettes and diesel drifts through the cabin. The boat negotiates the Solor Strait, stopping at Waiwerang, where a gang of boys leap onboard to sell eggs, peanuts, bottled water, bruised fruit and gula merah (red sugar) wrapped in palm leaf packets. They also pinch my nose, steal my sunglasses and shout loudly in my ear. But I forgive them because they are young and happy and don't get many foreign visitors. The ferry finally moves on to Lewoleba, the dusty capital of Lembata, in the shadow of Ile Api - the Fire Mountain.
Two days later, I board the rusting truck-bus for a six hour journey over a torturous road to Lamalera. The bus is sardine-tinned with people, rice, radios, bananas, biscuits, betel nuts, chickens, thongs, candles and drums of kerosene. There is a goat stuck underneath my seat. We rumble through burnt fields and groves of guava trees. We pass villages where children call to us in tangled snatches of made-up English. The truck dies on a hill and we stand in the shade as the driver repairs the diesel tank in a mystical rite involving powdered soap.
We are dropped where the road ends at a ruined bridge. There is a further two kilometre walk to Lamalera. As we drop down the roughly cobbled track into town, women pass us with freshly butchered whale meat - rich red and marbled with white fat - balanced in plastic pots on their heads. The reality of a whale hunting town sinks in and I am suddenly unsure why I came. I love whales. I don't want to see them killed. I don't want to see any animals killed. I was a vegetarian for twelve years! So why am I here?
And this story links to another, further back in my history, like one of a series of threads that will eventually become the book I will complete in two years. And this story involves my grandfather and how he lived in India and was a hunter. How he killed a rogue elephant that had injured its tusk in a battle. How that mangled tusk grew in to his brain and sent him mad and made him want to kill people. And me, as a kid growing up in Glasgow, Scotland (a million light years away from the exotic jungles of Bihar) with bearskins and elephant's feet and leopard skins; a tiny square of cobra skin in a brown paper packet that my mum, as a child, carried for luck. A bunch of elephant tail hairs that my sister took to school for show-and-tell and her teacher told her not to tell lies. And maybe that's why I became a story teller and maybe that's why I am in Lamalera even though I hate killing and don't want the elephant's feet and leopard skins in my house.
The next morning we are in bed, still digesting the previous night's dinner - terrible black cubes of whale meat with two minute noodles - when we hear the call on the beach. The whale boats are putting to sea, as they have done for two hundred years, ever since the people of Lamalera arrived on the back of a Blue Whale (the only species they do not hunt; their totem). I run through the wooden racks of drying meat, to the beach and help the crew of the Santa Rosa roll their boat over rough logs and to the waiting surf. But, before I know it, I am on that boat and we are rowing for the horizon. And I am in danger of losing my passport, my camera, my precious journal and, most likely, my life. I look back on shore to the little altar with the Virgin Mary and wish I was a Catholic-Animist like these people so I could pray to Mary and the sea at the same time, to keep me safe.
They raise their holey, woven palm sail and we make for the whaling grounds. Others are out here, with harpoon heads slotted into bamboo poles, balanced on their ladder-shaped prows, searching. I see the fin of a Spinner Dolphin break the water and hope that the harpooner misses as he climbs onto the prow. He lunges at the water, extending his body and forcing the forked harpoon head into the sea.
But he does miss and we return to the beach with nothing. A huge whalebone is still lolling in the shorebreak; a reminder of how the previous catch was butchered and shared among the crew according to a traditional pattern of cuts.
Back at Guru Ben's Homestay, I sit at the same table where Tim Severin (another, more famous, author) wrote the notes to his book In Search Of Moby Dick, and complete mine. I am not sure how this story will weave into Goog's but I know it is a powerful experience and will add drama and excitement to the novel I am about to write.
And a year later I write the chapter in Indo Dreaming where Goog takes that same whaleboat trip (but his crew harpoons a shark). At the time I don't realise how far back that story goes and what a part of me it is. And I don't see how each chapter and each story has at least as many threads stretching back through the fabric of my own history. Until today.
This story first appeared as an article in Viewpoint magazine's Winter 2005 edition.