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, its 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/
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.