On the night of May 5th, just as the results of Malaysia’s general election were becoming apparent, signalling yet another five-year rule for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), pleas for foreign intervention started going viral on social media. Petitions to the White House as well as to the United Nations were created on Sunday night, with hundreds of thousands of Malaysians sharing and signing them within hours. Memes such as this one were created, urging Queen Elizabeth to take over Malaysia because “I don’t want it independent this way.” Hundreds switched their profile picture to black, mourning what they called the “death of democracy”.

Opposition Pakatan Rakyat supporters cheer on for candidate Hannah Yeoh, defending her seat in Subang Jaya. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

These have been some of the more extreme reactions amidst the collective despair of Malaysians who had voted for the opposition party and who were highly anticipating the end of BN’s 56-year rule. It was crushing for me personally to hear the results, but simultaneously shocking to see how Malaysians were reacting to them. I stayed glued to my laptop that day, watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds refresh with growing wrath in response to the flickering numbers of the election results.

It is a thick wave of disappointment that is being further fuelled by allegations of electoral fraud and sour, divisive remarks by BN politicians. Bersih, a local NGO that campaigns for electoral reform, is withholding recognition of the election’s results as they claim it was “marred with violations of election laws, code of conduct and endless political violence from the beginning to the end”. In response to BN’s worst election showing in history, its politicians have been blaming ungrateful Chinese voters and the Chinese “tsunami“.

Yet these are not new problems. Highly racialised politics and vote manipulation have been around since the country’s independence. Throughout the 60s and 70s, my parents watched their parents and the rest of the neighbourhood’s first-generation Chinese migrants – who barely spoke any Malay – coerced into buses that would take them into the next village. There, they casted their ballots in a process they did not understand and for parties they did not even recognise. They were told that if they didn’t do so, they would be sent back to China.

Malaysians are reclaiming political agency

“Kami mahu ubah” was a key slogan in this year’s election. It translates as “We want change”. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

The real novelty of this year’s election is the startling level of engagement of Malaysian civil society. Voter turnout was pegged at 80 percent, highest in the country’s history. The scale of anticipation leading up to Sunday and the overwhelming displays of collective disappointment following the results that night are unprecedented. Before 2008, the predominant sentiment was “anyone but BN” and then a resigned shrug at the announcement of BN’s expected victory. When BN first lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 most voters were overwhelmingly surprised, almost in jubilant disbelief at the change they brought with their votes.

Expectations have grown exponentially since then. It suggests that the Malaysian electorate is regaining its agency in a political process that was once frozen by soft authoritarianism – a term used by political scientists to describe a system that “softens” authoritarian rule with selected democratic features. Since the previous election people have become more personally invested in nation-building than ever, aligning themselves to movements that purport to oust a corrupt incumbent government. Former colleagues of mine and previously apolitical friends volunteered to be polling agents and independent observers. Many more participated in the huge Bersih rallies leading up to the election and in yesterday night’s post-election rally to protest the results.

Indeed, the despair and extreme disappointment that many felt on Sunday night was the strongest show of solidarity in the country that I have ever witnessed. To me, the extreme and far-ranging reactions towards BN’s latest victory are evidence of Malaysia’s growth pains at experiencing the first election that has ever felt this “real”. By believing in and anticipating ‘ubah’, the Malay word for change, opposition coalition Pakatan’s defeat felt like the first real loss for an electorate that is not traditionally accustomed to political engagement. This is especially true for those in their early to mid-20s, like myself, who anticipated change with their very first vote.

Xenophobia during the elections

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to "prove" he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to “prove” he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

But the freshness of the experience is creating a feverishness that cuts both ways. The fervent political mobilisation across the board is also causing a paranoid wave of xenophobia and fear-mongering amongst voters. Malaysians urged each other all weekend to bust phantom voters or what many were calling “hantu”, which means ghost in Malay and carries derogatory connotations – all in an effort to counter electoral fraud following allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had paid for flights to move tens of thousands of voters into marginal constituencies for Sunday’s election.

Individuals were singled out and harassed based on their appearance, with vigilante “ghost-busters” circulating videos and photographs of them and their identity cards widely online. In one viral video (pictured above), a suspected fraud voter was forced to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd of Chinese voters to “prove” he was Malaysian. He slipped up on one word, causing a man to jump belligerently on the mistake and a whole group of people to roar at him to get lost. He is one of many alleged Bangladeshis, referred to derogatorily as “Banglas” by many Malaysians, who became a victim of discrimination and harassment on Sunday.

In the heat of the moment, the irony of trying to oust incumbent BN with its race-based policies while hunting down Bangladeshis appear to have been lost on many over-enthusiastic voters. Part of the reason was the spread of unverified information and fear-mongering claims through social media and mobile technologies, causing paranoia and fear amongst many voters. These messages fuelled public insecurity and motivated excessively aggressive behaviour towards the ‘other’ – i.e. non-Malaysians.

Lack of reliable information

pang

Indeed, reliable and level-headed information was a rare thing on Sunday. A stampede of alarmist pictures and messages claiming all sorts of things including the arrival of buses of Bangladeshis at various voting stations, suspicious blackouts across the country, and the “magical” appearance of ballot boxes were viralised online as well as through texting and Whatsapp, fanning public rage. Most of this information continues to be unverified and a concrete link to the doctoring of election results has yet to be proven.

Even the numbers of the election results were disputed across different sources throughout the night, creating confusion amongst the electorate. Suspicious of mainstream media, some did not know where else to go to consult live updates of the election results. Facebook user Jason Lim wrote on Sunday: “This election is so freaking confusing and non-transparent. I can’t find impartial information anywhere, even if I were trying to just find the facts. How come the Counting Agents are silent? Why are numbers different depending on the sources I visit?”

A handful of websites such as MalaysiaKini and the Democratic Action Party‘s (DAP) ubah.my provided live coverage of the results, but these were reportedly too slow and inconsistent. No organisation managed to pick up on and address the tide of rumours spreading online.

Growth pains of moving away from soft authoritarianism

These are growth pains of Malaysia’s slowly maturing civil society. After 56 years of BN’s rule, people are emerging from the trappings of soft authoritarianism to increasingly participate in the political process, whereby people mobilise, express political beliefs, and protest for positive change. From the many comments on social media, it was clear that many still do not fully grasp the concept of democracy as their own, calling it a “first world mentality”, and misunderstanding it as a status that could be earned by a country’s economic and social merit.

In view of the xenophobic and often racist comments flooding online feeds, some claimed despairingly that Malaysia did not “deserve” democracy. In view of what many saw as unfavourable election results, some claimed melodramatically that democracy was “dead”. For outsiders to Malaysian politics who were seeing such exchanges online (like the viral pleas for Queen Elizabeth to reclaim her colony) for the first time, most Malaysians must have appeared desperately passionate and simple.

Yet there is a lot to commend in terms of how far Malaysian civil society has come. The swift outcry and mobilisation in response to the election results is yet another sign of the increasing progressiveness of the electorate. Just five years ago, I could not comment publicly on Malaysian politics without my parents hushing me, saying that I was asking for trouble. This cautiousness has since evaporated. My father was one of the most active Facebook users on Sunday, spreading and sharing any information related to the election (yes, even the rumours).

Democracy is far from dead in Malaysia. In fact, it is more alive than ever. Certainly more is happening on the ground than ever before. Malaysians were hoping for a change in government, but this is ‘ubah’ too. And it is coming from the bottom-up. Can BN, the longest ruling coalition in the world, meet them halfway?

Note: Originally posted here.

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It took a month to get back into the rhythm of working on my long-form on suicides in France. Partly because I’ve had a mountain of work at the school of international affairs. Partly because this is a topic I find myself avoiding once I’m out of the correct frame of mind. I’m reminded of what suicide hotline volunteer Fabienne Leonhart said about needing a “solid psychological state”. I certainly didn’t sense it was wise to get into the thick of it while warring through papers and finals, in despair over the long Parisian winter.

April hasn’t been a complete loss, however. I touched base with blogger and train conductor Cédric Gentil (more on my project blog) and on his recommendation, I picked up a new read called Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino, a well-known French journalist and former editor of Le Monde. “It’s about his encounters with suicides on the RER A, which runs just behind his house,” said Gentil, who himself operates the RER A. “I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Here’s my two cents on the book:

Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino

« Suite à un accident grave de voyageur »

By: Éric Fottorino
Collection Blanche, Gallimard
Published : 28-02-2013

At 63 pages, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur is a slim but incredibly dense read. The title takes after the detached and euphemistic announcement issued by French transport authorities when a suicide attempt has occurred on the tracks: “Following the serious accident of a passenger…”. The book begins with Fottorino’s shocking discovery that three suicide attempts occurred on the RER A within a month. The RER A is a subway line linking Paris into the suburbs and carries one the world’s highest volume of passengers at 1.2 million a day. As a resident in the suburbs of Yvelines, Fottorino takes the train to Paris nearly everyday and lives close enough to the station that he can hear the rumble of the tracks and the muffled blare of announcements.

En septembre 2012, à quelques jours de distance, trois personnes se sont jetées sur les voies du RER, derrière chez moi, dans les Yvelines. Un vieillard, une mère de famille, un homme qui n’a pu être identifié. À la violence de leur mort a répondu le silence. Il ne s’est rien passé. Nul n’a désigné la souffrance par son nom. Une voix neutre a seulement résonné dans les haut-parleurs de la gare : “Suite à un accident grave de voyageur…” Nos vies ont pris un peu de retard. À cause de trois détresses qui n’ont jamais existé.

(my amateur translation) In September 2012, within days of each other, three people threw themselves onto the tracks of the RER behind my house in the Yvelines. An old man, a mother, and an unidentified man. In response to the violence of their death was silence. Nothing happened. Nothing called out suffering by its name. Only a neutral voice resonating from the speakers of the train station : “Following the serious accident of a passenger…” Our lives took a brief delay. As a result of three incidents of distress that never existed.

A strong bout of curiosity driven by what I suspect was a mix of good journalistic sense and literary compassion sent him on an investigation into the identities of these suicides, spurring a thoughtful essay on what their deaths and collective indifference towards them are saying about modern French society. It is a deeply localised perspective, and seems less intended for the general franco-français than the Parisian urbanite who is already well-acquainted with metaphors of the subway and the city. It is, to some extent, navel-gazing, and I’m not sure if the publishing equivalent of Gallimard in the anglophone world would have taken on a book like this. A highbrow indie mag like n+1, perhaps.

Yet the introspection is well done. What follows is a poetic, despairing exposition of what Fottorino describes as modern isolation and the unwillingness to acknowledge suffering for what it is. Gentil was one of the people contacted by Fottorino in the research for his book, but the prevailing voice is Fottorino’s. His words have an expressive authority, and with his sober and compassionate tone, the result is a beautiful and pained meditation on society’s reaction towards these suicides.

For example, Fottorino laments the clinical neutrality and austere word-limit devoted to suicides in French newspapers. After all, if a person chooses to end his life publicly, perhaps the least we can do is acknowledge him beyond the number of trains he delayed and the number of hours he threw off schedule?

Inconnus jusqu’au bout, ils sont des etc. Personne n’a cherché à les retenir, à s’en souvenir…certains ont sûrement voulu secouer la société qui rejette les plus vulnérables. Il me semble percevoir autre chose. Ces solitaires nous renvoient à notre solitude. La plus profonde des solitudes. Celle qui naît d’un accord tacite, d’une conspiration du silence…  

(translation) Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras. Nobody tries to retain them, to remember them… They surely wanted to shake up the society that rejects the most vulnerable. But there is something else. These solitary individuals are returning us to our own solitude. The most profound of solitudes. That which is born of a tacit agreement, of a conspiracy of silence…

Fottorino obviously has strong literary ambitions and a lot of muscle to exercise it with. For a non-native French speaker, his writing often strained beyond my grasp. For French readers, I suspect his acrobatics could cut both ways: literary snob and/or compassionate genius. In line with his distaste for the clinical narrative around suicides, Fottorino does away with the usual association between grief and austerity. Instead, the text is rich, almost laboured, with metaphor, turns-of-phrase and many clever literary devices. It is an exhibition of prowess and it hints at a writer’s self-indulgence at the expense – or the benefit – of the sobering quality of the subject.

At the same time, and as Fottorino would probably argue, his treatment is perhaps necessary. In the way that French newspapers have dealt with suicides in the métro, Fottorino has done the opposite. The book is, I imagine, his antidote. It could be read as an apology for the media industry, the disaffectedness of society, and at the same time as a sort of homage to those who are entangled in a person’s final departure. And it is a pretty good one. There are poignant and beautifully constructed passages that capture that grotesque tensing when a suicidal interacts with the living:

Les conducteurs sont alors pris en otage. Leur machine se fait machination. Une personne veut mourir. Une autre ne veut surtout pas tuer. Elle tue pourtant, malgré elle. 

(translation) The conductors are thus taken hostage. Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill him. He kills nonetheless, despite himself.

Fottorino comes back to the big picture in the final pages, concluding with strong sentiments on social suffering, a theme that is increasingly batted around in French media and academia. He takes to task not only modern society’s indifference to suicides, but the institutional inability of investigating the correlation between structural problems and individual despair.

Les mots parlent malgré eux. France et souffrance, France sous-France. Le suicide interroge les fondements de notre condition humaine. Notre société du chiffre triomphant et des records insignificants ne sait pas relier chômage et suicide, précarité et suicide, harcèlement et suicide, perte de l’estime de soi et acte désespéré

(translation) The words speak despite the [silence of society]. France and suffering. France and under-France. Suicide is interrogating the fundaments of the human condition. Our society of the triomphant numbers and insignificant records does not know how to linkunemployment and suicide, precarity and suicide, harassment and suicide, the loss of self-esteem and the act of desperation. 

With its heavy criticism of modern isolation and French society, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur may be less ideal for the suicidal than for the living. I’m not sure what sort of comfort can be taken from the book for someone in the dark woods, except for the fact that it is beautifully written and a worthy attempt at returning some dignity to lost and lonely lives. Ultimately, it doesn’t get into the frame of understanding the suicidal as much as Al Alvarez’s The Savage God does, but it offers a satisfying philosophical and literary exploration into the archness of modern society.

So it doesn’t go into the suburbs of depression, it stays with the journey of the living: train conductors, the people on board, the people who miss their trains, the ones who bitch about that brief delay in their lives, the ones who mourn that permanent loss of a stranger’s life. And perhaps it is what is needed to break the silence.

About two months ago, G volunteered me for an illustration project. A writer in her Facebook group was looking for someone who could illustrate, and G sent her a link to my blog. I’d never done a collaboration before, what more an illustrated story, but I decided to go for it. I wrote to the writer, told her I’d never done a comic before but that I’d love to try. I saw on the forum that someone had volunteered their friend for her project too. I never knew if they were in touch, but I ended up with the project – a four-page graphic memoir.

"I was afraid that she'd forgotten me forever."

“I was afraid that she’d forgotten me forever.”

So this week I finally finished Grand Mal, a sad and surreal account by Jane Hawley seeing her mother fall into an epileptic fit for the first time. The story is intended for Memoir Journal, a literary journal that promotes the art of memoir: that sacred act of remembering and re-telling.

This project meant a great deal of things to me. It was my first ever attempt at telling a story in an illustrative/graphic novel form, one of my favourite genres. More than that, it was the first time I was telling a true story in comic form. If J-school has done anything for me, it has been that training in journalism for two years opened me up to the art of non-fiction – a genre I’d always thought flat and un-literary before. But many books (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, A Beautiful Mind) and graphic memoirs (Maus, Persepolis, L’Ascension du Haut Mal) and one comic journalist (Joe Sacco) later, I’m recognising that quick and painful thrill in the heart. I’ve fallen in love with non-fiction.

I’m graduating in a few weeks and that heady time of self-questioning is now. Working on Grand Mal has helped pull together the threads of all these past years’ self-searching, and it feels great. Many, many thanks to G and to Jane for all their kind words of encouragement. More updates on when the complete graphic memoir will be out shortly.

"I wonder what she can see"

“I wonder what she can see”

[Update, 2 November 2013] Grand Mal is now out in Memoir Journal’s latest Invisible Memoirs anthology. Jane even got a personal note from the editor saying all sorts of nice things about it, encouraging us to expand it into a novel-length piece. If that intrigues you at all, get your copy of the anthology today!

Earlier this year, I interviewed a wonderful young illustrator called Béatrice Boutignon for a TV story I was doing about the gay marriage and gay adoption debate in France. To date, Boutignon has published three children’s books that gently challenge traditional preconceptions of family. I finally picked up her latest book Un air de familles (published by Le Baron Perché) this week and loved it so much that I decided to review it on Goodreads. Tender, persuasive, and completely undidactic, I think Boutignon has hit all the right notes with a young audience that matters enormously in how society will shift in opinion as time goes on.

Un air de familles by Béatrice Boutignon

Un air de familles by Béatrice Boutignon

A cool bit of trivia to show you how this book matters: politician Dominique Bertinotti gifted a copy of it to the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira herself, who was widely applauded for her passionate defence of gay rights before the French National Assembly last month. So don’t you scoff now. Big differences can come from the small things.

My review, originally on Goodreads:

Un air de familles is a beautifully illustrated children’s book that tries to dismantle traditional preconceptions of family. In this “big book of little differences”, Boutignon uses soft pastels to introduce all sorts of animals and family types: the adopted marmot in a family of racoons, a single polar bear mother, father ostrich with his new boyfriend, mother crane who comes from another country. There isn’t a particular narrative that holds the characters all together. Rather, It is a sampling of day-to-day events of real life, with families at the carnival and in the doctor’s waiting room. The images unfold in two-page spreads, with a short narrative of voices on one end. It’s not immediately apparent who the voices belong to, but Boutignon leaves small hints to help you identify the character in the spread by what he or she says, making the book interactive as well as educational. I definitely found it fun to search for the characters and can imagine that children would too. 

An afternoon at the museum

An afternoon at the museum

With my two papas, we often go to the museum.
They always tell me the stories behind the paintings.

Papa and mama are very impressed by the totem.
When we grow up, my sister and I are going to make one that is just as beautiful!

My brother and I love the painting of the pink flamingos.
My little sister, the daughter of mama and her new lover, just thinks it’s silly.

But what makes this book truly special is its message and timeliness. Un air de familles was published while the gay marriage and gay adoption debate was still raging on in France. For months, all everyone could talk about was whether legalising gay marriage and gay adoption would be a “threat” to family values. Many argued that children had a right to a “normal” family, to grow up with a mother and father.

Boutignon’s illustrations and words push beyond these social constructions in a gentle and undidactic way. The voices you hear in this book are the unassuming voices of the children themselves. A baby chick wonders where his two adventurous mother hens will take him traveling tomorrow. A baby elephant falls asleep as his African dad sings him African nursery rhymes and his Indian mum murmurs Indian lullabies. Three young polar bears cuddle up with their single mother in bed. At the end of the book, Boutignon has inserted an empty box next to a long line of families asking “And you, what is your family like?” It is a soothing and uninvasive lesson about how families come in all shapes and sizes, including your own, and that it’s okay. 

My two mothers and me

My two mothers and me

If you’re reading this with a child, you’ll no doubt be wondering if you should explain the issues of diversity and tolerance as you go through the book. But you don’t really need to. Boutignon has struck upon a simple and wonderful truth: that children recognise love and happiness when they see it, that that’s what truly defines a family, and that’s all there is to it.

Dropped in at Shakespeare & co. last weekend with some friends, a couple of whom had never been to the bookshop before. As usual, I coasted to and fro between the shelves and jostling tourists, mentally pruning for a new find. It’s my habit to wander around inside bookshops, plucking books out by their spines and hugging them possessively until a bored or hungry friend nudges me to hurry up. It’s how I settle on my “find of the day”; I move to a corner, put my pile down, and discard book after book until I can’t. This time, the book I could not discard was Belgian artist Brecht Evens‘s The Making Of (Les Amateurs, in French).

Image

I’m a huge fan of black and whites. I love the contrast, the shadows, the sillhouettes, the moodiness of ink; I love how there is a hint of another shape in every space, that wink towards optical illusion. With the exception of Asterios Polyp, my favourite graphic novels have always been in black and white. And when it comes to my own work, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve no talent for colours. I hide in monochrome.

But Brecht Evens blew me away. I won’t dwell on the story, since the Guardian has done a decent job reviewing it here. I want to talk about the art, oh god, the art. The Making Of is a tome of watercolours that is totally original in its vision. Characters fade in and out, translucently layered over each other, under clothing, floating above kitchen sinks; suggesting that everything is temporeal, the stuff of flashing heat and moods. In this way, Evens has a special talent for crowds. They blend with loud colours into the floor, the ceiling, the streets, the sofas. There is enough movement to these energetic, absract spreads to keep you poring over the detail and soaking up the atmosphere on the page for at least five minutes. For a comic book, that’s an extraordinary amount of time.

As with most comics, Evens has managed to keep his character designs simple and easy to follow while keeping a surprising level of detail – a print shirt, flowery dresses, ghost-like eyes – that pulls your eye back for a linger. When he’s working those panels, Evens harks back to the likes of Bastien Vivès’s Dans mes yeux: effortless lines and colours sketching out the same moment over a number of sequential stills, often with a telling change in body language and pace in dialogue.

Evens has a fantastic range of style. In 160 pages, he manages to allude to great European masters by appropriating his own style of pointillism, cubism, and surrealism. Some pages are so richly textured and ornamental they look more suited to be murals:

The Making Of is not great writing as far as comics go, but it is Evens’s gorgeous artwork that truly makes the book stand its own ground. With colouring skills like these, even I’m tempted to grab a box of watercolours.

Here’s a speed drawing by Brecht Evens at this year’s Angoulême. I’m not that short-sighted, am I? He really is holding two brushes?

bees dream

one of those “show, don’t tell” times

i get the damnedest dreams. A often tells me that i have no need for television; i just need a nap.

this was one of those times when i jolted awake still swatting the air, a half-strangled cry about to leave my throat. the experience was so vivid that i had to sketch it.

i couldn’t run and i couldn’t hide. i could only buy guns from vending machines lining the corridors of the train station with dimes and nickels and shoot them down one at a time. my brother trailed behind me, hands over his ears, body uncontrollably jerking and twisting against the pseudo-physical crush of noise and innumerable painful collisions with leggy, insect bodies.

i don’t remember if we made it out of there okay.

Originally written for ASEFUAN‘s blog, about going to India and finding that not all was as I’d expected:

Child of Rajasthan

A village child near the desert town of Jaisalmer, India, not more than 30 minutes from the border of Pakistan

I have long had a fascination for India. At university, I picked up Hindi, signed up for a class on Indian cinema, and even joined Bollywood dancing. As a Malaysian, I thought I was immune to the sort of romanticised overtures many tend to associate with the subcontinent. We are both fiercely multicultural and corrupt countries, after all. With such academic preparation and an imagined cultural affinity with India, I thought I was ready for a two-month sojourn in Hindustan.

I was wrong.

India defies imagination. Photographs and writings from the region often suggest a politically troubled land filled with raucous colours and scents, a culture of spirituality and kitsch. Most of it is true. But any traveller will tell you that no amount of readings from the Lonely Planet and your South Asian studies classes can prepare you for the full experience.

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Holy cows loiter all over India’s streets

Andreas and I travelled for a month in the north of India, starting out with a week in Rajasthan. Rajasthan was the stuff of tourism ads, flourishing and colourful, but it was frighteningly dirty. We saw dogs eat cow shit off rubbish-spotted roads, and I fell ill from food-poisoning in Jaisalmer. We felt the sensory crush of heat waves and the traffic and the throngs of people squeezed in around you everywhere and the public pissing and the potholed roads and cow and goat and dog faeces and the homeless rickshaw cyclers and the rubbish sitting in piles reeking openly in sun and rain. As we took it all in, city after city in Rajasthan, we couldn’t imagine what the poorer parts of India (72% of the country’s people still live in rural areas) must look like. The picture we were getting did not sit well with the oft-touted image of India as a rising superpower.

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I was happy when we left for the mountains. We spent two weeks travelling from Srinagar to Leh, roving through the Indian Himalayas from one end of India’s northernmost state to the other. As we moved further away from Pakistan towards Tibet, we saw the landscape around us shift gradually from Muslim Kashmir into Tibetan Buddhist Ladakh.

The nerve-wrecking and arduous journey we took through the unpaved mountain roads and high passes was at least 3100m above sea-level, and it was devastatingly beautiful. Munich-born Andreas was not very impressed by Kashmir, which resembled the Alps, but was constantly in awe of Ladakh’s high-altitude desert mountains. I was less calm during the journey. At any moment, I thought we would slip off a cliff and plunge into the abyss below us. In the jeep, we made jokes about dying. It was terrifying, but the adrenalin kept me awake for the breathtaking view.

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The floating garden of Kashmir’s Dal Lake

For the first time in my life, I saw glaciers. I hadn’t come to India expecting that.

Later, when I interned at AFP’s bureau in New Delhi for a month and read the dispatches we put out on the wire, I felt as though the India I had experienced had been distilled completely into ideas. Our stories were about political deadlock, poverty and corruption scandals. The biggest story of the month was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s sudden announcement that India would now be easing in major foreign retailers. In a matter of weeks, I had to go from being a tourist to a journalist. The
timelessness of deserts, mountains and faces was now replaced by up-to-date news.

photo

A couple whose son went missing months ago, one of 15 cases per day in New Delhi

At every bend, I realised that my initial fascination with India had not waned, but was now imbibed with cynicism. Politicians were caught up in deadlock after deadlock in parliament, over allegations of scandal and strong opposition by the BJP and CPI towards Congress’s push for a more open economy. Some were rallying with strong words about how the small retailers and the agricultural workers would be the first to suffer from such changes in reform. But I couldn’t help but think all these big debates were unlikely to be understood by my grocer, even though he told me vehemently that Walmart was going to destroy his business.

But won’t it be good for India? I wanted to ask him. It will create more jobs. Many of your more rural counterparts won’t have to come to the city to languish homelessly in its streets and pull rickshaws. More money will be spread out. It may improve your supply chains. Haven’t you had enough of your closed and provincial economy?

Slack-jawedCommunist Party of India (CPI) members at a FDI protest rally in September, some of whom admitted to having been bused in and had no understanding of the issue

Communist Party of India (CPI) members at a FDI protest rally in September, some of whom admitted to having been bused in and had no understanding of the issue

No use. My grocer was a staunch supporter of opposition party BJP. But even the layman without political affiliations is still strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of village life. I wondered if this was the sort of mentality that was hindering India from truly achieving the superpower status everyone was talking about five years ago. With 1.2 billion people, India is the only country that has the scale and potential to reach China’s economic stature. Its pharmaceutical and IT sectors are renowned to be world-class, testament to India’s ability to compete with fully developed countries. But in its streets and its parliament, this power feels smothered. Wherefore India?

I found the disillusionment of going to India both humbling and liberating. The India I experienced was potent, proud, but unhappy. It had not turned out to be the stuff I had prepared myself for, but it had become all the more compelling for it. I look forward to going back.

A familiar juxtaposition in India: beauty and waste