Sunday, December 27, 2009

Penguins in Punta Tombo, Argentina

Last week I was in Punta Tombo ( near Puerto Madryn in Chubut province of Argentina),which has one of the largest colonies of Megallanic ( also called as Patagonic ) penguins, a kind of warm weather species, smaller than the Antarctic penguins. There are over two hundred thousand of them in an area of a few kilometres on the beaches of Punta Tombo. They are there during their breeding season from September to March. During the rest of the year, they move over 2000 kilometres to the ocean off Brazil. Punta Tombo penguin colony is accessible easily and one can walk around and observe the penguins closely.

It is amazing to see how the penguins walk like human babies in short steps slowly and awkwardly. They dive into the water and swim fast like fish. They stand upright like sentries for hours together while guarding their nests and chicks. The male and female do the guard duty in shifts. They look after the chicks with exemplary parental care, feeding them through the mouth. They move around in groups and are together in large colonies.
Here is how they walk...

In the picture below, the penguins are walking towards the pilgrims going for a holy dip..

The Magellanic Penguins live for about 25 years. They are monogamous and mate with the same partner year after year. Hmm... very unLatino in character....The male comes first in September and reclaims his burrow from the previous year and waits to reconnect with his female partner. The females are able to recognize their mates through their calls. They build their nests under bushes or in burrows. They lay only two eggs of which only one chick survives generally.
Here is a typical burrow of the penguins...

Here is how the penguins guard the nest, standing like a sentry...

Puerto Madryn is also the best place for whale watching. The Southern Right whales come here for their breeding season from June to December. Hmm..the whales were already gone by the time I got there...
Penguin colonies are also there in Valdez Peninsula, north of Puerto Madryn city. Besides penguins, one can see sea lions and elephant seals. During the journey through this patagonian windsewpt landscape of treeless rolling plains , one can see Guanacas ( looks like a combination of camel and sheep) and Ostrich-like Nandu birds.
At the entrance to the Valdez Peninsula there is a visitor centre, which is one of the best in the world. The bathrooms there are cleaner and shinier than the ones in Oberoi Hotel in Delhi. There are displays of information,maps and videos and friendly English-speaking guides. Punta Tumbo is also well organised with paths and facilities in an ecofriendly and efficient manner making the experience educative and pleasant for visitors. I have seen this kind of professionalism, and elegant visitor-friendly facilities maintained in other tourist places in Argentina.
Felicitaciones ... amigos Argentinos....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Polo.... born in India....perfected in Argentina

The game between Dolfina and Ellerstina teams at the Argentine Polo Open yesterday was a Dream Game. The two teams had the perfect 40 handicaps each. It was a rare opportunity and incredible excitement to watch the masters play at the Palermo polo stadium in Buenos Aires considered as the cathedral of polo.

Here are the perfect handicappers and their age in brackets from left to right:
Dolfina team in white - Castagnola(39), Mariano Aguerre(40), Lucas Monteverde(32) and Adolfo Cambiaso(34)
Ellerstina team in black, left to right-Facundo Pires ( 23),Gonzalo Pires (26),Pablo Mac Donough(27), Juan Martin Nero(28)

Both the teams played an impressive and fast paced game and were neck to neck all the time. Adolfo Cambiaso of Dolfina and Facundo Pires of Ellerstina, the top players, displayed their magic with the ball while flying on the horses. The match ended as a draw with 16 goals each at the end of the eight chukers. They went for a sudden death play-off. Dolfina made the golden goal and became the winner of the Argentine Open 2009.

Ellerstina had earlier won in this season the Tortugas Open and the Hurlingham Open and was hoping to make it a grand slam with the Palermo Open, which is also called as the Argentine Open. But they were outplayed by Dolfina, who took revenge against Ellerstina who beat them in the 2008 Open. Dolfina has won the Argentine open four times in the last five years.

The game of yesterday was a reconfirmation of the fact that Argentina is the undisputed leader of polo in the world. Argentina has, at this moment, 11 ten handicap players out of the twelve in the world. Argentina has not only the best players in the world but also has the largest number of top ranked players. All the top 30 ranked players of the world are Argentines except for the sixth ranked Uruguyan David Stirling. There are over 1000 polo fields in Argentina which also has the best polo horses in the world.
Adolfo Cambiaso is the best polo player in the world. He was the youngest player to reach ten handicap, at the age of ninteen in 1994, when he won the Grandslam of Argentina. Since then he has been winning tournaments in Argentina and around the world.
While Argentina has perfected the game, it was born in India. The modern game of polo, formalized and popularized by the British , originates from Manipur in India. The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in Assam in 1834. The second polo club came up in Calcutta in 1862. The British took the game from India to Britain, Europe and Americas and popularised them. While the glamour of polo was kept up by the royalty of Jaipur and Jodhpur, the level of the game in India has remained low. The highest handicap in India is said to be six. Since it is an expensive game it has been maintained mainly by the Indian army, which could afford horses. Now there is a boost to the game by the entry of Indian corporate chiefs who play and patronise the game. Even with this, India is likely to continue in the minor league while Argentina has taken the game to new levels of excellence. They say that there are two levels of polo: world class and Argentine class...
Felicitaciones Argentina...... Felicitaciones Cambiaso....

Saturday, December 05, 2009

From the bottom of the well to the top of Executive Tower ..The story of Mujica

From the bottom of the well to the top of Executive Tower – How Mujica, the guerilla fighter climbed out of his prison well to become President of Uruguay

Jose Mujica, the former leftist Tupamaro guerilla fighter who was elected as President of Uruguay on 29 November, was held in the bottom of a well for two years as part of his fourteen years of imprisonment. He learned to speak to the frogs and to hear the cry of the ants. He held dialogues with his inner self in order to avoid going mad in the well which was mercifully dry. He survived, abjured violence and embraced democratic ideals. He will now move into the Presidential office in the top floor of the Executive Tower building in Montevideo.

Mujica could not contain his tears at his emotional victory speech. Even the sky burst with rains and drenched him and his supporters with heavy downpour. It was a symbolic washing down of the past of Mujica, heralding a new era in the history of Uruguay and Latin America.

In the sixties and seventies, Latin America was filled with young idealist revolutionaries, who took up arms to change the staus quo and establish utopian socialist states. They assassinated, kidnapped and killed persons of authority and robbed banks for their ideology. Some of the revolutionaries were killed, thrown into sea from planes, jailed, tortured, exiled or simply made to ¨disappear¨, as an Argentine General put it in a kind of magical realism,¨They are not alive, nor dead… but have just diasppeared¨. The word ¨Desaparecido¨, still haunts the society, literature and arts of the region. Che Guevara, the revolutionary Icon, was killed by the Boilivian army. Few of the revolutionaries were lucky to survive the bullets and get a second chance to come to power through the ballot. Jose Mujica is one of them.

Mujica joined the Tupamaro armed militant group and participated in the brief takeover of Pando, a town close to the capital Montevideo in 1969. He was captured and jailed on four occasions and once managed to escape from the prison. He was eventually re-apprehended in 1972, shot by the police six times. After the military coup in 1973, he was held in a military prison for eleven years and tortured. In 1985, when democracy was restored, Mujica was freed under a general amnesty. Mujica, along with his comrades founded a new political party, Movement of Popular Participation. He won the 1994 elctions to become a deputy and later a senator and used to go to the Parliament in a motorbike. His party was the largest component of the centre-left Frente Amplio coalition, which won the election in 2004 and formed the first leftist government in Uruguay´s history. This government lead by President Tabare Vazquez was popular in the last five years with its Inclusive Development Agenda and at the same time being market-friendly. Mujica was Minister of Agriculture in Vazquez´s government. He gained nomination as the Coalition candidate in the 2009 elections and won with 53 percent votes.

Mujica has promised continuity of the pragmatic policies of the coalition government of the last five years. He has said that he would govern like President Lula, who has become the role model for the Latin American leftists. In one of his campaign speeches, Mujica vowed to distance the left from "the stupid ideologies that come from the 1970s — I refer to things like unconditional love of everything that is state-run, scorn for businessmen and intrinsic hate of the United States. He said, ¨I'll shout it if they want: Down with isms! Up with a left that is capable of thinking outside the box! In other words, I am more than completely cured of simplifications, of dividing the world into good and evil, of thinking in black and white. I have repented!"

In 2005, Mujica married Lucia Topolansky, a fellow Tupamaro fighter and current Senator, after many years of co-habitation. The presidential couple would continue to stay in their modest farm house in a working-class community with dirt roads and small plots on the edge of the capital.

The other guerilla leader who became President in Latin America was Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. He was part of the Sandinista movement which waged an armed struggle and overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. He won the elections in 1984 and was President from 1985 to 1990. He was defeated in the elections in 1990, 1996 and 2000 but succeeded in 2006 and is the current President. His wife Rosario Murillo was also a guerilla fighter.

Alvaro Garcia Linera, the vice president of Bolivia was a cofounder the insurgent Tupak Katari Guerilla Army. He was arrested and charged with insurrection and terrorism. While imprisoned, he studied sociology and became a university professor, after his release from prison. He was elected vice president as the running mate to Evo Morales in the 2005 Presidential elections.

Ali Rodriguez Araque, the Finance Minister of Venezuela , was active in the Marxist guerilla movement and was known as "Commander Fausto", allegedly acting as an explosives expert. He was one of the last guerrilla fighters to put down arms. After the state pardon, he took to parliamentary politics. He has served as oil minister, foreign minister and Vice President of the country as well as OPEC secretary general.
Nilda Garre, the Defence Minister of Argentina was said to be part of the militant leftist movement of Montoneros, which fought against the military dictatorship. Her husband and brother in law were allegedly involved with the Montoneros. Her husband was exiled and her brother in law was killed in a shoot out. In an ironic justice, Nilda Garre is now the boss of the Generals who once considered her as public enemy of the state.

Dilma Rousseff , the chief of staff of President Lula and the candidate for the elections to be held in October 2010 was a member of a clandestine Brazilian guerilla group. She was thrown into jail between 1970 and 1972 and was tortured. After her release from jail, Dilma took to politics and started working with Lula in the Workers Party. Both her two ex-husbands were also part of the underground insurgent groups.

All the major armed guerilla groups of Latin America have now renounced arms and have taken the democratic route. The only major group still fighting is the FARC of Colombia, whose story needs a separate analysis.

The Latin American democracies, which were reborn in the eighties after the end of military dictatorships, do not any longer face the threat of anti-establishment armed guerilla groups. The region is also free from terrorism and religious fundamentalism which have become threats in all the other regions. There are, of course, crime, violence, kidnapping and drug trafficking. But these are law and order problems and do not pose a serious challenge to the new democratic paradigm of Latin America.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Captain Pantoja and the special service – novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

I have just finished reading this yet another extraordinary novel by my favourite Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru. The story is unusual and provocative.

Captain Pantaleon Pantoja is a model officer in the Peruvian Army known for his discipline, seriousness , commitment, military pride and organisational skills. He does not smoke, drink, or give in to other temptations. He is a faithful husband devoted to his wife and a caring son looking after his mother. These traits make him as the ideal and foolproof candidate for a special and secret assignment. He is asked to raise a Special Force of Visitadoras ( sex visitors) to provide service to the garrisons in the remote parts of the Amazon. The objective of the special force is to quench the sexual thirst of the soldiers who become a menace to the women and animals in the Amazon region, stimulated by the local food and humidity. In the language of the report of Pantoja, this is to address the primary psychological and biological needs of the forces in isolated areas. To protect the honour of the army, Pantoja is asked to organise the service secretly and without his uniform and without any overt link with the armed forces. Pantoja applies his military skills and personal integrity to the new job with enthusiasm and enterprise. He plunges into the sordid world of brothels and pimps to get a first hand knowledge of the trade. He organises the special service methodically with proper military rules and systems. He recruits the service providers personally through a rigorous system of interview, physical examination and , of course, intercourse .... He does it in a detached professional manner without letting himself be emotional. He does it as a sacrifice and duty and as a not-for-pleasure professional obligation. He manages to discipline the bunch of wild and temperamental girls and makes them work under a set of military rules. The visitadoras are happy that Captain Pantoja has provided them with a regular income and working hours. They are thankful to him for freeing them from the risk and hazards of their vocations and cruelty of pimps. They are delighted with their new dignity as Armed Forces Specialists. Pantoja does a scientific survey of the sexual needs of the soldiers, does exhaustive research on the subject and evolves an effective logistical system for efficient delivery of services. He works out an optimal solution based on demand and supply with mathematical precision. Each visitadora provides pleasure to 20 soldiers a day and the timing of each service is limited to 20 minutes. To speed up the service, Pantoja arranges reading materials to the soldiers, while they are waiting, so that they are sufficiently stimulated and prepared. The service fees is deducted from the soldiers´s pay. Pantoja sends his special force through a boat and hydroplane to the utility centres, which are located in the remote areas of Amazon. The special service is run efficiently and methodically. Captain Pantoja is always devising new systems and improvisations to make optimal use of the limited resources to satisfy the unlimited demand of the soldiers and achieve the strategic objectives of the military. He sends regular reports of the functioning of the service with military jargon, precision and details to his superiors in top secret communications. The special service has even its own Hymn !!

Pantoja’s special service becomes a hit with the soldiers and achieves the objective of the project successfully. But then things go beyond his control. The special force becomes a special farce. Obviously, in such a small place, it cannot remain a secret. The local radio jockey, tries to blackmail the captain but when Pantoja refuses to give in, he publicises and starts a public campaign on moral grounds. The church and the society women are up in arms. The naive wife and mother of Pantoja are targets of ridicule. The officers of the army ask why only soldiers?..why not extend it to the higher echelons?. The civilian men in the towns too clamour for the special services. Even the senior citizens of the region ask ¨what about us ?¨. Things come to a head and Pantoja´s wife leaves him. The frustrated but still innocent and principled Pantoja becomes human. He falls in love with one of the service providers Olga, popularly known as the ¨Brazilian ¨, because she had returned from providing service in Manaus in Brazil. Olga is pretty, charming, mischievous and full of delightful tricks up her sleeve. Pantoja gives special privileges to the Brazilian and she takes care of him physically and emotionally. With her quick wit and street experience she provokes him to think beyond his narrow military framework. As a special favour, she is given reduced duty for servicing only ten soldiers while others do for twenty. But she complains that this has reduced her income. In the end, she gets killed in one of the attacks on the boat by a gang of men who want to rape the visitadoras. This is the turning point for Pantoja. He throws out the veil of secrecy, puts on his uniform and organises her burial with special military honours. He makes a formal and emotional memorial speech eulogising the patriotic service rendered by Olga to the nation, saying ¨we have worn our noble uniform of an officer in the Peruvian army to accompany you to your last dwelling place, with our head held high and with a full sense of responsibility to proclaim that you had fallen as a valiant soldier in the service of our beloved country Peru. You are an unfortunate martyr to the fulfilment of duty. Your spirit guides us daily and stimulates us to the completion of our duty with the selflessness and perfection with which you performed it¨. This hits the headlines of the national media and all hell breaks loose in the army headquarters. The army recalls Pantoja and disbands the special service. But Pantoja is unrepentent and stands by his decision to honour the specialist of the special service.

Alongwith this main plot, Llosa has woven a parallel story of a mad evangelist who excites the population of Amazon with his religious fanaticism. With his ¨Son of the Cross¨sermons, he makes the followers to sacrifice animals on a cross. This goes beyond control and human beings are crucified. The victims are worshipped as saints. This becomes a serious problem for the police and the army since even soldiers and the visitadoras become fanatic followers of this new sect. It ends with the priest putting himself on the cross and dying like Christ. This subplot is similar to the story in the other novel of Llosa ¨The war of the end of the world¨.

Llosa has interwoven the professions of sex, military and religion in an entertaining and provoactive way. It is a hilarious and thought provoking satire on the service providers of sex, defence and religion. Llosa has transformed the outrageous and absurd situations into readable and laughable stuff but within a cultural and intellectual framework. He has juxtaposed the profane with the profound and let the readers imagine and think.

Llosa brings out the flaw in the military system in which subordinates are required to blindly obey the orders, even when they do not agree with the judgement of the superiors. In the name of order and discipline, men and and women of the military are trained to do what they are told to do. Similiarly, the prophets and evangelists make their flock pursue the chosen and the only path blindly and without questioning. In both the military and religion, there is no option of free thinking. Individuality becomes a casualty to decision from the top and and wisdom from the chosen one. So long as these lead the individuals in a positive and constructive way there is no problem. But history, including the contemporary one, is filled with tragedies caused by wrong military ideas and false prophets.

In this novel, Mario Vargas Llosa has exceeded my expectations with his dextrous handling of this explosive theme. Llosa has handled it like an explosive expert, controlling the process of explosion and letting it explode like firecrackers, amusing and entertaining the readers from the beginning to the end.

Llosa has chosen many such unusual and provocative themes in his other novels and has handled them all with his characteristic satire, irony and humour.

This novel was made into a film in 2000 with the same title by the Peruvian director Francisco Lombardi. I saw it sometime back. It is also entertaining. But the book leaves a deeper impact.

In my view, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado ( Brazil) are the only two great Latino geniuses who could transform sexual service to sublime and aesthetic levels of understanding and appreciation. I recall the novel ¨Eleven minutes¨in which the famous Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho has chosen theme of a call girl. But this theme stands out awkwardly unable to blend with the spritual flow of Coelho.

Mario Vargas Llosa is, in my view, the most talented and versatile contemporary Latin American novelist, in the same league as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He should be next in the line for the Nobel prize for literature....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Tango Singer –Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez

This is the second book of the Argentine writer Tomas Eloy Martinez, I have read.

Bruno Cadogan, a writer from New York arrives in Buenos Aires to interview and write a book on the elusive and legendary Tango singer Julio Martel and complete his dissertation on Jorge Luis Borges's essays on tango. Martel has a great voice like the famous Carlos Gardel and sings old tangos. Unlike the handsome and popular Gardel, Martel is physically deformed and suffers from diseases and constant pain. Martel never records his songs and so the only way to listen to him is to see his live performances. But he shuns theatres and public and performs in plazas, streets and in front of certain buildings and monuments. He appears in the venues without notice and starts singing heart rending tangos. Bruno tries to follow the trails of Martel and unravel the mystery behind the choice of venues, dates and lyrics for each performance. He discovers that there is a pattern to Martel´s choice of places and dates for his performances. These form a map of the darkest moments in the city’s past. They relate to historic events including massacres in such places as well as tragedies related to his personal life and that of his friends. One of Martel´s boyhood friends joins the Montoneros Guerilla group and is involved in the kidnapping of General Aramburu. The Group used him as hostage to ask for the return of the body of Evita which was secretly hidden by the military dictatorship. They kill Aramburu when the dictatorship refuses to give in. Later, the group kidnaps the body of Aramburu from the cemetry and uses it as hostage to ask for the return of Evita´s corpse. More on this in my previous blog

During one of the wanderings in the labyrinths of the city following Martel´s trails, Bruno comes across Alcira,the girlfriend of Martel. Alcira´s love for Martel is unrequited love. Martel does not treat her well and is cruel to her sometimes. But Alcira loves the voice of Martel and is unconditionally devoted to him and takes care of him till the end. She takes Bruno to the hospital where Martel is fighting for life. Martel picks up the strength to sing a last tango
¨Buenos Aires, cuando lejos de mi ¨– Buenos Aires , so far from me…
Martel dies, after singing this last tango. Bruno´s admiration for Martel is now transferred to Alcira with whom he falls in love. He wants to marry her and take her to New York. But she does not foresee herself to a life outside the Argentine labyrinth and disappears when he goes to use the toilet in the café.

The life of Martel is like the theme of a typical tango, evoking tragedies, frustrations, bitterness and pathos. But Martel lives through them with zest and passion.

Tomas gives a glimpse of the recent history of Argentina through the stay of Bruno when he is caught in the December 2001 financial collapse of Argentina followed by the historic economic and political crisis. The Argentine government declares the largest debt default in world history and devalues the currency by three times. His bank account is frozen and his movements in the city are disrupted by the public protests and traffic blocks. The hungry and angry mobs riot against the government, attack public properties and loot super markets.

Tomas portrays vividly the cafe culture of the elegant city of Buenos Aires . Bruno spends most of his days and nights in the cafes of the city. Cafes are not just for coffee. Like many Porteños ( inhabitants of the city of Buenos Aires) Bruno takes refuge in the cafes, where he reads, researches, reflects and people-watches in between cups of cafe. Argentines including writers such as Borges had used the cafes of the city for inspiration, writing, meetings, celebrations and rantings and ravings against governments, world and life.

Through a sub plot in the novel, Tomas recreates the famous Aleph story of Luis Borges, the Argentine genius and writer. In the building where Bruno stays there is a basement in which a mad and reclusive librarian lives. Bruno is convinced that this basement is the same as in the house of Beatriz in the Garay street mentioned in the short story of Luis Borges with the title Aleph. In his story Borges says he saw Aleph while lying down in the dark cellar and counting off nineteen steps. After the intial panic of darkness of space and fears, Borges says he saw Aleph, which he describes as

-a point in space that contains all other points
-the only place on earth where all places are, seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending
- a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance.
-millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive
-daybreak and nightfall
-the multitudes of America
-all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected him
Borges concludes ¨I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth¨.

Bruno has been trying to go to the basement to experience and encounter Aleph. Finally when he goes there,the building is demolished and Aleph is gone.

Tomas has cleverly blended his fiction with the realities of Argentina and Buenos Aires creating a magical realism. It is difficult to know which is magic and which is reality. Argentine history and real life are merged with fantasy seamlessly. Tomas has used the name of Julio Martel, a Tango singer, who died in february 2009. But the story of the Martel in the book is totally different from the real life of Martel.

Tomas is perceptive in describing Buenos Aires and the Porteños. Here are some excerpts
- Buenos Aires city is so majestic from the second or third floor upwards and so dilapidated at street level, as if the splendour of the past had remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear.
-The true labyrinth of Buenos Aires is its people. So near and at the same time so distant. So similar on the outside and so diverse within. Such reserve, which Borges tried to assert as the essence of the Argentine, and at the same time such shamelessness.

-I thought the cafes were perfect for writing novels. Reality did not know what to do there and wandered around loose, hunting for authors who would dare to tell it. Everything seemed very real, perhaps too intense you could feel it burning up and stinging the skin…

I like the hypnotic story telling of Tomas leading to delirium and suspension in magical realism. He helps the readers to understand and experience the authentic and labyrinthine Argentine spirit and psyche. I have already bought my third book of Tomas Eloy Martinez. The title is The Peron Novel. I am sure Peron would have given ample material and provocation for Tomas to dig deeper into the Aleph of Argentines.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The sum of our days – autobiography of Isabel Allende

After having enjoyed Isabel Allende´s first autobiography ¨My invented country¨ in which she tells the story of her life in Chile, I was keen to read the ¨ The sum of our days¨ which covers her second life in USA, with her second husband.

Isable has narrated her real life like a fascinating fiction. The autobiography reads like a novel. She entertains and amuses the reader making fun of her life, her beliefs and idiosyncracies. She bares her soul and shares her thoughts on love, marriage and family. She pokes fun at her practice of going to astrologers to know about future. She is a member of the ¨Sisters of Disorder¨, who get together and pray for solutions to the problems of others. Her family members and friends are as colourful as the characters in her novels. Their eccentricities and eclectism are fodder for Isabel´s story telling. There are events and experience which make the readers laugh, cry and reflect.

Some of the events in her life are shocking. For example Celia , her daughter -in -law discovers she is a lesbian and moves away with Sally, the girlfriend of the son of her husband from previous marriage. Both Celia and Sally had lived in the same house of Isabel and Sally was in fact working as secretary to Isabel. Celia leaves her three children to be taken care of by Nico, the son of Isabel, who cannot get over the shock. But Isabel not only continues her friendship with Celia but she even takes the side of Celia and supports her to the annoyance of her son. Before this conversion, Celia was a gay-baiter with very strong views and prejudices. Afterwards, Celia not only practises lesbianism but actively preaches the advantages of gay love. She advocates that everyone should try it and says that it is much better than being heterosexual.

Isabel talks candidly about how desperately she was looking for a second husband afer her arrival in US. She found Willie, who had a dysfunctional family, and was the right fit for her. Still, the relationship goes through ups and downs, with the Chilean way of life and the American approach colliding inevitably. The couple have to go for therapies to save the marriage. But Isabel is content with her choice of husband and in any case it is too late in life for her to think of another one. Willie, who is a compassionate lawyer later becomes a writer and gets his books published. Isabel ends the book reaffirming her love for Willie, saying ¨the sum of our lives, our shared pains and joys, was now our destiny¨.

Willie has built a new house on a hill in San Francisco in the Chilean style and named it as ¨House of Spirits¨, the same name as her first novel which made her famous. Sure, the furniture moves at night and there are odd sounds confirming the spirits in the air ! Isabel describes the house as her Taj Mahal.

Willie´s daugter Jennifer becomes a drug addict and is abused by other drug addicts. Eventually she disappears from the hospital after giving birth to a child. She is believed to have died. Willie is devastated by this tragedy. Isabel takes on the responsibility of taking care of the child. Later, the child is adopted by a lesbian couple.

While Isabel is quick to come to the rescue of the victims of tragedies around her, she is unable to overcome the loss of her daughter Paula, who died suddenly of a disease, after her marriage. Isabel has written a separate book ¨Paula¨. The pain felt by the loss of her daughter is a recurring theme throughout the book and her life, of course.

Isabel implants in California her Chilean system of family by bringing in relatives to live with her. She calls them as her tribe. She goes out of her way to help them and at the same time freely interferes in the lives of the members of her tribe , like a typical Chilean matriarch. It is interesting that her mother who lives in Chile is her soulmate. She is in constant correspondence with Isabel, giving news of Chile and advising her even on the family issues of San Francisco.

The cosmoplitan and avante- garde San Franciso is perfect setting for Isabel´s life and the incredible adventures and misadventures of her extended family. Isabel gives a glimpse of the life in the city through the experience of her friends. She describes the Bohemian lifestyle and love affairs of Tabra, which are equally interesting. Tabra, who makes a living by making and selling artificial jewellery finds USA as an unsuitable place for her convictions and ideals and eventually moves away to Bali. She tries countless blind dates and courts disasters and disapoointment. She receives applications from young studs seeking to be kept by mature and moneyed women. Her Mexican boyfriend, whom Isabel describes as ¨Plumed Lizard¨pursues restoration of the throne of Montezuma, the last Aztec king.

The only disappointment for me as an Indian is Isabel´s superficial and silly dismissal of India in a couple of pages. Even before her travel , she says she would not be able to bear the legendary poverty of India. Her daughter Paula had visited India and told Isabel that India was the richest source of inspiration for a writer. But what Isabel experienced in India was just perspiration and saw it purely from a materialistic point of view and not at all as a writer. She enjoys, of course, shopping in Delhi and stay in a palace hotel in Jaipur. She tells a horrible story of how an Indian woman tried to give away her female baby to her, because female child is unwanted in India. This is not ony bullshit but it should be a plain lie and dishonesty of Isabel to concoct this story. No Indian woman will ever give away her baby to a foreigner passing by, as she has described. Isabel's India visit is cut short by the midnight telefone call from her daughter in law announcing her bisexuality. Thus,India falls in a few paras between the lie of an Indian woman trying to leave her child with Isabel and the truth of the bisexuality of her daughter in law.

Isabel Allende is not the first Chilean writer to look down on India. Pablo Neruda, in his autobiography, has also dismissed India in a few prejudiced Naipulistic words, after having visited India twice. It is a pity that both of them have been so materialistic and arrogant when it comes to India and blind to the culture and spirit of India. During the visit of Chilean President Lagos to India in 2005, I quoted a poem of Pablo Neruda in the draft banquet speech by Indian President. But Mr Natwar Singh , who was External Affairs Minister at that time cut out the quotation. He disliked Neruda, whom he had met and found his uncharitable view of India. Never mind ..... This should not diminish the greatness of the two Chilean writers, whose books I have enjoyed. I bought many books of these two authors in Bangalore and Chennai.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Victoria Ocampo – Argentine writer and feminist

¨Victoria Ocampo – writer, feminist and woman of the world¨ is the book I have just finished reading. It is a 170 -page summary of the autobiography ( which runs into six volumes ) of Victoria, written and annotated in English by the American translator Patricia Owen Steiner.

Victoria wanted to be a writer in her youth. She sent her first writing to two authors for their comments. Both of them threw cold water and discouraged her. She found herself constrained by the censorship on her reading and writing imposed by the family and the society in the beginning of the twentieth century. Victoria was ahead of her times in the patriarchal society of Argentina. She rebelled against the restrictions and later flourished on her own when she got independence from her parents and husband. She became a writer and a patron of letters. Besides contributing to Argentine literature, She went beyond her country and built bridges with the cultural and literary world of Latin America, Europe, US and India. She became the first woman to be admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1977. This was a special satisfaction to this Queen of Letters, who had suffered discouragement from writing when she was a young woman.

Victoria founded, funded, published and edited a literary magazine ¨Sur¨ which had poems, stories, essays and social commentary of authors from around the world. Sur was the foremost literary and cultural journal of Latin America in the twentieth century. It gave voice to the Argentine and Latin American writers and exposed them to the outside world. It was also her revenge on men who stifled her writing aspiration in the early part of her life. She got the men to write for her magazine. It lasted for an impressive forty years from 1931.

Victoria established a publishing house ¨Sur¨, which published the works of eminent writers like Lorca, Borges, Bioy Casares, Sabato, Onetti, Octavio paz, Cortazar and Vargas Llosa. Sur also brought out spanish translations of North American and European writers. Victoria herself undertook translations of some books. She was more fluent in French than Spanish and she was proficient in English too.

Victoria became a grand patron of literature and culture in Argentina and even outside. She financed the trips of some European writers and artists to Argentina. She hosted the visits of foreign writers and organised literary gatherings. Her friends included Borges, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Virginia Woolf.

Victoria wrote ten volumes of essays, several books of non-fiction, short stories and literary criticism. Her lengthy six-volume autobiography is useful to understand the Argentina of her times. She is candid and provocative in her commentaries.

She was a victim of the discrimination against women , as was the norm in the early part of the twentieth century. She rebelled against the oppressions of her family, the church and the society and became a feminist leader. She quit her unhappy marriage early on and lived independently for the rest of her life. She had many lovers, affairs and friends. She travelled around the world and moved in the artistic, literary and social circles of Europe especially in France.

Victoria was an iconoclast in a patriarchal society, a woman, who chose not to follow the easy path offered by her wealthy family. She used her money, charm and brain to do something extraordinary with her life from 1890 to 1979.

As happened to many other Argentine writers she also became a victim of politics. She was imprisoned for three weeks by the government of Peron for her criticism of his regime. Her passport was confiscated for two years untill the overthrow of Peron.

Two Indians had been inspiration to her; Gandhi and Tagore. Victoria was impressed by the idea of non-violence, spiritual energy and moral courage of Gandhi, who succeeded in translating his conviction into action. Gandhi became one of the most important influences on her thinking. She was moved after reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924 and her meeting with him in Paris in 1931. This is what she wrote after hearing Gandhi’s speech in Paris.
¨Gandhi spoke with extreme simplicity, without eloquence or tricks of an orator. His physical appearance seemed scarcely suited to impress anyone and especially a Parisian audience. But his spiritual energy dominated and galvanized the audience¨.
She wrote an essay on Gandhi in La Nacion newspaper in 1924 and later wrote a number of articles on him.

Victoria read Gitanjali in 1914 and said ¨it fell like a celestial dew on my anguishing twenty four year old heart¨. She described Tagore´s poetry as ¨magical mysticism¨. She felt powerful echoes in Tagore´s personal loving God, radiating happiness and serenity, unlike the demanding and vengeful God imposed on her in childhood. She was very excited when Tagore came to Buenos Aires in 1924. In her own words, it was one of the great events of her life. She wrote an article in La Nacion, welcoming Tagore. She hosted him for two months in Buenos Aires. There is talk of a platonic love between the sixty three year - old Tagore and the thirty four year- old Victoria. More on this in my earlier blog story

Tagore was rejuvenated by the beautiful Victoria on the flower-filled garden of the mansion overlooking the scenic bank of the immense Plata river. She was the muse of his Purabi poems in which she called her as Vijaya and dedicated the poems to her.

Victoria had a spiritual awakening from the encounter with Tagore. She was overawed by his intellect and serenity and she felt like a child before him. She listened to him mostly and did not dare to express herself as she would have liked to do.

The Tagore- Victoria encounter opened an intellectual, literary, cultural and spiritual bridge between India and Argentina. Since then, there has been a strong Argentine tradition of spiritual and cultural interest in India.

Nehru was one of the world leaders who appealed to the Argentine government to release her from jail.

Indira Gandhi was special for Victoria. She was the successful example of emancipation and fulfillment of the dreams of Victoria for women. Victoria received a honorary doctorate from Vishwabharathi University and this was personally handed over to her by Mrs Gandhi during her trip to Buenos Aires in 1968.

Ever since reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924, Victoria had a continuing interest in India. As a feminist she admired the participation of Indian women in the independence struggle under the leadership of Gandhi.

This short summary of the autobiography of Victoria and reproduction of some of her essays gives a glimpse of the cultural history of Argentina. Particia, the author of this book has been ¨reading, translating and thinking about Ocampo¨for almost twenty years. Patricia has interpreted the autobiography of Ocampo in an objective and balanced manner.
After reading this book, I am now inspired to read more about Ocampo. I have already started reading ¨In your blossoming flower garden¨ by Ketari Kushari Dyson.

The Tagore- Victoria story is fantastic material for a film. I am glad I have been able to interest Pablo Cesar, the Argentine director on this. I liked his preliminary script and the title ¨Thinking of Him¨, he has chosen for the film.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Indo-Latin American fusion restaurant in Manhattan

Mixing Indian and Latino cuisines for an American audience struck as intellectually provocative - This is how the owner of the Vermilion restaurant, Rohini Dey described her venture to Financial Times of 12 July 2009.

The provocation in the restaurant starts with

Tamarind Margarita
Clove Tamarind Sour
Garam Masala Bloody Mary
corona cerveza

In the wine section there are the famous Malbec and Torrentes from Argentina as well as Chilean wines along with Indian wines.

The Latino entrants in the menu include
caldeirada de peixe from Brasil
chimichurri new york stripred mexican arbol - kashmiri mirch chimichurri
duck vindaloo arepa
peruvian black ceviche

Rohini is an economist and had worked in World Bank and Mckinsey before entering the restaurant business. She first started a Vermilion in Chicago and following its sucess opened the second one in NewYork. Both the restaurants have now become fashionable. Rohini has roped in some Indian celebrites such as Rajat Gupta, Salman Rushdie and Sabeer Bhatia as investors in this venture.

Rohini says Indian and Latino cuisines use common ingredients such as beans, coriander, plantain and guava. Samosa and Latin American Empanada are similiar. Of course, there had been some historic exchanges between the two regions. Chillies went from Mexico to India while mangoes were brought to Latin America from India by the Portuguese.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Latin Americans are the happiest in the world...

Nine of the world's ten happiest nations in the world are in Latin America, according to a recent study by a British research group, the New Economics Foundation, who compile every year a Happy Planet Index(HPI).

Here are the top ten countries in HPI
Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador

Poor Honduras seems to be out of place at this moment with its ugly political crisis.

Costa Rica comes on top of the Happy Planet Index with the the highest life satisfaction in the world.This is not surprising to me since I had a personal experience of the Pura Vida attitude of Costa Ricans during my recent visit there. Here is my blog story on Pura Vida:

Costa Rica is unique in many respects apart from its Pura Vida atttitude to life. It was the first country in the history of the world to abolish armed forces, one of the first in the world which combined its ministries of energy and the environment back in the 1970s and generates an impressive 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. In 1997, a carbon tax was introduced on emissions – with the funds gained being used to pay indigenous communities to protect their surrounding forests. Deforestation has been reversed, and forests cover twice as much land as 20 years ago. In 2007, the Costa Rican Government declared that it intended to become carbon neutral by 2021.

There is one more unique thing about Costa Rica- It makes mountains out of the breasts of Latino women and silicon valley millionaires out of Indian men- by producing silicon implants and chips. See my blog,

Second place in HPI goes to Dominican Republic, the land of
-Juan Luis Guerra, one of my favourite latino singers,
-one of my favourite golf courses ¨the teeth of the dog ¨course in la Romana
-and my favourite writer Julia Alvarez.

The third place goes to Jamaica, the land of Bob Marley. I am a bit skeptical about the ranking of Jamaica which has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

I am surpised that Brazil is in the ninth place. It should have been at the top. In my view, after the experience of having lived in Brazil for four years , Brazilians are the happiest people on the world. They enjoy life not only to the full but even excessively,as witnessed during Carnival. Here is a Brazilian song illustrative of their spirit:

hoje est sexta feira
pega uma cerveza
nada de tristeza

chega de aluguel
chega de patron
traga mais cerveza

today is friday
take a beer
no sadness

no rental
no boss
bring more beer

Here is the utube link to the song,

The Brazilians look for any excuse to convert any moment into a fiesta even when it is not a happy one. Here is an example.
Last year, when there there was a strike by Argentine Airlines it caused thousands of passengers stranded at the Buenos Aires airport, angry,shouting and breaking glass windows. But when I reached the waiting lounge for the flights to Brazil, there the Brazilians were singing,dancing and merry making although they had been waiting there for over 24 hours for a two hour flight to the city of Port Alegre. Their merry fiesta at that miserable time made even the the non-Brazilians to forget their misery and join the mirth. This is Brazilian spirit. It does not let adversity be an obstacle for happiness.
The people who had taken further this concept of mirth even during misery are the Cubans. They have developed this as an art. Life is tough there with shortage of essential items for day to day life and with the frustartions caused by the anachronic system there. But the Cubans keep singing and dancing even while waiting for hours for the uncertain arrival of a rickety bus.

The researchers of New Economics Foundation have noted a key feature of Latin American culture. It is the presence of relatively unmaterialistic aspirations and values, compared to countries with similar economic conditions. Latin Americans report being much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family. They have plenty of social and cultural capital even if they dont have financial capital.

While I do not agree with the exact ranking and some other aspects of the Happy Planet Index report, I share the conclusion that Latin Americans are the happiest people in the world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Che - the film on Che Guevara

The part II of the film Che was released in Argentina on 18 June. I made a reservation quickly and reached the theatre ahead of time, anticipating big rush. Hmm...there were just only about ten people. I was surprisd and puzzled by the low turnout for the premier of this film about a great Argentine hero. Another one of those Argentine contradictions!

May be the Argentines do not consider Che Argentine enough! Che Guevara had left Argentina for good at the age of 25 and spent the rest of his adventure and ideology filled life in Cuba and other parts of Latin America. His life ended in Bolivia at the fairly young age of thirty nine. It is believed that Che,at the end, wanted to come home and bring about a revolution in Argentina itself. Prior to that he wanted to liberate the neighbouring Bolivia and establish a proletarian rule there. But his ill-fated revolutionary journey was put to an end before that.In any case, even if Che had tried revolution in Argentina at that time, he might have faced the same end as in Bolivia. However, Che was a source of inspiration for the leftist guerilla movement in Argentina which took off in Argentina and Latin America later.

Che had no chance in Bolivia, although he mistakenly believed that the peasants and miners of Bolivia would rise in support of his guerilla war to overthrow the government there. He blindly believed that the model of Cuban revolution was repeatable in countries like Bolivia. The first hurdle was that he and his band of Cubans were looked at as foreigners, with some skepticism and even suspicion by the Bolivians. The local communist party did not support him, based on their conclusion that Bolivians were not ready for an armed struggle. The government of Bolivia and the CIA were determined to crush leftist rebels to ensure that Cuba was not repeated. Che and his tiny band of guerillas were outnumbered and outgunned by the Bolivian armed forces. Ineveitably, Che was captured and executed in October 1967. This Bolivian adventure of Che and his end is the story in part II of the film.

In part I of the film which was screened a few months back,Che´s role in the Cuban revolution is shown. Che meets Fidel in 1955, at a gathering in Mexico City. He listens to Castro's plans and signs on as a member of the July 26th Movement. He leads the attack of one of the guerilla bands and marches into Havana celebrating the victory of the Cuban revolution. The film covers the role of Che as a minister in the cuban government and his speech at the UN.

Benicio del Toro has done justice in his role as Che. The director Steven Soderbergh has taken pains to narrate the story of Che naturally and true to the biography ,without Hollywooding the story. In the film, Che has come out as a revolutionary martyr. Part II of the film is more gripping than part I and leaves a more powerful impact.

Director Soderbergh has taken a bold gamble to stretch the film to two parts lasting for more than four hours to narrate the revolutionary character of Che. But even this was not enough to cover the fascinating life story of Che. In his relatively short life of 39 years, Che had a life filled with idealism, action and adventures. Although he spent his first 24 years in Argentina, he became thereafter a true latin American and a standard bearer of global revolution. He first went to Bolivia and from there to Peru and then to central America. In Guatemala,he joined the struggle to defend the leftist government of Arbenz, which was overthrown as part of the cold war politics. From Guatemala, he went to Mexico where he joined Fidel Castro´s movement.

The end of Che was predictable. As a pure and unchangeable revolutionary, Che could not have died a natural death at old age. The revolutionary fire in him was always burning and it would not have allowed him to settle into normal life. It was not the Bolivians who killed him. It was the fire within himself which burnt him to death. Position and power did not appeal to him. As a minister in the Cuban government,he was uncomfortable and wanted to get out for the next campaign. He felt that his karma was in fighting, liberation and revolution. He, therefore set off to Africa where he joined the Congolese guerillas.But the experience there was not to the satisfaction of the revolutionary. So he came back to Latin America and thought of the idea of a guerilla war in Bolivia. Fidel Castro, knowing that Che did not have a chance in Bolivia , let him go since he also felt that Che did not fit in the post- revolution Cuba. Part II of the film, in fact, starts with Fidel Castro on TV, reading a letter from Che Guevara.

While this is a serious biographical film on the revolutionary aspect of the personality of Che, there is the other delightful film ¨Diaries of a motorcyclist¨which is about Che´s journey through Latin America in his motorcycle.It depicts the character of the young Che in his formative years trying out unarmed adventures. This journey was the one which initiated Che´s understanding of the world outside Argentina and motivated him to fight against injustice.

Che, the film, succeeds in reminding the audience of the place of Che Guevara in the history of Latin America and that of the world. His name and image have inspired and romanticised revolution in the hearts and minds of generations after him.

I have seen criticism of the film as well as Che by the Commie baiters. But the fact is that Che´s dream has now been fulfilled by the contemporary Latin America. Che, in his grave, would be pleased with the reemergence of Left which has come to power in many countries of Latin America. But the Left has come to power peacefully through the ballot and not by the bullet believed and practised by Che and his companeros. The election of Left means empowerment of the masses who have started driving the political and economic agenda of the region. The abnormal gap between rich and poor, characteristic of Latin America, is now being filled and thereby socio political stabilty is being established. Latin America is now moving towards the next post-ideological stage with pragmatic leaders who are finding the balance with the right mix of pro-poor and pro-business policies. This is the basis for my optimism for a stable and prosperous Latin America in the long term.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Queen of Curious Divya, the Divine Light

Curiosa Noche ( curious night ) the nightly programme in Radio Vale 97.5 FM of Buenos Aires, made me more curious when I heard the word Namaste....

The programme starts with Namaste at 10 pm and ends at 1 AM Monday to Friday...with Namaste.
It is the voice of Daisy May Queen, the hostess of the show.

Queen, Curiosa Noche and Namaste.... The curiosity took me to a meeting with Daisy May Queen last week . She greeted me with Namaste. It struck me that Namaste is not just a word from her lips, but an expression from her soul. Daisy May Queen told me ¨It is the Divya in me which says Namaste ¨ She has assumed an Indian name Divya, which means Divine Brilliance or Light. She says she is more of a spiritual person than a physical one but living in a country which is more physical than spiritual. India is her spiritual home.

India is not just a passing fancy or fashion for her. When she went to India for the first time, she felt as though she was ¨returning to India¨. She feels at home in India and among the Indians. She has been to India three times, each time for a month. She is planning to buy a property and stay regularly in Siliguri and do some community work there. She became interested in India since her teenage. As soon as she earned and saved enough, the first thing she did was to buy a ticket to India.

She has learnt some Hindi and can read. She looks more beautiful when she says ¨ Bahut Sundar Hai¨ in her charming accent. She has read a lot of Indian authors. Gita Mehta ( especially the book River Sutra) is one of her favourites. She loves Bollywood films and songs. She has become a vegetarian now. She likes Indian food and makes Dal Makhani at home. Masala Dosai is her favourite.

Bahut Sunder Hai in saree and bindi:

Divine Brilliance....

Even the stares and ogles of Indian men do not deter her from travelling alone to every nook and corner of India including Trichy and Kanyakumari. She laughs while telling how an Indian salesman in a saree shop was trying to touch her while teaching her how to wear a saree. The Indian men should be careful because she is a Kali worshipper !

See the image below to know what Kali means...

Divya has a Kali temple at home. She leads a prayer, yoga and meditation group. She hopes a Hindu temple will be built in Buenos Aires, where she can do puja and offer prayers as they do in India.

Despite their stares, Daisy has a soft corner for Indian men. She says Indian men like gorditas ( fleshy women). She was a little plump when she went to India but now she is flaquita ( thin).

In this video in spanish she talks about how she lost 36 kilos in seven months..

Perhaps the reason for her kindness to Indian men is the fact that she is a fan of Freddy Mercury, the singer and pianist of the British rock group Queen. Freddy Mercury´s original name was Farrokh Bulsara, a Parsi whose family came from Balsara in Gujrat. He was born in Zanzibar in Africa. He was sent to school in Mumbai where he had his formative years. He changed his name to Freddy Mercury, after he went to live in England. Daisy visited the place in Zanzibar where Freddy Mercury was born. She hopes to interview him in her next incarnation !

Now Daisy has a crush for Salman Khan !

The Curiosa Noche programme of Daisy May Queen is one of the best cultural experience of Buenos Aires. It is about people and society, feelings and frustrations, poetic dreams and prosaic life, encuentros and desencuentros ( meetings and nonmeetings) amor and desamor ( love and nonlove). I love the spanish expressions: desencuentro and desamor. She tells the romantic stories and experience of her listeners and asks always the three questions;

Que piensas, que sentís, que te preguntas ?
What do you think, what do you feel, what do you ask yourself ?

She starts her programme at 10 pm saying ¨The night has arrived... No more running, no hurry. This is the intimate moment you can dedicate to yourself, your books and your radio. You can lower the light, have a glass of wine, a cup of coffee... but never alone... because i am here to accompany you in the radio ¨. Her voice is magical and mesmerising.
She keeps the Argentines ( and an incorrigible Indian romantic too ) sleepless till 1 am telling stories and asking the three questions in her sensual and seductive voice. She is poetic and provocative, creative and gifted. She makes the listeners curious and puzzled. She calms the disturbed minds and comforts broken hearts. She inspires dreams and incites imagination. She stirs emotions and soothes the soul.

Daisy plays the songs of all my Latino romantic favourites: Cristian Castro, Reik, Diego Torres, Selena, Axel, Luis Fonsi, Marco Antonio Solis, Chayanne, Juan Luis Guerra, Alex ubago… And, I love the slogan of the Radio Vale, when they say ¨No deja de soñar ¨which means Dont stop dreaming.

I was thrilled the other night when Daisy dedicated my favourite song ¨Noviembre Sin ti ¨ of Reik to the number one fan of Curiosa Noche…no prize for guessing the fan.

Noviembre sin ti ( november without you ) is the song I had quoted in my speech at the Gala of the Festival of India in November last year. Here is the song:

I invited Divya to be the hostess of this year´s Festival Gala on 5 November 2009. The Queen has agreed to wear a Saree and compere the programme. Divya, the Divine Light will light the lamp at the inaguration of the Festival.

Gracias Divya. This time the Festival quote will be ... Noviembre con ti ( november with you ) !

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nicaragua... the land of poets and volcanos

On my recent ( 9-11 May 2009) visit to Nicaragua I took a travel companion with me. Guess.. a book on Nicaragua written by Salman Rushdie with the title¨The jaguar smile¨. Rushdie quoted someone´s saying that there are poets and writers in every street of Nicaragua and that everybody is considered to be a poet until proved to the contrary¨. Incidentally this was the first non-fiction written by Rushdie.

Daniel Ortega, the President himself writes poetry. When he was a political prisoner at the age of 23 from 1967 to 1974 , he wrote many poems, one of which is titled ¨I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion¨. While in jail he received visits from Rosario Murillo, a poet. The prisoner and visitor fell in love; Murillo became Ortega's wife. She has published several books of poems. One of them is called as ¨Amar es combatir ¨- to love is to combat. She is now the President of the Foundation for Promotion of Love (FUNDAMOR).

One of Daniel Ortega´s brothers Humborto Ortega was a published writer. Many ministers in his cabinet now and during his previous presidency and Sandinista leaders are poets and writers. Notable among these is Sergio Ramirez, Gioconda Belli and Ernesto Cardinal.The revolutionaries and common people found solace and expression in poetry for survival and inspiration during the volcanic eruptions of revolutions, war and struggles.

Ruben Dario, the poet and writer of Nicaragua is the most well-known in the world. He is considered as the father of the Modernist Movement in spanish literature in the twentieth century. His book Azul (1888) is said to be the inaugural book of Hispanic-American modernism. He was a precocious poet and published his poem in a newspaper at the age of thirteen. He was precocious in love too. He fell in love with a eleven year-old girl, when he was fifteen. Thereafter he fell in love frequently with different women in later life and married some of them. In San Salvador, he was married to Rafaela Contreras, daughter of a famous Honduran orator, Álvaro Contreras, on June 21, 1890. One day after the wedding there was a coup d'état in which his wife died. The coup was engineered by general Carlos Ezeta, who had been a guest at Dario's wedding.

Dario had lived in several central and south american countries and worked in the newspapers of these countries including the Argentine daily La Nacion for a long time. He wrote a book Canto a la Argentina. Interestingly he was appointed as the Colombian honorary consul in Buenos Aires by the Colombian president Miguel Antonio Caro in the period 1893 - 1895.

Dario is remembered for the following prophetic poem in which he anticipated US as a invader.

Eres los Estados Unidos,
eres el futuro invasor

You are the United States
you are the future invader

Nicaragua was one of the worst victims of American invasion and the infamous Contra war.
An American mercenary adventurer William Walker maneuvered to appoint himself as President of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled for a year and even made English as the official language. Walker recruited about a thousand American and European mercenaries to invade the other four Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. This was supported by the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt who had business interests in the region. Fortunately the invasion failed and Walker was later executed.

Here is the iron plate statue (in Managua, the capital) of Sandino, the father of the nation who raised a rebellion against US presence in Nicaragua in the peiod 1927-33. He was assasinated by Somoza whose cruel dynastic dictatorship was brought down by Sandinistas in 1979.

Nicaragua is a land of lakes too. May be it is Nature´s compensation to cool the volcanic heat. The largest, Lake Nicaragua is spread over 8000 sq kms. I visited Granada, the former capital and a picturesque city, on the shore of the lake and took a boat tour of the small islands called as islets. There are over 350 of them in varying sizes ranging from an acre to dozens of acres. These can be bought and used for private purposes. Rich people have built attractive holiday homes. The islets, although rocky, have dense vegetation and many of them have large and tall trees.

Here is an island house:

I asked the boatman what did he know of India. He replied that he associated India with two things: motos and high economic growth. Nicaragua is full of Bajaj motorcycles and three wheelers. While the three wheelers are for the poor people, Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle has become a status symbol among the young Nicaraguans.

The landscape and people of Nicaragua reminded me of Kerala. The countryside of Nicaragua is like the Kerala villages with palm and banana trees, yukka and beans, mountains and waterbodies, literacy and marxism.

I wanted to play golf in Nicaragua. But I was not sure if golf courses existed in the land of Sandinistas. To my surprise, I found a world-class course called as Nejapa golf club. I played with India´s honorary consul Alejandro Lacaya, who is a golf fanatic with a handicap of nine. He told me that the original golf course in Managua was taken over by the first Sandinista government, which converted it into a housing colony for the poor. Later, the Chamorros government, paid a compensation to the golfers who supplemented it with their funds to acquire land and build the new Nejapa golf course, which is dotted with neem trees from India.

I found an interesting Indian business executive too in Managua. Mr Ashwani Dhingra, the Latin America regional head of Tablets India Ltd, Chennai ,runs his 6 million dollar business from his residence in Managua. He is at home there with his family and a passion for Latin America.

The government of Nicaragua, in an unusual but welcome move, have authorised their honorary consul in Mumbai Paresh Mehta tel 022-40479444 to issue visas.

Volcanoes are part of the geology of Nicaraguan land and they erupt from time to time , like the politics of the country. Here is a volcano poem of Gioconda Belli with the title,

Yo, la que te quiere - I am the Woman Who Loves You.

Yo caliento tus noches,
encendiendo volcanes en mis manos,
mojándote los ojos con el humo de mis

I warm your nights,
lighting volcanoes with my hands,
making you cry with the smoke from my

Here is the picture I took at the Masaya volcano, between Managua and Grenada

To me the whole country of Nicaragua looked like a political crater, having suffered so many eruptions of wars, invasion and violence in the past. I hope the country will erupt in the future with more poetry instead of volcanos and wars.

Here is the answer to the question in the previous blog on Costa Rica. Why did I choose to visit these two countries?

They were the only two countries missing from my Latin American curriculum. I can, now claim, that I have kissed the land and breathed the air of every Latin American country. My Latin American Karma is complete now...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Costa Rica ..... ¨pura vida¨ country

Pura Vida.. is how the Costa Ricans respond cheerfully when you ask them , Como esta ( how are you ). Pura vida literally means pure life. But what the Costa Ricans mean is ¨full of life¨, ¨great¨. This makes them distinct among the Latin Americans who respond generally as Bien ( fine) or Muy Bien ( very well ). I had the opportunity to discover some more unique characteristics of this Pura Vida country during my visit there last week from 6 to 9 May.

The Ticos ( nick name of costa rican men ) or Ticas ( costa rican women) distingusih themselves from the other Central Americans and Latin Americans not just by the word Pura Vida. They have genuinely made themsleves distinct and succeeded in marketing their country as a business and tourist destination with a difference. Here are some facts substantiating their claim.
Costa Rica had abolished the armed forces in December 1948 and has been peacefully and democratically governed in the last fifty years. Unbelievabe... but true. This is their greatest distinction from the rest of Latin America which had suffered military dictatorships and the consequent miseries in this period. Mind you .. the Ticos are not living in a far away island. They live right in the middle of Central America which has gone through devastating civil wars, proxy wars, contra wars and even soccer wars. It is against this background that Costa Rica´s achivement looks even more admirable. From an intellectual, cultural and historic point view abolishment of army by Costa Rica is indeed a civilisational advance! As the first country to abolish armed forces, Costa Rica has set an example not only for Latin america but for the whole world. The neighbouring Panama has followed the example of the Ticos by abolishing their army in 1990.

The Ticos are not just content with passive peace within the frontiers of their chiquitico country of four million. They have established a University for Peace (UPEACE) in 1980 “to contribute to the great universal task of educating for peace by engaging in teaching, research, post-graduate training and dissemination of knowledge fundamental to the full development of the human person and societies through the interdisciplinary study of all matters related to peace”. At present, the UPEACE Costa Rica Campus has 170 students from 52 different countries, including India, making it one of the most diverse universities in the world for its size.

Oscar Arias, the president of Costa Rica successfully mediated to stop the central american wars and get the presidents of the region to sign a peace agreementin 1987. Peace has endured since then. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1987. He used the monetary award from the Nobel Peace prize to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he said ¨ We are a people without arms and we are fighting to continue to be a people without hunger. Our children walk with books under their arms rather than guns on their shoulders. We are a symbol of peace for America.¨ Not a rhetoric. Preaching based on practice.

In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both free and obligatory, funded by the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. The literacy rate of Costa Rica is one of the highest in Latin America.

With its high literacy rate, Costa Rica has positioned itself as the silicon valley of Latin America. Intel has a chip making plant employing 5000 Ticos. Hewlett Packard employs 7000 Ticos in its call centres and BPOs.

Costa Rica is not only a kind of silicon valley; it has made silicon mountains out of the breasts of Latino women. Read my blog story on this

Costa Rica was the pioneer in introducing Canopy Tours. There are 190 of them in various parts of the rain forests of the country. It is an adrenaline rush soaring above the canopies of the forest and sliding down the steel ropes ( like monkeys ! ) through the branches and leaves of the trees. It gives an intimate feel of the forest. My own monkey trick on the rope was not a big deal. I used to climb palm trees in my village. I was scared for another reason. Behind me in the rope was a MacDonald-fed 400 pound Gringa. I was afraid that the rope would break and she would fall on me and crush me to a pulp. But the ropes were stronger and I survived. Here is a picture of the Canopy tour:

Costa Rica was the first country to start coffee plantations in Central America, in 1779. Again the Ticos have distinguished themselves from the other central americans. While in the other countries cafe oligarchy has caused political and social problems, in Costa Rica the coffee economy is more inclusive with the participation of a large number of small and medium coffee farmers. Whereas in other countries the Indios and tenant farmers were displaced from their communal lands, most Costa Ricans have benefited from Coffee. Of course, there are coffee barons in Costa Rica including the current president Oscar Arias. But they are the benevolent types.

Costa Rica has the best golf clubs in Central America with some fantastic world-class resort courses. I played in the Cariari country club, the one nearest to the city. It is one of the toughest courses I have ever played. It is narrow with hazards and out of bound scaring the hell out of the players. I survived without losing a ball or going out of bounds but with a poor score of 92! David, one of the foursome in which I played is a retiree from US, settled there for the last seven years. He comes to the club in his own golf cart from his house located inside the golf course. The snack and drinks cart moving around the golf course had many alcoholic drinks including black label whisky. Lou Aguillera, one of our foursome started playing better after a couple of glasses of rum...

Here is the signature hole ( par three hole number four )

Tourism is the largest source of foreign exchange for the country. About 2 million tourists visit the country every year. Ecotourism has been well developed. Many Ticos in the services sector such as Tourism and Hotels speak fluent English. The climate, political stability and friendly services has attracted a number of Americans who have settled down there permamnently.
I went in a tour group to see local folk dances at Pueblo Antigo. Two Ticas namely, Chavela and Consuelo gave a guided tour of the place and cultural event for two hours. They entertained us with jokes, stories, songs, dances and anecdotes explaining the history and culture of Costa Rica. They were like a two-person theatre. They were the best and the most impressive tourist guides I have ever met in my travels around the world. Chavela is on the right and Consuelo is on the left in the picture below:

Costa Rica has a distinction from the Indian point of view too. It is the Americas Headquarters of the Indian company Havells Sylvania, which has a global turnover of one billion dollars. Kapil Gulati, the bright young Indian is based in San Jose as the Director of Americas managing the 160 million dollar operations in the whole region of Americas including USA. This company has perhaps the largest volume of business in Latin America among the Indian companies operating in the region. It has business in ten countries and has production units in Costa Rica, Brazil and Colombia. The Indian company Havells ( sounds it was founded by a Havelli Ram ) bought the lighting and fixtures business of the American company Sylavania worldwide including Latin America. Here is their website
Gulati is in the process of consolidating and streamlining the business in the whole region, operating out of the chiquitico Costa Rica.
There are a few Indians there, the most notable being Dr Nandwani, who has been there for over thirty years and has earned the respect of the Ticos as a leading scientist and Head of the Solar Energy centre in the university. Tico Nandwani has become a Tio Indiano ( Indian Uncle) for the small Indian community there.
Two disclaimers...
-This is not marketing for Costa Rica... my genuine experience and feeling.
- Costa Ricans did not pay for my trip to write this story.. I was on a private tour paid by myself.
Why did I choose to go there?
Answer in the next blog story on Nicaragua to be published this week.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book Time in Buenos Aires.......

It is Book Time in Buenos Aires...

Books, authors and literary activities have captured the headlines of newspapers as well as the heads of the Porteños- the inhabitants of Buenos Aires city, these days. The annual International Book Fair going on since 23 April till 11 May is more than just a trade fair. It is a Festival...a Fiesta... a Celebration ...of books and authors, poetry and thought. It is part of the city´s culture. The Porteños, who are perceived as flamboyant in the rest of the country and Latin America, go to this Fair not only for the show... they are ...hmmm...serious. They read, think, analyse and argue. The theme of this year´s Fair is Pensar con Libros which means Thinking with Books.

The Buenos Aires event is the largest book fair in Latin America and one of the top five in the world. It is also the largest spanish-language book fair in the world.

It is not only the long duration of the Fair (19 days) which is impressive; the number of activities during the Fair is even more interesting. There are book readings, poetry recitations, lectures, panel discussions, presentations, signings, workshops and children’s activities. There are also meetings and special events for publishers, editors, librarians and educators. The programme booklet containing the activities of the Book Fair runs into 70 pages. For example, on saturday 2 May,there are 35 activities packed within 1400 hours to 2130 hours. This annual Fair is an event avidly anticipated by the public who visit in large numbers. The number of visitors is 1.2 million . There are about 1500 exihibitors with stalls in the 50,000 sq m venue La Rural.

An International Poetry Festival is held from 29 April to 2 May as part of the Book Fair. Thirty six poets from Argentina and around the world participated in this. Poetry at the Festival is not just for those in ivory towers or within airconditioned Salons. It literally goes to the street. Yes,the poets are going to recite in streets and subways. They go even beyond... to hospitals and jails. Incredible... During this year´s poetry festival, the poets are going to recite at the Hospital General de Agudos "Ignacio Pirovano" and the Cárcel de Ezeiza jail on 30 April. Could this be ....Poetrytherapy ...! An Argentine invention !!

Ah.. there is one more Argentine innovation. The city government of Buenos Aires organises every year a Noche de las Librerias- Bookstores Night. The last one was on 10 December. This is a kind of street fair of books in the famous Corrientes Avenue, the Broadway of Buenos Aires. This large and busy avenue is closed for traffic from 8.30 pm till midnight and the street is taken over by bookstalls and readers. People sit on the sofas and chairs placed in the Avenue browsing and reading in the middle of the avenue. There are also poetry recitations, workshops and cultural activities.

Here is a picture of the Noche de las Librerias:

Buenos Aires is the publishing capital of Latin America. There are about 1000 publishing firms in the City and there are over 2000 in Argentina. They publish about 22.000 new titles every year and 85 million books in total. Two books for each of the 40 million population of Argentina ! Of course, part of the production is for export to the rest of Latin America and Spain.

The number of poetry books published in Argentina is around 1000 every year. In the Book Fair, there is an area called as Zona de Poesia- poetry zone.

Writers from Latin America, Europe and USA participate in the Book Fair which is a launchpad for regionwide publicity. Many Latin American writers have stayed in this vibrant city and written and published their books here. Gabriel Garcia marquez´s One hundred years of solitude was first published in Buenos Aires. Other Latin American writers such as Pablo Neruda of Chile, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala and Ruben Dario of Nicaragua had lived in this city and published their works. There is a book, called as ¨Buenos Aires- a cultural and literary history¨by Jason Wilson, which describes the literary links of the streets, cafes and bars of the city and the romance of the poets and writers with the city.

The Book Fair is not just a one-night stand for the Porteños. It is Amor Eterno. Books are part of the day to day life of Buneos Aires. There are bookshops in every nook and corner of the city. Many bookshops have cafe, bar and restaurants. They are the refuges and meeting points for the bohemians and the bourgeois. The most famous Argentine writers including Borges and Cortázar have frequented them to write and meet. The Porteños sit in these book cafes for hours together browsing books and discussing local and global issues till the end of the world.

Last time when I was invited to a poetry reading, I went a bit late assuming that the event might not start in time and in any case there might not be much of an audience for poetry. I was in a for a surprise. When I reached the venue, I found that it was not only full but was overflowing at the entrance and at the corridors. I could not get anywhere near the reading and had to come back.

Many of the book shops in Buenos Aires are more than just buildings. They are elegant and eclectic in architecture and interior decoration with attractive ambience. When you walk by, these bookshops provoke, invite and tease you with their style and appeal. There are some famous and traditional book shops and chains such as Ateneo and Cuspide. One of the landmark bookstores is called “Gandhi”, founded in 1984 with the same concept of book and coffee shop.

My favourite is the El Ateneo Bookshop in Avenida Santa Fe. It is the most beautiful bookshop I have ever seen. According to a survey by the London newspaper “ The Guardian” , El Ateneo ranked second in the list of ten most beautiful bookstores in the world, after the number one in Maastricht. El Ateneo was originally a theatre called as“Grand Splendid”, now converted into a bookshop. It is magnificent with high painted ceiling, curvaceous balconies and ornate carvings. The original stage with the crimson curtains has been made into a café bar. No wonder I felt there like a performer... after a few drinks ! El Ateneo receives 3000 visitors per day.

Here are the pictures of El Ateneo:

After I left the venue of the poetry festival yesterday night, I found that a poem of Daniel Chirom would not leave me and got stuck in my heart....
Solo poseo el habla
solo poesia
mi lengua incierta
para buscarte
porque cantando
quede mudo
y solo puedo
por señales
Here is the translation
I only possess speech
Only poetry
My tongue uncertain
To seek you.
Because singing
I went speechless
And I can only reveal myself
Through signs

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Argentine Singhs

Dante Singh , Monica Singh, Jasbel Singh...
Adrian Singh, Alfredo Singh, Yeeta Singh.....
There are about three hundred such Argentine Singhs… mostly in Salta and other northern provinces of Argentina.

I met about seventy of them in the Gurudwara at Rosario de la Frontera, a small town of 35000 people in Salta province. I joined their Baishaki Day celebrations on 20 April. There were prayers and ceremonies conducted by a Granthi, who has been brought from India. There was a community lunch prepared by the ladies and was served by the men. The Gurudawara is clean, beautiful and inspires divine feelings. They have get togethers on Sundays and there are large gatherings on special religious occasions. Mr Charan Singh who came thirty years back from India is the president of the Gurudwara committee.This is the only Gurudwara in South America.

These Singhs had come in the thirties from India. Some of them came to work in the sugar mills owned by the British. Others got into the ships from Calcutta on hearing that they were going to America. They did not know that the destination was South America. Most of them originated from near Ludhiana. Dante Singh´s father was one of the earliest to come. He was also a political organiser. He collected money from other sikhs and sent it for the independence movement in India. The last batch of the immigrants came about ten years back. But no more are coming due to visa difficulties. Some of the Argentine Singhs have migrated to USA and Canada.

There are a few new Singhs who have come to other parts of Argentina. Lamba, with his flashy red turban, is a traffic stopper in Buenos Aires. He is settled here for over twenty years in handicrafts business. Simmarpal Singh is in Rio Cuarto near Cordoba city managing 15000 hectares of peanut farm for the Non-resident Indian company Olam.

President Zail Singh had visited Salta and met the community during his state visit to Argentina in 1984. Dante Singh was proud showing me fotos of this visit and also the fotos of his father meeting Zail Singh in Rashtrapathi Bhavan in Delhi.

Some of the first generation wear turbans. But when they travel outside the province, they put on caps to avoid curious looks and questions.

All the Singhs have become Argentine citizens and are well integrated into the local society. Among the first generation, some men married Indian women and brought them, while the others have married Argentines. The Singhs are in business or work as professionals. Many of them own supermarkets, corner stores and transport companies. Dante Singh and Adrian Singh are engineers. Jasbel Singh is studying international affairs and wants to become a diplomat. She recalls with pride her six months-stay in Noida studying television and broadcast journalism. One Mr Ruben Singh is there already in the Argentine Foreign Service. I hope an Argentine Singh will become Ambassador to India. Monika Singh is a software engineer working with Oracle in Buenos Aires. Yeetu Singh gives Indian dance classes and has done some Indo-Argentine fusion in dance. The second and third generation, which goes to school and college is keen to know more about India and talk about it proudly with their classmates.

Here is Dante Singh at the entrance of the Gurudwara:

Here I am, giving a speech holding the a microphone in hand, with my head covered. But a microscope is needed to recognise me....

In my speech, I spoke about how proud India is to see the Singhs speaking in Punjabi and worshipping in a Gurudwara in this part of the world. While recognising the suffering and sacrifice made by their parents and grand parents, I mentioned that in the India of today and tomorrow, there is no need for Indians to go out for a better life. Foreigners come to India for working in Bangalore.

Here is Kanwaljeet Singh with his son Gurdeep, who has asked for an Indian flag for his school and books in spanish on India.

community lunch
All the Singhs in Salta region speak fluent Spanish. Besides the first generation, even some young people from the second generation speak Punjabi enthusiastically. Virtually no one speaks English. I had to give my speech in Spanish. Hmm....A Tamil from India communicating with the Punjabis in the Gurudwara in Argentina in Spanish !