Whispers of Silk


The road from Tabriz, the westernmost city of Iran, to the border town of Bazargan took far longer than I had expected. I am whisked on a Cold War era Mercedes bus across a barren landscape of golden heat, marked by pockets of green, drought-ridden river beds and impressive rock formations, of which I am the privileged few witnesses to its enormous beauty. An old woman in a chador sitting behind me has for the past few hours been trying to satiate her curiosity about me, but our fledging conversation in smiling pantomime is little served by our mutual unintelligibility. Meanwhile, a bee has been slamming itself, body and soul against my window for the last two hours.

Dotting the landscape outside are the ancient ruins of abandoned Persian Silk Road caravanserai – marks of the glorious and global history of this road, as well as lonely factories and rusting tractors of an isolated “free industrial zone” – marks of a land arm-twisted by sanctions and intransigent politics. As Rasool, my Tehrani couchsurfing host remarked, “we the Iranian people are fucked by the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

An overcharging taxi driver brings me on the last hour’s drive to the Turkish border. He takes the liberty of detouring round his street, showing me off to his wife and his neighbours – this, the show pony treatment of being the only foreigner in a 500 km radius, has been getting on my nerves for the past few days.

The border itself is a clusterfuck of Turkish cigarette smugglers. Ahead, aggressive border guards with Güvenlik emblazoned on their shirts and pistols on their belts are tossing contraband cartons above the customs allowance into a growing pile of abused boxes. There are flaring temples and shoving and shouting. Cartons of Kent are stuffed in my face – “Three cartons mister! Help me bring just three across!” Waving my bright red passport and shouting “Foreigner! Foreigner! I have no cigarettes!” enables me to push my way through a crowd of 50 Turks jamming up the only checkpoint gate. And I am waived through into Turkish Kurdistan.

A 7 lira dolmus, packed to its creaking seams with Turks and cigarettes and me, bundles on its way to the nearest town of Dogubeyazit. To my right is snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark. It is an unmistakable presence that stretches indolently across the entire Northern horizon – glinting grey in the overcast sunset.

I have not seen clouds for a month.


Five steps to my right across a broken border fence is Armenia. At some points a roaring gorge separates us, at other times, it is a mere fence, rusting and unpatrolled. An ancient arch bridge across the gorge into Armenia, now collapsed and ridden with bird droppings, used to connect eastwards to the Silk Road. Now it’s just emblematic of Armenia’s tragic estrangement from the ruins of its formerly magnificent imperial capital of Ani.

The ruins of Ani, sitting squarely in Turkish territory, is a sorry excuse for its former glory. One can’t help but feel anger at the slipshod destructiveness of half-hearted reconstruction efforts. Concrete and modern materials etch away crumbling memory of ancient masonry, steel pylons that offer little structural support slices into mosaics. An angry archaeologist dedicates an entire blog journaling the decades of deliberate neglect and grave-digging with impunity by both Turks and Armenians. In a pissing match of politics, global cultural heritage is the biggest loser, and its unhindered desecration is an outrageous travesty.


Sunset on Göreme

Everything is an intense orange in the dying hour of this day’s sun. The grass has been set ablaze, and the rocks behind me are glowing. In the sky, a plane soars. Orange are its contrails: silent, light, ephemeral. This is a beauty, lingering no more than a few seconds, matched only by the evening call to prayer. It reverberates like a voice across the valley. Everything else is tiny and insignificant in its power and grace.

Yet my heart shudders with a hollow wail – you are not in my arms where you should be. Where are you now in this world? How long many more long months will pass until I can smell the fragrance of your hair on my lips again?

And then as the star-less dusk descends upon me, there is only darkness left.

Rishikesh in October

Something stirs in the perennial heat of Rishikesh – it is preceded by a scream and a riot of sheer panic in the clogged streets of colour and smells. Two bulls (these sacred bovine beasts that indolently dominate every traffic junction in India) are clashing, horns against hide, hooves against faces. The alpha sends his rival hurtling across the streets into a tiled bench of old ladies in sarees – they scream at a higher octave and pull each other to the safety of an elevated garden – littered with cigarette butts, coke cans and other detritus of third world consumerism.

Two men, one a fruit hawker and the other a sundry shopkeeper, rush out with wooden rods fashioned for the singular purpose of whacking the hierarchy of human dominance back into the hormone-flushed brains of these sacred bovine demigods. They flee in the direction of the highway.

J and I stand hesitantly, just inches away from this chance occurrence of a daily street catastrophe – by sheer luck, we were in the opposite trajectory of this mating contest, and by the love of the Gods, not one of the old ladies were hurt. Rapidly, the street reverts to its lively insouciance – hawkers return to their makeshift stalls, holy men resit themselves on their cardboards, and pilgrims again clog the streets with their consumerism. 100 rupee ear-diggers, children hawking prayer candles, honking autorickshaws drivers and yogis with advertisement banners. Transactions are more frequently encountered here than religion. But no doubt, the many of these transactions, from satchels of marijuana to telepathy workshops with money-back guarantees, would bring one closer to an apotheosis with Lord Khrisna.

“Where are you from?” – a young holy man speaks in perfectly-accented English to us from amidst the impassable humdrum of pedestrians.


“Ah, Singapore! Are you guys looking for some guidance?” – comes the beginning of a routine, rehearsed-to-perfection sales pitch, followed by the insouciant understanding that comes with our polite rejection. He knows us already – mere tourists, not travellers trying to find themselves. Unprofitable. And he disappears back into the street.

Somewhere along Laxman Jhula, an ancient iron suspension bridge of a tiny gauge no less named after the brother of the eponymous Lord Rama in the Ramayana, we make one of our many dozens of regular criss-crosses across the Ganges. A British woman is locked in an embrace with another holy man on one of the iron railings, clogging the motorcycles whose every honk is an indiscriminate barrage of aggression at herds of pedestrian traffic – “… the next time you come to India, I’ll teach you how to kiss properly like…”

Below the wooden decks of the bridge, adventure rafts (more money flowing from the Global North to South) ply the silver surfs of the grand Ganga. It’s a river with flows both mercurial and mercury-coloured, like the long, knotted locks of the holy mens’ hairs – sacred and abundant. Here, God(s) is in the colour of the red sunset, in the paneer whose fragrance surmounts even the staunchest ascetic, in the click of camera flashes on a motorboat throbbing past half-naked pilgrims in an ablution on the banks, in the shops selling cheap cotton pants tailored by the sweat of unschooled children, in the multi-coloured sheen of a calendar with Ganesh emblazoned across its cover, and in the blank Wi-fi logo that reminds me that I have not updated my Instagram in the last 48 hours. Here, one man’s mundanity, is another man’s sanctity. Here, the Gods consort with vice and sin.

Dusk falls indolently and the October heat is replaced by a humid threat of rain. Wi-fi is found only in the bars after a transacted drink or two.

J and I are about to leave a bar, having finished our glasses of mint chai, drunk to a playlist of The Beatles – the White Album on repeat (the many drug-induced, yoga-inspired songs therein produced right here in Rishikesh some five decades ago). We spent the night in conversation with B – he had introduced himself as a Tibetan exile who works in the Dalai Lama’s office.

He provides us with a farewell epigraph – “In life, you should aim to be a man of virtue, not a man of success.”

And thus, having received his blessings, we make a 3km trek back to the dingy hotel that our college housed us at. We fly home tomorrow.

Midnight Rishikesh is a town without colour and a town of squalor. The familiar must of burning marijuana wafts across the intersection of the road and Ram Jhula. Two holy men are crouched by the closed shutters of a stall, yellow-dotted, saffron-robed with the red amber of a smoking joint in each of their parched lips illuminating their moment of religious communion. They nod at us, inviting a joint each for a few rupees. But we have not the time for blasphemy.

Amidst the darkness, we detour around fighting bulls and masses of resting cows. A highway stretches for miles without electricity nor a drum of an engine – we are alone, without company nor the Gods themselves.

As we close to the banks of the Ganga, a girl, perhaps ten years-old, squats by the lapping waters and floats a polyurethane bowl of flowers, a prayer candle lit cautiously in the navel of the bowl. It floats perilously, carried away by the currents of the Ganga, bearing her hopes and her prayers. The light of the little flame is now all we can see in the encroaching darkness.

But even that too, is quickly, if not pathetically, extinguished by the currents.

DSC_0517Photo taken at Rishikesh, October 2017



Melamine Breath

I will look back on these moments
as the happiest days of my life.
What rose-flavoured fragrance
of memories – laughter and Darlie teeth.
Like the chirping seagulls that float like buoys
above a murky ocean of plastics and trash.
The shit that clogs our lungs with sorrow
Because your only friend
was the inviting butt of a damp cigarette –
A Marlboro red that you smuggled
from god-knows where and you keep zip-locked
like a sarcophagus of love and regret.



Squint of a grinning soul

But I didn’t hold your hand, as we’d always used to. Those minutes had to set the tone. Separation meant we were now two self-contained spheres of existence. You were an emotional stranger again and veiled from all – my palpitations and my tears.


Now I remember. Teeth and squint of a grinning soul, the blue and the brown of a dewy infatuation. Infatuation and obsession – those long years without them. They have returned. With open arms, I kissed it. And they burned – the fires of a grinning soul.

The Monk Wears Nike

Here the Nokia ringtones, screaming babies
among the chants of ancient sutras.
There the selfies with monks, solar panelled
pagodas, and 10 yuan photographs.

600 monks are gathered for a prayer for world peace
Measured in the gigabytes of recorded insta videos.
Here the sonorous wail of the dungchen
There the stomp of ancient drums.
Each metronome is soaked
in the parochialism of history.
Each pendular swirl of a shaven head is
a scar of the longevity of tradition.
It is the typical measure of half-hearted ego
To claim the sacred reigns to world peace.
Signs warning against photography and smoking throng
amidst the camera flashes and choking tobacco of Chunghwas.

And as the prayer concludes with a storm of drums,
the young monks awaken from their slumber
marinated by a thousand-year old boredom
Hurtle out into the sunlight and the cans of coca-cola.
The older linger taking their place behind counters
selling factory-made trinkets blessed to bring
health, fortune, happiness and wealth.
Piles of 1 yuan notes clogs the monastery.
And a tourist throws a paper bank note into a wishing well
It floats above the sea of drowned coins.
Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

The light rain billows into a deluge.
Wet umbrellas find shelter under reconstructed stupas.
Filth washes away into the Tibetan valley.
And the prayer flags swing heavily,
soaked in the acids of the clouds.

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Photo taken at Sumtseling Monastery, Yunnan

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The First Days of Summer

Insignificant is the life that trudges out
Amidst the slow incoming tide:
The vapid stupor of a daily train ride,
The desiccated flowers of a moldy vase,
The silent rains that threaten to fall on an island
Suffocated by the humid pantings of the middle-aged
And the dying who in their eyes see the clouds,
And in their hearts know the inevitable,
But in their mouths would never admit it.

This is the end.

What solemnity that drips forth
From the chequered cotton on those laundry poles,
What silence that drifts from luncheon meat ashtrays,
The solitude that blazes from the burning joss of a bin,
How they fade into clouds and
Wash into the grime of the longkangs.


Telegram is Red

The Communist Party is like the sun,
Wherever it shines, it is bright
Wherever the Communist Party is
Hurrah, Telegram is liberated!

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 12.06.33 PMSometime ago, the inability to express my awakened class consciousness on the Telegram messaging app impulsed me to direct my revolutionary fervour on the creation of a Chairman Mao sticker pack.

It has since been installed by over 394 users and used over 2,230 times as of 15 May. The revolutionary in me is deeply touched by the overwhelming support for the revolution among Telegram users.

And below are my curated favourites:

You can download the stickers here: https://t.me/addstickers/ChairmanMao

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All is cold

It’s because life exists in moments like this:
Where all is still and all is slow:
The orange light turns your hair to gold
And sets the emptiness in me ablaze.

But in a dying heartbeat, in a flickering eyelid:
All is dark, all is cold.


Angkor Sinjapura

In 900 years, where the many estates of Toa Payoh, Queenstown and Punggol once stood, tourists in the bus-loads of hundreds are crawling over the ruins and crumbled masonry of the HDB flats. Trees grow out of what used to be kitchen windows where maids once looked wistfully out of. The twisted and rotting carcasses of playgrounds and bus stops are uncovered from the earth by archaeological digs. All around, there are tourists – maggots infesting the festering flesh of history and memory, advertised and monetised.

“Angkor Sinjapura was a grand city-state that perished somewhere after the 21st century,” says one of the many guides to his bus-load of Chinese tourists. The Angkor Sinjapura Tourism Board has misappropriated “angkor” from the older, now destroyed, tourist site of Angkor Wat. The association brings greater revenue. “Sinjapura” is promoted as more a palatable name than the historically-accurate “Singapore” which sounds too modern, too Western.

He continues – “The limited ability of the small state in keeping up with the rapid changes in global developments and the rise of the China saw its diminishing place in global history. Its Golden Age was clearly over by the middle of the 21st century. By the end of the 21st century, economic destitution and great power conflict resulted in severe depopulation. Her ruins were finally rediscovered two years ago by a venture capitalist firm.”

Of course, what can tiny states compare to giant geographical entities like China in the passage of history? We are but mere islands, mere breakaways-soon-to-be-remerged, in the shifting tectonic continental plates of history.

“During its Golden Age, the city-state was run by a dictatorial regime. Chewing of gum was punishable by death.” This was a fact that historians referenced from the Sinjapura Annals, an ancient historical text, which was honestly just a satire comic book by a local artist. Camera flashes enshrouds a museum display of an electric chair that apparently executed a record number of 120 gum-chewers in 2017 A.D.

Amidst the ghastly displays, the guides caution the tourists, “We shouldn’t pass judgement so quickly. In those days, the world wasn’t so civilised and Angkor Sinjapura was among the greatest and most civilised of their time. We must have historical and cultural context.”

“I am one of the descendant of the indigenous people of Angkor Sinjapura” – The guide stands proudly before the tourists.

But no not really. His forefathers were but mere economic migrants to the city-state in the early-21st century. In those times, to consider his forefathers “indigenous” would be an affront to the actual indigenous population. But the tourists don’t really care. Where heritage is fetishised, living heritage, however inauthentic, is sacred.

The same historical text purports that Angkor Sinjapura was founded in the 16th century by a mythical Japanese mermaid lion from Cambridge law school which transformed a sleepy fishing village into a great city-state. Statues of a mermaid lion in a kimono with the scales of justice in its right paw and a char siew pau in its left paw are found littered around the ruins – artificially aged. You can find replica keychains in the souvenir shops and online as well.

More heritage: Shops sell language books that apparently teach the lingua franca of Angkor Sinjapura – “Maldarin”. According to the prefaces, Chinese Mandarin was the national language of the city and its inhabitants spoke a curious creole language mix of Bahasa Melayu and Chinese Mandarin which they termed, Maldarin.

A tourist somewhere vandalises an ancient royal porcelain drinking vessel which was really just a kopitiam cup.

Even more heritage: Actors along the tour routes re-enact day-to-day scenes of Angkor Sinjapura at its prime. They all wear Western suits with sarongs – the national dress. The Angkor Sinjapura economy, according to the guides, depended heavily on piracy, both on the seas and virtually. Their moral reprehensibility justified the Chinese hegemonic expansion into the region.

Somewhere further along the tour route, there are the recovered ruins of a HDB flat. For 5000 Renminbi, you can stay for a night in a HDB apartment. Perfect for social media, or whatever is the exponentially-bastardised 30th century version of it. Room service is Angkor Sinjapura cuisine which is a dish of ma-la hotpot, the national dish of Angkor Sinjapura according to the guide.

A television modelled after a 20th century model (they screwed up the dates) plays re-runs of archival footage of Angkor Sinjapura. Curiously, the original narration keeps referring to the city-state as “Singapore” rather than “Angkor Sinjapura”.

No one knows why, not even the guides.

Angkor HDB - 1

Photo taken at Angkor Thom, 2016