Monday, August 17, 2015

Chile Diary

First impressions

Santiago is a city of parks, water-bodies, sculptures, churches, and a marked European influence. The homes I visited were in stylish and comfortable high-rise buildings. However, even those districts of the city in which the underprivileged live are clean and well-maintained, with sturdy buildings constructed to withstand the frequent earthquakes. Europe recedes and Latin America emerges in street upon street of two-storey houses vibrant with graffiti murals. Santiago, with its arty metro railway and giant supermarkets is still a city whose petrol pumps and parking lots have attendants.
With the Andes hovering protectively over Chile, Santiago sits in a valley surrounded by low snow-peaked mountains. It’s a beautiful backdrop – but one which makes it highly polluted. In winter, the city waits anxiously for rain to relieve its smog. The day I was leaving, a pollution crisis was announced. Forty percent of the city’s cars were kept off the roads and schools cancelled sports and physical education classes.

That Sinbad feeling 

I was in Chile with a tight interview schedule, and had studiously avoided learning about sights that I might never see. So when we landed in Iquique, about 1500km north of Santiago, I was astonished and mesmerised by the landscape: sandy hills extending from the Atacama Desert on one side and the beach-lined Pacific on the other.
Since the mid-1970s, Iquique has had a zone for free trade, and Sindhi entrepreneurs were among the first to make use of the opportunity. Now numbering a few hundred, they form a close-knit group of fun-loving cosmopolitan families. I stayed with the gracious Renu Melwani, in what was once Pinochet’s Iquique home.
Driving to the free zone next morning, I passed shacks selling varieties of fish and shellfish. Pelicans and Patagonian sea lions, jostling for the entrails tossed back into the sea, formed another unexpected and delightful sight. Containers from China crowd the Iquique port and the zone stocks merchandise of every kind, including used cars from the US and Japan. Next day we visited Humberstone, a saltpetre mining town abandoned in 1960 when chemical fertilisers phased out saltpetre. The area is also rich in copper and Chile is the world’s largest exporter. Among the pervasive pick-up vans of the mining community it felt good to see Mahindras. The picturesque road through this hilly desert is lined with roadside shrines commemorating loved ones who died on the spot. We also passed sand graffiti sites, aboriginal and contemporary.

Non-veg country

In Iquique, dinner at Miguel’s is a must: it’s a Chinese restaurant with a menu that extends to samosa and loli (traditional Sindhi spicy roti). Another memorable meal was in the resort town of ViƱa del Mar. A vegetarian alone, rather than grapple with a menu in Spanish, I bought an avocado and ate it on the seafront with a packet of fries from McDonald’s and an occasional benediction of icy water from the Pacific.
Surprisingly, one of Santiago’s popular restaurants, El Naturista, is vegetarian. A century ago, its founder apparently travelled to India, and was influenced by Tagore. We ate Arroz Hortelana, a rice preparation; Papas Salteadas, potato with herbs; and Verduras al Gratin, baked vegetables with cheese. My favourite was the quesillo, Chilean white cheese, and the luscious artichokes native to Chile.
Santiago has good Indian restaurants, and we enjoyed flavoursome meals, with chilly reduced for local tastebuds, at both Saffron and Majestic. The owner of Majestic, Suresh Goklani, came from Ahmedabad to work for a Punta Arenas trading company when he was 20, in the 1970s. Today he owns a hotel, a chain of restaurants in Santiago, and several businesses across Chile.

End of the world

Before the Panama Canal, every ship stopped in Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America. As early as 1907, a Sindhi entrepreneur had disembarked and opened a store. Our weekend with the families here was one of Sindhi hospitality, fascinating stories and exquisite vistas – interspersed alternately with benevolent sunshine, stormy rain with Antarctic winds, and beautiful, gentle snow. On the first night, the placid streets of this historic town suddenly erupted with revellers. Chile had defeated traditional rival Bolivia 5-0 in the Copa America.

Earthquake capital 

Everyone in Chile has earthquake stories. I have one too: I slept peacefully and only learnt about it from the Indian ambassador, Debraj Pradhan, a few hours after it took place. We were in his very Indian, light-filled home and I was flying back later that day. He told me that India and its arts and industry are integral to life in Chile, that yoga and classical dance are widely practiced, and that the Sindhi businessmen established for decades, as well as pan-Indian entrants from the new Indian multinationals, are treated with respect and warmth, and lead comfortable lives. Interesting to know this about a country so far from India that if you tried to go any further you would be on your way back.

And, a few more things ... 

It was a writer’s dream, being invited to a book club meeting on the other side of the world in an exotic place called Iquique and finding that some of the women had read a book I’d written and others were reading it.
The view from this balcony, in the house where Pinochet once lived, is coastline on one side and stark desert mountains on the other.

As a young child, I lived in a place from which the closest town was Valparai, Tamil Nadu. It was a special highlight of this visit to spend a few hours in stunningly beautiful Valparaiso, Chile, once one of South America’s major ports and today a UNESCO heritage site. The sea, the heritage buildings near the port, stacks of brightly coloured huts on the hillside - and the most striking street graffitti. Of course I will have to go back for more.
There was an 11-hour transit in Paris on the way home. At the end of the aerobridge leading out of the plane stood three burly, stern-looking policemen primed to catch all the Santiago thieves trying to enter their lovely city. “Where are you going?” one of them barked at me with hatred. “Mumbai,” I replied, surprised. By then, leafing through my passport he had found, to his horror, a Schengen visa that entitled me to enter Spain on 2 July – nearly two weeks later! In renewed anger and disgust he shouted again, “Where are you going?”
Ahhhhh …. India, India!
Parts of this appeared in Outlook magazine in the 17 August 2015 issue.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

In Chile, on the Sindhi trail

Punta Arenas, Chile, is one of the southern-most cities in the world. There was a time when every ship crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan or around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) halted there. Navigating giant waves, deadly currents, Antarctic blizzards and icebergs, the journeys took months. Arriving at Punta Arenas, the storm-battered, scurvy-ridden sailors would stumble out of their cramped quarters in relief. The town thrived.
View from room window
We flew in more than a hundred years after the Panama Canal had changed things for Punta Arenas. At the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, we bumped into someone from our plane who had stayed over to catch his (once-a-week) flight to the Falkland Islands. Paul, from the South Atlantic Research Institute, told us that there was a post office nearby where Robert Scott, the early Antarctic explorer, had posted letters and packets.
These days too, this historic town is a base for Antarctic expeditions. The less adventurous can catch the tourist boat to a nearby island thickly populated by penguins. Punta Arenas, like much of Chile, nestles between wooded slopes on one side and a lavish seafront on the other. Like other Chilean cities, it has well-maintained public spaces that sport sculptures of different types: traditional European, contemporary and aboriginal. Its cemetery is said to be exceptionally beautiful and historic. We saw none of these, however, having come with the specific purpose of meeting the Sindhi families of this town.

I first saw the name Punta Arenas on a map in a book by the French scholar Claude Markovits, The global world of Indian Merchants 1750-1947 Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama. The map marks places around the world which had branches of trading firms headquartered in Hyderabad, Sindh between 1890 and 1940. I felt surprised and impressed to see that it included about a dozen places in South America. How had Sindhis got so far away from home so long ago? Invited to meals at the homes of the Sindhi families of Punta Arenas to be told their stories, it felt like I was eleven and invited to Harry Potter’s birthday party.
The first evening, Chile was playing arch-rival Bolivia in the Copa America, and I was learning how, one day in 1907, a Sindhi merchant, Harumal, came ashore. As the fascinating story proceeded, raucous cries rang out and vehicles revved loudly on the streets outside. Chile had won, 5-0.
The account of how Harumal opened his first store; how it got handed over to someone else; what happened during the First World War and then the Second; how Partition affected the Sindhis of Punta Arenas, will form part of Sindhi Tapestry, the ‘companion volume’ to my first book, Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland.
So far away from India, and with their home here for more than a hundred years, the Sindhis of Punta Arenas still speak Sindhi and eat Sindhi food. Family attachment is as strong as I would expect in a joint family. Like other diasporic Sindhis, they have an international network: not only family members and business connections. Three household help I saw in the homes of these Chilean Sindhis were from, respectively, Nigeria, Indonesia and Burma. The homes were lavish and decorated like those of fabled Oriental potentates, thick with curios and mirrors and objets d’art. In front of the Hindu temple of Punta Arenas stand three empty pedestals, awaiting statues of Gandhi, Tagore and Mother Theresa which they are preparing and will soon install. On Sunday morning, we attended satsang in the temple, which occupies prime real estate on the seafront. It was a moving service, conducted in both Sindhi and Spanish.
Satsangs are an essential component of life in the Sindhi diaspora, and they tend to have a syncretic character. Like in other Sindhi mandars around the world, many world religions are represented here. It was once an essential characteristic of Sindh that spirituality and the inner life were revered beyond human classification. And then, it became an irony of history that the Hindus of Sindh turned out to hold so much store by their own religion that they were forced into exile from a beloved homeland on account of it.
In 1947, these doughty people lost more than their homeland and their possessions. In their determination to move on and make the best of what they were left with, they lost their past too. In an extreme endorsement of this easily-verified fact, someone in Punta Arenas told me, “I really learnt a lot today. I never even knew that Mohenjodaro was in Sindh!”
Yet another thing that suffered a blow was the Sindhi brand identity. Arriving in Bombay with nothing to call their own, many turned to trading. A number of these Sindhis had professional degrees and had left behind steady, lucrative practices. In a new land, and with the urgency of feeding their families, trading was a way to make a respectable living. Competing as they were with cartels entrenched for decades, and obliged to trade on lower margins to get a foot in the door, they were branded early on as ‘cheats’.
Considered rationally, it does seem likely that an unbiased analysis of a behaviour bell curve of successful Sindhi businessmen would reveal the majority to be hardworking, opportunistic, shrewd (perhaps lucky too, as many of them would stress) – and with a dishonesty rating on par with any random sample of population.
As it happened, the early resentment produced Bollywood caricatures of wealthy and villainous businessmen speaking in thick Sindhi accents, and widespread aphorisms of the “If you meet a Sindhi and a snake, whom should you kill first?” kind. These were things I began to notice when my book inexplicably established me as some kind of authority on the Sindhi diaspora.
In 1947, when the Hindus of Sindh dispersed and sought new homes, many settled in Bombay. However, an early foundation had been established for the diaspora by the pioneering Sindhi entrepreneurial community, the Bhaibands, who had their kothis in the Shahibazar locality of Hyderabad, Sindh. As mapped by Markovits, they had branches all over the world, particularly dense in South East Asia and Africa, and even South America. This gave a base to the displaced ones. Families sent their young sons out to these outposts. They worked hard, deprived themselves, sent money home, and (some sooner than others) started their own businesses which, over the years, grew and grew. Often enough, they were displaced yet again by global politics and economics. In the 1950s, events in Vietnam sent them out to Thailand and Laos. In the 1960s, their stronghold in Indonesia loosened and Hong Kong opened up. In the early 1970s, Africa became hostile. The story went on.
It was something that happened in Chile in the mid-1970s that took today’s Sindhi population there. A government leaning to Communism was violently overthrown by the military dictator Pinochet. The new government began to nurture the Chilean economy with policies formulated by a group of young US-educated economists wryly referred to as the Chicago Boys. One of the initiatives was the Iquique free trade zone. In came the Sindhis.
In Iquique, I stayed with Renu Melwani, in what was once Pinochet’s home in the town he is said to have loved dearly. Bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by a range of low hills extending from the Atacama Desert and running parallel to the Andes, Iquique’s natural advantages include an exceptionally beautiful landscape; a countryside so rich in copper that Chile is the largest exporter in the world; bountiful coastal waters that export seafood delicacies all over the world; a harbour so filled with containers that the free zone is like a mini-China in Chile, stocked with inexpensive products that are sold locally and exported to neighbouring countries by trading companies in the zone.
If the Sindhis I met in Iquique could be used as a base to create a stereotype, then Sindhis are kind and welcoming; cosmopolitan, fun-loving and extremely close-knit. At the Hindu temple in Iquique, the Saturday soup kitchen has volunteers from across the town to cook and take the food out to underprivileged areas of the town. One evening, at a potluck dinner in Renu’s home, I helped myself to an unfamiliar dish and learnt that it was gado-gado, an Indonesian delicacy. Where else but in Chile?
Chile is a beautiful country with great natural beauty. I returned home with the unforgettable scenery of the places and of its all-pervasive public art installations implanted in my mind.
I suppose I will have to admit that I also loved Chile because, for a writer, there is absolutely nothing which compares to travelling half way across the world and finding people there waiting for you with your book in their hand.
parts of this first appeared as A Long Way from Home in Hindustan Times on 2 Aug 2015