Souvenir printemps

Had a bunch of these emperor and fringed tulips flower in my garden past spring. I didn’t post these photos anywhere and as I tumble along my 35th year, fall is around the corner already, only mists of spring in my memories and it will be a year soon, since I  planted their bulbs.

I have shot tulips in many angles and each variety dictates the angle it likes best, so thought them appropriate for the corner theme this week, especially the considering these fringed corners! 

Orange tulip- emperor-wm
Emperor tulip
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Fringed tulip

How many springs of hope do I have left? Who knows. Will these come back next year? Who can tell. But that they came at all should be of no less importance. Flowers bring hope, my friend told me. A new friend I made this year. Maybe there are dreams yet to come!

Coral present: The Andaman and Nicobar islands (part 2)

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Entrance for Radhanagar beach, Havelock island

Our next stop in the Andamans, from Port Blair, was Havelock, a promise of a lot of water activities, snorkeling, coral and colorful fish. Also, the day my mom needed her anti-rabies booster, after being bitten by a feral dog three days before our trip began. Siddharth, our tour manager, had said we would have no complains at the place we stayed in Havelock, and he was right about that.

Transport and accommodation in Havelock island

The nature lodge in Havelock was just pure goldly!! It was TSG Blue Resort, with cabins nesting in tropical flora close to woods, lovely wooden interior. Good food, a little slow in service for snacks or coffee, but hey, its an island. In the island between hotel to port we had a vehicle at our disposal again. Within Havelock you can hire two-wheelers, if you have any license to show, and drive around the island. There is little public transport in the form of buses and I think if you have a week or so in the island, they can be used, but not in a time crunch.

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The restaurant and dining room at TSG blue, Havelock

To get to Havelock island, we took a spiffy big ferry called the Makruzz that takes the shortest time to get there, is air conditioned and was built in Japan, I think. Their repeating video will inform you if it wasn’t made in Japan as it tells you about its features. An impressive boat, but it took us more than an hour of waiting in various places to get on it. It’s a good ride once you are on. They provide you with a seat number and actually check reservation before you board, so make sure you get the seat numbers in a printed form.

A tip for packing:

Swimming gear that is not a pain to change into or out of. A coverall, or kaftan if you don’t want to stand out too much. Most beaches have a changing room including the Elephant beach, but it is wise to be prepared to not having them available. A lot of sunscreen. Not many bugs that I can remember on or around the beaches, if planning a forest hike bug spray would be needed. A daybag- that can fit water, wet clothes, towel, sunscreen and if needed whatever optics you are carrying. A MUST for people with sensitive feet , or who don’t want to have bleeding feet: water shoes.. They are not too expensive, especially in the US, I am not sure how available they are in India, but anything like the Vibrams that are close fitting with good grips will do you wonders. Bring your own snorkeling gear if you have it!!

Our story in paradise

Through the nearly two hours on the Makruzz, we had something else on our minds: I had talked to our tour managers and they had taken her prescription to get her the vaccine, and promised they would get it for her. All we could do was hope they came through..

White-rumped munia
White-rumped munia
Brown shrike-1
Brown shrike

After the ferry ride and transfer to the TSG Blue eco-resort I rested a while in our neat cottage and decided to try and get some birding done. But alas, because of shortage of gas and the absence of a license (or the ability to drive a two-wheeler), I could not make good on the suggestions Nikhil (from Enchanted India.com) had made to go to beach no. 5 to see kingfishers (the beaches there are called by their numbers). I hope someone, some day, does read this and go there or get a tour through them. I did walk around the fields close to the hotel, on the narrow street edges looking for sparrows: white rumped munia, he had said the fields have them and they did, albeit, quite far, so no photos worth anything. I saw swallows swerving pretty close and fast and olive-backed sunbirds. A shrike on the telephone wires. And finally, a rose-breasted parakeet! I think the hiking path to the Elephant beach (instead of taking the boat) is highly recommended for birding as well.

Rose-breasted parakeet
Rose-breasted parakeet

The next morning at Havelock started out great, we went on a short boat ride to a small beach called Elephant beach, where they used to train elephants.  We had met other members of the tour group by then, and my mom had been chatting with some of them, another family visiting with their son from Andhra Pradesh. Then there were two women with a young girl, one of their daughters visiting from Coorg. On the trip to the Elephant beach it was limit 6 people  in a boat and a five minute trial for snorkeling, included in package. So if people liked it, they could go on a longer paid deeper into the ocean, but still quite close to the beach.Andaman and Nicobar islands are of volcanic origin and the corals are fringe corals (as opposed to reef corals, like in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). So, they start pretty much right of the shore. I was set on doing it, even if their equipment, I must say, was not the best. However, they held your hand the entire time if you chose the longer 30 min snorkeling, and made a video and took photos, burnt a CD and gave you for 600 rupees. I did keep getting water in my mouth and needed to take the mask off to tip it. But what I saw in the waters, so clear made it all worth it.  Beautiful, and a variety of,  live coral and wonderful fish, they guy took quite a decent video of the fish and coral, I will upload that at some point (with a premium plan). But HIGHLY recommended.

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Our boat driver and snorkeling guide at Elephant beach. The boy on the right took all the photos of the corals below. I only edited them to make them clearer
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Knobby brain coral

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Branching coral

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Coral noir!
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There is a fish in me! boulder brain coral in the background left, branching coral with the fish
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Elephant beach

We went on a glass bottom boat ride too, which I would pass the next time, but since my parents can’t swim (and if the equipment had been ok, they wouldn’t have needed to, as the guides literally take you into the ocean) this was a way to take them to see some coral and fish through the glass bottom. We were back early evening and the trip had begun taking its toll on my mom. It is hot and humid and mom spent a long time in the ocean! Despite the sharp coral in the ocean bed.. She always makes the most of what she has. Always.

On the other hand, there was a communication breakdown somewhere, the vaccine never made it to Havelock and the island hadn’t had a case of rabies for decades. They didn’t have the vaccine at all in stock! After all the time, and emails and phone calls I had made, I had known all along that the exact day ( I forget if it was the 7th day or what) all the doctors said it should be given, my mom won’t be able to get the shot. We were in the middle of nowhere. She is made of strong stuff in general, but no one can conquer stress and high blood pressure and she was a little worried about missing the shot. I asked her to sleep and rest for the rest of the day.

Eventually, one of the managers did indeed buy the vaccine for her when we were back in Port Blair and mom and I walked the roads, looking like desperate urchins, to beg any open clinic to give my mom the shot. We found a small hospital, the doctor was in surgery or somewhere, the nurse reluctant at first, went to check with the doctor after I showed her the picture of the prescription (which at least should have back with me but somehow our manager had got left behind in Havelock and had the actual one in his bag!).  But we had the picture and the nurse was actually nice. She said it would be fine and not to worry. Didn’t charge even. We thanked her heartily, I was close to tears.

Havelock, despite the constant stress about the anti-rabies shot, was still wonderful.

Radhanagar beach backdrop-2Before sunset on that first whole day as mom rested, dad and I decided to walk the 10 min to the Radhanagar beach, the 7th ranked beach in southeast Asia, ranked by TIME magazine. I am not a beach person, but in late evenings, I do like the breeze and the moon, clouds and stars. The beach has white sand and in terms of India, not that many people. And literally all of them leave after sunset. There was a gargantuan Indian Navy ship right by the shore! It was in all my sunset shots and it took me a moment to realize that this, this was the complete shot of an Andaman beach. Gorgeous sunset, an army presence linking the past to the present and lovely waves.. We hung around when everyone had left and sat on a beach log. We had started walking back when I saw mom heading towards the beach. She looked recovered and then, the three of us decided to hang around in the peaceful beach and went back to sit on that log. There was no one else in the world for me, the waves, ma and baba and I. The sand held our shadows, together in a huddle.

beach sunset and navy
Sunset with an Indian Naval ship close to shore.. The embodiment of Andaman and Nicobar islands, where nature meets military.

sunset color-wmNext day, we spent most of the time getting back to Port Blair. And adventure and luck played its due part, there was a  strike due to looming fuel/ gasoline shortage in the island. Being an island with a lot of cars, the Andamans depend on the mainland for gasoline, and there was something to do with costs and who (which ships) could bring the gasoline to the island and government intervention, that had led to serious shortage in fuel. Our boat drivers had fuel left for only one more ride and that’s their livelihood. People were afraid of some kind of a block on the streets as all the taxi drivers, driving us to the port from the hotel, had been told by the union to stop service. They still drove us as we needed to get to the ferry to head back. We had a superbly professional driver who kept talking on the phone dealing with the crisis as he drove, calming people or leading them as needed. Dad was worried about small riots breaking out. But the Makruzz left normally, the ocean was rough, but we made it back in one piece.

Our final outing was on a boat to the North Bay island, where we were to do some undersea walking: one of those activities that are only there in few parts of the world and for which you wear a heavy helmet attached to a long able bringing you the oxygen to the 10 m depth you go down to. My mom was very excited to walk on the sea bed, but when dad found out that people with high blood pressure are advised not to do this, he didn’t want to take a chance. He was excited for me. Mom has high BP too, but only when we got on the stationary float like thing, their “station” from where we would get in, they said that they do not allow people older than 55 yrs of age doing this. It was a new regulation and mom usually undeterred by such things, reluctantly decided to listen. People other than us were disappointed and wanted to know why the tour managers had not informed us of the fact and not offered an alternative since we had paid for this excursion in the package. My parents decided to go on a Dolphin boat ride with magnifying glass in the bottom, similar but improved tech from the glass bottom. Way more expensive and not worth it if the water is not clear. One advice: Just don’t do it! North bay is not even close to being as clear as the Elephant beach(just like the guides there had told us) and it is not worth the boat ride. The undersea walking was pretty cool, the drivers literally take you down, and I had been a fool to think I wouldn’t be able to clear by ear pressure. I thought something happens to you under that much pressure and you can’t use your own hands to hold your nose and expel air out the ears. But nothing did, brains work under water when there is an experience diver right next to you and with practice even without, I am sure. I am going to scuba dive in normal depths whenever I can. Yay.. We fed the colorful fish and they take tiny nips on the skin, that may have fazed the others, because one of the divers gave me the entire food pack (presumably no one else wanted it) and I was swarmed by those fish, I think it was surgeonfish. He caught a fish and handed it over to me, probably sensing my excitement right through the helmet! I held a live (f)wish in the ocean in my hands! Pretty cool.

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I also did another round of snorkeling, this time, with a guide who pointed out the fish and the sea urchins (that I found out later, are venomous if they sting) and the types of coral. We saw other surgeonfish, sweetlips, and finger coral, soft coral. I touched a soft coral and a clownfish attacked me with a nip! Here is where the water shoes would have come in handy. The walk in the sea till the point I could float in the tube was full of spiky coral. It was wonderful, I wish I remembered the names of all the fish I saw, but that takes repeat viewing. Soon.

Our flight back was not pleasant, note my tip about Indian flights in part 1. Mom was totally out on her feet had serious blood circulation issues once we got back, staying in airplanes for many hours with such poor oxygen levels really did a number on her heart. She has said such long trips are not for her anymore. We will see.  That day on the beach, with us and the waves and the moon, I was sure no one else lived in our world. We can’t hold sand in our hands, but sand has a strong hold on us….

 

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Our huddle in sand
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Somewhere in the Andamans

Coral past and present: The Andamans (part1)

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The path on Ross island, where the British and European infantries had barracks
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Chief commissioner’s bungalow that was.. note the tiles, Ross island

If you are an anthropologist, or if you are a student of colonial rule and its effects on the natives, or someone into scuba diving, or maybe someone in love with corals, or simply someone who likes the wild and untamed: the Andaman and Nicobar islands archipelago must get on your radar, if it isn’t already. This is a place with mysterious ties of human society’s evolution to the sea and the forests. More recently in history, this is the place where Indian freedom fighters were sent to prison, and as August 15th, our independence day approaches, this place will remind hundreds of visitors of the sacrifice and more importantly the ardor, Indian freedom fighters had for Indian sovereignty. A sovereignty that is once again in dire straits as we remain spectators. But this is not about modern Indians. This IS about the Andamans..

Early this year while planning my trip to India, my dad told me that we would be going to the Andamans and I could do the pick the type of trip I wanted once I got there. These days he always tries to make the India trip sound enticing. The Andamans is a popular destination for all Bengalis, if not all Indians, being in the Bay of Bengal, a short flight or even not so long sail from Kolkata and full of British Raj History and close-to-home food. Naturally, it is one place my dad has always wanted to see and I have always been intrigued by. He had decided that we would take one of the package tours offered by Thomas Cook, an international travel company quite popular in India. In India, people rarely use large touring companies and only do so for remote destinations: like the Andamans. Thomas Cook is perhaps the oldest, multinational, travel company in India (or the only one we had heard of while growing up).

Picking a tour

Thomas Cook has several types of tours of varying length (2-3 days to 7-9 days) that can cater to beginner divers or casual travelers. Avid divers would probably be better off choosing their own times and not go in package tours, or go with specific diving companies and pick Neil and Havelock islands only (many threads on trip advisor).  This post is more for the casual, interested traveler and the packages cost between 25-40K rupees, depending on time of year and length of stay (in 2017). I should mention that while it is unlikely to be on the list of birders, on account of being remote and lacking any real kind of real publicity, it SHOULD be on their list though and while it will be far from convenient birding, there is a well-known birder who lives in Port Blair and does take people on birding tours at a very reasonable cost, by international standards. I hope to be able to return to do this, at some point and for more information on that, Nikhil Devasar of Enchanted India would be a great source and tour operator, he seemed like someone who knew his stuff. The scanty information of the birds found there is still enough to let one know that our lives will not be the same once we see some of them! And that, is the point. Isn’t it?

I chose a tour that did the obligatory Port Blair tours with the cellular jail tour in the morning and light and sound show (ONLY available in Hindi) in the evening, some anthropological and some natural history museums. Along with the Ross islands, North Bay and two days in Havelock island.

Transport and Accommodation

Port Blair is pretty easy to reach, by sea or air. Flights are not that expensive, in Indian currency and in the package tour the flight cost is included. In the package, there was an option of a private vehicle, and I took it because I imagined I may need to stop between for photographs and also because, I always like to talk to a local. Of course, not having to spend mental power on small talk is always a big plus for me, I am so out of touch! So, once at the airport, we were picked up by our local driver, John. Unlike in other tours that I have been to, we didn’t actually have the car with us the entire time, he would drop us and do other routes and come back, so basically all our bags stayed with us, not in the car. He was great and knew a lot about local sites. The streets are narrow and winding and hilly, in Port Blair and it is India. But as usual, professional drivers in India are magic. The hotel we stayed in Port Blair (TSG) was sub par to say the least. The service was ok, the food was fine, just the rooms looked out to nothing or walls, were a little cramped and had dodgy internet (which I won’t normally use if there had been anything else to do there!). In between closer islands, we took ferries, that we usually had to stand in line or wait to board. It took long to very long  and for ones not used to the tropical sun it can seem longer, still. The best bet is to forget about time. All of them had life jackets and seemed to have at least average safety measures. One of the ferries did start letting out smoke while we were not that close to the destination  (North bay island). India, is a trip for the brave, and Andamans, no doubt, is a trip for the lucky and brave.

Travel tips: In India, if the plane is stalled on the tarmac for any reason, the toilets will not be open. So, it is best to use the facilities at least once during the flight, because planes get stalled for hours on end all the time.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands is an important military base for India, therefore,  I believe a special pass is needed to enter the islands for all non-Indian passport holders, please check on that before planning a trip.  Also, it has significant military personnel on every port of entry and even in between islands putting in all bags through X ray is needed, so travel light if traveling with seniors.

Tales and story

Our trip’s story actually began when three days before the trip, when my mom was bit by a street dog (feral dog). She was on her way to her yoga class and I was at home, I was supposed to have gone with her. She came back 5 min after leaving and I heard only part of the sentence that said ‘kutte ne kaat diya. a dog bit me..’. I thought I misheard, but I go in the door to see clear bite marks where her skin had broken. Only some blood, but that is still considered to require anti-rabies vaccine. I was walking through a cloud, yet happy that at least I was with her, when we got her first shot from a clinic nearby, the doc said 5 shots for a period of about 2 months. She would need a booster of -temperature sensitive vaccine shot, when we were in Havelock, a remote island (the Havelock island is in part 2).

After no other major incidents other than a little let down in terms of the hotel in Port Blair, our first destination was the Cellular jail. We had a guide who probably is a government employee go through the history and show us different points of interest in the jail. He went over the mental and physical torture that each ‘political’ prisoner went through, in the solitary cell and while being made to do hard physical toil of being yoked to grinding 30 lbs of oil from mustard seeds per a daily quota. The atrocious jailer: David Barry, who believed in flogging, manacles, and tortures that are most inhumane. In fact, on hindsight, the place where the prisoners were hanged or given their last rites may have been almost serene, compared to the cells- that had one wooden bed, 1 iron pot and pan for food and clay pot for toilet cleaned by the prisoners themselves, or the oil mill where they worked. Thousands of famous freedom fighters did their time in the cells, keeling over from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease and their names are listed on one of the walls in the central building. The wings of cells spread out like prongs from the center. The tended lawn and gardens and the monument for those who died in this prison, also called Kala Pani, not named for black colored water, but for death (‘kaal’, in Sanskrit), definitely mellow the otherwise starkly morbid monument.  I was not moved to the core by a nationalist fervor, I am with Tagore on that, but at the depths of cruelty, of tyranny, of how much loss can be incurred when nations, and individuals or groups start to believe in self-righteousness based on misguided sense of superiority. How low we can get in the rungs for sentient beings when our minds have been monkey trained to be impervious to other humans as long as we are certain that our purpose is bigger, better and above humanity: as a principle, a noun and even as a metaphor.

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A statistic of life and death in the Cellular Jail
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Cellular jail wings from the terrace
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A cell in the Cellular Jail, you see all of it here
Last rituals site
Last rituals
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Gallows, the ropes made of coconut shell thread was made by the prisoners themselves
Oil mill
A model of the oil mill to which the prisoners were yoked

In the evening light and sound show, Om Puri’s voice impersonates an old tree in the prison yard as he(it) told us about the individual freedom fighters like Savarkar, Mahavir Sigh who died while resisting being force-fed and the tyrant jailer Barry,  how Barry too suffered a painful death as some sort of pay back for his cruelties. I do believe that some people do get what they give out, but not often enough. Prisoners used to go on hunger strikes asking for some leniency in their condition, for medical attention, for being spared from flogging and this was after thousands of political prisoners had died during the building of this prison that started after the first mutiny in 1857. Killed by tropical diseases, attacks by the ferocious aborigines and later due to force feeding as they went on hunger strikes, in this land of untenable forest and sea. Of course, those ferocious aborigines were shown who’s d-man, and are mostly all close to extinction.

As we went to the anthropology museums and saw model displays of their homes, their customary outfits, with some photographs of the ‘civilized’ humans who found them and killed them by bringing flu, sexual contact and other diseases. These aborigines include the well-known and once hostile, Jarawas who are hunter gatherers who live in the protected reserve forest belt of south and Middle Andaman. They live in communal huts and use coral, palm leaves for clothing and ornaments and have a population of around 240, said the fading print on the undated boards containing information on these tribes. The other tribes are the Onge, the extinct Jangi and the soon to be extinct, the Great Andamanese, 43 of the remaining live on the Strait island; then the mysterious and hostile Sentinelese who are the only occupants of the Sentinel island and have a population of less than 39, if that can be called a population. The aborigines are believed to have reached from south east Asia and bear strong relation to Semangs of Malaysia and Aetas of Phillipes, and DNA analysis has revealed a direct connection to the pygmies of South Africa.  The Nicobarese have integrated with Indians who moved from the mainland. Finally, the Shompens are a tribe that live in the Great Nicobar island and are not hostile but keep to themselves, have polygamy and monogamy with the oldest male being the head of the tribe. They have a population of around 400. It is no longer possible to visit any of the locations where the tribes live without a permit and given the general paperwork involved in everything in India, I have no doubt that takes long-term planning and some serious reasons to visit. I obviously would like to go, if you are a certified anthropologist and can somehow take me with you to the tribal villages, then I will be your cook, cleaning lady and photographer, if you need one.

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Where the tea parties happened in Ross island

Our original plans were changed as we visited the Ross island earlier than planned, I had been really looking forward to it because the entire island is basically ruins of barracks, and mansions and shops where the British personnel and military stayed to guard the Cellular Prison. The boat ride was not very long, however the stay was a measly hour and a half!! There was no guide available that day, apparently there is one some times though. There is a nice paved trail to walk on, even if it has quite a slope and despite the mansplaining ( I am going to abduct this term and use it anywhere I feel utter lack of insight, total overflow of callousness is displayed with pigheadedness) by that idiotic boat guy, an hour and a half is not nearly close enough for covering a whole  settlement! In a hurry, I decided on trying to get to the Commissioner’s bungalow which seemed promising and would also take me by the cafeteria, and the church. Our tour manager, Siddharth (a very pleasant guy perfect for the job) had told us that deer and peacock roam around the island and get quite close. I handed over my bag to dad, I probably shouldn’t have: it was heavy, but I couldn’t have carried it with me in the speed I was intending to run. And run I did.

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Peacock
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Peahen

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Church, engulfed

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The place didn’t disappoint, there were even signs to mark and explain the ruins, the baker’s in front of this island, also called the ‘Paris of the east’, held tea parties. The figs were taking over all the bricks and mortar in most of the buildings and really, I was in heaven, a sweltering one, but heaven nonetheless. I did make it to the bungalow and there was no one there, except a peahen. It was jutting into the ocean in the back, it had its own power house and its mosaic tiles reflected on what used to be. The Presbytarian church was taped off, but must have been a majestic one, with high walls and arches. Right in front of the church, I saw my first wild peacock since I bought the camera. He didn’t dance, but what a beauty. He and two peahens walked on the lovely trees and ruins as I tried to shoot in bad light. Came back to the boat on time, after persuading a nice guy with a DSLR to take a photo of me by the red wall of the bakers. He was most kind and wanted to change a lot of settings and took several shots. I hope his wife didn’t kill him later, because like I said, 1.5 hrs is all anyone got if they wanted to return to Port Blair.

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Government hospital next to Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Port Blair is a gateway to wonderful natural history and a porthole looking at the past to find the acceptance and hope of a future, for everyone. The Cellular Jail was bombed by the Japanese in WWII and lost one of its wings. A government hospital has been built in its place and seems to be catering to a lot of patients. The prisons walls, painted several times over, bear witness to a colonial rule, by ‘outsiders’, who looked distinctly different. It should however remind us, that for outsiders to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty on our fellows, they needed tools: our minor differences, outrage at being deprived of entitlements, our inherent feelings of superiority and finally, our disregard of humanity. In the silence that followed when the screams of the tortured prisoners died off, part of the light and sound show, I knew that we don’t really need outsiders, do we.

And then I hear, Inqalab zindabad!