Tag Archives: India

Farming to stamping books, farmer misses feel of the soil

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This is Yang Peiyan who found the terracotta soldiers on his farm in Xian. He now sits in the gift shop at the Qin museum stamping and signing the book on his life, how he found the statues and life thereafter.

In 2003, on my trip to China, my college friend Bivash had asked me to visit Xian. I first went to Beijing, stayed there for 4-5 days and took a train to Xian. The tour guides were informed in advance they’d stand waiting with a board with my name written. (Forget my surname, my name though simple to pronounce was different, like my features and moreover colour). Most tourists were European, Americans and Japanese, apart from local Chinese who love to travel. I recollect reaching early morning in Xian and the guide asked me to go rest, as he dropped me to the hotel and said he’d come post breakfast. I was to go to Qin museum and then I’d said I wanted to go to the Mosque, which my friend insisted I should. It was drizzling and cold and I was already in love with China by then. Yes, this trip was a year after my US and judge me, but I was more in love with China than the US.

I can’t remember vividly, you need to forgive me as it its over 11 years now. But some incidents, conversations I distinctly recollect. My hotel was cozy and it overlooked a pagoda and a pond. Later I have unclear memories of going first to the Pagoda, a palace like structure and then over 3/4ths of the day at the Musuem. The guide at Xian, unlike my young student guides at Bejing was impatient with my questions. He’d tell me things and I’d nod with questions. He kept losing his patience, saying “Ma’m I’ve told you before no questions. I will not answer and pl I request you to not ask around so openly.”

Ok, noted, but do not expect me to follow it strictly. I went to the terracotta museum and I fell in love with those statues. Except I felt disgusted with the royal excesses. I mean the emperors wasted taxes and money on such personal luxuries. The army of terracotta statues was made to be buried with First Emperor Qin Shihuang, (the museum is named after this Emperor), which just confirms my belief. Anyway, I remember a huge white gate and i was not wt any group per say, the guide took me around. I made him take my pics near some horse and soldier, which are not to be recognized. But I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading of it and now seeing statues taller than me!

Excavations were on and nobody stopped me, despite police presence and CCTV cameras from grabbing a handful of soil.  Imagine soil which is over hundreds of years old! The guide was aghast and looked away and left my side…haha. He said he will wait out, poor man didn’t want to get into trouble me thinks. After hours of walking, returning to few spots I came out..finally. By then it was bright and sunny and not to my liking. I requested the guide to accompany me to the museum shop and began my trolley of questions. He said he can’t talk on my behalf, we’ll get caught. I forgot to mention, the guide kept looking over his shoulder, just in case there were watchers. Somehow my persistence paid and we approached Yang Peiyan.

As I came to his table I realized all he did was look down at the book, sign, stamp and return it. Many smiled, thanked, but he had a robotic feel to the whole thing. It seemed like he was doing what he had to, may be not enjoying, but I’m sure it paid his monthly bills. I ofcourse couldn’t confirm it directly. All I know is, as the guide said, “This is China, nobody is allowed to talk to foreign press. You will get us all into trouble. Yang will not speak, he is not allowed by the government, he is kept there by the government.” I pleaded and even told him the lady next to him had gone to the loo let’s finish with it.

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With the guide as my interpreter I asked does he enjoy what was he doing and whether he missed farming. (point being he would NEVER have told me he did NOT enjoy sitting there). “I am felicitated by the government and I sit here and fulfil that duty. I am a farmer and my hands miss the feel of the soil. I am of no use here but this I what I have to do.” I asked again about farming and he gave a fantastic answer. “I said my hands miss the feel of the soil. But of what use would I be as a farmer today? It is all modernized in China. They use a tractor and machine, I used my hands.”

I requested for pics, he nodded looking ahead or down. He doesn’t look anywhere else. I couldn’t focus properly, in the dim light I had to quickly take 2 pics. His assistant, or as my guide and I suspected, a government stooge stormed in. She saw me click and asked if I’d taken Yang’s pics, I said no, I was just testing and clicked randomly to show her. (This was manual SLR). Immediately I covered the lens and kept it away. She had seen me talk and began snapping in Mandarin to herself and aloud. We all went about our lives as if nothing had happened.

But this was my story and it was real. The guide was initially upset and then admired my spirit to get out something from Yang. We exchanged our readings and interpretations of what he had said. Guide felt he had deliberately spoken of tractors to console himself and convince may be what this job he’d opted for was worth it, though he had NO choice.

Guide said, when Yang found one or two statutes he was surprised and informed the District officials. Once he informed the district officials, the then Chinese government officials came to check, they needed to excavate Yang’s farms and other adjoining ones. The farmers would not have given up for nothing. This was the more conservative, hard-core Communist government. Nobody could dare them. So he gave up his farms, instead he was given the Lotus, the government’s symbol of felicitation, compensated, given a house and promised monthly income of a book which was written for him. He had sit there at the museum during the working hours, the tourists, mostly foreigners who could afford to buy the book, would get it autographed from him and at the end of the day, he would go home, which was given by the government. So there was no way Yang could do or say anything other than what he had just done.

Later the guide opened up. He appreciated my courage and pondering over Yang’s words he shared his feelings about his government and the rules. I asked him do they question the one-child policy, forced birth control and abortions if couples got more than one child? The guide cried. He said they all live in the interiors, while all the opportunities are in the bi said this metros. His daughter too lived in Shanghai and will get married and go. They wanted one more child and he said the forced birth control made men feel impotent. When I asked him why the Chinese don’t question their government, if birth control was successful why had China crossed 1 billion population? He was disturbed. He said the Chinese looked up to India for her freedom and the choice to do things. He left me with an important question unanswered-“you all have so many choices and freedom to make it, why don’t you all Indians make good of it?”

The guide and Yang had left me with 2 pertinent thoughts..

A passport to travel

Usually once you get your passport the biggest obstacle in one’s journey in the world is tackled. Or so we were given to believe. Till this bloody May, specifically the first week, I’d NO clue that my valid passport would give me quite bit of headache & problems. I received my dear friend Makeni’s letter inviting me over to Paris -tomeet her parents, spend time with the family & travel around France, like she had done in India way back in 2008. When she lived with my family & we travelled around… there began my problems.

While applying for the French visa the 1st rule disqualified me, right on the spot! Anyone with a passport having over 10 years validity is ineligible…is NOT permitted to apply. This was the FIRST time I ever encountered something so bizarre. That I had a valid, legal 20-years passport DISQUALIFIED me from getting a valid Schengen visa.

So there went my French dreams in one stroke. My 1st reaction was what the hell, what kind of a country am I born in? French have made these strict rules after the varied experiences they’ve faced. So have other western countries. The Visa page states lot many more rules, including getting the invitation letter attested from the mayor’s office in Paris.

Now my dear friend in Paris when she first came in 2008, she just asked me over the net, email whether her dates are suitable & will I host her. I said yes. That’s about it. She easily got a visa to travel to India. Not like the way we tourists are treated.

I still had 8 valid years on the old passport. It meant I had to return my old passport, apply for a new one & go through the whole rigmarole of applying for a new one, stand in queue, etc. I was definitely NOT prepared for it. But by not returning I’d be deprived of visiting Europe & we are not getting any younger. Hence I took the BIG step of going ahead for getting a new passport. My issue is in this country of billions, ONLY approximately 1 lakh passport holders with 20 years validity would be there. So the Govt of India could’ve sent public ads, notices, called us to return our passports, in a time-frame of 1 month & re-validate it for us. That’s how most foreign nations behave/make policies. NOT India, learn it all along…self-help it is!

I must say the process is lot more easy. Though one must ensure that the net speed & modem is fine. Once all well, go to the ministry of external affairs website & get onto the page for applying for a passport. Either new, re-issuing, etc. Now in that too there are a few glitches for the 20 year passport holders like me. They asked me for my reasons for re-issuing. And I had to enter –  others & I specified my validity is 20 years. The developers of this software are TCS. The Govt of India has out-sourced the technical work to TCS.

The regional passport office has opened many new centres – 2 in suburbs, 1- BKC & 1 new one in Kamla Mills. It is state-of-the-art. It makes you feel proud of your country. All air-conditioned, well timed. Process is fast & within 45 minutes you are out with the final receipt telling you within exactly how many days you will get your passport.

There are restrooms, canteen, xerox machine. But we are just too over-populated. And Indian parents that have absolutely no manners. They permit their children to bang on the glass doors, yank the plants kept, parents who think asking their kids to NOT cry, shut up is being over-domineering. Else the process is all electronic & fine. The TCS staff is cool, young, learning & yet nice. We no longer need to carry photographs, they are taken there itself. Your whole application is shown, a run-through is done so that any last minute glitches can be tackled.  A single token number that sees you till the end.

Once the information is finalised, all documents uploaded, your photo is taken. And finally your signature. Now for someone with such a long surname like ‘Kolhatkar’ it took me few times to cramp it in a tiny box. It was very irritating because I like free, uninhibited style of signing & here I had to write in a style which I can’t recognise anymore.

What a cut off from the first experience of getting a renewal or passport. My first passport was made way back in 1990, when I earned my official salary. My cousin had quietly told my mother that as I’d hand over my salary, to set aside money for my passport. He would then ensure to get it for me.

Now imagine I was a journalist, later took a break to pursue Masters in Social Work, worked as a media advocacy specialist & went into broadcast when satellite channels first came to India…so obviously was always paid poorly. Hence the question of going ‘abroad’ was never on top of my mind. In fact every single person from batch had gone abroad to study, many settled or simply married & migrated. I am too lazy to pin everything on 1 person, job or issue… So for the first 10 years I came a whisker close to going abroad but it didn’t materialise for whatever reasons. And it was time for renewal. Again there was NO question of NON-renewal, my cousin had sealed my fate. After the first renewal I have travelled…but sadly, it’s an Indian passport. Hence getting visa is never going to be easy…so although I’ve got a new passport, believe me getting Schengen visa is still a long way…