Blood on our hands

During her menstrual days,Swomen spend four days in a shed, outcast from the main household

On Thursday, 19-year-old Tulasi Shahi died of snake bites. Almost seven months earlier, 15-year-old Roshani Tiruwa suffocated to death. And just a month before that, it was 26-year-old Dambara Upadhyay. All of them died under the same circumstance — they succumbed to the so-called Hindu tradition in Nepal that banishes women during menstruation.  

In Hinduism, avatars of some goddesses are seen as manifestation of power. And every time when a woman is mistreated, the conflicted views of mythology versus reality becomes a part of public discourse — while they are worshiped as divine figures, since the ancient times its believers have however relegated women from that pedestal, positioning them as “impure” when nature takes it course every month. And generation after generation, the self-proclaimed custodians of the religion have been using fear as a medium to impose these “traditions” at the cost of women’s lives.

“Our elders think the gods will be angry,” Sunita BK told me while reporting on the issue that plagues hundreds of women in different pockets of Nepal. “The family will have to bear the consequences if we stay in the house during menstruation. We can’t speak against them.”

While many families feared the wrath of the divine deity, which may or may not exist, for many women in villages like Mangalsen, it’s the power of the family patriarchs and such practices that govern their existence.

On a balmy January afternoon in the far-western district of Accham, the 19-year-old spoke of frigid winter nights she had spent in the mud shed since her early teens, adhering to the practice locally known as chaupadi. The tin-thatched structure had paper cardboard that carpeted the dusty floor, no windows for ventilation, and a wooden door without proper locks. It wasn’t even big enough for a five-feet woman to stretch.

The shed is a crammed space with no ventilation or windows. Reports of deaths due to suffocation during chaupadi have surfaced over the past years

Sunita said her mother and mother-in-law followed the same tradition, and the latter said her mother told that it was a part of every woman’s monthly routine, with the elderly from the family ensuring that the religious sanctimony is not broken. And in order to protect something that their dead ancestors passed, people tend to entirely ignore the living, leaving women to die under inhumane conditions — in any religion, it would constitute sinful.

When I visited Accham, almost a full-day drive from the closest airport in Dhangadi, in 2014,  death of 15-year-old Sharmila Bhul from the previous year still lingered in people’s memories. She lived 30 minutes away from Sunita’s village, and had mysteriously died in the shed. She was expelled from the house during her period. It wasn’t a shocking news for many. It was a sorrowful story, but not shocking. It was more or less an ill fate that could have happened to anyone.

It is noteworthy that blinded by faith, people tend to normalize such events, selectively ignoring the injustices faced by women in their community, becoming equally complicit in a criminal behavior disguised in the form of tradition.

It’s been 12 years since Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed chaupadi. During the past decade, the country has witnessed seasons of political and social changes. Women’s empowerment, along with other catch phrases that are used as yardsticks to measure social progress, have become a part of the local lexicon, even in villages of districts as far as Accham. Nepal is hailed for reducing maternal mortality, improving women’s access to finance, and securing political representation, as female leaders hold the positions that once were held by key male players only. They have been elected as the chief justice, speaker of the house, and also the country’s first female president.

And while these developments paint a rosy picture of a poor but progressive country, the society still hasn’t forgotten to deem women “impure” during menstruation. However, it should be noted that this is not only rural Nepal’s problem. Archaic traditions as such are silently practiced in urban pockets like the capital, Kathmandu. In my neighborhood, men from the so-called upper caste Brahmin family still don’t touch women while they bleed, and even in my Newari household, women don’t enter the kitchen or the worship room during menstruation. The only difference is that women die in villages, but in cities we kill their dignity by giving them an “untouchable” status.

While the problem exists, it is important that we look forward seeking solutions. Yes, there have been policy interventions, but that doesn’t guarantee a social transformation. And this is where the members of the community should step forward. In villages like Mangalsen, I met men like Kamal Rawal, a 22-year-old journalist who has taken a stand against the practise, starting from his household. In Ridikot, the village where Sharmila died, locals are challenging this culture, destroying one shed at a time. Rights organizations have also been vocal in raising awareness.

But when I asked Sunita about all of this — the political representation, the progressive attitude, including her neighboring village — she smiled at first, and then shrugged. The teenager, and a mother of a child, said all of that is so distant from her everyday life. They mean little to her as long as she has to brave the weather, wild animals and worry about perverted men barging in the sheds at night, and spend five days in the shed every month during her menstrual cycle.

“I hope the situation will change soon,” she said.

But the underlying question is: How soon will it change?

One after another, women are dying in similar situations. And from where Nepal stands today, even one death is too many. Every death is equally shocking because it’s untimely, unnatural — it can be passed as murder — and something that is undoubtedly preventable. And let’s not wait until another death, or series of stories splashed across international media outlets to enrage us about what’s happening in our backyards.

It’s now beyond time for family patriarchs, community crusaders, and political leaders to shun this practice and shatter the sheds in every corner of the country. For centuries, society has banished women for bleeding, but its members should now collectively accept that they are to blame for each death — they are the ones with blood on their hands.

 

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Promoting education in rural China, one girl at a time

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Photo: EGRC

To understand her philanthropy, Tien Ching says one needs to dig into her past.

When she was 13, Tien used to study at an elite junior high school with daughters of Chinese leaders and dreamt of becoming a journalist when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. For a seventh grader, not being able to continue her education during those tumultuous years, Tien says, seemed like the final chapter of her unwritten book.

In the following years, Tien’s life story traversed from western China’s Gansu Province to Beijing and then Vancouver, but she never had a chance to continue her education.

But 37 years later, the teenager who had quietly packed her dreams had an epiphany – to provide girls in rural China a chance of higher education, something she didn’t have.

In 2005, Tien set up a charity and called it Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC). It was the beginning of a mission that now has a cohort of 400 career women from Gansu and other provinces.

Go Girls
Tien was 17 when her mother, a pediatrician, moved to Gansu for work. She followed her and ended up toiling long hours at a chemical fertilizer factory.

“It was a no brainer,” she says, reflecting on the struggles. “I felt I couldn’t be there. There was no hope.”

She heard harrowing stories from her mother, who travelled to remote parts of the province, about girls as young as 13 already married, some with children. They were devoid of any educational opportunities or career-oriented future.

“I was always determined to get out of there, continue my education,” she says explaining a “complicated story” of returning to Beijing eight years later.

However, complications in her residency status meant she couldn’t sit for the university entrance exam in Beijing. Later, she married the son of a family friend living in Canada and emigrated there in 1983. But, family responsibilities meant she made a “conscious decision” not to pursue higher education.

But years later, while watching her daughter perform at a UNICEF fundraising event for girls’ education — it was called Go Girls — her thoughts travelled back to Gansu.

“That evening I remembered the girls in Gansu and my life there,” she says pensively. “I thought of the meaning of opportunity … if they had chances, the girls there would be as smart as my daughter.”

Like a goddess

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Photo: Li Fangxia

For many young women, whose lives Tien has transformed, she is more than a “sponsor” supporting their college tuition – she’s a mentor, friend and part of their family now.

Li Fangxia, who graduated from Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi Province with an EGRC scholarship, says Tien “gave us the life we had never imagined.”

“Every time I meet her, I feel empowered,” Li says. “She’s like a goddess.”

Coming from a family weighed by financial problems, Li says she was always expected to be the helping hand in the farms. Also, her brother’s education was a priority; their parents couldn’t afford her university fees too.

In parts of rural China, sons are still given preferential treatment while women are discouraged from higher education, obligated to help the family. Li says she had “given up.”

This is when the 25-year-old heard about Tien’s charity and applied. After an application and an interview, her request was approved.

“I am the first girl in the countryside to go to university and work in Beijing,” Li says. “Other girls, they gave up studies and married very early.”

And in that process, women like Li are also helping shift traditional attitudes and emboldening other women in her village of Quan’erwan – she helps her family financially, pays her brother’s university tuition and is an ambassador for pushing girls’ education.

“I am a good example,” Li says with pride. “They may now rethink that girls deserve to go to college and they can do anything that boys can, even better.”

Seeds of success

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Photo: EGRC

When Tien talks about her past, she still sounds emotional. She is in her 60s and not “bitter anymore” but says a sense of regret still hangs in her subconsciousness – until she sees one of her graduates.

“When I look at these girls, I see them fulfilling something I didn’t have the opportunity to finish: education,” says Tien, who is busy attending networking events in Beijing and also shared her story at TEDx talk program. “Mostly, I see change in them and that encourages me. I see a part of myself in them.”

In these 11 years, Tien’s philanthropy has become an integral part of many success stories. The 6,000 yuan (865 US dollars) yearly scholarship to individuals from her charity goes beyond its monetary value, providing important life lessons to the beneficiaries.

The women Tien helped have gone to become teachers, entrepreneurs, and more so independent thinkers and leaders, in China and Canada.

“I want to help China generate the next generation of female leaders,” Tien says. “I want them to make them dream bigger. When I see my girls, I see that in them.”

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Hong Kong denied my visa because of my nationality, and I just can’t let it go

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My name is Bibek Bhandari and I’m a Nepali national – and for that very reason Hong Kong rejected my work visa application.

I have been reporting for the South China Morning Post for almost three years as a freelancer. So when I saw an opening for a suitable position, I applied and secured a full-time job at the newspaper’s headquarters in Hong Kong after two interviews. I was ecstatic and looked forward to a new milestone in my journalism career.

But that abruptly ended when Hong Kong immigration denied my employment visa.

Hong Kong categorically bars certain nationalities — Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Nepal and Vietnam — from entering China’s Special Administrative Region for training and employment purposes. Regardless of my years of professional experience, credibility as a journalist and an employment offer from the city’s leading newspaper, my application was overlooked based on my passport cover.

In a bold letter highlighting Nepal, the immigration department asserted that Hong Kong’s General Employment Policy was “not applicable to the applicant.”

And I’m not the only one.

In 2014, I met Shanta Nepali, a young woman who paid thousands of rupees to a middleman to go work as a housemaid in the Middle East, just as Hong Kong implemented the visa ban.

She ended up in Lebanon. Hong Kong, with its stringent regulations and supervised labour laws, she believed, would have been a better place to work.

Hong Kong introduced the ban on Nepali students and workers in 2005 — though the ban on students has been relaxed — without an official explanation. However, it is believed that the policy was aimed to discourage Nepalis fleeing the Maoist conflict at home to seek asylum in Hong Kong.

Annie Lin of the Society for Community Organization then told the Post that singling out Nepalis and targeting them is “racial discrimination.”

A 2009 UN Women report also slams Hong Kong’s policy “as not only discriminatory but also imposed excessively beyond reason.”

It has been 11 years since the ban and a lot has changed meanwhile: the war has ended in Nepal; Hong Kong is no longer a leading destination for Nepali migrant workers; and a new generation of Nepalis are now exploring opportunities across the globe.

“It’s high time for Hong Kong government to review and reconsider their policy towards Nepalis,” said Indra Wanem, a legal counsellor from Nepal who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. “Hong Kong’s view on Nepal as a weak and underdeveloped country in political turmoil must change now.”

He said if Hong Kong were to implement proper screening methods while stamping work visas for white-collar and blue-collar workers, it could benefit both parties, as thousands of Nepalis leave abroad for work and study every day.

I also left Nepal in 2005 and since then have lived and worked in many countries. Having a green-colored passport from Nepal— it’s one of the least powerful passports in the world— has prepped me for visa hiccups, and though the probability of  “rejection” is always imminent, the applications have never been snubbed due to my nationality, until now.

For the first time, even before landing in a city, I felt unwelcomed. Hong Kong made me question my nationality momentarily — I even despised having a Nepali passport for a second — because my future was at stake, barricading the career move that I deserved. Like Nepali, and many others, I was losing an opportunity to a policy that openly perpetuates prejudice towards certain nationalities.

This is unfair. This is wrong.

By arbitrarily banning citizens from a list of handpicked countries regardless of their skills, talents and potentials, Hong Kong is harbouring an archaic policy that undermines its so-called cosmopolitan values.

I am writing this today because I do not want to be just another silent applicant. I cannot ignore this and let go as a policy issue. For the immigration department to dump my application only because I am from Nepal doesn’t suit a city that brands itself as progressive.

So when I look at Hong Kong today, I no longer consider it as “Asia’s world city.” Instead, I see it as a selectively unaccommodating city that has crushed the prospects of many people, exclusively based on where they come from, even before arrival.

A day after the decision, one of my editors wrote to me and said he “hope[d] that out of all this, you get the job you truly deserve in a city that is prepared to welcome you.”

And Hong Kong is not that city.

 

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After the earthquake

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(Two year update: People still living in temporary shelters, delays in rebuilding, concerns over heritage reconstruction

A year is a long time, and in Nepal, the length of the year since the April 25, 2015, earthquake is relative: it depends who you ask.

For the government, it’s been quite a short year: it hasn’t been able to accomplish much of the reconstruction work.

But for the earthquake survivors, it’s been one of the longest years. The quake swallowed their houses, shattered their livelihoods, and a year later, they’re still struggling to pick up the pieces.

It’s been 366 days since the 7.8-magnitude earthquake shattered parts of Nepal, including the capital Kathmandu. It was 11:56 a.m. when the ground shook – it was first a thud and then a thunderous roar that echoed from beneath.

It was violent and lasted almost a minute. It was so violent that I couldn’t reach for the door. My heart pounded, legs trembled, and my thoughts froze. And when it stopped, my surroundings had changed in a matter of seconds.

The street outside my house had cracked, and though many of our houses survived the tremor, just a few meters away, a neighbor’s two-story house had collapsed entirely.

And just an hour later, as I clutched my notebook and ran uncomfortably in my flip-flops while still in shock, in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the city’s century-old palatial courtyard, I witnessed history was erased, almost. Several historic monuments and temples were levelled – and people were buried inside.

The chaos and the commotion in my hometown that day — and the powerful aftershock on May 12 — seemed as if a doomsday prediction had finally come true.

While Kathmandu and its surrounding areas, including Bhaktapur, Sankhu, Bungmati and Harisiddhi, suffered incomprehensible damage, tiny hamlets outside the city were entirely hammered.

In Sindhupalchowk, the district with the highest casualties, I witnessed death, destruction and despair. The scale of the seismic shift was devastating.

“There are no houses left in my village,” Sujan, one of the waiters who worked at my friend’s restaurant, told me hours after the earthquake, as he was making desperate phone calls to his family members in Sindhupalchowk.

Upon visiting the district five days later, I could see what Sujan meant: settlements in Sindhupalchowk were obliterated.  Schools, hospitals, and houses were smashed by the quake.

This is where I met Uddhav. The 28-year-old was trying to see a doctor in a makeshift medical camp in the district headquarters of Chautara on a sweltering May afternoon.

The drive to his small village through a snaking dirt road was striking – it was a stark paradox between nature’s beauty versus the power of its devastation.

The view of the snow-capped Himalayas, rolling hills and gushing rivers was eclipsed by flattened villages and collapsed homes. Uddhav’s village was one of them.

Sitting on his hard bed with no mattress, under a temporary tent house, he told his story without  any visible emotions.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said, his eyes fixated on the ground.

The earthquake not only injured him but also killed his wife and two children. His two-story house was now nothing but a mountain of rubble.

“I need to be strong – I can’t show my tears to my mother,” he said, as his grieving mother sat beside him and wept profusely.

It had been more than a week after the quake when I visited Sindhupalchowk, and survivors like Uddhav were desperately looking for help – water, food, tarpaulin sheets, tents. Anything.

And while local and international non-profits, and most importantly, volunteers from communities across Nepal mobilized to deliver assistance, the government was slow to react. The red tape made humanitarian assistance entangled in bureaucratic web with little sense of urgency.

“It seems like we are invisible,” Laxmi Gole told me last year. She was infuriated and were among the locals blocking part of the road in Sindhupalchowk that led to the district headquarters in Chautara.

It’s been a year and many earthquake survivors still haven’t received much from the state.  Thousands of people like Uddhav have given up hope that the government or the representatives they elected and sent to Kathmandu would act on their behalf.

Most survivors still live in temporary shelters where they braved the monsoon rains, frigid winter and the stormy spring early this year. They feel ignored by the government.

A US$4.1 billion pledge by the international community has more or less turned into a fairytale fantasy. The country’s National Reconstruction Authority, responsible to lead the reconstruction efforts, was buried in a bureaucratic dillydally and was dormant until a few months ago. The Prime Minister Disaster Fund Relief, along with local and international aid organizations, raised millions of dollars in the aftermath of the quake, but the ones who need it the most seem to be entirely out of the equation. Alhough the survivors whose houses were destroyed were to receive Rs. 200,000 from the state, it was not until last week that they received Rs. 50,000 as the first installment – that too, only 641 of the thousands of survivors.

The promulgation of the new constitution in September was seen as an answer to many of Nepal’s problems but it further plunged the country into crisis. And as much as the government hailed the controversial constitution as inclusive, many ethnic groups and women felt alienated. As a result, the southern plains burned, unsatisfied India imposed an economic blockade — it denies the accusations though — and the country’s ailing economy slumped further while the government watched from a distance, indulging in inconclusive talks with the agitating parties and failing to address the issue.

At least 55 people, including civilians and security personnel, died between August and September – it was believed to be the most violent protests since the end of the bloody Maoist conflict a decade ago.

Up in the hills, as winter approached, people were dying, too. By late December, at least 22 people had died. They were able to survive the seismic shake but succumbed to the state’s apathy.

Come spring, the situation has not changed much.

Far from home, as I sit to read an avalanche of articles, many reporters have picked up stories where they left a year ago. And even amid the most encouraging stories, there was agony.

Al Jazeera’s 101 East team — I was a part of last year’s film — also revisited Uddhav and his village. And though there were signs of early progress, life was perilous for many.

Hundreds of men like Uddhav, who already had debt since before the quake days, have taken out additional loans and are now drowned in debt. Many are considering going to the Middle East or Malaysia for foreign employment despite the risks. Almost 1,500 Nepalis leave for foreign employment every day to feed their families back home, and while many return with considerable sum of money and stories of hardship in a foreign land, the unfortunate ones come back in coffins.

And yet, they are determined to leave – just like Uddhav, who told me while visiting Kathmandu months after the quake, that given a chance, he would leave despite his injuries.

Uddhav’s story is indicative of the government’s lethargic reaction to cope with the country’s biggest natural disaster since the 1934 earthquake.

“There’s nothing left,” Uddhav told me.

After what seemed to be the longest year for many survivors, they still have nothing left but hollow promises from the state.

And as leaders release balloons and light candles in Kathmandu to remember the dead at the first year anniversary of the quake that killed nearly 9,000 people, they seem to be less concerned about the living.

Those balloons will deflate and the candles burn out, and no one will remember what the leaders did to mark the earthquake anniversary. But people will never forget that they were forgotten when they needed their government the most.

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Pyongyang Marathon … It’s a thing

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has recently grabbed global headlines – from hydrogen bomb tests to recently declaring it had “invented” hangover-free alcohol.

Now the country is promoting an international event, inviting foreigners to run across the capital Pyongyang on April 10.

This is only the third year that DPRK has allowed foreign nationals to participate in the marathon. Last year, though it initially banned foreigners from running the marathon because of the Ebola scare, they later relaxed the ban.

Chas Pope, who ran the Pyongyang Marathon last year, described it as a “fascinating experience.”

For Pope, who works at Arup — a British engineering and design consultant firm in Beijing — the marathon was also an opportunity to see the country through a different lens.

“When you go to North Korea, you’re always with a guide,” Pope said. “But this was a chance to see the city – and run – on your own across the capital.”

Comparing this to his first visit in 2012, he said there was a “slight change” in the capital.

“A lot of people were taking photos on their mobile phones as we ran,” he said, describing the marathon scene and referring to a growing number of cellphone users in the country.

In a bid to boost its economy that has been hit hard by international sanctions, DPRK has established 20 special economic zones allowing foreign firms to invest. Companies like Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, one of the largest investors in the country, has opened up communication links to 3 million people. In late December, DPRK also opened a new tourism zone across the Chinese border in Sinuiju, targeting more tourists from the mainland.

Currently, about 100,000 tourists visit the country. However, it has set a target to welcome one million visitors by 2017 and wants to double that figure by 2020.

DPRK’s tourism is dominated by Chinese tourists. However, the marathons are more popular with non-Chinese, said Simon Cockerell, a general manager of Koryo Tours that has been organizing trips to the country since 1993.

“It’s a kind of place which is a great paradox,” Cockerell said. “Everyone knows so much about it and yet so little. So if you want to scratch the surface, understand the country, taking this trip is perfect, whether you run or not.”

As with all tours to DPRK, participants for the marathon also need to sign up through an authorized travel agency. China-based Koryo Tours, the marathon’s official travel partner, is offering tour packages starting from 900 euros (983 US dollars). Other agencies as Young Pioneer Tours and Uri Tours are also providing marathon packages.

Pyongyang Marathon started as a men’s marathon in 1981 to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader after its formation and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un. He allowed women to participate in the marathon in 1984. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, it opened to foreigners in 2014 and now participants can run full, half and a 10 kilometer marathon along the 10 kilometer loop of the city.

Cockerell from Koryo Tours said about 1,000 foreigners — up from 200 and 600 in the last two years — are expected to run in Pyongyang this year.

Cameron Petie, a 37-year-old Australian teacher in Beijing, is one of them.

A sports and travel enthusiast, Petie said the marathon will provide a “unique opportunity” to combine two of his passions.

“North Korea was on my radar for a while,” Petie, who has ran six other marathons, said. “The marathon gave me an extra boost to travel.”

And for past runners like Pope, Pyongyang has been an important milestone in their travel and marathon history.

He remembers the enthusiastic bystanders cheering, running through Pyongyang’s landmarks and quiet streets – as compared to Beijing – and being greeted by a gigantic roar as he entered the Kim Il Sung stadium where the race begins and ends.

“I thought 50,000 people were cheering for me,” Pope said. “But they were waiting for the football game to begin after the match. I also got my personal best time in Pyongyang.”

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India’s first transgender band strive for success

India has a tradition of hijras, male-to-female transgender individuals, dating back thousands of years. They are often seen singing and dancing during important rituals and spotted at traffic signals across metropolitan cities.  Now, a group of transgender women are changing the dynamic – they’re taking their music mainstream, becoming India’s first transgender band.

Enter 6 Pack band.

Their first single is a cover of American singer Pharell’s 2013 hit “Happy” – band members Fida Khan, Asha Jagtap, Komal Jagtap, Raveena Jagtap, Bhavika Patil and Chandni Surarnakar burst into a mix of English and Hindi lyric, clapping and dancing to a blend of western and Indian instruments. The band is the brainchild of Y-Films, the youth arm of one of India’s oldest production houses Yash Raj Films.

“I’m feeling as if I’m on top of the world,” Khan said in a phone interview from Mumbai where the band is based. “‘Happy’ is our first single and we are extremely happy and excited singing this song.”

The video of their song, which is titled “Hum Hain Happy,” which means “We are Happy” in Hindi, has already received more than one million views on YouTube in less than 48 hours after its release. The three-minute music video encapsulates the energy and vibrancy of the hijras that “are a community almost in exile.”

“The third gender:  ignored by most, tolerated by some, misunderstood by all,” the video’s narrator describes the community.

Despite pivotal roles in Hindu mythology and culture, and the government recognizing them as third gender citizens, the hijras are often stigmatized and discriminated in society. Though visible, their presence is often less valued and is limited to singing and dancing during rituals – it is believed that it is auspicious to get their blessings.

Shameer Tandon, the project’s curator, said the band wants to break the stereotypical identity associated with the hijra community.

“We have been fighting for their rights and recognition, but many people don’t relate to that,” Tandon said. “So we’re using music as a robust medium to sandwich a message in a subliminal manner that touches people’s heart. So they’ll respect them without any impositions. We want this wall to break. We want their songs to not just transcend geographical boundaries but also gender bias.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Assembling a band from more than 200 participants over almost nine months, according to Tandon, was “a roller-coaster ride.”

However, for the 6 Pack band members, their debut single marks what they hope to be an end to their turbulent pasts and a start of a new chapter. Khan said it gives them an opportunity to overcome challenges they face on a daily basis.

While their first single has gave them instant stardom, at least on the Internet, they said the second song from the album with popular singer Sonu Nigam, which will release on January 26, will help them reach out to the mass audience.

Komal, one of the six band members, said the band and its songs will allow people to look at the hijra community through a different lens.

“This should help change people’s perspectives about hijras,” she said. “We are equally talented and can reach great heights being a transgender band. We demand and deserve equality and respect.”

 

 

 

Nepal’s Integrity Idol

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At a time when Nepal’s political leaders are throwing chairs and vandalising parliament property, and people disregard civil servants, one man has won the reputation as the country’s first Integrity Idol.

Gyan Mani Nepal, a district education official from the eastern district of Panchthar, didn’t have to woo people by singing or dancing to win public votes. But his honesty and commitment to reform his district’s education sector made him a winner.

“I haven’t done anything different, I’ve just done things differently,” Nepal said in a speech after he was declared the winner.

Nepal gained the maximum number of votes and was chosen among 303 nominees.

Here’s my story. 

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In Antwerp, coming close to art and culture

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The afternoon drizzle had deserted the square in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. For a moment I was the lone tourist gazing at the magnificent 14th Century church, struck by its intricate art and architectural details, inside and out. But then a group of middle-aged Japanese tourists came with their colourful umbrellas and compact digital cameras. They huddled over an area in front of the gigantic structure and started taking photos – not of the Roman Catholic church listed in the World Heritage Site but of a small plank in front it.

I later find that the dramatic climax of the book A Dog of Flanders by British-French writer Marie-Louise de la Ramée, hugely popular in Japan, is set in this premise. The tale of Nello and his dog Patrasche draws hundreds of fans to this city, an Antwerp native told me.

While the pathos of a bestselling book’s plotline attracts many visitors, this Flanders city, also Belgium’s second largest, still lags behind the Belgian capital Brussels by miles considering that it is only about 45 minute train ride from the capital. But I would have never visited this port town too if it weren’t for my friend, Ian, who told me that his city will not disappoint, and in less than 36 hours that I had, I would like the city, if not fall in love with it.

It was already dark when my bus reached its destination in Plantinkai— it was a seven-hour comfortable bus ride from London— and it was freezing. But my friend insisted that I should see what he called “the heart and soul” of the city.

I shivered staring at the long stretch of the Scheldt River with lights reflecting on Europe’s second busiest port after Rotterdam, Netherlands. This port holds significant economic value for the city and also the region, which prompted French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to build Antwerp’s first dock.

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The next day, I returned to the dock – it reminded me of a seaside pier in the US but without the Ferris wheel and a noisy amusement park. I liked the calmness. There I sat munching on frites, or Belgian fries with some spicy sauce, listening to the ship horns at a distant and admiring the crimson sunset from a wooden bench overlooking the river. On the other side was a stunning view of Antwerp’s old quarter, including the towering Cathedral.

The previous evening, Ian had whizzed me on a whirlwind tour though the town centre. In less than an hour, through narrow cobbled streets and some dark alleys, he guided me though his city’s churches, squares and streets narrating bits and pieces of their history. The next day I would be on my own.

I had a rough sketch of the city from that quick, guided tour along with some mental notes. My task, as it seemed, was to find all these places of interest in the daytime. Without a map, venturing into the unknown, following Dutch signs that sounded vaguely familiar, I explored the city. I found myself astray in the alleyways while bumping into beautiful courtyards and buildings that line up the streets.

The starting point to my sightseeing was the magnificent Antwerp Central train station, aptly known as the Railway Cathedral. Built between 1895 and 1905, the architectural design and details are awe-inspiring; it’s a classic mix between the traditional stone exterior with a dome— it could be mistaken for a church— and a futuristic iron and glass panel in the waiting area inside the main terminal. Compared to the other historic stations I’ve visited, including the ones in London, New York, Moscow and Mumbai, I was glad to pause and ponder the grandeur of Antwerp Central without being rammed by a sea of commuters.

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Just out of the station and without realising I was at Diamantkwartier, the city’s Diamond District, navigating through Pelikaanstraat to Hovenierstraat. Though the streets aren’t dazzled as Dubai’s Gold Souk, don’t get undermined by this 550-year-old marketplace with an estimated $54 billion annual turnover. As I peeked
through the glass windows and admired the sparkling diamonds and their “cuts” — though I have no knowledge of that whatsoever — I smirked with the thought that I don’t have to invest in one of those shiny stones anytime soon, not for now at least.

About 45 minutes from here, meandering the bike-friendly city, I walked down a narrow cobbled street that opened to the courtyard of St. Charles Borromeo. This grand architectural masterpiece is modelled after the Jesuit’s’ church in Rome festooned with the works of Antwerp’s much-revered painter Pieter Paul Rubens.

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Rubens’s self-designed house and studio from the 17th Century is now the Rubenshuis Museum at the Wapper Square, and his statue stands tall minutes away at the Groenplaats, a square with a cluster of outdoor cafes and restaurants in proximity to the Cathedral of Our Lady.

Another popular square nearby, and one of my favourites, is the Grote Markt. In the centre of this Square is the fountain with the 1887 statue of Brabo, hurling a piece of a cut hand; he is a heroic figure and locals talk passionately about his story.

According to folklore, a giant named Antigoon collected money from people crossing the bridge over the Scheldt and cut their hands when they failed to pay. So when Brabo killed the demon, he did the same – he cut his hand and threw it away. This is how the city’s name was derived: Antwerp, meaning throwing of the hand. A stone replica of the hand is on The Meir, Antwerp’s fashion and shopping conclave, akin to Oxford Circus in London but less crowded.

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Standing in the Grote Markt amid the centuries old elaborate gildenhuis, or guild houses, and the Renaissance Town Hall, the place could easily be characterised as a set from a classic period movie. It is however an immaculate slice of the bygone era that has been well preserved for countless generations to see.

On that limited time frame, I had crammed in everything that I could possibly see, at least Antwerp’s major attractions, all by foot though there are trams and buses that run frequently. And in between, I didn’t miss out on stuffing myself with Belgian waffles and chocolates. And sometime during the day, I also managed to take a stroll around Antwerp’s Chinatown, a short stretch of street with restaurants, supermarkets and nail salons; it is apparently the only one in Belgium. With a large number of multi-ethnic population – Jewish, Indians and Moroccans – the city is also considered as a melting pot of cultures and cuisines.

When the daylight diminished, which is quite early this time of the year (around 4:30pm), it was certainly time to taste some of the best Belgian beers. The menus at the bars are elaborate and it was impossible to try a lot of them looking at the alcohol content – some were as high as 18 percent. So I settled over a glass of Winterbok, a strong dark beer, as I detailed my day to Ian.

“You’ve seen more than what I had expected,” he told me. “I hope you liked it.”

And in that short period, I not only liked the city, as he had claimed, but also started to fall in love. However, it was time for another city. But I know that my love affair with Antwerp is to be continued, preferably some time summertime.

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City lights

There are countless hours of power cuts throughout the year. Evenings are usually dark and dismal. But then there is one night, the darkest of them all, when the city lights up. In that moment, we forget the darkness of the past and the numerable hours of load-shedding to follow in the coming days. We light the lamps, lit up the city and cherish the moment.

Let us enjoy the festival of lights. Let the lights reign over darkness. Happy Tihar.

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Ani Choying Drolma: The superstar nun

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I first heard Ani Choying Drolma in 2004 — her song “Phool Ko Ankhama” had become viral of some sort. It was everywhere — on TV, radio and playing across the CD stores in New Road. It seemed like almost everyone was addicted to that song. Its simple lyric and haunting melody soothingly introduced us to a Buddhist nun, an unlikely music star among the likes of Nabin K. Bhattarai, Girish-Pranil and Kunti Moktan whose songs lingered on the music charts.

In 2005, I was leaving for the United States for higher education. I packed a lot of things which I thought would remind me of Nepal in a foreign country. And I also packed Ani Choying Drolma’s super-hit album Moments of Bliss. I’m not sure why I thought her music would remind me of home — maybe I packed it because I liked her songs.

But in that lonely two-bedroom apartment in the US when I played her songs, they really reminded me, in a very strange way, of being somewhere close to home. I cannot say exactly how, but it did: maybe it was just listening to those words or the music and chants that often echoed along the streets of Thamel and Boudha.

Exactly 10 years later since I first heard her, thanks to my profession, I had a chance of interviewing her. There she was in her apartment, profusely apologising to me for being late as soon as she entered. She said she was taking guitar lessons and that kept her occupied in the mornings.

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As she made herself comfortable, we started chatting. Since we weren’t under a time constraint, I was at ease while talking to her. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous initially but as we chatted, there were bursts of laughter and moments of silence. In the two-hour timeframe, we covered a lot of topics — from her tormented childhood to music to her admiration for music, movies and food. And becoming a star, being branded as a ‘rock star nun.’

But then and there, she didn’t behave like one. Even in that formal setting, we chatted casually.

“You’re just like anyone,” I said when we were discussing about how people perceive about her and the notions of being a super star nun.

“Oh, thank you,” she laughed. “Thank god you think I’m a normal person – I am just like you and everyone else.”

Here’s my profile on Ani Choying Drolma for the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

VIDEO: Ani Choying Drolma on how she became a singer

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