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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.”





In Antwerp, coming close to art and culture

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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The street that leads to Pashupati

Pashupatinath temple

This piece was published in the Nepali Times as a part of Galli Salliharuma project.

“Galli Salliharuma is a public writing project that archives personal stories to build a walking-breathing map of Kathmandu as marked and narrated by its inhabitants and visitors. The project is an exercise at encountering and engaging with ideas of place, memory and belonging.”

Here I sketch, through words, and try to navigate and narrate the street that once led to Pashupatinath temple:

THERE WAS A TIME when the temple bells from Pashupati pierced through the windows of our old Newari house. Every morning, during winter recess, this sound was a call to go for a walk with my grandfather. Through the thick fog, all bundled up, I grabbed Baa’s wrinkled hand and followed him briskly through the stone-paved alleyways of Deopatan to the Pashupatinath temple.

Every day, my eyes met with the same string of ancestral Newari houses, familiar faces peeking through windows, and even more familiar smiles greeting us from the doors. Then there were small shops with wooden shutters; the busiest in the lot was Ganga Ram’s halwai pasal, distinctly famous for its halwa-swari combo.

When we reached Ganga Ram’s shop, we took the right instead of going through the packed street that led to the main temple. There were two reasons why I always dragged my old man that way. My favorite stationery shop was at the end of this lane, and I secretly took joy in shoplifting the smallest of things, like those fifty paisa filmy postcards. The second reason was to follow the road past the flower shops to the banks of the Bagmati to sail my paper boats. My little brain found both these activities adventurous. Especially the thrill of seeing my paper boats sail successfully, and then disappear into the river through the morning mist.

Times have changed and the hand that led me through these alleyways is not here anymore. The chain of old houses has now crumbled, and the shops have moved. This old place has a new character but little charm, including the river where I once sailed my paper boats. It now smells of sewage.

But I’ve kept these streets intact in my mind, the routes are mapped out in my memory. And today, in all its unfamiliarity, I can still see those shops, smell those sweets and sense the thrill in those boats sailing away. But when I open my eyes in the mornings, it’s usually to the punctuating sounds of vehicles and not the temple bells.

Happy faces

I took this photo while on an assignment at the Buddha Secondary School in Lele, about 45 minutes outside Kathmandu.

Entering the school was like traveling back in time — a memory lane of those primary school days. When I peeked into this third grade, the students started to laugh and giggle. After seeing a camera in my hand, they started posing.

But a bunch of girls in the front row kept laughing non stop. I asked them why they were laughing but then they started laughing even more. I couldn’t stop but capture this moment.




Namuna Ghar or Model House in Bhakpapur won UNESCO’s Heritage Award for exemplifying the traditional architecture.

Kathmandu is a clash between cultures — amid an emerging metropolis, it’s a city that still retains its heritage.

Thousands of stone sculptures that are revered as religious idols scatter along the city’s narrow streets and congested lanes.

Century-old houses, though in dilapidated form, still line up old neighborhoods as a tribute to the city’s past; they’re still a photographer’s delight.

The grandeur of the palace courtyards and the temples that are dotted along the city are still incomparable to its modern concrete counterparts — they rise like the towering Himalayas often obscured by the clouds, an absolute delight when one makes a visual contact.

A de tour from the tangible constructs of the yesterdays, Kathmandu also retains some of the after taste of the flower power days: In the hippie haven of Freak Street, limited sights of wannabe hippies and bare feet backpackers wandering the stone paved alleys and the faint smell of marijuana in the air is a slight reminder of what Kathmandu was once remembered for.

But as rapid modernization is sweeping this city, it’s face is swiftly changing. However, there are also ongoing efforts to restore its past in bits and pieces — In this 21st Century Kathmandu clouded with a majority of borrowed decor, if we dig in a little, it isn’t really difficult to find something that we call our own.

Here are two stories I did lately that incorporates this theme.

Nepali museum to honour stolen art of nation (South China Morning Post)

Quest to revive Kathmandu’s architectural history (The National)

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I survived 2012


Until a few days ago, the world was almost ending. But now, with only eight more days to go, the year 2012 is living its last days. And here I am trying to sum up my 2012 – it’s been some sort of blogging tradition for me where I just sit down and reflect on my year.

In 2009, I wrote a blog post from Delhi airport: It was a big year for me. I had graduated from college, secured my dream internship and moving home to Nepal.

The came 2010: The year was a big career booster for me. I was finally able to translate my visions into action. That year I wrote about how accomplished I felt after having working for the first time in my life.

And it was 2011: It was a year where I was in transition. Here I was a student again, learning and living a freelance life. In a personal post, I wrote about looking forward to 2012.

And here it was (still is), 2012, presumably the last year until a few days ago – some thought the Mayan calendar predicted that the world would end on Dec. 21,  2012.

But, like everyone else, I survived, and here’s my short survival story.

I survived school: I survived those countless hours and sleepless nights in front of the computer, trying to get the HTML codes right. I lived up to those deadly deadlines, and also datelines.

I survived the London Olympics: I’m using the word survive here because there was some sort of hysteria that the city would not function with the influx of millions of people. But as a matter of fact, those two weeks were the best – it was one of the greatest times to be in London and soak up the Olympic spirit (here’s my post).

I survived Russia: Though being in a country where cold stares from people in the metro and the streets seemed like a friendly gesture, and any form of verbal communication was next to nil, in hindsight it was a great experience. Living and learning in the monumental Moscow State University, revisiting the Soviet parks, reporting on the emerging protest music scene and being confined because of the neo-Nazi scare have to be the highlights. Oh, not to forget the rumors of the nuclear explosion that turned the Moscow sky green, which only turned out to be a seasonal spring thing. (Here’s a list of my posts from Russia.)

I survived unemployment: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this year is that I must create opportunities for myself. And that’s what I did – I lived the freelance life. And even though I didn’t have a job, I was doing all that I have ever wanted to do in life.

If anything this year has taught me is to survive and continue doing what I love and want to do regardless of all the obstacles. It has forced me to accept challenges and prove myself wrong – that I can do things that I thought I wouldn’t have otherwise. 2012 has brought me a year closer to living my dreams to the fullest, accomplishing my goals I germinated years back when no one, including myself, didn’t believe that actually one day, it would come true.

With the year rapidly coming to a close, 2013 only looks brighter as I’m predicting my own future. For now, I have another dream internship. I’m moving back to Nepal, again. And I’m sure that I will translate my 2012 life and learning into something substantial.

At this point, I’m just happy that I’m still living, and the world just didn’t end.

For me, my world would end when I stop striving for my dreams and submit myself to the misery of making unsettling compromises.

But that day is not even close. So I’ll keep living.

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Notes from Nepal: Update

I’ve been missing from this space.And within the time I’ve been missing, so much has changed: from Nepal’s politics to my work-in-progress project to my personal life.

It’s been a rough time: running around for interviews, then transcribing, translating, and finally writing something. But being a “multimedia reporter” means the work doesn’t end here. There are photos to sort out, audio files to edit and then put them together, and yes, think of some coding on how to present the story or stories I have.

Here, for my graduate school’s final project, I am the reporter, photographer, videographer, producer, editor …yes, give me more roles please.

Sometimes it’s really draining. When I am taking notes, I suddenly realize that I missed a photo opportunity. When I am taking photos, and my source is speaking, sometimes I’m like, “Damn, that was a good soundbite.” So while I am focusing on one medium, I fear of letting go the other.

It’s been a challenge. But it’s been a learning process: being a one-man band. It’s difficult but not impossible.

Now that I have all my editorial content ready, I’m trying to put them together on the web.

And amid all the adventure, I was in a car wreck this week. Nothing serious, but it has only pressurized my body and mind more. But I think all this pressure and stress is going to be worth it.

In about two weeks, I will have the entire project online. Preview coming soon.


Mother’s Day

During kindergarten and primary school years, when everyone else made cards for mother’s day, I just doodled or made a card for my dad instead.

My mother died when I was just about four. My memories of her are limited to the photographs hung on my wall.

During Mother’s Day, when most people are reflecting on the relationships with their mothers, I am often thinking about what it means to be in that relationship—what it means to have a mother.

Sometimes when my eyes tend to make contact with that photograph/s, it’s really weird. I’m looking at a tall, slender figure, who is my mother.

In photographs before her wedding, I see her stylish side.  In her wedding photos, she looks beautiful. In her photos where she holds a two-year-old me during my birthday, I can feel the warmth and love.

But every time I look at these photos, it’s very weird. Though she is my mother, I really don’t know her. She is still a stranger to me.

Back to reality, when I look around, my cousins and friends bonding, arguing and even fighting with their moms, I just to myself, “Well, this is what it must feel like.”

To be honest, I’m not sad, or ever felt sorry, for not having a mother. Maybe it’s because I never knew her, I never got to know what it feels to be with one. So you can’t really miss what you never had, right?

But deep down, I still think, and sometimes it really bugs me trying to think what it means to have this mother-son relationship.

While I have missed out on this amazing relationship, I have gained motherly love from my grandmother and my aunts. They’re my mother-like figures.

All these years, I’ve celebrated Mother’s Day with them. Though there is always a sense of that “someone” missing, someone for whom the day is dedicated to, it’s good to be amid so many others who I know wouldn’t hesitate adopting me and being my mother.

So I take this opportunity to thank them all. And to all the loving mothers, happy Mother’s Day.

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A globalised classroom

Here I am in the UK, and I thought that I’d have an English experience. But instead I’m having an extraordinary multicultural experience. I’m amid a group of classmates from more than 25 countries–learning, sharing and being a part of a gloablised classroom.

The nationalities are diverse as it could get. If you bring in a kid from primary school, my class could be a good place to get their geography right. Let me give you a tour and list some, if not all, of the countries that the j-class represents:  the United State, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Somalia, Romania, Russia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, and India and China, of course. Oh, sorry, I forgot my classmates from the UK, who are a minority in the class of 40 plus.

With a diverse and an international background, I think most of us bring in a new cultural experience to the class. Every day we talk, and though we all communicate in English, it’s a combination of different accents echoing through the class and hallways. But inquisitive and curious minds in the multicultural classroom, we don’t limit ourselves to English. I’ve tried to learn some Spanish, a tiny bit of Italian and a little Korean.

Stereotyping and debunking them is another fun part of being in such a diverse class from all around the globe. Sometimes a lot of stereotypes are true. The hand gesture of the Italians, the loudness of the Americans and then the famous peace sign that the Koreans love, well, I am not going to say that they’re just stereotypes. And though we make fun of them all, we appreciate them as well.

As we sit, walk, talk, there is always an international angle to everything–news, views, ideas, food, drinks…

Three months into the course and I feel that I’m not doing the coursework required but also having a chance to learn multiculturalism 101. By the time I leave, I’ll certainly have more knowledge about the world and definitely I’ll have friends in every continent. But for now, we’re a class that represents a globalised world.


And it’s only sound…

Sometimes I just love the sound of silence because there’s a story in it, a story that I can visualise.

Other times, it’s the power of words, the voice behind that radio or the microphone that truly brings the story alive.

Today, as we all sat in our radio class listening to one of the interviews from our classmates, the power of words conquered my mind. The story of a woman from Sierra Leone forced into domestic sex slavery in the UK was compelling enough.

During the four-minute long minute, the woman shares her life story. Her being forced into sex in the UK, the violence back home and the instance when she was made to dance as rebels killed her father in front of her.

You don’t need a video to see this. It would have been too brutal. But it was her sound that was telling me the story. She made me travel all the way from Sierra Leone to the UK. She made me, and presumably most of my classmates, connect to her emotions, or there wouldn’t have been some teary eyes in the class.

It’s amazing how I though video was powerful. Seeing is believing. But sometimes audio is more compelling; just listening to that story in pin drop silence and then being transported along with that voice—it’s an amazing experience.

It’s just like when I was a child—listening to one of my aunts or grandmother telling me folklore or a story. It’s through their voice that I created a story on my mind and visualised it.

The power of words is just unbeatable.

And as I sit in my room, in front of the computer, writing this blog, I’m listening to the amazing sounds of some great musicians. And I prefer listening to them than watching them play on TV. The joy of listening is different.

So they say that video killed the radio star. But I think the radio star was never dead.

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