Illness and Delusion

During our last day in Amritsar, all of us fell violently ill. Below is an excerpt of what I typed into the notes of my phone. It details the severity of our situation throughout that night.

And who knew that crisis would strike at 3am. In a stroke of instinct, I arise from the bed, shivering from the vestiges of a fever. I feel warm blood start to return to my extremities, whereas the past three hours have been torturously cold, even under a quilt. In my five times in India, I have never once had food poisoning. But tonight was a test of mettle for all of us.

I find Chelsea curled up on the sofa area, complaining of numbness and cold. My fever had struck earlier in the night, and this was Chelsea’s turn. Draping a blanket over her, I tell her to think of her loved ones hugging her to warm her up. Tonight, I hid my panic to make sure that no further alarms were triggered. The situation, as I was aware, was tense, and Joy was the only one amongst us free from this ordeal.

However, waking up to each movement, sniffle, panic, and shiver is hardly comforting. And as I could sense it, Joy too, was already being stretched — trying to care for two sick adults is hardly a task for someone untrained and sleep deprived.

I type this note, just as I finish updating Annette. It’s 5.30am in Singapore. In my hasty texts I type:

“Hi Annette, myself and Chels are running a fever currently. We suspect it might be good poisoning. We’re monitoring our situation with Joy.

This is the most I can do now, and I’m staying awake to fight the stomach cramps that be. There is a burst of warmth with each sentence I type. And so I keep writing, until my stomach calls for the restroom again.

25th June 2019

Period. The End of a Sentence, and also a Human Experience. 

Periods and menstruation might strike most as a rather odd topic to write about. This is especially so because I am male, and therefore do not suffer from the worse of its effects — bleeding, painful cramps, and the like. I am thus not very well appraised of its first-hand effects. However, the travel fellowship has made me much more aware than about how periods and menstruation play into the daily lives of friends, and about he communities and societies that they inhabit. Indeed, much of this post was inspired by the experiences I’ve had while travelling with two ladies, both of whom were unabashed with regaling me with tales of their hardships. It is also inspired by the brilliant work we witnessed at EcoFemme — an NGO that not only produces and sells reusable sanitary pads to rural communities, but also addresses the stigma many of these women face in the face of traditional Indian society.

As perhaps hinted at before, travelling as a solo male is a prized convenience. I do not suffer from menstrual cramps as I try to walk kilometres on the streets, nor do I have to put up with bleeding as I navigate incredibly bumpy bike rides toward my accommodation. Each of my friends had suffered to an extent — longer or shorter, depending on the duration of their periods. These were real challenges that I neglected, before this trip, to think about. Yet, there was nothing much I could do to relieve their pain. Theirs was a private experience that I had no primary epistemic access to. I merely sympathised by continuing to chow down scoop after scoop of ice-cream, offering them a cup of tea or coffee, or perhaps the random hot towel ever awhile.

Missed scoops of ice-cream, or the pain of riding over pothole-ridden roads are hardly comparable to the stigma and discrimination that many rural Indian villagers face however. I write this after getting off a Skype call with my friend in Kerala, India. She complains about how she was unfairly chided by several village elders for going to the temple today — all because she was having her period. She goes on to tell me about the rather conservative, and even, misguided notion that periods are supposedly “dirty” and considered an illness by many of her village elders. Fortunately for her, she has a caring husband and mother-in-law who are not tolerant of such outdated notions. I recall their wedding rather fondly, about the time when she completed her polytechnic education.

However, her experience is a rarity. As the EcoFemme representative shares, periods are still hardly understood by many women in rural communities in India. Thus, many of their initiatives as an NGO revolve around volunteers travelling to such villages to educate the women about their bodies. These initiatives have a profound effect. Firstly, the women understand that menstruation is a perfectly natural phenomenon that is nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, they are better able to manage their periods. My friend shares stories of women who stopped going to school because their clothes would keep getting soaked. Having a sanitary pad would alleviate many of these issues, and help them continue with their education. The EcoFemme representative also shares how many of these women live around large communities of men, and were constantly shamed for having their periods. They would have to leave the village to simply find a private spot to change before returning. And this would happen multiple times a day. This both baffled, and shocked me.

Fortunately, EcoFemme has an army of volunteers from various states around India who constantly do such outreach programmes. These are trained volunteers of course. They only have to come down to Auroville or Pondicherry to attend a short two-day course. They are then dispatched to the villages to educate the women.

Aside from education, EcoFemme’s initiative also revolves around the production and distribution of reusable sanitary pads. Each of them is stuffed with layers of cotton. This helps women in rural communities better manage their period, but also cuts on the large amount of waste that would be generated if disposable sanitary pads were issued. Logistics also become a lot easier when one merely has to wash, rather than continuously buy sanitary pads where they are scarcely available. Even if they were, they might serve as being too prohibitively expensive for the allowances that they are given.

I thought that their most remarkable innovation was in the red, foldable style pads, designed to look surreptitious on a clothing line so as not to bring them embarrassment when they hung them to dry. I thought that this was an ingenious blend of industrial design combined with cultural norms and sensitivities.

EcoFemme is only one of the many NGOs that operate out of Auroville. I decided to write about EcoFemme because of their amazing work, but also because I realise how relevant many of these experiences are for friends that I know and love. My hope is that, even in Singapore, that talking about something as natural as one’s period ceases to be a stigma. Rather, it should be discussed in the same comfort as one would discuss a visit to the restroom — for periods are just natural bodily functions.

Of the Solo Traveller

I write this note in the immediacy of the events that have bright me tremendous stress in New Delhi. However, because I do not want to drag a downtrodden morale further, I suspect that I might post this much later when the fellowship has come to a close.

I’m somewhat of a vicarious traveller. Most times, I jet off on a whim to far out places alone, content with a tin roof above my head and a little shrub to do my business in. In the imagination of most people, this is an unbearable condition to live in whilst overseas. Yet, this is the small modicum of comfort I expect when I travel. It has served me well.

Perhaps then, I least expected the capital, the city of New Delhi, to be the source of many of our problems during this Fellowship. Over the past two days in Auroville, I had witnessed Chelsea and Joy’s faces dip into a sort of saddened state. Perhaps, they were in physical pain, or were facing troubles of their own, or that they were perhaps already homesick. These were not things I had expected or anticipated. It would seem encouraging them to share and communicate their discomfort did not help too, for the two ladies were more content to be silent out of fear of imposition.

And so when we had reached our accommodation at New Delhi, physical and mental conditions had beset both Chelsea and Joy with so much discomfort that when the air-conditioning had broken down in the sweltering 42°c night, their spirits just went into free-fall.

I hadn’t had much of a problem with the heat, for I was already about to fall asleep. Things were much more dire in the other partition of the room however, for the low morale was now exacerbated by pitch darkness and stuffy heat. At this point, even I was a little disheartened at hearing their sighs. The power had only come back on after 15 minutes, only to go off again in another 15. Seeing their resignation at the whole situation, I suspected that perhaps, a stay at a proper hotel would be perhaps best for everyone. After all, the three nights in Delhi were meant to be buffer days for us to rest before the second half of the fellowship in Chandigarh.

We still spent the night however in that Airbnb however. It was the next morning that we decided to leave the early and head toward a swanky airport hotel. Even so, it’s often rude to tell a host that their place has been less than welcoming in India. I was prepared to tell a white lie for the host was indeed quite sweet and helpful in his services thus far, but Joy was against the idea of telling lies at all. I admit I was rather conflicted by this. I was incredibly used to telling white lies to get myself out of situations where cultural needs necessitated them. In some cultures, this was even perhaps the norm. 

I realise that I might sound quite pompous and arrogant at this point: “oh how dare you accuse the two ladies of expecting more”. I assure you that these are misconceptions. For when we reached the hotel, I felt incredibly bad that I had not anticipated the sensitivities of my two travel partners.

Indeed, as a solo traveller, I am usually so wrapped up in my own expectations and minimal needs of travel and make-do. However, I realise now, travelling with two ladies whose experiences, and thus needs, are different, must and should be taken into account. Such has made me much more aware of the privilege I carry as a (single) male traveller (infer what you wish of that).

Sometimes, when even riding a bike can be a discomfort for others, one learns that simple things such as hot towels and frequent rests go a long way. One should of course, do much better to communicate these concerns with their trip partners in a timely fashion.

On Passports

One of the most important documents while embarking on a travel fellowship is the passport. Indeed, travelling anywhere in the modern age most definitely involves a passport. On this sleepless night, I investigate the history of the passport and its ramifications. 

Sitting on the corner of my table is the red, dog-eared pamphlet stamped with memories of exciting experiences abroad. I think of those who move through life without it — a barrier not only to travel, but to all forms of security. Indeed, I regard my passport as the most important piece of paper I ever own. It bears the mark of my citizenship on its cover, and a biometric page with my stunted portrait on it. For such a small document, the passport is as complicated, fraught, and powerful an object as has ever existed.

I wax lyrical about the passport, but for many, including myself, the passport is mostly a booklet that reads like a diary — tucked away in our cupboards and hotel safes when not in use, or between the skin of our clothes as we roam the streets abroad. Flipping through the pages of my passport gives me a hit of nostalgia, each visa conjuring up vicarious memories of countries travelled, and the respective comfort zones transgressed. However, the inscription on the reverse of the particulars page betrays much more colourful history, and indeed, a larger purpose. It reads: “The President of the Republic of Singapore requests all authorities to allow the Singaporean citizen named in the passport to pass without delay or hinderance, and, if necessary, to give all assistance and protection.” On this sleepless night, I decided to do a little bit of digging into the document that drives travel, and indeed, this fellowship. 

The earliest use of the term passe-port I could find was of 15th Century French: meaning “to pass a sea port”. According to Craig Robertson’s The Passport in America: History of a Document Benjamin Franklin required an official looking document to send a congressman to Holland. Franklin, ever inventive, wrote out a passe-port in French, and voilà, the passport was born. Its historical and biblical antecedents might be of some interest too. In his book, Robertson cites an example from the book of Nehemiah from the Hebrew Bible of papers of having “letters … so that they may provide him safe conduct”.

Indeed, the earliest passports were not conceived to let people travel freely as we think of them today. They were conceived as a way of keeping people in — to account for people and to make sure that they did not wander into places that they were not supposed to go. This is the document that best indicates to the state that you’ve been avoiding military service or dodging the law. And in the years between WWI and WWII, the passport — thanks to an international bureaucracy — evolved from a standard sheet of paper folded into half twice for all governments to identify “the criminal, poor, insane, and to a lesser extent, immigrants”. One only has to pay attention to the myriad of insta-stories of passport-flaunting during our Week 7 LABs, to realise that the passports from across the world are standardised in size and form. It is no coincidence.

Within living memory, this quaint little red (or whatever colour yours is) booklet tucked into the pocket of your jeans has existed as the material summation of modernity’s most complex problems: the rise of the nation-state (and nationalism), international relations, and technological advances in policing and surveillance in a “social-media era”.

Of course, rather broadly, the passport is generally thought (by normal people) as something that confers the rights and privileges of citizenship upon its bearer, with permission to travel abroad and return under the nation’s protection”, and in doing so regulates the flow of human traffic, shoring up boundaries and creating new ones. My pessimism is perhaps only fuelled by the late-night whiskey and digging of library archives. After all, what bliss it is to live with the most (is it?) powerful passport in the world — the Singaporean passport.

What We Seek to Uncover

A brief description of our Travel Fellowship titled: Indian Utopianism in the Modern Age: Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Roger Anger’s Auroville.

Our travel fellowship will take us to multiple places in India, notably, Chennai, Auroville, Delhi, Chandigarh, and Amritsar. Our specific experiential inquiry will be focused on the ideals of utopia in Chandigarh and Auroville. To understand why we chose these two specific cities, one has to return to the history and etymology of utopia. 

Arguably, the term was coined by Thomas More in 1516 in his seminal book of the same name. Derived from Greek, the word is portentously ambiguous — its literal reading denoting “good place”, but its phonetic prefix “eû” denoting a no-place, or an impossibility. Throughout history then, our quest for utopia has been commonly linked with our innate desire as humans aspiring toward progress. Indeed, in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), Oscar Wilde writes that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country in which humanity is always landing … progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Borne out of the independence of a post-war India and the partition of Punjab, at the behest of then-Indian Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Le Corbusier — mostly known as an architect than an urban planner — sought to create a version of utopia based on his ideals of modernism on the plains of Punjab. Le Corbusier sought to build a utopian city centred around the vehicle — his ideal embodiment of human technological and intellectual progress. Of course, his ideals of modernist architecture also informed the style of state buildings and housing — themselves towering monuments of béton brut. For Corbusier, and arguably, the Indian government, the ideals of modernism in urban planning and architecture were quite literally, a way to build something positive out of the destruction of the war from the past decade. Thus, we want to ask if the city’s inhabitants have bought — and indeed, lived — into Le Corbusier’s idea of Utopia, 70 years after its conception.

In reaction to the crass worship of modernity in Corbusier’s Chandigarh, another city (a town actually) called Auroville was established by a figure called Mirra Alfassa — known to the townsfolk as “The Mother”. Planned by architect Roger Anger (himself a product of the architectural modernism movement), Auroville is ostensibly a socialist utopia, “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities […] to realise human unity”. Indeed, it’s a town without any central currency, operating an almost completely agrarian society which its inhabitants upkeep. Its ideals fly in the face of Chandigarh’s with its focus on individual autonomy, self-knowledge, and spiritual life — religious or otherwise — all while rejecting emotional and psychological dependence on technology. Whether the people living there have aspired to this ideal of a romanticised, almost socialist community in the past four decades, remains to be seen.

As indicated by the title of our Travel Fellowship, our project is not only about utopia. While the idea and questions of utopia will figure heavily into our inquiry (and is possibly even the frame of our inquiry), there are many other aspects of our project that should not be overlooked. For example, how religion of these cities are practiced and differ from one another are also worth looking into. Of particular interest is Amritsar, which also lies on the plains of Punjab, but has been indicated to us as a completely different city — at least in religious ideals — when compared to Chandigarh. The personal lives of the architects that planned these cities are also of immense interest to the architectural enthusiasts (for some, more than just enthusiasm) within us. Le Corbusier for example, is perhaps one of the most illustrious figures in architectural modernism, but is also marred by his ideas on race. Finally, India is a country that constantly seeks progress, as evidenced by its “Smart Cities Mission” and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). These, we figure, will also feature in our project as potential comparisons and ways forward in the conclusions that we might arrive at during our Travel Fellowship.

As I type this, I realise I risk portraying our Travel Fellowship as an academic endeavour. However, I must insist that we’ve never had such ambitions. Rather, what drove the undertaking of this Travel Fellowship was an immense interest in India, architecture, and urban planning as a whole. While I do not discount the possibility of this travel experience being explored further as an academic pursuit, our intention, at least for now, will be to explore what these cities in our own way by experiencing it through photography, word, and sound.