The plane was descending steadily. We were approaching an island. The sandy coastline and the hotels were now visible on the left. I was seated in the last row and luckily had the entire row to myself. The sand was white, and the waters of the Caribbean Sea were a deep turquoise blue. I was fascinated by the depth and translucence of the colours. A few boats and yachts were seen, cutting through the waters and we landed shortly.
Aruba, a small island located just off the coast of Venezuela is a part of the Netherlands. The island is a major destination for sun worshippers from North America. During the cold winter months, they do their surya namaskars (saluting the Sun exercise) in Aruba and other sunny places. The island is small at around 32 kilometres by 10 kilometres. The soil is sandy and there are no rivers. The island was considered useless by the Spaniards who termed it islas inutiles. The origin of the name Aruba is debated. The most accepted version is that the name may have been derived from Caquetio Indian, Oruba meaning well situated. The island is mostly flat and there are four main settlements. Oranjestad is the capital and the biggest city. San Nicholas is the entertainment hub, and Paradera and Santa Cruz are located more inland. Noord and Savaneta are the other settlements. The legal population is around 140, 000 though there may be several thousand undocumented immigrants.
Tourism has become a major source of revenue for the island like other islands and countries in the Caribbean. The island is well known in North America and the Netherlands and advertises itself as ‘One Happy Island’. During the pre-COVID days, the island used to receive nearly one million tourists yearly. Aruba is distant from South Asia; the most convenient connections are through Amsterdam and the United States (US). The island is well connected to the Eastern US and there is a US Immigration pre-clearance facility at the airport.
I was living in the capital, Oranjestad (orange city — named after the royal Dutch family, House of Orange),working at the Xavier University School of Medicine and my old friend from Nepal, Dr Dubey, was the Dean of Basic Sciences. I stayed near the school in a place called Paradijs.
Trade winds constantly blow across the island bringing down the temperature and keeping things tolerable. Walking in the housing colonies in Aruba can be a challenge. Most houses have aggressive dogs who seem to think their areas of influence extends right to the middle of the road. A house near mine had three dogs who always gave me a tough time.
Rains are not common in Aruba. Clouds gather but are blown away to the mainland of Latin America. Aruba is not built for rain. The streets flood and the college also used to get flooded after a downpour. I enjoyed walking along the seashore.
Once you leave the houses behind, the dogs are absent. A linear park runs from the airport to the cruise ship terminal. The path is paved with red stones and lined with divi-divi trees.
There is also exercise equipment installed at the surfside beach. The view of the sea is great and the sunsets on the island are spectacular. Divi-divi trees are common on the island and always point in a south-westerly direction due to the strong trade winds. Watching the planes land and take off at the airport is fascinating. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies the Airbus A330 which is the largest plane flying to the island.
The carnival is a major celebration in Aruba and started as a series of street celebrations in 1954. The month of February is full of different carnival events. I attended a night parade one year and the event was spectacular. The sun can be hot and this needs to be factored in while watching the parades in the daytime.
San Nicolas has an oil refinery and is the fun side of the island. It also has a more Caribbean feel, and the cost of living is lower than Oranjestad. The oil refinery was once the largest in the Western hemisphere and was the target of German U-boats during WW II. There is a beautiful beach (Baby Beach) near the refinery.
Aruba has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The Caribbean side facing Latin America has spectacular beaches and calm, turquoise waters. The Atlantic side is a different matter. The coast is rocky and splintered and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean crash with brute force.
There is a gold mine and a natural bridge on the north and a large windmill farm. Semi-domestic goats graze in the arid landscape. I liked going to the wild side and watching the brute force of nature. The Arikok National Park occupies nearly a third of the island and has the highest peak, Yamanota (about 250 m), and spectacular cacti. It also has a cunucu, a traditional Aruban house. A Cunucu has thick walls that are whitewashed with small windows to stay cool in the heat.
Rainwater is collected for daily use. Today the water needs are met by desalinating sea water. The plant is located near Savaneta on the highway to San Nicolas. Water and electricity supply is stable, and disruptions are rare.
Most people have cars while the blue Arubuses provide public transportation. The bus frequency is low. Hooiberg is a mountain that rises steeply from the surrounding plains and climbing to the top provides excellent views of Oranjestad, the harbour, and the surrounding countryside.
The area around Noord is the tourist heartland and the lemon-yellow California lighthouse is located here. The lighthouse is named after the steamship, California, which sank near these waters in 1891. The downtown area of Oranjestad has Wilhelmina Park, Fort Zoutman, and the Willem III tower. The fort was built in 1798 by African slaves. There is also a historical museum nearby providing an excellent overview of the island’s history and geology. The Alto Vista chapel has a spectacular view of the surroundings and was originally built in 1750 by the Spanish missionary, Domingo Antonio Silvestre.
Aruba may be the most Latinised of the Caribbean islands. There is also a strong Dutch influence. Dutch and Papiamento are widely spoken. Papiamento is a Portuguese-based creole language. English and Spanish are also widely understood.
Aruba grows high-quality aloe vera and Aruba Aloe founded in 1890 is the world’s oldest aloe factory. Aruba has plenty of beaches, Druif beach, Eagle beach, Palm beach, Malmok beach, and others. The island has invested in equipment to maintain the beaches. Turtles lay their eggs in the white sand and hatchlings clumsily move back to the ocean. The natural pool or conchi is located on the north side. Butterfly farm, Philips’s animal garden, and the Donkey sanctuary provide shelter to the fauna. You can volunteer at the donkey sanctuary. In Aruba, many families camp out on the beach during Easter. My landlord and his family used to camp on the surfside beach near the airport.
Aruba has high human development indicators. Healthcare is provided by the government through a corporation financed by taxes. Alcohol is widely consumed but I did not see drunken fights or disorderliness during my time on the island. Drivers need to be careful on Friday nights when parties get going. This arrow-shaped island with a variety of cultures and influences is geographically sheltered from the worst hurricanes with the balmy weather, caressing winds caressing, and inviting waters. The people are friendly. The moniker ‘One Happy Island’ may be well deserved!
Ravi Shankarrecommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world, including in the Everest region and the island of Aruba in the Caribbean
The Government Medical College, Thrissur, Kerala, India has a sprawling and densely wooded campus. The old TB sanatorium at Mulangunathukavu (quite a mouthful even for Malayalis) had been taken over and modified to establish a medical college. There were villages on the outskirts of the vast campus. My undergraduate medical education days at the sylvan campus introduced me to the joys of walking. There were several quiet spots, and you could easily get among nature. The campus was rocky in places and may not have been prime agricultural land. The place could reach 40 degrees Celsius during the peak of summer in April and May.
We occasionally walked to the tea stalls located in the villages and the walk along unpaved roads among blooming nature was interesting. The campus was much less crowded than it is today, and we enjoyed a relatively sheltered experience. Many of us eventually took to jogging in the early morning. Hitting the tarmac early before the activities of the day begin is a cleansing experience.
The Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), a premier health science institution in the city of Chandigarh, north India, hosts a number of attractive sites for walking. Chandigarh was the first planned city in the country and sector 12 where the institute is located is congested but just across the road, the vast expanses, and the green lawns of Punjab University were inviting. The city is spread out and expansive and offers good opportunities for walking. The rose garden and the rock garden are vast. The heat during summer can be a challenge but even at the peak of summer, Chandigarh is a bit cooler compared to the cities on the plains and lovely to explore on foot.
The lakeside city of Pokhara is situated in the middle of the Himalayan country of Nepal. The city and the surrounding hills offer plenty of opportunities for walking and hiking. I occasionally walked between the two campuses of the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS). We had to walk through the Prithvi Narayan (PN) campus and cross a suspension bridge across the milky Seti River. Rivers cut spectacular gorges through the soft limestone rocks in the valley. Later PN campus blocked access to outsiders and we had to take a longer way. There are also magnificent walks to Damside and Lakeside. The walk to the village of Batulechaur from the Deep Heights campus of MCOMS is also spectacular. The city is full of magnificent walks and hikes. Winter is the best time, and the views of the snow-covered Himalayas are spectacular.
Hiking in the hills of Nepal is a unique experience. Change is coming slowly to the hills. For city-born and bred folks stepping into the hills may mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone. It can often be a journey back in time to a simpler existence. The ascents and descents are long and steep. The trail can deteriorate very quickly, and landslides are common. New trails have been created and some have eventually become rough jeep friendly roads. The trail to Manang north of Pokhara is now blasted through solid rock. The trail passes very close to Annapurna II and in bad weather, the trail can seem threatening. Walking through the magical Manang valley provides you with a view of the back side of the Annapurnas. The flat trail is mostly easy but can get very dusty. The trail climbs steadily uphill and after Manang village climbs through barren hillsides.
Weather changes quickly in the mountains and can transform from bright and sunny to cloudy and snowy within an hour. Sunny weather elevates the mood while cloudy and snowy weather seems threatening. A trail with a risk of avalanches is the one to the Machapucchare base camp (MBC). The classical pyramidal fishtail (Machapucchare) seen from Pokhara is seen as two separate peaks from MBC. I had hiked to the base camp in March and saw avalanches coming down on the other side of the river.
In the Everest region, the hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Gorak Shep is a rocky one along the moraine of the Khumbu glacier. I had done this hike while I was staying at Lobuche for a high-altitude research project. The weather was cloudy and low-lying clouds soon closed in. It started snowing steadily and fresh powdery snow soon covered the rocky trails making walking slippery and difficult. The psychological effect of bad weather and the threatening silhouettes of the highest mountains on earth made me deeply uneasy.
The island nation of Aruba like most other parts of the world is becoming increasingly obese and overweight. Aruba created a network of walking paths to encourage physical activity. Aruba advertises itself as ‘One happy island’. I used to walk along the Caribbean coast from Wilhelmina Park to the airport. Rains are rare in Aruba and the paved trail is well maintained.
The Sun can be hot though the trade winds keep the temperature bearable. The plan is to extend the linear park from palm beach in the tourist area to the airport. Aruba has beautiful sandy beaches, and a lot of effort is expended on their maintenance and care. The Atlantic coast is less settled, and the waves crash against the rocky shoreline. There are excellent walks among the barren hills and along the old gold mine.
The city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia also has good walking paths. The Bukit Komanwel (Commonwealth hill) near my apartment has inviting walks. Due to the constant rains, the trail can be slippery in places, and caution is needed.
The city is green and the Perdana Botanical Garden in the heart of the city is well-maintained and has several walking trails. The pavements are usually maintained though due to the constant heavy rains they may be wet and covered with moss.
One of the most difficult cities for a walker in my opinion would be the city of Mumbai, India. It is crowded, the traffic is chaotic, and the pavements are blocked by hawkers, stalls, and parked vehicles, and most shop owners keep their goods on the pavements. The concept of the pavement as a protected area for pedestrians seems to be lacking. The pavements are often dug up and the perpetually ongoing metro railway projects ensure more than half of the road may be unusable. Most open areas and woodlands have long been converted into housing projects and/or slums. The situation has steadily deteriorated during the last four decades.
The modern age has several conveniences and labour-saving devices. With increasing prosperity most people now own cars. Families have multiple cars. Cars can be a double-edged sword in reference to health. I think cars are addictive and the convenience makes you take them everywhere. You end up waking less and less unless you properly plan and stick to your exercise routine. Studies now indicate that all steps taken by a person are useful and can add up over the course of a day. In Malaysia recently there have been several virtual races motivating people to accumulate steps over the course of a day and month. The university where I work has a corporate wellness program and several virtual races are held over the course of a year.
We are facing one of our biggest challenges in the form of climate change. A steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the industrial revolution has caused global temperatures to rise. Sea level rise, super hurricanes, extremely heavy and concentrated rainfall, forest fires, and scorching summers are all being experienced. We seem set for at least a two-degree celsius rise in global temperature and we are still learning the catastrophic changes this can bring. Walking results in insignificant carbon dioxide emissions and helps us do our bit to save the planet. We are only taking care of planet Earth for future generations as, currently, humanity does not have a planet B.
Though I am a teetotaller a good quote promoting walking may be the one provided by Johnnie Walker, the whisky distillery. After the shutdown due to the pandemic, they launched a new campaign to get the world moving again. Keep walking!
*All the photographs have been provided by Ravi Shankar.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.
Zohra Sehgal mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.
Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.
So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.
But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘ABiography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.
Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.
Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…
So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI.
Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.
It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…
‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”
All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!
Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”
When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.
Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.
With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.
On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…
When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara and Chandralekha; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.
Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.
Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.
Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed. Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”
However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.
When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.
But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.
Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan, writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.
Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor, to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.
Prithviraj, although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”
Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.
The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.
Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.
The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!
In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.
And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.
Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.
When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallasand hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”
Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.
Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”
As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”
Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?” People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.
However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.
Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?
In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.
The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.
All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist, revisits his trip across Asia, exploring the enormous biodiversity and conservation efforts.
An idea is born
Like all good adventures, it started in a pub.
I was attending a weekend workshop on service learning and how to implement service projects with students. One of the other participants, Jamie, had come into Kuala Lumpur from Japan. We’d partnered on a few of the activities during the day and hit it off immediately. I was eager to get to know him better so invited him out for a beer to show him around town. I always liked sharing local restaurants and watering holes with visitors and this time was no exception.
Jamie agreed and we visited a few trendy spots in Bukit Bintang, downtown Kuala Lumpur.
After a walking tour of a few famous walking streets, we hit the town for a bit of street food. As Fate would have it, we soon ended up sharing a couple of drinks at Little Havana, a cool hang out spot on the corner with live music and, pub grub and nice draught beers.
After a couple of drafts of Guinness Stout, I boldly announced to Jamie my intentions to leave classroom teaching and set out on an adventure. I was burnt out and needed a break.
Hiking across Malaysia was being floated around as an idea. Being from the USA, we have plenty of cross-country trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail that, in my youth, had inspired me as bucket list adventures I would aspire to complete someday.
Now was the time. I needed play time. I needed adventure time. I needed to explore and roam for a spell. Hiking across a rainforest didn’t seem as feasible since there really were no trans Malaysia trails to be found. Cycling was also tossed about as an idea. Cycling across Asia had been done before. It seemed a more achievable adventure.
Back in 2012, I was not very Internet savvy and the number of blogs, vlogs and social media sites with information about how to cross Asia on a bicycle was scarce. As a result, we had to rely on our imaginations, grit and a bit of pragmatic know-how and determination to figure out what we would do and how we would do it.
During the excited and rambunctious discussion in the pub we let every wild idea and notion fly. I could ride across China. I could ride around Thailand. Maybe I could venture into Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. All sorts of options were tossed about and floated around.
After the weekend workshop, Jamie returned to Japan. We stayed in touch.
More ideas were thrown about, and we eventually decided that a trip from Thailand to Bali would be a good course of action and something that could be achieved. Soon thereafter, Jamie announced that he’d join me!
The plan was coming together slowly but surely. An idea was taking shape.
We wanted to do something centered around conservation or environmental issues. We could focus on that during our bike ride. The idea fit because cycling is eco-friendly. No fossil fuels. No pollution. Since Jamie was joining me, it would have to be done during the school holidays which meant we had approximately six weeks to complete the adventure in July and August. Yes. We could do it!
I talked to people in my network. Someone knew someone and they sent the word out to bike shops, cycling enthusiasts and adventurers. Shortly, Sunny from Singapore reached out to us and said he made bamboo bicycles. He asked if we’d like to try them out on our Thailand to Bali adventure.
Sure, why not?!
Sunny himself had ridden a bamboo bike across China and was designing and building bamboo bikes for long haul trips. We’d get to test one out and provide feedback. The experimental science guy in me said YES!
He sent us images and catalogues and we picked a mountain bike model since we figured the roads would get a bit messy at some point and we would want fat tires for any back roads, dirt roads, palm plantations, or gravel we might encounter.
We finally had bikes! Now we just needed a route!
We’d make our way through Thailand on to Malaysia across into Singapore and then onwards to Java and eventually end up in Bali for the grade finale.
We finally had a route! Now we just needed a name!
I honestly don’t remember how the name came about but I do remember quite a few failed attempts.
I wanted something that made us sound like superheroes! Green Warriors! Eco-Adventurers!
Firstly, it was one of the oldest and most biodiverse rainforests in southeast Asia. Secondly, I knew a guy that had a resort, and he could sponsor our first night by giving us accommodation and food!
We spent the first night in a small bamboo chalet next to a gorgeous turbulent river amidst the sounds of cicadas, swirling rapids and a myriad of jungle critters making their nightly sojourn throughout the forest by moonlight. It was paradise on Earth. The next morning, the sound of gregarious chirping birds welcomed the morning through the open-air bamboo chalet and mosquito nets.
With brand spanking new bamboo bikes, way too much gear, an adventurous spirit, and no idea on how the adventure might play out, we hit the road. Within a hundred meters my bike rack fell off and eagerly dispersed its burdensome contents onto the rich humus of the rainforest floor! Apparently, the marriage between an overburdened metal bike rack and a bamboo bike frame was not a match made in Heaven.
With plenty of laughing onlookers from the launch of Green Riders, Jamie and I made short work of the repairs and set off on the road.
During the six-week adventure we saw numerous indescribably beautiful and wild places.
We made acquaintance with numerous interesting and intriguing people and immersed ourselves in a wide array of cultural diversity ranging from the village life of rural Thailand and Malaysia to the hyper-developed modern city state of Singapore on to the chaos of the port of Jakarta and finally the super touristy island of Bali. With a tip from a local at a roadside food stall and coffee kiosk, we ended up visiting the first rubber tree planted in Thailand. Apparently, the rubber sapling had been stolen from the botanical gardens in Singapore and smuggled across borders in 1899 that eventually resulted in the booming and habitat destroying rubber industry of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
We spent the night in a pristine an efficient locally run Eco-village situated in a mangrove on the Isthmus of Kra which lies on the border of Thailand with Malaysia. There children roamed freely playing, exploring, and jumping in the brackish water as part of their daily free time. A place where a deep connection with the rhythms of the tides, the moon and the daily fishing harvest are intimately woven in the psyche of the Thai villagers that inhabit that ecosystem.
With yet another tip from a local in a pizza joint in Krabi, we made an unplanned sidetrack to see a very cool playground in a small village in Thailand that had been built from recycled and repurposed tires pulled from their local river. We ended up helping a nearby village copy the design and build their own playground and plant shade trees at a local school.
We ferried from Singapore to Jakarta aboard a defunct cruise ship, full of deportees and work permit violators from Java and Sumatra that were being deported back to their country of origin. Another crazy adventure we could not have planned.
We learned the hard way that Baluran National Park in East Java was dry and had not even a single measly roadside stall to sell water or food, making an arduous trek uphill even harder. Within the first hour of that particular day, we quickly depleted our supplies and road around for six sweaty, throat parching hours in search of liquids and sustenance. On the last leg of the ride, we sprinted as fast as we could to exit the park and crashed into the first shop to empty their barren stock of the bottles, water and soft drinks!
When we finally landed on the shores of West Bali National Park, we stood in amazement of all we had seen, done and accomplished.
We spent the last days wallowing in the company of Menjangan deer, water monitors, mangrove trees, wild boar, ebony langurs, various shore birds and the coveted Bali starling, an endangered endemic species of gorgeous bird in its protected habitat. Green Riders provided more explorations and adventures that we had counted on or even imagined!
On the road, we became absorbed in a Zen like trance that comes from 8 to 10 hours of singular focus on pedaling and riding. We learned the value of clearing the mind through the monotony of riding all day every day with a single purpose to keep pedaling.
The experience of being connected with self, with others and with Nature were priceless and life changing.
The dosa was perfect! Crisp, thin and a rich golden brown. A beautiful symphony of flavours with the green chilli and the red chilli chutneys and the spicy, aromatic sambar. I was enjoying the breakfast buffet at a hotel in Coimbatore, known as the Manchester of South India. A major manufacturing centre located at the foothills of the Western ghats, Coimbatore (also known as Kovai) is the second biggest city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
I enjoy a hearty breakfast. I admit I am partial toward South Indian fare. I absolutely love dosais, and upma. I enjoy crispy medu vadas. Appam and coconut stew is a duet made in heaven. Panizhayaram is Tamil delicacy along with Pongal. I am not very fond of idlis, however. The breakfast buffets in Kovai are superb. I believe and many agree that Kovai combines the best of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I also enjoy the wide variety of dishes in an American breakfast ranging from toast, eggs in different forms, porridge, cereal, hash browns, bacon, and sausage. All washed down with juices and coffee and tea. A variety of breads are available, especially in Europe. Pancakes are also delicious, especially with maple syrup. Many hotels in the United States do not serve a continental breakfast, however. A few hotels in Kovai offer you both South Indian and western breakfast choices.
As with most other beliefs created in today’s information overload, the role and status ofbreakfast has become confusing. The traditional advice was to never skip breakfast as it was the most important meal of the day. In today’s world, as prolonged periods of fasting and the requirement to have stretches of time with low blood sugar levels have gained footage, some began skipping breakfast and moved directly to lunch. Traditionally humans had their last meal of the day at sundown. A long period of fasting till breakfast, the next morning, was a natural outcome. With the advent of artificial lighting, the time of dinner was steadily pushed back.
In Nepal most people do not have a big breakfast. They usually have tea and biscuits and sit down for a big lunch at ten or even earlier in the morning. Different breakfast snacks are available in the Kathmandu valley. The trekking lodges in Nepal do offer breakfast on their menu to cater to western trekkers. The hotels in Kathmandu and other tourist towns also offer a variety of choices. In the plains bordering northern India, breakfast is usually north Indian fare. When I trek, my breakfast of choice is usually muesli with milk. This is filling and provides both instant and slow-release energy and keeps me going for a few hours. It is said to have been developed around 1900 by a Swiss physician, Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. The major problem with muesli is that it is dry and requires effort and copious amounts of milk to wash down. Cornbread and toast sometimes find their way into the menu. Nepalese cooks are ingenious and dishes like Swiss rosti are also available. In the Everest region, potato pancakes are dominant though they may not be available for breakfast as they take long to prepare.
North India has a variety of filling breakfasts. Chana bhatura is filling though oily and most bus stations and train stations in the north will have breakfast stalls with such fare. Piping hot pooris are a perennial favorite. When I was working in Nepal, I sometimes used to travel through the eastern Uttar Pradesh town of Gorakhpur. The stuffed parathas are a delight to the palate and are filling. They can be made with aloo (potatoes), radish, cauliflower and even with finely minced meat. Having these piping hot with a dollop of clarified butter on a chilly winter morning is a pure joy. The lower canteen at PGI (Post Graduate Institute), Chandigarh, serves delicious aloo parathas. Kachoris are also eaten for breakfast along with jalebis. Samosas could make a hearty breakfast along with chole. Punjabi samosas are huge and filling and the stalls in the market at Punjab University in Sector 11 in Chandigarh has some of the best samosas I have eaten.
Many cultures may have independently discovered the nutritional benefits of combining cereals and pulses. Considering the lack of knowledge about nutrients and nutrient quality in those days, this was a significant achievement. The combination can be samosas and chickpeas, idlis/dosas and sambar, baked beans and bread, and so forth. Breakfast should provide immediate energy to get you going and slowly release sugars to continue to provide energy. Eggs provide high quality proteins and are an important part of the western breakfast. Meats are also eaten in many parts of the globe.
In Malaysia, noodles of different varieties are eaten for breakfast. Nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) is also a perennial favourite though I do struggle to eat rice early in the morning. Our breakfast habits are an acquired taste heavily influenced by our childhood. South Indian foods like thosai, idlis, upma, vada and Pongal are also available attesting to the multicultural diversity of the country. Breakfast can be creative in Kerala, God’s own country at the southern tip of India and considered one of the best breakfasts in the world. Among the highlights are appam with different vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries, puttu with black gram curry or puttu with small bananas. Puttu is made of steamed rice flour and grated coconut and can be dry hence requiring curry or bananas for lubrication.
Cultures globally have created a variety of rich and delicious foods for breakfast. There are similarities in the use of leavened or unleavened bread (in different forms and shapes), a combination of grains and pulses, eggs, fruits and tea or coffee. Many have fruit juices for breakfast. After the long overnight fast, getting your sugar levels up again and providing you with the energy resources to get through a long and challenging day is important. At Kuala Lumpur, I usually have my breakfast at the Shirdi Sai canteen at the university. I usually have dosas or upma and sometimes I have uthappams. They also make delicious pooris in the great Tamil tradition served with hot and filling yellow potato curry. Starting your day on a full stomach will surely make you happy, healthy, and wise and if you are lucky, even wealthy.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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