Of Borders and lines

For a trickle of Korean Won, we could peer through fixed telescopes and look into North Korea. To the clank of the coin settling into the metal box, I peered on. Blue skies. An occasional soldier. Green mountains, and fluttering birds. It could have been some nature reserve. But I was standing at the Korean border at Imjingak and staring into North Korea.

The Demilitarized Zone ( ‘Dee Emm Zee’) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula separating the two Koreas. It is 250 kilometers long and 4 KM wide. With wire fences, watchful eyes and guns on either side its brought with it a side benefit. There are no apartment complexes, flyovers, malls with their attendant parking lots and the like. You get the picture, don’t you? Who doesn’t know the rampant poverty that ‘development’ ushers in the world over? The DMZ though is green and lush. Perhaps no other piece of green is as protected and watched by the rest of the world as much as this strip! Dark cloud, silver lining and all that.

Beyond the Demilitarized Zone is one of the heaviest military presence. And heavier posturing perhaps. The posturing and the promise of war have given life to some of the most endangered species thriving. DMZ plays host to some of the most exotic and endangered species. Like cranes, leopards, tigers, and bears. Perhaps these species, have over the years, learned to live under the gaze of the guns in the air and landmines beneath their feet.

That silver lining apart the DMZ is a dark area. It stands as a bright testimony to the limitless potential of human avarice, greed, and one-upmanship. The two Koreas have shouted at each other with loudspeakers ( actual loudspeakers belting out propaganda) across the border. They have tried to outdo each other building tall flag poles and sent balloons with leaflets across the DMZs. All these of course, when they weren’t busy staring each other down. Incredulous it seems. But from 1953, peace has reigned. By and large.Imjingak resort - Looking into North Korea


Mangbae pagoda at the Korean border - Imjingak. Yearning for reunification

The Korean border at  Imjingak which hosts the telescopes offers may a pointer. ‘Mangbaeddan‘ is one such. It’s an altar to pray for ancestors and their families. People from across South Korea whose origins were from somewhere in the North, come here to bow down. It’s a bowing down to their parents and ancestors as a sign of respect during new year and other important festivals. Parents who stayed back. Or could not be contacted. One whole country that is a black box. Not even a snail mail service.

There is a plaque that captures the sentiment than my words can. “After 36 years of Japanese colonial era rule, our country was liberated on August 15, 1945, thanks to the sacrifices of service personnel who fought for the nation’s independence and for an end to the Second World War. Before celebration could break out, however, Korea was arbitrarily divided into north and south according to a unilateral decision on the part of larger powers regardless of the desire of our people. Mangbaeden is a permanent alter established by the government at a cost of 500 million won (supervision by the Ministry of Home Affairs 5 North Korean Provinces, execution: Paju Country Office ), at Imjingak, overlooking the lands of North Korea.  

Five million people left their home in the north, where they had lived for generations, to avoid the Soviet army and the North Korea Communist Party’s persecution and brutalities. The refugees built a temporary altar at Imjingak on every Chuserok (Korean Thanksgiving day ), held an event to honor their ancestor and parents who had been left behind in North Korea, and longed for a permanent altar. In terms of scale and form, the censer and altar are located on a 400-m site. The Mangbae pagoda at the center represents the earnest longing for the reunification of the country and prayer for the welfare of those in North Korea. The characteristics of the historical remains, institutions and customs and mountains and streams of the 5 North Korean Provinces, and the non-reclaimed area, Gyeonggi and Gangwon were carved in seven granite stone-folding screens around the pagoda to ease the homesickness of the refugees.” 

A friend who was with us spoke with eloquence about her mom, who several years ago, had to be held back by border guards. As she dashed towards the border at Imjingak, sorely missing her mother who got left behind beyond the border.  I listened to the story with a keen ear and a pounding heart. The cruelty that permeates several lives in the planet needed explanation beyond borders, flags, and territory.

Madmen fire rockets and ramble from podiums around the world about destruction as though it were a lollipop. Even as the rest of us duck for cover, there are some who wonder if there is a silver lining somewhere.The dark clouds sprouting to the sky seem imminent. Costly, ghostly dark clouds. Will there be silver linings or will it too little, too late? Opinion is divided but hope springs eternal.

Figure of Eight Knot - Korean border Imjingak


There are citizens who yearn to be united. The “We are One” installation in Imjingak for instance, portrays this yearning for a peaceful reunification. “Installed by the Paju Government on February 14, 2006. This sculpture embraces our desire to achieve peaceful reunification. The joining of the two separated parts by the figure of 8-knot embodies the unification of North and South Korea. The height is 280 centimeters which represent the 28 metropolitan cities and provinces in the Korean peninsula”

Nothing perhaps captures the tragedy of the separation more than the bullet-ridden testimony that the engine of a steam locomotive that plied between the North and the South. The tracks from that time remain. The station names call attention to the staid tracks and lost ways. The bullet holes stare with vapid eloquence amidst the cackle of tourists, selfie sticks, and cameras. Somewhere in between the point of all suffering seems distant and removed from the priorities of the present day. Steam engine - Korean border Imjingak

Rail signboard - Korean border Imjingak


As I try to pack my memories from Imjingak into a neat stack, I realise they elude fitting in. They spring in different directions. The tears of separation and sadness seem to take away the sheen off the silver lining. That leaves me with a simple line and a dark cloud.

Ever since visiting Imjingak, any image of leaders and armchair commentators waxing eloquence on twitter or from podiums gets me ever more present to what it is on the ground. The stories that are not told. Stories about living through separation and war. It is 2017 and the world has made serious progress in several dimensions from electric cars to space travel. But can there be a greater travesty that vast tracts of the human mind continue to let the future to be held prisoner by the mistakes of the past?

Must not the imagination that has fuelled ‘progress’ also help us extricate us and co-create a better future? Even if it meant a slow, painful extrication? As I sat in silence at the Mangbaeddan, Tom Brokaw‘s commencement speech to the class of 2006 wafted in from memory. More than a decade old now, but has relevance.

Border guards - Korean border - Imjingak

Here is one part of his speech.

“So, welcome to a world of perpetual contradictions, welcome to a world of unintended consequences and unexpected realities. Welcome to a world in which war is not a video game, … in which genocide and ancient hatreds are not eliminated with a delete button. You won’t find the answer to global poverty in Tools or Help. You cannot fix the environment by hitting the Insert bar. You cannot take your place in the long line of those who came before you simply by sitting in front of a screen or at a keyboard.

The pace of change in your lifetime is at warp speed. We live now on a smaller planet, with more people, many of them on the move these days in a desperate search for economic opportunity and political freedom, a world of ever-diminishing open spaces, disappearing natural resources, with great seismic shifts in political, economic and cultural power wherever you may be on this planet…..

We cannot ignore them, and as the last four years have demonstrated in tragic fashion, a military response is inadequate. If … hostility is not addressed in a more effective manner in the West, and in the Islamic world as well, we will live in a perpetual state of terror and rage on both sides of the equation.

So a primary challenge of your time is to bank the fires of hostilities that are now burning out of control, to neutralize that hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding, and especially global opportunity.

To do that requires more than a fresh political strategy or imagination.”

The full text is here. The context has shifted a bit. But the fundamental contradictions remain. Only exacerbated by a new crop of leaders who whose jingoism and sabre rattling divides people even further.

Imjingak is a reminder that we need to look beyond the narratives that the unreasonable madness in the political leadership of the modern day. We need to search for and connect to a deeper humanity in each other. Cliched it may sound. There aren’t easy solutions. But the absence easy solutions must not get us lean towards letting the dark clouds loom from the ground. We still have several silver linings today. The capabilities that are present in us to operate from ‘imagination’ is one such. Perhaps we could start there.


Earlier Post on my Korean travel is here


clicking shiking !

This is a picture Iclicked. O a falling rain drop, saying hello to streaming rain water running away from a tiled roof. This snap has very little connection to this post.

He crossed his hands and tilted his head, barely concealing a smirk. I had just replied “OF COURSE’ in a tone that could be mildly described as ‘violently affirmative’, to his question. Which was, ‘Are the pictures that you upload on Facebook, your own or do you have download them from somewhere ?’

How dare, I thought.

Within moments however, I quickly broke into a smile within myself while maintaining a stiff exterior. The thought that he, and his well ordained intelligence entertained the possibility that someone better would have clicked them, was a compliment aterall. I gloated with ‘orgasmic ecstasy’.

I trust you will indulge in my confessions on photography !

My dabbling with photography, started a few years back, when I first dabbled with blogging. In the first year of blogging I thought it quite a natural God given right to use any of the images that Google threw up in searches. Like how an average Indian male thinks of the whole of India fit to down the zipper or loosen his drawstrings of a striped underwear to empty his bladder. Naturally !

Life was good. Nobody read the blog, save myself. Or so I thought. I wrote for writing’s sake. Added a picture or depending on the whim of the moment, and shut the system down and reached out for a hot cup of filter kaapi ! I did this for what seemed like two centuries.

Until one day, someone wrote in. Asking a question, which I read in a rather polite tone. The question was simple : Should I not have the decency to check with the ‘owner’ of the snap, before using it? Or something to that effect.

My first reaction was of sheer delight! Someone was afterall reading the blog. I thought.

After a couple of nights of insane partying to celebrate the fact that the blog had indeed caught someones eye, deep remorse filled my heart and I went without food for three days. Ofcourse, I exaggerate. On both counts.

Truth be told, one of those days after receiving that mail, sitting in a hotel and diving into something tasty I wondered if I should click every picture that would get to the blog. Every picture that will get to the blog will be OWNED by me!

As a matter of propriety, I must confess here I also thought this ‘owner’ship of such pictures were perhaps one of the few ownership decisions that I could afford without a loan and an Equated Monthly Installment.

Before you could say, ‘in a flash of a few months’, I had migrated. From writing a post and clicking a picture to suit the post (which took a long time. Even Vajpayee spoke faster), to the exact opposite. Keep clicking pictures and writing blog posts on the photographs that catch my fancy.

So I clicked whenever I was in the mood. Or wasn’t. For that matter. From the photographs, came alive many stories. I ‘invested’ in a Canon S5 IS ! Which is the only camera that I have. A camera that I Iearnt to use by trials and errors suitably grabbing guidance from online well-wishers who now have heaps of karma in their account with the old man up there.

So I clicked whenever I was in the mood. Wrote whatever I chose. Getting filled to the brim with a deep sense of gratitude whenever people wrote in, appreciating the post.

On the same keel I was engulfed in guilt when people appreciated the photograph. And my protruding paunch ached with laughter whenever good friends asked sincere questions about something called ‘aperture’ or ‘focal length’ , ‘shutter speed’ and such else.

It was simple. I don’t know a goats horn about such stuff but for some bare essentials. There are well meaning colleagues who discuss their outstanding photographs through a set of numbers! ‘105 X 37 ?’ they would ask when I showed them a snap that took me some time to click. Or something to that effect. All numbers seem the same to me.

To my ‘picture seeking – story telling mind’, the moment they do that, they morph from being insanely articulate to inanely accurate. That’s precisely when I peer at cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling.

Call me hare brained, but let me confess to you and get it out my chest. To me, photography is about story telling. It is about inclusion and exclusion. To include in a frame and to exclude! That includes light and shade.

If an image, at the spur of the moment feels like it is a prospective story, the finger fiddles with the few buttons and bingo, there is an image. Ofcourse, I over simplify. But by and large, that’s the idea. Some of the outputs occupy the space that Zuckerberg chap created. A few come to the blog here with an appropriate post.

Some snaps swell my chest. Like the one that you see here. When rain water streaming away from the roof, said hello to a rain drop.

I told all of this to a well respected friend who listened to my meandering rant with an inebriated silence. After soaking it all in with several rounds of chicken tikka laced drinks he spoke at length.

The sum and substance was this. In his own dismissive way he has asked me to put an end all this ‘dramabaji’, stop this ‘clicking shiking’, buy a real camera and ‘go learn photography’. With another minute of silence and one more stiff drink in his system, said, ‘Your snaps. They are good’.

Since then, I have looked up real cameras and such else. Looking at their prices, I have now commenced looking for a venture capitalist with a kind heart.

First there are stories. Then ofcourse, there are stories of stories.

All stories.

Recognise your song !

When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child.

They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. When the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else.

When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her. Later, when the child enters education, the village gathers and chants the child’s song. When the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person hears his or her song.

Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth, and they sing the person to the next life.

To the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself.

They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well !


This post is a straight “Copy-Paste” from a Good Morning mail that Swatantra sends each day. I found it moving and extremely profound.