Suddenly: Goodbye

I’ve gotten an offer to work as the Affton, Missouri editor for Patch.com, an increasingly nation-wide hyperlocal news outlet. This is a very exciting career advancement for me, but it also means I’m cutting my time in India short. I’ll be flying back to the States tomorrow, and will be busy settling back in and catching up with friends in New York and St. Louis for the next couple weeks. I really don’t know what form this blog is going to take going forward, though I have a good chunk of pictures still waiting to get up.

You’ll just have to stick around and see.

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Can you spot the tiny lens flare?

Sometimes lamps fascinate me

“Should be fantastic as long as we survive the journey”

Yeah boy, straight up reportage. Work it.

GANGTOK, 13 Sept: The Autumn 2010 Rickshaw Run kicked off in Gangtok on Sunday, with 71 teams from around the world gathering to begin a 3500 km journey to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan armed with little but their wits and what they can carry in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw.

The Rickshaw Run is a charity event organised by the League of Adventurists International, a British company headquartered in Bristol which runs four other similar events throughout the developing world. The Rickshaw Run was first held this past April and is going to be held three times a year, in the spring, autumn and winter. The first run ended here in Gangtok, and now those same auto-rickshaws are to used by new teams setting out in the opposite direction.

Taking a variety of routes through northern India and Nepal, the teams have two weeks to reach Jaisalmer. The Rickshaw Run is not a race, however, and there is no winner except the group who managed to raise the most for charity, currently a group called Arm Chair Loaf.

Each of the teams must raise at least 1000 British pounds (about Rs. 70,000) for one of two sponsored charities: FRANK Water Projects, which funds clean water facilities, and Maiti Nepal, which works for to project Nepali women and girls from trafficking and domestic abuse. Those teams that raise more can also donate to an additional charity of their choice.

A team from the United States, whose rickshaw was named “Raiders of the Lost Tuk” after the classic Indiana Jones film and the colloquial name for auto-rickshaws in Southeast Asia, raised around US$10,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. One of the team members, Jim Matheson of San Francisco, has type 1 diabetes.

“I’m more excited for this than I would be for my wedding day,” said Brianna Limebrook from Boston, the leader of the “Raiders” team.

The 175 participants met with their vehicles Sunday morning in front of the Tourism Department office at MG Marg, where the Sikkim Police Band performed and tourism officials spoke to a crowd of gathered onlookers.

Many of the teams wore colourful costumes or outrageous uniforms with themes to match their artfully decorated rickshaws. One team of three stood out in the crowd with a set of neon coloured suits: one green, one orange, one pink. Another was making the journey dressed in black-tie tuxedos and sneakers covered in shiny black tape. Despite their bombastic outfits, however, the racers expressed a very down to earth mixture of excitement and nervousness.

“Should be fantastic as long as we survive the journey,” said Sweyn Alsop from England, a member of the tuxedo team. Mr. Alsop added that he wished his tux was a rental.

“Probably the silliest idea we’ve ever had,” said Mark Burton of London.

Even as the event organisers made their final speeches, some of the teams were still scrambling with preparations, like packing last minute snacks and filling their vehicles with petrol.

When the mass of rickshaws finally set off, however, the scene was a bit anticlimactic. The teams were allowed to head down the hill only a few at a time, so as not to disrupt the busy Sunday traffic. As the crowd dispersed, a few stragglers remained, stymied by engine trouble and key mixups.

The Rickshaw Riders

So this weekend Gangtok was flooded with over 175 white people here for the start of the Rickshaw Run, a ‘charity adventure’ of sorts that has them traveling in three-wheeled auto-rickshaws from Gangtok all the way (3500 km) to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. I had a great time covering the event, with all these interesting characters to talk to. I’ll post my coverage later this week, but I was so excited at some of the people shots I took in the crowd that I wanted to get them up first.

The Game is Flat

I’m not sure if Bosing is Sikkim’s first rapper, but I’ve heard over and over again that his self-titled album is “Sikkim’s first full-length hip-hop album.” Bosing is a 24-year-old from the village of Lingmoo in South Sikkim. His album was recorded and produced in a studio in Tadong. The album was being put out as the first such project by Gangtok nightspot Café Live & Loud. By every account, it should be a very Sikkimese piece of music. Except it isn’t.

I met Bosing, whose given name is Tashi Wangchuk Rapgyal, this week to talk about his music. He is quick to tell me about his primary musical influence and artistic role-model: Tupac Shakur (sometimes “2Pac”), the famous and genre-defining West Coast gangster rapper, tragically killed in his prime in 1996. Bosing pulls up his sleeve and shows me the somewhat incomplete but still undeniably clear sketch of Tupac he has tattooed on his right shoulder.

“Tupac was the first to come out with real gangster rap,” Bosing tells me excitedly. Bosing’s album is filled with talks of gangsters and “gees” and of famous American street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, as well as direct allusions to Tupac’s lyrics. Plentiful too are references to the classic East Coast/West Coast rivalry that defined hip-hop through the nineties and into the aughties — a battle in which Bosing unwaveringly aligns himself with the West, both stylistically and ideologically.

As we talk, we are sitting in the second floor of a Cacao, my favourite café in MG Marg, and I lean over the railing to watch the shoppers placidly wandering the pleasant street. I’m not the best judge in the world, but it just might be one of the least gangster places in the world. It is hard to imagine anyone getting shot coming out of Café Live & Loud. It is a low blow, but I ask Bosing if he feels like a gangster and if he thinks he might one day get gunned down by a rival like his idol.

“I’m not a gangster, not a deadly thug, but thuggish in my own way,” he replied.

That seems as fine an answer as any, and as a white, nerdy, suburban kid from the American Midwest, I’ll be the first to admit that hip-hop’s ideas and aesthetics (even the “gangster” ones) can be appealing and meaningful to many outside rap’s original demographic of poor African-Americans from the urban ghettos. Still, one has to wonder what terms like “gangster,” “bloods and crips,” “East Coast, West Coast,” “thugged out,” “ghetto gospal,” et al mean here in Sikkim, so far removed from their original context. It seems to me that “keeping it real” and “holding it down for the red ones” may be fundamentally different acts in Gangtok than in Brooklyn or Compton.

For me, as a reviewer of this sort of thing, that is the crux of my difficulty processing this album. Divorced from all context and history, Bosing is an earnest and talented rapper whose first album strikes me as pleasantly unremarkable. Bosing’s lyrics at times feel like strung-together catch phrases that could be inserted into nearly any poppy hip-hop song today without raising comment. This is not entirely a bad thing. His beats are catchy and his tracks well put together. His flow is adequate and his rhymes usually rhyme. All this makes Bosing’s first album quite entertaining.

A couple songs do stand out to me. “Love You Mom” is a heartfelt ode to Bosing’s mother, and all single mothers. “Holding It Down” recalls the violent history of hip-hop rivalries and pleads for an end to it all because “we can’t live like this forever.” “Lost Loved Ones” remembers, well, lost loved ones. Sentiments like these are actually fairly common throughout hip-hop, but these sorts of songs rarely become chart toppers or club bangers and are thus less remembered. That Bosing chose to include his own versions on his album is to me a clear testament to his nuanced understanding of the genre.

Despite all these fine qualities, I can’t quite get over the fact that this album, billed as “Sikkim’s first hip-hop album,” lacks anything that feels even remotely Sikkimese, or even Indian. But for a couple passing references to Delhi and Lingmoo, an uninformed listener would have absolutely no clue even what continent this music comes from. It is almost uncannily generic. In fact, between all the references to American street gangs and such and the fact that Bosing raps and sings entirely in English — the language he tells me he finds most “convenient” — and has a very indistinct accent, one would probably assume it came from somewhere in the USA. (Not that I’m complaining about the lyrics being in English, mind, as it certainly makes my job reviewing it easier.)

This album feels a bit anonymous in time as well as space. Bosing raps a bit about his haters and say he is “coming around with another hit, man, another hit, man.” But this is Bosing’s first album, his breakout debut. Does he already have haters worth taking down in song? When has he produced hits before this? All of these are phrases that get used a lot in hip-hop, in one form or another, but knowing Sikkim and having briefly met Bosing, it all seems a bit off to me.

I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t exactly think Bosing’s album would be all talk of pujas or Himalayan majesty or…or whatever. But I did expect a certain amount of inherent Indian-ness.

I am actually a bit ashamed of this rather orientalist line of thinking, but there is a second (preferable) explanation besides that I’m easily sucked in by stereotypes. It could be that hip-hop is now global, flat, accessible to all and no longer tied to any particular demographic or culture — so much so that it doesn’t matter where you are from anymore, and that the East Coast and West Coast are no longer places but ideals.

Discussing some of our favourite artists working today, Bosing mentions The Game, a fantastic rapper coming out of retirement in the next few months. “A month back I got into trouble, and I kept wondering ‘why did it happen to me?’ When I listened to Game, it helped me figure out what I’d been through,” Bosing says.

Maybe it is all universal, and the attitudes of gangster rap, with its aggressive and darkly confident stance towards life, can find purchase in any life, anywhere. And maybe in this moment some of the social critiques of gangster rap can apply just as well to India, even Sikkim. Bosing points me to a line in his album alluding to a Tupac lyric about “a black panther born in the ghetto every twenty minutes.” Replace ‘ghetto’ with ‘slum’ and ‘black panther’ with a more generic rebel, anyone oppressed and fighting those in power — well, it does apply to India, doesn’t it?

I don’t think there is an answer to the question this implies: whether it is better to rep your origins and your past as uniquely as possible or to fully integrate with a global movement and help determine its destination and its future. For now, I’m content to just keep an eye on Bosing to see where he goes next. He tells me he is planning to release a music video for “Holding It Down” in the next couple weeks. He hopes to soon be travelling to Hyderabad and Delhi to perform at clubs and concerts. He is already working on his second album.

Bosing’s self-titled album is available at Café Live & Loud on Tibet Road in Gangtok.

Above the Tarp

They had all these tarps up over MG Marg a couple weeks back, as part of the Pang Lhabsol festival. Most were more colorful than this, thankfully. Watching the tarps get taken down later was a delightful little scene.