Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Crossing Over, for Life - Indian Express

Crossing Over, For Life", Indian Express (12 March 2003).

Pallavi Srivastava

New Delhi, March 11: I attract stray people and stray dogs,’’ quips Bob McKerrow, over the noise made by a pack of dogs outside his Vasant Vihar house. The head of the regional delegation, South Asia, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is talking about the 25 years he has spent in the subcontinent. And about Mountains of our Minds (India Research Press; Rs 895), his book on Afghanistan that has just been released by former President K.R. Narayanan.

McKerrow, who hails from New Zealand, came to the subcontinent as a 23-year-old Red Cross volunteer to deal with the issue of refugee resettlement when Bangladesh was formed. Since he has an academic background in seismology, McKerrow specialises in earthquake and disaster management for the Federation. His book contains verses that he wrote during his two stints in Afghanistan, in 1976 and then in 1993-96. The book starts with this verse: We live in the street of death / We die in the street of life / This is Afghanistan.

The poems are accompanied by photographs, which have also been taken by the author. While each picture lends graphic details to his words, it also has a tale to tell. The poem titled Child is accompanied by the photograph of a wounded little one, his face bruised and his sweater soaked in blood. The lines are: Dead child I see you there / Blown apart—I stare, / Why was it you and not me? / At least now you are free. The deaths and injuries he has seen as a Red Cross worker seem to have toughened McKerrow. He talks about blown-up limbs, child amputees and dead bodies, even as he reaches out to grab a plastic ball thrown in our direction by his toddler son. But a poignancy never leaves his eyes. Being with mountains, and dreaming about them is his way of coping with the internal conflict. ‘‘People take vacations in Thailand, etc. I take mine in Ladakh or the Hindukush,’’ he says.

Though McKerrow feels at home in India, New Zealand remains close to his heart. ‘‘With any other country, I’d support India in a cricket match. But opposite New Zealand, there is no question about which side I’d cheer for,’’ he chuckles. He isn’t, however, excited about the visit he is making to Kabul this week with a bag full of copies of his book. ‘‘I know I will be disappointed,’’ he says. And as if reading the disbelief on your face, he adds: ‘‘Afghanistan would have sorted itself out without any outside influence.’’ He will spend a month there, before returning to Delhi. Then he will work on his next book, on Afghanistan’s history. ‘‘I will pretend to be the Hindukush range. I will write about how people have come and trampled over me for centuries.’’ The poignancy is still there in his eyes.

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