In Afghanistan in 2009, while researching my novel The Ink Bridge, I journeyed from Kabul to Bamiyan with Marnie Gustavson who runs the grass-roots aid organisation, PARSA. She told me the story of Abdullah, an 11-year-old radicalised at the madrassa his widower father had enrolled him in. He had been picked-up by police at a checkpoint wearing a suicide vest. Due to his tender age, the police handed him to PARSA where he made a brief attempt at childhood. Eventually, Abdullah escaped and was, most likely, returned to the Taliban. On the outskirts of Melbourne, my son was learning how to ride his balance bike.
A month before the twin towers fell in New York, I found myself beneath the palm-thatched sail of a traditional whale-hunting boat making for open sea. We'd pushed out from the shores of Lamalera, a village on the southwest shores of the island of Lembata, Indonesia. This was no tourist jaunt. I prayed to some unknown god that we wouldn't harpoon a whale that day. We didn't. Then I felt for the subsistence fishermen and their families whom I had denied food by my callous interference.
We couldn't enter Turkey due to a cholera outbreak. Or so the stationmaster in Athens told us. Instead we wound up in Yugoslavia at the brink of their civil war. The dinar was in free-fall and everyone wanted US dollars. In a square in Zagreb, I watched a beggar methodically slotting coins into a tin can. When she had finished, she flung the can and its now worthless currency into the fountain, where for centuries others had cast their wishes.
For 58 hours we navigated landslides, perilous bridges and precipitous drops. It was India 1996. My friend, Pete, had suggested we visit Tabo in the Spiti Valley where the Dalai Lama would deliver the 10-day Kalachakra initiation. We had boarded a hard-benched local bus in Darjeeling along with 30 Tibetan pilgrims, drawing lottery numbers for our seats. At Wangtu Checkpoint, Pasang, a young Tibetan refugee without papers, was turned back. He was 46 hours into the journey to receive teachings from his spiritual leader.
In my teens, I attended the International School of Kuala Lumpur for two years. Our school gardener would participate in the Thaipusam festival each year, which pays homage to the Hindu Lord Murugan. As darkness fell on the Batu Caves, I watched as Maniam, our gardener, pushed the vel, or sacred spear, through his cheeks before climbing the 272 steps to the temple. On Monday morning, back at school, there was barely a mark on his cheeks where the vel had pierced them.
Glasgow-born, Melbourne-based author Neil Grant's fourth novel, The Honeyman & The Hunter (A&U Children's, $19.99) is out now. See allenandunwin.com