Please Introduce yourself…
Hello, My name is Kartiki Gonsalves. I am an Indian Natural History and Social Documentary photojournalist and filmmaker currently based out of Ooty in Southern India. I am one of India’s first women Sony brand ambassadors in 2018. My work has two foci. One is environment, nature and wildlife, where I seek to raise awareness about the marvelous diversity of nature and wildlife and the importance of conservation. An avid traveller & explorer, my work primarily revolves around nature, cultures, communities and their connections, animals, and the environment and how they are all intertwined focusing primarily on stories that make a direct impact on the environmental and cultural issues that define our times.
Your article, “The Places In-Between” follows the lives of people from Turtuk. Why is the area of Turtuk such an area of interest from both a military and a cultural standpoint?
The picturesque village of Turtuk is the last major settlement of India before the Line of Control beyond which lies Pakistan controlled Gilgit-Baltistan region. In fact, Turtuk was under Pakistan’s control until the 1971 Indo-Pak war where it came under Indian governance. Turtuk is a Muslim village, in a Buddhist region, within a majority-Hindu country once served as an important gateway to the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected India with China, Persia and Rome. It is also the gateway to the Siachen Glacier, with the snow-clad peaks of Mt. K2, visible in the horizon from the top of the village.
This area has long been a borderland with local princes forming and breaking alliances with powerful neighbours as opportunities arose. At different times the land fell under Tibetan, Kashmiri and Dogra rule. In the sixteenth century, with the help of Ashoka the Great, Ali Sher Achan briefly conquered and ruled all the land inhabited by the Balti people as Baltistan.
In the sixteenth century, Muslim scholars arrived in Turtuk and converted the population to Islam. Turtuk remains devoutly Muslim, a small town with four mosques. Although this area has fallen under various kingdoms, through the centuries its remote location has helped secure the survival of a distinct local culture. For months at a time in winter it was cut off from all outside contact. The villages necessarily developed strong self-sufficiency.
Could you describe the people of Turtuk?
The mixed backgrounds of Turtuk’s villagers, who are of Tibetan and Indo-Aryan descent, speak to Baltistan’s once important role as a connector of goods, cultures and people. The landscape, culture, language, clothing, and even the physical features of people in Turtuk are quite different from those in the rest of Ladakh. The inhabitants of Turtuk speak Balti that is a mix of Aryan with a slight touch of Mongol.
The people of Turtuk are devout Muslims. Islam and family are the two cornerstones of their lives. They are engaged in agriculture with extensive orchards of super delicious apricots and raise buckwheat. Every home has a home garden where they grow onions, carrots, capsicum, potatoes, and beans for home use and provide some fresh vegetables to the army. They raise donkeys and yaks. Some of the men provide transport to the army carrying supplies to remote army posts.
The people of Turtuk have always been largely self-sufficient. The introduction of tourism has introduced source of income. The availability of education has also encouraged the younger generation to seek higher education and jobs in India.
How did the 1971 military confrontation between India and Pakistan affect life in Turtuk?
On the night of December 13, 1971, a military confrontation flared between India and Pakistan during the liberation war in East Pakistan. The people of this village went to sleep in Pakistan and awoke the next morning in India just before the ceasefire was declared on December 17, 1971. In a single quick incursion the Indian army managed to capture the villages of Turtuk, Tyakshi, Chalunka and Thang. The people in the villages who went to bed in Pakistan awoke to find themselves newly Indian. The villagers of Calungka took all their possessions and fled across the new border into Pakistan. The people in Turtuk and the other two villages chose to stay. They knew that they could support themselves and waited to see what joining India would bring.
Why did you choose Rahima as the focal point of your story/person to exemplify some of the major changes of the region?
What drew me to tell Rahima’s story was her strength in face of adversity. She was one very strong woman who’s life was changed forever in 1971, but she persevered and ended up changing the face of education in the village. Hers is a very inspirational story. It is a story of positivity and hope. She is a Muslim woman who changed the lives and futures of the girls and women in her village. Most of the stories we hear are about the army, the land, the politics. We seldom hear of the people and never learn of the lives of the women.
Are the people in Turtuk concerned about conflicts between India and Pakistan in their daily life?
In every place across the planet there are positive and negative issues. That’s just the way it is. There will be people damaged forever by past events, and there will be others who have chosen to see how to improve their lives in the present.
In Turtuk, to answer your question, for the most part I would say no. Most of the people feel safe. Many feel that their lives are better today. Of course, they miss their relatives on the other side of the border and work quite hard to maintain ties. But they feel that their children are getting benefits that they would not be getting in Frano, the nearest village across the border.
Major Chewang Rinchen, the Indian Army officer leading the campaign, who hailed from a nearby village in Ladakh, said, “Don’t be afraid. We are with you. We’re all human beings.”
Until very recently, their main contacts with India have been with the military. Many now feel a bond with the military. The army has helped them, and they help the army. People from the village provide support, food and companionship to the soldiers. They pack up apricots and send them to the army. In return the army brings bags of rice, lentils and treats for the people of the village. They airlift food when necessary in winter. They educate the children in their schools. There is a mutual respect now. The soldiers play with the children. They say that they miss their own children very much and these children were like theirs.
A big challenge in Rahima’s story is when she is prohibited from crossing the border to see her husband. Is this a typical experience for many families of the region?
All of the families living in this area have relatives across the border in villages under Pakistan. For many years there was no contact. The people would climb hills and flash lights to assure their relatives that they were safe. Because family is very important in this community, all of them felt the loss of their relatives and grieved for the loss of contact.
Many families members were pursuing study, trade or work outside the village in areas that stayed under Pakistan. Mohammed Goba Ali lost his parents due to the conquest when he was six years old. He only met them after forty years. He learned of his brother’s upcoming wedding and watched the festivities through binoculars from the Indian side. After several years postal services were introduced. People shared audio cassettes. Soon phone lines appeared and the renewed contact further increased the temptation to see each other. Now many visit regularly via New Delhi or the Wagah border.
Rahima was the first woman in Turtuk to qualify for a government post. Her daughter Aicha was the first female doctor in Turtuk. Beyond being vital for the success of their family, why were these big career moves so monumental for the village of Turtuk?
It was unheard of for a Muslim woman to get an education back then. When Rahima was young, Madrasa’ offered the only education available. They focused on teaching the Qur’an, the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sacred law and other Islamic subjects. As economies modernized, Muslims who continued to choose Madrasas over other schools found that their children lacked the training needed for well-paid jobs. Their socio-economic mobility suffered.
Rahima came from an educated family, her grand uncle was a famous Balti poet. This and the loss of her husband gave her the time and freedom to focus on her education, and to be independent. She was determined that Aicha should also study.
Aicha came back to help convince families about the business opportunities and the advantages of the women being educated. She soon became the most successful woman in the village, and all the parents wanted their children to be like Aicha. This led all the parents to send their girls to school. Today all the girls go to school, and many of them are very independent, move to the larger cities, have well paid jobs and are able to guide their families to a better life.
At the conclusion of the story, you describe how Turtuk opened up to tourism. How has tourism affected the development of Turtuk and what sort of effects has Turtuk had on its visitors?
In 2010, Turtuk opened it doors to the public for the very first time. Now the people of Turtuk make most of their income on tourism with many of the younger generation working in the nearest cities. They are in turn able to send money back home and also bring back their knowledge to help benefit their small businesses. Turtuk has become even more globally connected.
After reading this story one can see how Rahima lived through some momentous events and suffered through some real tragedy as society changed around her. Did she share any thoughts or insights with you about living through so much change?
Rahima told me that it had been extremely difficult and painful past, but she had overcome it. She had to take care of her family, look to the future and give them the best life possible.
Kartiki, what did you take away from your time with Rahima and the people of Turtuk?
For me the biggest take away was how privileged we all are. And yet, so many feel dissatisfied. We take for granted things like a good education, a home, citizenship, freedom of expression, a home, safety, freedom and, above all, peace. To many these do not exist. The best thing that I took away are some friendships and experiences for life. The Baltistani are very simple, warm, humble, beautiful and extremely resilient people. They take pride in opening up their lives and their rich local culture and traditions to the rest of the world.
Born and raised in India, She documents our natural world to better understand the profound connection that we share with it by bringing awareness to the challenges we face, but also focuses on solutions with her projects and shows success stories where conservation is working. Her ultimate goal is to create a lifetime body of beautiful work that has deep meaning and that carries a message of hope for preserving what we have which will make a difference for the generations to come. She is currently working on a nature documentary in southern India on the bond between an orphaned baby elephant and his human caregivers. Kartiki is also deeply in love with Orcas and enjoys kayaking.
She started Earth spectrum, a company which focuses on visual storytelling through fostering empathy to make a direct impact on the environmental and cultural issues that define our times. Her work can be seen on www.kartikigonsalves.com www.earthspectrum.org