Tag Archives: auto

England or India; India or England?

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I’ve now been back in England for seven months, and working for a substance misuse charity in central London for most of that time. My job is ending in March however, so I’m increasingly reassessing whether to stay in my native country, or to return to India. The daily routine of my seven months in Bangalore last year were fundamentally the same as my routine in London since – wake up, commute, work in the office, go home, eat, sleep – but it was the weekends that made the difference. Travelling around the incense bazaars of Mysore or seeing the damage wreaked by the Tsunami along Tamil Nadu’s coast, set against sitting inside hiding from the English rain. By writing this article I hope to aid my decision to some extent, and try to pinpoint the crucial element in each that inexplicably grabs at my heart strings.

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The things I miss most about Bangalore are of course the things I miss most about India: the colour, the smells, the sounds. I know it’s leaning towards a stereotype here, but there really is no easy way to describe and deconstruct such a complex and heady mixture of texture and culture and movement that is the chaotic way of everyday life. Whilst Bangalore has its share of pollution, waste heaps, stray dogs, beggars, corrupt officials, and murders like most other cities on the sub-continent, it also benefits from all that draws so many travellers to this country. I don’t know whether it’s the garam masala permeating the streets that is the secret ingredient, or the hot chai drunk at the roadside as it is best enjoyed; maybe it’s the times when a neighbour or business owner down the street brings round barfi and halwa sweets to celebrate a family marriage. How to distil such a deep-rooted longing for another culture into its essence? It may be simplest just to say that it feels like home.

I like the way that when you wear a sari to work men suddenly start calling you ‘sister’ (instead of ‘foreigner’) and auto-rickshaw drivers forget to extort you. Instead they just flip on the meter and drive straight, as if wearing jeans at any other time would make me forget what it costs to travel to the office. I like that I can cover myself in a different mehndi design every other week if I want and people wouldn’t comment that I’m strange – it’s just part of a normal fashion statement. I like watching the latest Bollywood hit (or miss – take Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani for example) to the exuberant wolf whistles and applause of the cinema-going crowd and losing yourself to the story, the songs, and the dances. It’s almost a way of life, and I can be happy in the knowledge that I am surrounded by others who love it as much as I do. 

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More than the clothes and the sweets and incense though is the history, India’s political past, corrupt present, and the complex intersection of class, caste, and religion. The ticking bomb of racial and religious tensions is ever-present – as evidenced by a bomb blast in Hyderabad during my stay, which exploded in a bus station not dissimilar to my local one in Bangalore. It is also responsible too though for a melting pot of cross-cultural influence, when so many groups, sub-groups, political alliances, caste boundaries, and gender roles are shifting and blurring. This fusion space is increasingly occupied by civil society and women’s groups and helping to foster movements like the first One Billion Rising event in 2013.  

Of course I could not forget to mention the temples, the monuments, the festivals, the landscape: attending ceremonies for moving into a new house, ceremonies for reaching puberty, ceremonies for a new betrothal, ceremonies for marriages; doing puja to Shiva, Lakshmi, Krishna, Ganesh – whichever god you need the most to fulfil your desire for a safe journey or a prosperous business venture. The landscapes that on a single train journey shift between horizon-wide swathes of banana and coconut trees, to Ooty tea plantations and later, to Rajasthani desert. India is so vast it truly deserves the name ‘sub-continent’, and I only wish I had enough years in me to make enough journeys across its face.

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The dull winter skies of the London commute are unbearably suffocating by comparison. Emerging from the tube each morning like a burrowing creature covered in dirt and pollution, I see grey streets with grey buildings and everyone wearing black. Everyone. The more days I work the 9-5-London-office routine and the greater numbers of London breaths I take, the more toxic and transparent I feel I become. It’s not just the monotony however. There’s an absence of joy, or kindness, or warmth in the passing of hundreds of faceless people each day. There are more people jammed into buses and streets in Bangalore, but the natural inclination is to assist and accommodate others, not ignore them.

England does have it benefits – the obvious one being fewer lecherous stares and wondering hands for a start. They do still exist though, as I was nicely reminded by a slimy little man on southwest trains last week. More strikingly it’s the absence of such overt sexism and gender inequality in everyday life though, that really changes how I inhabit outdoor space in the UK. The dominant ideology in this culture does not assume that women have no right to occupy public space, and instead allows me to wander unhindered and un-harassed as I please, though I’m sure that if I was to be attacked, we could rely on rape apologists to blame my dress-sense instead of the perpetrator.

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Then there’s the better pay, the better quality of fresh food (meat especially), and the efficiency, for the most part. Commuters might bemoan the national rail service, and colleagues decry local authority bureaucracy, council incapabilities, and ineffectual police forces – but from my perspective we’re incredibly lucky. These services are free, and you don’t have to bribe anyone to get justice, or your entitlements, or be insulted by the guy behind the desk for daring to give him some work. The system does function here, and it’s transparent which is the most important thing.

All in all, drawing London and Bangalore, England and India, side by side is as difficult as comparing chalk with cheese. How do I reconcile that my right to move and do and speak as I like, which I have taken so much for granted growing up, is not only frowned upon but actively discouraged in India? How can I be the outspoken feminist that I am in a country which values duty and respect over equality? The simple answer: shout louder, and alongside the courageous women already doing it.

But what about England. At what point do I accept that English culture doesn’t hold the best value for me? Is it about perspective and the contrast with India, or does it run deeper than that? When can I pass that invisible threshold which tells me that I am definitely going to be happy or not here? I feel like I’m in a constant state of flux trapped between two places and two lives, present in one and always wanting the other at the same time. Coming to the end of this piece I actually feel no wiser, so in my best interests, perhaps a quick trip to somewhere warm and Hindi-speaking would help settle my mind a little…

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Moi, proof I was there!KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

 

Travels and Tribulations: Part 3

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Waking up to the steady rain of Kochi on the morning of Tuesday 18th June, we caught a ferry across to the old fort for 2.50 rupees. Who ever actually has a 50 paise coin on them? It didn’t matter anyhow seeing as there was two of us.

With ambitious plans in our heads to discover the man-made island in a day, we didn’t arrive at the jetty until lunchtime. As we stood near the eager auto-drivers, I felt a sharp sting on my right shoulder, and turned around to see a huge ant shaped like a spider scuttling away. It was like having a bee sting!

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Feeling sorry for myself, we headed to the Dutch Palace, which turned out to be a hidden gem. Lonely Planet didn’t get it wrong for once! Inside the professionally presented artefacts and information boards covered everything from the rajas outfits and weaponry, to crumbling murals of the Ramayana in the other rooms – including one of a demon having her breasts and nose cut off. Charming.

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Then in a bid to reach a synagogue (I don’t know why it was meant to be special) in ‘Jew Town’, we became distracted by a myriad of emporiums selling leather bags, brass deities, lotus-shaped incense holders, chess boards, and dressing stands. There was even one hoarding a 30m long, 10 year-old Snake Boat – from the still annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where each colossal canoe is powered by 100 men – that dominated the entire shop.

Calling it quits, we grabbed some overpriced tea and cake from a shop-cum-art gallery before heading off to see the Chinese fishing nets. Exhausted, we jumped back on the ferry, and Roy reached new levels of zoologist ecstasy at the giant fruit bats circling round the landing jetty.

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To finish where we left off, the next day saw us back on the ferry to reach the Dutch Cemetery (a let down) and the Maritime Museum (it was closed). Taking shelter from the rain inside a convenient ice-cream parlour, we were treated to an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls. Several Hindu deities were painted in a style that I can only say reminded me of the Disney ‘Hercules’ film – but it worked.

To fulfil our tourist obligation of appreciating the local culture, we ventured to the cultural centre. One and a half hours of Kathakalli Dance later, and we were suitably enlightened, if not very bored. Whilst the fantastical costumes were good to look at, the dance itself revolved entirely around facial gestures, eye movements, and hand positioning. A surprise ending helped wake us up again though, as the female character whipped around screaming and holding her hair on her lip like a moustache. More of that would have been made the whole thing far more interesting!

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We made it to Alleppey the next day, and after some running around managed to secure a houseboat to take us round the slow backwaters that Kerala is so famous for. Converted from old rice barges, these boats ranged from (our) cheap and cheerful single-kitchen-and-bedroom option, to floating palaces with A/C and separate sunbathing areas, not forgetting surround sound home cinema system!

Though it was still raining our 24 hours on the backwaters took us through narrow waterways and huge open lakes; past paddy fields hovering several metres below the canals; around man-made islands where women washed dishes or laundry and men fished; and to an overnight mooring at our captain’s home.

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Jumping between dry patches along the paths almost totally flooded by the monsoon rains, we glimpsed a Snake Boat team drilling for the August race. Roy ‘rescued’ a fish, which turned out to be the supper of two fishermen sat not two metres away. They didn’t manage to catch another one.

Finally, after a delicious dinner cooked by the on-board chef, and a good sleep rocking on the water, we headed to the Funky Art Beach House back on solid land. Not spitting distance from the waves crashing onto the white sandy beach, we spent the next few days lazily meandering up and down the sand, trying each of the different local restaurants, and chasing crabs in the dark on the way back. One morning I woke up to the sound of a gang of scrawny old fishermen heaving their boat towards the shore, and then found a litter of shivering puppies in the sand when I went to investigate!

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Thankfully they were still alive the following morning, sunbathing under the protection of an upturned boat. We ventured into town that afternoon on two bicycles so rickety, their handlebars were both on backwards. Navigating the Indian traffic was actually less terrifying than expected, though I guess it helps when you act like you own the road.

Leaving the relaxation and sea air of Alleppey was hard, but we’d already axed so many places from our original itinerary – Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Park, Madurai, Rameswaram – that it was time to move on. Resigned to sharing a single narrow bunk on the over-booked sleeper train, we started towards Chennai that night. Luck was feeling generous however, and a couple doubled up with their children to give us one each. Not to say that it was any more comfortable though.

An auto-wallah’s woes

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So I went to my colleague and friend Chithra’s niece’s coming-of-age party tonight, wearing my best cotton salwar kameez with my new heeled sandals. I even bothered to put full make-up on, and despite having to walk a good km or so to find the place, it managed not to melt off my face!

After accidentally gate-crashing the wrong party, I finally found the right function room, with a single lady sitting inside. We spent half an hour chatting before the hordes of relatives arrived with the girl in question. Only eleven years old, she was decked up in several long, gold necklaces and jewellery over her ears and hair. The photographer who had been milling about beforehand succeeded in creating a little photoshoot for her, before Chithra finally arrived.

Having already performed the puja on Friday as the eldest aunt, Chithra’s younger sister instead took responsibility for arranging the trays of gifts to give to the girl. There were so many plates, of coconuts, bananas, apples, mithai, clothing, glass bangles, chocolate…I lost count. Once all presented, guests then filed up to give their own presents, and I gave my little cake in its box which I’d agonised over that afternoon.

Food then followed of course, with lots of the same questions from different people, and random guests who wanting to photograph me eating. Ah well, better than the usual idiots following you with their phones as you walk along the street.

Full, happy, tired (due to a crazy weekend sleep pattern), I hailed an auto outside the church hall. Against the odds, the driver was a decent one on the first try, and didn’t even argue about turning on the meter. On the short drive back to Frazer Town, I overhead the words ‘admitted’ and ‘hospital’ when he got a phone call. A few seconds later he began narrating his difficulty to me – his heavily pregnant wife needed admitting into the government hospital, to give birth, but the doctor was asking for a 1000 rupee bribe. Government hospitals are meant to be free. An auto-wallah has no chance of getting such an amount of money.

There was a recent case not two weeks back where a slum-dweller was asked for the same fee to be admitted. Unable to pay, she was turned away, and ended up giving birth on a footpath on her way back home.

He told me how his friend was meant to be lending them the cash, but wasn’t delivering it as planned (I think this is the gist of it). When I asked him why he shouldn’t report this doctor to the police, and not pay the bribe, he simply replied that it would do no good – they are all corrupt. Same old story.

I really felt for him, and wished him my best as I got out of the auto. He was such a sweet guy, and he even complimented me on my salwar kameez! I really hope his wife gets to have a safe delivery – there’s no way out for people in his situation. When the police will turn you away from the station simply because you don’t speak Kannada, what hope is there? It reminds me why SICHREM’s work is so important.