Tag Archives: Bangalore

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

 

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Homesick for India

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It’s been two and a half months since I left India. Time has moved both immensely slowly, as it seems like forever ago that I was surrounded by autos and cows, and motorcycles trying to run me over on the pavements, and yet it’s also gone too quick. I don’t know how I’ve managed to squeeze in so much: writing endless job applications, becoming an Avon lady (needs must, and the makeup is cheap :P), getting a job on my first interview with a London-based charity, starting the job, and finally becoming one of those irritating London commuters who gets frustrated when a tube doesn’t turn up within thirty seconds.

“I heart India”

I’m where I was aiming to be. This was the plan all along – to reach India, get some experience and spend some time away delving deeper into the culture I love so much, and eventually return to land my first real job towards my career in the charity sector. Done. Box ticked.

But that craving and gnawing absence is starting to creep up on me again. It’s the same feeling I had after leaving India the first time in 2009, like an addiction that cannot be numbed or forgotten by anything other than re-immersion in the thing that first caused it.

Indian-born French Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin…aka me, obviously

I don’t even know what it is that I am missing – surely not the lecherous little men, the misogyny, the hopeless inefficiency of every government office…? This time on returning to the UK from a starkly different culture, more strongly than any time before, I can almost taste my own frustration at the banality of some people’s worries and conversation topics. But that’s not it. Everyone becomes absorbed in their daily lives, and the issues relevant to their own bubbles. Indians are definitely guilty of doing it too.

When you’re trying to essentialise a feeling of longing though, for a place, a thing, an idea, it’s like trying to strip down what defines an entire culture to its bare bones. I can’t say what exactly it is about India that has me so hooked, but perhaps it can be most simply put as a sense of belonging, of being home. So many little things which come automatically to me are not shared with those around me in the UK. If I start humming a Bollywood tune, people won’t complain that I’ve got it stuck in their heads all day; when I try and cram myself into (what looks to me) a half-empty tube, people gawp at me; a freudian slip of ‘auntie’ in addressing a stranger makes you weird.

“…Excuse me, auntie…auntie!”

It seems natural to express the very Indian body language of bending my head side-to-side, or flicking out hand from forehead to emphasise a point. My syntax has been irrevocably changed, isn’t it. The non-verbal cues and signals I’ve internalised are now entirely void from the culture that presently surrounds me.

Perhaps then, it is these little everyday embellishments to human interaction which I miss. Without them, the act of conversing seems to fall flat. There’s an absence of nuance, of drama, of the complex social dance that constantly shifts and changes between two people in navigating and judging each other’s social status.

Body language

Whilst histrionics and tantrums can be symptomatic of how many Indians tend to deal with unwanted outcomes, they are part of a tapestry of lively and socially stimulating interactions, without which your life becomes filled with empty time. That dull task of catching your bus is suddenly a thrilling race to nab the driver’s attention, of listening with all your senses for information, a whisper of “is it that one” from the crowd, the satisfaction of navigating the confusing cacphony with practised ease. Like a boss.

Or maybe in England it’s that we’ve forgotten what significant problems really look like against the backdrop of the world. I recently read an article on Armpit August (or something like that), challenging the biased misconception that it’s unfeminine for women to grow out their underarm hair. Fine, go ahead. You actually already have the choice to do it anyway, so you’re not really changing anything, except your own self-acceptance of a certain body image. It’s a little bit sickening against the relentless conveyor-belt of honour crimes, trafficking, rapes, sexual harassment, incest, and gendered poverty that I was fighting whilst with SICHREM. I can’t help feeling disenchanted after having actively battled against such degrees of violence and for seemingly futile gain.

This is perhaps just a rant on my part, and so I shall end on a positive note: instead of grieving for something I know I can’t have right now, I’ll instead try to engage others in all that I find makes India amazing, and special, and irritating but hilarious as hell. Good job it’s Diwali coming up.

Reverse Culture Shock

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Whilst at first the tea tastes watery, the food has no (spice) flavour, and there are too many middle class boys with hipster haircuts overly happy to share their yelled conversations with the street, I am glad to be back. Now that I’m into my fifth day back in England I feel much more at ease with all things England.

High tea

That’s not to say that I didn’t have some problems. Even driving to Bangalore airport at 2am in a taxi on Tuesday morning, a strange nausea started creeping up on me and a dizzying feeling – which I assumed to be the result of hunger (I’m always hungry) and tiredness. After landing and reuniting with my boyfriend however, and with a good night’s sleep, the next day it happened again. We were in one of Woking’s indoor shopping centres when I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. He sat me down in the open cafe area where I felt a little comforted by the sight of a ‘Spice House’, and waited for him to get me something sugary.

Nom nom nom

After wolfing down a Gregg’s doughnut though, I realised it wasn’t just a bout of low blood sugar I periodically experience, but the onset of a growing sense of panic. Everywhere I looked, people were walking around in shorts, and spaghetti strap tops, and bras were hanging out all over the place. Given that it could have been no more than 25 degrees that kind of clothing was clearly absurd.

But it was more than that. I felt suffocated by the silence, the absence of traffic beeping and revving, the empty streets, the conspicuous void of incense-pollution-rotting refuse-cow dung-garam masala mix assaulting the nostrils. It was like being in an alien landscape where all the people had vanished.

Noisy, busy, blissful India

A couple more days in though, and my perception is changing again. Whilst I can’t shake the unsettling sensation that the world before my eyes is a mirage drawn across reality, that Bangalore will re-materialise in due course, it simultaneously feels like I never left. Did I even go to India? Was it all a dream? Though I’m not panicking each time I think about the empty street outside now, and my taste-buds have quickly relished a return to olives, houmous, pizza, and pasta, I’m craving rice and spice, and I’ve been mostly living inside the house of my boyfriend’s parents.

Breathe in that English suburbia

My life is no different being in England. I am still looking for a job, I still too many things to do in inadequately short spaces of time, and I still (apparently) wobble my head all the time. My brother tells me I have an Indian accent – well I pity him for not having one, it’s the best accent in the world.

I think the relative isolation period that I’ve put myself in within the confines of the house is vital to allow my subconcious to adjust. I never fully felt comfortable in India, but I think to some extent I understood it. Whilst I still rail against the misogyny and the corruption, the lack of female autonomy and the stifling social controls on personal movement, I’m finding that home is no longer home. I feel a stranger in my origin culture, and not just at the superficial level. I’m really starting to question the way society is structured in the UK, and gendered behaviours here too. The contrast in how British young men and women behave is too stark against their Indian counterparts not to notice – and I’m not sure I like it anymore. Or perhaps time will erode the harsh edge off my memory, and I’ll quickly come to love my country again.

More than ever though I feel I’ve become part of a British diaspora – a reverse cultural and migrational flow of people, ideals, and values – into modern India. Like anyone whose culture is rooted in one place, as their everyday continues in another, I feel suspended between the two. I cannot go back to being English, but the prejudice and hierarchy of my second home means that neither will I ever become entirely Indian. I want to live in both places, in both cultures, and neither entirely, at the same time. The difficulty lies in negotiating the contradictions between them. What to do, ah? I think several more visits to the land of Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan, for better or worse.

Leaving India

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OK I think it’s time to accept that my blogging is not going to happen on a regular weekly basis – so skipping ahead of Parts 2-4 of my trip around South India, I wanted to officially announce that I’ll be leaving India early.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I arrived in India actually – the combination of homesickness, the longing for some sort of clean street environment, and needing to have a better placement than what SICHREM could offer me. I’ve been mulling and mulling it over for so long, that I’m surprised I managed to stay this long in actuality. Let me expand a bit.

So my problems with SICHREM have been manifold, and mostly I thought that I would be able to work them through as the result of cultural differences. The reality however has been that SICHREM hasn’t been able to offer me the research and career-building opportunities that I wanted. I intended to work explicitly on gender-related projects, and be involved in lots of advocacy, as this is my area of interest. Despite this being communicated throughout my placement and before it, I never got the chance to do any of this. Whilst I’ve been working on two fairly sizeable research projects, the absence of ANY gender-related work has been gradually grinding down my motivation. After the six months mark, I had to hold up my hands and accept that no such opportunities were going to arise, even with my repeated discussions with Mathews (the Executive Director of SICHREM).

The working environment at SICHREM has also been deteriorating in general since my arrival in January, for whatever issues I am not entirely sure. Whilst I’ve been volunteering, four members of staff resigned and moved on, for various reasons. A further two are now on their way out, leaving only two non-admin staff within the entire organisation, to run all of SICHREM’s different programmes and emergency cases. It’s totally unfeasible.

Whilst I am loathe to make this into one epic rant, the continued problems I faced at SICHREM are a huge part of why I want to leave. Never once being thanked for my any of my volunteered time, or efforts – particularly not for the more significant successes which took up so much time – never treated like a professional equal, and always dismissed when I raise suggestions or ideas for improvements. It’s been an incredibly frustrating and de-motivating environment to work in, but I’ve been fighting through it to the best of my ability, discussing things with staff, trying to communicate issues – to no avail. There’s only so much negativity a person can take.

Outside of SICHREM, life has had both high and low points. I still love India, I just can’t love Bangalore. I definitely will be returning, but to a place where the people speak Hindi, where you can see the horizon, where a clean breeze clears the air, and where the people celebrate life…not drudge heads down through rubbish heaps and grey air. I am physically and psychologically suffocated here.

Psychologically suffocated in the sense that if, as a woman, I look up and at people’s faces in the street, the men will leer at you or follow you or shout disgusting insults in Kannada, as if I don’t know what they’re saying. Or sometimes it’s just the man on a bike jeering ‘hey foreigner’. Whilst your movements in public space become policed in this way, I find the confrontation with people’s ideologies in personal interaction far worse. The number of girls who are visibly horrified by the realisation that you walk alone after 7pm at night, or that you use public buses (which are clearly brimming with lascivious men who will rip off your clothes at midday) is depressing. Even worse are the guys – ‘you shouldn’t talk like that’, ‘no you don’t understand [women not having any agency] it’s not safe/moral/right for women to go out alone’. In the UK, I have taken for granted my personal freedom to think, talk, act, dress, eat, sit, and breathe in the way that I want, that it feels like I am trapped inside a moral prison. I cannot be myself in India. Even trying my best to conform, to avoid confrontation (for instance I wear salwar kameez not shorts, I use Kannada words, I follow social convention on buses, in the post office, in SICHREM), I am constantly critiqued and rebutted by idiots who simply see a white face in a kurti. I am not expected or permitted to express ideological thoughts or contrary opinions. I should nod and smile and say ‘sir’ to whatever inadequacy comes out of a man’s mouth, so that I show respect, and am meek, and thus like a good Indian girl. I refuse to hand over my self-respect, however much has already been chipped away, in my upturned hands.

I don’t hate Indian men at all. I just feel that the undue respect and privilege that society has assured them is their right makes most guys totally unaware that other people have contrasting and equally important opinions. When you internalise, and receive daily confirmation of, the idea that you will automatically get what you want and people will listen to you, it makes men arrogant and self-righteous, and sometimes totally shocked when you argue them down.

I can’t wait to be back in a place where people are valued for being the person they are, not for their marriage or earning potential; where others will give equal attention to your voice and ideas and beliefs.

But like true love, you work through the bad parts and keep returning to strengthen that bond which attracted you in the first place. India will always draw me back, I just have to work out that where that perfect balance lies. The magic formula. Maybe it should start with a tattoo?

Bangalore Comic-Con

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comic con express

I wanted Comic-Con to have its own post.

Sowmini and I decided to go as soon as I saw that Bangalore was hosting a Comic-Con event. My room-mate Jadine initially wanted to come too, and as two avid Whovians (Doctor Who fans for those muggles who aren’t so excited by a certain blue box) we entertained the idea of going as different aliens.

Jadine couldn’t make it in the end though, and Sowmini and I were left to fend for ourselves. Then I had it! Why had I never thought of doing Lord of the Rings cosplay before – ever since the films came out (now so long ago) I’ve wanted to be Eowyn…ahem, I mean dress as Eowyn.

So we took a trip to the claustrophobic streets of Shivaji bazaar last weekend in search of fabric and haberdashery. Very pleased with our purchases, we took the stuff to every tailor near to the office in Lingarajapuram, only to be rejected again and again. Turns out most tailors only want to make salwar kameez.

We did manage to dig out a good one back in the depths of the market however, so all was not lost. Late on Friday night, after promises of delivery and wasted trips to pick up items when they weren’t ready, I finally got to view the finished outfits. They looked fantastic. He did such a good job with Eowyn’s dress, and it fit perfectly.

Me in my Thor costume

Our fellow volunteer, and Sowmini’s friend from college, Prarthanna decided to join us at the last minute, so the three of us spent Saturday morning getting ready at my place. We pinned Sowmini’s hair with some silver anklets, and voila – she was Arwen! I rooted out a blond wig from a shop near the apartment, and one more cosplayer – Eowyn-maybe-Heidi. Luckily I’d kept hold of my costume made for the marathon, so Prarthanna donned her papier mache helmet with polystyrene wings, her red curtain cloak, and chainmail top – one Thor!

Comic-Con itself passed in a blur. It was so crowded and hot inside the stadium, moving through the narrow channels was like being part of a shuffling human caterpillar that didn’t know which way to turn its head.

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British Pistol, 18th. Century – Flintlocks | Collectors Heritage

There were stalls full of temptation on every side. I almost cried when the ATM refused my card, and I was forced to choose between House Lannister, House Targaryen, and House Stark in buying a sew-on patch. Obviously being Northern and proud I opted for the direwolf.

Then there was the Abigail-heaven-but-I’m-too-poor-stall selling steampunk pistols and replica lotr swords; a gandalf hat and even Sauron’s mailed hand with the One Ring! *fangasm* I couldn’t afford the 5000 rupee price tag though, so moved onto registering myself for the cosplayer competition and got some over-priced food.

Sowmini and Prarthanna had retreated to the stadium benches by that time. They were definitely not used to being constantly harassed and asked for photos. I think at least 20 people must have asked whether I was Daenerys Stormborn, simply because of the wig. I had a couple of “Are you Rapunzel?”s and even one “She’s Snow White!”. Yes, because they look exactly the same.

There was a girl there as the dragon-queen, with a home-made egg, but the guy who won our category was painted up as Darth Maul. A bit uninteresting in my opinion. Why be Darth Maul when you can be Hans Solo, or Jabba the Hut? He didn’t even have the correct colour light saber!

The guy who won overall had a fantastic getup though. He’d spent four months preparing his fully articulated Iron Man suit, and he’d even wired up bulbs in the palms to get the real light effect. Each piece moved individually. Everyone was yelling his name before they announced the winner, he really deserved to win.

Iron Man cosplayer who won the top prize

Finally, we headed home. The day had been awesome. That night I went to bed far too late with a browser full of steampunk ideas, just waiting to burst into creation. Might have to make a visit back to that tailor.

Getting the Flu

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I’m being incredibly lax in keeping this blog up to date – I guess I just have too much to do (plus my new glee-addiction has taken away much of my spare time). Considering this, I’m going to make a series of posts to break things up a bit.

Since the marathon I’ve been winding down my various projects at SICHREM after deciding to take a month out for travel. Now that my boyfriend is landing in Bangalore tomorrow morning (!) I’m hectically running round trying to finish everything.

I had hoped to get all my loose ends tied up but that turned out to be a vain hope. Now that I’ve left (temporarily) and the other eight volunteers/interns were given their farewell packs on Friday, I still have a quarterly human rights watch report to finish and up to ten interviews to transcribe. Whilst I’m in the holiday mood and I want to relax, I know that I should at least try and finish some more of the report before I go off gallivanting. It was meant to be a quarterly report, and now that the second quarter has come around, it needs to be published asap!

But my weekend which I had planned to use for this has been eaten up by far more exciting events. To celebrate the end of their time with SICHREM, I dressed up in my sari with some of the other girls, and of course there was the usual round of photoshoots and posing. 🙂

We’d planned a trip to see ‘Yeh Jewaani Hai Dewaani’ after the office closed to extend the day, but the film was badly paced, with huge tracts of dialogue and no tension-building, and I kept wandering off. More dancing I say. Things got more interesting when an entire extended family decided to cause a ruckus over seating as they walked in late, toddlers screaming, and women threatening to stop the film, and old women blocking the screen. Sod’s law that they ended up sitting next to us.

After about 15 minutes of people being moved and flashlights giving everyone night-blindness, it then started to rain. The roof began to drip. Much as I like special effects, I’d rather not have an acid-rain shower when I’m inside.

Emerging a bit under-whelmed by the film, we found it was still raining. Finally plucking up the courage to dash for it with Sowmini and Prarthanna behind me, I realised too late that the filthy lake pooled outside the doors was deep. We were already wet, so stood huddled under my sari pallu in the absence of an umbrella. After every auto driver refused to take me to my house, I left the other two and walked the 1km home. Though my sari was a pretty good rain shield, I was still soaked by the time I got into the flat.

That’s when I discovered the water pressure had gone. My hot shower had turned into a tepid trickle. Hardly surprising then that I was gifted a fever, which has now evolved into a fully fledged cold. Even Vicks won’t shift it. Going out to buy bananas wearing a hat and scarf this morning felt a little strange, but I was so cold! Maybe I’m turning Indian, or maybe it’s because Bangalore has lost 10C in the last week. Brrr…26 degrees.

 

A decrepit English girl in the Bangalore marathon

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So rather than starting from where I left off after another extended absence, I’m instead going to fill you in on recent events. 

Today I ran in the Bangalore 10K Marathon with the other SICHREM staff and volunteers, though we participated in the unfit people’s version called the Majja Run – just under 6km. Despite the relatively short distance, and the early start time of 8:30, it was still so swelteringly humid that repeated bottle tipping onto my own head barely staved off heat exhaustion. However, Sowmini (a fellow volunteer, and now my steadfast friend) and I did still run in stops and starts, with a dramatic sprint finish to full paparazzi and random onlookers. 

Extremely pleased with ourselves, we sat down to a celebratory (and complimentary) pack of apple, biscuits, and plain bun(?) to recover. I’m impressed that I even managed to run at all, though my knees have been giving me the horrible feeling that tomorrow will be the time to suffer.

Before the race itself, we entered into the costume competition. Never one to pass up the opportunity to don fancy dress, I’d suggested that we gather the required 10 people to attire themselves along a certain theme, and aim for the 75,000 rupee prize. A week after the idea sprouted, several trips to Shivaji Bazaar, and two frantic days of glueing, sticking, papier mache-ing, and painting later, we emerged as the ‘Human Rights Defenders a.k.a. Avengers’. Each character had their slogan sign – “Right to Life”, or “Right to Education” – and looked pretty stunning up on stage at 7:30 in the morning.

Though we had an illicit DC member in the gang – Superwoman – we stuck to the Marvel Universe overall, with Silver Surfer, Wolverine, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Hulk, Captain America (that plaster of paris shield look fantastic!), Loki and Thor, whom I played. The biggest compliment I received was from a little boy no more than six, who came up to me in the street when I was already wearing full helmet, armour, and cape, and asked, “Are you Thor!?” 😀

Now I’m just sitting at home nursing my aching calves, and waiting to hear the results. 

Invite: Breaking the Binary: Release, Sharing and Discussion of the report

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Yesterday, I attended this meeting with LABIA – a queer feminist women’s group, who were releasing their new report on Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth (PAGFB), and their lived experiences across Indian cities.

An extremely interesting study, a copy of which I of course purchased, presented yesterday through a series of case studies and quotations. I enjoyed listening to their explanations for the empirical methods chosen – for example taking their sample from first wanting to cover individuals not conforming to gender-normative expression, to individuals assigned gender female at birth, thus ensuring that persons self-identifying as ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘other’ were included from a wider angle.

My notes from yesterday’s Bangalore release and discussion of the report can be read here: Breaking the Binary.

 

LABIA’s summary:

Breaking The Binary (2013) is a study by LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. Based on a research initiative that began in 2009, its findings question and challenge many of our fairly basic assumptions about gender, sexuality and sex. That sounds alarming – but only until we realise that this questioning of rigid norms leads to more and more ease that allows people to live and breathe in their own skins rather than suffocate inside somebody else’s impossible boxes.

The sub-title of the study is Understanding concerns and realities of queer persons assigned gender female at birth across a spectrum of lived gender identities and yes, that’s a mouthful. A mind-tingling thought-provoking mouthful of words, which the authors are at some pains to explain and elaborate in their report – and at its release in 6 cities between 27 April and 11 May 2013. For now, suffice it to nrmsay that for this study we spoke to 50 people across the country, and it is their voices and stories that we bring to you, accompanied by our own understanding and analysis.

Through this study, we explore the circumstances of queer PAGFB who are made to, or expected to, fit into society’s norms around gender and sexuality. We look at their experiences with natal families and in school; we chart their journeys through intimate relationships and jobs; we attempt to understand what happens to them in public spaces, and how they are treated by various state agencies; we discover where they seek and find support, community, and a refuge from the violence and discrimination that mark far too many lives.

Most significantly, this research has given us new insights into gender itself, which we feel are crucial additions to the current discourse in both queer and feminist spaces. Finally, the study flags areas of particular concern, and highlights some necessary interventions.

We ourselves are amazed at the richness and complexity of our findings and are impelled by the need to share these as widely as possible with all queer and feminist groups and individuals, activists and academics, all people working specifically with LBT persons as well as broadly in the areas of gender and sexuality — and of course all of us who are interested in knowing more about our selves.

https://sites.google.com/site/labiacollective/we-do/research

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.

Work-a-holism

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So I realise that I’ve been extremely lax in keeping my blog posts up to date, but that is largely due to the lack of interesting things happening of late.

In the first week of April I moved out of the paying guesthouse with the family, to the blessedly laid-back flatshare with four other girls. Between working flat out at the office, and coming back and spending a good hour making food every night, I’ve had very little free time over the past couple of weeks.

Our cockroach-infested kitchen has also been taking up my weekend hours – despite employing a maid six days a week to supposedly clean the entire apartment, in my need to satiate my OCD urges, I realised that she can only be pushing dirt around with a mop. Just last night, the stains which I believed were permanent on the marble living room floor actually came off pretty quickly with some gentle floor cleaner and angry mopping. My discovery of these little chalk pesticide sticks in a kitchen cupboard also proved to be a godsend against the cockroach onslaught.

In the office, my report on the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission has been coming together, as I actually started conducting several interviews in person with members of various civil society organisations. The Commission however remains uncommunicative and actively opposes SICHREM conducting the report, so I’m currently trying to obtain all the information I need from outside the Commission itself. It’s interesting to hear all the damning opinions, especially when everyone holds the same contentions against the Commission! It reminds me of doing my dissertation research, and I’m happy in the practical research, but my other project collating newspaper articles for the quarterly report is mind-numbingly boring. I can barely motivate myself to finish it, which makes it even more difficult to move onto the exciting stuff.

Mathews (the boss) has promised me a place beside our legal advocate on his gender-related complaints that come in, and the chance to do some fact-findings into certain cases – which means ascertaining facts as much as possible from both the victim’s and perpetrator’s sides to produce a report. Let’s hope it turns out to be interesting, as I’m steadily going mad due to lack of interest in my (mostly) non-gender-related work.

Yesterday I accompanied Jaydine to Commercial Street for some retail therapy and to get out of the flat (though I did manage to squeeze in some more cleaning!) and inadvertently splurged a shocking amount of rupees on cushion covers and wall hangings. I mean, who can blame me for buying 10 covers when they’re all so beautiful? And you can never have too many cushions. I had to extricate myself from a love affair with a gorgeous carved circular wooden table too – it’s not that I don’t intend to buy furniture, it’s just that I really want it to be committed to me (meaning that it still has to make me be in love with it after at least a week). A little voice in the back of my head is telling me to buy it though, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to last that long.

Aside from the few events over the past fortnight or so, little else has happened. I am learning to cook some Indian dishes after an emergency trip to a nearby book shop for a recipe book, and taking my Hindi lessons every day now (which is intense to say the least).

For me, life in India is just like life back home – everything becomes normal, and you forget to notice each new thing. The weeks continue and the work deadlines keep getting pushed back, and there never seems to be a convenient time to visit all the places you want to see (or the remaining places in Bangalore are just not worth seeing). I’m still yet to enrol in a yoga class, mainly due to a complete lack of time, and a convenient place to take the classes nearby. I think my life right now can be encapsulated nicely by the recent themes which permeate my dreams: arguing with rickshaw drivers, buying vegetables, worrying about money, Hindi homework, office work, getting my salwar stitched, and anxiously waiting for my boyfriend to hurry up and arrive in India. Why can’t it be June already?

The one last thing that I almost forgot to mention is my upcoming participation in the Bangalore 10K marathon, which SICHREM and all its staff participate in annually as their main fundraising event. Now I’m not very sporty, and definitely far too rheumatic to run anywhere, but in the 40 degree heat I think I may very well actually succumb to heat exhaustion. To say I’m not looking forward to it is such an understatement it’s insulting – I WILL die. I hope the male staff members will be strong enough to complete it carrying me. J

Anyway, I’m taking sponsorship for the run here: http://bangalorecares.in/ngofundraise-detail/?fund=270&evt_id=4