Tag Archives: Bangalore

Ups and downs

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Having just realised how shockingly long it’s been since my last blog update, I though I better submit something interesting for this post. Luckily, a lot has been happening this week.

First off, I made a trip to KR Market last weekend to stock up on bargain saris to sell on as a bit of ongoing fundraising whilst I’m out here. Intending to get a maximum of 10, and naively believing they would easily fit into my little day-rucksack, I ended up splurging on 15 (they’re just such a bargain!) and having to lug three heavy bags round Bangalore for the rest of the day.

And so it was that I met Emma on MG Road, sweaty and with grooves bitten into my fingers after carrying the bags for a good couple of kilometres from the bus stop. The handicrafts emporium we had marked out to visit that Sunday was supposedly holding a special event over the weekend, which turned out to be underwhelming. The rest of the shop however was a dangerous place for a girl like me to be. The first aisle I walked down was filled with art prints and paintings, and on the opposite wall shelves were piled high with different carved deities. Then I spotted a wall hanging, and after dashing towards it, saw some wooden inlaid boxes. When I rushed towards those, I then spotted a huge wooden chest covered in ornate brass patterns. Emma didn’t seem to mind my sudden onset of shop-mania, symptomised by frequent cries of, “Oh LOOK, it’s a little wooden chair,” “Emma, there are cushions!” “Oh my God, I have to buy this [huge carved hinged wooden screen].” Fortunately for me, most of it was very expensive, and even more extortionate to ship back to England, so I settled for a couple of small items as presents, and we headed off for some lunch.

I seized the chance to eat some north Indian food at the restaurant we found, and ate myself into a semi-coma of happiness. The past few weeks have been getting increasingly difficult for me – from a combination of homesickness, disliking south Indian food, still not developing any spice tolerance, and needing some mental space alone. This time last week I had to take a couple of days away from the office, I was so fatigued and my joints were that painful I could barely walk. Combined with my recent weight loss, and the constant shaking in my hands, I realised that I needed to start eating food that wasn’t spicy, otherwise I would end up starving myself into hospital.

Whilst I brought the food situation a little more under my control by cooking pasta for lunch (envisage my stomach smiling happily), privacy is still an issue. Being quite a private person in England, in India, my personal space feels constantly under threat – from the lines of staring faces in the street and male fumblings at every opportunity, to the suffocating way that Indian hospitality is expressed – and it quickly becomes mentally exhausting.

I’m fully aware that this emotional crisis is the result of several factors coming together, and taken alone, each one would certainly be manageable. It still doesn’t make things any easier however. I found a piece written here, which sums it up nicely I think:

Patience – I think attitude is everything with culture shock. I’ve learnt to realize that for a while when moving to a new place I’m not going to know as much I knew in my home country. I don’t expect to know everything because things are very new. And when I am patient with myself I am able to focus on enjoying the process of learning about a new country.

Persistence – I believe that is it important to invest energy into the life that you are looking for. I think it’s important to set goals and do everything you can to achieve them. I think that knowing what you are working for can keep you motivated during very difficult times.

Positivity -Finding ways to stay positive through culture shock is very important. Staying positive for me is doing anything that brings you joy. Doing things like calling home, making new friends, asking for help when you need it, and exercising, are EXTREMELY important. Over time, I have realized that these are the MOST important things to keep doing when things get hard.

via The 3 Ps of Culture Shock | InterNations Blog.

A brief interlude came on Monday morning though, with a wedding invite for all of the SICHREM staff. Leaving only 20 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start, at the auspicious and exact time of 12:35, I knew that we would not make it in time, seeing as the journey took closer to 40 minutes. Undeterred, Liz the front-desk wonder-woman, ‘Pattiamma’ (Kannada for grandmother) our cutie cleaning lady, myself, Julika, and three others hopped into the executive director’s car.

En route to the wedding (LTR: Liz, Pattiamma, Me)

En route to the wedding (LTR: Liz, Pattiamma, Me)

We arrived in our everyday office clothes to the most extravangant wedding I have ever seen. We walked down a red carpet laid underneath a long row of curved arches, towards a huge building where each step up to the main door was drowned in flowers, and divided by four huge golden elephants. Inside, hundreds of guests dressed up in their best were milling around. Each woman I passed as we entered seemed to be wearing more gold than the last, and some of the younger girls looked as if they were living dolls, their sari pleats pressed perfectly into place, and their braids hanging straight and long down their backs. Everyone had flowers in their hair too. The men were also in their finery, some in long, high-necked kurtas, others in dhoti.

As a group we queued in the press to present our gift of flowers to the happy couple, and the bride’s father who had invited us showed me and Julika how to bless them in the Hindu fashion. We poured milk three times onto their joined hands as they held two cones of rolled up leaves between them, and sprinkled rice three times onto each of their heads. When it was her turn, Pattiamma zealously touched the young bride’s forehead to take her blessing, and then her neck covered in gold jewellery, and then her arm, and hand, until her father eventually dragged her off!

After that, it seemed all of the formalities were over, and it was time to eat. Downstairs were hundreds more guests eating in rows, as serving staff rolled out paper tablecloths along long lines of tables, and laid down the food in a conveyor belt serving style. When we received our own banana leaf-cum-plates, they were rapidly filled with such a range of the most delicious food that I couldn’t keep up with the courses. Everyone else was eating so fast that I skipped the rice to go to dessert – an amazing ladoo-type sweet atop a puri drowned in milk and sugar. Divine! There was time to scoff some ice-cream and fruit salad on offer at the side of the hall before we headed back to the office. A good day’s work all in all.

The following day was Julika’s last at the office, before she spends her remaining time in India travelling. Everyone said their goodbyes, though she plans to return at the end of the month before flying home – so I won’t write my farewells just yet.

Every other day has blurred into one. Office-in, office-out. Today was different though. International Women’s Day called for a special effort, so all of SICHREM’s female office staff (including myself obviously) came to work dressed in saris. I decided on my new dark green bargain purchased at KR Market a fortnight back, which ended up being re-folded four or five times by different people throughout the morning. Chithra floated in just before the morning meeting with some garlands for everyone. Despite my protests that I lacked any sort of hair length on which to hang mine, I was rescued by Rose, our chai-devi, who pinned it artfully into some sort of bun. Whilst the power was out, and all the computers therefore off, rounds of photos ensued with different people in different combinations. Again, Chithra in her commanding way managed to get me wearing a large red bindi as suited the occasion, and subsequently wanted to get photographic proof.

It was a fun way to start my weekend, especially given the mountain of work I can see peeking round next week’s corner. Until then, I intend to enjoy myself.

Trafficking, tourism, and death penalties

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A brief update on the week for you.

Last Friday saw me attending a workshop on the prevention of trafficking, at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. It was good to learn a bit more about trafficking in general, and it highlighted lots of things I never knew. Karnataka it turns out is the second highest source region for trafficking in India, and a lot of girls are tricked away from Bangalore itself, at one of the major bus stations. Most shockingly, I learnt that the vast, vast majority of street beggars, especially those under the age of 12, have been trafficked (often from the other end of the country), and forced to beg under a person who holds them captive under threat or sedative drugs. More information on the institute can be found here.

Following this, I went to my first Hindi lesson the next day, where the domineering but very efficient teacher gave me a crash course in the alphabet and naming body parts. Classic beginner’s first lesson! Having spent the last week completing the homework she set me, I’m a little nervous for tomorrow’s second installment  I’d like to learn the second half of the alphabet though, so I can’t really find an excuse to run away!

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Jama Masjid

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Gateway at the fort

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Hanuman statue at a temple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday became an unashamedly touristy day. I made a beeline for the Sri Kanteerava Stadium near Cubbon Park, where I eventually found what I was looking for after spending half an hour walking around the entire thing. The climbing wall was a stand-alone, outdoor facility with three sides – maybe 15 feet tall. It was totally abandoned though, and I didn’t have any ropes or quickdraws with which to climb, so I set to some low-level bouldering. My pumps were poorly suited to it however, and I soon had to give up, meaning to return for their climbing league in the near future.

Next on the list was a visit to the Jama Masjid about two kilometres southwest, where, after eventually finding the right entrance, unknowingly parked myself right where the 1’o’clock prayers would commence. Stupid, uncultured westerner. I even tried to be sensitive beforehand by finding my way up to the women’s quarters, but the room was filled with women crashed out asleep in the dark. After the Imam very gently directed me to shift my bum to a more suitable location, I made my way out to the nearby KR Market for some retail therapy.

It was a huge, stinking place, but full of activity and traders calling out. Between the cowpats and mud streaked by tyre treads, everything from shabji to sarees to books was on sale. Finding myself drawn to a fixed-price pile of saris on the pavement, I became part of a horde of women vying to get the best piece. In the end I settled for a dark green cotton blend sari, strangely embroidered in places with a baby’s face, and a second in red and gold satin sheen. Very pleased with my bargain purchases at 200 rupees each, I trotted off up the street, only to walk past several more stalls and shops selling the very same for only 150!

I carried on to Bangalore’s fort, Tipu Sultan’s Palace, the Bull Temple and Dodda Ganesha Temple. By the time I was finished, the opening night of the art exhibition in which my work was being displayed was about to begin.

There I met Emma, as the inauguration began. Various members of the small gathering added their taper to the large diya stood in the room’s centre, before a few individuals said some words about the One Billion Rising movement. Then we all had chai – obviously the most important part of the evening! I found my own painting in a corner, and was astounded at the price the gallery had placed on it. Prices on different canvases there ranged from 5000/- to 18,000/-. My own picture was up for 8000/-! Even in pound sterling that rounds to £100! And it’s not a painting I’m particularly proud of, given that I had only a few hours to produce it. Does this mean I can officially call myself an artist now?

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My painting on the theme of One Billion Rising

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Astounded by the price tag!

I didn’t think the week could get more exciting, but Mathews asked me on Tuesday morning to draft an emergency memorandum on the need to abolish the death penalty. Four men had been sentenced to death the day before, and SICHREM was desperately trying to halt the hangings.

He called me and Chithra – a hilarious, bossy and exceedingly kind lady – to the court where most of SICHREM’s staff were that day. They had been arrested for protesting in January on a different issue, and whilst the hearing continued Mathews finalised the document with me. It became a petition, which various individuals and civil society members signed at a protest later that day, and was given to the governor of Bangalore.

I’m pleased to say that the whole process had the desired result, staying the men’s deaths by six weeks. Some semblance of democracy has been restored in Bangalore, and SICHREM has been doing its job excellently once again! I feel proud to be part of this organisation.

One Billion Rising in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

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Valentine’s Day this year was more special than usual. Instead of the romantic day out with a meal or flowers, I headed to CubbonPark for a different sort of event.As Julika and I wound our way through the park, we became increasingly lost. After several phone calls and accosting strangers for directions, we finally stumbled upon our destination, where we could see banners and more and more people milling around.

The crowd surrounded a group of young teenage girls performing a dance where they would hit a metal handheld block with small symbols in time with singers standing nearby. Then they began doing acrobatics, and group formations, which culminated in a fantastic three-tiered human pyramid.

Their mothers then started singing and dancing to the beat of a tambourine, as a much larger group of protesters made their way jubilantly across the busy junction next to the park.  Carrying banners and wearing ribbons tied around their heads, proclaiming an end to violence against women,  the women also started dancing in the road clashing sticks and singing. Some men accompanied them in the rear beating drums, and everyone was shouting slogans in Kannada. I felt like I was missing the significance of some of these events due to the language barrier, especially when a handful of balloons were suddenly and ceremoniously released amidst the confusion.

The ensuing disco rave however was much easier to be involved with. Every woman there, of which there were a few hundred, began jumping up and down ecstatically, and dragging me and Julika in to dance with them. There was a real feeling of being part of something bigger, and of barriers breaking down. Dalit women were dancing next to students and middle-class office workers. It was a very real celebration of being a woman, by women.After a few songs over the loudspeakers, I drifted away to watch a couple more dancing groups spread along the road further into the park. Each group had an entirely different style of music and dancing, but people were again joining in with wild fervour at every opportunity, no matter what their own cultural background.

Feeling the need to exercise my shrivelling artistic skill, I added my own message to the plain banner strung 50 feet along the fence. It was only after Julika had written her message, and we regrouped under the shade of the bamboo trees for a bit of relaxation, that I realised others were painting canvases. And these canvases were free! Anyone could grab one and paint their masterpiece as part of the event. There were some fantastic images emerging from others’ brushes, and I walked around for a bit trying to think of an idea which would fit the theme of One Billion Rising, and also stand up next to these other works.

Once it came I set up camp on some plastic chairs and cheekily borrowed a neighbour’s brushes. Many people were wondering around watching the painters, some with brushes, others using fingers. I was concentrating hard when a reporter squatted down next to my chair from the Hindu (a national newspaper) and began interviewing me! And I actually got a mention too! There were some more reporters from other papers and institutions, and a cameraman with a female reporter also panned past my canvas as they walked around the area. The Indian media really loves to include foreigners in its news.

3-4 hours and 24 mosquito bites later, I put the last touches to my canvas under torchlight from a stranger’s phone. The candlelit vigil was being held under the trees nearby, as individuals told their stories of survival and resistance, and everyone held a candle in a paper cup. I was sad to have missed it, but felt like I had released so much stress through the process of painting. When I walked my picture over to the stand I was told that all the works were being submitted to an exhibition. I couldn’t believe that not only had I been in the paper twice in one week, but I was now also having my artwork put into an actual gallery.

More importantly, the One Billion Rising event had been a fantastic success, with cars and police stopping to take note, lines of office workers pressed against the glass of their city towers for a better look, and so many women making a stand against the culture of violence which permeates not just Indian society, but so many societies across the world. Oh India you are spoiling me!

VIBGYOR – A week at Thrissur’s International Film Festival, Kerala

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Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.

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VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur

After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.

9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.

Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”

Spying on the elephants

Spying on the elephants

We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.

The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.

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The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.

There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.

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Stolen Democracies

Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.

When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.

The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.

This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.

Famous at last!

We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.

   

My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.

KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

KG Babu’s portrait of yours truly

Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.

It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.

Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

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Art Galleries and Women’s Rights

Another exciting weekend as my third week in India draws to a close. Working days in the office so far this week have been fairly uneventful. I’ve been busy getting on with my assigned tasks, and though it’s very difficult working six days a week, sat in an office all day, I’m starting to get used to it.

Each morning I trawl the same six newspapers and select articles relating to human rights violations, or issues in general, and collect them to put into a quarterly report. This is my daily task for the year, and I’ll be doing four such reports, and hopefully the data will then contribute to a much larger annual report from SICHREM as a whole.

In addition to that, I’ve been working on a funding proposal for their Human Rights Helpline. My other longer-term task is to conduct a larger research project into the functioning of the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission; interviewing Members and the Chairperson, as well as several civil society groups dealing with the Commission. I’ll hopefully finish my research and get the report written at least by May, which will then be published as part of SICHREM’s series of short reports they are bringing out. My own name in print!

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More excitingly though, Julika and I got called into Mr Mathews’ office on Friday. Thinking this could only be bad, I was totally surprised when he asked if we wanted to go to Kerala on SICHREM’s behalf, all expenses paid. “I’ll give you some days to think about it and give me your decision,” he says. Julika and I both instantly told him it was a definite yes. So as of this Thursday, we’ll be manning a stall at Thrissur’s own international film festival – VIBGYOR – raising money from the sale of SICHREM’s own branded mugs etc. Even better, we’re free to watch whatever films we like in between stall sessions, and attend talks and debates that are also happening alongside. I’ve already been poring over my Lonely Planet guide for things to do.

On Saturday I got the chance to accompany Chithra to a meeting with representatives from several other NGOs, where the discussion centred around an upcoming event they were planning. It was only when we arrived that I learnt we were at the offices of Vimochana – a charity I’d heard about in England, who work with gender issues and women’s rights – so I was in my element! The event being organised was to coincide with the global movement 1 Billion Rising. This movement is a protest by women the world over against the growing culture of violence in so many countries, and aims to use dance and movement as a means of resistance and hope.

 

So the event is going to focus on these two themes, using dance, music, poetry and spoken word, street plays, painting, rangolis on the street, and a candle-lit march at sundown. Amidst the continuous stream of argument and voices talking over one another, it emerged that they hoped to mobilise between 5000 and 10,000 people! I had no idea how big this way going to be. So many passionate individuals from youth theatre groups were there, and people were talking about flash mobs, and occupying the Police Commissioner’s office to get permission for the day. I can’t wait to be involved! I’m hoping I might be able to offer to document the day in some form with my camera, or blogging – who knows.

After the meeting, I went back to my original plan for the half-day, and continued onto a supposedly good area to shop called Kammanahalli, where I ended up buying material for four outfits (they’re just all so nice).

Sunday came and I left to meet a fellow volunteer from 2WayDevelopment called Emma, who was stationed with street children’s charity BOSCO. After Thalli, and exchanging stories of our respective placements, we spent the hot afternoon in CubbonPark. It was free – a nice surprise in a country where even looking is a commodity – and full of couples and children playing cricket. The place was stuffed with huge bamboo stalks and lots of massive, spreading trees that I wish I knew the name of. To tick some things off the tourist list, we headed over to the Government-run museum and art gallery within the park, which again was only 4 Rs, with no foreigner’s tax! Though the museum was full of poorly-labelled pottery fragments and weaponry (some shining examples were “brick”, “clay pieces”, and “swords”), the art gallery had plenty of interesting statues (read lots of very busty women in a state of undress) and some modern canvases upstairs.

We discovered a quiet spot next to a lily pond, and sat for a bit in the shade, before following the sound of loud drum beats and music to an event in a stadium nearby. It turns out this was an inspirational event being held to encourage young Bangaloreans to volunteer in their communities. We could glimpse some men dancing and playing drums, but felt a bit out of place with everyone else there wearing the event’s branded t-shirt.

Leaving for MG Road, the main shopping street, we stopped at India’s version of Starbucks – Café Coffee Day. Though ludicrously priced, the slice of chocolate cake I had, with melting sauce and toffee centre, was so delicious I didn’t really care. I’ve been craving cake since I got here! After a quick look at some books further up the road, the afternoon was getting late, so we parted ways and planned to meet up again. Hopefully at 1 Billion Rising!

ONE IN THREE WOMEN ON THE PLANET WILL BE RAPED OR BEATEN IN HER LIFETIME.

ONE BILLION WOMEN VIOLATED IS AN ATROCITY

ONE BILLION WOMEN DANCING IS A REVOLUTION

On V-Day’s 15th Anniversary, 14 February 2013, we are inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence. ONE BILLION RISING will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders.

What does ONE BILLION look like? On 14 February 2013, it will look like a REVOLUTION.

via One Billion Rising.

Mysore

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This weekend has been an eventful one. Julika and I left for the nearby city of Mysore early on Saturday morning, catching a local bus which only took three hours or so, and arrived to wide avenues with trees, and clear air. It made me so glad to escape the pollution and crowded streets in Bangalore.

After taking an auto (-rickshaw) whose meter seemed to clock round at an alarmingly fast rate, we checked into India’s very special international brand of youth hostel. I’ve never seen a hostel looking so well-maintained. It had huge gardens and lots of benches amidst the palms, and we even got our own sheet and pillowcase! Clean showers, flushing toilets, washing facilities and drinking water – there was even ping pong in the canteen – and it only cost 100 Rs. for the night. That’s about £1.30.

I was starting to feel a little bit awful around lunch time, as we got a local bus back into the centre for some sight-seeing. I didn’t expect to get sick so soon into my trip, but we had been eating out a lot, and in most street-based restaurants they don’t have soap. Anyway, I nibbled at an idli in a back-street by the main circle (roundabout) before attempting to have a gander at the Maharaja’s Palace. By this time I’d already taken painkillers and Julika’s natural remedy for painful stomach cramps, to no avail. Doubled over by the main road and hanging onto a railing, I was in no mood to be the centre of every Indian national’s attention.

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A cow tries to catch a rickshaw ride

When an auto driver came to stop next to us I just ignored him, but Julika then told me he was offering to drive us round to the palace gate for free. Once we realised he wasn’t trying to con us, I collapsed into the seat and he took us the 600m or so to our destination. He was a very rare man indeed, and insisted I sit for five minutes to recover inside the auto, and he didn’t want a penny off us. It was when we saw the masses of people swarming into the palace gates that we decided to recuperate in the shade for an hour, after waving him off.

As the cramps finally started to abate, we made it through the hordes of people, and I pulled my trick of producing the visa registration certificate at the ticket counter.

“200 rupees M’am.” The foreigner’s price (I call it white-person tax).

“Oh no, I work in India.”

“Please give me proof.”

“Here you go,” handing over photocopy, with impressive-looking government stamp.

“OK, 40 rupees.”

Wohoo, I’m officially an Indian!

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Maharaja’s Palace, Mysore

The Maharaja’s Palace itself was breath-taking – all red and gold domes and grandeur. In walking towards the entrance I think at least three or four different people asked to be photographed with us. Whether it’s a status thing or not to be in a photo with a white person I don’t know, but I often get people walking past who comment on my “beautiful pale skin”. One woman even stroked my arm. Children are always trying to touch you, or parents proffer their kids’ hands to shake. This is fine in moderation, but on this day there were so many people due to it being a public holiday, that we didn’t get given space to breath.

It was so crowded inside that only a shuffle was possible. Apart from other people’s heads, I can really only recall what the ceilings of various rooms looked like. When we stopped to sit and rest in the main hall, people would look at us as they passed, or comment, or point. So far, so normal. Then out of nowhere, a large family group suddenly pressed upon us trying to get their children to speak English, and all wanting to ask the same questions – “What is your good name?” “Where are you from?” – and treating us like animals in a zoo.

It was too much, still being ill, and I was so glad to escape into the cool gardens after we swam through the rest of the crowds.

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Coloured powder at Devaraja Market, Mysore

A trip to Devaraja Market with plenty of haggling over incense sticks and coloured powders made the day complete. I was looking forward to some sleep and hopefully no more stomach cramps back in the hostel. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow however, a large party of over-excited young Indian girls crowded into the female dormitory, and subsequently spent the night chatting and laughing. I think I had no more than 4 hours sleep. To top things off, we arrived in the canteen for breakfast at the allotted time, to be told that it only lasted half an hour, and we had just missed it by two minutes. Grrrrr.

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Hindu’s performing puja at Chamundeswari Temple, Chamundi Hill

Not to be perturbed we devoted our Sunday to Chamundi Hill, site of the ChamundeswariTemple. Taking the bus up, a road sign declared it to be one of the eight most sacred hills in south India. A vision of incense and quiet meditation entered my mind’s eye, with pilgrims going to worship in the temple, perhaps with the sound of the wind rustling the trees. In typical Indian fashion though, things were very different to the expectation. Rows of stalls selling stuffed tigers and ice creams lined the street, and so many food stands surrounded the main circle that I couldn’t even see the temple.

I managed to lose Julika as we separated in the market, and spent the next 45 minutes running from one useless police officer to another. “Oh yes Madam, make an announcement…loudspeaker! Loudspeaker!” Then they would walk off, leaving me in the middle of a crowd of Indian tourists and pilgrims to try and find someone else who would help me. In the end, I got so frustrated and it was so hot, that I marched back towards the bus drop-off, ignoring one poor girl who really wanted a picture (again), in mounting panic to try and find my friend. Then I suddenly saw Julika jump up from the roadside where she had been waiting patiently for me. It turned out she hadn’t really moved, and I’d been spending my time running around at the wrong end of the market. It was time for some lunch.

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The 1000 steps to the temple

To edit out the boring bits, suffice to say that we finished with a leisurely walk down the 1000 steps of the hill, passing several youths placing coloured powder onto each step as they walked up. I should do some research on this – it looked like a rite of passage or something. We also had our first follower of the trip, a man in his forties skulking behind as we descended. After I told him to go away, and we waited for another group to pass which we could join with, he disappeared, only to re-emerge further down. He was like our very own Gollum, slithering over the boulders and just looking at us. Pretty harmless though.

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Shiva’s Bull statue

At the large bull statue halfway down, built in dedication to the god Shiva, I did a small currency exchange with a street hawker who couldn’t change a £10 note somebody had given him. Taking advantage of the favour I’d done him, I bought one of his gorgeous miniature statues at a steal of 50 Rs. Mini-Shiva is now sat in the SICHREM office, watching that I don’t go on facebook too often.

We caught the bus back after a long, long queue for tickets across the tarmac, with buses trying to run us down every five minutes. Once in Bangalore again, we caught the last bus to Majestic Bus Terminal, plus one bum-grope by a tiny man who was no more than five foot tall. Then we had an altercation with the auto driver, who turned a 6km journey into 14km in an attempt to rob us of our money. Eventually he took what we offered him, after Julika’s male host stepped in. Finally, at 2:30am, it was time to sleep.

Despite all the grievances, or maybe because of them, it was a fantastic weekend. Just getting out of Bangalore and feeling like a tourist renewed some of that love for India which has been hiding away in me for the past couple of weeks. Obviously working in India was going to feel very different to being a tourist, but it was good to feel the smile spreading across my face, every time I saw a mandir, or thought of the Hindu priest who put the tikka on my forehead. There is so much more to see of this country, and I want to see it all.

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Hanuman statue, Mysore

Mehndi

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I’m sat here looking at today’s date not believing that it hasn’t even been two weeks since I landed in Delhi airport. SICHREM have been working me so hard that I’ve not had much time to think.

To begin where I left off, the homesickness (thankfully) abated quite quickly, largely after I was taken on a sight-seeing tour of Bangalore’s answer to Kew by my Ardash. The place was called Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and I managed to sneak in at the local price of just 10 Rs, thanks to his cunning. Though the gardens themselves were a little dry and tired, it was a hilarious outing because of Ardash’s friend, Ardash (helpfully-named, I know). Visiting for a few days from his home in Kerala, Ardash 2nd made me laugh so much, despite not speaking English, that my stomach was hurting by the end of the day. We ate Thali in a little canteen for about 80 Rs, and he must have finished his plate in about three minutes flat.

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He went back home on Tuesday however, and the rest of my week has consisted of time spent in the SICHREM office, and days at a time attempting to register my visa. Indian bureaucracy could safely win the title for most inefficient service in the world, and I knew it would take more than one day to get everything sorted. The amount of time I spent in the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) however was unbelievable. On the first day I spent 7 hours attempting to register, and the second day came to six hours just waiting in the office. I got the strong feeling that had I had some cash in my hand, the staff might not have invented so many extra documents that were apparently vital to registering.

Day three’s attempt was the final, and successful one. It was almost effortless by comparison, and I walked out with my little piece of paper with a stamp on it so elated, purely because I had put so much effort into earning it. I hope I never have to go back there again.

At SICHREM, I began work on the tasks specified for me before arrival. Several staff including myself were however called into a meeting with Mr Mathews, the coordinator, to prepare a joint document to be published as a chapter in a human rights defender’s upcoming book. Having spent what days that I wasn’t at the FRRO frantically trying to dredge statistics and case studies from the various resources available, I have finished my short contribution within the 10 days we were given! Now back to the other stuff!

I’ve also been hanging out with another international volunteer from Germany, called Julika. We spent Sunday evening with her hosts – a young couple living in a small flat in Indiranagar – going round Bangalore’s National Art Gallery, and tasting all the different foods on ‘food street’. The highlight of my day was definitely learning the word for testicles in ‘Hindi’ though.

After being invited back to their apartment for dinner, I spent the night on Julika’s mattress, and was doted on by Ahmad and Suvrata the whole time. They have the two cutest cats, and are refreshingly modern in their outlook. I ended up having a very deep discussion with Ahmad about art, Radiohead and religion within hours of having met them. What wonderful people! Next weekend will probably see me travelling to Mysore with them during the Saturday holiday – can’t wait!

Airports, Homesickness and Buses

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 Well it’s come to writing my first post in India, and I’ve no idea where to begin as there’s so much to say.

To briefly skip over the less than thrilling trials of travelling by Air India, both of my flights were delayed, which meant I got to practice my skills at sleeping on metal airport benches…twice. Why do they always make them so uncomfortable? In Delhi airport at least they had considerately provided some reclining sleeper chairs, but being in such short supply, they were all occupied.

I arrived hassle-free into Bangalore’s airport however, collecting my bag and walking straight out in literally five minutes. I guess Karma has to kick in at some point, right? Driven straight to the door of my homestay, I met the family I’d be living with over the coming months.

Initially I was confused by the large number of people present in the main room, who all turned out to be friends, or various relations of complicated connection, leaving only four family members in the core household:

The mother, Vanita, is a fantastic cook, and she has been gleefully teaching me random words in Kannada. It turns out my efforts (though pitiful) to learn Hindi were indeed in vain, as my family and most of Bangalore speaks either Kannada, or English.

The father, Paul – or Sunil as he’s known by friends – has his own business making door frames and the like, which he commutes to at very late hours on his moped. He’s been incredibly welcoming so far, though he’s a very eager Christian convert, and gets the family to sing and pray twice a day. I’ve already been dragged to church this Sunday. I just hope it’s not catching.

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Daniel, or Ardesh, is the eldest son at 19. He speaks great English and is my main translator for conversations with his parents. Not only is he a good laugh, but he kindly took me out around Bangalore and helped me to register for my visa. This may sound like a small effort, but trying to register took seven hours and five buses to do so. A great lad.

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Finally the younger brother David, or Sandesh, at 17, is studying commerce (or something like business or management studies) at college. I haven’t seen him as much because of this, but when I do he always seems to either be rolling out roti flour or watching TV.

To reference the second part of this post title, one of the main problems I’ve been facing in these first few tender days has been, surprisingly, homesickness.

I didn’t expect to ever get it that bad, as I’m already so familiar with India, and thus things like the food and the traffic and the people aren’t nearly so daunting. It was more the thought of being away for a year which started to press down on me – so much so that I barely slept at all on my first night. Being away from home, and my boyfriend, for so long seemed utterly unbearable, and I was ready to go straight back to the airport the next day.

After several texts and phone calls though I managed to calm down enough to finally get to sleep, and my first spontaneous lesson in Kannada from my host mother (“Vanita Auntie”) made me feel human enough to actually take my mind wholly off escaping India altogether.

As the days have progressed, and I’ve come to appreciate how lucky I’ve been in my homestay allocation – my own room and en suite bathroom with a flushing toilet (!) – the feeling has begun to diminish. That’s not to say it hasn’t disappeared, just that I have started to function enough to get up and occupy my mind with other things.

My first day at the SICHREM office was one of those other things. Luckily for me, Daniel announced on the evening beforehand that he’d been offered a part-time position at the charity through family contacts (apparently he is somehow related to everyone in this city), and so I gladly let him guide our journey to the office the next day.

Again, I was very happily surprised with the set-up and facilities at my placement. The office has three good-sized rooms and each of the fifteen or so paid staff has their own desk and projects. There are several other volunteers – though the label interns might be more appropriate – from local Indian universities on placement as part of their course, and another international volunteer from Germany who I have yet to meet.

My introductory meeting with my supervisor Anitha (again, related to my host family) outlined the tasks I would be given and the specifics of SICHREM’s human rights work. I’m sorry to say that a combination of her softly spoken manner and some residual jetlag (maybe) started to lull me to sleep, and I had to fight every blink back open again whilst she explained everything to me. It’s probably why I can’t really remember much about what she said.

Before you start thinking that I’m lazy though, I’ve been busy reading SICHREM’s previous reports on different issues, impressively published in small paper-back format. My head has been so full of ideas in response to the different challenges proposed to me, that I’ve been itching to go into the office all weekend. This is despite the fact that tomorrow is a public holiday, in recognition of a Tamil festival, meaning that I’ll likely be amongst a minority of staff.

All in all my first few days in India have been totally different to the expectations I had – no running into the first shop on the street and filling my bag with mehndi cones, or buying sarees in ten different colours and fabrics just to throw around my room – but it’s starting to become normal very quickly. After my first week in the office, I’ll hopefully be able to judge the pattern of events in the longer term, and get an idea of how things will pan out. Even better, I’m going shopping next weekend!

Four Weeks And Counting

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Wow, what a fantastic week! It began last Thursday with my fundraising evening at Design Orchard in Brigg. The lovely ladies there had very kindly agreed to open the shop late on my behalf, allowing my guests access to not only their shop, but free coffee and cake. I would then get 10% of whatever profits they made from the sale of shop goods on the night.

After heavily flyering for the event, and posting numerous ads in the local papers (as well as forcing flyers onto anyone who bought a raffle ticket) I was expecting a decent turn-out. However, the weather turned foul during the afternoon, and when I arrived Brigg was dead. I wasn’t too discouraged, eagerly setting up my beautiful display of hand-made decorations (if I do say so myself) and all the raffle prizes I’d managed to acquire free of charge.

In the end though, only one family from the village, and my mum and her friend, turned up. For this reason I decided to postpone drawing my raffle until I’d gathered a few more people to buy tickets, and where there would be a good crowd to attend.
I therefore went to several of the local pubs asking about quiz nights, and found success with The White Hart in Brigg. Arriving with my trusty collection bucket (pictured in an earlier post) and all my raffle tickets – pre-folded by my nan – I sat in wait for all the people who’d agreed to come.

No one turned up.

After about half an hour of panicked calling to my various friends, I just decided to get on with it. Once I actually got up and started selling raffle tickets, with Andy the landlord’s helpful announcement on my behalf, I did a roaring trade and had some very interesting (if that’s the word) conversations with some men in knitted reindeer jumpers, and a man who practically lived in the pub who bought £20 worth of tickets! After the raffle was drawn, and the winners spent anxious moments deciding between which wine bottle to grab, I spent an entertaining half hour chatting to two older gentlemen about travelling and the state of the world in general, and received some invaluable advice on testing wine quality. A life-long skill I’m sure.

I managed to make a further £75 throughout the evening, bringing my total for the raffle to £173! It was such a fantastic evening, and I want to thank both Design Orchard and The White Hart again for all their support and generosity. Here’s to next week’s fundraising event, at another pub quiz!

Fear of Falling

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Today was the day of my dreaded ordeal – the bungee jump!

After several problems in trying to reach Bray Lake via public transport, and having to be rescued by my friend with a car, we arrived to see a huge crane where people were already jumping off. There were queues of people who had jumped/were waiting to jump/watching people jump, so there was quite a good atmosphere building.

In the run-up this week I’d been getting so nervous, and my rising trepidation didn’t ease as I walked toward the crane. However, after seeing several others jump, and gradually losing the feeling in more and more of my cold toes (we had to take our shoes off), I just wanted to get it over with. I was almost slightly excited as I was helped into my waist and ankle harnesses, and stepped into the crane basket.

When we rose up to the top though I looked down and started to become afraid. The guy up there with me opened the gate of the basket and told me to step toward the edge. I tried to step back and began to realise I might not be able to go through with it. He was having none of it though, and made me cross my arms over my chest before tipping me out into the open air below before I even knew it was happening.

I think I probably screamed the whole way down, with my eyes screwed tight shut. I don’t think you realise quite how fast the ground comes toward you when there’s nothing but air in front of you. It’s one thing to enjoy free-fall at Thorpe Park when you’re strapped into a chair, but incomparable to the absolute fear of dropping with no rope beneath you, and no cushion of hydraulics. Once the rope caught me, it was actually quite enjoyable, but I don’t think I’ll ever be doing it again. One experience is enough!

Here are some photos from before and after my jump, and a very short video taken just before the camera batteries ran out.

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See the video here.

Please, please, please, don’t let me have become mentally scarred for no reason – if you have yet to sponsor me, go to donatetoabigail.blogspot.co.uk. Everything that is fund-raised goes toward helping cover accommodation and visa costs for the duration of my stay. This volunteer placement is entirely self-funded, and I need your help in order to carry out vital research for the fantastic charity SICHREM.

Thank you for all your help, and I hope you enjoyed witnessing my pain!