Tag Archives: bollywood

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…

Bangalore 17 feb 131 SAM_1376IMG_3192DSCN4871   DSCN3810DSC00779bthe wedding ride

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.

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.

 

The Adventure Begins

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Today marks the start of my trip.

My flights have just been booked, my travel insurance is paid for. I’m actually going to INDIA!!!!!

I managed to find a really great deal with Southall Travel, who gave me the same flight that all the other companies and price comparison sites were selling, for only £480. Take that BA, trying to charge me £600! So I’m travelling Air India – they have fantastic films in their TV collections, so that’ll help me while away some (3) hours. I’m going to have to take a list of Bollywood  films with me, so that I can maximise my opportunity to buy out every single one.

The insurance company asked plenty of confusing health questions, some along the lines of, “We assume you’ve never been to hospital with this condition, answer yes or no”. Well the answer is I have been, so is that a no for ‘I haven’t been’, or ‘No I disagree with your assumption’? I also had to quickly pretend I wasn’t quite so decrepit as I really am when I saw they wanted to charge me £70 extra for the privilege of being ill.

Following on from which, I got my typhoid jab out the way yesterday, so I’m all vaccinated up!

My flight leaves on January 9th, and I’ll be returning December-ish (depending on how long the Indian Government will tolerate me staying/throw me out of their country). I can’t even begin to express how excited I am now. It’s a good job I booked the flights when I was alone, because I went running round the whole house squealing for about 10 minutes.

I’ve started looking at places I want to visit in between work days as well, and there’s just too much to do in one trip. India is so big that to get from one city to the next takes days by train, and I want to visit them all! My boss (who is Indian) was also asking me yesterday whether I wanted him to set me up with an Indian boy whilst I’m out there. Erm…I’m OK thanks? It’s great though that people keep talking to me about my trip. It’s getting others interested (which spreads knowledge) and helps with generating wider and wider circles of support. So I’ll leave you with a reminder of why I’m going, and why it’s important, to keep spreading that message:

http://www.indiatogether.org/women/violence/violence.htm

Over-excitement

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Phew, it has been a while! Lots of things to update on – the most important being that I have a couple of new fundraising events coming up.

I met with the Amnesty International group and we’re now planning to put on an Indian food evening on November 23rd (a Friday I think) and split the proceeds, which will be fantastic! I’m not cooking though as I have no idea what to do with food. I might try to make some Indian sweets though, as they’re my favourite, and the chef always gets to lick the bowl.

I’m also now attending my village’s Autumn Fair on November 10th, selling the same Christmas tree decorations that I’ll be selling at the WI Fair on the 17th. Everything is happening in November! It’s going to be a chaotic month. I’ve attached some fantabulous pictures of the various works in progress, again as a photo-diary of how things are getting on.

I did a little presentation for the village’s WI group as well last week, which was far more successful than I’d anticipated. Handing out flyers for my upcoming fundraising events, and a sponsorship form for my (still-stupid) bungee jump, it seemed like everyone gave me a donation or said that they would attend one of the events. It feels fantastic to have so much support from my local villagers. I can’t wait now for each one to happen, and to see who turns up.

My raffle ticket book for the raffle (surprisingly enough) also turned up today. Time to start selling! I’m thinking a pound a strip. I’m still collecting prizes from businesses and other places – I’m very good at getting freebies – so I already have some chocolate boxes, a voucher for Roe’s Farm Dairy, a £25 treatment at Earth Energies, and £20 for Bengal Spice, where part of the evening is being held. I must keep going!

Looking at visas today also made me realise that the departure date is starting to get quite close now. Up until this point I’d been very good at keeping calm and pretending to think about other things, but now I’M SO EXCITED. My internet history list is becoming increasingly dominated by India-related sites. So much so, that google keeps giving me ads for shalwar kameezes and flight comparisons, and deals for mobile phone rates to India. Stop it, I’m already excited enough! As soon as I step off that plane I’m going to have to grab the nearest mehndi tube and find a saree shop to release all the urges that have been building up for the past 3 years. Sigh, still two months to go.

I also met my supervisor at the charity over skype last week, and she seems spot on. We’ve agreed that I’ll be staying with a family for the first two months on a probationary period. I’ve also had a couple of offers to stay from my colleagues at work who have relatives in Bangalore, and both my (Indian) bosses are going back to the city whilst I’m there! It’s a small world.

Anyway, I’m off now to go and watch a Bollywood film. It might give me a temporary fix.