Tag Archives: bribe

England or India; India or England?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Travels and Tribulations: Part 4

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Our last stop – Chennai. The sleeper train brought us into the centre of the city at early morning, where we quickly found a hotel to dump our stuff. After an hour’s kip, we caught a local bus to Cholamandal Art Village. The Art Village began and still functions as a cooperative of autonomous and self-funded artists, painting in the style of the Madras School. Turns out this style of painting is meant to focus on the use of line, but from the gallery paintings and industrial bronze conglomerate sculptures, its use varied so widely, I could only see resemblances of cubism and Matisse – not any obvious philosophy linking them together.

Artistic minutia aside, most of the village was closed due to it being off-season, so we flopped on a bench in the cafe area (also closed) to sleep off the heat of the day. Chennai felt so hot after Kerala! With some lunch eaten, and Roy hobbled by oozing blisters (nice) we retreated back to the city, passing expanses of pristine yellow beach and even designated car parks, with benches and proper footpaths and everything you’d not expect to see at the Indian seaside! It made me wish we’d had more time to spend in Chennai.

To the cinema for World War Z in the evening. Then, eating dinner in a little fast food place, one mosque (lit up on front with a picture of another mosque) had started playing music in celebration of the start of Ramzan/Ramadan. It was so loud that the bass was actually shaking the cafe floor. Outside, even the pavement was thrumming under the beat. Thank god our hotel wasn’t nearby.

At 7:30am however, I found out that there was a mosque near the hotel, and they were playing the entire prayers through loudspeakers for over ninety minutes. Topping it off, a little worm wiggled its way out of the shower head, sending Roy into an angry frenzy. Checking out, we spent nearly an hour arguing with the idiot of a desk-jockey manning the night reception. After repeating our complaint too many times to remember, and explaining to him how to use a phone after he pretended not to be able to contact the real manager, Roy’s belligerence finally paid off. The manager pulled in on his scooter, and went with Roy back up to the room, where another worm obligingly plopped out when the shower was switched on. Thanks to my entomologist boyfriend feigning a profession in water quality testing, the manager scurried to return our 1000 rupees for the night. “Madam, please write [on the receipt], ‘No things in water’.” We’d just been bribed!

The happy zoologist

The happy zoologist

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“Om nom nom humans”

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Only the sexiest crocodiles have a blob on their nose

Crocodile Bank, Chennai

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The plan was to head a little down the east coast from Chennai to Mahaballipuram, via the Crocodile Bank. Thanks to google maps (and the geographer misreading them) I accidentally took us to a bus stop latitudinally level with our intended destination, but actually 10km in reverse and across by road. Damn those parallel road systems! I avoided being murdered by Roy for making him miss the crocodiles thanks to a good bus service (phew) and spent a happy afternoon wandering around the centre. It was surprisingly well-designed and had little pictograms for each crocodile’s information board. Under food, one of them had a cartoon of a person. Oh dear.

I went to sit by the giant tortoises whilst he wandered around a bit more, and the biggest – which for some reason I automatically assumed was the only male – headed for a bath and promptly got stuck. It was half cute, half pitiful to watch him get more and more panicked as he kept failing to mount the concrete lip round the pool. His [female] companions had no problems, which just embarassed him further. He eventually escaped though, and needed some female attention to nurture his ego back to health.

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The moment of final escape from the pool

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Pretending nothing happened

After watching feeding time for the smaller crocs, where a Caiman Lizard ignored the morsels being thrown to him and went for the whole bucket instead, we made it to Mahaballipuram. The guest house we chose to stay in had been hit by the 2004 tsunami, and it’s top floor was still missing. Our host recounted how he saw the wall of water coming, and simply ran. I can’t imagine the terror he must have felt. He said he was crying the whole time, but they were lucky that the row of hotels, built right on the beach, had slowed most of its progress before hitting the town.

Walking round the sites the next day, it also emerged that the water withdrawn 150m from the shoreline by the tsunami also revealed an entire historic town drowned by the sea. What remained of the site on land was a couple of temples heavily eroded by the salt air, and a small area of rock-carved temples over-run by tango-stealing langurs.

Leaving Roy to woo a goat down at the bottom, I unknowingly took the hard route up some slippery rocks towards the temples, and emerged on top of a huge boulder to find a proper path laid out round the corner. As I came out from behind a boulder teetering near the edge of the face I’d climbed, an Indian guy who thought he was being adventurous nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw me!

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Only remaining temple on the mainland
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Mahabharata (?) carved in stone

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Travelling in style…

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A temple carved out of the solid rock

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Violent stone murals inside

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Another rock-cut temple

Then we got caught by a friendly stone-mason, who of course took us to his shop ‘nearby’. Whether it was the sea air or because we were nearing the end of our trip, I was happy to go along, and ended up buying a carved marble chess board. After an indulgent full body relaxation massage where I was semi-groped by a young Indian girl lying topless on a slab, we sat out on our room’s balcony over the sea. The tide was in, and the spray was actually getting us wet, so we retreated indoors, as a lightning storm flickered off towards the horizon and stole our electricity.

Next morning, we left for our train back to Bangalore, and spent an entire train journey with a TV screen blaring out Tamil and Hindu music videos and serials full of screaming women. Arriving back into Bangalore East Railway Station, the sinking feeling in my stomach was palpable. Walking out of the station gates, the hugest cow I ever saw seemed somehow like an omen – of what I still don’t know.

Roy and I spent the next two days spending all our time together; ordering Chinese, watching films at the flat, and hanging out with my flatmates. On the day of his flight, we joined my flatmates for a disgustingly expensive but fantastic brunch at a fancy restaurant, where oysters sat opposite bagels and macaroons, and where my stomach became disappointingly small. 2 hours of gorging later, and with Maria carrying a different coloured Macaroon between each finger, we hurried back to pack, and leave.

Horrifyingly soon we were in the airport, and I realised it was too soon. I wasn’t ready to let him go. He had to go through the doors eventually though, and the army guards weren’t going to allow me past security. So I watched Roy walk along through the glass doors, and stood there for a little while wondering when I could also go home. Then I got a bus back into Bangalore, to continue where I left off.

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.