Tag Archives: british

England or India; India or England?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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FGM and Leyla Hussein

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What can I say that Leyla Hussein hasn’t already expressed so eloquently and so entertainingly? Her appearance on the channel 4 documentary, The Cruel Cutwas entertaining, and I’m so glad that I watched it.

FGM is an issue that has been fought by numerous charities, facebook groups, individuals, and campaigners for many years. Indeed, as the documentary itself pointed out, it has been illegal in the UK since 1985. I’m glad that Leyla’s programme has brought this subject into the mainstream media, and from what I read in the Evening Standard (yes, that benchmark of investigative journalism) her efforts might already be leading towards the UK’s first ever prosecution.

Given that there are so many pre-existing movements and NGOs fighting against FGM both here and across the globe, I think it was right that she didn’t focus on the pure horror of it, or throw endless case studies and statistics from Africa at the audience. She didn’t try to make us cry or feel sorry for survivors, or to alienate viewers for whom the problem might appear too distant and therefore irrelevant, or inapplicable.

Ms Hussein firmly planted this issue in our own backyard, and she’s making us all accountable. Quite right that she’s shouting out against excusing and protecting barbaric acts, and the perpetrators who deliver them, in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’. The UK government’s preference for a ‘multiculturalist’ approach has only hampered attempts to fight other acts of gender-based  violence, by preventing cultural outsiders to minority communities from taking action in fear of offending local sensitivities.

Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition, or religion. It is torture and a crime. Help us to put an end to this crime. – Waris Dirie, Survivor of FGM, UN FGM Ambassador, Founder of the Desert Flower Foundation and former Supermodel

This an affront to women. I say it loud. Forced marriage, marital rape, domestic abuse and violence, child marriage, dowry-related murder, honour killings, and female genital mutilation are all acts of cruelty, violence, and most of all power. They are none of them supported in any religious doctrine, and remove them from their cultural setting, these acts become exposed for the horrific crimes that they are.

What I most liked about Leyla’s approach, and the work of the other women behind Daughters of Eve in making this programme, was the dual emphasis on education (not least her upfront engagement with men in the FGM-practising community) and on implementing structural change. It’s all very well to lament the issues of FGM, and highlight those affected, but even more essential is to move forward with that gut-wrenching feeling of disgust and horror to take action. And that is what she did.

We can all take action in eradicating FGM from the UK, from our own communities and localities. Leyla Hussein and Daughters of Eve are quite rightly calling for change in the structural responsibility for safeguarding against FGM in the UK. If one body (ie. The Home Office) takes charge of this role, theoretically the right training for frontline staff in the police, schools, health, and social services will enable them to not only identify the risk factors and signs of FGM, but also to know how to deal with the situation when it arises – and ultimately how to save a child from being forced to undergo life-altering mutilation.

I don’t think as a nation we should be focusing on punishment for perpetrators as in the France model, as time and again education and prevention-focused approaches have proven to be the far more cost-effective option in reducing the prevalence of various crimes. Taking a preventative approach akin to the Dutch, and mainstreaming FGM education within schools as part of their wider social awareness learning, would do far more than getting that first landmark prosecution.

There is a plethora of information, articles, and films out there. Channel 4 already produced a documentary on FGM all the way back in 2003, which I think illustrates how little we have progressed in 10 years.

There are so many ways that we can all get involved in fighting this. Join the twitter debate #StopFGM, or simply share The Cruel Cut with others.

By far the best thing that you could though, is to sign and encourage others to sign, the e-petition. http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740 The coalition government last week sent out a response to the petition, which it is required to do after a petition reaches 10,000 signatures, though it was less than inspiring:

This Government recognises that tackling violence against women and girls, including FGM, requires a sustained, robust and dynamic cross-Government approach. Every department needs to play its part in addressing FGM. The Department of Health is working to improve the information collected by the NHS on FGM. The Home Office has recently announced it will help fund a new study into the prevalence rates of FGM in England and Wales. The Department for International Development has established an ambitious £35m programme to address FGM in Africa and beyond, with an ambition toward ending FGM in one generation.

The Home Office is the lead on violence against women and girls (VAWG) and has captured FGM in our comprehensive VAWG Strategy, rather than in a stand-alone Action Plan. Recently updated, the Strategy (The Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls: Action Plan) has a renewed focus on protecting potential victims. Through the plan we are working closely across Government to help secure a FGM conviction, and with charities and frontline organisations to help improve awareness of FGM.

This response seems to me like one of trying to fob us all off. It goes on to say in the next paragraph how the government is out-sourcing it’s anti-FGM efforts to charities and other non-governmental organisations [so that it doesn’t have to take responsibility for establishing effective measures itself], and is focusing on providing advice to people concerned about FGM [so that it can pay lip-service to supporting victims as a valid stand-alone strategy, instead of taking preventative measures to change attitudes and practices and protect future generations of girls].

I think the fact that the DFID (the Department for International Development) approach focuses on Africa “and beyond” tells you everything you need to know about the government’s attitude towards preventing FGM. It is clear that they don’t regard FGM as a problem within the UK itself, and that they subsequently believe it is not ‘our’ problem.

All the more reason that we ensure Leyla’s e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures for this issue to be discussed by the Backbench Business Committee, and take hold of that opportunity when it comes to ensure truly effective prevention strategies to protect British girls are put in place.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740

Homesick for India

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

“I heart India”

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

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

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

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

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

“…Excuse me, auntie…auntie!”

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

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

Body language

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

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

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

Reverse Culture Shock

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

High tea

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

Nom nom nom

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

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

Noisy, busy, blissful India

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

Breathe in that English suburbia

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

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

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

Pre-departure

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Well the date is nearly here, and I keep swinging between extreme excitement and not wanting to go at all. I know that will pass once I get there though.

I’m all packed (my poor suitcase was pleading with me not to stuff anything else in), and I only have to pick my visa up tomorrow. Last minute I know, but I had to go home for Christmas, and the visa office is in central London. I’m very certain it’ll be fine though, so I only have to collect it. *fingers crossed*

I went on a final shopping trip for drug supplies – read plenty of diarrhoea tablets and suncream – and thought I better try on the shalwar kameez suits I had had made during my last trip to India before packing them. Turns out this was a wise move, as I am no longer tiny, meaning 2 of my outfits would have just been for decoration!

I started reading the British government’s travel advice pages earlier today as well, which made me a little more nervous than I really needed to be:

Around 700,000 British nationals visit India every year. Between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2012, 322 British nationals required consular assistance for the following types of incidents: 107 deaths; 67 hospitalisations; and 39 arrests for a variety of offences.

And also:

There is a high threat from terrorism throughout India. Terrorists have targeted places in the past which westerners are known to visit including public places such as restaurants, hotels, railway stations, markets, places of worship and sporting venues.

Now that is something which I already knew, but it’s a little disconcerting when they give you all of the graphic statistics. The site then goes on to mention specific areas, which for South India focuses thus:

Female travellers should observe and respect local dress and customs. There has been a series of high-profile incidents in Goa of alleged rape against foreign nationals, including Britons. See our Rape and sexual assault abroad and Your trip pages.

Oh yay. Still, the advice on what to do if caught in a tropical storm or earthquake was quite helpful. At least I can feel prepared in the face of a natural disaster, even if I am in danger of mugging/sexual assault/violent political protests/bombings at all other times.

It makes me smile though – I’d really like to read other country’s perspectives on the British threats to foreign travellers. As far as I’m concerned, India is a safe country if you’re streetwise and sensible about where and how you travel around. No less dangerous than a night out in Nottingham. And to be honest, they’re far more polite about it in India.

So despite this little bit of scaremongering, I’m feeling very geared up to go, which I always take as a good sign. I just want the day of my flight to be here. I’m killing time learning how to use my camera before I go, as I’ve never actually looked at the manual, and always find it frustrating to be in the perfect set-up for a good photograph only to be foiled by my ignorance of what the aperture button does. Here’s to a day of learning!