Tag Archives: puja

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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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.

Mangalore

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Because I’m feeling lazy, and have a busy week ahead, I made this week’s post in a checklist format:

Tuesday 26th – my 23rd birthday! I didn’t really start the day with any celebration, as I had to go to the Commission for my report, but I was given flowers and a card by SICHREM staff, and I wore my new turquoise sari, which seemed to please almost every woman I met on the bus/street/stairs. Ate dinner at Pizza Hut (oh pizza how I missed you!).

Wednesday 27th – Holi, and I even brought my colours to work. But no one wanted to play. 😦 Next year’s resolution to be drenched in colour.

Thursday 28th – Emma and I met at Majestic bus station to catch our sleeper bus to Mangalore. Our easter weekend away!

Friday 29th – Ullal beach, an hour’s bus ride south of Mangalore. Went to see Himmatwalla in the evening, a surprisingly funny film.

 

Saturday 30th – Headed to Sultan’s Battery, which Lonely Planet describes as

Sultan’s Battery, the only remnant of Tipu Sultan’s fort, is 4km from the centre on the headland of the old port; bus 16 will get you there.

via Sultan’s Battery in Mangalore, India – Lonely Planet.

but which actually looks like this.

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Sultan’s Battery – more apt to call it ‘small stone circle with steps’

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The old port *ahem car park*

Sick of stupid guide books, we took a 5 rs. boat across the lagoon to a hidden local beach; pristine, empty, divine. Ate fish on the sand and slept on a log bench lashed between two trees. Accidentally photographed a man washing his testicles in the sea. Naughty sun burnt my face.

Sunday 31st – Emma got bored of Mangalore, split off to Mysore. I went north to Udupi, for Krishna temple. Huge temple complex; main temple like a religious theme park, with plastic tat, food vendors, one-way systems and sign posts. Ate lunch in a mass-feeding hall for pilgrims – bath tubs of rice on trolleys, priests running and sloshing sambar onto plates, lines and lines of people sitting on long marble slivers.

Outside was an elephant trained to take money in its trunk, and tap a blessing onto children’s heads. Hopped barefoot over the boiling pavement and passed a limbless cow with some terrible infection. Turtles in the temple pool! Men singing and drumming in another temple; hypnotised by the main singer’s voice, and the rhythm.

Took a bus to Malpe, then a boat to St Mary’s Island (though the sign said “CocoanutIsland”). Arrived drenched. Fine sandy beaches scarred by basalt hexagons belching from the sea. Got the climbing itch, others then copied. Boat back literally rode each wave to reach the shore, stalling in each lull then charging as the next one crested.

Knackered, nearly fainting, made it back to Mangalore and ate, and ate. Also drank and drank, meaning I had to stop the sleeper bus and pee in its shadow at the side of the road. Didn’t sleep, but home happy.

So many things to do, so little time…

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Again, with good intentions I started writing this post a week ago, but time and other commitments pushed it to the bottom of my list. I guess I should take that as a good sign.

Let’s start with two weeks previous; I went to what was meant to be my fourth or fifth Hindi lesson (I have no idea which, the time is just passing too quickly) to find that my tutor had become a grandmother! She was still in hospital with her daughter, whose new baby girl I got to meet in my next lesson – as Razia spent most of the hour and a half holding baby Huda in one hand, whilst correcting my Hindi with the other.

I spent most of the weekend house hunting. After viewing a PG (paying guesthouse) for 10 girls and deciding I definitely didn’t want to stay in that sort of accommodation, I then visited some expat sharing flats. The first reminded me too much of messy university shared houses, and I would have opted for the shared room in a young Indian girl’s apartment right near the office, if I hadn’t visited the last place.

Off a small street full of shops, and nearer to the centre of Bangalore, this shared expat flat was in a block that had its own gardens and security. I ended up spending an hour with three of the other four girls staying there, chatting and eating biscuits (heaven!), and my mind was made up. So, with the deposit paid, and my predecessor vacating at the end of this week, I shall be shifting to the new place at the start of April. I can’t wait. More than anything I intend to make full use of the oven for cake-baking!

Bhanwari Devi (right), iconic voice against violence against women, with her daughter Rameshwari, in Mangalore on Thursday. Photo: R. Eswarraj

Padil ‘homestay’ to be hub of women activism – The Hindu.

Following my meeting with the soon-to-be flatmates, I hurried to a talk with Bhanwari Devi. Bhanwariji was, and still is, an activist against child marriage, and her outspoken protest against a particular case in Rajasthan resulted in her being gang-raped by a group of politicians. That’s the short story, but Wikipedia has it in more detail. A tiny lady wearing a bright orange shawl over her head, she came into the room as everyone stood up, and quietly got onto the stage. It was only when she started speaking, in passionate Rajasthani, that you could see how much the anger still filled her. Her daughter did the translation into Hindi, and another man into English. I wish I could have understood more of what she said – so much was lost in translation.

After ending with a defiant speech, Bhanwariji slipped into song with a group of women. I approached as one of many afterwards, all wanting to offer their help and consolations, and when I gave her namaste she replied with the warmest and open hug. She is still waiting for justice, more than 20 years after the crime was committed.

So many other events filled my week that I can only skim over them. Sunday was spent photographing my saris and putting them online – see my new shop page, or go to ebay – and Monday evening in giving my deposit over to Rita, the girl whom I shall be replacing at the new flat. Again, I got side-tracked eating too many biscuits and discussing plans for Holi with Rita and my new roommate, Priya, before I realised it was dark and should be getting back.

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Back at the office, I spent a filthy two days buried in dirt and posters in a dark forgotten corner, in my attempts to catalogue all of SICHREM’s existing stock. The more I discovered, the more there seemed to be. After turning the shamble of scrap paper and old, bent posters hidden on a top shelf into some semblance of order, I turned to the wall of t-shirts hidden in the cupboard next door. Rose and I spent the entire afternoon sorting by slogan and size. I think I might have actually dreamt that night of folding and unfolding clothes, and putting stickers onto different items. I was so proud of myself when the whole area was finished, until Rose pointed me toward a second, larger cupboard that vomited twice as many t-shirts onto my head. Save that for next week.

The most exciting Thursday in India yet then followed, as myself, Chithra, pattyamma, Rose and Mathews drove to Mysore for our colleague Prakash’s house-warming. Getting lost en route, Mathews was looking for directions. Midway along the three-lane highway, he rolled down his window and shouted at two men riding a moped, who brought their vehicle alongside ours and gave directions, both travelling along at 60 mph.

At Prakash’s, I expected a party, but the spectacle when we arrived got my Hinduism-tastebuds watering. Prakash and his wife were suffocating inside their new home, next to a heavily-smoking fire that had been built inside a temporary pit. A tent had been erected outside, and the poles framing the entrance to their house had been dressed in woven banana leaves and garlands. What followed was an extremely complex string of rituals: making puja with bananas and red ochre at each corner; throwing rice three times, at the house, at the cow brought in especially as the representation of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and luck); pouring rice over the doorway and exchanging garlands as a couple.

I still can’t decide my favourite part – when Prakash, required to smash a pumpkin filled with red ochre against a stone, grimaced and rolled up his dhoti, or when he then had to smear his hands with the stuff and decorate each wall with his handprints.

Another hour of puja followed, all in Kannada. Interesting as it was I was soon drifting off as we sat cramped together in his smoky living room. When the last prayers were finally done, and goody bags with more coconuts handed out (my favourite part!), we enjoyed the south Indian thalli laid out for lunch, before heading back for Bangalore in the air-conditioned car.

Again another talk at the weekend, this time by Brinda Grover. She is an advocate who facilitated involvement of various NGOs and spokespersons for women’s rights in the writing of the Verma Committee report on violence against women. The Verma report has been ground-breaking in India, laying out the beginnings of better equality and respect for women, in society and the law. The ordinance proposed by the Indian government in response however was nothing short of regressive, and strongly ridiculed across society for idiocies like ignoring the possibility of marital rape, and giving sanction to the death penalty. Her talk focused around these issues, and I was so intent on what she was saying I couldn’t note things down fast enough. A really enlightening session, and I walked away that evening wanting to learn more.

Finally, Manohar and I at last managed our first meeting with the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, as an initial point of contact before I start doing the research for my report. This is following weeks of phone calls and ‘mislaid’ faxes, or apathetic staff informing us that the Members were out from their offices. To my surprise we received such a positive response from each person we spoke to, including the chief Member, and his Registrar, that I didn’t dare breathe for fear of jinxing it. Maybe this will be an easy research process after all! *Crosses fingers*

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.