Tag Archives: rajasthan

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

 

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*