Tag Archives: travel

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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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.

Trials and Tribulations: Part 2

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The start of week 2 in the tour of South India begins in Gokarna, where we left off. We set off through the small pilgrimage town towards the beach, even though it won’t stop raining. Turns out the Indian tourists were thinking the same thing – little huddles of people with umbrellas are braving the surf with their trousers rolled up, getting soaked in the horizontal rain.

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We retreat inside to our grotty hotel room, where the clothes I had washed the night before are no dryer because of the humidity. After it finally stops raining at about 3pm, we decide to risk a walk to the next bay, as there’s little else to do in the town. Over the sea cliff and into Kudle Beach, we discover that everything has closed. Just as we’ve nearly walked along the entire length of this equally grim bay, being chased by street dogs and a little black puppy (and walking past a cow carcass), an isolated resort seems to be serving food. Then some people miraculously appear from its inner depths and start playing badminton!

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The next day we escape Gokarna for Murudeshwar – site of an impressive giant Shiva statue on an isolated promontory into the Arabian Sea. All in all a very chilled day, before catching the sleeper train to Mysore, for an onward bus to Bandipur National Park the next morning. Well that was the plan. Roy is still incredibly sick from his anti-malarials, and we traipse around Mysore at 7am looking for a toilet, then an internet cafe. Somehow the day disappears in trying to decide where to stay in Bandipur, and looking after Roy. Eventually we catch a local bus to Bandipur National Park, and book into one of the expensive rooms, tagged as ‘luxury eco-lodges’ run by the Park Service. Were they hell.

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INR 2000 for a cold bucket of water, dirty floors, broken window frames, and a tepid thali dinner. Our INR 300 room in Hampi at least had a shower and towels! The evening film screening of a David Attenborough documentary almost made up for it (for Roy mostly, as he literally wants to marry the guy), and I managed to get some shots of a deer herd, and some random wild boar running around at dusk. Boar babies for some reason look like chipmunks.

At 6:30am we boarded the park minibus for their version of a safari, and given that the other 10 passengers were incapable of keeping quiet, we inevitably saw only some deer, a wild peacock, and – wait for it – a bunny hopping into a bush.

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Then we suddenly heard an elephant trumpet very loudly close by, and the rush of adrenaline came. A glimpse of grey skin through the leaves before losing it into the undergrowth, and then – we turn a corner in the track and a wild elephant is across an open stretch of small bushes, munching on some branches.

Unbelievably, the guide stops for about 1 minute, then drives on! Clearly the roads and dirt are more interesting than the fauna to him! So much for seeing tigers and snakes and stampedes of all the other big game they advertise on their website. Disappointed, I write an essay in their complaints book. Whilst waiting for the bus to our next stop at Ooty hill station, the local langurs gradually edge closer. One female has a baby so bald and wrinkled clutched to her stomach that it might actually be the primate re-incarnation of Gandhiji.

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I slept through most of the winding bus journey up to Ooty, and I’m glad I did. The hour that I was awake was filled with the sound and smell of people vomiting from the hairpin bends, and my stomach was almost joining in by the time we pulled into the bus station. After selecting a hotel for its hot water availability, and making an emergency purchase of a thick woolly jumper (Ooty was freezing!), we snuggled down into what felt like a luxury bed.

Saturday was a day of world bests. A visit to the Botanical Gardens turned out to be half-decent, with different smaller gardens and of course a fossilised tree. Climbing up one of the little paths to reach the bonsai garden, I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. Roy didn’t look too good either. That was when I read in my guidebook that Ooty is 2000m above sea level – we had altitude sickness! 😀

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It wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t go to the ‘World’s Best Rose Garden’ though, or the ‘World’s Miracle Thread Garden’ – which turned out to be a hidden gem. Every ‘plant’ in this little museum by the lake was made from hand-wound thread, to such precision of form and colour that I honestly thought they were real. Such a dedicated, pointless success! A quick trip down to the neighbouring creepy wax museum with Gandhi, Christ, and a drunk driver with his arm ripped off (who planned this place!?), then we had a fantastic evening at a little arcade by the boat jetty. It was just like being back home in Cleethorpes, but in a nostalgic way. There were dodgems, air hockey, a bucking broncho, and we even terrified ourselves in the haunted house, which had so many mutilated people and a man hanging upside down in a sack screaming that I fully anticipated terrible nightmares.

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After trying to leave Ooty via the over-booked steam train, we conceded to taking the bus again, and overnighted at Coimbatore, where the temperature became tangibly warmer and dryer the more we descended. A lazy complimentary breakfast and copy of The Hindu slipped under the door later, our onward bus to Fort Kochi took far longer than expected, not arriving until it was dark. Disembarking at Ernakaulam’s bus station, a good thirty people fighting to board the bus nearly pushed me to the floor as I stepped down. The press wouldn’t even move when I tried to shove individuals out of the way, and Roy was helpless following behind me. Eventually we emerged from the press and found a hotel.

To end the week, I finally got traveller’s diarrhoea!

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.

 

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.

Work-a-holism

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So I realise that I’ve been extremely lax in keeping my blog posts up to date, but that is largely due to the lack of interesting things happening of late.

In the first week of April I moved out of the paying guesthouse with the family, to the blessedly laid-back flatshare with four other girls. Between working flat out at the office, and coming back and spending a good hour making food every night, I’ve had very little free time over the past couple of weeks.

Our cockroach-infested kitchen has also been taking up my weekend hours – despite employing a maid six days a week to supposedly clean the entire apartment, in my need to satiate my OCD urges, I realised that she can only be pushing dirt around with a mop. Just last night, the stains which I believed were permanent on the marble living room floor actually came off pretty quickly with some gentle floor cleaner and angry mopping. My discovery of these little chalk pesticide sticks in a kitchen cupboard also proved to be a godsend against the cockroach onslaught.

In the office, my report on the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission has been coming together, as I actually started conducting several interviews in person with members of various civil society organisations. The Commission however remains uncommunicative and actively opposes SICHREM conducting the report, so I’m currently trying to obtain all the information I need from outside the Commission itself. It’s interesting to hear all the damning opinions, especially when everyone holds the same contentions against the Commission! It reminds me of doing my dissertation research, and I’m happy in the practical research, but my other project collating newspaper articles for the quarterly report is mind-numbingly boring. I can barely motivate myself to finish it, which makes it even more difficult to move onto the exciting stuff.

Mathews (the boss) has promised me a place beside our legal advocate on his gender-related complaints that come in, and the chance to do some fact-findings into certain cases – which means ascertaining facts as much as possible from both the victim’s and perpetrator’s sides to produce a report. Let’s hope it turns out to be interesting, as I’m steadily going mad due to lack of interest in my (mostly) non-gender-related work.

Yesterday I accompanied Jaydine to Commercial Street for some retail therapy and to get out of the flat (though I did manage to squeeze in some more cleaning!) and inadvertently splurged a shocking amount of rupees on cushion covers and wall hangings. I mean, who can blame me for buying 10 covers when they’re all so beautiful? And you can never have too many cushions. I had to extricate myself from a love affair with a gorgeous carved circular wooden table too – it’s not that I don’t intend to buy furniture, it’s just that I really want it to be committed to me (meaning that it still has to make me be in love with it after at least a week). A little voice in the back of my head is telling me to buy it though, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to last that long.

Aside from the few events over the past fortnight or so, little else has happened. I am learning to cook some Indian dishes after an emergency trip to a nearby book shop for a recipe book, and taking my Hindi lessons every day now (which is intense to say the least).

For me, life in India is just like life back home – everything becomes normal, and you forget to notice each new thing. The weeks continue and the work deadlines keep getting pushed back, and there never seems to be a convenient time to visit all the places you want to see (or the remaining places in Bangalore are just not worth seeing). I’m still yet to enrol in a yoga class, mainly due to a complete lack of time, and a convenient place to take the classes nearby. I think my life right now can be encapsulated nicely by the recent themes which permeate my dreams: arguing with rickshaw drivers, buying vegetables, worrying about money, Hindi homework, office work, getting my salwar stitched, and anxiously waiting for my boyfriend to hurry up and arrive in India. Why can’t it be June already?

The one last thing that I almost forgot to mention is my upcoming participation in the Bangalore 10K marathon, which SICHREM and all its staff participate in annually as their main fundraising event. Now I’m not very sporty, and definitely far too rheumatic to run anywhere, but in the 40 degree heat I think I may very well actually succumb to heat exhaustion. To say I’m not looking forward to it is such an understatement it’s insulting – I WILL die. I hope the male staff members will be strong enough to complete it carrying me. J

Anyway, I’m taking sponsorship for the run here: http://bangalorecares.in/ngofundraise-detail/?fund=270&evt_id=4

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*

Trafficking, tourism, and death penalties

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A brief update on the week for you.

Last Friday saw me attending a workshop on the prevention of trafficking, at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. It was good to learn a bit more about trafficking in general, and it highlighted lots of things I never knew. Karnataka it turns out is the second highest source region for trafficking in India, and a lot of girls are tricked away from Bangalore itself, at one of the major bus stations. Most shockingly, I learnt that the vast, vast majority of street beggars, especially those under the age of 12, have been trafficked (often from the other end of the country), and forced to beg under a person who holds them captive under threat or sedative drugs. More information on the institute can be found here.

Following this, I went to my first Hindi lesson the next day, where the domineering but very efficient teacher gave me a crash course in the alphabet and naming body parts. Classic beginner’s first lesson! Having spent the last week completing the homework she set me, I’m a little nervous for tomorrow’s second installment  I’d like to learn the second half of the alphabet though, so I can’t really find an excuse to run away!

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Jama Masjid

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Gateway at the fort

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Hanuman statue at a temple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday became an unashamedly touristy day. I made a beeline for the Sri Kanteerava Stadium near Cubbon Park, where I eventually found what I was looking for after spending half an hour walking around the entire thing. The climbing wall was a stand-alone, outdoor facility with three sides – maybe 15 feet tall. It was totally abandoned though, and I didn’t have any ropes or quickdraws with which to climb, so I set to some low-level bouldering. My pumps were poorly suited to it however, and I soon had to give up, meaning to return for their climbing league in the near future.

Next on the list was a visit to the Jama Masjid about two kilometres southwest, where, after eventually finding the right entrance, unknowingly parked myself right where the 1’o’clock prayers would commence. Stupid, uncultured westerner. I even tried to be sensitive beforehand by finding my way up to the women’s quarters, but the room was filled with women crashed out asleep in the dark. After the Imam very gently directed me to shift my bum to a more suitable location, I made my way out to the nearby KR Market for some retail therapy.

It was a huge, stinking place, but full of activity and traders calling out. Between the cowpats and mud streaked by tyre treads, everything from shabji to sarees to books was on sale. Finding myself drawn to a fixed-price pile of saris on the pavement, I became part of a horde of women vying to get the best piece. In the end I settled for a dark green cotton blend sari, strangely embroidered in places with a baby’s face, and a second in red and gold satin sheen. Very pleased with my bargain purchases at 200 rupees each, I trotted off up the street, only to walk past several more stalls and shops selling the very same for only 150!

I carried on to Bangalore’s fort, Tipu Sultan’s Palace, the Bull Temple and Dodda Ganesha Temple. By the time I was finished, the opening night of the art exhibition in which my work was being displayed was about to begin.

There I met Emma, as the inauguration began. Various members of the small gathering added their taper to the large diya stood in the room’s centre, before a few individuals said some words about the One Billion Rising movement. Then we all had chai – obviously the most important part of the evening! I found my own painting in a corner, and was astounded at the price the gallery had placed on it. Prices on different canvases there ranged from 5000/- to 18,000/-. My own picture was up for 8000/-! Even in pound sterling that rounds to £100! And it’s not a painting I’m particularly proud of, given that I had only a few hours to produce it. Does this mean I can officially call myself an artist now?

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My painting on the theme of One Billion Rising

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Astounded by the price tag!

I didn’t think the week could get more exciting, but Mathews asked me on Tuesday morning to draft an emergency memorandum on the need to abolish the death penalty. Four men had been sentenced to death the day before, and SICHREM was desperately trying to halt the hangings.

He called me and Chithra – a hilarious, bossy and exceedingly kind lady – to the court where most of SICHREM’s staff were that day. They had been arrested for protesting in January on a different issue, and whilst the hearing continued Mathews finalised the document with me. It became a petition, which various individuals and civil society members signed at a protest later that day, and was given to the governor of Bangalore.

I’m pleased to say that the whole process had the desired result, staying the men’s deaths by six weeks. Some semblance of democracy has been restored in Bangalore, and SICHREM has been doing its job excellently once again! I feel proud to be part of this organisation.

One Billion Rising in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

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Valentine’s Day this year was more special than usual. Instead of the romantic day out with a meal or flowers, I headed to CubbonPark for a different sort of event.As Julika and I wound our way through the park, we became increasingly lost. After several phone calls and accosting strangers for directions, we finally stumbled upon our destination, where we could see banners and more and more people milling around.

The crowd surrounded a group of young teenage girls performing a dance where they would hit a metal handheld block with small symbols in time with singers standing nearby. Then they began doing acrobatics, and group formations, which culminated in a fantastic three-tiered human pyramid.

Their mothers then started singing and dancing to the beat of a tambourine, as a much larger group of protesters made their way jubilantly across the busy junction next to the park.  Carrying banners and wearing ribbons tied around their heads, proclaiming an end to violence against women,  the women also started dancing in the road clashing sticks and singing. Some men accompanied them in the rear beating drums, and everyone was shouting slogans in Kannada. I felt like I was missing the significance of some of these events due to the language barrier, especially when a handful of balloons were suddenly and ceremoniously released amidst the confusion.

The ensuing disco rave however was much easier to be involved with. Every woman there, of which there were a few hundred, began jumping up and down ecstatically, and dragging me and Julika in to dance with them. There was a real feeling of being part of something bigger, and of barriers breaking down. Dalit women were dancing next to students and middle-class office workers. It was a very real celebration of being a woman, by women.After a few songs over the loudspeakers, I drifted away to watch a couple more dancing groups spread along the road further into the park. Each group had an entirely different style of music and dancing, but people were again joining in with wild fervour at every opportunity, no matter what their own cultural background.

Feeling the need to exercise my shrivelling artistic skill, I added my own message to the plain banner strung 50 feet along the fence. It was only after Julika had written her message, and we regrouped under the shade of the bamboo trees for a bit of relaxation, that I realised others were painting canvases. And these canvases were free! Anyone could grab one and paint their masterpiece as part of the event. There were some fantastic images emerging from others’ brushes, and I walked around for a bit trying to think of an idea which would fit the theme of One Billion Rising, and also stand up next to these other works.

Once it came I set up camp on some plastic chairs and cheekily borrowed a neighbour’s brushes. Many people were wondering around watching the painters, some with brushes, others using fingers. I was concentrating hard when a reporter squatted down next to my chair from the Hindu (a national newspaper) and began interviewing me! And I actually got a mention too! There were some more reporters from other papers and institutions, and a cameraman with a female reporter also panned past my canvas as they walked around the area. The Indian media really loves to include foreigners in its news.

3-4 hours and 24 mosquito bites later, I put the last touches to my canvas under torchlight from a stranger’s phone. The candlelit vigil was being held under the trees nearby, as individuals told their stories of survival and resistance, and everyone held a candle in a paper cup. I was sad to have missed it, but felt like I had released so much stress through the process of painting. When I walked my picture over to the stand I was told that all the works were being submitted to an exhibition. I couldn’t believe that not only had I been in the paper twice in one week, but I was now also having my artwork put into an actual gallery.

More importantly, the One Billion Rising event had been a fantastic success, with cars and police stopping to take note, lines of office workers pressed against the glass of their city towers for a better look, and so many women making a stand against the culture of violence which permeates not just Indian society, but so many societies across the world. Oh India you are spoiling me!