Tag Archives: volunteer

Leaving India

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OK I think it’s time to accept that my blogging is not going to happen on a regular weekly basis – so skipping ahead of Parts 2-4 of my trip around South India, I wanted to officially announce that I’ll be leaving India early.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I arrived in India actually – the combination of homesickness, the longing for some sort of clean street environment, and needing to have a better placement than what SICHREM could offer me. I’ve been mulling and mulling it over for so long, that I’m surprised I managed to stay this long in actuality. Let me expand a bit.

So my problems with SICHREM have been manifold, and mostly I thought that I would be able to work them through as the result of cultural differences. The reality however has been that SICHREM hasn’t been able to offer me the research and career-building opportunities that I wanted. I intended to work explicitly on gender-related projects, and be involved in lots of advocacy, as this is my area of interest. Despite this being communicated throughout my placement and before it, I never got the chance to do any of this. Whilst I’ve been working on two fairly sizeable research projects, the absence of ANY gender-related work has been gradually grinding down my motivation. After the six months mark, I had to hold up my hands and accept that no such opportunities were going to arise, even with my repeated discussions with Mathews (the Executive Director of SICHREM).

The working environment at SICHREM has also been deteriorating in general since my arrival in January, for whatever issues I am not entirely sure. Whilst I’ve been volunteering, four members of staff resigned and moved on, for various reasons. A further two are now on their way out, leaving only two non-admin staff within the entire organisation, to run all of SICHREM’s different programmes and emergency cases. It’s totally unfeasible.

Whilst I am loathe to make this into one epic rant, the continued problems I faced at SICHREM are a huge part of why I want to leave. Never once being thanked for my any of my volunteered time, or efforts – particularly not for the more significant successes which took up so much time – never treated like a professional equal, and always dismissed when I raise suggestions or ideas for improvements. It’s been an incredibly frustrating and de-motivating environment to work in, but I’ve been fighting through it to the best of my ability, discussing things with staff, trying to communicate issues – to no avail. There’s only so much negativity a person can take.

Outside of SICHREM, life has had both high and low points. I still love India, I just can’t love Bangalore. I definitely will be returning, but to a place where the people speak Hindi, where you can see the horizon, where a clean breeze clears the air, and where the people celebrate life…not drudge heads down through rubbish heaps and grey air. I am physically and psychologically suffocated here.

Psychologically suffocated in the sense that if, as a woman, I look up and at people’s faces in the street, the men will leer at you or follow you or shout disgusting insults in Kannada, as if I don’t know what they’re saying. Or sometimes it’s just the man on a bike jeering ‘hey foreigner’. Whilst your movements in public space become policed in this way, I find the confrontation with people’s ideologies in personal interaction far worse. The number of girls who are visibly horrified by the realisation that you walk alone after 7pm at night, or that you use public buses (which are clearly brimming with lascivious men who will rip off your clothes at midday) is depressing. Even worse are the guys – ‘you shouldn’t talk like that’, ‘no you don’t understand [women not having any agency] it’s not safe/moral/right for women to go out alone’. In the UK, I have taken for granted my personal freedom to think, talk, act, dress, eat, sit, and breathe in the way that I want, that it feels like I am trapped inside a moral prison. I cannot be myself in India. Even trying my best to conform, to avoid confrontation (for instance I wear salwar kameez not shorts, I use Kannada words, I follow social convention on buses, in the post office, in SICHREM), I am constantly critiqued and rebutted by idiots who simply see a white face in a kurti. I am not expected or permitted to express ideological thoughts or contrary opinions. I should nod and smile and say ‘sir’ to whatever inadequacy comes out of a man’s mouth, so that I show respect, and am meek, and thus like a good Indian girl. I refuse to hand over my self-respect, however much has already been chipped away, in my upturned hands.

I don’t hate Indian men at all. I just feel that the undue respect and privilege that society has assured them is their right makes most guys totally unaware that other people have contrasting and equally important opinions. When you internalise, and receive daily confirmation of, the idea that you will automatically get what you want and people will listen to you, it makes men arrogant and self-righteous, and sometimes totally shocked when you argue them down.

I can’t wait to be back in a place where people are valued for being the person they are, not for their marriage or earning potential; where others will give equal attention to your voice and ideas and beliefs.

But like true love, you work through the bad parts and keep returning to strengthen that bond which attracted you in the first place. India will always draw me back, I just have to work out that where that perfect balance lies. The magic formula. Maybe it should start with a tattoo?

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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*

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.

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!

VIBGYOR – A week at Thrissur’s International Film Festival, Kerala

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Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.

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VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur

After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.

9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.

Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”

Spying on the elephants

Spying on the elephants

We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.

The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.

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The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.

There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.

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Stolen Democracies

Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.

When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.

The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.

This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.

Famous at last!

We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.

   

My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.

KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

KG Babu’s portrait of yours truly

Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.

It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.