Tag Archives: work

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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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.

 

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

Mehndi

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I’m sat here looking at today’s date not believing that it hasn’t even been two weeks since I landed in Delhi airport. SICHREM have been working me so hard that I’ve not had much time to think.

To begin where I left off, the homesickness (thankfully) abated quite quickly, largely after I was taken on a sight-seeing tour of Bangalore’s answer to Kew by my Ardash. The place was called Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and I managed to sneak in at the local price of just 10 Rs, thanks to his cunning. Though the gardens themselves were a little dry and tired, it was a hilarious outing because of Ardash’s friend, Ardash (helpfully-named, I know). Visiting for a few days from his home in Kerala, Ardash 2nd made me laugh so much, despite not speaking English, that my stomach was hurting by the end of the day. We ate Thali in a little canteen for about 80 Rs, and he must have finished his plate in about three minutes flat.

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He went back home on Tuesday however, and the rest of my week has consisted of time spent in the SICHREM office, and days at a time attempting to register my visa. Indian bureaucracy could safely win the title for most inefficient service in the world, and I knew it would take more than one day to get everything sorted. The amount of time I spent in the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) however was unbelievable. On the first day I spent 7 hours attempting to register, and the second day came to six hours just waiting in the office. I got the strong feeling that had I had some cash in my hand, the staff might not have invented so many extra documents that were apparently vital to registering.

Day three’s attempt was the final, and successful one. It was almost effortless by comparison, and I walked out with my little piece of paper with a stamp on it so elated, purely because I had put so much effort into earning it. I hope I never have to go back there again.

At SICHREM, I began work on the tasks specified for me before arrival. Several staff including myself were however called into a meeting with Mr Mathews, the coordinator, to prepare a joint document to be published as a chapter in a human rights defender’s upcoming book. Having spent what days that I wasn’t at the FRRO frantically trying to dredge statistics and case studies from the various resources available, I have finished my short contribution within the 10 days we were given! Now back to the other stuff!

I’ve also been hanging out with another international volunteer from Germany, called Julika. We spent Sunday evening with her hosts – a young couple living in a small flat in Indiranagar – going round Bangalore’s National Art Gallery, and tasting all the different foods on ‘food street’. The highlight of my day was definitely learning the word for testicles in ‘Hindi’ though.

After being invited back to their apartment for dinner, I spent the night on Julika’s mattress, and was doted on by Ahmad and Suvrata the whole time. They have the two cutest cats, and are refreshingly modern in their outlook. I ended up having a very deep discussion with Ahmad about art, Radiohead and religion within hours of having met them. What wonderful people! Next weekend will probably see me travelling to Mysore with them during the Saturday holiday – can’t wait!

Fundraising Target

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So I got a letter in the post on Friday from the village parish council, saying that they wanted to sponsor me with £50! I’m so happy! That equates to nearly 6 months of anti-malarials, or 1/6 of my visa. I didn’t expect such a quick response, having only sent a request to them the week before. Following on from this success I’ve now just finished another application to my regional council, which would make a massive difference to my fundraising target if I got it as their standard amount to give to individuals is £500.

This also made me think perhaps I should let more people know what the money is actually going towards, and the sort of target I’m aiming for. Obviously I’m hoping to fund as much as possible from my own pocket, but unfortunately minimum wage waitressing/betting assistant/mystery shopper/avon sales rep/busker just doesn’t cut it in the savings stakes. So here, for you perusal, is my budget for the year:

Item Total cost
Return flight London-Bangalore £500
Employment visa (working unpaid with a charity) £310
Anti-malarials (12 months) £120
Travel insurance (12 months) £450
Accommodation (12 months) £2000
Living costs (est. £30/week) £1560
10% contingency £494
Total project cost £5434

…about £5400, which is cheaper than you can live on in the UK for a year.

The Ball is Rolling

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Wow! Things are really starting to pick up now. My day-by-day to-do list has extended into a two week deadline sheet, and I have so many people to contact and liase with I am in danger of needing to make an excel spreadsheet.

I also had my first online donation today, at a fantastic £20! This was however after I realised that the first site I had been using worked in US dollars, and thus came out at around twelve pounds. My tech-savvy brother then pointed me towards another blog site where you can manipulate the html code, allowing me to post my very own paypal buttons onto the page!!! I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but at the moment it makes me feel very accomplished and professional. The “sponsor me” link from this blog remains the same. Here’s the site: donatetoabigail.blogspot.co.uk.

I implemented my cake plan at work too, and by the time I left at lunch there was already £3 exactly in the little collection tin I cobbled together. Pictures will ensue soon. For now, here is one of the collection bucket I made for my cake sale yesterday.

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Making money

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So the last few days have been VERY productive. I managed to get a member of the local Town Council on board with my cause and she’s already set me up with loads of events. Today I made £34.55 at a wedding fair with a stall selling my own (fine) efforts at cake-baking and with a massive orange bucket which I nicked off my Dad. People were far more willing to donate than I ever would have expected, which makes me think I could do more, though I must admit not many people wanted to buy the cakes. Obviously they just weren’t very hungry, and it had nothing to do with the butter cream melting everywhere.

I also gained another offer for sponsorship in voucher form from one of the other stall-holders, and we banded about plenty of new ideas, including face painting children and then holding them to ransom (joke). I’m planning to do a car boot selling cakes, and it’s looking likely, with the rising offers of vouchers, that a raffle may be possible. Maybe also a guess-how-many-sweets-in-the-jar…yum.

Further, I’ve been given the idea to leave cakes in the canteen at work with an honesty box for donations, as a good regular income source, and to try and find a sky-diving voucher on groupon. I’ve been racking my brain for a while over what sort of activity I might be able to do to generate individual sponsorship, and sky-diving was definitely one of them. With a voucher to reduce the cost, it would definitely be worth doing.

I did actually consider selling my eggs – they go for £750 in London! – but apparently nobody wants babies with asthma, so that’s my quick cash fix out the window. Back to the cake-baking 🙂

Hold your breath for the next batch of fundraising news, when I’ll try and remember to take loads of pictures!

Sponsorship

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So I got my first proper sponsor this week from a local business, who gave me a £25 voucher and invited me to come and take donations at a talk they have set up in September – fantastic! I just wish more  businesses would respond so positively. I’m planning to use that voucher as a raffle prize…just need to set up an event where I can sell it. All ideas welcome!

I’ve also been trying to set up links with some primary/secondary schools in the area to do talks with the pupils. I was thinking around the subject of human rights, but to be honest, at the moment, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It would be better to raise awareness when I return, but some interest is better than no interest.

Having now started working (properly) I’m also permanently tired and mentally frazzled, so printing off a pristine to-do list has been about the only step forward for the coming week. I’m going to be tough on myself, despite working every day over the next 7 days, and force myself to achieve certain tasks. First stop, the local parish council!