Friday, 24 March 2017

A Week in South India: Three Train Journeys and a Wedding

The Charminar in Hyderabad
Last week I used an invitation to the wedding of one of Nivedita’s cousins in Bangalore as an excuse to do some travelling in South India. On the first leg of my trip, a 22-hour train journey down the spine of India took me to the city of Hyderabad, known in the past for the ostentation of its Muslim rulers (the last Nizam had 11,000 servants, 38 of whom were tasked with keeping the chandeliers clean) and now reinventing itself as a technology and IT powerhouse. Following a day and a half visiting its historical sites and loafing through the streets of the Old City, I moved on to explore the ruins of the medieval Hindu city of Hampi, scattered across an extraordinary landscape of granite outcrops strikingly interspersed with green sinews of sugarcane plantation and coconut trees. So, after approximately 1400 miles of train travel, multiple dancing-related humiliations, 1 lost voice and 0 cases of sunstroke, here are a few thoughts gleaned from my sojourn in the south.


If you’re attending an Indian wedding, make sure you’re neither the bride nor groom! Friends and family really have it easy; the only entry requirements to a desi wedding are a willingness to dance at any opportunity (age being no barrier) and eat an inordinate quantity of rogan josh and jalebis (ditto). By contrast, the lot of the happy couple is to be spectators to their nearest and dearest’s capering and gluttony as they endure the interminable rigmarole of religious ceremonies. Despite my best endeavours to understand the meaning of these rituals, their exact significance wasn’t always apparent even to those who did manage to tear themselves away from the dancefloor or buffet to indulge my curiosity. By the time Neha and Shivam had become man and wife – at an apparently auspicious 4am on Monday morning – after four days of ceremony, and with most of the guests having been whittled away by fatigue, over-eating or simple disinterest, I could appreciate why they were sharing thousand-yard stares. Nevertheless, for me – who only had to suffer the indignity of having to dance freestyle in front of several hundred presumably pitying guests – it was a welcome and joyous weekend of frivolity and gastronomic body abuse after a lean week backpacking (as I write this I’m enjoying the sweets given to me by Neha’s mother the day after the wedding). I wish Neha and Shivam all the best in their new lives together.  


'So what are you in for?' 'Picking flowers.'
Many of India’s historical monuments seem to teeter between nurture and neglect; Hyderabad – which I had learnt had already seen much of its heritage lost forever in its rapid transition to IT hub– is a case in point. Extensive restoration work was being carried out on the Charminar (Hyderabad’s premier landmark) while I was there, yet it was easy to find other sites still to benefit from the city’s belated conservation efforts.

Golconda Fort is one such place. Once the stronghold of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, whose legendary wealth came from the diamond mines of the region that spawned the Koh-i-Noor, any visitor today could be forgiven for being underwhelmed by what is billed as one of India’s most spectacular forts. As soon as I had passed through the fort’s gate (embedded with spikes to ward off elephant charges), self-appointed guides eager to reel me in demonstrated the acoustic capabilities of the portico by clapping: the echoes could allegedly be heard on the distant hilltop citadel. It was a nice party-trick but, not wanting to start my visit by haggling over payment for a tour I may have regretted taking, I quickly peeled off, passed through the fort’s pleasure gardens and began a steady ascent towards the citadel. Soon pausing to catch my breath in the heat, I noticed that the fortifications rising above me were bolstered and occasionally supplanted by massive boulders, making for some great photo opportunities. As is so often the case with India’s lesser-known monuments however, zooming in failed to bring reward.

Golconda Fort
Having reached the acropolis, it quickly became clear that where once there must have been beautiful and precise Indo-Islamic ornamentation, now the citadel’s structures were crudely adorned with lovers’ graffiti, unerringly gouged into  fraying plasterwork. Most pitifully of all, someone (perhaps an overzealous official who had got the wrong end of the stick about conservation, or perhaps a well-intentioned but still misguided visitor) had scratched ‘Remove footwear before entering’ into the wall of a dilapidated mosque. Large areas of the hill had been given up to weeds, shrubs and the detritus of tourists. Looking out beyond the walls of Golconda and across the arid sweep of the Deccan plateau, the suburbs of the New Hyderabad, ‘Cyberabad’, seemed menacingly close. As a fellow visitor who shared my dismay put it, although the fort withstood multiple sieges it could not escape neglect.

Golconda still seems to have sufficient gravitas for now. As I wended my way down the path from the citadel, I spotted a film-crew shooting what looked like a Mughal costume drama. But it can only be for the spectacular backdrop. Ignorance, indifference and nature’s steady hand have long stripped away the furnishings.


Virupaksha Temple, Hampi
Despite many years of traumatic colonial rule and Britain’s best attempts to deter bright Indian students and workers from coming to the UK through hefty university fees and stringent employment laws, there’s still an immense amount of interest in Britain and its cultural heritage amongst middle-class educated Indians. On the train to Hyderabad I was grilled on my reasons for voting Remain in the EU referendum by a software engineer the same age as me, caused my Golconda friend consternation at admitting to never having seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or read any of Jane Austen’s novels (although we both shared a love of Withnail and I) and, a few hours after the wedding, sat nodding mutely as Nivedita’s uncle waxed lyrical about David Copperfield (again, another omission in my cultural compass).  Whether you put this goodwill down to the innate appeal of the UK’s ‘soft power’, or attribute it to the workings of an Anglophile education system and the ‘colonised mind’ still in thrall to all things British, I hope that Britain’s politicians remain conscious of how fortunate they are to have this stockpile of social capital as leverage in their post-Brexit dealings with India. Regardless, these chance encounters, even when exposing my philistinism, provided the keenest memories of the week and demonstrated why solo travel can be so rewarding.

And finally, some wedding photos!

Not even in step

The night of the wedding

3am and it's still going...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Freelance gun for hire, and going slow in Udaipur

Apologies for it being all quiet till now, I’ve finally had to forfeit my life of leisure and get a proper job. The highlight of a brief and inglorious career as a freelance writer was receiving my first offer from a Bangladeshi chap, who wanted some ads written for Black Friday – I was truly through the looking glass when he sent me a sample entitled ‘Best Gun Deals on Black Friday 2016’. $1 dollar an hour in exchange for promoting the sale of guns, DVD players and cheap jewellery to the good people of America? I rated my market value at slightly greater than that. Now I’m in the travel racket, interning at a (legit) travel agency in southeast Delhi, editing and creating web-content on their English-language site. Being the corporate lackey I am now, here’s a link if you’re interested:
Jagdish Temple, Udaipur

Life in Delhi has been as entertaining as ever, with the added twists of bird flu, even more abysmal than usual air pollution and demonetisation to deal with. How have I handled these three Indian horsemen of the apocalypse? With my usual grace, flair, élan, sleights of hand etc…In all seriousness, I appreciated getting out of Delhi recently for a weekend trip to Udaipur in Rajasthan. Here’s what I got up to. 


Despite having lived in Delhi for over a year and a half all told, I have seen precious little of neighbouring Rajasthan, aside from two trips to Jaipur. The first time round I took in the sights of the Pink City from a hospital bed while my family had fun exploring, while the second foray was dedicated to attending Jaipur’s prestigious literature festival, allowing no time to explore the city itself. So I was delighted when a weekend excursion to Udaipur was proposed by friends; I felt I could start to fill a gaping hole in my travel-map of North India.

View from Gangaur Ghat
Following an overnight train – during which I communed with a friendly aunty over a bag of almonds I had brought for the journey – the first two days were spent with my friends seeing the city’s famed array of sights and sampling Rajasthani cuisine. I have found throughout my travels in India that the best and most satisfying food is sometimes that which is neither overly-complicated nor necessarily served in the most salubrious of surroundings. Talking to fellow Indophiles, I know I am not the only one to hold this belief.

And so it was in Udaipur; a lunchtime stroll north of the City Palace took us to one such place, a dhaba (road-side canteen), perhaps slightly worn around the edges but welcoming enough, where we enjoyed a Rajasthani classic: kachori, fried discs with a filling of lentils, potato or onion and, of course, spices, accompanied by a rich tamarind chutney. In the midday heat, a few kachori, washed down with my poison of choice (chai, if you’re interested), were more than enough to sate my appetite until evening. I came back again before I left and, over one final round of kachori, managed to successfully summon up enough of my meagre Hindi to convey my appreciation to the proprietor, a trivial yet still satisfying achievement in my mind; while visiting the Jagdish Temple the day before I had confidently informed a purveyor of Udaipur’s famous miniature paintings that his work was delicious, but sadly not for me.

On the streets of Udaipur

Eager to take in some of the local culture however, I spent an evening in the elegant eighteenth-century courtyard of Bagore-ki-Haveli, one of the city’s historic mansions, enjoying performances from across the spectrum of traditional Rajasthani culture. The show began with a dance by women from the Gujjar tribe, whose type of dance – used for felicitous occasions – had gained recent viral fame thanks to a video of two Gujjar women singing and dancing buoyantly in the incongruous setting of the Delhi Metro. Despite the familiarity, it was still a wonderful experience seeing it in person. With the Mewari sitting dance, it was difficult to decide what should command one’s full attention: the fluid swaying back and forth of the dancers, or their deftness in playing a pair of small cymbals simultaneously.

Despite the artful guile of each performer, the most enthusiastic applause of the evening was undoubtedly reserved for a woman who slowly yet surely danced while balancing an eventual total of eleven water gourds on her head, and briefly treading delicately on shards of glass. The acclaim of the audience only increased when the master of ceremonies revealed her age afterwards: 70 years!


Unlike my hard-working friends, I was lucky enough to have an extra day in Udaipur before having to make tracks back to Delhi in the late afternoon. As such, I decided to embrace my inner flâneur and take an unhurried walk through Udaipur’s neighbourhoods, ostensibly to visit Sahelion ki Bari, or the ‘Courtyard of the Maidens’. From what I had heard, its tranquil setting of fountains and gardens seemed a fitting destination for a day of leisure. That day was in fact meant to be a ‘day of rage’, or shutdown, in cities across India as a protest by opposition parties against the recent demonetization measures. In reality, as I stepped out of my hostel mid-morning, Udaipur seemed calm and distinctly unperturbed – calm being a relative concept in India of course!

As I roamed, my eyes guiding me down alleyways, towards well-maintained havelis and into the thrum of markets, I was offered a road-side shave, a massage, a smoke, coconut juice, spices…women adorned in the ubiquitous yet dazzling panoply of Rajasthani colours diligently weaved reed baskets in the heat; tourists pawed the leather bags hanging from shops, as the proprietors – very much in business – looked eagerly on; locals offered a hasty prayer as they walked past road-corner shrines. In wanton oblivion to the lofty words of the politicians in Delhi, life was assuredly carrying on.

Turning around a bend in the road, I saw up ahead a rickshaw clatter into another, a sharp exchange of words follow, and the inevitable audience hastily assemble as motorbikes formed an increasingly lengthy queue of blazing horns. A policeman, sporting a fine black beret, spiritedly yet inconsequentially blew his whistle. An elderly man, his beard luridly streaked with henna, walked insouciantly through the commotion, only briefly glancing sideways before shuffling on.

In the end, I never reached my intended destination; I didn’t really mind. In India, there is so much joy, amusement and profundity to be found in the everyday, the mundane, if only you take a moment to pause and watch. ‘People-watching’ is an inexact, somewhat clumsy term for this method of travelling – as if one were going on a human safari. I’ve yet to think of a better name for this fine art, but I’ll let you know someday.

On the train back, I thought about my wanderings that day, as well as my immediate surroundings. For me, taking the train in India is like entering a library…but that’s a thought for another time.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Getting into the Diwali spirit
The Curious Case of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

Instead of spending Diwali in Delhi getting slowly asphyxiated and deafened by a constant barrage of fireworks, I was lucky enough to enjoy the festival, for the second time, in the east of the state of Uttar Pradesh with my friend Shiv and his family. Once again, I was treated to a sumptuous array of superb vegetarian food during my time there, much of which, being local to the area I was in, I had never tried before. Above all, it was a pleasure spending time in a traditional Indian household and again meeting various members of the extended family, whose exact relationship to Shiv I have, to my shame, still yet to completely work out! Anyway, here are my thoughts on the controversy surrounding this year's Diwali blockbuster: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil


The Diwali blockbuster has become as much a fixture of the festive season as fireworks, smog and sweets. This year’s offering was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or ‘Difficulties of the Heart’ (Hindi film titles tend not to translate well!). Were it not for the fact that the Pakistani actor Fawad Khan – who had already starred in two Bollywood films without fuss – had been cast in the film, it would be yet another anodyne entry into the Bollywood annals of love and heartbreak. But with the two nations engaged in more grand-standing and skirmishing in Kashmir however, such blasphemy proved too much for some right-wing nationalists; threats of attacks on cinemas in Mumbai choosing to screen the film forced Karan Johar, the film’s director, to give way to the mobocracy (which included several political parties) and issue a statement before its release declaring he would no longer employ actors from ‘the neighbouring country’ in any of his future projects. Aware that this might not be enough to placate the chauvinistic vultures picking apart his film, Johar also saluted the Indian Army and condemned terrorism emanating from across the border.

Bewildered, yet keen to see what all the fuss was about, I watched Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in a shabby, packed-out cinema in the city of Gorakhpur, 800km east of Delhi, two days after Diwali. With the help of friends translating at key moments, I just about managed to navigate my way through the fairly simple plot. As is often the case with ‘controversial’ cultural works, the reality in no way justified the frenzy surrounding Johar’s creation (Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ perhaps being another case in point).

Aloo chaat, Uttar Pradesh style - fried onions, chopped tomatoes, fried potato, various spices combined to make some of the best street food I've had in India! 
Much like the film itself, Khan’s character was fairly innocuous, a London DJ who temporarily separates the main protagonists (played by Indian, not Pakistani, actors Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma) by marrying Sharma’s character, before leaving her, setting the whole romantic tension between Kapoor and Sharma off on another drawn-out tangent. While watching the film, I made sure to scrutinise this heinous individual closely for any signs of anti-India behaviour – eating beef while on set, burning the Indian flag as an encore etc. – but, alas, failed. When his character did appear on screen, there was no reaction from the audience. I’m guessing (or perhaps naively hoping) that most watching didn’t really care that a Pakistani was gracing the big screen; they were there to enjoy some classic Bollywood fare and see their favourite stars. Indeed, the wildest cheers of the night were reserved for the entrance of megastar Shah Rukh Khan who, in a typically effervescent 5-minute cameo, dispensed some worldly wisdom on love to Kapoor’s rather hapless character.

It’s both sad and alarming when dull-minded gnomes, clad in the protective garb of patriotism, can so brazenly manipulate popular culture to suit their cowardly, odious agenda, by attacking ‘soft’, apolitical targets such as actors and directors. It seems clear that it's not just on Indian news channels that the maxim ‘He who shouts loudest wins’ seems pertinent - and when there's nothing but deafening silence (not for the first time) from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on such a clear-cut case of bigotry, it's easy for illiberal, nationalist voices to reverberate without check in the void. But if such people want to deny Indian people the simple pleasures of seeing Bollywood stars caper to camp dance music and chase each other across the world in the pursuit of love, just because one of them was born on the wrong side of a line hastily drawn on a map in 1947, then they’re not only dull-minded. They’re plain dull. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

My Week: Indian parents, 'Sikhing' some peace and quiet, Gandering after Gandhi, and the perks of looking for a flat in Delhi

Hauz Khas complex - the ruins of a 13th century village, just 30 seconds walk from where I'm living 

After over a year away, I’m back in India – the weather is sublime (despite my phone telling me each morning it’s smoke outside) and with the coming of Diwali, Delhi is showing off its finest gladrags, with festive lights adorning neighbourhoods across this vast, beguiling city. I’ve found somewhere to live, and now getting down to the important things in life, namely meeting old friends and reacquainting myself with the myriad cuisines on offer, from simple yet delicious street-fare to the more refined, rich meaty curries of northern India and exquisite vegetarian thalis from the south – fuelled by regular cups of sweet chai! Anyway, here goes a series of random, disconnected vignettes from my first week. Enjoy!


It’s almost seen as axiomatic that in India there is no such thing as privacy, and that young adults lack control over their lives, with the close scrutiny of the family and Indian society at large quick to thwart any ‘deviant’ behaviour, whether it be in love, recreation or work. A recent feature on BBC News described the efforts of Stay Uncle, a pioneering start-up in Mumbai, to provide some relief for beleaguered unmarried couples by helping them book 10-hour stays at hotels which promise discreet, non-judgemental service. Yet Stay Uncle has struggled to overcome conservative social norms; only three hotels have chosen to participate so far, with others fearing police raids or simply refusing to endorse the concept. For those couples caught committing such ‘indecency’ (which, incidentally, is not illegal under Indian law), they potentially face public humiliation, familial ostracism and the possibility of being forcibly married, under the auspices of ‘moral policing’.

Cartoon in The Times of India
Undoubtedly such beliefs lend themselves to easy exaggeration about Indian society; the parks of Delhi are well known as lovers-hangouts, offering a tacitly accepted sanctuary for those seeking some solitude.The bars a stone’s-throw from where I am living are packed at weekends with well-heeled young adults, suggesting that urban India, at least, has relaxed the straitjacket.

Equally, in many stereotypes lies a kernel of truth.  Reading the venerable Times of India the other day, I spotted a notice taken out by a Mr and Mrs Bisht – nestled amidst the latest news on the interminable India-Pakistan conflict and editorials bemoaning the lamentable state of Delhi’s air quality – informing the general public that they were disowning their son and daughter-in-law, Mr Sharad Bisht and Mrs Anupama Bisht, for ‘their ill behaviour with us.’ Anyone foolhardy to deal with these miscreants ‘will be responsible for every pros and cons at his own cost’. You have been warned.


Paying my respects to the Mahatma
The last time I was in India, any evidence of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi residing within the fabric of contemporary India seemed in scant supply (a film released last week called ‘Gandhigiri’, promising to ‘enlighten the audience on forgotten Gandhian values’, has been universally panned by critics – judging by the trailer, I can’t blame them: Those friends at Delhi University who I had asked about Gandhi were uniformly scathing, casting him as a misogynist and no longer relevant to today’s India. The closest I had come to the Mahatma had been in the back of a rickshaw careering along the chaotic Mahatma Gandhi ring-road in Delhi, and when handling rupee notes, which bear his portrait. For a man indelibly perceived by many around the world as the anti-materialistic, austere dhoti-clad Mahatma, whose finest moments arguably came when marching on foot against the British Empire and Hindu-Muslim violence, these tributes to Gandhi seemed bafflingly inappropriate.
Getting too excited about Gandhi

With this in mind, and having taken a year-long course on Gandhi and the Indian nationalist movement in my final year at Edinburgh, I decided a visit to Birla House – where Gandhi spent the final 144 days of his life before his assassination – was in order. Lodged in what is now the leafy diplomatic enclave of Delhi, the two-storey house was undoubtedly a comfortable place of residence for an increasingly frail Gandhi, worn down by his valiant efforts to stem the communal violence raging across the sub-continent following Partition in 1947. 

Unsurprisingly, the treatment of Gandhi’s life was hagiographic; one portrait of Gandhi inside the house juxtaposed him alongside Christ hanging on the cross. To walk around the spot where Gandhi was shot the removal of shoes, as with entering a mosque, temple or gurudwara, was mandatory, the ground sanctified by the spilling of the Great Soul’s blood. Troops of schoolchildren walking past the shrine, urged on by their teachers, dutifully cried out Gandhi’s final, divine words: ‘He Ram!’ (Oh God!) In the museum, almost no mention was made of one of the most controversial episodes in his life: his decision to ‘fast unto death’ in 1933 in protest at attempts by the British to give the downtrodden Dalit, or Untouchable, community the right to elect its own political representatives. The (successful) fast was condemned by Dr Ambedkar, the leading Dalit activist of the era and the framer of India’s post-independence constitution, as a ‘foul and filthy act’, and it irrevocably soured Gandhi’s legacy amongst many Dalits.

Despite this, it was undoubtedly still a poignant experience to retrace the final steps of a titan of twentieth-century history, and view his plain room and motley collection of personal effects, including a pair of his iconic round glasses. Outside on the well-manicured lawn, a faithful acolyte weaved on a charka, the spinning wheel which Gandhi hoped all Indians would learn to use. As I left Birla House, having decided not to honour Gandhi’s memory by buying something from the souvenir shop, a street-hawker came towards me, armed with Gandhi figurines.


The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
After several days of flat-hunting, I spent a welcome evening at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the largest Sikh temple in Delhi, with a friend from when I was on exchange at Delhi University. I am neither religious nor spiritual, but I admire the egalitarian and charitable streak in Sikhism. Sitting on the spotless marble floor of the langar, or communal mess, rubbing shoulders (almost literally) with hundreds of people, me and Harbajan took a simple, yet delicious meal of rice, dal, sabzi (vegetables) and chapattis, finishing off with kheer, the local equivalent of rice pudding. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or wealth, can eat without charge at the langar, which is open for up to ten hours a day, every day of the year, serving lunch and dinner and manned solely by volunteers. Afterwards, we walked around the sacred pool adjacent to the gurudwara, as monks would in a cloister, and I soon felt calm and far removed from the hustle of the city, as devotional music from the inner sanctum drifted through the cool evening air.


Not all experiences in India are memorable or capable of being romanticised. I’m sure flat-hunting in Delhi is no more or less banal a process than anywhere else in the world. The absurd and surreal is never too far away though, and I found it in the tiny office of a property dealer in South Delhi, who regally dispensed advice from the comfort of a well-worn sofa.  For any client also seeking some cosmic wisdom and reassurance, a notice outside her tiny office proclaimed her skills as an astrologer and ability to ‘see through you’ – a somewhat unfortunate choice of phrase, given she had a lazy eye. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Birds, Booze and Bandits: my time at the Las Vegas of Old India

Tribal women making maulwa, a liquor made from a flower
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to stay a night with an Adivasi (tribal) family while in the Bastar region, part of the eastern state of Chhattisgarh. Chhattisgarh, hewn from the giant state of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, only makes fleeting appearances in national news – typically because of an ambush of government troops by the Maoist rebels, commonly known as Naxalites (or ‘human wildlife’ by our guide) who inhabit the region’s labyrinthine forests. Thanks partly to this ongoing conflict, as well as a lack of any obvious man-made or natural attractions, international tourists are few and far between; indeed, I did not see a single white face during my time there. My reason for coming to this forgotten corner was to try to observe, and experience if possible, some Adivasi culture. 

Adivasis are the descendants of the original inhabitants of India, and are some of its poorest and most marginalised communities – an impressive, if dubious, accolade in its own way, given how rampant poverty is in India. Despite these problems, they remain proud guardians of their unique culture and way of life, steadfastly refusing, according to my pre-conceptions, to be assimilated and absorbed into modern, ‘New India’. 
A tribal women going to a haat (market)

Since independence in 1947, visions of a brighter future for India, unshackled from the ghosts of its colonial past, have been interminably bandied about by politicians, academics, rich and poor alike. John F.Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ of the early 60s might as easily have been conceived in the sub-continent; a 2004 election campaign slogan by the BJP, ‘India Shining’, while scorned by many, is just one of many recent examples of this aspiration. This ‘New India’ is envisioned as a nation which, having reluctantly welcomed capitalism and globalisation in the 1990s, finally manages to punch its weight on the international stage. Providing a brilliant example to the world of how to manage a culturally, ethnically and religiously disparate population of millions and millions, it can send missions into space while caring for its legions of poor and needy, while its acting and cricketing superstars are watched and adored around the globe. From my fleeting time in the village, it seemed that traditional tribal life was thankfully holding its own against the onslaught of New India, in all its globalising, modernising, homogenising glory. 

As the sun set on the arid Bastar plateau, the cockerel reeled away from the fight, its blood already mixing with the red earth of the arena. Vainly trying to maintain its balance, it slumped to the ground. Within a few moments it was dead, its stint as gladiator having provided rich entertainment to the hundreds of adivasis who had come to this illegal cockfight. As we watched this macabre yet enthralling spectacle, yet more cockerels were sent in to do battle. Feathers soon littered the arena, and crimson spots darkened the earth. Cockfighting is a brutal affair; a further three birds were to die during our time at the ‘Las Vegas’ of Bastar, as our guide Awesh succinctly put it. With the reek of mahuwa (the local tipple of choice), the sound of rolling dice and the yells of ecstatic and despondent punters rending the air, it was a fair description. 

Returning from the cockfight to the village where we would stay the night as guests of the ‘Nag’ (Snake) family, I started to take a look. The home of our hosts was, as expected, one-storied, its walls constructed from mud yet painted an eye-catching blue-green. Our host’s cockerel, which had lost its bout but thankfully not its life, strutted around unconcernedly, accompanied by a chicken and her flock of chicks. Goats wandered freely, except when threatening to graze on the dinner being cooked in the kitchen, its walls blackened by smoke. All of this tallied with my pre-conceptions. The satellite dish, perched atop the slanting tile roof, did not. 
The home of the Nag family

Later that evening, after a hearty dinner of rice, chicken and chutney (which I later understood to be made from the ants we had bought at a local market and gifted to our hosts), I talked to the eldest son in the family. Wearing torn jeans, a Tommy Hilfiger shirt and wielding a phone substantially better than my budget Nokia, Viru represented, in my hasty judgement, the imminent destruction of tribal culture in Bastar. The older generation, brought up on cockfights and mahuwa, probably viewed the local town of Jagdalpur, 40 minutes’ drive away, as their Mumbai. But if this man of nineteen had already shunned the traditional dress of his tribe, the limits to his world, broadened by the Internet and Bollywood film music on his phone, must have surely extended far beyond this small corner of Chhattisgarh.

Having introduced ourselves, I began to steer the conversation towards contemporary, popular Indian culture. It soon turned out that Viru was a keen fan of Shah Rukh Khan, the smoulderingly handsome veteran of many a camp, cheesy Bollywood flick. Cricket was undoubtedly the sport of choice. 

‘Do you like the IPL?’ [The Indian Premier League, an annual multi-billion dollar cricket tournament played in the Twenty20 format, featuring both emerging domestic talent and established Indian and overseas superstars, and watched around the world by millions.]

‘Of course’ replied Viru, who then proceeded to reel off each of the eight regional teams. When I asked which was his favourite side, he chooses the Delhi, Punjab and Rajasthan franchises. So far, despite his environment, Viru seemed very much a child of New India. Yet when I asked him what he wanted to do in the future, the response startled me. He said he wanted to become a bell-metal craftsman, like his father, creating representations of tribal deities and animals from scrap metal. His limited English and my non-existent knowledge of his language meant I was unable to find out whether Viru wanted to practice this traditional tribal craft for life. 

Although fascinating from my perspective as an outsider, tribal living should not be romanticised. Data released last month by the Socio-Economic and Caste Census revealed that the main breadwinner in over 90% of households in rural India earns less than 10,000 rupees a month, or £100. Dependence on subsistence agriculture, characterised by inefficient methods and rudimentary technology, and casual manual labour is the norm. Tribal households returned the worst data, with Chhattisgarh being one of the states with the greatest indicators of poverty. I wouldn’t have begrudged Viru, aware of the world out there beyond the wooden fence of his village, if he had wanted to leave his home and, like millions of other rural Indians, try to find a place for himself in New India. Yet I was encouraged that he identified in this crucial way with his heritage; whether this was out of respect for his father or because his ambitions did not amount to making the fateful plunge into New India I did not know. The well-maintained Honda motorbike he owned suggested that money might not have been the impediment. 

This aim of emulating his father, and the fact that his cockerel, a regular competitor in the arena, seemed to be his proudest possession showed for me, that although Viru might wear the garb of New India and indulge in its culture, his tribal heritage hadn’t been erased by any means. India is not a land frozen in time, contrary to the preconceptions of many foreigners who have and have not visited this ever-changing land. But, as V.S. Naipaul – the Trinidadian writer whose grandparents came to the Caribbean from India in the 1880s as indentured servants – put it in 1977 (and I think his words still hold true), ‘Sometimes Old India, the old, eternal India many Indians like to talk about, does seem just to go on.’

Monday, 1 June 2015

Why the Delhi Metro's better than the London Underground

I am a Delhi Metro-lover. If the rickety, expensive London Underground epitomises the banality of the suburban rat-race lifestyle, its anthem ‘The Sound of Silence’, then the Delhi Metro is its exuberant alter ego, encapsulating (literally) the vicissitudes of life in this manic, enthralling city.  Not only is it cheap and efficient – I can be in the city centre from my university hostel in 20 minutes for the paltry sum of 15 rupees (approximately 15p)  – it also gives my lungs a bit of breathing space from Delhi’s filthy air, which I’m sure has shaved a few months off my life expectancy.

But the Metro’s so much more than this – it’s also a great place for people-watching and interacting. As a gora (white man), I’m often, happily or otherwise depending upon my mood, the subject of much curiosity from my fellow Metro-users. Frequently, as in the outside world, interaction takes the standard form of ‘Where are you from?’, ’What are you doing here?’, ‘What is your good name?’, What is your father’s job?’ etc etc.

Thankfully however, these subterranean encounters often take a more interesting turn. One time I was brazenly propositioned on the Metro by an inebriated (male) passenger, giving a new meaning to the term ‘metrosexual’. I think my firm rejection of his advances disappointed him, although it kept the numerous commuters watching the hapless firangi (foreigner) writhing with embarrassment entertained.

Another time, I was treated to the sight of a man campaigning for himself before local elections, declaiming to one and all while thrusting leaflets left, right and centre to anyone (un)fortunate enough to be in reach. Given the paucity of credible political parties operating in India’s capital at the moment, if I could have voted this one-man band would have got my backing, just for his sheer flamboyance and enterprise rather than on the basis of any polices he might have had. While such characters would be tut-tutted at, or steadfastly ignored on the London Underground (including by me), Delhi-wallas love a spectacle, particularly if it involves a firangi trying desperately to extricate themselves from the situation with dignity intact.

Even if there is nothing much happening on a journey, it’s still easy to pass the time discreetly admiring the luminous saris of middle-aged matriarchs, or the bright-orange, henna-stained beards of elderly Muslim gentlemen. Every-time I step on-board, I inwardly laugh at the various improbable rules and regulations set by the august Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. Any daredevils seeking to make the Metro their amphitheatre are swiftly stopped in their tracks; riding on the roof of a train will set you back a princely 50 rupees (50p) for example. By contrast, the heinous crime of ‘causing obstruction to Doors’ could land you with either a 5000 rupee fine or a 4-year stint in jail, or even both. Quite how the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation decided that the liberty of their patrons is worth the equivalent of £12.50 a year is beyond me.

The Metro isn’t without its flaws. The ladies-only compartment, located at the front of each train, reflects a sad fact of life in Delhi: that many women, for good reason, do not feel safe in public. Most of my female Indian friends feel that it is necessary, while understandably wishing that it wasn’t required. Should any man dare to cross the invisible line, in theory he faces a stiff fine of 250 rupees (£2.50). A cursory trawl through YouTube shows the penalties can be greater however; videos show delinquent men being slapped off the train both by female civilians and police officers, or even forced to do squats to atone for their sins.

Corruption, a scourge of Indian society, also occasionally rears its head. It was reported a few weeks ago that staff at one station had been lining their pockets by collecting the tokens passengers buy when entering the metro – which are then supposed to be dropped into the exit gates – and selling them on. Less trivial is the trial next year of employees of Alstom Network UK, the British arm of the French engineering company Alstom, for allegedly bribing Metro officials to win a contract for the first phase of the Metro’s construction.

On a more ordinary level, Delhi’s huge population means trains can get very cramped at any time. Not quite as in Black Hole of Calcutta-cramped, but cosy enough that attempting to move your limbs voluntarily can sometimes be a challenge. At one particularly busy station, while attempting to disembark I was once pushed back into the carriage by the surge of commuters who didn’t want to wait for me to get off.

Despite these issues, riding the Metro is, for me, still invariably an enjoyable experience. For the weary foreign traveller, the Metro might seem to offer an enticing escape from the bewildering intensity of Delhi, with its array of entertaining, colourful and dubious characters and bizarre unwritten social conventions. It doesn’t, and for that I, a regular Metro user and Indophile, am eternally grateful. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Elephant in the Room

Spectacular, yet sinister
I was lucky enough to attend my first Indian wedding last week. It was an experience I will treasure for a long time, and is the topic of my next post later this week. 

En-route to the wedding, we stopped off for a day’s sight-seeing in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh (or 'the Northern State'). During the twilight of the mighty Mughal Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century, Lucknow emerged as a hub for Islamic arts and culture thanks to the patronage of the Nawabs of Awadh. The Bara (or Grand) Imambara, a complex built in 1784 and boasting a magnificent mosque - sadly closed to non-Muslims - the largest vaulted hall in the world and a labyrinth is the foremost monument dating from this period and was an interesting first stop on our tour. From an Anglo-centric perspective however, the city is most famous for being the site of a five-month long siege of the British Residency by Indian sepoys during the Mutiny of 1857. Empire folklore has it that the surviving female members of the garrison refused consolatory offers of tea from the Highland troops that broke the siege, as they didn't have any milk available! A gentle wander for an hour around the battle-scarred ruins and the museum in the afternoon heat prepared us nicely for a traditional lunch of delicious, spicy Mughal-style kebabs and parathas.

To round off the day, we went to the sprawling 107-acre Ambedkar Memorial Park in the heart of Lucknow. Named after Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a famous leader of the economically and socially-disadvantaged dalit (or Untouchable) caste and a framer of India’s constitution post-Independence in 1947, it was ‘constructed’ (the park is completely bereft of green space, and made entirely out of sandstone from Rajasthan and marble imported from Italy) between 1995 and 2008. It had been built during the ministry of Mayawati, a dalit politician who claims to champion the cause of her fellow Untouchables. She became (in)famous during her time in power thanks to her penchant for commissioning statues of herself and trying to have a shopping mall built next to the Taj Mahal. I had visited the park on a previous trip to Lucknow in October; my feelings about it had been ambivalent at best. The pantheon in its centre – containing a statue of Ambedkar uncannily like that of Abraham Lincoln’s in Washington D.C. – the rows of giant stone elephants and towering statues of Mayawati's associates littered about were certainly remarkable. Yet the conspicuous absence of greenery, the numerous security guards prowling about, the lack of children playing and the sheer scale of the place left me uneasy. Discovering that the elephant is the symbol of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party further increased my doubts about the place, evoking in my mind an unpleasant comparison with the totalitarian, soulless architecture of Stalin’s Russia and the Third Reich.

A more thorough walk around the park last week helped to confirm my reservations. A giant plaque I found declared Mayawati to be ‘one of the most powerful women in the world’ (please let me know if you've heard of her before) and her creation to be ‘in the public interest in its every nuance.’ As I looked around, I did not see street-sweepers or rag-pickers (common occupations for dalits) enjoying a place supposedly dedicated to them and one of their heroes – the security guards had made sure of that. Instead I saw only middle-class families and the well-heeled, selfie-loving, gilded youth of the city strolling around in the evening light. Ironically, Mayawati’s 7-billion rupee pet project – with a 10 rupee (10p) entrance fee that’s an unjustifiable luxury for any beggars, sweepers or any other ‘undesirables’ who might dare to enter – further perpetuates the culturally-sanctioned segregation that is a hallmark of the lives of her fellow dalits. Built in a state in which a third of its approximately 200-million people live below the poverty line according to UNICEF, the park is in reality a shrine to misrule and megalomania, and an abysmal betrayal of the dalit community and the ideals of Ambedkar. To those who subscribe to the idea of India as ‘Shining’ (a campaign/marketing slogan coined by the now-ruling BJP party in 2004), Ambedkar Memorial Park is a sobering reminder that such optimism is lamentably naive. 

As we left, a familiar sight greeted us: three young female beggars, no doubt eternally grateful to Mayawati for having such grand surroundings in which to ply their trade, rushing towards us.

Abraham Ambedkar?!