The Wanton Women of Indian

Normally, my blogs are filled with inspiring pictures from my travels or that I believe represent my opinions. Today, however, I don’t want to. I just want the words to do the talking. After a year in India, I am angry and for me only words can express this feeling. 

A woman in India must be protected. She must be protected both from her low intellect and therefore her questionable morals that her inability to think results in and she must be protected from man that cannot be expected to corral his own behaviour when faced by the licentiousness of a woman’s easy virtue.

Foreign women visiting India were recently advised not to wear skirts. That this was un-Indian and didn’t represent the high ideals of Indian morals. That as a consequence of foreign women’s low moral standards in terms of dress that Indian men could not be held responsible for their actions. The very sight of a foreign leg having the ability to drive a man to such distraction that a woman would effectively be bringing on her own rape.

A women faced with verbal or physical abuse on the street, should not look to those around her for support. For if she gets it, it is only to be expected that the abuser would rally his ‘boys’ and attack the very person who was trying to protect the victim of their behaviour. Fear of retaliation then stops many who do genuinely object to such behaviour from standing up and defending a woman when she is in a vulnerable position. While the man’s ‘boys’ rather than turning on their friend for verbally or physically abusing a woman, instead choose to defend her.

Men seldomly look at me other than to stare. There is never eye contact or recognition of my existence. My husband is always deferred to even amongst those I consider educated. Any decisions are always for my husband to make not I. This is not politeness but rather with my husband I do not exist. Therefore I either don’t exist or I am an object that can be stared at no matter who intimidating this is.

I recently booked two flights to Goa for my husband and I. I was the primary traveller on the reservation. I still travel on my maiden name: Donaldson. After making the reservation I immediately received a text message thanking Mr Ironside for having made the reservation. Closer to the date of travel Mr Ironside also was reminded of his flight. I did not exist. All correspondence was in his name.

My maid’s sister recently had a baby. As the elder sister, the sister left her husband and moved in with her. When she became sick after giving birth, it was my maid who had to stay overnight in the hospital despite her holding down two jobs. When my maid’s dad became sick in the south of India, instead of leaving immediately to see him, she had to stay – the baby’s father was not responsible for looking after the baby and the mother was not well enough to do it alone.  Her other sister lives below her and her husband refused to allow her to help look after the baby and shouted at her that she wasn’t spending enough time at home cooking and cleaning for him.

Mind you, this comes from a man who rejected his wife’s daughter. A daughter who now lives upstairs with my maid and for whom no financial support is provided. A daughter whose birth father rejected her on birth and refused to allow the baby girl to stay in his house. Hence why my maid took her in. He eventually left his wife but she still went on to remarry a man who refused to recognise her daughter’s existence.

The Indian government is in the process of introducing revolutionary new maternity leave and child care provision. Indian women will go from being allowed 12 weeks maternity leave to 26. All companies with more than 50 employees will have to have a creche that the mother will be allowed to visit 4 times a day. This is to be applauded.

Paternity leave is being debated although the resounding political opinion is that this is not fair on the wife. The husband will just see it as a holiday and it will just increase the wife’s workload when she already as a newborn baby. Once again instead of making a man responsible for supporting his wife more than financially, it is being officially recognised that it isn’t a man’s job to bond with his child. While this may be culturally the case, the government instead of fighting it will instead prevent those modern Indian men desperate to help out at home and bond with their child from doing the very thing that surely is a human right.

Most charities operating in India focus on women and empowering women, finding them a way to increase their incomes. Why? On average every rupee extra a women makes will go to her house, her children. It is widely recognised that on average every rupee extra a man makes will go on himself – on drinking, on cigarettes, a new phone and not where it is needed. If you want to educate a chid, you first educate the mother and not the father.

A BBC documentary about the rape of Nirbhaya on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 that didn’t hold back in its criticism of the authorities and the general approach to rape politics / culture in India has been banned in India. Better to ban a controversial topic than provide yet another means of highlighting something that no one is comfortable with.

I, a strong independent woman who refuses to take any nonsense from anyone- good luck to them if they should try, find on a daily basis my rights as a human being being infringed. On a daily basis, India tries to reinforce with me that I am worth less than my husband and indeed worth less than men in general, including those who rape. Faced with this on a daily basis by someone without the education and life experience to know that it is wrong, to try and fight it requires a bravery that many Indian women just cannot afford to have. Their very survival depends upon them not recognising how they are being treated and if they do, not standing up and fighting for their rights.

India proports to be a global leader. One that has managed to balance the needs of modern capitalism with defending the rights of the family. Yet it is one that fails to recognise the power of women in society. It is one that continually degradates a women and reduces them to little more than a feeble being incapable of their own management or hypocritically a wanton being who can bring a man to such lust that he cannot be responsible for his actions.

As a side note, this blog is sedition. Any criticism of India of any description is illegal. Questioning the status quo and the Indian government’s role in the current situation is not allowed. I could be arrested and sentence to10 years plus in prison for this. I personally call it the United Nations Humanitarian Right to Freedom of Speech.

The Loving Enchantress of Family

‘There where the waves spray
The feet of solitary reefs…
A loving enchantress
Gave me her talisman.
She told me with tenderness:
You must not lose it,
Its power is infallible,
Love gave it to you.’
Alexander Pushkin, ‘The Talisman’

Let’s be fair, to use a quote from a Russian author of great repute is a little bit pompous but even if it is, in this case I think it describes beautifully to me the subject of this week’s blog. I came across this additional quote recently that also made me think about the same subject and it too sums up my feelings nicely.

‘Now and again in these parts, you come across people so remarkable that, no matter how much time has passed since you met them, it is impossible to recall them without your heart trembling.’
Nikolai Leskov, ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsenski’

Those who know me well, won’t be overly surprised to see me quoting Russian authors. While not a fanatic, I have always been drawn to the power and drama of Russian writers. I love the intrigue and power plays, especially in the pre-Russian revolution era. I am however not about to go down the route of discussing Russian literature. This is a skill that far exceeds my limited talents.

No, these quotes reminded me of something perhaps far mundane than Russian literature although for me something far more real and far more important. These quotes brought to mind the power and love of my extended family; common parlance calls us, ‘The Hogans’.

Alandi Anette 15 May-1-83Reality is that we are far from ‘The Hogans’ that once existed when the last of the modern core Hogan family was born in 1948 (my mother as it happens). We are the Hogan clan yet so many of us are a generation if not even two generations away from the original Hogan title. Some of us may not even share the blood of the Hogans but through upbringing and shared experiences are as very much a Hogan as anybody else. For we are Ironsides, Lydons, McDonalds, McCarthneys, O’Sheas, Donaldsons, Farrellys, Healys, Gallaghers, Scanlons, Bantins, Mathers, Buckleys, Warrens, Carrolls and probably many more that I cannot keep track of. What unites us all though is the strength of identity and indeed the strength of personality of twelve brothers and sisters. For us first cousins, these aunts and uncles; mothers or fathers are the originals – the very heart and soul of the Hogan clan.

The Hogans had always played a key role in my life: my summers were spent with cousins Alice, Brid and Una. Alice was also there for some of my first alcohol experiences as I was there for hers (least said about that the better!). My adolescent years were spent with my Aunty Mai winding me up and my cousin, Kathy (her daughter) happily helping her. My Aunty Ann would take me swimming in the rivers near their house while Uncle Vinny took me out on the family farm and showed me how to herd cattle. I still use the breathing method cousin Clare thought me one summer so I could swim further under water. Uncle Frank and Aunty Marie along with their daughter, Roisin, gave me my first experience of spending time with someone with a disability and seeing how disability makes you no different than you would be different without the disability.

Later, Aunty Robin in England with her husband Brian, provided me with a respite from London when things got very hard. They were my escape, they gave me the ability to call them on a Friday night and say, ‘is it ok if I come on the next train?’ Their daughter Maureen allowed me be her bridesmaid, terrifyingly about 30 years ago. Uncle Don, the history professor, helped me prepare for my final history exams in school. My cousin Carol in England, gave me the chance to spend time her in her school before my teacher training interview so at least I could pretend I knew something about the English education system. I could go on. We are family that supports each other (while of course being busy winding each other up and talking very loudly at each other!).

For many years, I didn’t value the Hogan family. I loved spending time with them but I didn’t recognise just how important having a family identity was. I didn’t see just how lucky I was to have such a powerful strong group behind me who would support me through to the ends of time; through arguments and laughter, this group would always be there for each other.

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my husband, Chris with our nephew and our little cousin.
My husband, also comes from a very strong family, one with an extremely strong family identity. He opened my eyes up to this power. From day one, he made it clear that in his family, family supported each other no matter what. You may have had a major falling out with someone the day before but if they needed you, you dropped everything and went to help them. His policy has always been that family comes first, that you value whatever moments you can spend with family. Living outside of Ireland, striking the balance between family life and simply life is hard. Chris pushed me to go home more often and never questioned whether we would attend family weddings, funerals or parties. If they were happening and we could find the money to pay for it, then we were going.

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Uncle Joe with our cousin, Niamh
Consequently, I found myself at my Uncle Joe’s 80th birthday party in 2013 in a small town in Ireland called Portlaoise. This is the family base, where the family has been for very many generations and where many of the aunts and uncles have returned to in retirement. Joe had lived for many years in New York and in typical Hogan style had been a tower of strength and support for all the cousins who ventured to the states for work or even just for holidays. All who saw him there returned with stories of his kindness and generosity. It was no surprise therefore that his birthday saw a significant turn out of cousins and all the aunts and uncles. Motivation to attend was also Uncle Martin. Martin was sadly ill with cancer at the time.

 

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cousin, Liam. I may or may not have forgiven him for the nightclub.
This was perhaps the first occasion where most of the cousins in attendance were now adults. Now, I have only vague memories from that very dodgy night club my cousin Liam brought me to the night perhaps I need to black them out for my own sanity! It may have reminded me of my teenage years in some of the rural clubs I used to attend but it was so much fun. Surrounded by my cousins, drinking, laughing and dancing. What could be better?

 

For me the night was a turning point in my understanding of the importance of the Hogan clan. A sad reality was suddenly made clear: Joe was now 80 and my oldest uncle, Uncle Liam was now 87. Martin at 82 had cancer. How much longer could the aunties and uncles be the focal point around which the family pivoted? What would happen when that pivot point no longer was there? What would happen to the strong family unit that was created the day the eldest sibling, Uncle Liam, was born in 1926?

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Uncle Martin
Just three months later Uncle Martin died of colon cancer. He was the first of the 12 brothers and sisters to pass. For all of us it was a heartbreaking moment. Even today, writing this I can’t help but shed a tear. Martin was always adored by us cousins and the memory of his funeral mass trying to comfort my cousin, Brid, when I too was in bits will always stay in my mind. His funeral however cemented the need for us cousins to be proactive about sustaining our relationship in the long term. A week earlier Uncle Denis (our Aunty Brid’s husband) had also died further demonstrating the temporary nature of family and in this case the siblings. The family having attend two funerals over the course of 8 days, led Uncle Don (Peggy’s husband) to comment, ‘Right then, see you all next Monday or maybe I won’t.’ Dark comedy not untypical of Don!

 

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The picture is out of focus but still love it as it is 30 cousins together!
Martin’s funeral was the biggest gathering of cousins ever with 30 first and second cousins. That next morning, I went home and befriended every single cousin I could find on Facebook and I have continued to do so ever since. Consequently, I have from the side lines begun to know what my extended family are doing with their lives. We have a much easier way of contacting each other than dependence on our parents.

 

Now we find our aunties and uncles reduced from 12 to just 9 with Uncle Liam passing on in 2014, Aunty Brid and Aunty Ann (Uncle Vinny’s wife) in 2014.

The family continues to age and but also to grow. Aunty Robin likes a party. Any excuse really. So turning 80 needed a party! Despite moving to London in the early 1950s, she has always been the one with contact with all of the siblings and indeed a lot of the cousins. If you need a message passed to the family, get it to Robin and your work can be considered complete! This family centred focus required therefore her party to be in Ireland! When her daughter, Maureen, pushed her to focus on exactly who was going to the party she declared, ‘Everyone!’. Robin had sent out an open invitation to every Hogan relative not matter how distantly related.

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27 out of the 38 cousins

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47 or so of the first and second cousins. Biggest gathering of cousins ever
Consequently, all her remaining brothers and sisters and their spouses; 27 (of the 38) first cousins; and a further 20 second cousins took up the call. Cousins came from Australia, the UK and us from India. Us Hogans aren’t exactly the quietest bunch in the world so you can imagine the chaos that reigned. Tradition continued and at 4 a.m. I went to bed dragging my reluctant 73 year old Uncle Frank with me! Let’s be fair the only reason the cousins and Uncle Frank ended the sing song was the residents bar refused to serve us. Apparently, 4 a.m. was the breaking point for staff that had been dealing with the Hogan madness for two days.

 

These links will probably only work if you are a member of the Hogan Facebook group. Working on a way to upload them to YouTube and will replace these links when I do.

The traditional start to a Hogan sing song – trying to convince Uncle Frank to sing – while he claims – oh no he couldn’t!

Jon’s first solo song at a Hogan Sing Song – he has sung in national choirs for years though.

Cousin Brid – now she is Uncle Frank’s daughter so no surprise she leads a song

Connor on the harmonica!

The New Aglish Hogan’s in full swing

Una leads the sing song

Very English barber shop, totally at home in our very open family environment. These three are professional or near professional musicians

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Aunty Mai – now the eldest sibling.
Once again, I was struck by just how important family is and sadly just how important it is for us, the next generations of Hogans, to take up the mantle of ensuring that when the older generation is no longer there to provide reasons for us to gather, that we gather anyhow. As a start we now have a Facebook group, Hogan Madness with over 47 members, mainly cousins. We hope this will help us to sustain a relationship that does not pivot around the siblings.

On the other hand maybe the next gathering is still in the hands of the older lot. I believe I heard Aunty Mai declare that, ‘wasn’t the party just great, I think I’ll do this for my 90th next year!’ Kathy and Denis, enjoy the preparations!! Put Chris and I on the guest list because nothing would stop us from being there.

 

Feel free to like or share this or any of my posts. I would also love to hear what you think and would love if you could drop a comment below also. 

Not Blue in Blue In Maldives

Moving house and internet being cut off (because our Indian visas expired – despite having new ones) has delayed this blog significantly – please enjoy. 

A certain degree of sympathy is required of you, my dear reader. I need you to empathise with me and feel my pain. I need you to imagine you are with me and to stroke my pain and make it all go away. Not only am I sat in Male Airport (early as always): leaving the heaven that is the Maldives; not only am I sat on a hard uncomfortable seat; not only am I sat in what can only be described as terrible air conditioning; but I am sat on two sunburnt bum cheeks! See! Understand now why I need your sympathy? I sit here with the equivalent of a toaster underneath my bum and it hurts!

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Motorway to / from the airport! Better than the M25 any day!
More about my bum later. Well at least for you, for me we are unfortunately going to have to co-exist for just a little bit longer.

On the plus side, I have just had the most incredible ten days of my life on the stunningly beautiful island of Hembadhu in the Maldives.

Wait though, first the exciting news! No, wait first two exciting pieces of news! Are you ready?

Diving, Breathing and Fatigue!

I have fallen in love! Yes, Chris is still loved, don’t worry about that but I fell head over heels with diving at first breath! Wow! Impulse and nothing more led me to try a PADI Discover Scuba Diving – just two hours. This turned into a Padi Scuba Diver course which turned into a Padi Open Water Scuba Diver course which turned into a Padi Adventure Diver course. Totally unplanned and totally unpredictable!

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So I said I had two pieces of exciting news. Well, perhaps not two individual pieces perhaps it is best described as two conjoined pieces of exciting news! So what is it? Much to my complete surprise and thank god because after that first breath I really hoped there was no going back on diving, I could breathe so much easier underwater and it would seem after 9 dives – no fatigue issues!

For those reading this blog for the first time, you will not be aware that after a rather serious illness I have been left (hopefully not permanently) with reasonably serious breathing and fatigue issues unless both are rather carefully managed. You would never know upon meeting me that this was going on but it is.

Seriously, an hour’s diving burns roughly 350 calories; now the equivalent of that would be say a five mile walk. Let’s be clear there would be no problem in me walking five miles, can do it relatively easily, could even manage a ten mile walk with a break in the middle although by the end I would probably be utterly exhausted.  But could I really manage it day after day while doing lots of theory study in between? Not a chance! It felt miraculous.

Even if I felt a little tired before diving, the fatigue vanished as soon as I went underwater. Not only did it vanish but it didn’t return after. The first few dives, I dismissed it as purely the adrenalin effect and kept in the back of my mind the danger of living in an adrenalin bubble. But no, diving seems to be genuinely therapeutic for both my breathing and my fatigue levels.

The guys from the dive school, I don’t think quite got just how miraculous this felt to me. How incredible that I can do a sport and it didn’t utterly exhaust me, it didn’t cause any muscle pain or leave me struggling to walk or simply keep going. This situation is relatively rare these days, perhaps once every six weeks or so but with the amount of exercise I have gotten over the last ten days, it should have been guaranteed!

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Will and Rusty from Blue In Maldives

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As you can see diving makes me just look like a supermodel!
A perfect example would be when on our holiday, I mismanaged my energy levels by getting up early for a morning dive and then doing a night dive. By the time I sat for dinner at about 9p.m., I was exhausted. On the way back to our villa, I had one of my energy collapses.

 

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The scene of my epic emotional battle: ‘To Dive or Not to Dive. That is the question!’

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Everyone happily getting on with their tasks, while I tried to convince myself I was a fool to dive! I was wrong!
 

 

 

Rising the next morning for another morning dive, I was truly exhausted and in a lot of pain. This was however my last chance to dive before we left the Maldives and my last chance to complete my Adventure Diver certification. Getting on the boat, I was completely out of it. My brain was telling me that I would be a fool to dive, my heart was telling me go for it!! Only teetering on the edge of the boat in my full diving gear, did I finally make the decision to dive.

Within minutes the pain and exhaustion had disappeared and 40 minutes later I came to the surface fully re-energised. I even went on to do a second dive! Even more miraculously, there were no side effects – the pain and fatigue remained gone. I reached the decision that my mistake was not to do two dives in a day but rather to reduce my sleep time by rising early and then going to bed late – this was my mistake.

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Rusty, the crazy South African
What can I say? I truly believe it is the first time in my life where I have tried something and simply adored it from the get go! Helped of course by the amazing guys (and Pip) from Blue In Maldives: the dive school based on the island. What a great bunch of relaxed, laid back but incredible teachers they are. Have to give a big shout out to Rusty, a crazy South African but one so enthusiastic about his sport that even the most stubborn couldn’t help but fall for diving.

My only quibble with recommending Rusty however is his seeming inability to point out turtles – 8 dives it took before I saw one – 8 dives!! Every day, everyone was talking about these amazing turtles, ‘wow, it sat on me!’ etc etc and I am just stood there saying – “no, didn’t see any again!!”

I could spend time trying to explain to you how wow it was – but let’s let these pictures do the talking. Pictures were taken by William Erazo Fernandez: an Costa Rican instructor at Blue In Maldives – the dive centre at the Taj Vivanta.  An amazingly fun guy: passionate about diving but you can also see with a real passion and talent for photography.

You see, I have a problem and they say the first step to solving a problem is admitting it – so here it goes – ‘I adore diving!’ Now that isn’t an obvious problem, is it? Well it is when you are 10 days on an island with nothing more to do than read and snorkel. Still not spotting the problem? Well, let me explain. You see when you find something to do that is addictive, its always best if for example it is something like walking: buy some good boots and a raincoat and off you go. Diving on the other hand is not cheap. It’s definitely value for money but it still takes a lot of money out of your bank account! So, when one course led to another – my bank account became increasingly empty! Was it worth it? Fill my bank account with cash and watch me do it again!!

The last course I completed was an Adventure Diver course. Yes, me – Karen – is an Adventure Diver! Could you have ever guessed?

This course consisted of a Deep Dive – this now allows me to dive to depths of about 30m. To be honest the deep dive didn’t feel any different from the other dives, just well – deeper. The main benefit being that you are able to see things that are not higher up! Like for example the Housereef Wreck – at 18m, I could see a fair bit of it but as a deep diver I could see it all.

My second adventure dive was a Drift Dive! Yip, you hop into current and allow it to pull you along. Definitely, a little unnerving but great fun. Our first attempt at drift diving saw us jump into quite a large swell for a girl who had only boat dived once before. I was really nervous! What would happen if I jumped in and then whoosh the current dragged me away from everyone else and I was left all alone. With my heart thumping, I jumped in and descended immediately – to what? To peaceful, calm waters!

What?? Given the inability to hold a full conversation underwater, I spent the dive just a little disappointed with this drift diving business. I mean it was stunningly beautiful but where was this current threatening to whisk me away? Where? Nowhere, that’s where. Turns out, we had drift dived in a place that had no current that day. Instead we went deep diving.

The next day was attempt two at drift diving. This time, I was super chilled. The sea was like a mill pond, not a ripple in sight. Gathering on the surface, we all descended together to a current! Whoa! Didn’t expect that! A reasonably serious current for a novice drift diver. It was unnerving, the only way to stop moving was to hold onto a rock on the bottom. I failed to stick with Rusty as much as I should have done. I did try but I kept being moved on. His rather greater experience however ensured that he was never far away, although I think he found me a little exasperating on that dive.

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The spectacular coral from our drift dive, no wonder I got distracted and lost Rusty (sort of)!
This of course was the dive that anyone who has heard me talk about my diving experience has heard the story about! There we were, finally checking out this really cool turtle, with me hanging on to a tiny piece of rock, when low and behold he starts swimming towards me. I’m clinging onto this little bit of rock thinking, ‘What do I do? What do I do???’ He gets closer and closer until I’m staring into his eyes and me into his. I’d love to describe this has an underwater ‘pastoral scene, the essence of Victorian writing but no.

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More me doing more of the, ‘What do I do? What do I do???’ Mixed in with a little, ‘Good god, you are beautiful’. So I’m faced with the decision, let go and drift away from the group but by this ensuring that the turtle can move wherever he wishes or hold on and who knows what will happen!

I held on! What did he do? He swam right over my head, hitting my forehead with his back fin as he passed! Seriously, without doubt one of the coolest moments in my entire life. I will never forget this, ever!

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This blog finishes with my having returned to India (where it is super serious hot!). I have not only checked out a local scuba diving group but I’ve even been scuba diving in a local diving pool. Now, it ain’t no Maldives but it will do until I get a chance to dive properly again. Not only that, it doesn’t seem I got typhoid or any serious skin ailments from the pool – so that’s great news. 

 Finkick is a great bunch of people who try and travel a least once every couple of months to diving spots around India but mainly around Asia. I wish I could afford to go all the time but I will definitely be joining them as often as the bank account allows! 

All donations welcome!

Have you ever dived? If so, where and what did you think of it? 

If not, would you like to? Why?

In case you would like to see more underwater pictures – here you go!

 

Soaring on the Thermals of Life

A blog is well overdue and indeed a blog about my recent travels to the Maldives is well underway. Life however (largely revolving around scuba-diving while on holidays and then an immediate return to a full house move) has gotten in the way. 

A blog however is needed so I thought I would share with you something I wrote a few months ago based on WordPress writing stimuli. I’d love to know what your answer to the question would be?

My head is a font of ideas and inspiration. My thoughts fly from idea to idea, from location to location: forever dreaming of a better place; a different place; an intriguing place. The world is full of opportunity: a chance to do something different – to be something different.

I am not unhappy in the world I currently occupy; on the contrary, this world is an exciting and thrilling place. This world fills my ordinary every day with excitement. As I sit in the quiet of my rocking chair with my laptop cosily placed on my lap, I look out upon the city placed below me and I understand that out there there is so much that I do not understand, so much that I probably cannot understand. That makes my current life a good life. A life devoid of ignorance is a life of predictability and dullness.

If sitting in my comfortable chair I was however to feel a certain itchiness that slowly became a tugging feeling that slowly pushed me forward in my chair as wings sprouted from my back and gently lifted me into the air, where would I fly? Where given the sudden ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I want – would I choose to travel?

Where?

onthewaytoRoopkundlakeLITTLE2.jpgWould I go to the soaring mountain tops of the Himalayas and glide through mountain passes (shivering perhaps just a little now that the summer evenings are easing away and becoming increasingly cold)? Or would I gently glide towards the sea and spend my days wafting along the thermals and resting every now and again on the golden beaches of Goa?

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Or would I go further and, like a cormorant, fold my wings and dive deep into the ocean to marvel at a world unseen by most?

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Yes, that’s me with my friend, Turtle.   Picture credit: William Erazo Fernandez

I think perhaps I would not choose to fly to the cities of India, thick with pollution and noise and over-crowding. Where would I rest amongst the broken roofs of the slums and the harsh edges of modernity?

Or would I fly to a person and not a place? Would I fly to someone who will welcome me with open arms despite the rather odd back appendage I had acquired? Would I fly to where I was welcomed and where I felt safe? Do I even want to feel safe?  Is feeling safe really the joy that all purport it to be or rather is feeling totally safe a good thing at all? Is it not better to live life knowing that it all may come tumbling down around you? Are you more likely to take risks and try something new if you know that your chance to do this may not last forever?

My answer to these question is direct. I have no answer and nor do I really want one. I will plan my time, my travel but I will forever be excited by the thrill, the fear, the anticipation of what I do not yet know will come.

Where would you soar on the thermals of life, given the choice?

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Not Drowning but Waving! I hope!

There is something really exciting and slightly nerve-wracking about showing a new person around what has become for me reasonably well known parts of Pune. It is exciting because you remember just how intrigued but also slightly nervous you were when you were first shown around.

However, you are also opening up a new side of India to somebody and somehow you feel the weight of responsibility that brings. I love India and I want everyone else to love it too. You worry that if you don’t show enough or show too much you can disappoint or over-whelm somebody. You want your friend to come out the other side not drowning but waving, the very opposite to Stevie Smith’s famous poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning.’ You want people to come out the other end ready and able to go back by themselves and excited about the idea of bringing others too.

It was with these thoughts in my head that myself and my long-standing adventure partner, Anette, showed Anette (yes another one and she is also Swedish) Shivaji Market and Camp. Although the ‘new’ Anette (as we shall have to call her) has lived in Pune as long as me, she suffers from the well-known ‘no time to get to know India’ disease that all those who work here as expats experience. She also has the comorbidity illness: ‘I have to deal with India all week, on my day off I don’t want to experience India’. The outcome of such illnesses means that Saturday was the first time she actually went out and experienced real India. You know what, she enjoyed it! Slightly over-whelmed at times – yes, but still she enjoyed it.

AAlsterholt  edited-1-12I have a tendency to forget that I am perhaps slightly unusual in that I will do anything and go anywhere and very little shocks me. I tend to take new things, new ideas, new places more or less in my stride and rarely do I find myself over-whelmed by the unknown. Several times now however I have taken new people to Shivaji Market: the main fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market in the centre of the city in a area called Camp. It is a fascinating place. The sights, smells and textures (you will get it when you walk there – yes, textures under your feet) are exhilarating most of the time although sometimes slightly stomach churning! So it was to Shivaji Market that we took the ‘new’ Anette.

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As you enter the market, you are met by swirling brown kites! Swirling over the slaughter houses and butcheries!
AAlsterholt  edited-1A normally chatty woman, initially she was rather silent as she took in all that was to be seen. Silence however broken by laughter as my usual fruit seller upon seeing me and my camera, jumped to his feet, gathered his mates around and demanded a very posed picture with his mangoes. The spontaneous enthusiasm of these guys very much reflects the nature of this market. Yes, serious business is done but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a giggle!

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We are told over and over again about how many diseases there are in India – how to watch your fruit and vegetables! Wash them carefully etc etc. For many, the ‘safer’ option is to buy your vegetables and fruit from local supermarkets or the western stores. Anette however was amazed by the quality of the produce, so much better than you can get elsewhere. Was it safe though? No more unsafe than the ‘safer’ options that’s for sure and most definitely fresher!

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Look how fresh and beautiful all the vegetables look. This stall provides to most of the top international hotels in Pune. 
Not being a fish eater, the fish hall does at times put me off although it never smells – not at all. Definitely some flies hanging around and certainly not everyone uses ices
– which given the day we went it was 38 degrees – well that has got to be just a touch dodgy! For a newbie, other than the meat stalls, this is probably the most challenging place to find yourself. It is extremely busy and you have to push through people, trying all the time to watch where your feet are standing or rather on what you are feet are about to stand on. I find this place fascinating however. Fishmongers shout out their wares as you pass by – offering you Indian salmon, lobster, prawns, bass, king fish and many more.

 

IMG_0120Outside the fish hall for me is the most fascinating place. It is the ice stall! It just sells huge blocks of ice. Stall holder or just browsing customer goes and orders a certain weight of ice. The ice is then crushed put into a box or a bag and money is handed over. The ice stall seems a long, long way from the modern world. Indeed, it is not completely uncommon to see hand carts of blocks of ice being pushed through the city streets with various vendors stopping them to purchase off them. Another reason, indeed if you even needed one, not to eat ice or ice based drinks!

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My chicken does not come from Shivaji Market – I will repeat this until I believe it!
Next to this area is the chicken area and frankly – well I’m going to continue to pretend that the chicken I buy from my local 5 star hotel, does not come from here. I am equally going to pretend that any minced chicken I buy, does not also come from here. Nobody please try and dissuade me of this fact!

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Well surely such a place was your maiden dream too!
Being in Camp is the only excuse one needs to, well, eat at Ram Krishna’s! They do the very best traditional pure veg food I have tasted in this city. This time, both Anettes had never been there so definitely no excuses were needed. The walk from Shivaji is always filled with colour and life, again an interesting introduction to India if  you haven’t done it before.  There is always something that breaks your heart, something intriguing and always something that makes you laugh!

This time the streets were filled with even more colour than usual. It was Shivaji’s birthday (again, it was his birthday a few weeks ago too! Different dates are celebrated by different political parties). As always any excuse will do to put up mandals (stages used for religious objects) and flags – this time huge orange ones! What amused me however was the different takes on this Maharastrian hero. In one sculptor he appeared exceedingly stately, the next well just a bloke hanging out probably chatting with his mates.

Anette (guess we call her the ‘old’ one) brought me to a new textiles shop where I bought the most beautiful chiffon to make a dress. Total cost including making of dress about £20. Further along, I spotted a tiny sari shop and picked up two saris for £3 each. These will be turned into beautiful skirts – total cost of each skirt £5.50. I just love how I can get the most beautiful textiles and tailoring done for next to nothing. “New’ Anette seemed initially a little shy about just walking into shops, especially the tiny ones but ‘old’ Anette and I are perhaps now old hands and are no longer quite so intimidated by it!

AAlsterholt  edited-1-18My favourite vision of the day however was ‘old’ Anette picking up a trumpet and giving it a go in a metal shop. The shopkeeper seemed a little bemused by the fact that she knew what she was doing (she plays various brass instruments) – again women here don’t necessarily play such instruments – saying that in the west they are not always considered appropriate for women either! In true Indian style however he found an opportunity to have a laugh, picked up another trumpet and joined right in with her! Apparently, it was in the wrong key however and she walked away empty handed.

IMG_0122Our wander then took us up the busy and in my mind less enjoyable MG Road – here western shops compete with tiny independent ones but it seems more touristy; less local. It may also have been that by then I was hot, tired and just a little hungry – never eat on the morning before you go to Ram Krishna’s! You can’t, otherwise how will you manage to eat all the yummy food you have ordered? Especially, of course, the masala paper dosa – a must have!

Satiated, home we went with I hope ‘new’ Anette feeling slightly less ‘new’ and slightly less over-whelmed by the India I have grown to love. Well, she didn’t say no when I offered to go on more adventures with her – that’s got to be a good sign! Surely, that means she was waving and not drowning.

 

 

An Ode to India – travelling with disability

For me the decision to travel to somewhere new is usually immediate and always filled with excited anticipation – sometimes perhaps with a hint of nervous anticipation. For me the world is large with so many places to visit and so many experiences to have but the world is also small. Nowhere is any more than a few days travel time away. If the world is so small, why not see as much of it as I possibly can in the 80+ years I will spend on this planet?

Everyone is different etc etc, but seriously I don’t get those people who are happy to stay put and never do anything that is out of their immediate knowledge and comfort zone. Seriously, that would be ridiculously boring. I’m guessing, especially if you are a regular reader of my blog, that you feel somewhat similarly.

Now I get that circumstance, personal or financial, can sometimes make having great adventures more difficult or impossible. Having been in the personal circumstance where any form of travel was physically impossible – I get it. I also get just how frustrated I was. I may not have had the ability to do much more than sit on the couch but I still watched travel documentaries – do it via somebody else if that is all I could do.

For me it was obvious that when I moved to India, many (although by no means all) of my friends would excitedly think, ‘Whoooo, whoooo, just the excuse I need! I’m off to India!’,  expecting my friends just to inform me they were coming rather than even waiting for an invitation or permission! Now Colin visited me in October although only for one night – he was here for work. While amazing to see him, I don’t think that is what I had in mind.

The first friend to visit me however was unexpected – well kind of! She has got a just go for it attitude so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when she informed me she was coming on a visit. Her visit however could never have been a spur of the moment decision for her and for purely personal reasons. There was no way she could have just booked her ticket and then thought about the trip later. I can do that, my friend Sarah who I mentioned in a previous blog can do it – but not Gillian! Her decision required bravery and determination.

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Why? Gillian has Cerebral Palsy and this brings its own challenges – walking, balance and fatigue to name just a few. This blog however is not an ode to Gillian – although her bravery and determination indeed justifies an ode to her! This blog is an ode to India.

India can be so unutterly frustrating! It can bring the very worst out in you. You get so frustrated at short-term thinking, false promises and under-achieving, never mind the ‘it’s not my fault’ lack of responsibility taking. Seriously, why I haven’t been jailed for killing somebody in the year we have been here sometimes astounds me!

India however has done itself extremely proud! It can hold its head up as being one of the best countries in the world. Gillian is from the UK, has a German mum and has travelled around Europe and Australia. Without doubt, she says, India treated her better overall than anywhere else she has ever been. Now she’s not referring to the great access everywhere and the smooth pavements – well now she couldn’t really could she, given they don’t exist. She is talking about the people.

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Datta, our driver, is ready and waiting when Gillian arrived

From arrival to leaving she was met by extreme care from friends and strangers. Nobody but nobody on the streets or in shops / restaurants made her feel uncomfortable or made her life more difficult. On arrival in Mumbai, my driver anxiously helped the very, very tired and stiff Gillian into the car in Mumbai. He then spent too weeks worrying that he had touched her because knowing she prefers to do things herself, I had silently indicated to him to give her space. While Gillian will just remember this (if indeed she can) as somebody seeing somebody struggle and doing what they can to help.

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Maggie making Gillian a yummy traditional South Indian breakfast!

My maid, Maggie, the first morning after she arrived went out of her way to tell Gillian that anything she needed at all to let her know and then made her a gorgeous breakfast.

We went to lunch in Ram Krishna restaurant in Camp, the waiter without saying anything or making any form of fuss pulled the booth table out as far as it would go so that Gillian could walk to the seat and not have to slide around. Now Gillian is more than capable of sliding around but that instinctive / spontaneous act was heart-warming.

She wanted to try a pair of trousers on. When she got into the changing room there was no stool but within micro-seconds one arrived – not a word was said, it was just left in the room. Again no fuss. Just a recognition that there was something they could do to make her life easier so why not!

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Rashid sitting as he explains about a temple so Gillian could also sit

When we did a walking tour of old Pune (Chalo Heritage Walks – my lost blog was about this tour), Rashid Ali, the tour leader, couldn’t have been kinder. He constantly found places for her to sit and rest, when she had to take her shoes off to go into a temple, he got down on his hands and knees to put them back on.

There was a really high step into the temple and initially Gillian struggled to get up it. Seeing her struggle, a lady ran across the temple and offered to help her.

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This was the lady who stopped Deborah so Gillian could get by

Later in this same temple, my friend – Deborah (the photographer from my last blog) said that as she was leaving the temple an old lady stopped her so that Gillian could get by. Again, not really necessary but very sweet.

A few days later with Rashid, we went out to Bhigwan Dam which is a nature sanctuary – amazing, if you live in Pune you need to do this. This required the use of a fishing boat. The boatman without saying anything moved his boat so there was an easier spot for Gillian to climb in. When we were required to get off the boat and walk to where we could spot some flamingoes, the boatman first scouted the flamingoes – just to be sure that Gillian wouldn’t walk all the way and not see anything.

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Our very kind boatman

On return, he moved the boat a little further so that she would have to walk less. Rashid jumped into the mud and got himself filthy so that Gillian could climb off the boat a little easier. When her stick made a small section of the boat dirty where she would have to put her hands, Rashid used his own hands to clean the area – again with little thought just spontaneous action.

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Rashid cleaning mud off the boat so Gillian wouldn’t get dirty

We saw the flamingoes but they were just too far away for my camera to take a good shot and Gillian was struggling to see through binoculars – this requires balance and good use of both hands! Rashid initially tried to help her hold them but on spotting a man with a huge lens on his camera, I asked him if he would take a photo to show Gillian – he did it with enthusiasm and a great smile!

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Big lens! This enabled Gillian to see the flamingoes a little closer up

In Goa, we walked to a restaurant along the road but we wanted to go back along the beach. To get to the beach however we had to go down some steep steps without a handrail. Gillian got a little scared but the waiter ran over and gently took her arm and led her down the steps. Again no big deal, it was just what you do!

I could list and list and list all day and all night the amazing individual things Indians did to help make Gillian’s trip a success but perhaps it is best summarised by Gillian’s own insight. She compared her experience her to her experience in Australia. In both situations she felt she got the same treatment but the difference was the motivation. In India, she genuinely felt it was instinctive when people stepped up to help her. In Australia, she felt it was because people were motivated by the understanding that you should help people – there was little instinct behind it. In India, she felt Indians didn’t feel like she was any trouble while in Australia she felt people thought she was making trouble for them.

The thing that had worried me most about Gillian’s visit and therefore was the greatest surprise was staring. I had warned her and warned her that she would be stared at and photographed – perhaps even more than I am on a regular basis. It is far from unusual for me to suddenly have blank strangers around me and somebody else taking a photo, sometimes with permission but often without. Gillian is used to being stared at in the UK but I was worried that here it would be too much even for her.

I was particularly worried about visiting the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had been there only a few weeks early with my friend and it was the most intimidated I have ever felt in India. We were simply sat down and then suddenly there were 20 plus men taking pictures of us and they simply wouldn’t go away. We had to get up and walk away ourselves. Wherever we were around the Gateway people stared and stared at us. This was on a Tuesday, we were going on a Sunday when it was busier – I was worried!

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Gillian in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Picture taken at the Gateway of India – nobody is staring! Seriously, nobody!

So before going to the Gateway, I warned her again. I really wanted her to be prepared for it – she even suggested that we didn’t go. I wanted her to see it however so we went. I couldn’t believe it, not a single obvious stare and not a single photograph!!! Indeed, that can be said for the whole trip. Her whole trip in India there was no staring or photographs! Honestly, I was stared at less over the two weeks that she was here than I have ever been. Clearly, I need to get my stick back out – it appears to make you invisible!

I lie, there was one occasion where she was stared at and stared at so badly that she felt so bad that she left. I live in a very expensive apartment block (society). The people who live her are 50% expats, 25% NRIs (so people whose parents were born in India but they weren’t) and 25% very well off Indians. People in this society as a whole are well off, highly educated and highly travelled. Yet, it was these very people who stared so hard that Gillian didn’t want to hang around in our garden anymore! I was thoroughly disgusted.

In my ignorance, I expected the poorer, less educated elements of Indian society to be the starers – well they surely haven’t received the same education about disability or perhaps even the same exposure, have they? The people who stared shouldn’t feel proud and these people shouldn’t hold their heads high – in contrast, they should hang their heads in shame. For they were the only people in two weeks who didn’t do everything they could to make India proud of them.

Gillian’s experience of travelling with a disability in India was just an isolated experience, perhaps she was lucky or perhaps that is just the way Indians are. Somebody did tell me that Indians would look at Gillian with lots of respect because despite her disability she was still here! I have no idea if you are disable or your child is and you travel to India will you have such a hugely positive experience but if you are thinking about it, I would say from my experience with Gillian – go for it! India is not an easy place to travel never mind if you are travelling with a disability but I genuinely feel that you don’t need to fear how people will react to you being here.

India is definitely somewhere to book with excited anticipation (but just a little bit of nervous anticipation!).

Finally, India thank you. Thank you for being a major part of my friend’s holiday of a lifetime. Thank you for consistently showing her what an amazing country and an amazing people you are. Thank you.

Embracing Kasba Peth: Embracing Community

This blog has been produced in collaboration with Deborah Clearwater of Embraced Photography. She is a professional photographer from New Zealand living in Pune, India. 

We have started to have great adventures together. Exploring the streets of Pune, in particular the city centre. Through her pictures, I have an opportunity to explore the beauty of this city in a way that the hustle and bustle of street life doesn’t always give you time to appreciate.

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Recently, we went on an inspiring walk through Kasba Peth. Kasba Peth is the oldest community in the city, dating back to the 5th century. Most of the housing however dates back to the time of the Peshwars who ruled Pune prior to British colonialism. The 16th century housing is not subject to protection orders; there is no money to invest in its maintenance. As you read this blog, buildings may be tumbling down taking their very many occupants with them.

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Life is on the streets: a wire recycler – stripping the copper out of old electrical wires

The streets are narrow and circuitous – paths developed over thousands of years of occupation. Some wide enough for a car (a slow moving car), others for a motorbike or perhaps a rickshaw, others again for only a bicycle but most can only be seen on foot.

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Kasba Peth: where the young and old live together harmoniously 

Life slows down on these streets. People loiter in the doorways talking to their neighbours or the women wash their clothes communally in a the washing areas – nattering and gossiping as can only happen when a group of women get together. Children run from house to house, no house really their particular home – all houses feel like home. They just happen to sleep in one particular place! All tenderly rub the children’s hair as they run by or scold them when they’ve been naughty. Bloodlines run thick through these streets but bloodlines do not seem to define family – love and care defines the family and no shared blood is needed for this.

As an outsider such communities can feel intimidating. You don’t know how they work, you don’t know how easily you could cause offence or intrude. Chalo Heritage Walks however have taken what in our minds is quite a unique slant on how to walk through these communities. Rashid and his (Irish) wife Jan have developed over the years a close relationship with the community in Kasba Peth.

They have watched the children grow up and celebrated their achievements and advised when necessary. On first going to the area, they took the time to sit with the locals: pass the time with them, talk seriously with them and laugh with them. As a consequence, it appears to both of us from the two walks that we have now done with them, the community engage with them and don’t see the foreign tourists they bring to the area as intruders but love the fact that they are interested in their little community.

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This fruit seller insisted that Deborah take her picture. Proud of her community and her role in it. 

Deborah has always had a strong interest in people but I think for me the more I live in India they more I realise that I am an ‘anthropologist’ at heart. I want to be able to understand what makes people tick; and how people live. This interests me far more than the history of a palace or a visit to a temple. These places do not reflect the lives of the ordinary people. They only reflect the lives of those lucky enough to achieve high status or indeed were born into privilege. City tours therefore can sometimes fill me with dread. The idea of traipsing from one monument to the next and one historic building to the next is unutterably boring. To wander through the same streets but stop and look down little alley ways; to try and speak to the locals; to simply stop and sit and observe – that to me is a tour worth doing.

Neither Deborah or myself will be paid by Chalo Heritage Walks for writing this blog but rather this is a reflection of what we have gained from them that we feel we couldn’t necessarily get from anybody else.

The biggest lesson for us from these tours has been the power of community. In the west we seem to have largely forgotten that a community that supports and loves each other, that provides peer pressure as a means of maintaining positive attitudes and behaviour makes us all stronger and more able to deal with problems as they arise. Yes, there are drawbacks but the drawback of not having a community to fall back on is surely far, far worse.

Reading the newspapers here or indeed following Indian religion and politics from abroad you could be forgiven for thinking that there is a huge animosity between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. Indeed at times there is. What Kasba Peth made us realise however is that this animosity is not driven by the realities of daily life but rather political manipulation by Hindu nationalists (BJP etc) of sections of society who lack the life experience and education to understand they are being manipulated.

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Vivek in his community. Notice the narrow streets and the children happily playing. 

Along our route on the last tour we did, we met a lovely young man, Vivek – in his early twenties, total Bollywood guy: hair styled, clothes sharp but this guy didn’t lack brains, rather he is studying an MBa in Finance. He grew up in poverty, living in conditions rarely seen now in the west – yet he finished school, finished a degree and now is completing an MBa.

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‘Is it safe to come out Vivek?’

While chatting to us and while of course Deborah was taking many photographs of this highly photogenic young guy, we noticed out of the corner of our eye, this little, little girl – perhaps 18 months old peeking out through some doors at us and this man.
The young man upon spotting her put out his hand and beckoned her to come out and see us. It was so clear from the look on the young man’s face and that of the little girl that they knew each other and trusted each other. She remained however too nervous to venture any further than her peek hole by the door.

So how does this interaction relate to the question of Hindu and Muslim animosity – well this little girl is Muslim and this young man is Hindu. Is this an anomaly? Not in this community. Wandering through the streets you see women in full hijab laughing with Hindu women – hanging out on the door steps. You see the meat market where in order to make sure both Hindu and Muslim clients can buy all the meat – the muslims butcher all the animals making sure the meat is Halal. Muslim and Hindu butchers share a small space. In order to cause no offence to either side, the Muslims have never sold beef (although it is now illegal in Maharashtra anyhow!) and the Hindus do not sell pork.  They could have chosen to have separate butcheries and have Muslims buy the halal meat and Hindus their pork. However they have chosen not to render division in the community, rather for centuries they have a sought a way to work together in peace.

A tour of temples and historical monuments would fail to bring across this great harmonious relationship. Certainly, at times, a fragile relationship but one that is ultimately built on trust. As you wander through the streets you notice that Muslims will say, ‘namaste or namaskar’ to Hindus while Hindus will say, ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ to a Muslim. Why? It is a traditional way of trying to accommodate yourself to others while they try and accommodate themselves to your way. There is perhaps a lesson there to learn in relation to the current world refugee crisis.

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Notice the black mark on this boy’s face: his parents warding off evil that may take his life while he is young

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Kasba Peth is an area that experiences severe hardships. There is a daily struggle for the very basics: water, food and money to educate the children. The children’s toys are old and often broken – yet they still find as much joy in them as they would something brand new. The younger children are often marked with black spots (they look like growths to the outsider) intended to ward away evil. Children die young in India and many are not even named until they are a few months old – to ease the pain if they are to die.

You are not however met with a grimace but rather an open welcoming smile. You can be certain that this community would give you the last of their food if they felt that would make you more welcome. They stop and give you the time from their busy lives to chat and share stories.

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This lady may be recovering from a major operation but that doesn’t stop her being the heart of the community

As my Hindi improves, this becomes an ever more enlightening experience. There is the lady who has had a triple heart by-pass but who proudly stands at her door and tells you just how well she is doing, while her husband is at his printing press next door that only prints lines for exercise books.

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Peek a boo works in any language!

There was the little boy we met – his mother an itinerant builder. Kasba Peth was only her home for a few weeks. This is a woman who lives at a level of poverty even more extreme than that of her temporary neighbours. Yet this woman still took the time to stop and enjoy the sight of her little son playing peek-a-boo with Deborah.

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There was the extended family of two grandmothers, their daughters and their daughters’ children. One grandmother took the time to explain who everyone was, how long they have lived in the area. All to a woman with dodgy Hindi while Deborah was busy taking their photographs.

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The youngest grandchild and his caring sister / cousin

It is a two-way street however. Rashid and Jan make sure that their guests take as many pictures of the people as they can. Their guests then send the pictures to them, they print them and then distribute them when they next do a tour.

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They were clear from the beginning that they did not want the relationship to be financially based. They wanted the community to get something from the visitors but not to depend on them. We met a little boy that said he was collecting foreign coins – on the last visit Rashid had given him some. However, he told the boy that he wanted to see his collection. If he genuinely was interested, then he would encourage his visitors to donate foreign coins if they had them. He insisted however that it be a genuine hobby and not just something he would take and do nothing with.

Jan, who has become a friend, recently forwarded me an article about a woman in Kolkata who has started a project of taking pictures of the poor and distributing them. She said she was struck by how many adults said they had a picture of themselves but when they produced it, it was simply their ID photo. She was also struck by the fact that many parents had no pictures of their children. Something we all love to have, to reflect on as our kids as they grow older.

In India however a lack of photos can have a dark side. What happens if your child gets lost or worse again is kidnapped and trafficked? How can the police and various agencies help you if you can’t even give them a picture of their child? Suddenly, upon reading the article, the work that Jan and Rashid do in the area became even more important.

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This woman is so incredibly beautiful and her saree is just perfect for her. She look so old despite her beauty but when I asked, she is only 50. Life ages you when life is not easy. 

To walk through the streets of Kasba Peth has to be my very favourite thing to do. The over-powering sense of community; the beauty of the women’s sarees; the smiles on people’s faces despite the hardships they endure; and the higgledy-piggledy nature of the streets is uplifting while at the same time reinforcing just how lucky I am to live where I am and to be free of all of those struggles that the inhabitants of Kasba Peth experience daily.

So my friend Gillian (mentioned in my last blog) arrives tomorrow for two weeks and both Deborah and I will once again do the Chalo Heritage Walk tour. I can’t wait to see what I will experience this time round.

Feel free to share and / or follow this blog for more stories about life in India just use the links below

Find Deborah Clearwater on Facebook through Embraced Photography and Embracing India pages: Embracing India (India portfolio) and Embraced Photography (general portfolio)

Chalo Heritage Walks website: Chalo Heritage Walks

I Don’t Think I’m Ready But Perhaps I Should Anyhow

This blog was first written about 18 months ago. I was too embarrassed to post it – too embarrassed to admit I wasn’t strong enough to cope. Since then, I regularly come across it, read it and instead of thinking why was I such an idiot about the whole thing? Why was I too embarrassed to post it? I continue to feel embarrassed – its ridiculous! 

So I have decided to be brave and post this blog. It is well out of date but I don’t think it matters. Perhaps somebody who is having a similar psychological fight as I had will read it and feel that they are not alone. Maybe they will see the ridiculousness in not talking about it and actually speak to somebody! 

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I’m doing something that only one person vaguely knows about – at least they are slightly aware of its existence but they don’t actually know I have started to use it. Not even my husband knows about its existence, never mind the fact that I actually have started to use it. This goes against everything that I have tried to maintain since I first got ill. Since I first got ill, I have always said that being open about what was going on, in particular with my husband, was absolutely key. Not being open might lead to distrust and misunderstandings. I have always argued that it was wrong to do anything that might encourage that feeling.

So what am I doing that is so awful I can’t even tell my husband? What is it that I am feeling so unsure of, perhaps even so stupid for doing it that I can’t tell my husband? I do not understand what makes me feel so embarrassed, I do not understand why I don’t want to share what I am doing with anyone. So what am I doing?

While we were on holidays and I had a relapse, one day we walked back from the restaurant and I clung to my husband’s arm, desperate for his support and to help me balance. It dawned on me that day that if I could find something that would help me maintain my energy levels and support me when I was having a bad day, then that surely would be a good thing.

So what have I invested in? I have invested in a walking stick.

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And look just how fun it is! And its my favourite colour!

The fact that it took me three paragraphs to get to the point says it all. I am not sure I am ready to use a walking stick, walking sticks are for old people or invalids – I am not old and I do not feel like an invalid therefore surely that means I do not need one. I am embarrassed at the thought of using it and I am embarrassed at the thought of being seen with it. Does using one mean I have given in – once again – to this illness?

You could, very rightly, argue that if I am using it to walk further on a bad day then it is assisting me in doing more than I should. If I could exercise myself better then yes, using it on a bad day would surely little by little assist me in improving my health. I cannot however exercise myself better so surely anything that enables me to do more is just increasing the intensity of my exercise? I think I am just looking for excuses as to why I shouldn’t use it, rather than looking for justifiable reasons why I should.

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True for so much of my illness, definitely not true in this case. Being too embarrassed to discuss my need for a walking stick preventing me using it. This was not me being strong but me being a coward. 

It has only been used twice, having owned it for more than a week I bought a folding one so I could have it in my bag to use should I be out and suddenly get an unexpected collapse of energy. I have   carried it around for a week every time I went out to use in just those circumstances. On Saturday when we walked across a field to get to a nuclear bunker (don’t ask), I was finding the surface hard going and thought just how much my walking stick might help me. There it was just waiting for me in my bag on my back. We were with friends however and I was embarrassed. Embarrassed because my husband had no idea I had it and embarrassed because then my friends might look at me as sick girl. I seriously overdid it on Saturday and as a consequence paid the price on Sunday.

20140318-080008.jpgIf I had used my walking stick for the entire duration of our outing, would I have overdone it so much? Would it have enabled me to use less energy by providing me with support, balance and indeed a method of propulsion. Perhaps, but I was too scared and embarrassed to try it.

This got me thinking. If I was able to reduce my energy requirements on an everyday basis by use of my walking stick, would this enable me to live more of a life? Walk further, do more? Would this be a good thing? Would this just encourage me to do more than I should? However, if I am using the same amount of energy but using it to do more surely that is a good thing? Again am I just looking for reasons to justify not using it and looking for reasons to prove my justification is ever so wrong. Perhaps the latter but I really do not know.

On Monday, still not quite having recovered from my overdoing it on Saturday, I went for a walk. A walk that included my walking stick. I deliberately kept to the back roads embarrassed by my stick. Ashamed to be seen out with it. At least this was my initial feeling. My walk to my usual churchyard seat took no longer than 6 minutes.  By the time I arrived, I was beginning to get the feeling that it was helping me. I should have been more tired by the walk given my energy levels. My legs should have begun to feel more pain but they were no worse than when I left. Was this the benefit of the walking stick or was it simply that I had under-estimated my energy levels and over-estimated my pain levels?

On my return, I walked back a different route, a route that touched the sides of busy roads, a road where there were pedestrians: people to see me and possibly make comments and wonder why a girl in her mid 30s was using a walking stick. I was very aware of everyone who passed, straining to hear them comment amongst themselves about me. Perhaps I was lucky or perhaps people just didn’t notice or care but I did not hear what I strained for. Silence.

Today Tuesday, the next day, I have tried again. This time walking further than yesterday. Again I didn’t struggle or feel my energy diminishing too quickly. This time I was aware as I crossed rocky ground that it was given me support and helping me balance. With my walking stick it was easier than it would have been without!

20140429-094815.jpgI am still a walking stick virgin however. I still hold it wrong at times and have to adjust it. I dropped it crossing the road until I remember to twist its string around my wrist so it wouldn’t fall. At times I don’t quite get the propulsion right and it lands on the ground at an odd angle. I haven’t learnt how to balance it when I sit down. I also haven’t learnt how to accept that it might be useful to me.

 

How can a walking stick be useful to a girl in her mid 30s who can walk for just over a mile (with a break half way)? How can a walking stick be useful to a girl in her mid 30s who doesn’t walk with a limp or need to balance against things? That is unless I am having a bad day.

For me using a walking stick is still a big experiment. Will I continue to use it? I don’t know – I hope I will if it consistently helps me. Will I tell my husband? I guess I have to. What will he think? I don’t know but I know he will at least wear a mask of support. I think he will think that if I am finding it useful then it is a great thing to do. I wonder whether he will find it embarrassing to be seen with me? Could I blame him if he didn’t? Hardly, I am not exactly embarrassment free at all of this, now am I?

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Gillian above (with her own walking stick) – my inspiration while I was sick and a never-ending source of support. She would have given me a right telling off if she had known I had a stick and wasn’t using it!

My friend, Gillian, was the first and only person I have ever discussed using a walking stick with. She uses one herself and even offered to lend me one of hers to try it out. I was embarrassed by the conversation – I think perhaps by the very need to have it in the first place. She was supportive and encouraging. She too was young and understood what it felt like to start to use one – she had started to use hers at 18! Her encouragement enabled me to at least buy one. I would like to think that one day I will be as brave as her and see only the positive reasons for using a walking stick. The negative reasons are surely just a matter of perception.

So I did eventually tell my husband who completely unsurprisingly was utterly supportive of me! 

I didn’t use it all the time but I always had it on me ready to pull out when things got difficult and I used it all day on a bad day. A walking stick categorically helped me! A month or so after I started to use it, I was re-diagnosed and given treatment that enabled me to make rapid improvement – very quickly after this the walking stick was no longer required. 

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In hindsight, I can only wonder why I made such a big deal about using one! Nobody looked at me funny, nobody laughed and in truth I don’t think any strangers actually cared. I should have used the inspiration of Gillian more – she is a girl who just gets on with things and doesn’t allow fear or worry stop her. Perhaps although I am now living in India and while not healthy, a lot healthier, this blog should act as a reminder that sometimes to be strong you need to accept your weaknesses and not let them hold you back.

‘Tiger, tiger burning bright!’

There are so many things I am grateful about as a consequence of our decision to move to India. Simply driving around the streets of Pune, doing everyday jobs allows me to see and do things that I could never do while living in the UK. It is winter, yet it is 34 degrees and I am in shorts and t-shirts – that itself is something to be eternally grateful for!

 

Some of those things for which I am grateful are everyday things – just part of my daily life. There are privileges however that I should never forget are privileges. The ability to join two golf clubs and learn to play a sport that is often untenable for the non well-off in the UK (same here but our companies pays for membership), is an example of just one.

The ability to travel is however another major privilege that I am eternally grateful for. Since arriving in India, we have spent 3 weeks in Australia (although that was arranged prior to moving), a week in Kerala, 3 weeks in the UK / Ireland and now a week on tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh. I am also in the process of organising a week long trek in the Himalayas for Diwali at the end of October. In addition to the trip to the Maldives in April and at least two visits to Goa between now and then. Oh what a lucky, lucky girl I am!

Having never been on a safari of any description before (does my trip to a local dam to go Flamingo watching and Chinkarra spotting – count??), I really had no idea what to expect.

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Me on my flamingo hunt! (picture Embracing India)

After a quick flight to Nagpur from Pune and then a 2 1/2 hour drive to Pench Tiger Reserve we arrived at our hotel – Tuli Tiger Corridor. Myself and Chris and his parents who were with us have no real need for super fancy five star hotels – now don’t get me wrong, we aren’t going to turn them down (so you lovely hoteliers who would like me to write a blog about your hotel – don’t be put off asking me!). This lack of need was a good thing because although Tuli Tiger Corridor was lovely it was a little jaded and service could be described as more eccentric then perhaps silver service.

Our cottage was lovely – beautifully furnished and a bathroom to die for (although of course it was a little in need of some TLC). Food was great, perhaps a little repetitive to the non-Indian who struggles to differentiate between one curry and another.

Most of the staff were locals, trained up the MP government and the hotel itself. Their enthusiasm to serve you and to talk to you about tigers was boundless. This was really heart-warming to see. Unlike many men (boys really) of their age in the UK who perhaps might see waiting jobs as something to endure until they have a better opportunity, these boys seemed to have boundless energy for it including sprinting across the restaurant one day when I asked for a bottle of water.

One thing hit us even before we ventured out on our first safari the afternoon we arrived – it was cold, really cold. By that I mean UK winter cold!! During the day temperatures rose to over 30 degrees but once the sun began to set, temperatures plummeted to 3 degrees or so. Luckily, I had packed a pair of jeans, I literally stood in front of my bag thinking, ‘will I or won’t I?’. I threw them in in the end as I had room. I had brought a little long sleeve top for the evenings (just in case you know) but the woolly jumper I also debated about was left at home!!

Our afternoon safari started off warm but by the end we were all gibbering monkeys. A good warning perhaps that the morning drive would be even colder! Morning, proved to be even colder than we imagined – wearing literally all the clothes I had brought with me and two pairs of socks we set off at 5.45 a.m. Even wrapped in a blanket, it was freezing.

The morning safaris always proceeded in the same way – I started the day with an empty rucksack and as time progressed, it was filled with my clothes until I was left in just my jeans and a short sleeved top. Evenings were the opposite, starting off with a full bag until I was wearing all of its contents! Next time I go on safari, I can assure you, I will be more prepared!

If you go on tiger safari thinking you will definitely see a tiger you may well be disappointed. We had 10 drives (about 40 hours in total) and saw three tigers for a total time of probably15 minutes!. Worth it though I can assure you.

The rest of our drives involved driving through the forest – Pench was a mix of open teak forests and wide meadows. The drought the area was experiencing made the water holes (picie taleb in Hindi – learnt some incredibly useful Hindi while away) magnets for local wildlife – deer (spotted and sambar), wild boar, monkeys (by the million with adorable babies), herons, storks, egrets, kingfishers (more varieties than I even knew existed!), bison, wild cows, peacocks, butterflies, hawks, eagles – I could go on and on. I will let the photos do the explaining below.

Spotting a tiger is theoretically easy – you listen for alarm calls from monkeys and deer or you hear the tiger roar (chalarna – to roar in Hindi) then you drive to where you heard the noise and Bob’s your Uncle – there is a tiger. A deer will make an alarm call when the tiger (bhaag) is in sight – therefore getting to the alarm call gets you within 50 – 100m of the tiger. Easy right!

Well no, first of all deer don’t see a tiger, make an alarm call and sit patiently waiting for jeeps to turn up and then point and say – ‘hey, there he is!). No, well what would you do if you saw an animal that could run damn fast coming towards you – you would run too! So the call moves and not always in the expected direction. Plus the deer and tiger don’t co-ordinate their actions so that they stay near where there are roads. 80% of Pench Tiger Reserve has no public access so at times we got close to calls but our driver wasn’t allowed go any further or there was no access roads to get closer.

It did make for an exciting time. You felt you were the police detecting clues and then on a car chase to find the culprit! Drivers / guides would excitedly share news of calls or if they were lucky sights. Other times they would drive expectantly towards each other, shake their heads and drive on. It seemed in Pench all the guides and drivers worked together – they wanted to make sure that all visitors saw a tiger. Kahna on the other hand seemed more competitive. Drivers and guides would share information but when it came to possible sightings they would jostle each other for position and as consequence often block the view of others.

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Jostling for sight of Chota Charger – can you spot him?
5 drives almost passed with no tiger sightings, our naturalist – Umi, was clearly getting frustrated as he was desperate to ensure that we had a sighting before we left! 10 minutes from the end we saw a tiger! I didn’t expect to be so moved by the experience. They are truly majestic awe-inspiring animals. This one was a little shy and slunk away quickly. The experienced guides however knew where he was headed (his name was Chota Charger by the way) – to the water hole! Only problem is that if we went, we would be late back to the gate. Umi hesitated but when others decided to go, he decided there was safety in numbers and off we flew! For another 10 minutes we sat and watched him walk through the meadows to the water hole – incredible! We did arrive 20 minutes late to the gate but we think we got away with it – I would happily have paid any fine Umi had to pay – it would have been worth it!

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Chota Charger (small charger – he used to attack jeeps as a little cub)
The next day we ate breakfast (at 8 a.m. – so, so late!) and drove for 5 hours to Kanha Tiger Reserve. Stopping en-route, I bought a fleece and some leggings for under my jeans from a local market. At the end of negotiations, I looked around to find myself surrounded by gawking men astounded at this white woman speaking Hindi! It was the first time I had used my Hindi for practical reasons and it felt amazing!

Chitvan Lodge in Kanha was definitely less ostentatious than Tuli Tiger Corridor but it also seemed more real. The staff were much better trained but still in a rustic enthusiastic fashion that felt comfortable and not forced in any way. Again the place was a little jaded but that wasn’t an issue at all. All of the food came from the local villages or from their own organic garden. It was yummy! Again perhaps for the foreign taste a little repetitive but for those who know Indian food it wasn’t.

There was a gorgeous pool that unfortunately at this time of year was freezing. As the afternoons were glorious, to sit out in the sun between drives was ideal – often of course accompanied by a little snooze. The difference here however was while in Tuli there were lovely soft cushions, here there was nothing but hard wooden sun beds, not at all conducive to an afternoon snooze. My snoozing instead had to happen on the charpoy outside our room or in bed.

Again it was bitterly cold in the mornings but this time we got in addition to our blankets, hot water bottles – genius!!

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Sal Tree – only found in Indian Subcontinent
Our drives continued in the same format as Pench but this time we drove through thick Sal forests – a tree only found in India.
This was harder to see through, which in its own way took away from the experience but this time there was no water shortage and water bodies abounded, the meadows were larger and vibrant with wild life. So pluses and minuses to both locations but Pench probably would have won over Kanha slightly if it were not for our two tiger sightings!

 

 

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Yes, two! One late in our fourth drive and one early in our last and final drive. Umeerpane appeared on the edge of the forest briefly and then disappeared down a gully and wasn’t seen again.

 

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Umeer Pane and my arm!
Bema, on the other hand, was seen down a gully and then came up onto to the road and wandered towards us with absolute confidence. This however is where the lack of team work between the guides became a problem. They jostled for position, cut each others view off so that the clients in their car could get a better view. This resulted in our jeep and another effectively blocking each other so no one could move. Consequently, neither jeep could keep reversing up the road, the tiger had no where to go but off the road and so we lost sight of him! A little frustrating to say the least. However, to see a tiger no more than 15m from you was amazing. I felt like I could get out of the car and rub his head as you would a domestic cat – clearly this would have been incredibly stupid.

What an experience though! Wow! Those three sightings were worth every minute (sometimes gibbering minute) of the 40 hours we spent in those jeeps. The cross-country bumpy ride was worth it – anything would have been worth it! Incredible.

Our drive from Kanha to the airport in Nagpur was a little painful – 6 hours: on rough roads for at least the first 3 hours. Nagpur airport was completely chaos and so so loud; you couldn’t help but know you were in India! Our flight was delayed and I must be honest after a 5.30 a.m. get up by midnight when we returned home there was a bit of a grumpathon going on. Somehow all marriages emerged intact – somehow!

After Kerala, I said that I would happily share details of our travels agents with you if you contact me. This was because I didn’t like our travel agents but the driver was so amazing that I would use the agents again in order to have Manoj as my driver. This time however I can only say that Sharad Vets of Nature Safari India was amazing. Without hesitation I would use them again. They will certainly be my first call when it comes to booking any sort of safari in India. Amazing! I should say I have not been paid for this endorsement in any way shape or form but sometimes good people and good companies should be recognised for being great!

All pictures except for that of me were taken by Chris Ironside. My picture was taken by Deborah Clearwater from Embracing India.

India’s Nasty Side

There are without doubt many incredible things about living in India. India, in fact, has given me the opportunity to do things and see things that I could never have done back in England. In just 6 months, I have learnt more about the world and myself than I could have done in 10 years in the UK. India has taught me that people can preserver in the face of hopelessness; they can smile and be happy when all else seems lost.

India has also shown me that it is a disgustingly racist.

‘All my life, I thought I was ugly. All my life, people told my mum that my sister was beautiful and I was not. When I married, I always worried that my husband found me too ugly’. This from a beautiful woman not just internally but also externally. Why had she been brought up to believe she was so ugly? Why? She was darker skinned than her sister. In a society that values white skin, the darker you are, the more you are perceived to be ugly.

My maid told me that her brother (who is very dark skinned) is consistently told by his wife (who is quite light skinned) that she doesn’t deserve such an ugly husband. She deserves someone more handsome – i.e. whiter skinned. How degrading for the husband (especially as this was a love marriage – she made her own decision to marry him) and how confusing and upsetting for their children to overhear.

Not only does your skin colour seem to determine your level of beauty but it also seems to determine whether or not you are trustworthy. The darker your skin the more likely you are to be stopped and searched or as is the case more frequently, the darker your skin, the more likely security guards will make it difficult for you to enter housing societies or worse again to get jobs or promotions.

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Opportunities – leisure, positive future – what percentage of people in this image are dark skinned?

As you drive around India today or you visit friends have a look around. Just how many cleaning staff, maids, drivers, security guards look like the people above? Just how many senior managers or even junior managers don’t look like the people above.  I do not know a single maid or driver that I would not consider dark skinned – not a single one. Perhaps that is just Pune but something tells me it is not.

I am never anymore than superficially searched – I could carry anything in anywhere! Sometimes I feel like shouting – ‘you know I’m Irish, we have terrorist organisations too – how about you trust me less!’ Other times, our car is not searched while the car in front of us is checked carefully. It’s OK though – I’m a white foreigner so you don’t need to check me!

White is associated with trustworthiness, education and aspiration. All you need to do is walk down any ‘beauty’ aisle in a supermarket to realise that everything comes with skin whitener in it. The only anti-perspirant I can buy in India is also whitening – whitening for my armpits! When a society worries about whether its armpits are white enough that is when you know a society has a serious problem with racism.

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It takes 1 minute to find tips to becoming whiter online and it takes only moments to realise that the international beauty companies are in cahoots with a society that puts white over well what you really are.

A stranger prior to coming to India if they only watched Bollywood movies, saw adverts and read celebrity magazines could be forgiven for thinking that India was actually a ‘white’ country. The fact that Bollywood has now started recruiting white teenage girls from the UK with no Indian heritage to come and be turned into Bollywood stars indicates just how white you need to be to get ahead.

Just check out this list of the top 10 Bollywood stars of 2015. Not a single face is anything other than almost white. Where are the role models there for those that do not look like them?

2015 Top Bollywood Actresses

You could be forgiven for thinking based on the advertising hoardings for new housing societies that frolicking in the gardens of ‘Crystal Society’ or ‘Westminster Lodge’ were happy little English families – only difference perhaps being that these ‘English’ families are wearing saris and salwar kameez!

As a new comer to this country, I try to avoid falling into the trap of saying that everything in the UK is great and comparing it to India and finding India lacking. That, to me, just isn’t realistic and it isn’t fair.  Just ask any average British person on the street in the UK at the moment about their attitudes to Syrian refugees and it won’t take you long to find a revolting response to the crisis.

I can however judge the racism I see in India as unacceptable. I see racism here that would have been considered deplorable in the UK 20 years ago. Someone told me recently that on a WhatsApp group she received a picture of a white person and a images-2black person with the caption –  Oreo Cookie!

How this was perceived as acceptable to share as a joke is inconceivable. Sometimes racism is an outcome of ignorance and often this ignorance is driven by lack of opportunities to broaden your view of the world, a lack of opportunity to experience more than the  world simply around you. This lack of opportunity is often driven by not being able to afford to get outside of the world you live in.

This WhatsApp group, on the other hand, was a group for children at an international school. It was sent by an Indian who had the resources to pay the very high school fees and I can also assume consider it worth doing so the children could expand their horizons. These would be the very parents who would be more likely to have the time and money to break down the ignorance that such racism stems from. If parents at this level of society fail to see how wrong their racism is, how will others with less opportunities deal with such things?

In the UK, as a teacher I always felt it was crucial to consistently show young people that they didn’t have to be stick thin to be beautiful despite what celebrity culture said. I didn’t however have to try and convince them that they shouldn’t try and change something that is ultimately unchangeable – who they are – what their ethnic make-up was / what their skin colour was. While there are not enough role models from different ethnic groupings in the UK, there are role models.

Here it feels like the only role models are almost white. What does that say to the young girl or boy who is dark skinned when in reality there is nothing they can do to change it or indeed there is no real reason to need to change it? What does it say? It says: ‘you are worth less than those lighter coloured skinned people. You should not aspire to as much because you are not beautiful, you are not aspirational, you are not wanted.’ What sort of a message is that for India to send its own people?

‘Two Forces’ shows ‘classical’ Britain using the sword to protect themselves against Irish ‘rebels’. Notice the difference in stance, demeanour and look.

I too come from a land that was formerly colonised by the British Empire – Ireland. I too lived in a land where for centuries to be Irish was seen as being less than British. Just like Indians, the Irish were laughed at in Britain for being ‘bog trotters’ – basically unsophisticated idiots. Now the days of colonialism are long gone for both nations (Ireland became independent in 1948) but we shouldn’t forget that we were once looked down upon and therefore to look down upon your own is almost a greater sin than being looked down upon by a foreign agent.

I teach the children in my classrooms that unless they respect themselves nobody will respect them. Well, if India does not respect the fact that is is not an homogenous or more or less white Hindu country but rather a country of so many religions and of none; of so many ethnic groups; mixed ethnic groups; and mixed skin colours than how can it expect to be respected around the world.

If you like this blog, don’t forget to press like below. I love to hear feedback from my readers so please feel free to comment below also. Finally, you can always share if you like what you have read. 

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