Tag Archives: India

Just a Drop in the Ocean

The last month has been filled with the dramatic impact of demonitisation. This possibly inspired move was intended to curtail black money which is prevalent throughout every transation in India: from the unregistered maid to the more impactful millions of dollars in bribes that tend to move for major real estate transactions to the millions of ₹50 ($1) bribes paid to the poor during election season. India cannot progress until this black market is controlled – simple. Hence the inspired moved to overnight ban the two large denomination notes (500 ($10) and 1000 ($20)) which form the basis for most black market transactions.

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A Bridegroom 6 days after the introduction of the new₹2000 note. Restricted to withdrawals of 4,500 a week. His suit is made of these notes. This was at a wedding cost hundreds of millions of dollars – all clean according to both families – really!?

Reality is that the implementation was so poorly thought through that a month later the impact on the poor is heart-breaking and the reality is that the wealthy just rapidly moved their money into gold / diamonds and have quickly managed to come by the new notes (500 ($10) and ₹2000 ($40)) through bribes, threats and connections. It is the poor with money but no means of accessing it that are going hungry. Impact of Demonitisation It is the migrant daily workers with no means of being paid who are being forced to give up their lives in the cities and go home to the small farms they originally left in desperation. Video: Monkey Has Just Been Paid  

fullsizeoutput_231c.jpegIt has been easy therefore this month to focus purely on the negative. Focus on the fact that you have to watch every rupee: that you have to consider whether you really need to take a rickshaw or whether it is better to walk.  I could also focus on the all pervasive pollution that rolls in thickly every evening and somewhat recedes during the day: leaving your eyes gritty, your chest clogged and with a, at times, hacking cough. These are the things that it is so very easy to focus on. For me however the last month has also brought significant progress in a very more positive way.

For me, my greatest achievement since moving to India has been my involvement with Ashta No Kai, a small but impactful charity operating in 9 villages around Pune.

I have been teaching English in one of these villages to groups of girls for the last 18 months. Rapidly it became clear that my objective should have very little to do with language acquisition but more on building the confidence and independence of these incredible girls

The girls, aged 13 – 15, live in a very rural village with limited outside impact save for TV and the work of Ashta No Kai. Their knowledge of the world outside of their village is incredibly limited. They are trained from an early age not to question what they are told. They are trained to blindly accept the authority of their elders. In school, they are not given the opportunity and consequently the confidence to think for themselves. They have learnt to fear making mistakes therefore following whatever their superiors do is a safer way to live.

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Photo credit: Deborah Clearwater of Embracing India

My objective with my girls is to as much as possible try and counter this approach. I want them to feel they have a choice. If they CHOOSE to continue living the life of all the girls that have come before them, then that is no problem. The key word however is: CHOOSE.

It has taken 18 months but we are finally beginning to see the impact of such an approach

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Medal winning karate girls! Ashta No Kai had to fight entrenched opinions about the role of girls to convince parents to allow their girls to attend karate classes. The girls grow in confidence and in the ability protect themselves from sexual abuse – someone is raped in India every 8 seconds. 

on the girls. I cannot claim full responsibility. Deborah Clearwater has been coming religiously to our weekly lessons for about 8 months now can take great responsilibity. We are of course but a conduit for helping Ashta No Kai transmit this female empowerment message. There are several such conduits including health and legal education and karate classes.A new lady, Erin, came to the village with us this week. Deborah and I beamed with pride when one of the girls went straight up to her and asked her name, how she was and finally said, ‘nice to meet you’. We beamed with pride when we asked the girls to work in pairs and they did with no hesitation. We beamed with pride when we asked them to use their initiative to apply that day’s learning to new ideas of their own choosing and they did! We beamed with pride because these are skills unimaginable a mere 18 months ago. We turned to each other and said, ‘this is why we do it. This is affirmation that we are making an impact.’

 

 

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The girls have grown in confidence significantly. This ability to move and use their initiative as shown in this photo would have been impossible a mere 18 months ago.                                     Photo credit: Deborah Clearwater of Embracing India 

Has the girls English improved in this time? Somewhat – dramatically – definitely not! Why not? The boundaries to learning were so strong that a simple task that should take 10 minutes takes 120 minutes. Progress to me is irrelevant. The girls when older can choose to learn English but if they fall into the trap of blindly accepting everything they are told; if they are not trained to puzzle out answers; if they are not encouraged to see just how incredible they are, that they should believe in themselves then no matter how good their English is, their future is limited to whatever other people say their future should be.

This is not why I came to India but it is what I will take away and something incredible to have been involved in!

I am also so very proud to say that I have been able to lead others towards supporting Ashta No Kai this month. From a former neighbour who donated ₹1000 ($20) to a friend who gave me a cheque for ₹5000 ($100). A friend’s company has just donated ₹2.5 lakh ($5,000). A fantastic woman here on a British Council internship is in the process of taking over the running of the charity’s website (soon to be launched). Another lady, with a background in development work analysis and grant applications has offered to work with Ashta No Kai to produce professional impact assessements while also helping to apply for much needed grants. I now also co-ordinate a group of expat women happy to come regularly or some as and when needed to the village to support the more regular teachers. Hence ensuring that if I cannot attend lessons one week, lessons can continue without me therefore causing less disruption to the girls’ lessons.

Myself and Deborah have also found success recently more locally, indeed in the oldest part of Pune – Kasba Peth. For about 9 months, I have been teaching a young man English.

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                                           Vivek, my student and the community he lives in.                                                 Photo credit: Deborah Clearwater of Embraced Photography

He is in his early 20s and is developing a carreer in finance. Walking through his community one day on an incredible tour (Chalo Heritage and Nature Walks), I came across this shy unassuming guy – terrifyed to speak English but desperate to learn! 7 months later, I realised from weekly excursions into this tightly knit community that the women (one in particular) seemed anxious to learn English but household duties and to a certain extent mother-in-law reluctance meant that any attempt to offer them free lessons was going to fall on deaf ears (if disappointed ones!).

The offer to teach their pre-school children English (Deborah and Barb’s job) thereby freeing the women up for that hour to learn English (my job) turned the whole situation around. The child’s education being only possible if the women also came to class. Mother-in-laws therefore agreed as the opportunity for their grandchildren to spend time with expats learning English was too good an opportunity to miss.

Four lessons in, it is still an evolving group. There is a central core of 2 – 3 women but every lesson has brought new students. The women are incredibly excited about learning and spend their lessons giggling, with me telling them off for helping the others rather than letting them learn for themselves.

Most of these women finished their education between the ages of 12 – 15 and therefore not only is learning a skill they have to recall but I’m doing it in a very different way to how they were used to it! My achievement that I am proud of this month therefore is being able to set this group up (believe me not an easy feat!) and now that the woman I set it all up for finally came to lessons on Friday!! I could have burst with happiness!

For cultural reasons, I cannot show you the children’s lessons in progress. Some of the girls are Muslim and consequently their parents do not want their photos published. Love the old man blowing up his balloon (not his granddaughter’s – no – HIS balloon!) Barb, clearly enjoying the incredible time she has with the children every week. 

While I teach the mixed community women (Hindu and Muslim) in the local Hindu temple, Deborah and Barb teach their children on the pavement outside. There are three particular children who always attend with a floating collection of other children and adults on a weekly basis. My moment of pride in the kids came on Friday when one rounded the corner and upon seeing me said confidently, ‘Good morning!’ – loud and clear! This little girl is not quite 4 (she is a twin). Her little sister (about 2 1/2 years old) is beginning to get the confidence to sit close to Barb and Deborah and is beginning to talk to them (in Marathi) where before she hid or stayed very close to her older sisters. They are the children of the mum I set the classes up for.

Her attendance on Friday in my lessons was a vote of confidence in Deborah and Barb. Previously, she had washed clothes or dishes outside her house while keeping a wary eye on her children, now she is happy to leave them and learn herself. This woman therefore who spends most of her life under the wary eye of her mother-in-law now has an hour a week where she is a woman: not a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter-in-law – simply a woman. I like to think that that hour of giggles and laughter is something the women look forward to and is perhaps not the highlight of their week but certainly a high point.

It has been challenging however as we have an increasing number of women desperate to have lessons but I am just one person and a class of 20 is simply not going to work. We have a new volunteer however  – Erin (who also comes to the village) – although she has taught English in the past, she is conscious that she needs to develop the necessary skills to teach in India. Once she is confident however we intend to either increase the size of our current women’s class or to start a second one! Amazing!

That all sounds like I am looking for a big pat on my back, ‘well done, Karen – aren’t you doing well.’ It is not intended that way. People talk about being just a drop in the ocean as something negative – as if you are making no impact. What is the ocean made of however? Simple – millions of drops. Create enough drops and you have an ocean.

If you can support Ashta No Kai in any way, please feel free to contact me (whatwillhappentome@gmail.com). Ashta No Kai will happily accept financial as well as practical support.

 

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.

 

 

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

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.

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The Road to Heaven via The Road to Hell!

Gently floating as I currently find myself on a traditional Keralian houseboat near Allepey, it is hard to imagine that just yesterday our Keralian adventure took us to the other side of the state: a land of complete contrast to here.

IMG_0335 2Our first night in Kerala had found us, or so I imagined, in the high peaks of the Western Ghats – a mountain range stretching down much of western India. Our views were spectacular. Views that stretched for mile after mile of intense greens and rising peaks. Our morning however was to show us that we were far from the high peaks I had imagined the night before.

Our driver, Manoj, managed to rather undersell our morning. ‘Today, we can take jeep and see tea plantation. We drive half way and jeep drives up next half, off-road.’ This was stereotypically Indian – either you get a great over-sell or a great under-sell. Rarely, do you experience an accurate sell.

So we drove up the ever smaller, ever twister and ever (as I thought at the time) bumpier roads. Our driver calm in the face of buses coming hurtling towards him in the middle of the road around blind bends. It was with great shock therefore when I heard him say, ‘Shit!’ This was not the type of language I could ever imagine emerging from his very gentle face.

IMG_0346‘Shit!’ is a good phrase and perhaps the only accurate phrase for when you find yourself going up a steep hill and find a truck stuck on the verge, having failed to quite make it around the tight corner. Several attempts to pass the truck failed, the road simply too steep for the car to cope. Manoj however to the rescue, a couple of quick phone calls and chats with locals led to a perfectly acceptable solution. The jeep came and collected us (after a rather steep 5 minute walk up the hill to get beyond the truck) and a neighbour agreed he could park his car outside their house.

For Manoj however I think this may have been a good day. He too could be a tourist! With his car stuck, there was little more he could do but join us.  The jeep careened up the mountainside, flying over bumps and landing with a thump the other side. Upon reaching a village perched on the edge of the mountainside, our driver jumped out to get some diesel. Looking around, I was a little perplexed. Diesel? Where was the petrol station? Moments later he returned with a plastic five litre bottle and a cut up plastic soft drink bottle with a hose attached. Diesel issue solved.

We then proceeded to go higher and higher up a mountain – leaving the ‘high peak’ of our hotel far below us. Eventually, our driver stopped and pointed to a mountain range in the far distance shrouded in cloud – ‘that’ he informed us, ‘is Tamil Nadu state, we are going there!’ Tamil Nadu is where my maid, Maggie, is from so I was excited to be able to tell her I had at least seen the state from up close.

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As we rose out of the jungle, slowly a verdant carpet spread out around us. Suddenly, the expression ‘a carpet of tea’ came to mind and equally suddenly – it made sense. Each cluster of tea plants were like a detailed knot on a Persian rug – separate but intricately linked to the knots beside it. Knot by knot creating an image of a flowing softness of colour.

FullSizeRender 9IMG_0386In the village, we had also picked up a lady with truly the most beautiful smile on earth who had gone to the village for her weekly supplies. Her return trip to the tea planation she worked on was dependent on such a lift. Only two hours later, having arrived at her house, did I realise just how far it was to the tea factory: how isolated it was, how isolated her life was. The roads became impassable but for the sturdiest four by four – ours I was not convinced was all that sturdy and its engine needed screws tightening at every photo stop.

Every time I turned to look at the lady she was smiling. Was she too enjoying this crazy bumpy ride to the top or was it just the unexpectedness of finding two foreigners enjoying what she saw as normal that made her smile? Either way, without many words to share with each other, we laughed and both I think will remember that very briefest of friendships for much of our lives.

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IMG_0385This lady of course reminds you that amidst this intense jaw-dropping beauty are everyday people trying to live their everyday lives to the best of their everyday ability. These people live in poverty yet always have time to smile broadly at a stranger. The tea plantation workers must pick 31 kilos of tea a day plus clean it, all for a miserable 350 rupees a day (3.50 UK), yet they took the time to stop and recognise your presence with a smile, happily showing you the tea they had picked and allowing themselves to be photographed. There was no sense of the intrusion I feared there would be, rather just a delight in sharing their lives with us.

IMG_0403We reached Tamil Nadu!! Rather, we reached the top of the mountain range representing the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border. Maggie will, it seems, have to wait to see that picture of me with a Tamil Nadu background. Thick fog enveloped us, hiding our view. Our driver did assure us that below was village after village and even large towns. The tree in my nearest foreground was all I got to see!

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Our tea plantation claims to be the highest organic tea planation in the world. True or not, it was certainly a very long way above sea-level at 8,000ft.  As we ascended the mountain (through switchback after switchback of tortuously bumpy roads) you were left wondering – how in all heaven were these roads ever built, how in all heaven was the planation carved out of the jungle and finally how in all heaven did the heavy machinery (from 1935) every make its way up these roads? My theory is that the reason this factory has still its original equipment is that modern equipment would never get up the mountain!

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Our journey down was equally an adventure although of course missing my new friend. To, I can only assume, save diesel our driver shut off the engine and glided down the mountainside. Well, no, glided is definitely not the right word – rather careened over the bumps and around bends. A free massage, the driver jokingly said. Certainly not
a massage I would pay for. When finally we reached a relatively smooth bit of road (well surfaced anyhow!) that was it – brake off and AWAY! We glanced at each other, sIMG_0377miled bravely and…well continued and anyhow it was fun! The thought, I will admit, did flash through my mind, we are a long way from anywhere should something happen. A long way from even a helicopter being able to airlift us out! My husband later reassured me that we would have been fine! ‘Did I not see the ambulance at the tea factory?’‘Ambulance? What ambulance?’ IMG_0442‘The box on the wall with ambulance written on it of course!’

To be able to accurately describe all that we saw and experienced in those four hours is impossible. No wordsmith or photographer could really capture the true beauty of Munnar.  I do not represent any travel agency but if you too want to experience true beauty let me know and I can put you in touch with our travel agents and of course lovely Manoj!

To read more about our Kerala adventure read my last blog and the next few blogs to be published very soon. 

It is always nice to know that people have enjoyed what I’ve written so please do feel free to follow, like, share and of course comment below. 

Kerala: Another India / Stunning India

One’s vision of India before you first get here is of a chaotic teeming mass of people in a chaotic world of rundown buildings within which small enterprises of all descriptions take place. You also imagine vast poverty and slums. You may also envisage the Indian man / woman as the stereotypical image of an Indian propagated by Hollywood and indeed our own restricted ability to see Indians as ‘Indians’ who don’t fit into our rather limited image of well an Indian.

Flying into Mumbai seemed to very much confirm this image of a teeming mass of people. Poverty in Mumbai is quickly shoved in your face for you to try to begin to come to terms with – if indeed that is ever possible. The vast wealth of certain sections of Indian society also becomes rapidly clear.

Quickly, however, it also became clear that you can be Indian and not look my ignorant vision of ‘Indian’. You can look ‘Chinese’; ‘Tibetan’; almost white; extremely dark and every other colour and ethnic make up you can almost imagine. India is far from a homogeneous country of one ethnicity and one culture.

Our first attempt to begin to see for ourselves the great diversity in India beyond the bounds of what Pune can show us began today. Kerala has proven to be a complete contrast to Maharashtra. Both states on the Indian western coast; both states emerging from this year’s monsoon but utterly different geographically.

Pune
Pune
Kerala Hills
Kerala Hills

So what are my first impressions of Kerala? Without a doubt I love it and I have yet to see Kerala beyond the 4 hour drive from the airport to tonight’s hotel.

Coconuts on sale everywhere - you drink the water with a straw and then some seem to make the husk into bowls.
Coconuts on sale everywhere – you drink the water with a straw and then some seem to make the husk into bowls.
Lungis - traditional male skirt / trousers
Lungis – traditional male skirt / trousers

Kerala: lush forests wrapped around rolling and also at times precipitous mountains and hills; solid architectural houses rather than the more blocky housing seen more commonly in and around Pune; bright houses painted every colour of the rainbow – sometimes several colours of the rainbow at the same time; clean (for India) and quiet (for India) streets; men in lungis – imagine a long skirt that can, through ingenious wrapping, be turned into shorts, palazzo style trousers (above the ankle), short skirts – some men wear these in Pune but here more do than don’t; spectacular scenery; good god it is humid (at least until you are very high up in the mountains); narrow twisty roads ascending mountains and dropping down the other side; and crazy driving – hair-raising overtaking around blind corners and equally terrifying, being overtaken while you can see a bus hurtling towards you from around a blind corner!

Warning - dangerous curves! Too right!
Warning – dangerous curves! Too right!
just a little twisty - if only my camera could have made it clearer!
just a little twisty – if only my camera could have made it clearer!
It's OK, it's only a bus coming hurtling my way!
It’s OK, it’s only a bus coming hurtling my way!

Our journey from Kochi airport led us up through the spice gardens and onto the tea plantations of Munnar. A brief stop at a spice garden led us around a whistle stop

Stone Banana Tree - takes three years to grow and as soon as you cut off its one and only fruit - it dies!
Stone Banana Tree – takes three years to grow and as soon as you cut off its one and only fruit – it dies!

tour of a ‘sample’ spice garden. Within 20 minutes,  30 plants were pointed out; the local name and botanical name given; and what the Ayurvedic (Indian herbal medicine) properties were. Needless to say none of which has stayed in my head beyond the fact that Stone Banana trees are huge and only have one fruit, vanilla is a creeper as is the pepper plant and that some plant of whose name I have thoroughly forgotten tastes both disgusting and gorgeous simultaneously – should I remember the name – it is great for stabilising sugar levels in diabetics! Oh and you can’t forget the bamboo plant that produces seeds that look and taste exactly like rice. Only issue being it only has these seeds once every 42 years so I’m guessing it’s never really going to take off commercially.

Vanilla
Vanilla
Pepper tree
Pepper tree
Pineapple field!! Now don't pretend you realised they grew this way if you haven't seen it in real life!
Pineapple field!! Now don’t pretend you realised they grew this way if you haven’t seen it in real life!

Our journey also saw us (I kind of feel embarrassingly) discovering how a pineapple grew. Now I couldn’t tell you exactly how I would have drawn a picture of a pineapple growing but I can assure you, it would not have looked like what it actually looked like. We also saw mile after mile of rubber trees all of which were tapped to collect sap. IMG_0047Monkeys were to found at the side of the road everywhere and some were clearly quite content to be approach and photographed – I, on the other hand, was happy to keep a wary distance. An elephant was even spotted around the back of a house as we passed by.

Turning off the main Kochi – Munnar road (for UK / Ireland people – a B road at best) we continued down (or should I say up) a road that got narrower and narrower, passing through a few very small towns and villages. Along the route the terrain got steeper by the minute. Our final ascent to our hotel was signified by a sign saying – 1st gear needed – as the driver took us up a near vertical hill.

Our relief to have arrived before dark – seriously that road would have been terrifying at night – was countered by our stunned silence upon seeing the view. Sunset had lit up all the valleys below us catching the fog that drifted out of the forest. For miles we could see the Western Ghats spread out below us.  Without doubt it has to count as one of the most spectacular views of my life.

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Our welcome garlands!
Our welcome garlands!

We were warmly welcomed with garlands of flowers (my first in India) and a blessing. While the hotel may not be anything special – really no more than just a log cabin in the mountains, the scenery and the staff more than make up for it.

There is something weird though – something really weird I haven’t really got my head around yet – its just a little chilly here. Now it’s still t-shirt weather, don’t get me wrong but up here in the mountains it’s not hot! Very strange experience.

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The Village

From high above in my nest, I gaze down on the ant-like, model railway-like world below me. The wind wafts my skirts, billowing me in a cool breeze, releasing me from the inferno like heat below.

The contrast between my world and theirs is outstanding. I have little or no comprehension of the lives of those that I watch daily. Yes, I have begun to understand the rhythm of their day. The ebb and flow of human movement but I have not learnt to understand their life. They are like an oil-painting of a distant scene. Present but yet still so illusive.

I have learnt from my perch that these people are resilient, are determined and face daily struggles that I would fear to face for even the briefest of times. Today, I complained to building management that a hose in one of my six bathrooms was leaking. Today, I saw person after person from this 500 person village enter and leave one of just 15 toilets. Women however never enter. One can only assume they have found a hidden corner of their village where they are safe from the preying eyes of the men.

View from our apartment. Our lives a sharp contrast to those of the village below us.
View from our apartment. Our lives a sharp contrast to those of the village below us.

In a village, one imagines a certain level of permanency, evidence of development over-time. A building that has been there since the eldest person in the village was a child. One imagines a new building that perhaps was welcomed warmly or perhaps was received amidst great controversy.

This is not a village that I have ever seen before. This is not how I imagined people lived in the modern world. Well perhaps that is the point – for these villagers, yes their very existence is dependent upon the modern world and all the development that this brings but it seems from high up in my perch that they are also very much living in a world that is of a past. A world of which I have heard stories and which my parents also only heard stories of.

One of many building sites near our apartment. A scene replicated hundreds of times all over the city.
One of many building sites near our apartment. A scene replicated hundreds of times all over the city.

Their village is not a village of stone and wood: something recognisable as a permanent structure for there is nothing permanent about this village. This village exists only to allow the Indian Tiger to roar. When you look around at all the shiny glass and marble flooring of modern India, they have been built on the backs of this village. My apartment may well have been built on the backs of the very people I stare down at.

For this village is home to the itinerant builders who travel from building site to building site to build modern India. They are not just conclaves of men but of their wives and the very many young children who run higgledy piggledy over the sand piles and sand bags and building materials of all kinds.

There is the child whose legs are just that little bit too short to ride his father’s bike but day after day, he rides up and down the road in front of the village. There is the little girl who chases after him (perhaps his sister) and sometimes but only sometimes gets to ride on the carrier.

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Note how low the water level is and water was delivered no more than 5 hours ago.

The heart of the village it appears is the water tank. A large rectangular concrete container that provides all the water for the village. Men give themselves bucket baths, morning and evening: dressed only in their underwear. Young boys wash next, then sometimes but only rarely the girls but never the women. Again, one can only assume they have found a hidden place to wash unseen by the men.

For the women, the water tank seems to be where they come to talk and gossip and sometimes even to sing or rather chant. The water tank is where they come to wash clothes in a way that cannot possibly have changed for hundreds of years. Buckets of water are heaved out of the tank and then they are washed and then repeatedly banged against special rocks, over and over again. These women only use two sides of the rectangular tank, the men use all sides. Whether this is so they can be closer to talk or whether it is clearly understood that the other side is for the men and men only – this is not clear.

At the end of every session at the tank, man, woman or child – it doesn’t matter, a bucket of water if not two are always carried back to their home. Again one can assume for cooking, cleaning and of course for the women and older girls to wash.

Of course, now that Pune is faced with severe water shortages, another contrast has thrown itself into my face. While I have 100% water, no reduction in flow – nothing. Their water delivery is no longer daily. By the end of the first day, you can see just how much the water level has dropped and it leaves you pondering on just how they will get by until the next water tanker arrives. A reality only too common amongst the poor of Pune.

Four other locations seem to provide secondary nuclei in the village.

IMG_0105For the children, it is the daily building they go to for education run by a charity called Tara Mobile Creche.  Every day about 9, the children of all ages, some carried by their mothers, stream into this long brick building. Some through one door and some through another with no obvious division based on age or gender. Throughout the day they appear periodically and play in small numbers outside or go to the water tank provided for this building alone. At 1 they stream home and at 2 they return, filled with lunch of some form one not only assumes but also hopes.

The children then stay on until 6 or even 7 o’clock when their parents return to work. These are the lucky children, most construction villages do not have any form of educational facility and so these children are doomed to more likely than not grow up illiterate with significantly reduced chances in life.

Two of the other locations seem equally functional – they are what can only be assumed are shops. Tin shacks that look like kiosks. Morning and evening, people in small numbers huddle around these buildings. The little children sent on errands, jump up to the counter then dangle their little legs while waiting for whatever it is they have ordered. From my perch, I cannot see inside. These shops can sell little more than the basics and perhaps the odd treat for a day when a family has a little bit of cash left over.

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Men streaming home for lunch at 1, walking by the area they hang out in when not working.

The final location is not functional at all – it is a pile of building materials. Morning and evening the men gather in groups to have, I can only imagine if i eavesdropped, the male equivalent of washing day gossip! Men drift towards and away from this group continuously while some march purposefully there, eager to join their friends. At some point, they all disperse to work or to home but with confidence that shortly they will regroup.

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The village celebrates the moving of their Ganesh idol to be immersed in the river as part of the annual Ganpatti festival.
A chance for the men to sing and dance and take a break from their everyday hardships.
A chance for the men to sing and dance and take a break from their everyday hardships.

Ganpatti Music! The men of the village sing and dance! Click on link to watch (more listen!)

Home is in itself an interesting term. Home is where the heart is, is an old British saying. But can your heart be in a corrugated metal shack in the midst of a building site with limited electricity and no running water; where your very existence and house is dependent upon the whims of the economy or the whims of a building foreman. I suspect that most refer to their houses (tin shacks) as ‘home’ just like I might say I’m going ‘home’ if I was returning to my hotel while on holidays. It is a throw away phrase that really means little more than ‘the place I am currently staying in’.

I suspect for those in my village below me, their emotional ‘home’ is of far greater attachment. Perhaps it is a small village on the other side of India which necessity drew them away from. Perhaps, it is a farm where they grew up working in the fields and looking after the animals. Perhaps they have no sense of ‘home’ at all. Perhaps they were born in such a village as they live in now. Perhaps they have never even had a fleeting sense of permanency; a sense of a place they could one day return to. Perhaps.

Pune is a building site, there is no angle you can look anywhere where there is not a building going up or at the best, isn’t a green field slated for development. My tree top view is therefore nothing unique. Thousands of people within this city alone live like this on a daily basis. Building homes for the rich that they can never dream of ever stepping into again once the final flagstone is laid. Most will never even get to see the homes they worked on for so long completed for they are not the skilled labourers who do the final fit. Most will therefore have no real understanding of what they have created often with their bare hands.

Voyeurism is a difficult thing to deal with it. I am intrigued by what I see below me. It is mesmerising to see how a world so different to mine works. I would love to wander into the camp (for really that is what it is) and see for myself how things work but why? Why would I do that other than to satisfy my own desires? What good would it bring to the people of the village? How indeed would I feel if I saw some foreign tourist wandering around my apartment complex uninvited? How would I feel if a stranger peeped their head in my front door just so they could see what my life was like? How would I feel if that person was also far, far wealthier than I was – and the main reason they wished to see my world was purely because they couldn’t imagine living in such hardship? How would I feel? Violated. Simple as that.

So, no from my perch I will continue to watch and continue to try and learn from a distance how this world below me works. Time will come when I am in a position to actually volunteer and try and help perhaps the children of these families to at least have more life choices in the future. To allow them the chance to decide what they want to do with their life – how they want their children to grow up.  In the meantime, I am ever more grateful for the chance I currently have to live a life without any hardship, without fear of how to feed my family, with the knowledge that I have multiple places I can return to and call home, places in which I can stay.

Dahi Handi – the Yoghurt Pot Festival

It would be fair to describe my last blog as depressing.

I had found myself in what was quite a scary position. I fully understood why I was feeling so bad and I also fully understood just how bad things could get if not only was I lucky but more importantly very, very careful.

It seems I had been determined to forget about the fact that my health had been so bad and to allow myself to heal from the pain and fear that caused. On the other hand, the process of forgetting just resulted in my returning to where I had been 18 months earlier. I think therefore that it is not wise to forget just yet.

I must remain careful without going over the top. Every day / week I must plan my time so that serious and genuine rest is also included. Pacing: the very word I had allowed myself to forget but at least for the foreseeable future must remain a key word in my daily life.

Over the last few weeks, I have spent considerably more time at home but this has enabled me to do some pretty amazing things with the energy saved. It has allowed me to experience India!

The period from September to November is pretty much festival time in India! Over the next few months, I will post blogs about these festivities. Each however definitely deserves its own blog.

syama-krishna_sThe month started off with the birth of Krishna and the following night Dahi Handi. Indian’s love to party and what’s more they love to party with no concerns at all for health and safety. Consequently, Dahi Handi was an incredible experience.

You see Krishna wasn’t necessarily the best behaved boy in the world and he just loved, loved, loved his mother’s Dahi – yoghurt. a3-2So much so that he would at any opportunity steal it off his mum. Well now, his mum was having none of that – no, no she wasn’t. So she did what every parent has done in their lifetime – she hung the yoghurt pot (the handi) up out of her son’s reach. Well now, as every parent also knows: children grow. So week after week, she had to hang it higher and higher and higher! But Krishna was clever and he always found a way to eventually get to the yoghurt and get it out.

IMG_0035This story has led to the incredible spectacle of Dahi Handi. Big pots of honey and yoghurt are hung either from tall cranes or from a rope strung from two very tall buildings. Now, Dahi Handi has been somewhat restricted this year due to the drought Maharashtra is currently experiencing so apparently what I saw was far, far tamer than normal!

IMG_0006Having met up with some friends, we were all ready for our experience of a traditional Hindu religious festival. What we weren’t prepared for was the Bollywood dance music mixed with a rave! 1000s of men all effectively had a massive rave for two hours prior to the commencement of the Dahi Handi – timing of which was somewhat vague.

Of course, myself and Chris being the only white people there made us the centre of attention at times but we have become accustomed to being stopped and photographed repeatedly! Our friends, who are of Indian origin but still clearly look foreign were not short of stares and people whispering about them. It is never aggressive though – just intrigued!

Only in India however could a fight break out in the middle of this otherwise very congenial rave; the police wade in and sort it out; and then immediately be followed by a car driving through said throng so that a Bollywood actress could climb out and walk through the rest of the crowd to the stage. My friend’s husband was very pleased as she was his second favourite Bollywood actress!

Finally, Dahi Handi could commence – the actresses had arrived even if she was very late!

A team of men (age 12 – 30 perhaps) formed a human pyramid of about 8 layers. A tiny kid climbed up the pyramid onto the shoulders of the person at the top – the kid then proceeded to try and break open the handi unfortunately he failed so had to climb down again to get something better to break it with! Finally, he succeeded and the pyramid was doused in gallons of yoghurt much to the crowds delight!

Dahi Handi Pyramid – my video!

Dahi Handi – professional video

11947918_10153021637676820_7850001245742241422_oNormally, teams of pyramid builders compete to get the pot with prizes worth huge amounts of money. To make it more difficult, water is sprayed on the contestants so that everything and everyone gets very slippery! With the drought however this particular feature was banned and consequently some communities choose not to have teams competing!

Of course all of this happened on a public street. Eventually one side of the road was closed but crowds spilled onto the other lanes which were still open and now had traffic going in both directions. Chaos reigned! Young boys still ran around the traffic seemingly oblivious to the dangers! We did venture into the crowd at several points but were very grateful to the wise planning of our friends who had booked a table on a hotel balcony overlooking the spectacle.

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It was a very long and very exhausting evening but so, so much fun! We seem to spend so much of our lives socialising where the expats or wealthy Indians go – it is always a relief in a way to spend time frankly with normal people from all classes and walks of life!

Next year we will try and get out to a more rural occasion for Dahi Handi which apparently is a totally different experience! So, give it 12 months and you can look forward to reading that blog too!

Not a Kazza in Sight!

18 months ago, my husband and I decided that once I was better, we were going to go on a once in a lifetime trip to celebrate my return to health. Our discussion of potential destinations ranged across the world and considered a wide range of possibilities. For various reasons, we settled on Australia.

At that stage we had little idea about whether this trip would ever happen but it provided us with something to dream of, something to look forward to, something that would help retain hope that one day I would be well enough to do it. There were minutes, hours, days, weeks and even months where such a trip seemed ludicrous – such things would never and could never happen again.

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The most spectacular sunrise over the Australia outback – the land was on fire!

Sat therefore on the plane to Sydney and now sat in a fabulous coffee shop drinking gorgeous coffee, I can’t help being continually reminded of how far I / we have come in the last 18 months. Our world has changed inconceivably in the last 6 months and trips such as this remind me of just how grateful I am for whatever enabled that changed: part me / part miracle. Whatever caused it, I hope I will spend my life being incredibly grateful while at the same time, I hope I can start to allow it to no longer play such a powerful role in who I am today. It has changed me utterly but it is now time to begin to forget it happened.

My health has not returned to the point where I do not have to be still a little careful on this trip – so forgetting completely is not advisable – not too many big nights out followed by long days on my feet but we have a wonderful three weeks ahead of us and I, for one, am incredibly excited.

Having had my first day in Sydney and walked almost 17km during this time – no KazzaIMG_3961 appeared! Kazza is the name Chris has given to the Karen that appears once I get too tired to continue! She is tired, grumpy and lacks determination! So far, no Kazza! Kazza’s absence would have been inconceivable even a short few months ago!

The other outcome of my illness is a newly re-found love for writing. My husband, Chris, is a continual encouragement to me in this regard. He loves that I have finally found some sort of creative outlet. In order to provide both motivation and practical ability to do even more writing, he has bought me the Macbook this blog has been written on.

Collected yesterday from the Apple Store in Sydney, I no longer have the excuse that our laptop is slow and difficult use. I no longer have any excuses not to write – that is to say the very least a little intimidating! I now need to just get on and do something.

Although let’s be fair, Chris’ only hope is that I will write such a huge bestseller, he no longer needs to work and I shall be able to keep him at the standard of living he intends to get used to – no pressure then!

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Jugaad! In Other Words Bodge It And Scarper!

India gets to you with its beauty, its people and the chaos! It gets you in ways that you could never expect. On the other hand, I have found myself more frustrated here than perhaps anywhere else I have ever been.

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Note the shelf with no lip!

The washing machine fell off its shelf a few days ago – yes shelf! Why? Because the company who built this apartment block insisted the shelf – 4 foot off the ground – was safe for a heavy as hell washing machine. Shock and awe, one morning I heard a bang so loud that I jumped to my feet and sprinted to the dry balcony! I was met by a washing machine on its side and a spray of water to challenge any Icelandic geyser! Surprise, surprise the washing machine had fallen off! Since then I have discovered that lots of people are worried about how their washing machines move in this and other apartment blocks and that at least four have fallen off in an identical development before mine did!

01971d8cc71a420c5e880be3220c4748Now once again there is a battle; once again I am losing access to my own time; once again I spend all day at home not being able to deal with things and get things done because some bureaucratic shit (excuse the language but I expect everyone one lives in or has ever lived in India will forgive me!) has to happen first! In all the years I have lived in rented accommodation, I haven’t had as many issue as I have right now and this is meant to be high calibre, aspirational housing!

Mix that in with the power and influence game that is being played and it gets even more frustrating. The company who found us our apartment won’t blame the real people responsible – the developers, because they want to place more people into their developments because for every rental agreement they get at least a months rent and have priority over many of the developers apartment rentals.

That relationship, therefore, is far more important than ours because they’e made ethics-2their money off us so now they can move on. Consequently, it seems they are raising a complaint against the washing company that installed the machine. This is despite the fact that the company argued for more than 30 minutes that to place it on the shelf was quite simply dangerous. They eventually agreed only because I was eventually convinced, oh my newbie in India innocence, by the smiles and guarantees from the developers that it was safe! Idiot! I have argued that to do this is morally as wrong as it can get, that responsibility for this situation lies solely with the developers but no, I am wrong! Why? That never quite seems to be answered unless it is with meaningless platitudes.

This is just typical India – on the surface all is well and full of smiles – underneath however is a bodge job – misjudged and ill thought out. It is a platitude filled land. You say or do what you have to do to be able to get away with it and then you get the ‘hell out of Dodge!’ and whatever you do – don’t look back to check to make sure Dodge isn’t on fire – if it was, it wouldn’t be your responsibility, that’s for certain!

I love India – possibly, I have even fallen in love with India. India however is like the lover who makes you float upon clouds of joy and happiness only then to thump you around the face after a few too many glasses of wine. Allow yourself to get comfortable and a little bit confident here and something will always come your way that tries to break you!

Frustration builds up here at all the little half completed jobs or bodge job completions. There is actually a word for it in India – jugaad! Yes, they have a word that clearly recognises the Indian ability to not quite finish a job right or just to make it look on the surface all right!

Hilariously, when speaking in the past tense, my Hindi teacher tells me that most people speak in the Passive Voice e.g. Active voice – I built the wardrobe. Passive voice – The wardrobe was built by me. By using the active voice like in English, you are taking responsibility for the action, the person doing the action is more important than the action itself. In English, we usually only use the passive voice when the subject is not important only the object, for example in a report or a scientific experiment. In this case we normally omit the actor, ‘by me’ as the outcome or the c3IHv9bprocess is all you care about.

The grammar is exactly the same in Hindi but rather than use it in quite specific circumstances, people use it nearly all the time when speaking about the past. So therefore if you say, ‘John was collected from reception by me’, you are also saying, if John wasn’t meant to have been collected well its just not my fault!’ Culturally in-built grammatical responsibility avoidance! I laughed the day I heard that – as it was also the day that everyone had refused to take responsibility for their own actions in relation to our washing machine!

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Rangoli – a beautiful traditional sand art done outside of your door.

There are exceptions though – there are those who reject Jugaad and find the results of it equally as frustrating as myself and my husband do. For example the lovely lady, Marina who every week does rangoli for me outside me door. She is inspirational in her approach to simply living. They are exceptions however. Some of the guys my husband works with are these exceptions but on the other hand he shockingly realised that he had fundamentally altered the way his department works because he had assumed that the people in charge of completing certain elements of a project were well – responsible for completing that element of the project!

He outrageously assumed as a result that they then had a responsibility for making sure it came in on time and in budget. That assumption apparently left a whole room staggered and concerned that they would have to change the way they worked! Why would you be responsible for the element of a project that your team was solely working on? Crazy eh!

We have been in India now for more than 2 months and I guess we are beginning to move out of the honeymoon period, we are beginning to get an understanding of how the society we are living in works. Thus, we are beginning to see the fundamental cracks in society rather than just assuming that our own individual frustrations were isolated incidences. It is a hard dichotomy to get your head around – the reality of living in India but also just how warm and welcoming everyone is to you. Somehow you imagine that a people who do not consider completing things as promised, on time and to a high standard would therefore also be a mean hearted, selfish people but Indians are not like that. Indians are extremely warm hearted, caring and kind people. It is odd!

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Lovely garland maker who insisted he gave me a carnation after I took this picture!
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The sweetest little girl in the world with such an adorable smile.

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