Wednesday, 21 December 2011


A few months ago, I was attending a not-particularly-enthralling conference on skills development in India when my phone rang in the middle of the opening session. On the other end was a lady from an Indian TV production company.

"Hello sir," she chirruped, "I got your details from the organisers of the Short & Sweet theatre festival. We need a foreigner to appear in our programme. Can you come to our studios in an hour?"

She seemed genuinely perplexed when I explained that I had a job, was indeed in the middle of said job at present, and that in any case an hour's notice seemed a little bit ambitious given that getting anywhere at 10 am on a weekday in Delhi is pretty much guaranteed to take at least that long. Anyway, I politely declined, resisting the temptation to ask what the requirements were beyond being A Foreigner, and returned to the less-than-fascinating conference.

A couple of months later it happened again. This time it was during the theatre festival, and I was backstage about half an hour before curtain up. It was a different (though equally chirpy) lady from another production company. "Hello sir," she warbled, "I hear that you are a director and stage manager for the Short & Sweet theatre festival. We would like you to come on our programme about whether Indians are becoming less tolerant, to give a foreigner's perspective. Can you come to our studios in an hour?"

I explained patiently that yes, I was indeed stage managing the festival, and indeed was in the process of doing so at that very moment, so consequently I would not be able to accept her kind invitation. Again, she seemed quite perplexed that I would turn the opportunity down. I was tempted to ask why she thought I had any credentials or credibility on the subject of the programme, having only been in the country for a few months, but I had furniture to move around, so I hung up.

Many expats will be familiar with the phenomenon, living in a country that lacks a history of major immigration, of being feted by the media simply because you're from somewhere else. It happened in Korea too, but I suspect it is even more common in India because the language barriers are so much lower. Consequently you get approached for all kinds of things that would be unlikely to happen somewhere where English is less widely spoken.

Back in September, I was called by a director looking for an actor for his play, who needed to be Caucasian. I sent him my CV; he sent me the script. The part was for a fat man in his mid-50s. I called him back and suggested that it probably wasn't my casting. "Oh, that's ok," he said, "he just needs to be white."

Anyone who's lived in a country where most people are a different colour has, I am sure, a hundred tales like this to tell. You're left feeling bemused and ever so slightly affronted that the rich tapestry of wonders that make up your own enigmatic and sparkling personality can be so easily subsumed under one single characteristic that, in itself, is only important when it comes to deciding what factor sun lotion to use. But of course my whiteness - and everything it is seen as meaning - largely defines me to most people here, and that's just something I have to get used to again. And of course I'm very grateful that reactions to my difference almost always involve interest and engagement (even if sometimes rather clumsily expressed) rather than hostility.

And then there's the fact that, should the whole education thing not work out, I'm pretty sure I could make a good living here as an actor playing white people (whatever their age, width, height, features and quite possibly gender) and appearing on TV offering a "foreign perspective" on any subject I can summon up a few minutes' worth of bullshit on (which is quite a lot of subjects). It's good to know you have options.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Entertaining Madam President

Last night I participated in one of the most unusual carol concerts I've ever attended - certainly one of the most memorable. It took place in the ballroom of the Rashrapati Bhawan - the Presidential Palace - with the President of India, Pratibha Patil, in attendance. The carol concert takes place every year with several choirs from across the country invited to take part, and this year (for the second time) the choir I have recently joined, Capital City Minstrels, was included in the programme. Needless to say, I was quite excited at the opportunity to sing for a Head of State!

The palace itself was built towards the tail end of the British colonial period as the residence for the Viceroy of India, and became the President's residence on India's independence. I'm not particularly inspired by the exterior - or indeed by the rest of Lutyens' Delhi, as I've blogged before - which manages to combine squatness and pomposity (though, as a fellow chorister pointed out, it's still better than Buckingham Palace):

Sadly we weren't allowed to take cameras inside, so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say that the interior is much more pleasing. Of course it's all terribly grand, but somehow the proportions seem to work far better once you're inside, and the marriage of classical architecture with strong Indian influences is really stunning. The effect is only slightly marred by the red masking tape marking the edge of all the stairs (the original designers apparently having failed to realise that two white marble steps in the middle of a long white marble corridor is a recipe for unfortunate mishaps).

The ballroom itself, though, is quite simply one of the most gorgeous rooms I've ever been in. Mostly this is due to the paintings that cover the walls and ceiling, featuring scenes reminiscent of the best Mughal miniatures (though magnified rather a lot, obviously) surrounded by lovely arabesque floral designs. I spent quite a lot of the concert (when not singing) with my head back feasting on the beauty of it all. I felt enormously privileged to be able to do so.

Preparations for the concert were extensive - we arrived at 3 and didn't start singing until half past five - and organised by the Indian military (I presume the Presidential guard) with a technique that showed a great deal of respect for tight timing and absolutely no recognition of the practical matters of getting entire choirs on and off a stage. As a result we over-ran by nearly an hour, but good humour seemed to prevail.

Apart from our three numbers we had a mixed programme, including a couple of children's choirs (actually not bad) and a really amazing performance by a group called Voices of Hope, from Nagaland on the border with Myanmar, whose conductor Nise also plays piano for our choir and who has a heartbreakingly beautiful singing voice. There was also a group called the Delhi Syro-Malabar Mission, who sang a number in the Malayalam language from Kerala which, upbeat and highly enjoyable though it was, is, I fear, unlikely to be joining Silent Night and Jingle Bells on the list of Christmas classics any time soon:

Apparently, that little mouthful translates roughly as "Do re mi fa so la ti do...the holy light over the stable". Doesn't really trip off the tongue in either language.

Once the choirs were finished we had a Christmas message from the Cardinal of Ranchi, who rejoices in the superb name of Telesphore P Toppo. No, really. It's an even better name than Cardinal Sin. The evening was then slightly marred by the appearance of two very skinny santas wearing frankly terrifying masks, which of course put me immediately in mind of a certain episode of Dr Who and made me fear for the safety of everyone present:

Baffling, this. As a fellow singer pointed out, India hardly has a shortage of rotund gentlemen with white beards. The preference for skinny guys in hideous masks is something I can't really fathom.

To round off the evening we had a good old singalong, including the following verse of Jingle Bells. I can honestly say I have never heard this verse before, so I'm wondering if any of you have ever come across it. And what is the meaning of the word "upsot"? Answers on a postcard...

And the President? Well, she sat dutifully through it all, perched in splendid isolation immediately in front of the stage in a white armchair that seemed far too large (she is a tiny but dignified elderly lady). At the end she congratulated all the conductors and then posed for photos with all the choirs (I will post ours on here as and when it's sent). At one point one of the choirs sent up two of their members for a photo dressed as Mary and Joseph, at which point the President grabbed the Baby Jesus out of Mary's arms for an impromptu shot, which I thought was a nice touch. But it's rather hard to say how much she enjoyed it all. The presidential role here is largely ceremonial so I imagine she has to go to a lot of this kind of thing, and she maintained a fairly inscrutable expression. But it was an honour to perform for her, whatever her thoughts on the matter!

Altogether a truly memorable evening and one that reflects India's embracing of its many different cultures and creeds as well as its love of festival. Despite the rigid security, the inevitable formality of the event, and the fact that a majority of the people present were not Christian either by background or by belief, it was one of the most enjoyable Christmas events I've been to. And just the fact that it happens at all - hosted by the President of a country that is only about 2% Christian - is really quite beautiful. I feel lucky to have been there.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The significance of staff

The culture of having servants is one aspect of living in India with which I continue to struggle. I had seen this coming as long ago as my very first post, when my mini-struggle with Santosh the guard over who was going to open the gate when I arrived home ended in my abject surrender. I still find it difficult. I'm from a very ordinary, middle-middle-class background and I've never earned enormous amounts of money, so I still find the idea of having staff rather excruciating.

Not to say that it isn't also very nice. I love having a driver, for instance. Anil is absolutely brilliant. He knows everywhere, he manoeuvres us through the hellish Delhi traffic like a magician, and he's unfailingly good humoured and reliable. I try not to call him at weekends (when I prefer to use the metro or auto rickshaws) but there's no denying that he's made my working week massively easier.

I would also struggle without Vineeta, who keeps my apartment looking half-decent in the face of the constant Delhi dust. The place is big - too big for me, really, but I've been grateful for that when I've had friends visiting - and on top of work and my other commitments keeping it clean would be a challenge. One which, let's be honest, I'm not particularly inclined towards meeting in any case.

But these are very practical considerations. Vineeta and Anil make my life manageable and reflect how my life is different here from in London - a city where I wouldn't need a driver even if I could afford one, and where my tiny flat was perfectly manageable even for a non-domestically inclined person (read: bit of a slob) like me. What I've come to realise, though, is that having staff is less of a practical matter in India than I'd previously supposed. As much as anything else it's about status.

My landlord, for instance, finds it very bemusing that I don't have a cook. Now, I could take on a cook. But I'm very capable of cooking basic meals for myself, and when time or inclination does not allow, there's a wealth of cheap and tasty food available very easily. I don't keep a regular schedule, so having someone come and prepare my meals at set times is not terribly practical. And I'm very protective of my personal space. I can just about cope with knowing Vineeta is there every afternoon, but having a cook waiting for me when I arrive home is not a thought I relish.

The point is, I don't need a cook. But Mr Mehandru thinks it very important that I should have one anyway. I am, by default, a sahab here - I have a status in society that demands reflection in the number of staff I employ. A part-time maid and a driver just doesn't really cut it. I can't help feeling that my obstinate refusal to take on more employees reduces my status in Mr Mehandru's eyes.

The function of staff as a marker of status was starkly illustrated to me recently on a work visit to one of the government ministries. During the meeting, one of the officials mentioned a report that would be useful for our work, and offered to share it with us. Happy to accept, we followed him to his office after the meeting and sat down, expecting to have the report and be on our way in a couple of minutes.

Instead, he sat down behind his desk and telephoned a colleague, instructing her to come to his office. We then waited for 15 minutes, making awkward small talk, until his colleague turned up. She then sat down at the computer immediately behind our interlocutor, and began to search through his files.

After a while, it became very obvious that she had no idea what or where the report she was supposed to be locating was. After ten minutes of aimless wandering through file lists, she printed off what she hoped was the report and showed it to the official, who studied it for a minute before telling her that it was not what he wanted.

Five minutes more aimless searching followed before she was sent off to do something else by our helpful friend, who then sat down at the computer himself. Two minutes later, he had located and printed the report and we were on our way, me with steam coming out of my ears by the time I got to the safety of the car and was able to vent my frustration to the amusement of my colleague.

I think this was the biggest single example of culture clash I've come across here. For me, keeping professional contacts needlessly waiting in this way would be unthinkable. For the official, it was more important to emphasise his status - that he had people to do basic tasks like printing reports for him - than to get the required information quickly.

I find myself wondering what would be the impression if this were reversed. In the UK, most officials would surely just print the report off themselves if they knew that would be quickest. Would Indian visitors come away thinking they could not have been talking to anyone especially important if they had to do such basic things for themselves?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

How to intimidate the enemy

Borders are strange places. Coming from an island, I still find arbitrary delineations between different countries vaguely surreal. The fact that land tends to look pretty much the same on one side of the border as it does on the other reinforces how artificial even our most important constructs are. But if borders in general feel slightly unreal, the border between India and Pakistan, just west of Amritsar, is completely bizarre.

This wasn't my first time visiting a border between two countries with less-than-friendly relations. The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world, and a visit to Panmunjom, about 25 miles north of Seoul, is a must-do for most tourists to the South. At Panmunjom you can "walk into North Korea" by circling the negotiating table that sits exactly in the middle of one of the huts that straddle the border. Outside, the North and South Korean soldiers face off, wearing identical stern expressions but contrasting uniforms (the Northerners like something from the pages of a history book, the Southerners like something from Robocop). On the Northern side there are enormous letters attached to the landscape saying things like "Our General is Number One", and the picture is completed by two ludicrously large flagpoles (I believe the Northern one was until recently the tallest in the world, and the flag is so heavy that it never actually flies).

It's a fascinating but also rather sobering place to visit. The border closing ceremony at Wagah near Amritsar is equally fascinating but of another nature altogether. Here, two of the world's most jittery nuclear powers face off against each other - with a military display that's frankly as camp as a row of tents, accompanied by one of the most jubilant party atmospheres I have come across in India.

On either side of the road at the border, the authorities have erected enormous stands for the audience, who flock here in their thousands every evening to watch the show. On the Pakistani side the genders are strictly segregated; on the Indian side they mix freely and dance to the upbeat Bollywood tunes pumping out from the speakers (until the business gets underway, when they are told to sit down by the soldiers, who enforce this very strictly).

On both sides, a man with a microphone did the business of getting the crowd well and truly worked up, while dignified sari-clad ladies queued up to take their turn with one of a set of enormous Indian flags; once they got it, they ran up and down the road like schoolgirls with both flag and sari flapping crazily behind them.

You may have noticed the quite extraordinary headgear modelled by the Indian soldiers. I'm not sure the historical origin of these, and I have to admit that, extremely capable though I am sure the Indian army's finest are, I struggle to find them particularly intimidating in this get-up:

They are mirrored on the other side of the border by Pakistani soldiers in similar attire, although I can't help thinking that the more sober colours and big facial hair on display on the Pakistani side maybe achieve the desired effect rather more:

But the real show starts when these guys get moving. They wait in line for the real business of the evening to begin:

Then, on a given signal, two female soldiers from either side march with really quite astonishing speed - seriously, it looks like they are jet-propelled or have wind-up motors attached - to the border gates, which are ceremonially opened.

Then, two by two, the male soldiers reel off from each side and approach the gate themselves, at the same improbably fast clip, punctuated by high kicks that any chorus girl would be proud of. At the border they meet their Pakistani counterparts with a tightly choreographed display that's somewhere between a Haka and a tango. This goes on for about half an hour before the gates are finally slammed shut again. It all runs like clockwork and every move is executed with a degree of precision that the West End's choreographers would envy. And the whole while, the crowd on either side goes crazy, whooped into a chanting fury by the men with the microphones. 

There's no sense of hostility really, which is odd considering the history of relations between the two countries.  It's like one big party. And it's very evident from the way in which the two sides mirror precisely each others' actions that these guys must spend quite a bit of time rehearsing the whole thing together. I suspect that at quiet moments they probably have a gossip over a cup of chai.

Show over, we followed the throngs back away from the border and toward our waiting vehicle, reflecting on the odd ways of humanity and the strange ways in which nationalism manifests itself. The po-faced hostility at Panmunjom and the pomp and posturing at Wagah stem from similar situations of mutual distrust and unresolved conflict, but they could hardly be more different.

Borders really are strange places.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The drivers of Amritsar

"I have girlfriend. I ask her to marry me many, many times. But always she say no."

Tara, Matt and I made collective sympathetic noises. We were in a taxi on the way into Amritsar from the airport and the driver, Shubha, was proving to be something of a talker. After the usual interrogation about where we were from and what we thought of India, we had moved on to Shubha's own life. He was proud to be the only one working for his taxi company who could drive foreigners - "because only I am speaking English any" - so "I get the bigger tips, yes?" (the last with a hopeful sideways glance at Tara, who had the front seat).

Shubha's love life, though, clearly was not going as well as his business. So why, Tara politely enquired, had his proposals been rejected?

"Her family do not approve. They think is bad marriage. Because we are related."

There was a pregnant pause, punctuated only by the sound of Matt's foot hitting mine in the back seat as we exchanged a "did you hear that the same way I did?" glance. Tara, to do her credit, managed to carry on the conversation with only a slightly strangled tone.

", er, that's considered...a problem then?"

"Yes," Shubha said, sadly shaking his head, "in India is not considered good for relatives to marry."

"Oh. Um. Yes, that doesn't really happen in England either."

"Really?" Shubha perked up momentarily at this apparently surprising news, then slumped back into gloom. "I will never marry another. I will stay alone and I will keep asking her to marry me. When I am 70, if she needs me - I will be there."

None of us had the nerve to ask the question we were all thinking about: exactly how related were they? And Shubha looked so disconsolate about it all that we didn't really have the heart to push him further on the topic. He brightened up a bit when we changed the subject to the World Kabbadi championships, which were happening in Punjab at the time and in which India had just, unsurprisingly, trounced England.

Our encounter with Shubha may have been a trifle disturbing, but it was nothing compared to the auto rickshaw driver who picked us up outside the Golden Temple to take us back to the hotel the following day. What seemed at first to be a natural exuberance and cheerful disposition quickly transpired to be something verging on the lunatic - even for an Indian auto driver. With a grin permanently plastered on his face, he merrily weaved at full speed in and out of the traffic, looking mostly at us through the mirror rather than at the road, occasionally taking his hands off the wheel to salute passing friends. There was a maniacal glint in his eye that had me convinced, as we were thrown around in the back like puppets, that we might not make it back to the hotel alive.

We passed a roadside stall which particularly seemed to delight him. Pointing at it, he leaned back to face us (entirely failing to notice that he'd come within a whisker of flattening a stray dog) and yelled excitedly: "Bhang! You know??!"

For those who don't know (as I didn't at the time), Bhang is a cheap and potent intoxicant made from cannabis, which is legal and popular in India and is frequently consumed in a drink colloquially known as a bhang lassi. Matt, who's a bit more versed in the ways of India than I am, knew what our driver was talking about, and asked (understanding beginning to dawn) if he himself ever frequented said stall.

The driver gave a wicked laugh and said "Twice a day I am going! One in morning, one in evening!"

"'ve already had one today then?" An elderly lady in a faded sari flattened herself in terror against a wall as our rickshaw careened across her path.

"Hahahahahahahaha! Yes! Very good! I have one half an hour ago!" And on we rocketed, bouncing from one side of the road to the other, while our chauffeur continued to laugh in delight at our discomfiture.

I will never, ever, criticise Delhi auto drivers again. They may drive like nutters, but at least they are not usually high as a kite when doing so.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The wonderful and weird temples of Amritsar

My recent weekend visit to Amritsar with visiting friends Tara and Matt wasn't as intense an experience as Varanasi, but I did get to explore two of the city's temples that provide a lesson in contrast reflecting the astonishing diversity of religion in India.

The first, and by far the best known, is the city's most famous landmark (and indeed probably India's best known building after the Taj Mahal: the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine and an island of tranquility in the middle of the heaving city. Its name evokes exoticism and spirituality in equal measure, and it lives up to the hype. We visited twice, and the experience of seeing the temple at night, glittering in the middle of its holy lake, is the one that will stay with me. There can't be many man-made sights as beautiful.

Sikhism is famously inclusive, and everyone is welcome to visit the temple. There are some requirements: you have to remove your shoes and wash your hands and feet before you enter, and your head must be covered. Not just any old which way, either: a cap doesn't cut it, which means Matt and I had to wear the less-than-flattering orange headscarves provided specially. Of course, women have it way easier since they have any number of lovely, graceful scarf options, whereas us blokes end up looking like reject from a pantomime Dutch pirate ship:

Ludicrous headgear or not, though, it was definitely one of my best "touristy" experiences in India. The place is heaving - with pilgrims and tourists both Indian and foreign - but unlike similarly crowded places elsewhere, there was no hassle at all. What struck me most was the hush that held over the crowd despite their sheer numbers. Getting across the causeway to the temple took us a good 40 minutes of shuffling, packed armpit-to-nose with hundreds of devotees. Ordinarily this would induce feelings of claustrophobic panic in me, but I had no issues here - the atmosphere is just too calm and friendly. I can understand why, sadly, the place is a target for pickpockets - it's a very disarming experience being surrounded by huge numbers of people but having a real sense of peace at the same time.

The causeway to the temple...not exactly a solitary experience

All of this is quite hard to reconcile with the temple's recent history, having been the site of one of independent India's worst atrocity in the form of Indira Gandhi's botched Operation Blue Star, a military assault to remove Sikh separatists from the temple in 1984 which caused over 500 deaths (some say thousands), led to horrendous communal violence and brought about Gandhi's assassination. But walking around the wide, white marble pathway that surrounds the lake, it seems inconceivable that such violence could have occurred here. Another paradox of India.

The second temple is less iconic, less historic and less beautiful, but in many ways more intriguing: the Mata cave temple, dedicated to the 20th century female saint Lal Devi. Before going there I assumed "cave temple" meant it was in a cave, but actually it's in a regular building. What makes it cave-like is that the whole place is built as a winding, circuitous route in and out of tiny rooms and enclaves, walls and ceilings covered in glittering coloured glass, past numerous icons and shrines, and even requiring at times that you crawl through tunnels and wade through water. Getting through the whole thing takes a good half hour - it seems to go on forever.

And I spotted a familiar figure whose appearance had perplexed me so much at the National Museum when I'd only been in India a few weeks:

Much of the significance of all of this was, naturally, lost on us, but it was certainly a spectacularly bizarre place of worship. Many of the locals seemed to share our sentiments - there were at least as many snapping photos and giggling as there were paying homage to the various statues (we snapped a few photos but steered clear of the giggling).

It might be profane to say it, but the place reminded me of nothing so much as a Hindu-themed version of the fun houses you used to get in the travelling fairground that came to my home town every year - in places it even had the same rattly, texturised metal flooring that I remember from them. And the atmosphere was an odd fusion of religious devotion with a fun day out for all the family. It's not the first time here that I've felt a little bit queasy about balancing my fascination as a visitor with the knowledge that I'm in a place of worship rather than a tourist attraction.

But this is one of the things I kind of envy about India - its religious heritage is just so much more interesting than ours. The Church of England is a fine, respectable organisation in many respects. But it doesn't produce churches that remind you of fairground rides, does it?

Friday, 2 December 2011

India's garbage: there is hope

Anyone who has spent much time in Indian towns and cities will know that garbage management is not a forte here. While the plush bits of Delhi and the major tourist attractions are generally kept sparkling clean, elsewhere it's a different story. In places, it's not uncommon for the piles of rubbish lying on the streets to get so big that passing vehicles have to swerve to avoid them, and pedestrians are well-accustomed to having to step over all manner of nastiness to go about their business.

Why is this a problem for India? Partly because the country is undergoing rapid urbanisation, and the kind of infrastructure necessary to keep the impact of spiralling city populations to a minimum is just not in place - not to mention a shortage of funds that can only be exacerbated by the country's corruption problems. But this doesn't explain everything. Even in smaller towns, the same issues arise, and on my road trip in Kerala earlier this year I witnessed stretches of semi-rural roads with garbage lined up along either side for kilometres at a time. So is there something more fundamentally problematic in Indian attitudes towards their public spaces?

That seems to be what the people behind the Ugly Indian initiative in Bangalore think. I read about this on the BBC a couple of days ago: a group of anonymous volunteers who meet up via social networking and email, to clean up Bangalore one street at a time. By the looks of it they are having considerable success.

What I find interesting about this story is that it both confirms and challenges some stereotypes about India. The country is, in Western minds, inextricably linked with dirt and poor hygiene - a very common reaction when I told people I was moving here was "don't get sick", and recently the movie Eat, Pray, Love caused outrage here when a character was advised not to touch anything after coming to India. It would be foolish to pretend there isn't some truth in this, though I've been here nearly six months now without having any major problems (a slight upset following my trip to Varanasi aside).

The organisers of the Ugly Indian initiative seem to acknowledge that this is a real problem with attitudes, not just a symptom of a developing country: the mission is rooted in an attempt to "understand the Indian mind and attitude towards cleanliness" and "outwit him/her with clever solutions". This positions it not just as a matter of picking up litter, but actively combating everyday Indians who neglect the cleanliness of their environment.

So the "dirty" stereotype has some justification. But at the same time, the development of this initiative shows that society here is a lot more innovative and dynamic than it is sometimes credited with being, and that there is a healthy sense of community spirit. Before coming here I read Pavan K Varma's brilliant Being Indian, in which he argues that Hindu spirituality, which emphasises individual approaches to God, and a linked social structure based on tight family units and rigid social divisions, has led to a country disinclined to evangelism and aggressive expansionism, but also inward-looking and lacking in community sentiment. There's maybe something in this - but I find it hard to reconcile with an initiative so selfless as the Ugly Indian.

The most astonishing thing is the anonymity. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think even the most altruistic initiatives in the West wouldn't take this approach (I'm not talking about anonymous charity donation, which is a bit different I think, but active community initiatives). But here it has been seen as a big factor behind the success - maybe (and I'm just speculating) because it frees the participants from the traditional sense of shame about engaging in the menial and dirty activities reserved for the low castes.

Whatever the reasons for its success, I hope London and other UK cities are looking at this as an inspiration (I'm sure, as a colleague of mine pointed out, that Mr Cameron would just love to have this kind of "Big Society" initiative take off in the UK). I also hope that Indian activists like Anna Hazare (the anti-corruption campaigner and hunger striker whose approach I'm not the biggest fan of) take a look and maybe reflect on the fact that if an issue isn't made into a personal promotion, it allows everyone to focus on what's really important.

But most of all, I hope the initiative spreads to Delhi and that I can join in the clean up. Anonymously, of course.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Yes, you did read that right

I was in Amritsar recently (on which more to come) and couldn't help but notice that the place was plastered with posters for a movie with a title which, for European visitors, was rather eyebrow-raising:

Um, what? Let's have a closer look:

Yep, that's right. The big Punjabi movie hit of this season glories in the name Hero Hitler in Love.

Naturally I had to investigate this, so after taking the above snaps I got online to check the film out. Apparently, in the movie, "Hitler is a man with unique and different thoughts who loves his fellow villagers and helps them unite their soul mates."

So just to clarify, then, we're not talking about the most notorious psychotic mass-murdering dictator of the twentieth century. We're talking about a sweet, admirable and quirky Punjabi villager.

Called Hitler.

Anyway, apparently Hitler falls in love (the title kind of gives it away) and, although he believes in solving problems by talking about them, something happens that makes him decide to "become real Adolf Hitler".

Now, I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know if it features a Punjabi villager invading half of Europe and slaughtering millions of Jews, disabled people, gypsies and homosexuals (all in the name of love, of course). One can only presume not, which begs the question of what "becoming real Adolf Hitler" involves for Punjabi audiences.

Oh, and apparently Hitler is also an entrant in the Asian Car Racing competition. You read it here first.

I'm trying to imagine an equivalent film being released in the UK, called, oh I don't know, Pol Pot Gets His Groove Back, without uproar. I find it difficult.

I'm reminded of an incident when I was in Korea, when a Nazi-themed bar opened in Seoul, complete with swastikas and imperial German eagles, with staff all (in)appropriately dressed as SS officers and storm troopers. The resident expat community was horrified, but many Koreans simply couldn't understand what the fuss was about. It was just a fun bar with a historical theme. The idea that events that occurred in Europe sixty years ago could still resonate enough to cause deep offence came as a surprise to many, not least the bar's owners who thought they'd hit on a great marketing ploy. (Of course, this neutralisation of history would never apply to, say, the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, which ended in 1945).

In the West, we are educated about Hitler and the Holocaust from a young age. He is more than a historical hate figure: he is someone whose crimes have been personalised for all of us from the first time we read about Anne Frank. He is, of course, not immune to being the object of humour. But while we may laugh at him and about him, he is rarely trivialised. We can't let ourselves forget the magnitude of his evil.

So it's unsurprising that, for me, the movie and its complacent plot description stick in the gullet. But then, of course, it's not Indian history. Hitler's name might be universally associated with evil, but the strength of that association varies a lot depending on where you are. And political correctness is probably less well established in the movie industry of Punjab than in the BBC studios or in Hollywood.

Ignorance is as ignorance does, of course. Few Brits know about the history of India, including that bit of it where we played an inglorious role. So it's hard to get very upset about a lack of sensitivity on the part of Indian film makers (or, for that matter, Korean bar owners) towards Europeans' historical hang-ups. But the Punjabis' lovestruck, heroic Hitler is another example of how, globalisation or no, the world according to Indians and Europeans looks very, very different.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Busy, busy bee

My appalling neglect of my blog recently has, you will be happy to know, actually quite a decent excuse behind it: I have been busy developing a social life. Of course, me being me, I don't do this the easy way (find a friend of a friend, meet up for a coffee) - I do it the way that effectively involves taking on a second, pretty demanding, job for two weeks. I've just finished being stage manager for most of Delhi's Short & Sweet festival, a celebration of short theatre (10 minute plays) that had a week's run at the Epicentre in Gurgaon and a week at the India Habitat Centre.

Theatre types are much the same everywhere: expansive, fun, creative, at times highly exasperating, but always stimulating and never forgettable. I've been involved in theatre one way or another since university, but particularly since 2005 when I moved to Holland having already manged to land myself a plum role as "Villager Number One" in the local panto. Since then I've been to (and dropped out of) drama school, appeared in any number of plays of varying intellectual pedigree, and when not on stage have made myself variously useful as director, props manager, front of house manager and general dogsbody (basically, anything that doesn't require me to know how to make any machinery do clever things, which is not my bag).

So it was a bit disappointing on moving to Delhi to learn that this is not a theatrical city. Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai - all are known  for their thriving performing arts scenes. But Delhi, I was told, was a city of bureaucrats and shopkeepers: a city where audiences chat on their mobile phones during performances and a curtain call is a decision you make when redecorating the living room. After my failed attempt to find a theatrical performance shortly after moving here I had almost given up on getting the chance to indulge my thespian side. So it was very exciting for me to spot a poster for the festival, asking for scripts, actors and directors to step forward. I may have got a little carried away, because next thing I knew I was volunteering not only to direct the script I entered, but to manage things backstage too.

Stage managing is exhausting. Particularly when you are coordinating not just one cast, but eleven in a single evening. With eleven different sets to be organised, and changeovers between the shows to be achieved in 30 seconds or less (which, apart from the first night, I think we pretty much hit). The stage management team was at every tech, faithfully marking the stage to ensure we placed all the sets correctly on performance night, and only moaning a little bit when we got to the theatre the following night to find the cleaners had helpfully removed all the little bits of tape. And while the actors only had ten minutes of performance to worry about, we were on for the entire night, shuffling furniture around and occasionally hissing at an over-excited actor in the wings to shut up.

Not that I'm complaining. As is generally the case when doing theatre, I met some really amazing people and got a huge buzz from being part of a collective creative endeavour. It's so good to be back doing something I love and to have met people who want to follow up with more projects (though I'm hoping the next one is a bit less all-consuming of my spare time).

And I got to direct too, which I have to admit was probably biting off, if not more than I could chew, then at least more than was easily digestible. But working with talented actors on my own script was just immensely rewarding (though the script itself may have been a little off-the-wall for Indian tastes - which I've noted for next year's effort).

Here are two of my brilliant cast, Vidushi and Akshay, mid-performance. I'm particularly proud that I managed to put two very attractive people on stage in utterly revolting clothes (integral, you understand, to the plot). Friends from uni may possibly recognise Akshay's tank top, which I have kept hold of since the 70s party in freshers' week in the firm conviction that one day I would be able to use it in a play. Vindicated!

So how does theatre in Delhi compare to London? Well, I have to admit I quickly realised how spoiled I have been by London's sheer variety of venues, technical capacity, and diverse theatrical scene. Our venues were conference centres rather than "proper" theatres, and while India has a wealth of performing arts to offer, Delhi theatre lacks the richness and variety of a multicultural place like London (though the festival itself was extremely diverse, ranging from minimalistic, dialogue-driven dramas to expressive pieces making more use of music and movement than words). But in terms of the dedication and the passion for theatre shown by those who worked to put on the show, Delhi is right up there. And there's something special about putting on theatre in a city where it's still something of a rarity. It was a privilege to be involved. Here's to the next one.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Is it just me, or is this just...scary?

If you're lucky enough to have visited the Indian state of Kerala, you will know that it's not a hard place to promote as a tourist destination. It's famously gorgeous, has a beautifully laid back feel, truly fantastic food, and a local culture that's both interesting and open. It's also one of the wealthiest states in the country with some of the best developed infrastructure, making travel there a stress-free experience compared to some of the more chaotic parts of India.

What I remember best about Kerala is the colours. Much of North India is rather arid, and the cities (Delhi included, though I've commented before about the richness of colour to be found here) tend to feature rather a lot of grey-brown concrete. In Kerala, the fabrics worn by locals are as dazzling as elsewhere in India, but they shimmer against a backdrop of blue skies, lush green palm trees and rice paddies, sparkling seas, long expanses of sand and brightly painted boats. I haven't made it to the famed Kerala backwaters yet, but from what I've seen they continue the theme.

All of which makes Kerala Tourism's latest promotional campaign seem rather bizarre. Ignoring its natural bounty of beauty and colour, the authorities have invested in a series of frankly weird images that, while they capture the imagination, don't exactly make me desperate to go to Kerala. Here's an example, which appeared in this week's Economist:

Now, I think I understand the logic behind this. Kerala doesn't want to be just another "sun, sea and saris" destination; it doesn't want to be another Goa (which has every reason to view tourism as a mixed blessing). And clearly they were going for an ad campaign that was more than just another snapshot of a couple of palm trees on a beach, and which reflected something of the state's cultural offerings. Something eye-catching and different.

OK, mission accomplished. Except that the result is plain scary, and the muted colour scheme - bordering on the depressing - doesn't seem to me to reflect vibrant, uplifting Kerala. It looks like one of the darker panels from the Sandman series (which I've just finished re-reading and which hasn't got any less amazing). I mean, "your moment is waiting"? What moment? The moment when that terrifying white-faced guy with  no eyes drags me off to unspeakable horrors? Because that's what he's going to be doing tonight in my dreams. I understand they want to show another side to the place, to give it more depth - but couldn't they have done it without giving everyone the willies?

So what do you think? Does this make you want to visit Kerala? Or run away from the scary man with no eyes?

(Just to show you what I mean, here are a couple of photos I took in Kerala in January - I didn't have a whole lot of time so they are not that good, but they give you an idea...)

Monday, 7 November 2011

Varanasi: beauty and brutality

A little over a week ago I made a weekend trip with friends to Varanasi, in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. It's taken me this long to be ready to write about the experience, because Varanasi is one of the most intense travel experiences you can have. A regular stop on the Indian backpacking trail, this is the India I had mentally prepared for before I first came, and about whose whereabouts I've been vaguely wondering ever since. By turns staggeringly gorgeous and utterly filthy, joyously celebrational and ruthlessly predatory, Varanasi can elevate your soul and depress your spirits several times over before you've even had time to have your breakfast.

It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and is generally thought to be the oldest in India. And it feels ancient. Along the Ganges the buildings are piled on top of each other like discarded building bricks. Men and women crouch in the shallows of the river to wash clothes, and the stretched-out saris drying in the sun turn the banks into a giant, multi-coloured chessboard. At dawn and dusk, local brahmins carry out the ritual of paying homages to the Ganges, watched by an enormous crowd of excited tourists, hushed locals and an array of hawkers, beggars and others on the make. And all day long the funeral pyres at the "burning ghats" flicker and smoke, and a continuous procession of mourners accompany their loved ones on their last visit to the river. In many ways, it seems like life here is much as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago - a least, until you venture away from the ghats and alleyways of the old town and find yourself firmly back in honking, chaotic, in-your-face modern India.

And let's be honest: if Delhi can be grubby in places, Varanasi is downright filthy. A walk along the Ganges (at least in the current post-monsoon season) involves a series of athletic leaps over massive piles of pungent mud, punctuated at intervals by patient locals diligently slooshing the grime away with hosepipes. Metres from where children happily splash about and pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges, a line of men squats, their buttocks exposed to the passing boats, blithely defecating into India's holiest river. And every now and then the corpse of someone whose family could not afford the burning ghat - or who had no family to pay for it at all - bobs up next to a jetty or boat, ignored and forgotten. Varanasi is not for the faint hearted.

Nor is it for the delicate. There is a hard edge here, in one of India's poorest and most crime-affected states, that you would be foolish to ignore. One of my travelling companions was hassled by local thugs who claimed that she was required to pay money to watch a funeral procession (which is nonsense). We were all harangued by the local kids and beggars (though not as badly as I had been expecting, to be honest) and by any number of men desperate to take us on a boat trip. Of course most people I interacted with were as friendly as everywhere else I've been in India, but still I felt a certain underlying unease. For the first time in India I found myself consciously worrying about how easily straying hands might find my wallet.

And yet for all of this Varanasi is an oddly tranquil place. Floating down the Ganges at dawn, watching the sky turn pink in the empty East as the tumble down buildings of the city take shape and the day's work begins at the water's edge, the craziness seems far away and the stresses of life seem to vanish. Watching the hubbub on the shore feels like looking at a far off picture of a simpler world. Docking for a while to watch the evening puja at the water's edge is like touching something older and more profound than anything in the cathedrals of the West. Without really understanding why, you feel that there is such depth in this city.

And it's that depth that made it such a fascinating place to visit. Varanasi is far from paradise, but in its beauty and brutality, its spirituality and depravity, it's a place that houses all the extremes of human existence at once. It's all of life in one city, and it stops you in your tracks. It's like nowhere else I've ever been.

I've put quite a few photos on facebook for those of you who are friends with me on there - but here's a selection for those of you who aren't.