Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Slut Walk comes to Delhi

You may have seen on the news that the Slut Walk reached Delhi today (if you don't know what the Slut Walk is, click here). I was intrigued at how this very Western phenomenon would take shape in India, so I dragged myself out of bed ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and took myself up to the centre of town.

The event has been given a second name here: the "Besharmi Morcha", which translates as "shame walk" rather than the more confrontational English name. This in itself is rather interesting. There are plenty of words in Hindi that would be a fairly accurate translation of the word "slut", but the organisers clearly felt that for one reason or another they would not be appropriate. I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of this here, but there is a really interesting blog post by an Indian writer here, which connects this to the (undeniably true) assertion that the walk in India (as elsewhere) has made by far its biggest impact among the professional, educated elite rather than the poor and marginalised who are the biggest victims of sex-related crime.

Controversies about the event itself aside, there was no doubting the sincerity of the participants (around 300-400 showed up). Interestingly, there were at least as many men as women and I would estimate that the volunteers organising the walk were about three-fifths male. Unlike elsewhere, there was very little flesh on display: the participants wore mainly jeans and t-shirt or salwar kameez, or if they were really daring, shorts, while the organisers wore sober white t-shirts:

This was no surprise: Delhi remains far more conservative than the other cities where walks have taken place, and in any case any outrageously dressed walkers would have distracted from the more important messages about violence against women, a notoriously severe problem here. This point was emphasised when a rather statuesque German lady showed up wearing a sleeveless top with the word "slut" scrawled on her arm. She would have attracted no attention in London, but the Delhi photographers swarmed after her like wasps at a picnic.

Participants had clearly been encouraged to create their own slogans and make their own placards. There were some interesting results, from the pithy:

To the sincere, but maybe slightly wordy:

To the slightly surreal:

To some rather tortuous pop culture references:

While some of the chaps on the walk came over as a little confused...

There were also some very telling placards that highlighted the difference in issues faced by women in India to those in the countries where previous Slut Walks have taken place: I doubt London or Toronto saw any signs reading "Don't Side With Foeticide".

The media seemed unsure of what to make of it. Most of the interviews I saw taking place were with the various (mainly female) foreigners who had shown up, including the aforementioned Teutonic Goddess. One rather camp man with a floppy fringe got a lot of attention by becoming highly animated whenever he had a camera pointing at him. "I have a message for such men," I overheard him say at least three times, "Get some libido-suppressing pills!" I would have thought that local women would get more attention, but on the evidence of what I saw, they were not the priority.

The walk itself was over in about fifteen minutes, after which there was an energetic piece of street theatre (all in Hindi, but the message was pretty clear):

And that was it. Gradually the crowd dispersed, placards having been waved and slogans chanted.

I'm not sure what the event achieved in the end. There will be a fair amount of media coverage, but there was no direct engagement with any policy makers or other leaders. But I think the criticisms in the blog I linked to at the start of this post are more pertinent: the Delhi event may have had some important things to say, but in taking its inspiration from a movement that started in Canada and spread to the UK, the Netherlands and Australia it's questionable how relevant it is for the vast majority of Indian women, who face a different set of issues.

The position of women in India is complex. Certainly the notion that women can hold powerful positions is not unknown here. Indira Gandhi was one of the twentieth century's most powerful and longest-serving leaders of either gender; and the city of Delhi as well as the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (together accounting for about a third of the country's population) are led by women. The president, the speaker of the lower house, and the leader of the opposition are all female. And then of course there's Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and, according to Forbes magazine, the ninth most powerful person in the world.

But the world of politics is a rarefied one, and it often bears little resemblance to the daily lives of a country's citizens - particularly, it seems, in India. Whatever qualities they may have as individuals, it can't be denied that many female leaders here - including both the Mrs Gandhis - would be unlikely to have reached the positions they did were they not member of powerful ruling clans. This is not to downplay their achievements once in office, but it would be a mistake to think that the existence of these powerful women reflects a society in which opportunity is open to all regardless of gender.

Indian girls have it tough even before they are born. The most recent census indicates that the gender balance has swung alarmingly in favour of males in recent years: for every 1000 boys born here, there are now only 914 girls. In Haryana, it's just 861. Apart from the social problems India is setting up for itself by creating millions of future young men who are unable to find wives (already foreshadowed in the existence of people smuggling operations bringing in brides from Bangladesh and West Bengal), what's even more disturbing is the evidence that rising prosperity may actually be making things worse. As wealth and education rise one might think that an enlightened approach to gender relations might take root, but in practice it gives access to more sophisticated technologies to determine the sex of a foetus and to take action as a result (such practices are strictly illegal but still widespread).

If a girl manages to be born, she still faces a society where domestic violence, rape and abuse are all too common. Attitudes towards women are so ingrained that the perpetrators of such acts are significantly often themselves women, particularly when it comes to "dowry deaths" - when newlywed women are murdered by their husband's family for bringing insufficient cash and goodies with them when they enter into the marriage. (The practice of dowry really is repugnant, and reflects the degree to which women are devalued - it is essentially considered necessary to bribe a man's family to get him to take a woman as his wife.) Of course, as always with India, you have to beware of generalisations: things vary a great deal from state to state. But there's no denying that its treatment of its women is a stain on India.

Things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Two generations of Indian women have grown up under democracy, and those who have also had the benefit of an education are demanding a different world. I recently finished reading Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai, one of the angriest books I have ever read, which portrays the situation of women in Punjab through the tale of a young girl accused of a multiple murder and a social worker's efforts to uncover the truth. There's a heartbreaking scene that has the girl and her sister discover the skeletal hand of a baby buried in their backyard - their sister, murdered by a family that only wanted boys.

Books like these and events like the slut walk are part of a growing movement calling for change. The government, too, is doing its part: it has reserved 33 percent of seats in local democratic bodies for women, and is trying to do the same at the national level (I'm not a fan of quotas like these as I don't think they get to the root of the problem, but it is at least action), and it has invested in a public awareness campaign including posters like this one I spotted at a bus stop a couple of weeks ago:

This litany of challenging issues helps explain why the women on the Delhi walk dressed conservatively, and why the word "slut" was not translated: questions of what women can wear and what language is used may be important, but they are hardly the top of the agenda here. Ultimately, calling the event the "Slut Walk" seems really just to have been a way to get it more attention - it was really a protest against sexual violence in general, a related but different message to its forebears elsewhere in the world. Sadly, though, without the "slut walk" tag it would never have attracted as much publicity as it did - partly because of the controversial term and the (unfulfilled) prospect of scantily clad participants, and partly because the participants themselves were attracted to being part of a global, progressive movement as well as to making a statement about gender relations in India.

But you have to wonder if poor, marginalised and illiterate women in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar are going to have their lives changed by misnamed "slut walks" by privileged city dwellers, government posters and angry books. And how exactly does one go about changing the mindsets of over 600 million men who have been raised to believe they should be in charge of a wife - a wife they will find it increasingly hard to find?

Friday, 29 July 2011

Vineeta is Unwell

I had a meeting on Wednesday afternoon near my flat, so ended up coming home from work a bit earlier than usual. Vineeta, my maid, was there when I arrived (I could tell by her flip flops outside the door) but when I walked into the flat she was nowhere to be seen. Until, that is, I very nearly tripped over her prone body lying on the floor of my living room.

I'm fairly sure she had decided that she needed a lie down, rather than actually fainted, but when she realised I was there and jumped to her feet she looked truly dreadful - drawn face, unhealthy sheen, coughing, the works. Vineeta was clearly not a well lady.

Despite her clearly fragile state of health she was clearly embarrassed to have been caught lying down on the job and to my great consternation immediately set about cleaning my bedroom. Having tried to communicate that she should go home, I ran down and brought up Anil, our driver, to provide translation. It took some doing, but eventually Vineeta agreed to take a couple of my ibuprofen and go home, and I asked Anil to drop her home. (He told me later on that she did no such thing, but carried on to the next house she was due to work at.)

Anyway, Vineeta didn't turn up on Thursday so I assumed she had wisely decided to take a day off and recover. However, she arrived at my flat this afternoon as my colleague Rajat and I were busy planning round my dining room table. She looked, if anything, even worse, and told Rajat she had not been to the doctor's. Rajat and I set about trying to get her to do so.

What a struggle. First she refused point blank (in between coughs). Then she said she'd go home after she'd done the breakfast washing up. Then she finished the washing up and started sweeping the floor (after which she would go home). Next thing I knew she was wiping down the surfaces. There was another Talk. She agreed to go to the doctor's, then two minutes later was in my bedroom gathering up the laundry.

At this point I decided direct communication was necessary, marched into the bedroom, took the laundry from Vineeta and said "out!" loudly. She giggled, coughed and left the room. Two minutes later I had to repeat this process when she made another assault on the kitchen surfaces.

Getting Vineeta to stop cleaning and go and attend to her health was starting to make the US debt ceiling negotiations look like a co-operative little chat.

Lengthy negotiations with Rajat followed. After repeated guarantees that (1) I wouldn't fire her; (2) I wouldn't report her to her other employers; and (3) I wouldn't dock her pay, Vineeta finally agreed to go do the doctor instead of finishing off her shift at my flat. I gave her 150 rupees to cover the cost of the prescription (Vineeta does not make much money and has an unknown number of relatives depending on her for income), and made her promise to take it as easy as possible. We also made her promise to show us the prescription when she returns to work (since otherwise there was every possibility she would skip the doc's and give the 150 rupees to her family).

I really hope she went to the doctor, and I really hope her other employers recognise how ill she is and cut her some slack. From her point of view, she can't risk losing her income with her family relying on her - hence my battles to get her to lay down tools. Of course if she doesn't get herself well she is taking an even bigger risk with her income, but you can understand why that doesn't hold much weight with Vineeta.

Sick leave is an unaffordable luxury if your family is depending on you to eat and your employers are under no obligation to keep you on a day longer than they feel like. Life here can be very unforgiving.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Sensory overload in Old Delhi

What with all the excitement this week I never got around to posting about last weekend's bit of exploration. It was a return trip this time, to what is commonly know as "Old Delhi", though it is in fact substantially younger than a lot of the bits of the city I have already written about.

Old Delhi grew up as Shahjahanabad in the 17th century, to the west of the Red Fort, and was the last capital of the Mughal empire. It's the birthplace of the Urdu language and in its day was apparently a graceful city full of beautiful palaces and serene canals.

That's hard to imagine these days. After my first visit in January, when I battled up and down the main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, and left feeling more sweaty and tense than anything else, I was far from sure that I wanted to go back. But, aware that I hadn't really given the area much of a chance to endear itself to me, I decided to give it a go.

Old Delhi is the very antithesis of it southern neighbour, New Delhi, with its wide open spaces and grand airs. It is crowded, frenetic, intimidating and overwhelming. Everywhere you look, people are engaged in commercial activity. Everything is on sale in Old Delhi, much of it concentrated in highly specific bazaars, so that if you know where to go you can be sure to find what you are looking for. The people are different here: raucous, pushy and occasionally a bit dodgy: this is the only place in Delhi where I have found myself consciously keeping an eye on my bag. The kids elsewhere in the city stare at me; here, they ran after me down the street calling me a rascal (at least, I think that's what they were calling me).

The street layout of Old Delhi is a true labyrinth. There's no point trying to navigate; you just have to wander where your feet take you and trust that eventually you will emerge somewhere near a recognisable landmark. That is if you survive without being run over by a bike, scooter, rickshaw or wagon, all of which career along the narrow alleys like they're on the M1 and only stop when absolutely forced to (usually because they are in each other's way):

The buildings are mostly twentieth century and uninspired, though every now and again Old Delhi taunts you with a hint at the beautiful architecture of its past that lingers in scraps in its present:

There must be a thousand secret routes through the streets of old Delhi. Apart from the alleys and lanes themselves, mysterious flights of stairs hint at first-floor walkways, and countless gateways lead to hidden courtyards. A favourite scam played on foreigners here is to offer to guide them to some sight and then lead them down into the bowels of Shahjahanabad to rob them, knowing that however fast they are they will never manage to negotiate the maze to catch up with a fleeing mugger. Unsurprisingly, this generally works.

In the middle of all of this sits one of the greatest treasures of Delhi: the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque (and given that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, there are some big mosques here). It is enormous - it takes about twenty minutes to circumnavigate - yet the surrounding streets are so densely packed that finding it proved trickier than I had anticipated. Eventually, though, the alleys gave way to the ochre minarets and white domes of the mosque, sitting serenely amid the maelstrom:

The serenity doesn't last long though, because right outside the main entrance to the mosque is the Meena Bazaar, one of the busiest wholesale markets in the city. The view from the mosque down the wide steps and boulevard leading up to it is like looking at an Indian Where's Wally ("Where's Wali"?):

It was a slow day down the shops.

I have to admit that braving the crowds was a bit of a challenge for me (as anyone who's been on the tube with me at rush hour knows, I'm not all that great with lots of people in close proximity). But once I'd done so there were just too many extraordinary sights, sounds and smells to worry about claustrophobia. I was particularly taken with the stalls selling an extraordinary diversity of nuts, scattered in heaps on cloths spread out on the ground:

And the rather lovely kites on sale, fluttering on lines above the busy shoppers' heads, also caught my eye:

But my absolute favourite was a mystery to me. Slightly removed from the main drag, a rather portly gentleman had set himself up next to a waterlogged parking area. In front of him was a huge bubbling cauldron filled with a reddish-brown sludge, and arranged around him like a defensive wall were around 20 pots of various spices and nuts. Speaking in a gravelly, hoarse voice, he kept up a constant salesman's patter to a crowd of some forty men like some kind of Indian Frank Butcher. Every now and then one of his assistants would get up and add something else to the swampy concoction, on which the eyes of the crowd were fixed like glue:

Sadly, after four classes my Hindi is not quite up to following such rapid-fire hard sell, but I did catch a few mentions of the words for "Indian", "children" and "boy". Given that all the watching crowd were male, I'm hazarding a guess that the pots of goo he doled out when his pitch was over were intended to boost fertility, and in particular to guarantee conception of a son. I could be wrong (if anyone knows any better please enlighten me!) but whatever the purpose of the product was, it was a fascinating spectacle.

Anyway, I left Old Delhi for the second time feeling rather more positively disposed towards it. I would still go back there with a certain amount of apprehension and with a careful eye on my possessions and moving objects in the thoroughfare. But I will go back, because it can't be denied that this Delhi is the most vividly, excitingly alive of all the Delhis I've seen so far. You just have to take a deep breath, dump the map and jump on in.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A brush with the law

If I made Haryana sound boring in my last post, I apologise for the misconception. My brief visit there ended up being one of the more eventful couple of days of my sojourn in India so far. Not really in a good way.

To begin with: this was pretty much my fault. I'm aware that it's a good idea to have your passport on you when travelling anywhere in India that involves staying overnight. I'm aware that a state close to the border with Pakistan has particular reason to be tight on security regulations. And I'm aware that things are particularly edgy at the moment given recent events in Mumbai.

However, despite being aware of all these things, I managed to leave my passport in my flat when we set out for Sirsa.

When we first arrived at the hotel in Hisar and I was asked for my passport and visa, I thought it would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. After explaining that it was in Delhi, and being vouched for by the people I was travelling with (mostly Indian, all of highly respectable professional organisations), I left my contact details and promised to send my visa and passport numbers as soon as I was back in Delhi so they could fill in the forms. Feeling a bit silly for the oversight, I had a light dinner and headed up to my room to write Monday night's blog post and then headed to bed.

At six o'clock on Tuesday morning I was awoken by a loud banging at my door. Emerging into the corridor, dressed in a towel and with my hair in disarray as only my hair can manage, I was faced with the sight of no fewer than six men, headed by a slight but stern looking man in police uniform, who marched over the doorway and into my room. "Passport!" he demanded.

I tried to explain, as I had explained the previous night, that my passport was in Delhi. "No!" he responded, "you have to have!"

At this point my befuddlement started to give way to irritation, and I may have said something unhelpful like "I can't magic it out of thin air". Not the wisest course when faced with a provincial policeman in a bureaucratic country in a situation where clearly you have failed to follow the rules. His response was a curt "get ready to go!" Go where, I foolishly asked. "To police station!" he replied with evident relish, "get dressed, you go now!" I spluttered a bit. He made towards me and for a moment I thought he was going to drag me to the police station in my betowelled state.

At this point I started to be actually quite scared that I was going to be cast into some cell in provincial India and that the people I was working with on the project would have to bail me out. This would not be a positive step in establishing myself in India. I gave him every form of ID I had and he vanished with my driver's licence, leaving me to yell out something feeble and English like "this is disgraceful!" at his retreating back.

Rather shaken, I sat down for a few minutes before deciding that if I was liable to be dragged down the nick at any moment I should probably make myself respectable. In the shower I realised that I could probably access a scanned copy of my passport photo page that is saved on my personal drive at work. That took about 10 minutes, after which I proceeded downstairs with my open laptop held in front of me like a shield decorated with my own mugshot.

By the time I had done so and got myself downstairs, a crowd of about 12 people (I have no idea where they all came from!) was gathered around reception, most of them talking loudly about - so I gathered from the looks I received - me. There were, happily enough, no further threats to throw the book at me, and with the help of one of my Indian colleagues I was able to persuade them to let me go with strict instructions to send through a scanned copy of my visa page as soon as I was back in Delhi (this I did first thing this morning, though this was not enough to stop the local police making several calls on my colleagues who had remained behind in Haryana, who of course were entirely unable to help them).

Well, lesson learned: never leave home without your passport if you are a foreigner in India. On one level I find it hard to be angry with these guys, even though they overreacted so badly. No doubt their forms are examined by their superiors and they will get in deep trouble if there are anomalies. And as I said, there are good reasons why security issues are to be taken particularly seriously in this part of the world.

But on another level, I feel hurt, angry and frustrated. Hurt because it was drummed into me so forcefully that, at a fundamental level, for many Indians I am an outsider who may be tolerated, but not trusted. Angry because the number of people in this world who can wake me up at 6 am and not make me angry can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and because of the harassment suffered by my innocent co-travelers as a result of my carelessness. And frustrated because, for Pete's sake, there are enough real problems in this country that would make far better targets of so much police time and energy than a foreigner - one who is in clearly reputable company and who has been vouched for by upstanding Indian citizens - who has temporarily mislaid his passport.

Still, I survived without incarceration and am safely back in Delhi. Hopefully a little bit wiser and probably a little less naive about the realities of living in India. I guess in the end that is no bad thing.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Road trip reflections

I'm writing this in a hotel in Hisar, about 140 miles west of Delhi in the state of Haryana. I'm en route to Sirsa, a town about 60 miles east of the Pakistan border, where we are involved in a project. This is my first time out of Delhi since I moved here, and only the second time I've been outside of a major city in India (the last time was in Kerala in January).

There's not an awful lot in Haryana to interest travellers. It's unrelentingly flat and agricultural, and our route here was a repetitive series of fields punctuated by identikit dusty villages. My attempt to get on with some work was thwarted by the variable quality of the roads (a couple of shuddering potholes and my stomach resolutely refused to let me look at any kind of screen or printed matter), and looking out of the window quickly lost its appeal (brightly coloured saris, playing kids and stoic cattle are all picturesque in their own way, but after a couple of hours tend to become a bit less exciting).

So maybe that's why I've been a bit reflective today. I have been thinking anyway - as I imagine has everyone - about the horrendous attacks in Norway last week, and I had ample opportunity for further ruminating on the journey here. So apologies that this post is going to be a bit glooomy, but this is what's on my mind.

I can't help but compare my reaction to the events in Oslo with my reaction to 9/11, almost exactly 10 years ago. For me, the circumstances are quite similar: in both cases I had recently arrived in a foreign country (in 2001 it was Korea, where I arrived in August), was feeling to some degree bewildered and isolated, and was staying in a large, mostly empty and somewhat cavernous apartment.

I remember very clearly watching the news coverage from the USA and feeling like the bottom had dropped out of the world. I didn't know anyone in the 9/11 attacks and I don't know anyone hurt or killed in Norway, but despite the distance of events in 2001 they provoked an extraordinarily profound sense of fear and confusion as I watched the towers fall in my lonely flat. I don't think any event before or since has shocked me to the core so utterly - even including the July 2005 bombs in London, which of course struck much closer to home.

My reaction this time has been different. Shock, yes, dismay, sympathy for those killed and their families, and concern that such awful events could happen in such an unlikely place - but my sense of horror and terror has not approached what I felt in 2001.

There are plenty of reasons. New York and Washington are, of course, iconic and familiar in a way that Oslo is not, so even though in 2001 I had only visited New York once (just as now I have only been to Oslo once) I felt that I knew it well. The sheer dramatic impact of watching those two behemoths of capitalism at the World Trade Centre topple could not but magnify the impact on people watchin events unfold. And while we didn't expect Norway to be attacked because it is largely peaceful, we didn't expect 9/11 because, at the time, the USA seems invulnerable. Both events shook what we thought we knew about the world, but the implications of 9/11 seemed mind-boggling (more so, perhaps, at the time than in hindsight, but still true today).

On a personal level, 9/11 came at a time when I was personally quite vulnerable and unhappy. I don't in any way wish to compare my experience with that of people who were directly affected by the events that day, but the loneliness and isolation I was feeling at that time seemed to double in intensity - not only was I out on my own in a strange place, but suddenly the whole world seemed a lot more strange and hostile than it had before. Of course this was mostly just a raw emotional reaction brought on by being at a difficult time in my life, but my memory of those feelings tells me they were very real. Today I am in a very different frame of mind and am much more able to deal with what the world has to throw at me.

Oddly enough, I don't think that my different reactions are down to the difference in the number of people killed in the two sets of attacks. We all know that numbers cease to mean very much beyond a certain point. It's hard to comprehend the tragedy of a thousand people being killed, and much easier to engage emotionally with one death. We just don't have the emotional resources to apply grief and horror proportionally to events of greater scale.

But my fear is that all of this rationalisation is nonsense, and that actually I've just become accustomed to random events of great violence springing up in unexpected places. I grew up in a country that was regularly the victim of terrorist attacks. All my life I have known to ask about unattended bags and, to this day, I often pop litter into my bag to dispose of at home out of habit rather than look for a rubbish bin (which were frequently absent in the UK in the 1980s as they were favoured places to plant a bomb).

But in my adult life the frequency, scale and spread of terrorist attacks has grown, and technological change has changed the nature of security threats in some terrifying directions. Attacks from Iraq to Manila, Mumbai to Oklahoma City, seem to be a standard feature of news reports today in a way I don't remember them being before (am I right here, or am I romanticising a past that has always been just as violent?)

I don't want to live my life in fear. But at the same time I don't want to lose my capacity to respond emotionally to the deaths of innocent people. If this starts to seem normal, that's when we really should be scared.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

How to flirt (with women) in Hindi

I've studied a few languages in my time and have encountered some fascinating and frustrating linguistic oddities (the harmless-looking Dutch word "er" stands out for its deceptive fiendishness). But I think this one from Hindi, which came up in my most recent lesson, has taken the cake. This, apparently, is language where a misplaced vowel could see you being accused of sexual harassment.

Let me explain. Hindi, like many other languages, is gendered, and as usual in such languages adjectives have to agree with the gender of the object they are describing (verbs do too, in complicated ways that I haven't quite got my head round yet). The linguistic gender of people, unsurprisingly, follows their biological gender.

However, whereas in Spanish one would naturally refer to a man as "alto" and a woman as "alta", for instance, in Hindi you can't do that if you happen to be a man. If you are talking to a woman - or even about a woman - and you use the feminine ending, this apparently implies that you are showing a sexual interest in her. Just by drawing attention to the fact that she is a woman, you're basically seen to be leering at her. Instead, you have to use the masculine plural ending.

For the (male) foreign student of Hindi this opens up a minefield of social perils. In the UK, you just have to make sure you respect personal space and watch how long you hold eye contact for, and you're unlikely to be seen to be crossing any lines. Here, say "i" instead of "e" and you're making unwanted advances (which in my case would be ironic as well as annoying).

I have to admit I find this rather hard to fathom. As one of my classmates put it, why go to all the bother of having gender in the language if you're then going to deny the fact when it comes to talking about people?

But of course languages aren't designed, they just evolve to reflect the society in which they are used - and Hindi is spoken in a culture where the sexuality of women is an enormous taboo. The fact that merely acknowledging a woman's femininity is seen as inappropriate behaviour is astonishing to me on one level, but entirely unsurprising on another - it comes from the same place as the rules that say men on the metro must give up their seats for women. There is an old-fashioned idea of chivalry here that is hard-wired into the mindset and even the language itself.

If that was all it was, it might be dismissed as interesting and harmless - a way to make sure that behaviour between the sexes remains appropriate. But actually, there is a much, much darker side to all this that I will write about another time - the "Slut Walk" is coming to Delhi next Sunday and that seems to be the day to talk about gender issues.

For now, I'll just concentrate on remembering that I have to talk about women as though they were a group of blokes - or risk acquiring an unlikely reputation as a ladies' man.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

National museum artefacts 5: a guest appearance

Haven't done one of these in a while, but I still have a good few things worthy of comment (and am planning a return trip to the museum before too long!).

Anyway, one of the joys of the museum is its section on Indian miniature paintings. They're fascinating portraits of life in a vanished society - the court of the Mughal rulers of Delhi who preceded the arrival of the British. They are particularly interesting because the Mughals were Muslim, but their art features some of the loveliest renditions of the human form you are ever likely to see - not normally something associated with Islamic art (they were also responsible for some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, including the Taj Mahal). The paintings don't really lend themselves to casual photographing, but you can see some lovely examples here.

One of the examples listed there really intrigued me, and it was this one:

At first sight the main thing you notice is the beautiful gold leaf script and decoration surrounding the central portrait, which represents one of the Mughal emperors, Jahangir (1605-27). The portrait itself is revealing: you might expect an early 17th century emperor of Persian and Mongolian stock to be depicted as a warrior, but what we see is a sensitive and artistic-looking young man - clearly someone who valued culture above conquest (despite this, he apparently enlarged the empire significantly during his tenure as top banana). But when you go for a closer look at Jahangir you notice that what he is holding is a bit unexpected:

She gets everywhere, doesn't she?

Yep, it's the virgin Mary, in the familiar meek-and-holy posture in which she is depicted in churches across the Christian world. But what's she doing in a portrait of an Islamic ruler, far distant from the nearest centre of Christianity?

Turns out we have a Brit to thank for this, though one who shared his culture with India in a rather less brutal way than his successors. Thomas Roe came to Jahangir's court as ambassador for King James I in 1615, bringing with him several paintings with Christian themes. Clearly they caught Jahangir's eye to the extent that he commissioned the above portrait.

This fascinates me for what it says about the culture of the court in Delhi at the time. In England, we'd recently had Elizabeth's persecution of Catholics (and Queen Mary's persecution of protestants before that), and we still had jolly old Olly Cromwell, that paragon of religious tolerance, to come. But in Islamic Delhi, the emperor was having himself painted with an icon of a foreign religion (actually, interesting question: I know Jesus is recognised as a prophet by Islam, but anyone know what it has to say about Mary?).

Of course the Mughals also pulled off the rather unusual feat of ruling for centuries over an empire that was overwhelmingly of a different religion to them, apparently without serious efforts to covert their subjects (though they had wars aplenty with neighbouring Hindu dynasties). The contrast with the ruthless efforts to suppress dissenting religious views in England (and elsewhere in Europe) at the time is striking, and shows just how recent an arrival tolerance is to our now-cosmopolitan society.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A Happy Find

A couple of weeks ago I made a very welcome discovery: Delhi has its own edition of Time Out magazine. This was good news for two reasons. Firstly, it really is unparalleled in making it easy to work out what's going on in the city without subjecting my poor tired brain and eyes to yet more hours of trawling the interweb. Secondly - and unexpectedly - it is comfortingly familiar.

Otherwise known as the curious newcomer's bible and comfort blanket

I like Time Out. Its a well-designed magazine - clear, consistent, fresh enough to feel on-the-pulse but not so hip as to exclude the people who are more interested in the classical music and books listings than the latest club reviews. Its writing style is accessible to everyone, frank and irreverent without being obnoxious, and to my mind achieves a sort of mid-Atlantic English that suits its readership and subject matter (in contrast to, say, The Economist, which takes pride in being very British and of which I am also a fan).

Now I've found another reason to admire TO: their impressive editorial consistency. Reading the Delhi version is like meeting up with an old friend. I'm not sure what I expected: maybe an Indianised version of some sort, full of glaring holes where the definite article should be, a heavy emphasis on Bollywood and lots of family-oriented material.

Whatever I thought, I was wrong. There's quite a bit of Bollywood in there, I admit, and of course rather more listings for sitar recitals than you might find in London. True, the listings sections are substantially shorter than the London version, with some in particular (most notably Theatre and Gay/Lesbian) a mere fraction of what I was used to back home. At one edition every three weeks, it's a rarer treat than the London version. And I can't help but be aware that although the format and types of event and venue listed are similar to London, the target demographic here is much more privileged than the magazine's average London reader.

But other than that, you'd hardly notice you were reading a different version of the magazine. The writing style and design is so consistent, it's as though the TO writing team are supernaturally able to operate in different cities at the same time. I was quite surprised to find how reassuring and pleasurable reading such instantly familiar pages was for me. But then, exploring a new and strange city is even more enjoyable if you have a known and trusted guide. So thank you Time Out, I appreciate your work!

At least I've got my health

Or most of it, anyway. Truth to tell I've been feeling pretty rotten this week, even more than when I wrote this post. I'm constantly fatigued and my brain feels like it's made of mushy peas. This has come at the same time as our scheduled strategic planning process at work, when myself and my colleague Rajat are holed up in my flat plotting over my dining room table. Strategic planning is important but, my word, it can be tedious at times. So this is not the best time for simple mental processes to feel like they are more taxing than studying for my finals.

I'm still blaming the weather. Apparently the US is currently experiencing a "punishing heatwave" that has killed 22 people right now. The conditions sound very similar to Delhi (mid to high 30s and very high humidity, which the human body is not well equipped to deal with). So I guess it's not all that surprising that I'm not feeling in the peak of condition right now. However, I still have a job to do (not to mention a blog to maintain) so I am just going to have to find the energy from somewhere, ideally without resorting to stimulant drugs.

Anyway, while we're on the subject of health, here's something else I'm having to get used to: the possibility of contracting a tropical nasty. Delhi is not too bad health-wise but one thing I do have to watch out for is mosquitoes. It's not that the city is teeming with them, but the ones that are around have a significant chance of carrying some deeply unpleasant bugs in their evil little saliva glands.

Malaria is mainly a rural problem in India, but the cities do not escape. At least as worrying (and probably more so, given the descriptions of the frankly horrific-sounding symptomps) are Dengue fever and Chikungunya, one of which is nicknamed "breakbone fever" for the horrific pain it inflicts, while the name of the other translates as "that which bends up", after the contorted positions assumed by the poor buggers who pick it up. (This emphasis on pain in the bone and joints made me panic a bit at the touch of back pain I have been experiencing this week, but I'm pretty sure it has more to do with the horrible chair I sit on in the office.)

I really, really don't want to get any of these diseases. The chances are I won't - at least in the case of Chikungunya, which records a few dozen victims in the city each year. Not bad for a city of 17 million. Malaria cases number a few hundred each year. Dengue, on the other hand, is much more prevalent, with around 6,000 victims last year.

Still not too bad odds, but enough to make you more than usually worried about the mozzies. This has also been drummed into me by my landlord, who is positively convinced that I am certain to succumb to one of these horrible diseases. He's not totally without cause. There is an open drain running through the middle of Defence Colony, which is currently in the process of being covered (when finished it is due to become a large and hopefully lovely park). For the moment, though, it's not just a breeding ground for mosquitoes, it's a breeding ground that is constantly being disrupted and disturbed by dozens of working men.

So there are plenty of mozzies around. The little buggers have also got every angle covered. While malaria mosquitoes attack during the night, dengue and chikungunya-carrying ones favour daytime snacking. So you can never relax. Long trousers, liberal use of insect repellent, and regular spraying of one's flat are the order of the day. Despite these precautions, I've picked up three or four bites since I moved here.

The most evil life form known to man?

Most of the cases of these diseases, of course, tend to be found in slums of the city where conditions are poor and people can't afford the kind of precautions I am able to take. So with a bit of care I should make it through my time here without enduring weeks of horrendous pain (horn honking-induced headaches excepted).

Meanwhile, I just have to learn to live with this kind of threat. My Indian colleagues find it amusing that I'm unable to endure a mosquito in the office - it has to be squished as soon as I'm aware of its presence. Which goes to show, of course, that statistically they are really not that much of a threat, and most people from Delhi barely give them a second's thought.

On the other hand, you never know. So I'll keep smearing on that repellent for the foreseeable future.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Behind the walls

Another post about Hauz Khas...a different side of it.

Most people visiting Hauz Khas don't get beyond the beautiful ruins, the lake and the deer park, or the high-end boutique shops in the village. They don't venture further south, where the painted signs stop and the narrow alleys take you behind the high madrassa walls, to a different Hauz Khas - one that feels like it's been transported a couple of hundred miles from rural India.

In this Hauz Khas, dozens of children run in and out of rows of tiny, one-storey houses and among the bicycles, piles of wood, old tires and empty wagons scattered around the streets. Mysterious green and orange concoctions bubble away in ancient bowls over open wood fires. Weary women sit in front of their houses, having mud plastered into their hair. Goats trot along the tops of the roughstone walls. And all around, the birds and insects of the woods keep up a constant chirping.

It really does feel like you've left Delhi far behind. Even around the madrassa, which is far quieter than the rest of Delhi, car horns can be heard every couple of minutes and there is a constant coming and going. But behind the walls, there are no horns, few cars and fewer visitors: this is a working rural village incongruously planted in an urban park.

I didn't take many photos here. I'm very conscious that places like this are not a tourist attraction and that the people around me are in their space, living their private lives. But of course the local kids have no such qualms and ran after me yelling "one photo! one photo!" till I relented, and then mobbed me to get a look at the results:

There are hidden worlds all over Delhi, away from the main roads, the markets and the well-heeled areas known to the expat community. At times, the city can feel almost small - the areas where you're encouraged to go as a foreigner being limited in number. But of course it's immense - 17 million people call this city home, twice as many as the populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. And much of it is pretty much a closed book as far as foreigners are concerned.

The tourist guides to Delhi take you to the centre (Old Delhi and the Red Fort), New Delhi to its South, and the leafy areas of South Delhi beyond that. Expat business people flock to Gurgaon, the soulless new city south of the metropolis. But the vast territories of Western and Northern Delhi may as well be a different planet. None of my guides refer to them. I know nothing about them except that a hell of a lot of people live there.

I have to admit that, although I do plan to go and have a look around one of these mysterious places on my map of the city, the thought is rather intimidating. Delhi feels very safe generally, but crime against visitors is not unknown here. And there is a violence to Indian history and society that seems at odds with the smiling faces you generally meet (not that smiles are an indicator of an unfamiliarity with violence - possibly the most smiley place I have ever been to is Cambodia). Delhi is, after all, supposedly India's crime capital - though this blog puts that assertion into perspective rather neatly.

More to the point, navigating Delhi's crazy streets is hard enough even in the relatively developed Southern parts, with a guidebook in your hand - I suspect the North and the West come with their own challenges. Happily, the ubiquitous rickshaws mean you never need to worry too much, as long as you can name somewhere from where you know your way. So with a year and 11 months (at least) to go before I leave Delhi, I really have no excuse not to venture beyond the Lonely Planet comfort zone.

Anyway, that's for another day. Some time when the weather is a bit kinder and my Hindi has improved...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Delhi's lost Oxbridge

I took a walking tour today round Hauz Khas, the most enjoyable district of South Delhi I've been to yet. The guide, Kanika, was a young woman with that charming, peculiarly Indian way of speaking that is just wonderful to listen to. Her history of Hauz Khas was peopled with "terrible chaps" and "mellow fellows" who said "nothing doing" in response to their subjects' misbehaviour and asked them "not to be carrying out any coups, please". All delivered in the smooth, melodic, Indian-accented tones that are one of the pleasures of living here.

Anyway, Hauz Khas. The name translates as "royal reservoir". The reservoir still exists, though much smaller than it used to be, and the village (which now sits bang in the middle of a huge deer park) grew up around the Madrassa (Islamic theological college) that clings to its Eastern and Southern shores.

Delhi is full of surprises. When you first arrive here it seems so ugly: sprawling, messy, dirty and noisy. The more time you spend here though, the more beauty you uncover. The madrassa at Hauz Khas was founded in the fourteenth century, about 150 years after Cambridge split from Oxford, but in its day it must have been easily as beautiful, tranquil and scholarly as those longer-lasting institutions. And it's still breathtakingly lovely.

Back when the reservoir was bigger, the madrassa buildings were constructed directly on the water's edge. You can still see the stairwells from which teachers and students must have launched boats. The buildings are Tughluk in style, meaning they are built from the hard, difficult-to-carve local stone, solid in style and simple in decoration. But the whole effect is graceful, stately and tranquil. It doesn't take much imagination to see this as a seat of learning, with earnest scholars listening to instruction to the sound of the lake lapping the foot of the walls below.

Since the madrassa was founded, history has marched back and forth over Delhi innumerable times. The teachers and students who lived here were long since kicked out of its way. As I walked around the still-beautiful ruins, I felt enormously lucky to be from a country where ancient institutions of learning survived the centuries, and particularly so to have been able to study at one of them. Who knows what learning would have come from the shores of this lake if history had been different?

The unbearable loveliness of things

I'm not normally the most materialistic of people, but today I made the mistake of wandering into an art and furniture shop in Hauz Khas village, a lovely little enclave in South Delhi built around the ruins of a 14th century Madrassa (theological college) and surrounded by a huge deer park. Oh, such a mistake. If there's one thing that India knows how to do, it's make objects of such loveliness that one's wallet practically leaps out of one's pocket of its own accord.

The thing is, I currently live in a rather large and very empty apartment. When I look at that exquisitely carved and painted wooden seat for somewhat less than the price you'd pay for one of IKEA's less nice sofas, I actually have a spot where it would work. That huge, beautifully painted panel? I have the wall spot for it. That delicately enamelled screen? Perfect to separate off my dining space. You would not believe the sheer number of lovely things and the number of arguments I had to have with myself to stop me buying them. There was even a swinging wooden double seat, complete with wooden frame carved in the form of various animals, that would fit beautifully in my living room. But, of course, it and all the other lovely, lovely things were entirely impractical.

Because the big empty apartment is a mirage. Anything I buy here would need to be shipped back to the UK, probably costing about as much as I paid for it. And of course, back in London I don't have a great big empty apartment. I have a tiny (but much-loved) flat that is already pretty much stuffed to the gills with furniture. So I am going to have to do a lot of resisting for the next couple of years.

But oh, lord, there were some lovely things. And my apartment really is very bare...

The fruits of my labour

OK, so I'm feeling guilty about not having posted for a while. In fact I feel like I should be confessing. "Bless me readers, for I have been a lazy bugger. It's been two days since my last post."

In my defence, however, I've not actually been all that lazy. In fact I have been studying hard to try to get my head around Hindi. Teacher Ali has proven to be something of a hard taskmaster and has assigned frankly gargantuan levels of homework. So tourist Saturday went out of the window today and was replaced by "sit in a cafe painstakingly writing out Devanagari sentences to the amusement of the waiting staff" Saturday. Here's the result - my first page of Hindi (complete with a few scribblings out):

Actually I feel a bit cheeky claiming it as my first page of Hindi as that would imply I actually wrote it, as opposed to just copying it out of my text book. At this point we're just trying to learn to associate these funny shapes with sounds, and if we pick up a bit of vocab and grammar along the way then that's a bonus. So this is the first dialogue in the book, and it's a fascinating, thrilling exchange between Pratap, a visitor from London, his host Kamala and her son Raj. I won't tell you the rest, it will spoil it for you.

There is a lot of satisfaction to be had, though, in that gradual transition from everything looking like a random group of lines, squiggles and dots to being able to approximate a word, even if you don't know what it means. I was very pleased with myself today when I was able to read the names of the stations on the metro map, even though it took me about a minute per station and the English version was right behind me. It's a very small achievement but somehow I feel like I'm starting to make the city more my own.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

National museum artefacts 4: Flummoxed

I'm feeling a bit lazy and unimaginative tonight (still in that weather-induced funk I blogged about yesterday) so it's another trip to the national museum I'm afraid. Tell me if these are boring you. However this one really is intriguing.

OK, so the information for this one explains that it is "King Narsimha worshiping Jagannatha", and that it dates from the 13th century in Orissa (on the east coast of India). Fine, you think. I guess that's the king on the right, and some sort of divine flunky in the middle who's lost his head. And on the left...

Well, yes, on the left. What's on the left? There are a couple of thrones, on one of which sits a female figure, and on the other one, well, let's have a look:

And a bit of a closer one:

My thought at this point was: What the hell is that? My best explanation was that at some point, SpongeBob Square Pants traveled back in time to 13th century Orissa and was immortalised as a god by local artist.

I've since looked the god up on Wikipedia, and apparently this is just what he looks like. In his most famous temple at Puri, Jagannatha "has a massive square head with the chest merging into one piece of wooden stump without any demarcation of the neck. The arms have been inserted in a line with the upper lip." In other words, Jagannatha is a god who looks like an ice cream cone with a face.

Against the better known pantheon of India's gods, all gorgeous figures with multiple limbs in lithe dancing postures, this definitely seems like a bit of an oddity - and without wishing to be disrespectful, a little bit comic. But then, when you've got this many gods, I guess some are bound to turn out a little bit unconventional.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

National museum artefacts 3: Buffalo on a skateboard


Well, that just seems to me to be the kind of thing a buffalo on a skateboard would say.

Things that make me go "bah"

OK, I've pretty much been in a bad mood for the last three days. Right now, all the daily irritations of life in Delhi, usually a source of wry amusement and material for this blog, seem to have been put there just to annoy me. The taxi and tuk tuk drivers are all getting lost on purpose, and quoting extra-high fares specifically aimed at me personally. The power cuts out just to piss me off. My internet connection spends all day whizzing with energy and then collapses just as I try to use it. The mosquitoes have set up a "get Chris" campaign. It's all aimed at me.

Actually my mood is really about the weather. After a lovely couple of days that saw temperatures beginning with a 2 and some really refreshing monsoon downpours, the Delhi climate has come back with a vengeance and bitten me on the bottom like you wouldn't believe. We are back up in the mid-30s, only now the humidity has risen into the 80-90 percent range. And it's putting me in a foul temper.

No matter where you go or how long you stay in the aircon, you can always feel a layer of sweat between your skin and your clothes. The perceived effort / task size ratio goes through the roof. Sleeping becomes patchy at best. I'm constantly sluggish, irritable and annoyed with myself for not dealing with it better.

However, what's really guaranteed to lead to a Grumpy Sims is combining these joyful conditions with the willful denial of my lunch. I was at an education conference today, where lunch was slated from 1 till 2. I was already hungry at 11.30, so concentrating on the presentations was getting more and more difficult (especially as there were ten of them...ouch). But then they over-ran.

Now, we Brits might be thought of generally as stand-on-ceremony types, but I venture to say that if you're at a conference in the UK and the pre-lunchtime session overruns even before questions, they'll cancel the questions, tell people to nobble the speakers over a vol-au-vent if they can, and release everyone to get some scran. This is because they know that if they don't, in most cases they have about 20 minutes before outright rebellion happens and people just start helping themselves to the food anyway.

It's different here. At 1.15 they had questions. And then they had more questions. And then some more, which predictably were less questions and more long-winded statements about particular bugbears (that's universal - never been to a conference without one of those). And then there were the concluding remarks to be made. And then the vote of thanks (where everyone must be thanked individually and have their esteemed and honoured status affirmed).

I have to admit that by this point my love for India was at a fairly low ebb. However, at five to two we were finally unleashed upon the buffet (which was right behind us just to torture us, and which was delicious). After stuffing our faces, my colleague and I managed to speak to a few useful people, which almost made up for the previous two hours of misery. However, my grumpiness was not going away any time soon. So I decided to skip the subsequent session, which was delayed by half an hour to allow for food, and snuck off with my laptop to the coffee shop, where in theory I could get any food I wanted, straight away.

And where the aircon was on the blink.


Reproduction again

I posted a while back on the initiative in Rajasthan to offer people cars and household goods in return for undergoing sterilisation. I didn't think much of the policy then and I don't now, but here's an interesting different take on the issue.

So is the policy sexist? Probably. The status of women in India is a complex issue, and at some point I will post something a bit longer dedicated to it.

But anyway, at least I'm not the only one to believe that the answer to India's problems of over-population does not lie in this policy or, as one of the comments on the article suggests, in aping China's one-child policy - or, indeed, in any coercive tactics at all.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Back to the classroom

Today I had my first language class in seven years. I've found a little school half way between my office and my flat, right by a metro station, and will be going there for lessons twice a week.

It's a class of 8 people, though four are members of an American family who are just "travelling around for a bit" and will be in Delhi for a month before moving on (what kind of a family can do this?). Our teacher is Ali, a young, rather serious, rather professorish type who has a habit of wandering off the subject and into strange analogies involving filing cabinets and "physical explosions in your brain".

Occasionally this wandering was a bit annoying, but mostly it was a welcome break from the mental onslaught of the Devanagari script, which I can see is going to cause me problems. When I learned Korean, the script lulled me into a false sense of security by being logical, made up of simple shapes and extremely easy to learn. Devanagari, on the other hand, is terrifyingly complex, with strange wibbly-wobbly shapes that look remarkably similar and make completely different sounds if you accidentally put in a tiny flourish or miss off a dot. There are 25 consonants (at least 6 of which I can't distinguish at all from each other), 11 vowels and 4 "half-vowels". There are also an unknown number of forms that result from combining different letters. We haven't got on to those yet.

Elegant and beautiful, or wibbly-wobbly and confusing? Depends on if you're wrestling with it in evening classes or not...

However, I will persevere - if only so that I can have some form of communication with Vineeta, who deserves better than she's getting at the moment. On the plus side, I'm told that Hindi grammar is very easy, which of course was the problem with Korean - I never really got close to mastering the grammar. So maybe after the initial push it will get easier (unlike Korean which just seemed to keep getting harder). One can but hope.

Negotiating India

I just had a fascinating lunch with a bunch of Indian colleagues from all over the country - Bangalore, Kerala, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Most of it consisted of a series of good-humoured but increasingly vociferous disagreements on subjects ranging from the proportion of people to gods in the country (we agreed in the end on approximately 400:1, discounting the various monotheistic Indians from the equation) to the day on which it is appropriate to pay homage to the goddess Lakshmi. The most strident note of conflict was about whether it is possible to buy beef in India (and, on a side note, whether Dominos put ham on their pizzas here), which gave rise to some quite stirring speeches about India being a "dietary democracy".

It was both entertaining and fascinating for me, a newcomer to this country’s ongoing dialogue with itself to understand what “Indian” means. It’s a truism that India’s ability to hold together as a democracy in the face of both overwhelming diversity and large-scale poverty makes it an outlier in the world of political science. I don’t know how they’ve done it either. But democracy at the very least allows people the space to have these discussions, to negotiate their way through their vast differences and find their real commonalities. This is happening at a million lunch tables, in a million parks, on a million streets every day, and has been for the last sixty years at least.

It's kind of incredible, really.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Working and sleeping

Among the many things that struck me about Delhi in the first few days of living here is that there are a lot of sleeping people. People sleep everywhere, all the time. You can't walk five minutes without coming across someone slumbering happily, sometimes in what look like quite uncomfortable positions:

The various tombs in Lodi Gardens and elsewhere are especially popular, understandably so given their almost miraculous coolness even during the worst of the afternoon heat.

Given this tendency, you might be forgiven for wondering if the British colonial forces weren't right to dismiss Indians as feckless and lazy. But after a while you notice something else: for every five people sleeping, fifty are working bloody hard. We notice the sleepers because sleeping in public is something we in the West are mostly unaccustomed to (and to which we attach very particular and culturally-specific connotations, mostly negative). But that's only part of the story.

When you really look at what's going on, you realise that this is an incredibly hardworking city. When I walk down the street here I am surrounded by people toiling away to make their daily bread, whether it's carting around precariously-stacked goods or entire families on the back of a bike, standing for hours under a burning sun flogging chilled water to passers-by, or building one of the thousands of constructions going up all across the city. There's one just outside my flat:

There are an awful lot of people involved in putting this building up. I am not entirely sure what they all do. However, I do know what three of the poor buggers did today, which is spend the entire day reducing those piles of rocks you can see outside the house from the enormous mounds they started off as this morning. Their method of doing so is illustrated here:

Scoop, lift, walk, throw, repeat. This, mind you, in 35 degree heat and 80% humidity. Pampered Westerner that I am, I would collapse with a migraine after about half an hour.

However, Indians are not superhuman. All this frenzied activity in this climate is exhausting, and we all need to rest now and then. For many inhabitants of Delhi, though, they spend so much of their time working that sleep becomes something to be grabbed whenever the opportunity presents itself. Hence the prone bodies scattered across the city. Far from being an indicator of laziness, I think it's a sign of just how hard many people have to work to survive here.

I really hope that people doing jobs like this get to share in India's rising prosperity. God knows they've worked for it.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

National Museum artefacts 2: frankly disturbing

I mean, this was probably disturbing enough before it lost its limbs. But....yikes.

Can anyone fathom the meaning of this?

OK, I saw this sign in a restaurant toilet in Defence Colony market a couple of weeks ago, and it's still troubling me. Today I managed to sneak in with my camera so that I can share this extraordinary piece of communication with you all:

None of my possible explanations for this are happy.

National Museum artefacts 1: the oversized chair

It's raining today. Not just a monsoon flash-in-a-pan downpour, but a steady stream that's English in is constancy and Indian in its heaviness. Outside my window the street is already flooded (note to Sheila Dikshit: now that the Metro is such a success, how about focusing on the city's drainage system?).

So I think I will be staying home today. Happily, as I mentioned in my last post, I've stored up plenty of things to blog about, not least the brilliant National Museum, which, displaying though it does but a tiny fraction of the country's artistic and cultural heritage (and short though it is on explanatory displays) is one of the most fascinating museums I've been to in a while.

Originally I was going to snap some of the more interesting exhibits and put them all in a single post, but I got quite carried away and took photos of well over a dozen. So I'm going to drip feed them into the blog in a series of short posts which will make me look like a seriously prolific blogger. I hope you find this vaguely interesting!

Most of the museum's prize exhibits are on the ground floor, but I'm going to start with something that is tucked away on the top floor. It grabbed me from the moment I saw it and still fascinates me with questions. It was in a section ambiguously entitled "ethnic art", which I think means it comes from one of the tribal areas in Central-Eastern India. But there was absolutely no information to accompany it whatsoever, leaving me to conjecture about its possible origin and meaning.

When I first saw it I actually thought it was some strange kind of chariot with two people at the reins. It's made of metal and the figures perched on the edge combined with the dangling circles of metal shapes at the back and the little animal figures made me think of the Sharmanka kinetic theatre I saw recently in Glasgow (by the way, if you're ever in Glasgow do go and see that, it's really incredible).

But then I realised that if this thing were to lurch into life like Sharmanka's creations, it would be going nowhere - the figures are perched on the edge of a chair that's far too large for them (the whole thing is a little bit larger than a regular dining room chair). Why? What's the significance of what they are holding (the male figure on the right has an axe, the female on the left a basket)? Why is the male's arm lowered and the female's raised?

There are so many little details to enjoy. The little birds perched behind the couple, looking back at the viewer (you can see one just above the female figure's raised arm); the incredible decoration of the female figure's ears; the calm and somewhat complacent expression on the faces.

I kind of wish there had been some information about the piece. But at the same time it's fun to be able to use your imagination a bit about what it all means (I'm going with some kind of wedding celebration). And it's just an extraordinary thing to look at.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Pomp and circumambulation

I did quite a lot today. Having decided on another "tourist Saturday", I hopped on the Metro and headed up to the heart of New Delhi, the Rajpath, at the centre of the bombastic capital designed by Lutyens for British India and still the heart of power in India. Over the course of the day I ambled up and down the Rajpath and Raisina Hill (which leads up to the home of the Indian president), carried on to the National Museum, and then walked through the leafy avenues of New Delhi to lovely Lodi Gardens, through the park and on to the India Habitat Centre for dinner at the (impressively accurate) "All American Diner", before hopping back on the Metro at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (the one built for the Commonwealth Games).

That's not a bad walk for this climate, and I have to admit by the time I got to the park I was flagging. The inhabitants of Delhi think I am bonkers for wanting to walk anywhere at all. My landlord, who is lovely, tried and failed this morning to hide his view that my tendency to walk the 10 minute journey from my flat to the Metro station to get around town was a plain indication of my lunacy. In Delhi, the only people who walk are those who have to (this is still, it should be added, an awful lot of people). Everyone else is either in their car, on their bike, sitting in a tuk tuk, taxi or rickshaw, or driving them. And if you're white and anywhere NEAR a road, however much you think you are just pottering along minding your own business, what you are actually doing (as far as all the tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers are concerned) is carrying a large sign that says:


The thing is, Delhi is actually for the most part quite a walkable city - especially the parts I visited today. Admittedly crossing some of the roads can be a hair-raising experience, but with a decent map navigation is unproblematic and it compares favourably with walking in a lot of other Asian mega-cities (I still shudder a bit at my memories of trying to walk round Bangkok).

But try telling that to the people who live here. I'm not the first person to experience this bafflement in the face of someone who actually enjoys being able to walk around the city at my own pace - Sam Miller's book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity is based on his experiences of doing just that for a year (nice life these journos have) and I'm pretty sure he had to fight off legions of rickshaw wallahs every day.

Anyway, enough about walking. Having packed in a lot of stuff I have a lot to blog about, so I am going to be sneaky and use a lot of it as ammo for future days when I can't think of anything decent to write (see Tuesday and Wednesday this week). So for now I'll just talk about the Rajpath and New Delhi.

I think of all the bits of Delhi I've seen so far, the Rajpath is far and away my least favourite. Don't get me wrong, it's very impressive. The buildings are magnificent and suitably awe-inspiring; the scale of the broad mile-long avenue running from the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's home, formerly home to the Viceroy of India) to India Gate is as immense as anything I've seen anywhere else in the world and makes the Champs Elysee look like a back alley. But the whole place just feels wrong.

Part of it is that there's just too much space:

The Rajpath and its surrounding lawns are so wide (I'd say at least 120 metres, though I'm not much good at estimating such things) that walking there, even when the sun is not too bad, makes you feel kind of like this traffic light (which is situated at Vijay Chowk at the bottom of Raisina Hill):

That is, isolated, exposed, and liable to get utterly drenched should the monsoon rains make an appearance (they did, but I was rescued by a friendly tuk tuk driver who - bless him - offered to take me somewhere for free as "it is a human right to stay dry". I got him to take me round the corner to the National Museum and paid 20 rupees for a 45 second trip).

The second thing is the lack of people. I know this was a Saturday and I'm sure it's busier during the week, but I can't quite believe that enough people ever come here (except for the big parade on Republic Day) to fill that yawning vacuum of space. Today there were a few lacklustre guards, some underwhelmed-looking tourists, a few families lounging in the grass, and a lonely ice cream man (I bought an ice lolly and then came back for another). Combined with the self-important architecture and the vast expanses of tarmac and patchy grass, the lack of people gives the place an austere, desolate air quite unlike the rest of the city.

In fact, although the Indians have taken the colonial infrastructure here and made it their own, that's the problem: it doesn't fit. It looks and feels like a massive colonial folly (I don't include all of New Delhi in this, by the way, a lot of which is really quite lovely) and is at odds with the packed, hardworking Indian city around it that is by turns elegant and squalid in equal measure. I don't blame India for doing this: in fact they are to be praised for embracing history and taking charge of it, rather than seeking to erase it (as in Seoul, where Japanese colonial buildings were torn down without regard for historical or aesthetic value). I just find the whole ensemble rather alienating (come to think of it, maybe that was the idea).

(On a side note, all my guide books tell me that Lutyens wanted the Rashtrapati Bhavan to be visible all the way up the Rajpath, and was really annoyed when he realised it only comes into view when you get towards the top of Raisina hill. Having been there, I have this to say: Lutyens was a bloody idiot. If you stick a big building on top of a hill but set it several hundred metres back from the summit edge, it's going to have an impact on its visibility from below. It's not rocket science. Greatest British architect, my aunt Fanny.)

Anyway, here are a few more photos of the Rajpath area if I haven't totally put you off (by the way, the National Museum and Lodi Gardens were both amazing, so subsequent posts will get a lot less critical...)

The Viceroy moved out, the President moved in. If you ask me, it's hard to see why either of them would need so much space.

*Insert metaphorical caption about Indian democracy*

No presidential residence is complete without pachydermal topiary.

Get out of the road, crazy white man!

I was going to upload a couple more but the connection speed has just dropped through the floor, and this post is probably long enough already anyway. Don't worry, lots more to come!