Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Some soggy photos

Mumbai offered precious few photographic opportunities thanks to the monsoon, but I thought I might as well share a few anyway...

The Gateway of India, built on Mumbai's sea front to commemorate the visit of King George V to India in 1911. It was completed in 1924, and less than a quarter of a century later it was the scene of the final departure of British troops. It's quite an impressive monument even in the rain, and although it doesn't sit on a grand boulevard like India Gate, I think it makes more of a visual impression. It's also home to the most persistent touts I've come across yet in India, all of whom desperately trying to take me on a sightseeing tour. None succeeded.

One of the many beautiful Gothic buildings in the Colaba / Fort areas. I'm none too fond of the British architectural legacy in Delhi, but Mumbai really has some stunners. This is the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room. Even among the clamour of Mumbai, buildings like this, the University buildings and the High Court retain a feeling of poise and calm that I far prefer to the bombastic showiness of Delhi's colonial era architecture (though the railway terminus has bombast aplenty and I have to say it's pretty damn awesome). 

Apparently, it was a law during the British period that all buildings on the main streets had to have a covered arcade outside. What a good idea. The shade provided from the sun on hot days must be just as welcome as the respite provided from the downpours during my visit.

Nothing really to say about this one - I just liked the name of the store and the posters in the windows.

Mumbai has beautiful old buildings (this one the University tower) and some glittering modern constructions, but the bits in between tend to look a bit tired.

An itinerant flute-seller. I'm not sure how he keeps all the flutes attached.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Or if that's a bit too much for you, do what the locals do and call it the Prince of Wales museum (it's not my place to say, but if you want a new name to catch on making it short and snappy might be a good idea). Reminded me of nothing so much as Miss Havisham's house, if Miss Havisham's house had a big dome stuck on top.

And that's pretty much it! Hopefully my next visit will be more camera-friendly - the opportunities for snapping Mumbai life are endless.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Oh, so THIS is a monsoon

I thought I had got the hang of this monsoon business. In Delhi, you know when the rains are coming. Almost always in the afternoon, and preceded by hours of heavy, humid air that makes your clothes stick to your body after thirty seconds outside. The rains come in pounding torrents but are usually over within an hour. Not very pleasant, but manageable - you just have to learn to recognise the signs that they are on their way and make sure you have suitable shelter handy.

Mumbai, it turns out, is different. It started raining on my way from the airport on Wednesday night, and until last night it didn't stop once. I don't mean this in the English sense, whereby "it didn't stop raining for days" means "actually there were quite long periods when it wasn't raining, but the sky was so grey and miserable that it might as well have been, and anyway moaning about English weather is so much more satisfying if you can use pithy but not entirely accurate descriptors." I mean that it didn't stop raining. A constant downpour emptied itself over the city at rates ranging from moderate to torrential from 7 pm on Wednesday until around 9 pm Saturday night.

Now I've done a fair amount of independent travel and I'm not normally the sort to let something as inconsequential as weather stop me from exploring a new city. True to form, I set off on Saturday morning to see Mumbai. I'd been vaguely planning to go out to Elephanta Island, but even I had the sense to see that that probably wasn't going to be much fun on this trip. So instead I decided to explore the Fort and Colaba areas (i.e. the hub of the colonial-era city) and figured I could hop between cafes and galleries if the rain got too much.

I did get a chance to admire some of the truly gorgeous gothic and art deco buildings, which face each other across the open space of the Oval Maidan like two opposing architectural armies. I did make it to the Gateway of India (which I think is a more impressive sight than its Delhi rival, India Gate). But I couldn't withstand the onslaught. I lasted an hour and a half before, utterly soaked through and miserable, I took refuge in the national museum of modern art. After an hour squelching around looking at the exhibits (most of which, I am afraid to say, failed to rouse me from my sodden gloom) I retreated back to the hotel and spent most of the afternoon surfing the internet and reading, broken only by a quick trip during a realtively dry period to buy some new shoes and socks.

This morning I awoke to a blissful silence, the hammering on the roof of the hotel having stopped. Perhaps my final day in Mumbai would actually involve some enjoyable tourist activities! Delighted, I leapt into the shower. Unfortunately, when I turned the shower off the noise of cascading water continued. A quick peek out of the window confirmed Mumbai had only been toying with me: the rains were back, and harder than ever. That was three hours ago and they're not showing any inclination to go away.

So I am sat in my hotel's less-than-great cafe, and will remain here until 3 pm when I shall relocate to the airport (earlier than I need to, but what the hell). I don't think I've ever experienced such a comprehensive washout of a weekend (and I grew up in Manchester). Lesson learned - if you're coming to Mumbai for work between July and September, don't bother hanging around for the weekend...

Friday, 26 August 2011

The darkest days: 10 years on

I'm sitting in a cafe in Mumbai where I've just finished working on the first draft of our first submission on skills policy to the Indian government. It's been a bit of a tough week in some ways - with any new initiative or change in life you experience ups and downs, and I've been on more of a down this week. In fact it's the first time since my two week wobble that I've felt acutely aware of being on my own in a foreign country without any of my usual social supports available. So I called a couple of very dear and trusted friends and let it all out, and as always from very dear and trusted friends, got a couple of very sensible and thoughtful responses that left me feeling much more positive. One of them pointed out that my blog posts tend to be more about my environment than about me - maybe a more personal entry might help me deal with things?

As I sat here pondering this suggestion and sipping a much-needed cappuccino, it occurred to me that, exactly a decade ago, one of the most important and formative times in my life was just starting. I was 23 and had just arrived in Korea on my first posting with the Foreign Office. The circumstances were, for a number of reasons, difficult for me personally, and the six months or so that followed were far and away the most horrible time in my life. Isolated, anxious and endlessly unforgiving of myself, I started an inexorable decline into a deep depression that very nearly ended in my requesting a transfer home on health grounds, and that caused tremendous worry and pain to those in my life as well as to me directly.

At the time, I couldn't see any future that wasn't dominated by this gaping chasm of futility and guilt. I felt guilty about everything. Guilty that I wasn't making the most of the amazing opportunity I had been given; guilty about wasting taxpayers' money by being useless at my job; guilty about the sleepless nights I was giving to other people who cared about my welfare. The idea that I could feel positive about things ever again was as remote as Jupiter. Somehow I dragged myself out of the mess I was in, but the experience coloured the rest of my time in Korea and still casts a shadow today.

Looking back on that time is hard for me, but necessary. In the years since then it has served as a reminder of what can happen if I don't take care of myself, and as a yardstick to measure my feelings by. If I am feeling down, but there is no hint of that awful hollow feeling that was my constant companion in those early days in Korea, then there is no need to worry. If things feel a bit worse, then I know how to get back on track: exercise, talking to friends, eating better, sleep, fresh air, relaxation, and a number of other tricks I've learned over the years.

In the 10 years since then I have had some thrilling highs and some fairly spectacular lows, but I've never yet fallen back into that hole. My despairing self of 2001 has been proved, on the whole, completely wrong. I have met and loved some truly extraordinary people, who have enriched my life more than they know. I have made many amazing friends, kept the amazing ones I already had and refound several friendships that ended too soon (thanks Facebook). I have travelled to beautiful, inspiring places and been able to share my experiences with people who may not even have been completely bored by my stories. I've taken steps into the unknown and found rewarding new discoveries as a result, whether on the other side of the world (yes, including Seoul) or back in the UK, most of all in Peckham where I chose to buy my first home and to which I will definitely be returning.

I've had opportunities to step away from the regular mill of things, to learn about myself, to try out and experiment with different sides of my personality and interests, and I keep learning more every day. I've found that I can do more than I ever thought I could, and that the things I can't do can usually be done if I work with others to achieve them. I've been part of teams that have done great things, with people whose passion and commitment have been and remain an inspiration. Life continues to throw me tremendous opportunities, and I'm now - thankfully - more able to make the most of them.

I know what's good about me, and I think I know more than I did about the things that are less good - and how to change, control or just accept them. There are many times when I could have done better, and I hope I have learned from them. But I'm sensible enough now to know that the self-blame game is one I can't ever win.

So ten years down the line, I am once again a new arrival in a foreign country, dealing with isolation, emotional baggage and a challenging job. But the rest - how I think about and react to my situation - is, I hope, a different story.

At 33, I am not where I thought I would be when I set out to Cambridge as a wide-eyed, over-excited 18 year old, or when I began working life as a hopelessly naive 21 year old. But back then I knew a fraction of what I know now - and what I know now, I hope, is a fraction of what I will know when I am 43 or 53. Life will throw more surprises and challenges at me, but I'm looking forward to the adventure. The darkest days are, I fervently hope, behind me for good.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Welcome to Mumbai

I'm in Mumbai for the first time. I flew in this evening for a conference, and am staying on for the weekend. I wasn't expecting to have much to blog about tonight - the flight was pretty uneventful (though the man next to me, with his habit of exhaling abruptly through his nose every fifteen seconds, came close to experiencing a more interesting journey than he did). But then I took a taxi.

The journey into Delhi from the airport is efficient but not very interesting. It's mostly by elevated highway, which gives you a nice view across the city (and makes you realise how green it is) but doesn't exactly give you a feel for life at street level. The journey from the domestic terminal in Mumbai was completely different. I was glued to the window the whole way: this wasn't a journey from an airport to a hotel but an exhilarating tour through urban India.

Street after street was crowded with people. The pavements were lined for blocks on end with people selling things: fruit stalls, clothes spread out on cloths on the ground, whole streets of children's toys or garlands of marigolds. Traders shouted out their offers in front of decorated temples, restaurants with giant elephant statues in front, offices full of late-working execs, buildings with giant replica chocolate bars stuck on the front, and churches with giant neon crosses over their doors and signs about the perils of consumerism out front. Groups of young men pounded out furious rhythms on drums while girls danced like jitterbugs to the beat. Toothless old men in rags stood singing Hindi songs outside the sleek, modern "White Smiles Dental Clinic". We passed glittering high-rises, opulent shopping malls, swanky restaurants, decrepit factories and corrugated iron shacks. The air was heavy with monsoon rain and with the smells of spices and traffic fumes, both of which gave way to the tang of the sea as we passed by the waterfront, with the lights reflecting in the water in an absurdly picturesque way.

The journey took an hour and a quarter, but I didn't want it to end. I don't think I've ever experience an introduction to a city like it. My only regret is that I have two days of conference to go before I can get out and explore Mumbai.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Ali's world

My Hindi teacher, Ali, is great. He has amazing patience as I stumble and stagger my way through the sentence "what is your brother's mother's house like?" (believe me, that's a tricky one in Hindi). He is a rather serious chap, but on the rare occasions that he laughs it comes out as this comic snicker that sounds remarkably like the noise my cat used to make when she could see a pigeon out the window. He's young - I think around his mid-20s - and is an American of Indian origin who has been living in Delhi for a few years now.

He also inhabits a different plane from most people - one that you don't often come across outside the hallowed halls of academia. I have never known a man who could get so truly passionate about the conjugation of the verb "to be", not even my old Spanish teacher (who taught me everything I know both about Spanish and about being a drama queen).

Ali wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his academic pursuits. He tends to talk about study in the way other people might talk about the person they have a crush on, or the best meal they ever had. For instance, recently we were talking about that first moment when you communicate with someone in the language you are learning, which is indeed a great moment for any language student. I couldn't help but laugh, though, when Ali announced solemnly: "there is no better feeling in the world. Nothing can make you feel this good." (Pause while he gives this statement due consideration) "...except physics."

Except physics? I made the mistake of assuming he was joking and gave a dutiful chuckle, only to realise that he was deadly serious. Now I'm sure physics is fascinating (and my various scientist friends will probably tell me off for this post), but the best feeling in the world? Better than sex and cheesecake? Well, it takes all sorts.

My favourite Ali moment, though, was when he was explaining to us with great pride and excitement that Hindi is one of only nine ergative languages in the world (don't ask me what ergative means. It's something to do with what the language does with transitive verbs, but beyond that I'm clueless). Having explained at length how impressive this was, he then suggested - in all seriousness - that we should add our command of Hindi to our CVs, and add the words AN ERGATIVE LANGUAGE in parentheses afterwards. This, he said, would be sure to impress any potential employers and ensure that we got called to interview.

I made the tentative suggestion that if I read a CV with that on, I would think the person in question was either a bit of a smart-arse, or else really desperate for CV content. He considered this for a moment, and then conceded "yeah...I guess it only really works if you're a linguistics scholar..."

I honestly don't know if he was taking the piss or not. If he was, the man should quit teaching and go play poker, he'd make a fortune.

Anyway, I look forward to my classes with Ali both for the Hindi (which I'm actually very much enjoying learning) and for those little moments when we get a glimpse of his world. People never stop being fascinating.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Indira's shadow

Has there ever been a world leader whose appearance demanded attention as much as Indira Gandhi's? With that shock of black-and-white, Cruella de Vil hair, unmistakable nose, and fiercely intelligent eyes, hers was a face made to be on the front page of the newspaper if ever there was one. She died nearly 27 years ago, but her impact lives on in India - and not just through the fact that her family name remains the most powerful one in the country's politics.

She was assassinated at her home in Delhi, which has now been turned into a memorial to her and to her son, Rajiv, who succeeded her as Prime Minister in 1984 and was assassinated in his turn. My visit there today was a claustrophobic affair. The site of the martyrdom - for that's what it is seen as - of the nation's favourite daughter is a place of pilgrimage for Indians, who jostle and cram their way into the somewhat cramped exhibition halls - covered with newspapers spanning the decades of her career and Gandhi family photos - and have a habit of thrusting their mobile phones in front of the display you are looking at, in order to get a snap. It didn't allow for a great deal of peaceful contemplation of Indira's impact, but it shows just how large a figure she still looms in Indians' minds.

She was certainly an extraordinary figure. As a child she had to get used to the repeated incarceration of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a leader of the Indian independence movement and became the country's first Prime Minister after the end of British rule. Her political awareness thus not only started young, it was personal right from the start - which maybe helps explain her later dictatorial tendencies. The photos and sketches of her from the time show a serious girl, with large, intense eyes that seem to hint at the remarkable life she was to lead:

She herself was imprisoned by the British - and, years later, by her political opponents in India. She served as Prime Minister for a total of fifteen years, including during Bangladesh's successful war of independence against Pakistan, in which India played a decisive role.

She was famous for her sharp political instincts, that helped her stay in power for so long, and must have cut an intimidating figure. She was fiercely committed to improving conditions for India's poor, and drove through the Green Revolution that allowed the country to feed itself. But she was also responsible for some of the darker moments of India's post-independence period, including a 21-month state of emergency (proclaimed on rather tenuous grounds) which allowed her to rule effectively by decree, and the event that would lead to her assassination, the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in an effort to root out separatist Sikhs calling for the creation of an independent "Khalistan" in the Punjab.

Among Sikhs, unsurprisingly, she hardly cuts a popular figure, and she inspired unusual ire among her political opponents, as well as Richard Nixon (so she can't have been all bad). But for most Indians, she is remembered as a great national leader of a status comparable to her father. Unsurprising, then, that the memorial museum tends towards the hagiographical: the State of Emergency and the violence in Amritsar are brushed over, and no mention is made of the immediate aftermath of Indira's murder, when thousands of innocent Sikhs were killed - many burned alive - in revenge attacks across Delhi and elsewhere in India.

The museum displays her living quarters, preserved in her tasteful but rather spartan style, as well as the sari, bag and shoes she was wearing on the day she was shot by her Sikh bodyguards in revenge for the attack in Amritsar. The blood stains are clearly visible:

It might be trite to say that death is the great equalizer, but looking at this small collection, and her very ordinary bag and shoes, it's hard to associate them with one of the twentieth century's most important leaders or with an event that went on to shape - and destroy - thousands of lives. Rajiv's clothes at the time of his own murder seven years later are also on display, and have an altogether more shocking impact:

The violence of Rajiv's death - he was blown to pieces by a suicide bomber - is clear. For some reason though, it was the socks that moved me - oddly intact, just grubby, as though Rajiv had been out for a run and dumped them on the floor afterwards, and incongruous with the solemn museum setting.

Anyway, after musing on Indira's life and death, I made the ten minute walk to the spot where another Gandhi - even more famous than Indira - was also assassinated. The place where Mahatma Gandhi was killed is also preserved as a memorial, but was far less crowded than Indira's. This got me thinking about the meaning these two people - who were close personally but very different in their historical roles - have for the country today.

Others are much better qualified than me to judge, but to me the bigger crowds at Indira's memorial reflect the fact that for modern India, her shadow is longer than the Mahatma's. Mahatma Gandhi is, and always will be, an iconic figure internationally, and India continues to hold him up as a role model and one of the founding fathers of independent India. But for all that people profess to admire his ideals, few Indian public figures since then seem to follow them much.

Certainly his frugal lifestyle is not often followed by those Indians who have a choice in the matter. His condemnation of the oppression of women and of caste distinctions have not prevented them remaining widespread in India more than 60 years after his death. Even in my own area of vocational education his words sound at odds with prevailing attitudes here: Gandhi said that "instead of regarding craft and industry as different from education, I regard the former as the medium for the latter". That's not a popular view in a country where work-related education is still associated with low caste and low prestige in many circles.

I say this more in observation than condemnation, for if India had followed Gandhiism, I suspect it would be rather worse off now than it is. The pursuit of wealth may have created some very ugly inequalities, but it has also allowed for economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty. Ultimately, Gandhi's asceticism was something he chose - because he was in a position to make that choice. Most Indians - like most people elsewhere - don't make that choice. It makes him an extraordinary person, and an admirable one, just as his approach to challenging British rule proved astonishingly effective. But it doesn't mean that his way is in any sense practical as long term public policy.

Indira, though, in her awareness of her own power, her willingness to use it and her belief - no less than Gandhi's - in the cause of India, seems to me to have more in common with the increasingly assertive and confident country India is today. That has some good consequences, and some potentially scary ones - the India-Pakistan relationship being top of the list of the latter.

Modern India, nuclear-armed, accustomed to sabre-rattling and struggling with rampant graft, seems to have a politics that owes little to peaceful, self-denying Mahatma Gandhi. In this, I guess it is little different to the rest of the world - where he is held up an admired as an inspiration, but where politics dance largely to a different tune. One that Indira knew better.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Old walls and old wells

I still
cannot get over the sheer number of ancient sites and monuments in Delhi. We Europeans tend to think of Asian cities as modern affairs - either squat concrete or shimmering steel-and-glass - and that Europe is where you go for truly old urban architecture. But there are few places in Europe that come close to rivaling Delhi's wealth of heritage buildings - as a few posts on this blog have attested.

My latest bit of exploration into Delhi's history is probably the most dramatic - the Purana Qila or Old Fort, which lies north of Humayun's tomb and south-east of India Gate and the Rajpath. As with Old Delhi, the "Old" bit of the name is not really accurate: this is the site of the sixth of the cities that have stood here, and was Humayun's (he of the beautiful tomb) centre of power in the sixteenth century (though it is reputedly also where the first city, Indraprastha, stood). It's also where Humayun met his end - after falling down a flight of steps, which seems a cruelly undignified way for a man of his standing to go. Its massive walls tower dramatically over this part of Delhi, and the main gate was clearly designed to impress:

There's not much that survives inside the walls though, other than Humayun's graceful little observatory and a mosque, dramatically positioned overlooking the valley of the Yamuna river and featuring some wonderful mosaic work on its facade.

From its defensive position, the Purana Qila looks down on the whole valley - although the river itself has shifted course away from its walls these days. Of course, nowadays the valley features some rather less beautiful architecture, which provides some interesting contrasts:

The once-impregnable fortress is now a favourite spot for an evening stroll for the citizens of Delhi, who come and have their photos taken outside the ancient buildings. As you can see, the occasion gives rise to unmitigated joy and gay abandon on the parts of the participants:

But if you don't fancy a walk and would rather a sit-down activity, you can always opt instead to take a boat around the slightly swampy-looking boating lake that sits at the north-west foot of the walls. It looks like a pleasant excursion, but I can't help thinking that the sight of these garishly coloured pleasure boats and giant ducks pottering about beneath the towering, defensive ramparts looks a bit incongruous. I wonder what Humayun would have thought of this particular usage of his citdael.

Finally, just outside the main gate to the Purana Qila is the Khair-ul-Manazil, or "best of houses", a now rather dilapidated mosque and madrassa, which apparently was commissioned by the wet nurse of one of the Mughal emperors (I never knew wet nurses could be so powerful outside of Blackadder). The building itself doesn't stand out greatly against Delhi's other monuments, but it does feature a working hand-drawn well, which was being put into use when I popped in for a visit:

This is one of the things I find so fascinating about Delhi - in a rapidly modernising city, older ways of life still flourish. There is always something happening, wherever you are, and few things are allowed to go to waste. In the middle of a semi-derelict historic site, a working well that produces clean water (well, it looked clean anyway) and a family making use of it. The guard came in just after I took this photo and was given some of the water to wash his hands and mop his forehead. What they used the rest of the water collected in the urns for I have no idea - but I was happy for the photo op.

Blog in haste...

My post yesterday looks a bit ludicrous after the events of today. The India corruption story has just taken a turn for the dramatic: Anna Hazare and 1300 other people have been arrested in connection with his planned hunger strike over the corruption bill, and the Indian government is busy denying that it is suppressing democratic protest. Things are starting to get rather hot under the collar.

It seems like the debate over corruption is morphing into a cartoon battle between Goodies and Baddies, with no-one quite sure which is which and the issues over which they are fighting starting to slip into the background. Much as this latest move by the government looks like an over-reaction, I think a part has been played here by the blunt tactics used by Hazare, which seem to have opened the way for the level of debate to decline to who is prepared to push hardest.

It's not like India has no track record in more productive and innovative ways of tackling the issue. In 2007, an Indian NGO called the 5th Pillar started producing Zero Rupee Notes: a "banknote", made to look similar to the 50 rupee note, with a stated value of zero rupees. The idea was that citizens could present this to officials who solicit bribes as a way to shame them and to "say no to corruption without the fear of facing an encounter with persons in authority."

Clearly this isn't going to root out a problem the scale of India's, but as a means to raise the issue of corruption and to empower ordinary citizens to speak out about it, it's a great initiative and in my view better than trying to browbeat the government by going on hunger strike. This country suffers a lot from corruption. I think its people deserve a better approach to addressing the problem than they are getting.

Monday, 15 August 2011

India turns 64

Today marks India's independence day - did you notice the rather nice graphic of the Red Fort on Google? It being a national holiday, I had great plans to go up to the Fort and meander down to the Rajpath to enjoy the spectacle. Unfortunately, plans were derailed by a stonking migraine (which generally seem to hit me on days when I am not due to be in work anyway, curses). By the time I felt human enough to leave the house, the crowds had long since dispersed, leaving only some out-of-towners gaping at India Gate, the occasional toddler forlornly waving the Indian flag, and a few autorickshaw drivers who'd missed the rush to get home. It was all a bit of an anticlimax.

Ah well, there's always next year. In any case I understand the REALLY big parades happen for Republic Day, which is in January, so I will save my ace reporter hat until then.

Independence Day is also the day on which the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, delivers his annual address to the nation. I haven't seen the full transcript, but if the press reports are anything to go by, this was no optimistic, rally-rousing State of the Union type affair. The focus has been almost entirely on his comments about corruption, as the powers that be do battle over the "Lokpal Bill" - the legislation to set up an ombudsman to deal with the problem - and in particular, over how extensive the ombudsman's powers should be. For the last few months the defining story of Indian politics has been the hunger strike carried out by Anna Hazare, who is demanding stronger powers for the body than the government currently seems prepared to grant.

The impression given by the media is of a rather defensive speech, in which Mr Singh protested that the government has no "magic wand" to deal with the issue of corruption. He also argued that hunger strikes will not help solve the problem. I agree with him, but since hunger striking as a political tool was employed extensively by Mahatma Gandhi himself, you can understand why it remains a potent weapon in India.

If the speech was defensive in tone, this was matched by the PM's physical environment: he was behind a bullet-proof enclosure as he went over issues from land rights to terrorism and the economy. India is taking no chances. I don't blame them - they face real threats from domestic and international terrorism - but I can't help thinking that this kind of measure risks reinforcing perceptions of a distant and removed governing elite, which may feed further into popular resentment over corruption.

Overall, though, I don't really understand why the popular mood seems so overwhelmingly negative at the moment. India's economy may have slowed recently, but the concern is that it may not quite manage 8% growth this year. I'm pretty sure that if David Cameron was looking at 8% growth there would be parties in the streets of London rather than riots. Indian democracy may be flawed, but its politics are a hell of a lot healthier than those of other countries in the region. And speaking of the region, relations in general are looking better now than they have in years - particularly with Bangladesh, where Sonia Gandhi was a couple of weeks ago and where Mr Singh is going next month. As I speculated in my last post, India may be gearing up to play a positive leadership role in South Asia through its new development agency. Whatever doubts I have about that, it's not the action of a country in trouble.

On the other hand, after the thrashing India just got at the hands of England in the cricket, maybe it's not surprising the mood is a bit sour this independence day. Still, the flags keep flying, and however bitter the current internal conflicts are, India still has plenty about which it can be proud and optimistic on its 64th birthday.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Aid from India?

You may have seen in the news recently that India looks likely to set up a national Aid Agency to distribute overseas aid, with a budget of some $11 billion. Unsurprisingly, this is raising a few eyebrows, including my own. I'm all for a diversification of international development away from the domination of a few (Western) organisations and improved co-operation between developing countries. The field has been moving in this direction for some time anyway, and China already eclipses most rich countries in terms of the amount of aid it gives. But when DfID in the UK stands accused of giving away money that is needed at home (which, since the recession, it often is, though it's generally withstood this pressure admirably) the idea of India doing the same is extraordinary.

To put things into context: if India's poorer states were independent countries, they would rank alongside some of the least well-off and least developed countries in the world. And these are not small states: Bihar, the poorest Indian state, has over 100 million people, while an independent Uttar Pradesh would be the fifth biggest country in the world. The projected budget of India's aid agency amounts to around half of Bihar's entire GDP.

India may no longer be a poor country, but a lot of poor people live here. According to the World Bank, 28% of the rural population and 26% of the urban population subsist below the poverty line. That's around 350 million people for whom the emergence of India as an economic power has yet to bring anything close to a decent standard of living. I wonder what they make of the government's plans.

Of course, this is a hard line to tread. Those who object to the UK maintaining its levels of aid spending at a time of severe economic hardship do have a point: poverty and desperation are not unique to developing countries. But I've always found the arguments in favour of maintaining an active development programme - in terms of the moral imperative and enlightened self interest - convincing, and I think DfID's work brings tremendous benefit to the UK as well as to the recipients of it.

So why should I not think the same of India? It remains to be seen, after all, how India will use the new agency. It may, by focusing on its immediate neighbourhood, be able to use it to build a more stable and prosperous region for which we would all have reason to be grateful - not least the citizens of India who stand to benefit greatly. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh need development, but both would share in the results of a more normalised relationship between India and Pakistan, for instance.

But apart from the question of whether India should see to its own poor first, I have two niggling doubts. Firstly, I wonder what the motivation is behind setting up the agency. As India establishes itself as a superpower-in-waiting, it (like many other countries) has sought opportunities to launch the national brand to the global audience. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year is the obvious example, and one that remains controversial here (the billions, says my landlord Mr Mehandru, should have been spent on fixing Delhi's drainage system, not to mention building a decent waiting room at the city registration office). An international aid agency, by its nature, is something only the most successful countries can afford. I'm sure there is more to this initiative than a desire for a prestige project - but I suspect that desire is part of the picture. (Again, I run the risk of double standards here - it would be naive to suppose that this hasn't played a role in the setting up of aid agencies elsewhere.)

My other concern lies more in the theory of aid itself. With corruption and non-accountability prevalent in so much of the developing world, the effectiveness of aid has long been suspect. Many development agencies have switched their focus on to improving governance, to allow for better use of existing resources rather than ploughing more cash into wasteful or crooked systems. Apparently India itself has quite a bit of experience in this, as the country's bureaucrats have been involved in training their African counterparts for decades. But with the country's track record on corruption, which dominates the papers here and arouses enormous public ire, I do find it hard to see this being the new agency's focus. There really is a plank of wood to be seen to here before tackling Africa's motes of dust.

Going back to old models of aid would be counter-productive - and having been on the receiving end of a lot of it over the years, I'm sure the Indian government knows that very well. Alternatively the agency may focus on infrastructure development - but this tends to open up even more opportunities for corruption, as well as raising tricky questions about the fuzzy dividing line between aid and investment. So I wonder what approach the new agency will take. Perhaps we are due to see new models emerging as "South-South" cooperation becomes more common.

Anyway, I will be watching the developments around the mooted new agency with interest, particularly the strategies it decides to pursue. It will be enlightening to see how the Indian population reacts should it officially get off the ground - with pride at their country's rising influence, or with anger at possibly misplaced priorities?

In the long run, though, an outward-looking India can only be a good thing. The country's growing global stature remains fraught with contradictions and difficulties, but however it gets there you can't avoid feeling that it is moving towards its rightful place in the world.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bracelets for brothers

Today is Raksha Bandhan, more popularly known as Rakhi, a festival observed across India that celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters. Being primarily a family affair, this isn't a partying-in-the-street type of festival, but everywhere across Delhi today you could see the evidence of it - men and boys with a variety of threads tied around their wrists:

The basic idea is that sisters tie the threads  - which vary from simple friendship bracelet-type affairs to intricate beaded adornments - around their brother's wrist as a symbol of her love for him, and in return he vows to protect her. If you don't have sisters, don't worry - the ceremony can be extended to cousins and even unrelated men if there is a close platonic relationship between them.

I find this a really charming tradition and admirable. Sibling relationships are, after all, one of the most important that many of us have, and all other things being equal the chances are your brothers or sisters will know you for more of your life than anyone else. But in the UK we have no tradition of celebrating this relationship. That's a bit of a shame when you come to think of it.

My sisters are a little too far away to tie anything around my wrist. If you're reading this, ladies, I'd be more than happy to accept a deferred gift when I next see you, and naturally in return I will do my best to put myself between you and danger (though again, doing so from a different continent may be challenging).

Of course, my sisters would probably find the idea of their little brother, primarily known for nicking all the chocolate biscuits and being a constant irritant for the first two decades of their lives, as some kind of Protector figure rather amusing. The assumptions about gender relationships that underlie the tradition, as ever in India, may seem old-fashioned to Western eyes.

But I think we could do a lot worse than emulate the Indians here. Of course my sisters are very capable of taking care of themselves. But what brother wouldn't want to protect his sister? It must be nice to have a shared day dedicated to expressing what that very special bond means.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

What's in a name?

I'm just back from a flying visit to Bangalore, which has been responsible for my recent silence. I can't say much about the place because I was there for approximately 20 hours, which was spent either sleeping, working or sitting in some truly bone-shuddering, stomach-wobbling taxi journeys (hell, I have decided, is the road to Bangalore airport at rush hour in a car with dodgy suspension).

According to the government of the state of Karnataka, though, the place I can't say much about is Bengaluru, which has been the official name of the city since 2006 (although apparently this has yet to get the final nod from the federal level). Bangalore is just one of dozens of cities in the country that have been renamed since independence, most famously including Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (formerly Madras) and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in an effort to move on from the colonial era and re-establish indigenous names.

Except that a lot of Indians don't really seem to have noticed. Bengaluru may be the official name, but I've never heard anyone use it. If you're spelling out a word here, you still say "C for Calcutta". The home of Bollywood still tends to be referred to as Bombay (and I doubt Mollywood is going to become a popular term any time soon). Of the big cities, Chennai seems to be the only one that has caught on universally.

It's easier for smaller cities, which were less established in the popular consciousness and so have been able to reinvent themselves more easily (though for understandable reasons people usually still refer to the Keralan capital by its old name of Trivandrum, rather than the officially approved mouthful, Thiruvananthapuram). It's noticeable that in the big cities, institutions that used the old name in their title have often not changed to the new one (as in the Bombay Stock Exchange, conspicuously not called the MSE).

Actually, in my experience there are three names: the old ones, the new ones, and the ones used in the English language announcements at Delhi airport (I have never heard anyone else refer to "Hy-dare-abad" or "Kaul-kaah-taah"). Another weird thing: the English language announcements use Bengaluru, but the Hindi ones use Bangalore. I'm not sure what to make of that.

Delhi remains Delhi, although apparently there is a proposal floating around to rename it Indraprastha (the name of the oldest of the many cities that have stood on this site). At the moment there doesn't seem to be a movement to correct the spelling to the local pronunciation of Dilli. Maybe to avoid confusion with the capital of East Timor.

All of this must take a bit of getting used to, so I suppose it's not surprising that the vernacular takes a while to catch up with officialdom. On the whole I recognise the importance of reclaiming the country's place names and marking the fact that India has long since moved out from under the Colonial shadow. Pragmatic Me, though, wonders how much it has cost changing all those road signs and reprinting official documents and guide books.

Anyway, this has been kind of a boring post really, but I'm a bit short on sleep (thanks to the very noisy stray dogs of Bengaluru) and not coming up with anything better. Sorry. Will try to be more interesting next time!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Fingerprints, photos and forms

Running a country of 1.2 billion people is not an easy task. Running it as a democracy is even more complex. Managing the needs of so many citizens - citizens who have the vote so who can't easily be ignored or rolled over - would be a Herculean task even for a civil service made up entirely of Sir Humphrey Applebys (for non-Brits, apologies for the cultural reference). Little wonder then that Indian bureaucracy can be, shall we say, a wee bit challenging.

Today I had my appointment to go and register the lease on my flat with the authorities. This required me, my landlord Mr Mehandru, a witness (Mr Mehandru's driver) and the agent who secured the flat for me to trundle down to the Delhi Registration Office in the south west of the city, armed with multiple copies of the lease (printed, as required, on special government paper), my passport (remembered it this time!), my landlord's passport, and sundry other bits and bobs. I was pre-warned that it would take some time so I had let my colleagues know not to expect me.

What I wasn't warned about, however, was that when it comes to the Registration Office, the term "office" is a bit grand. It is actually a squat, one story concrete building rather smaller than the average retirement bungalow, with a sort of blue plastic verandah roof stuck on the outside. This is the only protection against the weather for the hundreds of people crammed into the space around the two tiny windows separating them from the stamp-and-sign wallahs inside. There are no seats. The only refreshment is provided by an enterprising couple of young men who wander round with an ice bucket full of bottled drinks. The whole place is seething with people battling to get to the front of the queue and have their papers seen to. Most are caught beneath the glare of the sun for the majority of their waiting time.

I have to admit I didn't expect it to be like this. Slow, yes. Bureaucratic, yes. Frustrating, yes. But I at least thought I'd be inside, in something resembling a waiting room, especially since this is an office that is regularly used by all kinds of people, including the elderly and others who might have difficulty standing around for hours. Having spent yesterday evening in a beautiful auditorium equal to anything in the UK, the difference was stark.

Mr Mehandru was in an irascible mood. He grew up partly in the UK, which has given him that same critical eye of his own country that my time overseas has given me. The experience of living elsewhere tends to put the daily frustrations and irritations of one's home into sharper relief. Or, as he puts it, "I spent my formative years in your country. That was a mistake." Anyway, having been through this procedure several times before, he was clearly losing patience with the procedure and the conditions under which it is carried out. "Does the minister ever come down here?" he asked, rhetorically.

I wish I could tell you what the procedure is, but I have no idea. I was like a child who has been taken in to work by its parents for the day and is watching all these things happening without the first idea what they are all about. I just did what I was told. I handed over my passport, signed my name no fewer than 17 times, had my photo taken against the wall of the compound, and had my fingerprints taken. Yup, all five of my left hand finger prints are now on record with the Indian government (as are my landlord's), and one of my half-decent shirts has an ink smudge on it. This is just something you have to do to be able to rent a flat in India.

I didn't have to do this to get a mortgage with the RBS.

After the form signing, photos and printing were done, we had about a two hour wait, so Mr Mehandru and I took ourselves (and our matching inky fingers) off to a local cafe, where he put the world to rights and I nodded along and discreetly checked my work emails. When we finally got the call to come back, we fought our way to the front of the queue, when I was told by the agent in highly serious tones that when asked for my age, I should tell them my age.

They asked for my age.

I told them my age.

Whereupon I was escorted into a back office where all four of us had to stand against a red curtain to have some more photos taken, no doubt looking like some awkwardly posed studio shot from the 19th century (actually, there was a bit in between when they told us that the photo of the witness was "blurry" and that we'd have to wait another two hours, but the agent magically managed to get us past that. Somehow). Then there was one final signature, for luck. And that was finally it.

Job done, in just over a half a day. Now, I know there are reasons why the procedures are so difficult. India has a big problem with people overstaying their leases and effectively squatting in rented apartments, and the legal system is so slow landlords can end up with people staying in their homes for free for years. I know these things are just necessary sometimes, trying though they are.

But I have to admit I shared Mr Mehandru's view about the office itself. India is not a rich country, but if it can build modern urban rail systems and world class stadiums then it surely should be able to provide basic facilities at a public office used every day by hundreds of ordinary citizens. If they have to cover themselves in ink and give themselves form-induced RSI to be able to live somewhere, at least they should be able to do it indoors.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

An evening of culture

Delhi has many things going in its favour: great food, beautiful parks, friendly people (until you put them behind the wheel), lively markets...but a thriving theatre scene is not generally seen as one of them. Mumbai and Kolkata are known as India's main centres of the arts, in comparison with which Delhi tends to be seen as a bit of a cultural backwater (as much as you can ever describe a city of 17 million people as such). Most of the theatre that does exist is in Hindi, which hopefully in a year or so will be less of an obstacle than it is now. But for the moment, I have a very limited choice of English language productions.

However, you can't keep a good theatre buff down, so tonight I armed myself with my trusty Time Out and set out for the Akshara Theatre, a venue that according to the Hindustan Times has "a certain feeling of deity in it, a stillness that feels like a temple or a church at vespers." I figured that sounded like the kind of place it would be good to know in this enormous, noisy metropolis.

They were showing a play called The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, about a privileged city dweller who chooses to renounce urban life and take up with the tribal people of Chhattisgarh, a state in East-central India with a large indigenous population. I don't know much about Chhatisgarh, except that it is one of the more unstable states in the country due to an ongoing Maoist insurgency and to conflicts between the indigenous population and the government over its extensive forests and mineral resources. But the play sounded interesting.

Alas, my evening of tribal drama in an atmosphere of sacred peace was well and truly hijacked by the aforementioned metropolis. Misled by my map of Delhi (for the first time, I have to concede) I went to entirely the wrong end of the road on which the theatre is located and ended up wandering around Connaught Place - possibly the most confusingly-laid out piece of urban planning in existence. The local tourist office had never heard of the Akshara, and nor had the first five people I asked for directions.

Finally I found someone who did know it, who plonked me in an auto rickshaw which then spent the next ten minutes moving approximately 100 metres through the nightmarish traffic. Giving up on the rickshaw, I started walking in the direction I understood the theatre to be in, only to give up when, 10 minutes after curtain up, I hit a massive roundabout designed to put off even the most determined pedestrian.

Delhi had thwarted my cultural plans, although I did stumble upon the largest (and clearly thriving) Sikh Gurudwara in the city, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, which looks fascinating and is definitely somewhere I'd like to go back to:

Anyway, I may have given up on Chhattisgarh, but as it turned out Chhattisgarh had not given up on me. Re-checking TO showed that a performance of music from there was being staged at the India Habitat Centre, somewhere I was already familiar with. It's a beautifully landscaped business, culture and hotel centre near the Lodi Gardens, with a red brick architecture that owes nothing to India's heritage (and is probably not to everyone's taste) but which I find very pleasing in a similar way to Robinson College (which is also not universally popular).

Anyway, I digress. I just about had time to get there in time for the concert, so I hopped into an autorickshaw (after rejecting an offer from the first driver I approached to charge me three times the going rate and take me via Gandhi's burial place and the Red Fort, neither of which are particularly on the way). (On the way, incidentally, we drove past India Gate and the Raj Path, and in the warm evening light with families and friends chatting on the wide lawns, I have to admit it looked rather idyllic. Maybe my previous harsh judgement about the place was just due to going at the wrong time of day.)

The concert was interesting. I wouldn't go crazy for the music, although there was some impressive drumming and a really beautiful performance on a high-pitched pipe. But the costumes pretty much stole the show:

There was also some enjoyable singing from the lady in the middle here. At the same time. she and the lady next to her expertly kept up a rather complex 5/4 rhythm on their drums, until the chap on the other side of her joined in rather too enthusiastically and at a 25% quicker tempo, earning some truly dagger-eyed looks from her...

And there was some athletic dancing from these chaps, including at one point a move reminiscent of 80s break dancing, when they planted one hand on the ground, held themselves horizontally and propelled themselves round in circles, keeping the drum beat going with the other hand the entire time. It was really quite  impressive.

But my favourite person on stage had to be this chap, who looked about twice the age of everyone else on stage and had a rather perplexed air about him for the whole performance. I'm not sure where the string attached to those birds on the end of his instrument goes, but as he hit the bottom of it they pecked and bobbed along in time to the music.

And the night was rounded off by this lady, from Uttarakhand in the Himalaya, who sang traditional songs in a rich and lovely alto, though still marked by that warbling, nasal quality that characterises Indian singing and which I have to confess I still find a bit difficult to listen to.

Having thus established my credentials as a connoisseur of world culture, I rather spoiled matters by eating at the All-American Diner, which serves hot dogs, peanut butter shakes and nachos (though the burgers are strictly of the chicken or bean variety, naturally) and which looks like this:

But the food was damn good. You don't have to be American to enjoy a big ol' plate of stodge (with a big ol' glass of stodge on the side) from time to time.

Anyway, I may have failed in my first attempt to visit the theatre, but the evening did make me even more curious to learn about India's tribal areas (they caught my attention at the national museum too). Another thing to add to the very long list of must-dos I am acquiring...

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Misfit photos

I'm not feeling especially inspired today, having spent an unremarkable day tidying my flat, studying my Hindi, having my hair cut and going to a work meeting (on a Saturday - if you're reading this, boss, I hope you are taking notes). However I thought it would be good to put up some of the nicer photos I've taken over the last couple of months that just haven't fitted in to previous posts. Some of these have been on the blog before, in the photo slot that used to be above the "about me" section, but most I haven't put up before. Hope you like them.

This lady took advantage of the big crowd assembled for last Sunday's slut walk to sell her wares. I wonder what she made of the event. The women marching and she certainly come from very different worlds - how much would they really understand each other?

Lodi Gardens. This guy stayed like that for ages.

Lodi Gardens again. I meant to do a whole post about this place but never got round to it. It's one of the loveliest parks I've ever been to, and scattered across it are a half dozen gorgeous Mughal monuments. This was the first one I came across, and it appeared between the trees on the horizon like the end of some Tolkienesque quest. Just stunning.

Still in Lodi Gardens. I know I have posted this one before but I think it's my favourite shot. Inside the Mughal tombs, the harsh Delhi sunlight transforms into this beautiful warm glow. No wonder he dozed off.

The interior of the ruined mosque in Lodi Gardens. The carving on the walls is fantastically intricate - though you can't really appreciate it properly from this photo.

She's back! Lots of people seemed to like this photo so I thought I'd put it up again. She really pummeled that ball.

Another view of the Madrassa at Hauz Khas I missed out last time.

Resting lady at Hauz Khas. I love the way the clothes of the ladies in India provide constant flashes of colour against the city's monochromes.

Typically photogenic Indian kids at Hauz Khas.

Apartment building at Hauz Khas. There was something about this building that made me wonder who lived in it and what they were doing. I think it's the open balconies and the hanging clothes everywhere. It looks like the cover of a novel or a theatre set.

Residents of said building who gathered picturesquely on the balcony just I was looking up wondering about them.

Street scene near the Jama Masjid. 

A couple of shots from the street theatre performance after the slutwalk.

So, apologies for not putting up anything more thought-out or insightful! Will do my best to come up with something more substantial soon...

Friday, 5 August 2011

Decoding the Head Wobble

Ah, the Indian Head Wobble. Was there ever a form of communication more ubiquitous, or with a greater capacity to both confuse and amuse the foreign observer? (Thanks in advance to YouTube for helping with this post!)

There is a good deal of disagreement about the Wobble and what it means. The standard Wobble is a side-to-side movement of the ahead around a horizontal axis (rather than a vertical one as in when one shakes one's head). To clarify, it looks like this:

Now, note that the person who posted that video says that it's how Indians say "OK". Ah, if only it were that simple. Truth is, there are a number of different Wobbles, which can convey any number of meanings. Usually they are not accompanied by any words, so interpreting them is a challenge - I frequently have to stop conversation with my Indian colleagues to ask them to confirm what exactly they meant by their most recent Wobble.

So back to the standard Wobble. You see this a lot, generally when you are talking to somebody. It most commonly conveys that the Wobbler is listening to you and understands what you are saying. It doesn't necessarily mean they agree with what you are saying, however. For that there is a different movement: a sharp movement of the head to one side, usually accompanied by a momentary closing of the eyes. This is a difficult one to get your head round because to Western eyes it looks like a dismissive gesture, but it actually indicates emphatic agreement. As demonstrated here:

There are others I have come across, too. So a sharp upwards movement of the head often means "what?" or "don't be ridiculous!" An exaggerated version of the standard wobble can convey impatience: "yes, yes, I know this, get on with it". And a speeded-up version indicates that something has been agreed, as explained quite nicely here:

Something else I've noticed, though, is that some Indians use a movement that is much closer to a standard head shake in the same way as they use a Wobble during conversation - ie to convey that they are following what you are saying. This has thrown me several times and led to a number of circular conversations where my impression that someone disagrees with me has collided with their impression that I am holding up a perfectly good conversation for no reason at all.

The thing that you can never do is assume that a regular head Wobble means "yes" in answer to a yes/no question. This is only definitively the case if (as in the video above) it's a rapid, definite movement. A slower movement can mean anything from "yes" to "that's nice" to "just shut up and get in the rickshaw, and we'll argue about the price when we get there." In these cases, confirmation of the meaning should be sought - however this is difficult, as Indians tend to confirm that you have interpreted their meaning correctly with another head Wobble, of equal ambiguity.

There are some interesting explanantions behind the Wobble. I have heard it argued that it dates back to the Raj era, and that the British didn't like to hear a no from the "natives", so Indians evolved an ambiguous, harmless alternative to avoid having to disappoint. Personally I think this is probably nonsense, and it doesn't explain why the practice varies so much across the country (it's more prevalent in the south, but you see it everywhere in Delhi too). It is undeniable that to Western eyes the movement looks rather comic, and that it can have a softening effect on the impression given by the person you are talking to. Even the most fearsome Indian seems less so when mid-Wobble. But I don't think this is a perception that Indian people would share.

Like most gestures, you can't really learn how to use the Wobble in a calculated manner. It's instinctive, and I'm gradually learning how to interpret it instinctively too. Which is lucky, because the other thing about the Wobble is that it's incredibly infectious - I catch myself doing it most days. So if, in the future, you are ever making plans with me and my head starts bouncing from side to side like a metronome on Allegrissimo, you know we've got a date.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Delhi's strangest attraction?

My slutwalking on Sunday took me to within a stone's throw (well, if you're me, around 7 stones' throws) of a Delhi sight I'd been curious to see for a while: the brilliantly named Jantar Mantar (though the pronunciation is closer to Junter Munter). It dates from the early 18th century and is basically a big observatory - a set of oversized instruments designed to measure the declination of the sun and various other heavenly bodies, as well as measure the time of day to within half a second. A 300-year-old Jodrell Bank, if you will. It is smack in the centre of Delhi and makes for a quite surreal side trip from the nearby shopping mecca of Connaught Place.

The complex looks rather like someone decided to build a grand mansion, started with all the staircases, threw in two large jacuzzis, some tucked-away servants' quarters and a couple of scale models of the Colosseum, and then got bored before he could add in all the bits in between:

Walking among these bizarre structures, full of mysterious crevaces and stairways to nowhere, it's hard to believe they were actually designed to have a functional purpose. It's more like you've accidentally wandered into an unfinished Escher painting:

There are five Jantar Mantars scattered across northern and central India, all built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, who must have been a learned if somewhat eccentric chap. Apparently the only one still working is the one at Jaipur (though this begs the question as to what the others are lacking that means they don't work: did the batteries run out?).

Anyway, bizarre though the structures look, it's refreshing to visit a historical site that stands testament to one man's commitment to scientific enquiry and intellectual pursuit, rather than his vainglory (which, let's face it, lies behind a great deal of the architectural and historical treasures we have in this world). Even if the science behind it is beyond me - or at least beyond the ability of Delhi sign-writers to make it comprehensible for laymen like myself.

And it makes for some pretty cool photos, too.