Friday, 30 September 2011

Colours of the city

As with any big city, Delhi has its fair share of grey. Historical treasures aside, much of the architecture is fairly uninspired and the rapid expansion of the city has led to a proliferation of (usually fairly potholed) tarmac that generally lurks behind a fug of exhaust fumes. But Delhi is nevertheless a city of colour. It's everywhere, and the flashes of brightness that one experiences every day here are one of the things I love most about it.

Firstly, and most obviously, green. You might not believe it as you enter the city on the 8-lane highway from the airport, but Delhi is one of the most luxuriantly green cities I've ever been to. A lush canopy hangs over much of the city, which becomes apparent when you go up a flyover or ride the metro and realise that much of the city is obscured from view beneath the foliage, with taller buildings rising up like lost jungle citadels.

Green is also represented by the parrots that flock all over the city, ignored by Indians and cooed over by tourists who spend significant amounts of time trying to snap them in mid-flight (OK, I do this too). Given that my point of comparison is the mangy, grimy pigeon population of London, I have to say that I think most Delhiwallas don't fully appreciate these flashes of emerald darting about above their heads.

Yellow is another colour I  associate with the city, because it's such a popular colour for clothing. Of course, people here - particularly the women - take tremendous pride in their clothes and you can't walk down the street without running into three or four ladies dressed in graceful, vibrant saris or salwar kameez that would turn multiple heads in London. But my favourite is the deep, golden yellow in the photo below, which you see everywhere and which I love because it looks so wonderful against Indian skin tones (I've always liked yellow but rather fear that most white people just can't get away with it):

And it's not just the women who know how to use that splash of colour to have an impact:

Indian women's sense of style knows no bounds of age or class. While you can always see when a woman has money by the fineness of the fabric she wears, even simple and coarse cloth is worn with aplomb and dignity. Older ladies are often even more carefully turned out than their younger counterparts, though there is a discernable tendency towards floral patterns among the senior generation (you see the same sort of thing with wallpaper in the UK...):

Not all the colours sported by the city's denizens are so aesthetically pleasing. The picture below represents a sight that is, sadly, all too common among Delhi men of a certain age. This particular predilection of the Indian middle aged male is entirely baffling to me.

With apologies to the brilliant lifeandlentils blog for nicking the photo!

Indians also have a knack for using the most mundane objects to add a bit of vibrancy. I love the pink hue of many of the city's old monuments, but I was particularly taken with the multicoloured row of water jars sitting outside this mosque at the Qutub Minar (the squirrel was an added bonus):

And I especially liked the way the purple jar exactly matched the pattern on the rug in front of the mosque:

I could write a very long post trying to catalogue all the colours of Delhi, and how much they brighten up my days, but it's getting a bit late and I'm flying back to grey old London tomorrow. So I will keep some back for future posts. I may go a bit quiet for the next couple of weeks while I'm away from Delhi, but I will be back in mid-October and keen to reinvigorate the blog. Please keep reading!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Demob Happy

Goodness, it's been a long time since my last post. I feel quite ashamed. Those heady days of daily posting in the first half of September seem like a distant memory. I hope you haven't been pining without me.

A number of factors have combined to make my blogging less prolific than in the past. It's been a hectic few weeks at work, with trips to Bangalore and Kolkata as well as my first public speaking engagement in India, which was a bit of a nerve-jangler in many ways. The Bangalore trip ended up being a good deal more stressful than it needed to be after I left my beloved Kindle on the plane on the way down (I got it back, but only after a display of tenacity and, at times, tooth-bared snarling that would make your average dog with a bone creep away in embarrassment). While all this has been going on, my colleague has been less available than normal due to some family issues, so I've spent quite a bit of time trying to do two people's jobs in half the normal working time. Not only has this eaten into the time available for blogging, it's also eaten into the time available for having experiences worth blogging about (board meetings and practicing my speech just don't really cut it).

In addition to work, my first foray into the Delhi theatre scene is underway as I've begun rehearsals for my short play, which I am directing as part of the Short + Sweet festival in November. I've missed doing theatre and I'd almost forgotten how energising it can be. So far it's going OK - it's early days but my two leads are doing great work, although I don't get to enjoy the kind of facilities you lucky London theatre types do (the festival is being staged in a conference venue rather than a theatre, and the rehearsal space is my living room). Unfortunately I've just lost my third cast member, so if anyone happens to know any actresses in Delhi interested in a small but pivotal role in a short play about neurotic shop dummies planning to take over the world, just let me know...

At the same time, my domestic life has become a bit more complex following the arrival of my stuff from London. Having lived for the last couple of months living, as my landlord Mr Mehandru rather disdainfully puts it, "like a Bohemian", with minimal furniture, a suitcase full of clothes and a sleeping bag, I've been unpacking and finding a home for all of this (plus a couple of extra boxes of kitchen stuff):

I have of course had some relaxation time, but (and I know this is a crap reason for not blogging, but in the spirit of honesty) over the last month quite a lot of it has been taken up by *ahem* working through the first three seasons of Angel, which a friend of mine lent me in London and which I have to give back to him very shortly. This is because - and this is a lot of the reason why my blog rate has flagged recently - I've promised to bring them with me when I head back to London on Saturday for two weeks, followed by a few days in The Hague (which feels at least as much like home to me). It's been a bit of a race against time, but I think I've just about managed it.

The closer Saturday gets, the more I notice my thoughts focusing on things like the friends I'm going to catch up with, the cafes I'm going to go back to, and the lovely lovely lovely cold British weather (I'm totally serious) that I get to enjoy. And conversely, the less I am watching out for the quirky, the beautiful or the confusing in my immediate surroundings that make for blogworthy material.

I guess this is inevitable. I have a healthy spirit of adventure, but we all need our home comforts from time to time. Basically, my body may be in Delhi but my mind is increasingly in England. I love my palak paneer and badam milk, but right now I'd kill for a decent cup of coffee and some good cheese; the monuments of Delhi are stunning but I am missing the Victorian terraces of South London. You can still keep the tube though.

No doubt when I come back in mid-October I will rediscover my zest for all that Delhi has to offer, particularly as by then it should have begun to cool down a bit. Three and a half months of Delhi summer has made me crave chilliness like never before. I wish I had more time to get under the skin of the place though. I recently read this awesome blog about people living in the ruins in Hauz Khas and I just wish I could offer you something even a fraction as fascinating or photos the tiniest bit as gorgeous. I did pop into the bit of the ruins mentioned here, but didn't have the nerve to take any photos or to speak to the inhabitants. I guess I have a long way to go as a blogger.

Anyway, I wanted to post even though I don't have any pithy observations about India to make or encounters with eccentric locals to relate. Blogging is a tricky business and like any kind of writing the most important thing is that you are doing it. Even if every now and then that means that you end up with a kind of rambling and pointless post like this one. Bear with me. I'll get better again, I promise.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Birds and bikes

It's been quite a week. A two day visit to Kolkata and a two day skills conference in Delhi pretty much meant that work took over all my time since last weekend, hence my paucity of postings. So it's now been over a week since Rishneet and his friends took me along on a day trip to the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, about 200 km south of Delhi. It's a World Heritage Site known for its diversity of birdlife, and is long established as a refuge for migratory birds particularly during the winter season.

We were there during the low season, so there were no massive flocks to be seen. Indeed, in recent years the park has seen steep declines in the numbers of visiting birds, as the water supply to the park has dropped local demand for water has risen (the immediate vicinity is relatively densely populated). As a result, it's in danger of losing its World Heritage status unless current efforts to boost the water supply by the park management are successful.

Still, Keoladeo is a beautiful place to pedal around (despite my hire bike being about the right size for an 11 year old), full of lush green vegetation and punctuated by small lakes (a lot smaller than they used to be, apparently):

Our route took us past a place that pretty much encapsulates the extremes of India. I wish I had taken the time to get a better picture of this, but you get the idea:

The massive flocks may have been absent, but we did spot quite a number of birds, including green bee-eaters, grey hornbills, and (my personal favourite) a roosting flock of storks standing proudly silhouetted against the twilight sky:

The day also featured the ugliest and greediest turtles I have ever seen, who live in a lake in the grounds of a temple where they are fed by the temple keepers. Watching them approach the jetty where we were standing - a formless lump pushing ominously and rapidly towards us through the green surface algae like the monster in a B-movie - was genuinely unnerving, and those jaws looked powerful enough to keep us all well back from the water's edge:

The temple also hosted a religiously-inclined pig:

As a parting gift just as we were about to exit the park (very sweaty and with rather a nasty headache from overdoing it in the sun), we were treated to a beautiful sight as the sun approached the horizon. Peacocks are ten a penny in India, but this one just demanded to be photographed:

It was a (very) long and tiring day - we set off at 3 am from Delhi and we didn't get back until the same time on Sunday morning! Fortunately for me my companions were highly tolerant of my grumpiness on the trip back (the headache didn't help in this regard). Despite that, it was a great day and a completely different side of India - it would be nice to go back some time in the Winter months and see what the park is like in its peak season. 

I couldn't help but feel a bit sad, though, as I read about the park's troubles and its decline from its glory days. It seems like the price for development is paid most consistently by the natural treasures each country has, and India, being crowded as well as fast-developing, is more vulnerable to this than most. No surprise either that it is water that is the issue. India is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, and its developing industries are inevitably exacerbating that demand.

As the ground water on which much of India depends becomes more fiercely contested, what chance do the migratory birds of Keoladeo have of getting their share? I wonder whether a visit to the park will be as rewarding in five or ten years' time, and whether Keoladeo can ever return to its former glory. Just another challenge on India's road to development.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

There is a corner of some Rajasthani field...

There are probably not many boys from Manchester who can say they have a thicket of trees in Rajasthan, but as of today I am one of them:

Take note, not just a tree but a whole thicket. Things don't get done by half round here.

Anyway, this was my reward for speaking today at a national conference on skills development organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, in lieu of a more conventional token of appreciation. I thought this was a rather nice touch. I wonder if it's possible to visit my thicket. Probably not, sadly.

Indian audiences have incredible stamina. My presentation came at the tail end of a very long day, but the hall was still close to full and the Indian attendees all sat ramrod-straight, apparently paying close attention to the content (it has to be said that the non-Indians in the audience fared less well in this regard, and gradually sank lower and lower in their chairs as we closed in on 7 pm. I don't blame them, it was only being on a dais that was preventing me from doing the same). It was nice to have an attentive audience despite being on the graveyard shift. And a thicket to boot.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Private acts, public accusations

Greetings from Kolkata airport, which has made a late new entry rather high in my list of depressing, drab and desolate aiports around the world (closely rivalling Moscow, Coimbatore and Luton), with special mentions in the "confusing layout" and "excessive number of passport checks" categories. I would love to blog about Kolkata, but I've been here on a two day business trip that has allowed no time for sight seeing. I will just give a quick commendation for the absolutely superbly named Hotel Rockstar, which I passed on  my way in from the airport and which, frankly, deserves to become an international chain on the basis of the name alone.

I may not have seen much of Kolkata, but I did get to stay in the rather splendid Taj Bengal, which has rooms built around an enormous atrium like the world's most luxurious prison, and which pays attention to the details. Like the little "things to do" reminder note on my bed when I arrived, which included tips like "confirm your flights" and "take your prescribed medicine", but which kicked off with "have you called your family today?" This inspired a minor twinge of guilt as I reflected that it had been some days since I called anyone in my family (although I have introduced my mum to the joys of Skype). Sorry, mum.

The Taj Bengal: the most luxurious guilt trip in India

It's very Indian to find that a hotel takes it upon itsef to remind you to stay in contact with your nearest and dearest. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the family here and how assumptions about family relationships inform every social interaction. "Proper" family relationships are subject to public sanction that show themselves in ways that range from small and harmless (as per the Taj's chirpy note) to quite horrifying (such as the ritual of Sati - supposedly still practiced in places - whereby a widow is expected to throw herself onto her husband's funeral pyre).

Of course India is far from unique in imposing strict social (and sometimes legal) controls on matters that in the West would be considered private matters. But I wonder if anywhere else in the world has to deal quite so intensely with the conflicts that inevitably spring up between this and the values of a democratic, secular and liberal state. News just broke, for instance, that the Indian actress Nikhita Thukral has been suspended from making Kannada language films for three years after rumours circulated that she had caused the break up of a fellow actor's marriage by having an affair with him. The move has not gone uncriticised - anonymous members of the film industry are reported as describing it, rather mildly I think, as "unprofessional" - but the fact that this could happen at all highlights the yawning gulf that exists between what is considered acceptable censure of others' private lives in India and the UK.

Quite apart from the disproportionate blame attached to the woman in a case of alleged adultery (which is, I'm afraid, entirely unsurprising) and the apparently very shoddy ground on which Thukral has been tried and convicted by a faceless committee at the Kannada Film Producers' Association, the idea that such a private matter could lead to a formal, public ban is, for an outsider like me, incredible. It's not that Western film industries are incapable of shutting out individuals thought to have behaved improperly - from poor old Fatty Arbuckle to Lindsey Lohan, many people have found there are lines that cannot be crossed without retribution, even if they are only suspected of crossing them.

But a formal, public blacklisting is, by the standards I am used to, an extraordinarily rare thing. Even elected officials, for whom marital or sexual improprieties once spelled career death, have ceased to face such stringent condemnation for private matters in the UK (the US is a very different case in this regard, while until recently France, by contrast, seemed to take a kind of pride in the voracious appetites of Dominique Strauss-Kahn).

This very public judgement reflects the fact that in India, a strictly organised, hierarchical and family-focused society has combined with a working democracy to produce a rather fuzzy dividing line between the personal and the political, the private and the public. It seems to me to have more in common in this regards with the West in the 1950s - a time when social censure for personal indiscretions could still easily ruin lives. The question is whether the counter-culture that emerged immediately after that decade in the West will have its counterpart here. There are already signs - tentative gay pride marches, underground music scenes, an increasing number of young people who have money and access to the internet - that things are changing. But the forces of Indian conservatism remain strong.

I make no judgement about whether such social change is a good or bad thing. I don't condone the treatment of Thukral, but I recognise that traditional Indian values have long provided a source of strength and stability that has arguably been increasingly lacking in the West. I wonder, though, if India is ready for its own version of the "culture wars" - and what form they will take in the coming decades.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

But of course I have a pool

If there is one type of publication I heartily dislike, it's the lifestyle magazine. You know the type: the ones you get free in the Sunday newspaper that seem designed solely to make you feel like the entire world is richer, more glamorous and better dressed than you. They only feature people who have fabulous jobs (fashion designers, footballers, TV executives etc), and without fail they always have a smug architect (or, worse, pair of smug married architects) photographed in their insanely gorgeous, self-designed house with mezzanines and hardwood floors, filled with exquisite designer furniture with nary a carelessly discarded book or unwashed plate to be seen.

Nice pad. Now go away and leave me to my cramped, second-hand clutter.

I've long since learned to avoid this type of magazine back home in England, very much aware that they can make what usually seems like a perfectly acceptable - indeed blessed - life seem hopelessly mundane, and my lovely little flat in Peckham seem tiny, untidy and furnished second-hand (actually, it is all of those things anyway, but I still love it). But I was curious to read the Indian version when it dropped out of the Hindustan Times the other day.

I'm very aware that in the UK I have a better standard of living than most, though I'm a long way from being rich. I'm also very aware that my position in India is very different. Here, I am rich. I'm not just in the upper quartile of income earners, I'm in an income bracket that puts me alongside a tiny fraction of the country's population. It would be foolish to pretend that I am not highly, highly privileged in the Indian context. So maybe, I thought as I picked up the magazine, I would be able to relate a bit more to its contents than I could back home?

Ah, the foolishness. The magazine is called Brunch, which immediately set a few alarm bells ringing since I doubt very much that the vast majority of Indians are either (a) familiar with the term or (b) in any kind of position to ever use it. However, I ploughed on.

The first article was about private swimming pools, which according to Brunch are fast becoming "ubiquitous" in India's middle class homes. The item featured a number of interviews with young, successful Indians, including "23 year old MBA graduate Vivek, who owns a Prive Villa at Lonavla". Vivek has "just returned from two years at the University of Wales in London", about which he has this to say: "In London, I had a pool in a rented apartment that was exclusively meant for me, and I was so fascinated with that culture that when I returned, I made it a point to buy a villa with a private pool."

Well, quite. I think we've all been there, Vivek.

I didn't get much further. Lifestyle magazines are, it seems, pretty much the same the world over. But if the UK ones depict lifestyles that are accessible only to a tiny minority, how much more tiny is that minority in India? Are they the target market - holding up a mirror to their own polished lives - or does the whole thing depend on feeding the impossible dreams of those who will never have a chance to become "fascinated with the culture" of swimming pools, private or otherwise? I think we all know the answer.

Ubiquitous in middle-class India...apparently

Aspiration is no bad thing, but when magazines promote lifestyles that are way beyond the reach of even the highly privileged, and complacently depict them as normal and "ubiquitous", I can't help but find it worrying. I wonder what the psychological effect of this kind of thing (and the equally luxurious lifestyles promoted on TV) is on a people still dealing with massive poverty, where the life chances of most remain very limited, even if they do read the Hindustan Times

Dangerous days in Delhi

Today has not been a good day for Delhi. This morning, a bomb exploded at the high court - as I write, the death toll stands at 11. Apparently, an Islamist group called Huji ul-Jihad al-Islami (or just Huji) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Director of the National Investigations Agency calls Huji a "very prominent terrorist group", but I have to admit I hadn't heard of them before.

There are a scary number of such organisations targeting India, and attacks are a frequent occurrence. Most of the more high profile ones - the ones that get extensive coverage in Western media - seem to have occurred in Mumbai, but Delhi has been targeted aplenty too, with the last major attacks occurring in September 2008 in a series of marketplace bombings. Unsurprisingly, India takes security VERY seriously - you can't get on the Metro or enter a major hotel without first going through a scanner, having your bag put through an x ray machine, and undergoing a pat down from security guards.

This latest attack might be expected to leave people even more edgy. But this afternoon as I was out and about there was no obvious change in the atmosphere of the city. I had a meeting at a hotel where the security checks were maybe a mite more thorough than usual, but other than that the people of Delhi seemed largely to be getting on with business as normal.

But then what choice do they have? I have long been accustomed to living with the threat of terrorism - I grew up with it, as did pretty much everyone in the UK from the time the IRA began to be active. Of course we knew that we were potentially a target - indeed, my home city was the site of the IRA's biggest bomb on the UK mainland (though thankfully it did not claim any lives). Today the threat has changed, but we know it's still there. We also know, though, that we are much more likely to be killed on the roads than in a bomb attack (goodness knows that's true in India too). The choice is to hide in your house or just to get out and get on with life - and that's not really a choice at all.

Nature, however, is even more unpredictable than terrorists, and about half an hour ago she decided to compound the city's gloom with an earthquake. There are no official reports out as I write this, but the figure of 6.6 on the richter scale is being bandied about on Twitter. It certainly felt strong, but then the UK is very sheltered in this regard - I've only ever experienced one (very minor) quake a few years back when I was visiting my mum in Manchester. But my whole apartment shook visibly. I have to admit to being pretty damn scared for a moment there.

Sitting near the top of the plate on which India sits - which is gradually sliding under Asia and creating the Himalayas as it does so - Delhi is in a relatively active seismic zone. I have to admit I hadn't really thought about this particular risk before coming here - it's not really the sort of thing that occurs to you. But the city has a history of major quakes. This one only last a few seconds so hopefully the damage will not be too great.

In the meantime, it's been an unsettling day and a reminder that the regular run of life is something you can't take for granted - you never know when something will happen that will change everything. I've come through the day unscathed, but others here have not been so lucky. The city and I will carry on tomorrow, knowing that tomorrow could bring more or less anything.

At any rate, life in Delhi is certainly rarely dull.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Can you hear the drums, Fanindra?

Apologies for the frankly appalling post title. Actually no, I take that back - gratuitous Abba references are nothing to apologise for. And this post is all about drums.

I'm just back from a very enjoyable evening in Hauz Khas with a friend of an old friend of mine from school (one of the advantages of growing up in multicultural Manchester is that friends of friends are to be found all over the place). He took me to the Delhi Drum Circle, where anyone with a drum can turn up to the park next to the madrassa and beat out some rhythms. It was a lot of fun (and made me think about buying a drum, which I've never really considered before) with a whole range of Delhi citizens of all ages:

(This was by far the most popular of the participants, a very stately and dignified old Sikh gentleman who got down and shook his thang like a teenager. Needless to say he was whooped and cheered to high heaven every time he did so.)

There were also some very impressive acrobatics from this chap who wielded a staff that was set alight at both ends:

The rhythms came thick, fast and fierce as the surrounding parkland gradually darkened, and the crowd pressed in around the drummers clapping and tapping along. There's something very primal about drumming, and it has a way of creating a feeling of unity among a group of strangers that has a magical quality to it. As we huddled together under the threatening monsoon skies, there was an undeniable power hanging over the crowd that had the circle of beating hands as its focus and that reflected in the eyes of everyone there. It was next to impossible not to move your body in some way, and while I didn't go much further than some appreciative foot tapping, we were treated to some pretty wild dancing from some of the ladies present:

...which inspired some to go to some effort to get a better view.

In some ways the evening was a reflection of the city. This is not traditional India: the Drum Circle concept originates in the USA, and as my new friend Rishneet pointed out, across much of the country the women having such a good time tonight would be castigated for their behaviour. Even the instruments were, for the most part, of African rather than Indian origin. But the Punjabi rhythms and the love of dancing are a quintessential part of the makeup of the country, so it's no surprise that the event has become so popular. So Delhi: a city subject to increasingly cosmopolitan influences, the face of a country with an increasingly global outlook, but with its cultural roots firmly entrenched despite centuries of foreign domination.

The evening was rounded off perfectly with dinner at the Gunpowder restaurant in Hauz Khas, which served up a fantastic Keralan fish curry and a paratha so light, fluffy and tasty that it rivalled those at my much-missed local restaurant in Peckham, Ganapati. Hauz Khas scores a hit again!

6 reasons not to hate Delhi

While browsing through Delhi-related blogs last night I came across this one, which as you will see attracted a good deal of ire from readers from Delhi and elsewhere. Some of the readers' comments are a bit hysterical (folks, being critical of a city and its culture doesn't make you a racist) but I tend to agree with the thrust of them - if you're blogging for a travel website, at least make an effort to give a balanced impression of a place rather than just ranting about how much it sucks.

Anyway, in an effort to redress the balance, here's my take on six of the eight "reasons to hate Delhi" raised in the post (I can't really comment on the "accommodation" one since I obviously don't need to make use of hotels here, and I haven't yet been here for the winter fog). I'm not trying to say the place is heaven - and indeed all of the objections raised about the city are well-grounded in reality - but a little perspective is a good thing.

1. Scams. OK, this one got my back up straight off. Yes, there are people in Delhi looking to make money out of foreigners. Yes, the auto rickshaw drivers will charge you more if you're not Indian. But compared to plenty of other places Delhi is hardly a traveler's nightmare in this regard. I have had far worse experiences in, say, Venice (which, much as I love it, is basically a well-oiled machine for extracting as much money from tourists' wallets as possible) than I have here. And the tiniest amount of research will tell you that you should bargain down from the first price given in the rickshaw. You'll probably end up paying 20 rupees more than locals would - but that 20 rupees means a hell of a lot more to the driver than it does to you. Think of it as your contribution to economic redistribution and just enjoy the ride.

2. People who don't want to admit they don't know where something is. Yes this can be irritating, but really - is it enough reason to hate a city? It's just a matter of learning to read the signals. You can always tell when someone is making something up as they go along - there will be a momentary gaze into the middle distance while the cogs turn, and then they'll give a vague answer like "that way". Take that as you would an "I don't know", and carry on. Simples.

3. Spitting and peeing in the street. True, these are less than attractive practices of the (male) Delhi walla, but show me a city where people couldn't improve their manners. Spitting was rampant when I lived in Seoul, and as for peeing - try going out in London after 10 pm and it won't be long before you see something similar. What this point completely overlooks though, are the many positive traits of the city's inhabitants - the sheer number of smiles you see in a single day, the genuine desire to help newcomers to the city, and the openness of Indians generally. It's called cultural differences, and if you can only see the negative ones, I wonder why you're travelling at all, never mind writing about it for a living.

4. Traffic. Hard to argue with the substance of the post - being in a car is indeed a hair-raising experience in Delhi. But again, the city is hardly unique in this regard, so it seems a bit unfair to castigate the whole place because of it. Also, the longer you are here the more you realise that India's roads do have rules, they are just very different from the ones we're used to back home. India has more deaths from road accidents than the UK, but they are far from having the world's highest rate per head of population. That incessant horn-honking is aggravating, but it's actually mostly about safety - most honks are given by cars approaching junctions to warn of their presence. Indian drivers know how their own roads work - until such time as the way things are done change here, us outsiders just have to get used to it.

5. Dirt. Um, yes. In parts, it's dirty. Yes, I agree the city authorities could do a better job, and I sincerely hope that as India gets wealthier more resources will be available to do this (they already keep large parts of the city, particularly New Delhi and the areas around the historical monuments, very nicely - something overlooked by the author). I wonder if the author has travelled elsewhere in the developing world. Poorer countries tend to be less prettified. I also wonder if the author has spent much time in much of London, which can be downright filthy, or New York, where rats happily trot in and out of garbage bins on the street. I love both those cities because they are vibrant, exciting places with surprises round every corner - such places tend to have a grimy side, and it's all part of the appeal. Maybe some prefer to travel to squeaky clean, half asleep little towns in Europe or America. Fine - but then why go to Asia at all?

6. Over-crowding. Most baffling of all. You come to a city of 17 million people and you complain that it's over-crowded? Lord above, take your holidays in an Alpine village next time and blog about how idyllic it is - but why go somewhere you know you're not going to like and then whine about it on a travel blog?

The point is, without its imperfections Delhi simply wouldn't be Delhi. It's a massive, overwhelming cacophony of humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, and that's what makes it so intriguing. It's a city with an extraordinary, visible history and a rapidly evolving present, which seems to exist in several eras at once. It's maddening and exhausting, but it's also a vivid, exciting antidote to the carefully-packaged, chocolate-box tourist destinations of Europe. If you have any sense of adventure at all, this is a city you should come to at least once in your life.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Why do I do this to myself?

I've always been a bit intimidated by gyms. I'm not exactly what you'd call a natural athlete. I have all the coordination of a penguin on a trampoline, and it might generously be said that I have a runner's build (without, you know, actually being able to run) rather than anything approaching actual musculature. Right now, though, I'm feeling particularly un-sportsmanlike. My previously flat stomach, which used to be able to take whatever I threw at it without expanding beyond 30 inches, has started to flag in the last couple of years with the small but unmistakable beginnings of what I believe is referred to as a "middle aged spread". Meanwhile, my skin, which is sensitive enough at the best of times, has not responded well to two and a half months of the sweat and grime of a Delhi summer. It has, however, remained completely impervious to the weather in terms of developing any kind of a tan.

In short: I feel a bit gross at the moment. So today I finally decided that action had to be taken, and I joined my local gym. I'd been putting this off not just because of my inbuilt suspicion of such places, but because it is inordinately expensive. Gym membership is a luxury here, which means it's the preserve of the wealthy elite - the kind of people who have a good deal more money than your average Londoner - and this is reflected in the price. This is particularly true of my local gym. I could have got a bit cheaper somewhere else, but I know myself well enough to know that if I don't make it very convenient to go, I won't.

I don't know what the training to be a personal trainer covers, but one thing it really should include is knowing your customer. In particular, being able to spot customers for whom the whole experience is one enormous battle with that inner voice that says: "You're weak! You're uncoordinated! You look ridiculous! Go home and eat cheesecake!" For such am I, and I really could do with trainers who can help me get over this instead of making it worse.

The problem is that by the nature of the job, professional trainers are fitter, healthier, more attractive and cooler than 95% of the people they have to work with. I mean the mere sight of these guys, all sculpted torso and perfect hair, just made me want to turn around and scamper towards the first source of comfort food. Not only that, but compared to their skin (flawless, of course) my pastiness achieved day-glo proportions (not helped by my choice of a white t-shirt and black shorts).

It was not a promising start, but it got worse. First they put me on a jogging machine for 30 minutes. I hate jogging machines. I'm fairly flat footed and, however hard I try, I can't use the things without creating a thump-thump-thump so loud and intrusive that it could provide the beat for an Ibiza nightclub. The visual of me running - flailing arms and scrawny legs all over the place - is bad enough, but combined with a noise that could wake the dead you couldn't come up with a better way to make me feel self-conscious.

I got off the running machine beetroot red from both exertion and embarrassment, and we moved on to the weights. I felt on slightly safer territory here: I'm not about to try to lift tons and humiliate myself by losing control and clanging the weights down, so I thought I could just get on with quietly doing my thing. That was until my trainer tried to put me on the lowest weight level for every single exercise.

"Um...this is a bit easy..." I squeaked as he stood looking down at me on the chest press, massive biceps folded across his chest. "Can we put it up a couple of notches?"

"Are you sure?" he responded incredulously, as though I'd just declared that I fancied jogging down to the Taj Mahal after I'd finished my work out. Next to me, a tiny Japanese woman with arms like pencils was lifting double my weight. He shrugged, moved the pin, then went over to one of his colleagues and said something in rapid Hindi, which was followed by hearty laughter and a fist bump.

Yeah...these are the kind of guys who fist bump on a regular basis.

OK, I know the trainers are probably nice guys really, and I know that most of this is down to my own insecurity rather than the way they behave. But I wonder if they have the first clue how intimidating they are to a lot of people when they are in their own environment like this. As far as I'm concerned, that should be covered in Being a Gym Instructor 101. I might be imagining it, but I feel like this was less of an issue at gyms in the UK. I couldn't help wondering if the more privileged world that exists around the gym industry in India had rubbed off on its staff with a streak of arrogance. But again, it's probably just me.

Anyway, traumatic though it was, I've forked out the cash now and the incentive to get rid of that ominous ring of flab is enough to get me back there. But next time, I'm sticking to the exercise bikes, and I'm setting the pin where I damn well want to set it. 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Text message marketing and the modern Indian man

One things I am having to get used to in Delhi is the volume of marketing messages - both text and recorded - that arrive through my mobile phone. On average I get about two or three of each type a day. In the UK, I'd get maybe one or two texts a week, and I don't recall ever getting a pre-recorded voice ad over the phone. But they seem to be much more popular in India.

I'm sure there is way to block these, but actually I find them quite interesting (the texts at least, since the voice ones are all in Hindi and I can't follow them yet). When I got the phone I had to share basic information about myself, so I assume the messages I get are based on what your average youngish Delhi male is thought to be concerned with. Here's a sample:

"Call ZatSe for your requirements of:

  • Property Agent
  • Computer Dealer-repair
  • Astrologer-Palmist
  • Coaching-training institute
  • Graphic designer"

I'm fascinated by this company and its eclectic set of specialisms.


Sic. Followed by about a dozen phone numbers. Sorry fellas, I'm afraid I have no idea.

"Scared of facing d public? Public Speaking, Prsntation skills course starting in DELHI, NOIDA, GHAZABAD & GURGAON"

I've had this one about seven times. I had no idea there was such a big market here for public speakers. What do they all need to speak about? Also wonderful to see that text speak abominations are thriving in India as much as elsewhere.

"Improve Your Height 2-5 inches in 90 days. JAPANI SOLE - 100% result (with money back card and yoga CD). Age 8-35 years."

Where to begin. Firstly, adding 5 inches to your height in three months sounds both implausible and extremely painful. Unless they just give you a pair of platform shoes (maybe that's what JAPANI SOLE means?). Secondly, what does a yoga CD have to do with anything? Thirdly, what happens when you turn 35? Maybe you just get too old to be able to get away with the shoes.

"SAUNA SLIM BELT. Reduce FAT up to 10 kg (100% result) + FREE YOKO + FREE home delivery"

Weight loss spam is not unusual, but I'm intrigued by the concept of a "sauna slim belt" - does it come with a portable steam generator? Also, the idea of having the loopy widow of a 60s pop icon delivered free to your door with your weight loss belt is, I have to admit, quite tempting.

Anyway, my conclusion from all of this is that your average 30-something Delhi chap is a short, overweight, chronically shy person in need of inspiration, computer assistance and a fortune teller. (He also has thinning hair, but those ads weren't interesting enough to share here.) And if scams that promise to add 5 inches to your height make enough money to keep going, he's pretty gullible.

Or at least, that's what the text message marketers seem to think. 

Delhi roads: expect the unexpected

Delhi's public transport has already been fairly well documented on these pages, but that is only one part of the smorgasbord of vehicles you can encounter on Delhi's streets. One day I will do a longer post about the countless unexpected forms of transport that you can encounter making your way around this city. For the moment, though, here's an example - seen on one of the busiest roads near my house a few days ago when I popped out to the supermarket:

I'm not sure where he was going. He trotted past the supermarket, did a U-turn at a crossroads, went halfway up the flyover you can see in the background, did another U, and then meandered in and out of the honking cars for a bit before stopping to have a chat with a lady selling magazines. For all the world as though he was just out for a recreational canter. On a main road in Delhi. Poor horse.

The thing about horses in Delhi is that you very rarely see them without the kind of velvet-and-tassles get up you see in the photo, although in comparison with some of the ponies I saw in Mumbai the decoration on this one is quite understated (and a lot drier). Cows are so commonplace on the roads that they are hardly worth mentioning, and even elephants (which I've seen a couple of times in the city) seem to be workaday creatures used for haulage. But horses only seem to come out for a special occasion (possibly weddings?), though it appears that once their ceremonial role is over their handlers like to take them sightseeing for a bit.

The horse seemed remarkably unfazed by the hullabaloo of Delhi, even when car horns were going off on all sides of it, but I felt rather sorry for it all the same.