Sunday, 16 December 2012

A month of thankfulness

The title of this post might seem a little strange, given that some of the things I'm going to talk about are not things that, at first sight, one might be thankful for. It's been a month of highs and lows, joys and stress, conflict and love. At any rate it's certainly been a memorable time to cap a memorable year. And that alone gives me plenty of reason to be thankful.

There are basically three reasons why I've been quiet for a while. Firstly, in mid-November I went on my first proper holiday since I came to India: two weeks in Nepal, including an eight day trip rafting down 170 miles of the Sun Kosi river. Secondly, while I was in Nepal my grandma passed away, so I flew back to Delhi early and got on a flight to the UK to attend her funeral in Bristol. Finally, my return to work after a longer-than-expected absence coincided with the conclusion of two major projects, including publication of our key report for the year, which has meant that the usual pre-Christmas wind-down this year has been anything but.

So thankful? Yes, my main emotion as I come to the end of this emotional month is thankfulness. I feel I don't spend enough time being grateful for what I have and the people in my life. This month has brought it home to me.

To start with the most obvious reason for gratitude: an extraordinary trip to Nepal. I'm sure I don't have to explain to you why I feel thankful to have such opportunities in my life (and particularly to be able to go on such a trip after a one hour flight, as opposed to the long slog from the UK that my fellow-rafters faced). I'll hopefully put up a post dedicated to Nepal in the near future - it was wonderful, and if I write about it in detail here it will take over this post.

For now, though, I'll just say that one of the best things about the trip was spending a full eight days without access to the internet or telephone. I was pretty nervous about this beforehand. I've spent the last 18 months building up a new initiative and a new team within my organisation, and I'd never been out of contact for longer than a flight journey from Delhi to London before. It felt rather like I was handing over my baby to someone else for the first time. And I've become quite tech-dependent in India, particularly the internet which has been my main means of keeping in contact with my family and friends back home and elsewhere.

As it turned out, those eight days were eight days of tech-free bliss. It made me realise quite how screen-addicted I have become in the last couple of years. I've always used computers for work, but since in Delhi they have come to play an ever bigger part in my life outside work too. And my regular visits to HMV at Heathrow Airport have ensure that even though I don't have a TV connection at home, that screen also regularly features in my day. I don't really want to think about how many hours a day I spend looking at a screen, even though I deliberately avoided getting a smartphone here precisely because I didn't want to become completely square-eyed.

In the absence of the ubiquitous screens that dominate modern life, I had to find other things to look at. Like these things:

As you can see, we camped every night on beaches alongside the river. Luxurious it wasn't, but beautiful and tranquil it certainly was. And I didn't miss my phone or my computer one little bit.

My second reason to be thankful: my grandma. It may seem odd to say that my biggest emotion after the death of someone I loved dearly is gratitude. That certainly wasn't my initial reaction: she played a huge part in my life and I will miss her enormously. It wasn't until I attended the service of thanksgiving for her life, where I gave the eulogy along with my mum, that I realised that I was indeed thankful.

Being asked to give the eulogy was terrifying. Would I say the right things, would the rest of the family feel I had hit the right note, would I reflect everyone's experiences of her? But in the end it was rather wonderful. It gave me a chance to talk about my grandma, to say the things I've always thought but never had the chance to share with others, and to celebrate her. What a privilege.

I'm not going to get too sentimental on here, but I loved my grandma for her strength of character, her sense of humour, her quick wit and her forthright character. She wasn't always easy but she was never, ever dull. I was proud of her. And I'm thankful to have known her for so long.

This is possibly my favourite photo of her, taken almost exactly a year ago just a couple of days after her last Christmas. As you can see, she never lost her sense of fun.

And my final reason to be thankful this month: my brilliant team at work. In the end, what with Nepal, the funeral and my jetlag on return, I was effectively out of the picture for three weeks (though I did what I could while I was in the UK). Two weeks after my planned return date from Nepal we were due to launch our report on the recognition of prior learning (the research phase of which I blogged about in July). A week later, we were due to submit a separate research project to the ILO. Not surprisingly, when I got back to the office there was no time to gather my thoughts.

Nevertheless, apart from a couple of minor hiccups, things have gone brilliantly since I came back. The launch event went off successfully, the report is great, and all the wheels have stayed on the wagon. I can't describe the sense of satisfaction derived from the fact that not only did our project complete successfully, but that it was carried through in the final stages not by me but by the team I put together. A project that I hope will really have an impact - however small - on improving livelihoods in this country.

I'd been worried, when it came to recruitment, that it would be hard to find good staff who could take the initiative and assume responsibility, but I've yet again been shown that I needn't have worried. They are hard working, talented, dedicated and a joy to work with. I hope they realised how grateful I am to them.

There are just five days until I take a break for Christmas - it feels rather decadent coming so soon after my Nepal trip. This year has been a very mixed one. There have been great highs and testing lows. I have seen some extraordinary places and yet sometimes felt stuck in a rut. I've felt loved and lonely by turns. Work has been more central to my life than ever before, but I feel I'm doing something genuinely worthwhile. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the experiences I'm having in India, sometimes I feel guilty that I'm not making more of it or that I'm not coping with it as well as I could. I find myself simultaneously being more encouraging and supportive of my team, but more prone to irritation and temper in other contexts. Less jealous, but more prideful. More relaxed about my future, but more concerned about the future in general.

It seems this is a good moment for re-evaluating a few things in life. The simplicity of that week in Nepal was healthy - the lack of distractions and the peace may have opened a bit of a door. I don't know where it leads to, and I don't know where I'll be this time next year or what I'll be doing. But I feel like starting from a position of thankfulness is a good thing to do.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

An Indian education

Last week I was in Bangalore for a week's training. I'm a policy wonk by background, and that's very much my focus in my job here, but I am also a member of the management board of the UK-Indian joint venture company I work for. Which means, horror of horrors, that I have to show some kind of insight into business matters as well as making earnest statements about evidence-based approaches and public goods.

Most of the time this isn't a problem. I actually quite enjoy switching from policy to business mode, thinking strategically about business issues and spotting where the new opportunities are (clue: in the skills business in India, they are everywhere, but finding the ones that will actually allow you to break even is trickier). Besides, in my line of work the line between business and policy is very blurred: education businesses have to keep public benefits at the heart of what they do or they quickly lose the faith of their customers; conversely, they have to be businesslike or the market will simply eat them alive. So policy affects business, and business affects policy. That's even more the case in India, where training is just taking off and the gold rush is just beginning.

Anyway, I digress. My point was that I was mostly fine tackling business issues, except for one rather important point: numbers.

I don't mean I can't do maths. My maths is actually pretty OK, although algebra beyond x=2y can still sometimes induce mild hysteria if I don't take some deep breaths first. What I struggle with is finance. As soon as those enormous spreadsheets appear on the power point, with lots of months and decimal points and terms like EBIDTA, something tends to switch off in my brain. I know I should follow it. I know the numbers aren't that difficult. But the spreadsheets are just so big. And there are so many columns. And can't we just talk about how policy fails to incentivise enough employers to offer apprenticeships? Please?

So to cut a long story short I decided I needed to find a course on finance for people who will never - god forbid - actually work in the field, but who need to be able to go to a board meeting and talk intelligently about performance against AOP and so on, without being reduced to a quivering pile of jelly. And so it was that I spent last week putting in 11 hour study  days at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

If you want to see how serious India is about business, go to IIMB. I went to a pretty good university and I have some very, very clever friends, but this was some of the best teaching by some of the smartest people I've ever come across. It was intense, it was exhausting, it left me feeling like my eyes were propped open with sandpaper - but god, it was good. And to my enormous astonishment, it also managed to be really, really interesting. I can't say I can now confidently reel off all the principles of financial management, but I am fairly sure that the next time I'm in the board room it'll be with my head a lot higher than before.

Let me just say this again: these people made me find finance interesting. That's rather like managing to convince Ann Coulter that actually, Barack Obama isn't such a bad old stick.

Sitting in classrooms like those at IIMB it's hard to imagine that India isn't following a manifest destiny to become the most successful and largest economy in the world. But the fact is that, on current trends, it isn't. The pockets of superb quality education like IIMB exist in a sea of educational underachievement; the brilliance of the faculty (and some of my fellow students) has to be set against a system where vast numbers complete their education without sufficient capabilities to be employable. India excels at excellence, but it currently fails at adequacy.

In my last post I commented that some of the social patterns in India remind me of some of the damaging trends seen in my own country and in the USA, trends that are associated with high levels of inequality. This strikes me as another one: in all three countries there are pockets of academic brilliance, with truly world class people and incredible results, but swathes of the population are left behind completely. And the problem is that academic brilliance alone isn't enough. Sooner or later all those people will need people who are brilliant in other ways. The people who probably won't ever lecture a room full of businessmen about macroecnomics or create innovations in nanotechnology, but who will make sure the people that do those things live in a world that works - and will do so by achieving high level skills that may lack glamour, but that are sorely needed.

All three countries are committed to developing skills at all levels and to offering opportunities to all. But sometimes I wonder if that's enough. In a world that idolises a privileged minority of celebrities and business leaders, and emphasises material gain as the way to happiness, who'd want to become a hotelier or a plumber? Who'd want to settle for just being an ordinary, successful person? And who, when they realise they'll never earn a seven figure salary or appear in Hello!, wouldn't be tempted to just throw in the towel altogether? Policy commitment to diversity of skills and opportunity may not be enough in the face of a modern culture that sometimes seems geared in entirely the opposite direction.

The more unequal we get, the more aspiration is narrowly defined, the more the middle is hollowed out, and the less liveable our societies become. And that's a challenge India has in common with a lot of places that, superficially at least, it looks nothing like.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wheels and class

There are many visible indicators of class and wealth in India. You can see it in the way people move, their body language towards each other, the clothes they wear (not just the quality or costliness, but the aesthetics), and in their faces (a browse through the faces on, a brilliant site that facilitates micro loans to needy people in India, will show many people for whom the daily toil of life for millions of Indians adds decades to their appearance). And you can also see it in how they get about.

Transportation may not seem a particularly important marker of class or power, particularly in a country where millions identify themselves as poor by proffering a begging bowl. But as any country's economy develops, the need to move about - and the desire to do so in comfort - grows inexorably, and this puts massive stress on infrastructure and inhabitants. In Delhi, with its crowded roads and might-is-right traffic rules, traffic and transportation are becoming one of the most visible battle lines of class conflict. As the city grows, so does its inequality, and this battle looks set to go for a good while yet.

Take this story, for instance. Gaurav Jain, a 26 year old journalist, researching the lives of cycle rickshaw pullers by doing the job himself, was assaulted by a police officer for 'blocking the road'. Before I say anything else I want to say: kudos to Mr. Jain. Most of the time, Delhi seems to consist of a million or so "important" people and countless millions of others who get ignored. The cycle rickshaw pullers, the street hawkers, the hijras tapping on your car window at the traffic lights. Your average car-driving Delhiwalla barely seems aware of the existence of these people, never mind having such an interest in how they live that they'd be willing to take on a tough and - let's face it - demeaning job in order to understand it.

I don't say this to be critical. Anyone who has lived in a big city will understand that urban survival depends on an ability to act as if you're the only person walking down the street, standing on the train, driving to work. There are just too many people. We can't acknowledge them all. And the ones we do acknowledge tend to be those most like us, the ones to whom we can relate. So in Delhi it's no surprise that the aspiring middle classes pay scant attention to the poor guys slogging their guts out dragging a family of five on the back of their bike for 15 rupees. It's the way things are, and after living here a while you find your blinkers tend to come on pretty quick.

Anyway, back to Mr. Jain's story. Following the attack he went to the local police station to make a complaint, but was ignored. "It's strange how much a person's professional standing or profile can affect the way the law treats him", he said. Quite. Somehow I don't think his rickshaw puller colleagues would find it all that strange.

That the rich and privileged can expect better legal redress than the poor and excluded is no surprise. What was interesting to me was the reason for the attack: "blocking the road". Read: getting in the way of the car drivers, who are far more important than you.

This reminded me of another story that came out a few weeks ago, about the ongoing saga of Delhi's bus lanes and the objections from car users that they are causing delays. The quoted comments in the article lay bare the stark class divide here, and the assumptions made by the privileged about the millions of dispossessed Indians (on whom they depend for everything from domestic cleaning to shoe shining). "People" are being delayed by traffic jams because of the bus lanes, argue campaigners. "How does it matter if a peon reaches his office five minutes before time?" asks one. The apparently radical idea that "people" should also include those who use public transport has to be specifically pointed out by a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology.

It should be obvious that when only 10% of a city's inhabitants drive, yet the streets are already clogged to all hell, public transport has to be at least a part of the solution. But the fact that the bus lanes are fighting for their survival is testament to the disproportionate power held by those 10%. Of course, while they appear to be fighting for their own benefit, if they get what they want it will simply ensure a miserable future for everyone: a city even more gridlocked, fume-choked and cacophonous than it is already.

And this is what worries me most about the emerging battles around Delhi's transportation system. It seems to encapsulate a situation where growing inequality leads to class-based battles that belittle ordinary people and lead to the privileged taking decisions in their narrow benefit, rather than recognising the need for development to work for all, not just the "wealth creators".

The result, it seems to me, is usually a set of outcomes that are worse for everyone.  There are parallels to be made here with the increasingly unequal societies in the UK and the US (among others), which in the past 30 years or so have become massively richer, massively less equitable, and arguably a good deal less happy, healthy and secure. Repeating those patterns in a city the size of the Netherlands - let alone a country of 1.3 billion - is a scary prospect.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On surprises, elephants and counting oneself lucky

My last post was a bit gloomy, so I'm putting up a quick one to reassure everyone that I don't hate Delhi, honestly. In fact I'm feeling quite well-disposed towards it just now, largely because it's finally, finally starting to cool down a bit. In fact today we had an unexpected afternoon rainstorm and when I walked outside my office it was actually lovely - cool, crisp, with that post-rain tang in the air...just perfect. I stood there breathing deeply for a good three or four minutes (breathing in goodness knows how much particulate matter, but let's skate over that), no doubt making the security guards think I am completely barmy.

Well, actually they already think I am completely barmy, due to the ongoing saga of The Foreigner Who Can't Make Up His Mind When He Wants His Lunch, but I'll save that for another day. Anyway, the point is, beautiful, cool, refreshing evening ensued. It's been a very long time since I've been able to say that. So that was a nice surprise.

Delhi does spring nice surprises on you every now and then. Like this one, which was outside my front door when I left the house a couple of weeks ago:

In case any of you are thinking that elephants are an everyday sight in Delhi, they're not. As evidenced by the fact that the cluster of locals on the right of the photo were every bit as fascinated as I was (which made me feel a bit less like a gawking foreigner). I think this was perhaps the third one I've seen in the city. They're still used as beasts of burden, but it's not surprising that these days the alternatives seem rather more practical. Still, no JCB was ever as photogenic as this.

If elephants are a rare sight in the city, its animal life is still quite extraordinary for someone like me (for whom "urban wildlife" consists of mangy pigeons, the odd fox and the dead rat I had to scrape off my patio a couple of summers back). In Delhi you're as likely to see parrots as pigeons, and while I'm sure there are rats aplenty they get less attention than the frankly vicious monkeys that inhabit the trees and rooftops. I count myself lucky not to have seen any snakes, and the worst thing I've had in my flat (apart from the notorious termites) have been a few medium-sized cockroaches. Alas, my resident population of geckos have vanished (I hope they moved out, but I suspect the pest control methods used to get rid of the termites may have been somewhat apocalyptic in nature).

And if none of those beasties appeals, there are always Delhi's stray dogs, who seem almost as numerous as the people. I was a bit intimidated by them at first, but they are in general surprisingly docile. The worst thing is the fact that so many of them are missing a limb - the consequence, I presume, of their rather foolish habit of going to sleep at full stretch by the side of roads down which Delhi drivers hurtle on a regular basis. One of them has been adopted by the security guards at our office and regularly plonks himself down at the bottom of the steps at the entrance; I've got used to taking a big stride when leaving the building to avoid treading on him. Indeed it seems like most of the city's injured canines are adopted by someone or other - it's hard to imagine they would last long against the competition if they weren't - which is a rather endearing feature of city life.

It's easy, when you are busy with your working day and regular routine, to focus on those aspects of the city that frustrate and irritate, and to overlook the things that make you smile. But no doubt when I come to leave here, I'll look back on the time when I found an elephant outside my front door and reflect that it's not a circumstance I'm ever likely to experience again. It may seem a silly thing, but it does remind me how lucky I am to have the chance to experience a place so completely different from my home, even with all its challenges.

Anyway, autumn is here, the days are warm, and the streets of Defence Colony have acquired a sun-dappled hush (in between the honks). It's a good time to be in Delhi.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The summer that never ends

Readers in the UK might see the title of this post and think "how lovely". Make no mistake, this is not going to be a lovely post. This is going to be a big old moan about Delhi's climate. Yes, I know I've been silent for two months and it's not good form to return on a whinge. I don't care. The weather in Delhi is to a large degree to blame for my failure to write anything since August, and it's about time I just said it out loud so we can both move on (hopefully, into a nice chilly winter).

I am sick and tired of this summer.

It is now seven months since the temperatures rose to what I would term largely uncomfortable. Admittedly for some of that time I was out of India, thanks to visa complications, but for the sake of rhetoric I will disregard that. Seven months of being perpetually sweaty. Seven months of attempting to sleep to the lullaby of my geriatric AC system or else lying spreadeagled on the bed feeling beads of moisture trickle down my forehead onto the pillow. And seven months of getting gradually, progressively, inexorably, more and more exhausted.

I don't know how people do this every year of their lives. I've never been so tired. OK, my job is fairly responsible, involves a lot of multitasking and a fair amount of travel, but on the other hand I'm not exactly working 18 hours shifts in the Emergency room. I shouldn't come home at the end of the working day with barely enough energy to open my front door. I shouldn't wake up in the morning after 10 hours of sleep feeling like I've had three. Doing something I love (recently, singing with my choir or making a short mostly-Hindi-language film with friends, which involved standing around on roadsides a lot and not understanding anything about the plot) shouldn't feel like an impossible demand designed to wring out the very last drop of enthusiasm from my mangled get-up-and-go. But that's how I feel right now.

Maybe it's not just the weather. Maybe it's Delhi - the traffic, the crowds, the pace of life, and all those other things that you have to deal with here. Maybe I just need a holiday (a proper one, rather than snatched long weekends which, although terrific fun, are not all that effective as a restorative). But my heart says that I just need to spend some time in temperatures well below 30 degrees C for a while.

I've lived through the Delhi summer before, but when I arrived last year it was already mid-June. This year, breaks aside, I've been here for the entire seven months. I think my body's just caved in. I'm not designed to cope with these temperatures for this long. Hell, I don't think anyone is.

So, the last couple of months have been marked by a feebleness unmatched by anything I've experienced since I was hooked up to a dozen medical machines as a 4 month old with meningitis. Since this has coincided with the recruitment of my team (finally!) and the corresponding increase in my workload (I'm sure that's not how it's supposed to go, but it has) it's left me unfit for much in the evenings beyond staring open-mouthed (and quite possibly dribbling) at YouTube videos of 1980s English cooking shows. I wish I was kidding about this.

I exaggerate but a little. To be honest, I've actually spent a lot of the last couple of months thinking about a whole ton of things and how India has changed my perspective on them. I haven't yet reached a sufficient degree of lucidity to blog about them yet. I hope that the cooler weather just around the corner (please, Lord, please) will let me do so. But for as long as summer keeps its gnarly hands grasped round October's throat, my productivity is more or less confined to the working day.

Friday, 10 August 2012

India at altitude

Once again I've been very tardy about posting following a jaunt out of Delhi, for which apologies. Anyway, about a month back I hopped on a flight up to Leh, in Ladakh up in the high Himalaya. This is a corner of India quite unlike any other - it really does feel like you've stepped into another country. The culture, the scenery, the people are all decidedly closer to Tibet (which I was lucky enough to visit a decade or so ago) than they are to the Ganges plains. Leh itself doesn't really feel like an Indian town (apart from the incessantly honking horns - I'm not sure there's anywhere in India, apart from maybe the smaller islands in Lakshadweep or the Nicobars, that doesn't feature that). The usual hustle and bustle, the overwhelming activity that you seem to find pretty much everywhere else, is absent. In its place is a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere quite at odds with the fact that the place is in Jammu and Kashmir state - one of the most unstable trouble spots in the world - and hosts a huge military presence.

My time in Ladakh was all too brief - just four days, which was just enough time to adjust to the altitude, do a little bit of trekking, see some fascinating monasteries and buy a rather nifty rug. My friends Nick and Alex, who are travelling round India for a few months, had rather more time to appreciate it. But it was a wonderful place to escape the heat and the crowds of Delhi for a little bit, and kicking back with a cup of chai and watching the sun set over the mountains from a cafe seemingly squeezed into someone's attic was heavenly. Less heavenly was our trip back to Leh after the trek, which involved an ill-advised attempt by our guide to ford a stream in our little minivan. It took a couple of hours to rescue the minivan, and we had to get the army involved. Fun!

So here are some photos from the trip. I hope you enjoy them.

Minaret in Leh. The dominant culture may be Buddhist but the city has seen significant immigration, and now hosts quiet a diverse population including a significant number of Muslims. I did think this was a particularly graceful piece of architecture.

Looking up from Leh's old town towards the palace, perched on a ridge above the city.

Typical view in Leh

The marketplace at Leh. This is pretty much about as busy as it got while I was there - this would be the slowest of slow days in Delhi.

New hat. Ahem.

The Red Temple, high above Leh. Getting there was a struggle but worth it.

View between the prayer flags from outside the entrance to the Red Temple. I was really quite pleased with this photo!

Nick And Alex outside the red temple

And Alex and me! As you can see my legs have entirely failed to notice that they are exposed to the sun.

Nick and Alex horsing around. Leh in the background.

Typical view of the valleys in Ladakh. It's amazing how the barren mountains give way to the lush green valley floor, which looks like a carpet or even the surface of a lake. The Ladakh irrigation systems must be superb - literally nothing grows beyond the confines of the valley.

Prayer flags tethered to an outcrop, Red Temple, Leh

This is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The scenery in Ladakh is majestic: all sweeping panoramas of mountains in various shades of brown and grey, punctuated by pockets of green, and sitting underneath skies that seem almost unnaturally blue. I have to admit though that after a while in the mountains I did start to miss the greener environs of lower altitudes!

One of the few photos I took inside one of the monasteries we visited. We were told that photos were fine, but I still felt very uncomfortable taking them. Just to my right there were about 100 monks chanting in prayer, and I felt like a coarse and vulgar intruder. I took this one shot and then stopped. 

I love that the temples and towns of Ladakh make up for the lack of colour in the environment by making everything they can colourful.

Monks at Lamayuru monastery. 

Yup, it's a seriously big Buddha.

I'm not sure what the significance of the headgear or the percussion is (if anyone can enlighten me I'd love to know). But taken together they certainly create an impression.

There was a large pile of firewood stacked up outside the monastery - I guess they get supplies in during the summer for the long and hard winter.

This was possibly the highlight of the trip - at Lamayuru monastery we came across a group of monks creating a mandala out of coloured sand. It's a painstaking process but they had achieved this in less than 24 hours. Temple was filled with the sound of them scraping their metal tools together to deposit tiny amounts of sand in the exact right position to create the intricate and beautiful pattern, chatting quietly as they did so. Outside the mountains were bathed in bright sunshine and birds flitted around the windows. It was a world quite apart from anything I've ever experienced, and it was breathtaking.

Close up of the tools used to create the mandala.

I like this picture because it tricks the eye. He is actually standing on a broad, flat roof (the white part) but it looks like he's perched on a narrow ledge. 

Young monk taking a rest from work

I like the combination of banality and grandeur in this photo.

Life is hard in Leh. I spotted this lady coming with her heavy burden as I was gazing out from the monastery wall. It's sometimes easy to focus on the picturesque monasteries, monks and prayer flags and forget that people have to earn a living up here in the barren mountains.

Wood stacked up in Lamayuru village. I liked that it was so neatly arranged by type of wood - I presume each has different properties, so they need to be kept separate. But it also created a textural contrast that I thought was really beautiful.

The village at Lamayuru.

Looking back towards Lamayuru after setting out on our short trek.

Three sweaty people.

Early attempts to rescue the minivan after the afore-mentioned incident in the stream. Needless to say pushing the thing was never going to work. Ultimately we had to flag down an army truck, then find a length of chain, and then have about eight people pushing before we could get the thing out of the water. I got to push, and felt all butch. For a second.

All this is just a couple of hours' flight from Delhi, and it feels like another world. It's a cliche to say India is astonishingly diverse, but - well - it is. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Dark and Dry

If you're reading this outside India, you've probably already heard that we've been having some power problems of late. On Sunday night, somewhere around 2 a.m., I was awoken by the unmistakable sound of my AC unit clunking off with a finality that can only mean "power cut". Believe me, it's not a sound you want to hear on a Delhi summer night.

To be fair, Sunday night was only slightly sauna-like, positively mild by Delhi standards, and anyway I was too dog-tired to have much difficulty getting back to sleep. To my surprise, though, the power was still off when my alarm went off five and a half hours later, and hadn't returned an hour after that when Anil came to pick me up.

Turned out, as I'm sure you're all aware, that I wasn't the only one having problems. In fact, everyone in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh had apparently also lost their juice. The whole northern-central part of the country - millions and millions of people - had been affected by the Great Northern Grid Failure.

Only we can't call it that, because it happened again today, this time in the afternoon. Or at least that's what I'm told, because our office generators did sterling work and we didn't even notice (a colleague spotted it on the BBC news). But it's all quite worrying. India has creaky power infrastructure and supply shortages, but a failure on this scale hasn't been seen for about a decade. So I'm thinking two in one week is not a good indicator of things to come.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it's looking like the future is going to be increasingly dry and hot as well as dark. Delhi is parched right now. Last year, when I got caught in a downpour at Humayun's Tomb, it was the start of a couple of months when it rained almost every day - not constantly, but reliably there was a pretty hefty dumping of water every afternoon during the monsoon. This year, there have been three serious bouts of rainfall that I can think of. Days and days go by during India's famous rainy season without a drop. I'm told the last few monsoons have been late and capricious. This year, the monsoon just hasn't bothered at all.

The rains fail every now and then and it's unpleasant for the city's residents, worse for the farmers who depend on the monsoon for their livelihoods. But there is now serious talk of a permanent change in the monsoon patterns. That's a truly terrifying prospect. One drought can be weathered without significant social change; take away the monsoon, and you lose a key part of what makes this much life possible in such a relatively small amount of space. The majority of India's population is still rural, and the majority of them still farm. And all of them, of course, need to eat.

This week feels like a rather alarming foretaste of things to come, if India's stressed climate does not get some relief. A hotter, drier, hungrier Delhi with paralysing power shortages and ever-more people moving in from the parched fields? It's a scary vision indeed. 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Lady in Red (and blue)

The main Olympic story in the UK at the moment may be the opening ceremony (which I didn't see, being ensconced in bed trying to get over my recent bug) and Mark Cavendish's ongoing Olympic woes, but over here the focus has been on a hitherto unknown individual. Here's a picture of her with the Indian delegation, marching into the stadium on Friday night. Can you spot her?

If you're thinking that someone forgot to tell an Indian athlete what the dress code was, you're being over-generous. Turns out that no-one had any clue who the lady in red top and blue trousers, looking rather, ahem, distinctive against the yellow-and-navy tones of the delegation, actually was, and still less clue what she's doing there. She's since been named in the Indian press, but no further details about what she's doing walking next to Sushil Kumar seem to have come out.

The Indian acting chef-de-mission in the UK has unsurprisingly demanded an explanation from the organisers, saying that the incident had 'embarrassed us in front of the world'. Fair enough, but I think the only people who should be embarrassed by this are woman herself and the security team at the opening ceremony.

I can't imagine what was going through her head when she decided it would be a good idea to tag along with her country's sporting elite on one of the biggest nights in global sport, at which they had earned their attendance through years of dedication and hard work. I can only assume that she is not someone who thinks things through very much.

The security question, though, is different, and there are some serious questions that need answering. As many have pointed out in online comments, we are lucky that this person appears to have been nothing worse than a vain and thoughtless individual with rather poor dress sense.

The Indian 'online community' is predictably up in arms. Most of the ire is directed, quite reasonably, at the breach of security, but the incident has opened up old wounds too. There was a lot of resentment towards the British media at the time of Delhi's 2010 Commonwealth Games, when a slew of programmes about poor preparation and the construction of the athletes' village brought attention of a rather different nature from what India wanted.

At the time, there was a good deal of feeling here that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage India's image. At the same time, of course, Indians quite happily lambasted the Commonwealth Games organisers themselves, and the general feeling among my Indian friends is that the Games were a shambles. But, as Mitt Romney recently found out, the only people who are allowed to criticise the organisation of a major sporting event in any one country are people from that country. This seems to be a general rule of humanity.

It does seem to be an extraordinarily sensitive area. Normally, for instance, I find that Indians don't much care about the colonial history between our countries. It's accepted as a part of Indian history, and certain legacies, principally that of the English language, are widely recognised (others, such as the creaking exam-based education system, are too, but in a less positive way). But it doesn't go much beyond that, either in terms of lingering fondness or lingering resentment. India's key foreign relationships are in its neighbourhood, and with China and the USA; the UK is really just one of a dozen or so "oh-yeah-they're-vaguely-important-too" sort of places.

This story has really brought out the cranks though. Here are some of the comments on the Times of India's original reporting on the incident:

"This is a serious issue. This could be a plan by the Brits who try every possible opportunities to damage India's image."

Some people here really do seem to believe that us Brits spend every waking moment dreaming up new ways to belittle and attack India (actually, guys, we're more concerned with attracting investment, boosting trade and benefiting from the massive economy India is destined to see the logic?).

"If this has happened in India on any international event for the contingent of any foreign country, each and every TV and media channel will continuously broadcast it and everyone will be demanding a CBI enquiry and resignation of minister and official concerned. Now nothing will happen to anyone in UK. Every one will hail the games a great victory and praise the successful conduct of the games by the administration, which will bring benefits to their country."

This made me chuckle,  partly because of the idea that the Indian media would consider something like this the main story around a major sporting event taking place in India, but mainly because it gets the British character so totally wrong. We don't like to hail great victories and praise our administration, or welcome great benefits to our country. We like to moan. We might have temporarily put this aside for the opening ceremony, but trust me, we'll be back to complaining about the Olympic price tag and delayed tube trains before too long.

"What is the big deal particularly as a foreign woman has gate crashed to run the country!!"

This was actually the thrust of most of the popular comments. Yup, there is no connection so tenuous that it can't be used to make a dig at Sonia Gandhi.

But I'll give the final word to a Canadian commenter, who I think makes a very sensible point:

"I want to be very honest with my beloved Indian friends. I am not Indian, but I love India dearly, as well as Indian culture and Indian history. I have grown up with Indians my entire life, but there is something I must say to the people of India. India is a strong, mature, democratic state, and as such, Indians need to stop overreacting to events like this. Much of the world views Indians as having an inferiority complex, who constantly overreact to any situation where their 'national pride' might SEEMINGLY be violated, regardless of how small and harmless it is. India is much better than this and Indians have no reason to feel slighted or insecure - you are praised and held in high regard around the world and as a mature democratic state, you need to display this confidence and not be upset over something as superficial and insignificant as this."

I may not quite agree on the insignificance point - this was a serious security breach, clearly - but the rest has a lot of substance. I recognise that, as an incredibly diverse place with a relatively short history as a unified, independent country, India's national identity is still fairly formative and fragile; I recognise, too, that its history of attacks and occupations by external forces can make Indians peculiarly sensitive on issues of national pride. So it's no surprise that there may be a tendency to overreact to things like this. But shrill conspiracy theories rarely help the people who make them.

I'd just like to hear what the lady herself has to say for herself...

Saturday, 28 July 2012

A Building Site in Bangalore

Spending all day on a building site in Bangalore may not be most people's idea of a reason to feel grateful for life's opportunities. But that's what I did on Wednesday this week and that's how it made me feel.

I was down in Bangalore supervising the pilot stage of a research project we are doing at the moment. I won't bore you with the details, but it involves evaluating an initiative undertaken by a local NGO to assess the skills of labourers working in the informal construction sector. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work in India - putting in long, hard hours - and they live a fairly precarious existence, traveling wherever the work is and with no contractual protections. They've very rarely had any kind of formal education and the skills they have have been picked up on the job, with no formal recognition at all. So the idea of the project is to recognise and certify their skills, facilitating access to work and further training, as part of India's wider efforts to train its population. As a policy specialist, most of my work is done at a computer or in meetings; it's not all that often I get to see what's happening at the ground level. This was a rare exception.

Building sites in India are, by and large, hot, dusty, noisy and relentless. There's often very little shade. The workers slog under the sun before squatting in the unfinished buildings to eat their lunch. Underfoot is pretty much a mass of rubble; strange struts of metal stick at random angles out of bare concrete staircases. Mechanisation is usually minimal; bricks are either carried up flights of stairs on people's heads, or hauled up by pulleys. This is not an easy existence.

In Bangalore, there was a girl in a red outfit with a toddler hoisted on her hip. She looked about seven or eight at most. My colleague from the local NGO asked why she wasn't in school; she ducked her head and wouldn't say a word. Her father explained that he couldn't afford to send all of his children to school. Some would get an education, some wouldn't, he said. She was needed to take care of her little brother. Like her parents, she will probably remain illiterate.

We interviewed a number of workers for the pilot. Of course I couldn't understand what was being said, but a translator was to hand. At one point, one said that "the big people" had come and asked him to take the assessment. Big people, I asked? He means the NGO folk, I was told. But we are all big people to him. We have an education.

I didn't feel like a very big person at that point in time; I just felt like a very lucky person. I wanted to ask, does that mean he sees himself as a small person? Is that just accepted? But I felt foolish. There's no way I can understand the perspective of someone whose start in life has been so utterly different from my own. And no amount of liberal hand-wringing about inequality or caste can change the fact that, for him, that's just the reality of his world.

Our research partner commented that he thought it was impressive that I was willing to come to places like this; most people wouldn't bother, he said. I tried to explain that I see it as an extraordinary privilege. In my work I've had the opportunity to meet village women in Ghana, labourers in India, policy makers and researchers from countries across the world. Every one brought fresh perspective to me and enriched my world. I know that the villagers and labourers will never have the chance to broaden their horizons in the way I have, and that their lives will likely be hard until the day they die. Meeting them, even briefly, is humbling and something for which I'm incredibly grateful.

Back home, my friends are posting about their excitement at being part of the Olympics, and I have to admit to feeling a twinge of regret at not being there to participate in the spectacle. But on the whole, I'm glad I'm here instead.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Oh it all makes work...

I have a very nice apartment. It's big (way too big for me, in point of fact); it has a roof terrace; it has three bathrooms (all of which I have tried); and it's located in a spot just far enough removed from the Delhi traffic to be something approaching peaceful. However, as with many things here, you don't have to scratch very far beneath the lovely exterior to find workmanship that, well, won't be winning awards at WorldSkills any time soon. The third of the above mentioned bathrooms features an unconventional hole in the wall above the shower head; the power sockets are installed in an entertaining variety of positions and efficacy; and a number of the balcony doors have to be bolted permanently because they don't shut on their own otherwise.

I'm not too fussed about any of this. I've yet to be electrocuted, and the other things are pretty much irrelevant to my life here. Plus, the flat is so big that I've kind of got used to just inhabiting those bits of it that are more or less functional and aesthetically pleasing.

So when, on my second day in India, the door fell off one of my kitchen cupboards, I wasn't too fussed. Again, it's a big kitchen, and I could never fill all the cupboards, so I just haven't used that cupboard. Unfortunately, since then, the same thing has happened to another three cupboards. Faced with a kitchen full of lean-to detached doors, I finally gave in and got my landlord to call in the local carpenter. Re-fixing four cupboard doors, I thought. Half hour job, tops?

24 hours later, my kitchen looks like this:

Now, I'm the last to claim I have any skills in carpentry (or indeed any practical skills whatsoever) but this strikes me as a little excessive. I've been home sick today (having endured a flight back from Bangalore last night while in the midst of a raging fever, chills and sweats) and have witnessed an inordinate amount of coming and going, involving at least four people and a quite impressive amount of dust. None of the workers speak English and my Hindi is certainly not up to "um, you know you're only supposed to be replacing the doors, right?" So I've been curled up on the sofa in my dressing gown listening to the bangs and the crashes and wondering if I haven't ordered a complete re-fit by mistake. Every now and then one of the workers comes out of the kitchen and stares at me. Which is not a nice feeling, given that I feel like I've been hit by a bus right now and am even pastier than normal.

Compare and contrast: my recent discovery (I don't know how it's taken me this long) of roadside, mobile coconut stalls that, using an ingenious set of pipes, spikes and whatnots, get you from raw fruit to glass of chilled coconut water in less than 30 seconds. Efficiency is a rather selectively applied concept in India.

Update: I am chastened. It turns out that my collapsing cupboard doors were due to termites, which I had somehow failed to notice. So now half of my kitchen is being replaced, and the whole flat treated to prevent the little buggers coming back. I take it all back!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A very English take on India

I'm finally back in Delhi after nigh on a month in the UK, which arose because of an issue with my visa (don't ask) which meant that I had to reapply for it rather than renewing it. So my first anniversary in India was actually spent in London. It was frustrating to have to be away so long, but I have to admit it was nice too - especially escaping the June heat. But in general I just feel I've spent far too much time this year hopping from pillar to post, and particularly between Delhi and London for work. Happily there are no more trips scheduled for the rest of this year (though there will certainly be some in-country travelling to be done) so I'm hoping I can focus a bit more on India for my remaining time here.

Anyway, on the flight back I finally managed to do something I'd been planning for a while: watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If you don't know it, it's a recent film featuring a gaggle of British pensioners heading off to Jaipur for retirement, and it has a cast list that reads like a Who's Who of every English period drama you've seen in the last fifteen years (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie...) as well as Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. Obviously I had to watch it, since the basic subject matter is the culture shock experienced by new arrivals in India from the UK, albeit of a rather different generation.

The film is very, very British. It has a gentle, understated humour, it is populated by amusing eccentrics, it has an undeniable warmth to it, and like most British films it's ever so slightly smug about how gentle, understated, amusing, eccentric and warm it is. Of course with a cast like this you can't go far wrong with this material and it was a pleasant dose of escapism on a dreary flight. But did it speak to me as someone who's been through the settling in period in India?

Well, yes and no. Movies are simplistic and in this one everyone reacts in a fairly linear and straightforward way to their new surroundings. Penelope Wilton is horrified; Judi Dench is wide-eyed and keen to explore; Maggie Smith is repulsed; Tom Wilkinson rediscovers his youthful energy. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, meanwhile, barely seem to notice they are in India at all and just seem to carry on as they were. With the exception of Smith's character, none of them seem to experience much conflict or fluctuation in how they react to the country.

This is where it really didn't ring true for me, because I've been through every one of those reactions and a dozen more in my year in India. You can't have a simple reaction to a place like this; it doesn't let you. There have been days when, like Dench's character, I've been brimming with zest to get out and see as much as I can; equally, I've had Wiltonesque days of wanting to stay indoors with a glass of wine and pretend I'm somewhere else.

Of course this is an ensemble piece so the filmmakers can be forgiven for not probing individual emotions too deeply; there just isn't time. But the broad brush approach also has the effect of making the film curiously uninformative about India. Some old stereotypes are wheeled out, like India the place of spiritual discovery (though thankfully this is not over-played), and some new ones (a call centre features heavily). Caste issues are briefly touched upon, and one character remarks how Indian people "see life as a privilege, not a right" (I'm not totally sure what that means, to be honest). But overall, the film's gaze remains firmly on its British protagonists. Some great visuals of the teeming crowds of Jaipur aside, the story could have been set pretty much anywhere.

There were some elements that were rather more surprising - Tom Wilkinson's story arc, in which he searches for the Indian man he fell in love with 40 years previously, in particular - the film generally sticks to safe territory. The Indian characters - likeable but naive young man, overbearing mother, mostly-silent-but-ineffably-wise old man - have been seen before and Dev Patel is on very familiar turf. I was a bit uncomfortable with the ending, in which the fate of the eponymous hotel is resolved in a manner that hints at a somewhat neo-colonialist attitude. But maybe I'm just being over-sensitive.

Anyway, I certainly enjoyed the film and the stellar cast do exactly what they are very, very good at: engaging their audience. But they stay firmly centre stage, and India is decidedly playing only a supporting role.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Dust to dust

Delhi is about as hot as it gets right now. Today was 43 degrees and we are set to hit 45 on Friday. This isn't the first time I've experienced these temperatures here - this time last year I was in Delhi looking for a place to live, and when I moved in mid-June it wasn't much cooler. I can't say I enjoy it much, but it's better than Delhi's meanest climate trick, which it saved until the very end of my first year here: the dust storms.

This time of year, as the city burns like a furnace, the broiling air rises rapidly and creates a vacuum into which some pretty strong winds can sweep. When those winds come from the South West, from the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, they come laden with dust that can transform a merely uncomfortably hot day into a swirling tornado of misery.

I was in Green Park market when the latest one hit Delhi. It's a surreal experience watching the approach of the storm: a distant blurriness on the horizon transforms into an advancing brown wall, gradually obscuring the buildings until suddenly it's upon you. The air suddenly becomes thick with grit and particles; the dust whips your skin and creeps into your ears and eyes; breathing becomes a matter of sucking a minimal amount in through clenched nostrils; when you clench your teeth you can feel the grit grinding between them. The streets empty as everyone seeks shelter wherever they can. The polluting effects, several newspapers noted, are even worse than those caused by the insane quantity of fireworks let off during Diwali (which says a lot about just how insane that quantity of fireworks is). The dust gathers in great swathes on any horizontal surface, which dance and morph into new patterns as the wind sweeps over them. Vehicles, balconies and pavements are caked in the stuff. It becomes inescapable.

Photo taken from The Hindu website

This isn't my first time dealing with this; Seoul's infamous "yellow dust" comes from the deserts of Mongolia at a similar time each year and blankets much of Eastern China, Korea and Japan in choking squalls. Maybe it's just the luxury of distance, but I don't recall the experience being quite so unpleasant as Delhi's dust storms though.

Apparently these storms are set to get worse as desertification increases across Asia, including North West India as well as Mongolia. Already the storms - rather than the dust - are deadly; India's often-sub standard infrastructure is vulnerable to severe weather and buildings frequently collapse under the high winds. But the health effects of the dust itself are also becoming severe, with rising cases of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

There's not much that can be done about the storms themselves, which will continue for as long as the deserts do. But it seems that the job of cleaning up the dust is currently something that is beyond the city authorities. Outside of the squeaky-clean, embassy-heavy areas around India Gate and Chanakyapuri, Delhi's streets are constantly dusty and dirty, and walking for any length of time here will leave you needing a shower. I suspect that the May storms are the origins of a lot of this dust (though the non-stop construction work must also play a significant role). Contrary to popular belief, despite the crazy traffic, vehicular emissions represent only a small percentage of the total particulate matter in the city. 

For the most part I haven't found Delhi's pollution to be half as bad as you might suspect, but the figures speak for themselves. The city has made successful initiatives on the environment in the past (particularly its much-ballyhooed initiative to LPG fuel. But it's already too big to manage easily, and continues to grow at a breakneck pace; and there seems to be more pressures for new malls and new roads than for environmental improvements. Delhi's dust is probably not going anywhere any time soon.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cartoons, class and political insecurity

For the outsider, Indian politics is a mind-bogglingly confusing mess. A multitude of institutions, individuals and social groups seem to be locked in a permanent battle with an infinite number of fronts; the states and the centre  perpetually tussle for power, with the current swing being decidedly towards the states; competing interests lead to paralysis until, quite inexplicably, everything happens all at once and you're left reeling in confusion. Democracy in India makes the tortuous, ludicrously long US Presidential election look like a primary school egg-and-spoon race.

This makes it difficult for a foreign blogger, in the country for less than a year, to write anything vaguely intelligent on political issues, which is frustrating for me as someone who's followed politics in one way or another for may years. Every now and then, though, India's politicians throw me a bone by embarking on a squabble that manages both to dominate the headlines and yet be so silly that I feel like even I can get a decent grasp on it.

The current furore on the Indian political scene concerns cartoons. As Denmark knows well, cartoons have an extraordinary ability to upset people. Normally, though, the cartoons that cause offence are ones that are produced by bold, some might say reckless, modern artists who are willing to take risks to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. In this case, the cartoonists are not young. They are dead. And the the cartoons are not modern. They were drawn 60 years ago.

It all started with the inclusion in school textbooks of the following cartoon:

For those outside India scratching their heads, the man on the left is Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. On the right is BR Ambedkar, a quite extraordinary man who was born into a Dalit caste but became a renowned scholar and jurist, and was largely responsible for the drafting of the Indian constitution. He is, with a great deal of justification, regarded as an icon of modern Indian history and in particular as a hero by Dalits. As the cartoon shows, however, he was not immune to criticism.

When it came to light, however, that this cartoon had been included in school text books, all hell broke loose. An insult to Dalits; a slight on a national hero; derogatory; offensive; inappropriate for "impressionable young minds". Most of these howls of protest seemed to emit from the two houses of the Indian parliament. There were calls for the resignation of the Minister of Human Resource Development, who has responsibility for education in the country.

Not only that, but it transpired that there were other cartoons included in the text books featuring political figures who were portrayed in a demeaning or insulting way. The protests reached new levels of shrillness; now, the cartoons represented a "conspiracy to malign the political class"; young children were being "poisoned" by such images. Faced with such a cacophony, the Minister eventually announced that all "offensive" cartoons would be removed from the textbooks.

At this point I think I should add some context by sharing the text that accompanied the original cartoon in the textbook. It ran as follows:

"Cartoonist's impression of the 'snail's pace' with which the constitution was made. Making of the constitution took almost three years. Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why, do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?"

In other words, the point of including the cartoon is to encourage students to think about a key period in India's history and the writing of the nation's founding constitution, and to do so through the eyes of a contemporary political observer. The text book's use of the cartoon seems solely aimed at bringing an otherwise dry issue to life; giving students an accessible entry point into discussion and understanding of a remote but crucial point in India's past. 

I studied politics at school and remember our textbooks, and our teacher, making frequent use of such cartoons precisely because they bring issues to live in a vivid and engaging way. This, for me, is the strength of cartoons wherever they appear. Yes, they are often also used to mock and ridicule persons in positions of power. But this is secondary to their power to engage the reader in political issues. I don't recall my "impressionable young mind" being "poisoned" by all this. I do recall being made to think.

It would be easy at this point to sneer at India's politicians and their thin-skinned reaction. Good grief, says the cynical Brit in me, try being a politician in the UK, which has a tradition of mockery of its politicians that is probably unrivalled in its savagery anywhere in the world. If India's politicians find the image above so revolting, God help them if they ever remake Spitting Image over here. 

The general public seem a bit bemused by it all. I don't know if there are armies of Dalits out there outraged at the treatment of the man who did so much to raise them from subjection, and I could hardly be totally unsympathetic to them if there are. But judging by my friends' views, and those on the comments pages on the internet, this whole affair is simply political trickery; a distraction from the real issues that India faces and an example of a privileged class at the top of the hierarchy demanding not just power and prestige but also obsequious respect.

There's something in both of these accusations, I think. The sight of politicians, who live a life of unimaginable luxury compared to the average Indian, complaining about "conspiracies" against them does stick somewhat in the gullet. And of course the old watch-the-rabbit trick is a favourite of politicians everywhere (though manufactured crises are not usually based on such nakedly flim-flam material).

I have a slightly different perspective on this, though. Power in India is like a sand dune: it's constantly shifting, and while it might look as solid as a mountain it could be a completely different shape in a short length of time. Lower castes and other excluded groups are asserting themselves more; new alliances are springing up; the once all-powerful Gandhi dynasty is looking vulnerable. For all their privilege, members of the political class know that their position depends on being able to navigate this rapidly shifting terrain and stay on top. There is, in other words, a reason why they sound so insecure: they are.

Compare this to the UK, where an extraordinary number of our political leaders come from a very, very narrow background of Eton and Oxbridge (though the assumption that the UK is becoming more elitist is not correct, the degree to which this kind of privilege has remained in place since the war is remarkable, as this article points out). Our political class still has a sense, not of being in danger of losing their position, but of having a right to it: of it being their natural place in the order of things. As a white, male Oxbridge graduate myself I have come across this attitude a good deal - deny it though they of course would.

So maybe this explains why British politicians don't get hot under the collar when they are portrayed as a slug, a poodle, or a fascist dictator on national television. They don't need to. They can afford to be complacent. And although I pity the schoolchildren whose textbooks have been left drier and less effective by this ludicrous affair, I can't help but feel that it reflects something that makes India so exciting: in political terms, it's a big and increasingly level playing field, and no-one really knows who's going to win the game.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Looking the part

Last time I did a concert with my choir, I cheated a bit on the outfit. Maybe I hadn't quite got the confidence up yet, but I took advantage of the black colour scheme to take a decidedly half-hearted option: long black kurta over ordinary black trousers and a pair of suitably unobtrusive shoes. I felt like a bit of a fraud to be honest. So when I was told that the colour scheme for the spring concerts was off-white with blue or gold, I decided this was my cue to make amends.

Off-white doesn't give you much to hide behind. The closest thing I had in my wardrobe was a pair of beige slacks, which would stand out a mile with everyone else in full Indian get up. So there was no choice for it: not just a new kurta (yes, I now have two) but pyjama and juttis too.

In case anyone's confused at this point, I'm not talking about the pyjamas your mum used to put you in before bed. This is the original pyjama, and the whole reason why the word is familiar to English speakers at all (it entered the language during the colonial period). It's a curious, lightweight leg garment that is very baggy at the waist, tapering to a tight tube around the calves. The first time I encountered the thing in the changing room at the wonderful FabIndia store) I was genuinely bemused. I'd never seen anything remotely like it and I wasn't entirely sure how it was supposed to match a human body shape:

Just to clarify, that's a 1 litre bottle of mineral water at the bottom. Those legs are very far apart. This is because of the crazy amount of material at the top. When you struggle into the things and pull the drawstring tight you look remarkably like a Tudor gentleman who's decided to combine his doublet and hose into one odd-looking garment. For those of us of the lankier and not-so-young-anymore persuasion, it manages to perfectly show off our spindly legs at the same time as emphasising our incipient middle-age spread. Needless to say I didn't spend a great deal of time admiring myself in the dressing room mirror.

Happily, they're not designed to be worn alone, so I was able to hastily throw my matching kurta over the top and try to erase the image of the pyjama-clad me from my mind (it didn't work, so I'm sharing the pain with all you lucky people). But of course the trickiest thing was footwear. Slipping on a pair of brogues or converses was clearly not going to work with the pyjama. So it was back out to the shops to get my first ever pair of juttis.

Juttis are traditional Indian shoes. They come in two main types: Punjabi (flat) and Rajasthani (which curl up at the toe like the shoes from the illustrations in the copy of the Arabian Nights I read as a kid). I've discovered a number of things about juttis:

  • They are surprisingly difficult to find, especially if you're a bloke
  • When you have found men's juttis, 95% of them will look like they are supposed to be for women, and hard cheese if you're not fond of gold or silver
  • They are possibly the most uncomfortable footwear known to man.
Anyway, after a lengthy search I found a pair that were towards the acceptable end of the gaudiness scale. And here they are:

Yeah, I just can't get away from the fact that they look like they belong in my sister's wardrobe, not mine.

Anyway, despite all my misgivings I have to admit that the sum total of all this finery is actually quite nice to wear and (shoes aside) comfortable. Here's me and fellow chorister Johannes in all our glory:

Not too bad, right? At least I don't feel like a complete idiot as a white guy wearing Indian clothes, which I probably would have if I'd ever gone in for the traditional dress in Korea:

Or, indeed, in Holland (actually now I come to think of it, even juttis are pretty comfortable compared to clogs. Wooden shoes - how was that ever a good idea?).

Anyway, the ladies of the choir assure me that the outfit looks just fine, and it does make a nice change from a suit and tie (it's great to feel like you've dressed up but that you can also breathe). Not sure what I'm going to do with all these things when I leave in India (costume parties? get my theatre society to stage A Passage to India?) but in the meantime: when in Delhi...

Monday, 7 May 2012

Shopping and segregation

I'm not usually a mall kind of person. This is maybe because instead of growing up in, say, Houston, Texas (where the malls are sparkly, the clothes are cheap and they sell interesting things like Dead Sea salt rubs which then leak all over your suitcase), I grew up in suburban Manchester in the 1980s. In Stretford, we didn't use the word "mall" to describe our local shopping centre; we called it "the precinct", or - more often - "the preccy". It was built of yellow public-toilet bricks and concrete, and had an increasingly pound shop-occupied interior that was scarcely less depressing. After I left Manchester, the place was indeed rebranded as "the Stretford Mall", but they weren't fooling anyone.

This wasn't a great introduction to the mall experience, though I've undoubtedly had a somewhat better experience since then. I retain, though, a healthy dislike for these places and their soulless capitalism, divorced from the civic and artistic life of the city centre. So I've pretty much avoided the various huge establishments that have sprung up in south Delhi in recent years, and done my shopping in the various family-run, stick-out-your-elbow-and-knock-over-an-entire-exhibit little stores in the various local markets.

Every now and again, though, needs must. This last weekend I needed to go shopping to buy a new outfit for the concerts my choir is giving this week. Last time the dress code was black; this time it is off-white, so I had to buy another kurta (yes, I now have two garments that I'm going to wear maybe four times in my life). I decided this time I'd go the whole hog and get the matching pyjama and juttis too (that's a whole other post) so I met up with a couple of friends at the Vasant Kunj mall to do the needful, as they say here.

Vasant Kunj mall is actually a set of three interconnected malls, that sit by the site of an enormous dusty highway somewhere amid the south Delhi sprawl. The location seems bizarre to me. As a non-driver I find the idea of putting commercial outlets miles from anywhere where people would naturally walk to be inherently weird; for those used to getting everywhere by car, I guess the perspective is different. But anyway, the view from the malls is of said dusty highway, a few sad patches of grass, and a lot of Indian style pavements (cracked stones, random gaps, even more random lumps of concrete stuck in the middle of the path). And that's it. You can't see any human habitation or other commercial activity, even though logically they can't be that far away. It's just the malls and the wasteland. It's very post-apocalyptic.

(I feel I must add at this point that I didn't take my camera with me, so the above photo is not my work. I hope I would have managed to get a reasonably horizontal shot...)

Talking of the apocalypse, like any self-respecting horror film fan (and I am one, though that seems to surprise people quite often) I can't go to a mall without my thoughts turning to zombies. And Vasant Kunj could indeed be modelled on the Dawn of the Dead mall. Once you've left behind the broken concrete, cooking under the 42 degree sun, it's definitely more Houston than Stretford: sparkling clean, completely sanitised, and shamelessly dedicated to shallow consumerism (in which, of course, I would NEVER indulge. Oh no). And like such places everywhere, it's populated by people who, in the main, are mindlessly in pursuit of exactly that.

We want Gucci saris, new iPhones, and fresh masala brains please.

Actually, though, I was more reminded me of a more recent Romero outing, Land of the Dead. You know, the one where the survivors of Z-Day are walled up in an idyllic prison while outside chaos rules? Vasant Kunj mall feels a bit like that - a slightly surreal, too-perfect world that bears no resemblance at all to the noisy, hot, churning city outside. And while this may sound like I am drawing a comparison in the mall's favour, I'm not. For a couple of hours it was nice to escape the dirt and the heat, breathe in the air-conditioned goodness, and eat caprese salad in a sports bar complete with pool tables. But it gets old pretty quickly, and anyway, it feels as phoney as those impossibly handsome shop mannequins you see these days.

I'm not sniping at India for having malls, or romanticising the "real India" as something under threat from these developments. As I said, I don't much like any malls, and I think they do have a destructive effect on the vitality of the cities where they spring up. But I understand their attraction, particularly for Delhiites between May and September, when the weather is at its most intolerable. I can't blame people for wanting some cool air, some space, and some respite from the traffic cacophony.

If, of course, you have the money to afford it. Indian malls have tight security, and routinely turn people away if they look like they can't afford to shop there (which, of course, the vast majority of Indians can't). At least in UK shopping centres anyone can come and window shop; in India, part of the appeal of these places is that they are exclusive to a small number of well-off people who are desperate to escape the seething masses for a while.

And this is what I find a bit unnerving about them. Generally, markets in Delhi are quite equalising places. Yes, you have more exclusive ones where stores cater to people with large budgets, but to get to them you can't avoid rubbing shoulders with shoe shine boys, cycle rickshaw wallas, and all the others, hustling for a few rupees. The streets of Delhi simply don't allow for much segregation between different kinds of people.

So the mall seems symptomatic of a wider change in India, seen also in the proliferation of gated communities in cities like Delhi and Bangalore. A degree of exclusivity - in leisure activities or education, for instance - has always been a feature of being rich; but India's increasing wealth (and its concentration in the hands of a few) seems to be leading to a place where rich people's entire lives are becoming removed from those of their poorer countrymen.

Maybe I'm exaggerating. The markets at Lajpat Nagar or Sarojini Nagar remain, after all, melting pots of Delhi society (and despite the lack of air conditioning or piped music, a more rewarding experience for the visitor). But I think the trend is there - the same trend that, for instance, South Africa has seen (though for different reasons, I think). Is the future of urban India one of stark polarisation? Will tomorrow's rich Indian kids have any idea at all of the poverty existing on their doorstep?

More to the point, is the only option for an increasingly rich India a future of increasingly bland consumer environments and the decline of the vitality of the street? And is that just a patronising Western perspective on the inevitable changes taking place in a country that rightly wants a chance to experience the kind of living standards I've been able to take for granted?