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?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A rocky patch

Yup, it's been a long silence from me. Thanks to those of you who have continued to check in despite the dearth of new material. I hadn't dared to look at my blog stats until today, but they were a pleasant surprise.

The fact is, India and I have not been getting on too well of late. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that our relationship has been through a bit of a crisis. And for various reasons that's meant that the last thing I have felt like doing is sitting down to write about the experience.

It all started when my mum went back home (mum, if you're reading this, this doesn't mean that this is your fault!). I don't think I realised it at the time but I had got quite accustomed to having her around, quite quickly. And when she went back to England it triggered a wave of homesickness that, if not quite tsunami-like, would certainly give surfers something to get excited about.

Unfortunately, that also added to some ongoing work-related stresses and the exhaustion induced by a heck of a lot of travel (which has also had an impact on the blog - hard to write about India when I seem to be spending half my life in London of late), and I went into a major down turn. Nothing I couldn't handle - eventually - but enough to keep me away from much productive activity outside of holding down the job and keeping up to date with my study (which I have barely managed to do, and we won't talk about my most recent assignment grade).

I honestly believe that when expat life feels miserable, it is 99% about internal factors and what's going on in one's life than the country itself. If I had been in Switzerland, Angola or New Zealand, the last month would have still been awful. Similarly, the lowest point of my life to date - the first six months in Korea - were almost entirely about my feelings about myself and things that were going on in my personal and family life, not about the country itself.

But the thing is, that's not what it feels like at the time. At the time, all you can see is that you're feeling miserable and that everyone around you is trying to make you feel worse. All the things that are normally the stuff of humorous anecdotes become very personal attacks on your own sanity and well-being. The restaurant that doesn't have the dish you want (about half the restaurants I go to, it sometimes seems); the driver who frightens the crap out of you by pulling up behind you and blasting his horn; the shop where the security guards insist on checking your receipt despite having seen you make the purchase three feet in front of them; the airport security guys who arbitrarily change the rules every time you board a plane; the pizza delivery place where everyone thinks you've said "three" when you've said "two". They're all out to get you. And you find yourself saying the dreaded words: I hate this bloody country!

This is where one of my least favourite creatures in the world, the Moaning Expat, starts coming into being. Anyone who's spent any time overseas has come across them: they've lived in the country for at least a couple of years, probably have at least a couple to go, and spend their every waking second moaning about it. They tend to huddle in self-sustaining small groups, which delight in swapping the latest tales about how bloody awful everything is here while slurping down the proceeds of their (or their spouse's) highly paid job in a local bar. The only thing they seem to enjoy more is swooping on some wide-eyed, excited newcomer and punctuating their misguided optimism with some harsh realities about the hell hole they've just moved to.

As you can probably tell, I don't want to become a Moaning Expat. But I've come perilously close this last month. I think the kicker was when I was getting deeply impatient with a taxi driver in Bangalore who didn't know how to get to where I was staying (admittedly, right by one of the biggest hotels in the city, so he should have known, but everyone knows that taxis in Indian cities are largely driven by migrants who don't benefit from much training, so you just have to be patient). I had a slight out of body experience and saw myself: mouth pinched tight at the corners, eyes rolling, saying things like "it's one of the biggest bloody landmarks in the city, for god's sake!". It wasn't pretty. I didn't like myself very much.

(In my defence, I had at this point been travelling from London via Dubai and Delhi for something approaching 22 hours. But still.)

So I decided enough was enough. Yes, I'm still a bit homesick, and yes, I still have to do lots of work travel, and yes, there remain significant challenges at work (given that I'm trying to set up a whole new team, that's hardly surprising - and one of the reasons I took the job was the challenge). But I found myself wondering when I got so angry, and more to the point what I really have to be angry about (answer: let's face it, not a lot). Stuff that. When I got back to Delhi I got a good night's sleep and then went back to the gym, started eating better, and met up with some friends. Because if I've learned one thing about warding off depression, it's that physical and social well-being go hand in hand with mental contentment.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't suddenly turned into Pollyanna and India remains a place that would test even her sunny disposition at times. But like I said, it's 99% about what's happening inside. And I feel like I may just have turned a corner that very much needed to be turned.

And maybe - just maybe - that means I can get back to regular blogging again.