Friday, 30 March 2012

Indian workplace relationships explained

A friend of mine posted this recently on Facebook and I thought it deserved a share.

For a simple little cartoon, this tells you an awful lot about workplace relationships in India. Note for instance:

  • The over-usage of the word "sir". This is not an exaggeration. People really do use it in every single sentence when talking to their boss.
  • The complete lack of stress on the face of the late employee (reading back, that sounds like he's dead. But you know what I mean). He knows he's late, he knows his boss will be angry, but it's just how things go. He may even suspect the truth of the matter and know that his being late doesn't actually matter so much. But even though he's happy as Larry, note also:
  • The crucial need to make a show of repentance, even if you're blithely sitting on your scooter enjoying a few minutes more of the illusion of freedom.
  • The equal need on the part of the boss to make a show of "bossiness".
  • The clearly far greater stress levels being experienced by the boss, even though it's the employee who is getting a dressing down. 
  • And finally, the completely unexaggerated depiction of Indian traffic at its worst. Though the idea of there being this many stationary vehicles in one place without anyone trying to sell anything is somewhat fanciful.
Hierarchies are really, really important in India (and that's from someone from the UK). The need to maintain the outward appearance of those hierarchies can lead to some pretty surreal situations. I'm sure this one has happened in reality more than once.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Guest blog: Mum's Indian adventure

Mum's off back to England tomorrow, having recently returned from a six day tour of Kerala with Jenny. So I asked her to do a guest spot on the blog about her travels. As you'll see, she's had a memorable time!

Chris has invited me to write a 'guest' blog, as a short stay visitor with a different perspective (being both female and older!). Well, here goes...

When we first arrived, it was definitely sensory overload - just so much and so many of everything! This has made it very difficult for me to process and analyse my experience, so here are just some impressions, roughly categorised.

As a woman, I had to start with that, really! The sheer variety of colours and textures available, both for men and women, is staggering. It's partly this incredible array of hues that adds a vibrancy to almost any situation, however drab and dusty the surroundings.

In Delhi, more women seem to favour salwar kameez, with their cleverly blended colour schemes and their long, flowing dupattas. There seem to be many ways these can be worn, but I haven't yet worked out the secret of keeping them in place! (My friend, Jenny, and I had salwar kameez made for us here in Delhi.) In Kerala, more women wear saris. How wonderfully elegant they look, too, especially as very few seem to expose midriff! They all seem to have such good posture.The traditional Keralan sari is a warm creamy yellow, with a variety of border patterns.

Many men dress in western fashion in Delhi, whereas in Kerala most wear a western style shirt with the traditional lungi. This can be full length or tucked up into the waist or folded in on itself. I don't know how they keep them up!

Well, Chris warned me! It is absolute mayhem in Delhi: everyone beeps their horns all the time, people overtake on the inside, outside, from a side street, or wherever they feel like. They create four lanes where there are only meant to be three and what are lanes anyway?! It is chaotic and frightening, especially when you see young children in the middle of a busy street, but mostly, it seems to work!! All I can say is, with my thirty years' driving experience, I would be hopelessly underprepared for coping with traffic here, where they seem to be able to judge a gap to within a cm.

I do think motorised rickshaws are a great idea and a really economic way to travel. Jenny suggested they would work really well in London.

My worst experience
Fatehpur Sikri Mosque!!! I hated every minute of it.

We were pestered even before we got to it, by a young man saying he didn't want any money and just wanted to improve his English. Chris made it clear we didn't require a guide, but he and his older 'brother' dogged us the whole way round. To make matters a hundred times worse, we were plagued continuously by people (including young children) trying to sell us things. They would not take no for an answer and followed us the whole time we were on the site. I was unable to concentrate at all on enjoying the architecture. At the end, our two self-appointed guides showed us their 'family' products. We each bought something, but the younger one wasn't satisfied with that and wanted money as well. Needless to say, he didn't get anything!

In fairness, I need to mention that the palace here was quite spectacular and we were left alone to enjoy it. And we also met some lovely local people - I enjoyed negotiating with a lady in the local market for some beautiful decorative ribbons!

My best experience(s)
The most unusual was probably our elephant ride. I must admit I was rather nervous, especially when we were going up and down slopes.

The most relaxing: on the houseboat in Kerala, where we were treated like royalty, with a driver, cook and waiter all to ourselves. It was wonderful sitting in the open air, surrounded by beautiful scenery and being served breakfast. In the evening there was a spectacular lightning display, which lasted about four hours.

We were also able to unwind when we took a rickshaw ride in Keoladeo Ghana National Park. The guide we had with us was a naturalist and extremely knowledgable and it was really peaceful.

And one of the most fascinating experiences was definitely Holi, which Chris has already blogged about. It was lovely to spend the day with the local community who welcomed us into their festivities. It would be lovely to see this sort of community event happening more often in England!

This is a truly beautiful state, full of lush greenery. It is also a land of contrasts. Around Cochin there are some magnificent villas and it is relatively flat.

Then you begin climbing up into the mountains, where you  come across isolated villages, where people are obviously much less well-off. The roads are a veritable switchback, often with really steep drops on one side or sometimes both! Around Munnar are slopes blanketed with tea plants. They cover every available inch, including some pretty steep slopes.

Next you have the backwaters, which are completely different again - mile upon mile of waterways, which make our canals look tiny. Some of the people here live on narrow strips of land and rely on long, narrow boats or water taxis to get around.

Kerala seems to be less poor than some other areas and the pace of life is slower. People are very friendly and seem happy. The land is fertile and mango, coconut, jackfruit and papaya palms abound.

The other thing that was very apparent was the flourishing of Christianity. There are so many wonderful churches, many of which are of recent construction. Their architecture is so very varied and often quite beautiful.

All in all, we've had a wonderful time, seen some really contrasting areas of India and have some amazing memories to take away with us.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Holy Holi!

Welcome to my 100th blog post! It seems quite fitting that it should be about an event that I've been eagerly (and a bit nervously) anticipating for a good while now: my first Holi festival.

And what a crazy, fantastic day it was. My friend Gaurav, who sings in my choir, invited me, my mum and my mum's friend Jenny to his local neighbourhood, where the community was gathered in the central park to pelt each other with water and paint and generally let loose. We were all a little bit nervous to start with, not really knowing the rules or what to expect, but we'd followed closely the advice we'd been given: wear old clothes, oil your hair (my mum really didn't enjoy slathering her head in olive oil), and come well armed. I'd been shopping the day before for water pistols, water balloons and coloured paints - lots and lots of coloured paints.

Just as well really, since after a slightly apprehensive beginning, the local kids (and some of the local adults) of Som Vihar decided that pelting the foreigners with as much water and paint as they could throw at us added immensely to the enjoyment of the day. We gave as good as we got, naturally, but I think on balance I probably have to give the victory to the locals. In return, they cooked us some chicken biryani and Gaurav's grandmother graciously allowed us into her flat for tea even in our paint-covered states.

What makes Holi (at least in Som Vihar) so special? The innocence, the exuberance, the sense of a community coming together for simple fun. The breaking down of social barriers and hierarchies for a day. The sheer pleasure of a holiday without any of the pressures of Christmas. And, of course, getting to pour buckets of coloured water over total strangers.

My mum commented that it would do kids in the UK a lot of good to have one day in the year when this kind of misbehaviour and silliness is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I think it does adults a lot of good too. I've been pretty stressed with work of late and I felt a huge chunk of that fall off me the more the paint was piled on. We don't have holidays like this back home. Ours are full of pressure - where do we have Christmas lunch, did we get the right presents, is our New Year the Best New Year Ever, can we get off the M25 before the bank holiday is over? Holi felt like the exact opposite - the release of pressure by licencing mayhem of the best kind. And I can't think of a single day in the British calendar that brings local communities together so effectively - the closest being Bonfire Night, or at least Bonfire Night as I remember it from my childhood.

On Holi, tradition has it that normally rigid social structures are broken down. The roles and relationships defined by caste, age, gender and family structure are loosened for one day. I wonder if this is what April Fools' Day or Halloween used to be like in the UK, before they morphed into something less socially vital.

Anyway, a million thanks to Gaurav and the people of Som Vihar for such a wonderful day. I don't think my mum could have found a better way to spend her first full day in India than being warmly welcomed into a community like this. And I had an absolute blast.

Me and mum, looking colourful.

Mum and Jenny

When water pistols just don't cut it any more.

Gaurav, before he got pinker.

Mum clearly loving India so far!

An average-sized water pistol.

Som Vihar locals enjoying the day.

Gaurav with a Delhi-based German family we got chatting to - the only other foreigners there.

Gaurav looking mean and intimidating (except for the primary-colour plastic gun)

Yup, Man Utd get everywhere...

Enjoying some chicken biryani put on for the occasion. Someone had very recently yellowed me.

Gaurav checking his paint is in place.

The back of my head (showing evidence of aforementioned yellowing)

The aftermath of Holi on one of the local park benches!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A poetic interlude

I don't do this very often (and perhaps I should do it more) but I had to share this blog post about the poetry of Southern India. The poems quoted are gorgeous and the detail about the poetic traditions of the region is fascinating.

I particularly liked this one:

What she said:

No-one was there but he,
                              the Thief.
If he denies it, what shall I do?
Only a heron was witness
          its thin gold legs like millet stalks
          it was eyeing the araal fish,
          in the gliding water
on the day
he took me.

Very simple, very evocative, very timeless. And considering the age of the poem, quite remarkable to read something on this subject from a female perspective. It reminds me a little of Song of Songs, though more concerned with the fears and doubts that surround relationships (as well as the differing pressures on men and women) than with their joy. Beautiful, though.

Monday, 5 March 2012

An Event of Some Importance

I'm a bit on edge at the moment. This is partly because of work deadlines but mostly because of what's happening on Wednesday: my mum is coming to visit.

Of course I'm looking forward to seeing her. My mum and I get on very well and spending time with her is always fun. But I have to admit I'm more than a little bit nervous about how she's going to react to India.

My mum's traveled quite a lot, especially for someone of her generation who didn't have access to cheap international travel until relatively late in life. She's been to New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Oman, Korea, and a clutch of European countries. But I can safely say she's never been anywhere quite like India before.

Of course it's every son's job to be overprotective of his mother, so I've done my best to prepare her for the most obvious challenges. Most particularly the roads - she's not a big fan of bad driving at the best of times, so I have advised her just to pretend she's on a beach whenever she's sitting in the car, and that she can't see or hear anything but the sea, the sand and the sky (a technique I've employed myself when the honking and the crazy manoeuvres get too much). And I'm in the happy position of being able to provide a driver for her, so she won't need to worry about getting about. But of course that's not stopping me fretting about how she'll manage the food, the crowds, the heat (it's warming up very quickly) and the poverty.

As if India alone weren't enough of a culture shock, she is arriving the day before Holi, the festival of colours, which habitually involves people pelting each other with coloured paints, water cannons and water balloons. I've asked a couple of Indian friends if we are likely to be particularly targeted as foreigners. They all just sniggered.

So I'm quite nervous. I am really excited that she has this opportunity to visit India, something that not many people do at this point in their life, and I really want her to enjoy it. But I think realistically that it's going to be a challenging trip for her as well as (I hope) an exciting one.

I'm probably not giving her enough credit. After all this is a woman who survived both the two year old me and the 16 year old me, and she deserves an award for the latter alone. But like I said, it's my job to be overprotective. She's got an hour and a half massage booked for the first day in the country (she's flying economy class via Helsinki, so I think she'll need it).

Anyway, the impending Maternal Visit has prompted me to do some stuff around the house that I've been meaning to do for about six months - like connect up the gas to my hob and actually put my pictures up on the walls (in my defence, both required the services of a local handyman and it's not always easy to know how to find such services here. Though it's not much of a defence as mostly it's down to my procrastination). So my flat is looking a little bit more like a home now, with a few touches from home that are so important when you relocate:

So, a visit from my mum has once again been the major impetus behind me getting my lodgings in a respectable order. Some things never change, no matter how far you travel.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

A less than warm welcome

Writing this post makes me a little bit sad, because I really want to be more positive than I am going to be. One of the things I'd been meaning to do for ages is visit the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, which lords it in serene magnificence over Old Delhi. I had a few friends in town for a couple of days, so it was a good excuse to take a morning off from the daily grind and tick this particular box.

I'm never totally comfortable visiting places of worship as a tourist. I'm very aware that entering a place of such deep spiritual significance, while not being able to fully understand that significance, is a dangerous thing to do and something that requires great sensitivity. I think most people approach visits to religious buildings in the same way, anxious not to cause offence, aware that one might very easily do so through sheer ignorance.

Of course not everyone subscribes to this common-sense caution. We've all heard tales of the topless guys and the bikini-clad girls trying to access this or that holy site. I am sure that the folks at the Jama Masjid, which is maybe only surpassed by the Golden Temple in Amritsar as India's most-visited religious site, have seen plenty of such indiscretions in their time. Which may help explain why the welcome we received there was, frankly, the rudest and most hostile I've experienced in India.

It didn't start well, when I was (literally) yelled at to take my shoes off even while I was still on the steps up to the mosque. I'd been observing the locals, and saw that they climbed the steps, took their shoes off at the top, and then carried on inside. So it wasn't as though I was about to march in in my shoes; my ignorance just seemed to be assumed. There then followed an unpleasant exchange about the 200 rupee camera charge. I don't have a problem with paying this - a building the size of the Jama Masjid takes some maintenance and it's only fair that non-religious visitors should contribute to that - but I did object to the bullying manner with which it was demanded of us. This included it being re-demanded after we were deemed to have taken too long looking in our wallets for the required notes (about five seconds).

Once we'd run this gauntlet we were able to get inside and appreciate the gracious, wide open space of the interior of the mosque, and climb the tower for some impressive (if smoggy) views of Delhi. But again the visit was marred by being interrupted about eight times by scowling men who growled "ticket!" at us as if we were schoolkids caught in the corridor during class time.

By the time we left we felt thoroughly unwelcome, and I'm sorry to say that this rather overshadowed our appreciation of a remarkable building. To make matters worse, hidden charges emerged, including "shoe charge" (which we paid) and a charge for borrowing a sarong for my friend who was wearing shorts (which we didn't, since no mention had been made of a charge for this at the time). Again, these were demanded with a brusqueness that verged on the outright aggressive.

I think it was the first time in India that I've felt so very unwanted, and I think I can honestly say this was not down to any behaviour on our part (given the general caution towards visiting religious places I mentioned above). Maybe it is just down to the fact that so many hundreds of tourists come through here every day. On the day we visited most of the people at the mosque seemed to be foreign tourists. And I can see how this might be vexing, given that we are talking about a place of worship, not a tourist attraction. Of course tourists' needs take second place to people visiting the mosque to worship, and of course a financial contribution is entirely reasonable. But since tourists are - happily - able to visit, a smile or two would make the whole thing a far more pleasant experience - for both sides, I think.

Anyway, that aside, here are a few shots I took during the visit. As you can see, it's a beautiful and peaceful place. When you're not being growled at.

The mosque is drenched in sunlight and is apparently a good (though I imagine rather hard) place for a nap. Not sure what the American ladies made of it though.

Another good spot to sleep in the sun.

On the main steps up to the mosque

Ladies gathered under the call-to-prayer loudspeaker

Plenty of space to play

Young mosque-goer

Chatting in the shade of the mosque

Gathered round the central pool

The impressive main gate of the Jama Masjid, with the Red Fort in the background

There's a lot of floor to sweep.

Minaret of the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi in the background

Birds' eye view of the mosque's main courtyard

Posing with the main gate in the background

While the courtyard is an open, calm oasis, on the other side of the wall is the more familiar frenetic city.

Sleepy in the sunlight

And here are some from the Meena Bazaar, just outside the Jama Masjid, which always presents lots of interesting photo ops.

So altogether, not my favourite experience in Delhi. But you learn to take the rough with the smooth. It's a naive traveler who expects to be welcomed with open arms everywhere, and I got to enjoy some glorious architecture and some space to breathe in this normally shoulder-to-shoulder city.