Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fame before I leave

Passage to India - published in Telegraph. This will be my last blog entry before I leave Bhawanipatna and what better than to have the last two years of my life here summarised by The Telegraph Expat section. Follow the link above to view the article.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Insanity at Indane

Two years ago I purchased a commercial gas cylinder plus a regulator/tap for which I paid a deposit. However, domestic gas is much cheaper so I gave the gas to the Antodaya – they needed the larger canister not least because they cook my lunch every day – and I survived by using other people's domestic gas cylinders paying the cheaper price to fill them up. Now, I'm leaving I need to return the empty commercial bottle to get my Rs1650 (£23) deposit back. Talking to Baijayanta about how you did this, he seemed concerned that I hadn't actually used the regulator and that it was still in its packet. "If you haven't used the regulator, they will know it wasn't you that used the gas and you won't get your refund". "What difference does it make? How will they know?" Apparently it wasn't worth the risk so we swapped the new one for a used one on another bottle. "You'll also need your passbook and the voucher." Well I had the passbook but had no recollection of ever having received a voucher. Baijayanta started to look very worried. I suggested we just went to the office – I had the empty cylinder and a passbook to prove I had custody of one – what more did they need? So this morning with the cylinder and me loaded onto a cycle rickshaw and Baijayant riding his own bicycle, we proceeded to Indane, the gas office. The voucher, which turned out to be a receipt for the gas I had bought – the gas mind you not the bottle - turned out to be very important indeed. I stuck to my guns – if I had received a piece of paper like that I would have kept it – I can't have got one and, anyway, why do you need it? The man solemnly retrieved several books from a cupboard behind him and, starting with most recent, he inspected each and every receipt they had issued. I pointed out that it probably wasn't necessary to look at receipts issued 2010 or 2009 as the receipt, if in fact there was one, would be dated August 2008. He proceeded undeterred eventually producing a voucher bearing my name and signature. Oh well – I must have got one but problem solved as you have efficiently kept a copy. Absolutely not! Their copy was for their records, if I wanted a refund I would have to produce mine. Things then turned truly insane. If you lose your voucher, you have to produce an affidavit signed and stamped by a solicitor to confirm the fact – no affidavit, no refund. He produced the correct form – clearly I wasn't the only one to have been so careless – and after I had signed it, we all went to the Collector's Office. The Collector, however, has two offices so whilst Baijayanta peddled to one, the rickshaw driver and I ended up at the other. Several phone calls later, I was back at Indane whilst Baijayanta dealt with the lawyer – I obviously didn't need confirm my loss in person. The rickshaw driver was now getting restless and started making gestures that he was hungry and tired. I gave him a cigarette – I was already on my third – and he puffed away contentedly whilst I paced up and down trying to get my head round why I needed to have a legally endorsed affidavit to confirm I had lost a receipt of which Insane had a copy. Who, apart from the lawyer, actually benefits from the process? Couldn't I have just signed a form in the office? Why did they need the voucher in the first place? Well, I suppose this is India and wonders will never cease and, still confused, I eventually got back my deposit minus, of course, the Rs124 it cost for the lawyer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Binika bride

I would love to say I had a lovely time at the wedding I attended earlier this week in a small rural village called Binika but I have returned with very mixed feelings. The bride was a cousin of Geeta's, and it was fascinating to be part of the female side of a very traditional Indian marriage. On arrival Geeta, who had arrived several days earlier, looked happy and relaxed to be in the bosom of her family again and they were wonderful family – generous, warm, welcoming and all clearly revelling in the opportunity to be together again. Unlike a Western wedding, the party took place before the ceremony and was restricted to relatives and friends of the bride who, rather than joining in, sat in a side-room greeting and chatting with the random guests and presumably preparing herself for the ordeal ahead. Binika is situated on the banks of the River Mahanadi and after lunch we wandered down there and took a boat across to a temple on the other side. It was a precarious journey - with about 30 of us on board, the boat sat very low in the water and everyone perched on the rim as there were no seats. I was relieved I could swim – I was the only who could – but it was a very romantic side trip - full of rural Indian charm. On our return, we all changed into our finery and I donned my sari – with, I have to admit, a little help from my friends. Suitably togged up we waited for the groom to arrive … and we waited … and we slept … and supper was served … and we waited … and the bride was photographed for several hours … and we slept ... and we waited some more. Finally at 1am, to the sound of drums and fireworks, the groom finally pitched up and the proceedings began. Unfortunately, by this time I had taken so many random pictures to fill the time that the batteries on my camera had run out so I got none of the ceremony itself. It did, however, seem more organised than the wedding I had attended in Bhubaneswar. There was definitely a point which equated to the "I do" bit where a white sheet was placed over the groom's head which was then tied to the bride's veil following which the couple's hands are ritually strung together and then everyone queued up to pour water over them. The ceremony lasted about 3 hours but, at various times, the bride or groom retired to an ante-room whilst the other continued with the rituals on their own – the guests wandered in and out continually. Finally at about 4.30am, the service ended and the couple prepared to leave. Far from being a jolly send-off, their departure can only be as a traumatic affair. It made me realise just what a wrench marriage is for an Indian bride who leaves behind her family and friends – and the only life she has ever known – to join a family she's barely met who, to all intents and purposes, now have ultimate control over her. Geeta's cousin collapsed with grief on departure and had to be carried to the car by her weeping mother and aunts whilst her father looked on with tears straming down his cheeks. Exhausted and distressed I retired to bed which turned out to be a sheet folded in half and placed on a stone floor in amongst all the other guests  … but to be honest I was too tired to care. It's very difficult to say what I thought in retrospect – I was made to feel extremely welcome and they were a lovely and clearly a loving family but the sound of that wailing will haunt me for a long time to come. I sincerely hope her husband and new family are as kind as they looked to be and, if not immediately, she will have a happy marriage.  Click here to see where Binika is. Click here to see more photos.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mehndi moments

I'm off to a wedding tomorrow so I thought it would be a good occasion to have my hands decorated Indian style. Called mehndi , it involves painting intricate patterns using henna and you usually have it done for special occasions– in fact it's an integral part of the marriage ceremony for the bride. Dillip's wife, Reena, said one of her neighbour would be able to do it for me so this afternoon I strolled down the road with her and a girl from the office called Suchi to be tattooed - albeit temporarily. Although I had little to say in the matter, there was much discussion amongst those much more experienced than me on what I should have – one hand or two, only my hands or up my arms as well – until it was decided I should have the whole lot … well why not I thought I might never have it done again. The henna was applied from what looked like a miniature icing bag - in fact I felt a bit like a cake being decorated. Although the lines were much finer, they were quite deep and you could feel it drying on you. At times it looked as though she was doodling – much as you I would on a notepad during a boring meeting – and there were frequent stops to think about what to do and where to go next. The results, however, were much better than I've ever produced in a meeting and there's clearly a lot of skill and artistry involved in the process. Each hand and arm has a different but complimentary design and as my left arm was being done, the completed right one was dabbed with lemon juice which apparently ensures a better colour. During the proceedings I was offered a dish of noodles and, forgetting that one hand was covered in layers of gooey mixture and other was in the process of joining it, I accepted and then realised the only way to eat my snack was to be fed like a two-year old – Suchi obliged. Suitably nourished, I then had to wait for two hours for the henna to dry and to soak into my skin so, continuing in her motherly role – although I'm probably old enough to be her mother - Suchi very kindly offered to escort me home and carry my bags on her bicycle – it's amazing how incapacitated you feel when you can't touch or hold anything. On arrival, I was dabbed with sugared water – again to improve the colour - and then I sat, twiddling my toes, feeling very sticky – what with the lemon and the sugar – for what seemed like eternity until I could wash the stuff off. At first the finished effect had a very orange look to it – rather like American-tan tights – but as this evening has worn on the colour has become much browner – apart from the palms of my hands which for some reason are a completely different colour from the rest despite being done at the same time and with the same mixture. Maybe they'll go brown overnight or maybe they won't in any event I rather like it and think it will look really good when I don my sari again for the wedding.  To see more pictures click here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

One billion … and one

I had read in the papers that India was starting its national census and had thought it must be a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge – by the time you have finished counting what is around 1 billion people you would have to start the process again - if not before. Do they count the seasonal migrants who are often taken illegally under duress to work in isolated brick factories hundreds of kilometres from where they live? What about the people Antodaya supports many of whom live in remote areas that are only accessible on foot and who, being illiterate, can hardly be sent a form to fill in? The homeless? The beggars who basically live on the trains? These vulnerable groups represent a sizeable proportion of India's total population - does this affect the amount of money allocated to them? The scale and complexities were mind boggling. It was only a passing thought, however, until this evening when Lara, my landlord's daughter, arrived at my door accompanied by a government official – they had started the counting in Bhawanipatna and, as a legal alien, I was to be included. The form was in Oriya and the official didn't speak that much English but with Lara acting as translator we muddled our way through. They wanted the normal stuff – name, occupation, date of birth etc but also my "village".  An important part of an Indian's identity, your village links you back to the place your family hails from even if you, yourself, have never lived there.  Should I put Skirpenbeck - where my parents now live, London - where I've spent the last 20+ years or West Byfleet where I was born?  I plumped for London - it was easier to spell. They also wanted to know my father's, mother's and husband's name – her pen hovered hesitantly over the appropriate box when Lara told her I didn't have a husband – "No, not even a dead one". Dad's name was underlined by way of compensation. Apparently my answers have to be transcribed into Oriya before I sign it. I'm mildly interested in what my name looks like in Oriya although I'll have no idea what I'm actually signing of course but, whatever it says, I'm now officially in the system – my name and details, as well as Mum and Dad's but minus hubby's, will be winging their way into the bowels of  the Indian bureaucratic system. At sometime in the distant future when they announce the final tally - it's expected to be over billion … plus me.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Return to sender

In preparation for my return in July, I thought I would start sending some stuff home.  I have a 20kg (44 lbs) luggage allowance and excess baggage is whopping Rs1300 (£19) per kg.  A quick look round my flat told me that this would be a very expensive option – there’s that marble box Dillip gave me for Christmas, the carpets I bought in Sikkim, saris, tiffin boxes … the list goes on.  It turned out I didn’t have enough stuff to send as cargo by ship – they were asking how many tea chests I needed – which meant it would have to go air-freight – an even more expensive option than excess baggage.  So I decided to try Indian Post and last week found me in the post office with my first parcel. To begin with you have to get the terminology right. "Is parcel?", "Er yes" it certainly looked like one to me.  "Rs1700."  Somehow I managed to explain I thought that was a tad expensive for a 2.75kg parcel. "Is small packet?", "Well it can be", "Rs1300". We were coming down but I still wasn’t that happy.  I was pretty sure I couldn't call it a letter so I started to enquire about transport methods.  "Is go by ship?"  -  sometimes I'm better understood if I speak English the way they do - but he looked a bit confused so I did a rather good impression of a plane flying and saying No followed by one of waves whilst saying Yes.  "SAL – Rs750."  About a tenner - that sounded, if not reasonable, at least better so the deal was done and back at home I started on my second parcel and duly took this down to the post office yesterday.  "Small packet" accompanied by a quick impersonation of the sea and the second one was on its way … or so I thought.  Today the postman arrived with a large parcel under his arm. Had Mother sent me some final emergency supplies?  How much would they cost to send back?  But no, it was Parcel Number 1 being returned to sender.  Back in the post office they had no idea what the problem was and even Arjun, a colleague who had come to help, seemed confused. "I know the label has come off, all the tape has been ripped and the contents are falling out but that was done by the PO. Why did they do that?", "Yes, I do want to send it again but why didn’t it go the first time?"  As with most things in India the solution is to write a letter of complaint i.e. make it someone else's problem.  Now I love writing complaint letters but somehow standing in the hot post office with a blank piece of paper, kindly provided by them, I wasn't quite sure what to say apart from "Why is my parcel sitting in front of me and not in the UK?"  So now I have my parcel, a copy of my complaint letter confirming receipt of it and am expecting Parcel Number 2 to wing its way back shortly but still no idea how I'm going to get all my stuff home without bankrupting myself.  Suggestions welcome.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mountains, monks and merriment

Sikkim is a land of soaring mountains, gompas (bhuddist temples), prayer flags and waterfalls that seem to fall out of the sky. As we started the 1,500m ascent from Siliguri to Gangtok the temperature started to drop considerably and Raj, our driver, looked rather anxiously at my thin shalwar kameez and Sarah's flip flops and asked if we had any warmer clothes with us. An hour later we were rummaging in our rucksacks for additional clothing to keep us warm for the rest of the journey – in fact for the rest of the holiday. As well as the Himalayas rising above us and the change in the faces of the people, we were thrilled to see that, unlike other parts of India, alcohol is freely available - in fact every shop seemed to have the stuff on open display. The following day, after spending the morning in Gangtok waiting for our permits to be processed, we started our journey up to North Sikkim. The scenery was fantastic and, with deep tree-lined gorges below and huge snow-capped mountains above, we wound our way up to the ever higher and ever colder Northern territories. The first stop was Lachen a UNESCO heritage town nestled on the mountain-side which had a very frontier feel to it despite being quite a distance from the heavily guarded Sikkim/Tibet border. The area is dominated by the Bhutia who are Tibetan in origin (having migrated in the 15th Century when the Tibetan Bhuddists split into two camps) and the bridges and houses were awash with prayer flags which added to the romanticism of the area. The next day we were supposed to go to even further North to a place called Thanggu and had got up at 5am for the trip. However about a km out of Lachen the road had, quite literally, slipped down the mountain-side so instead we made a leisurely drive to Lachung marvelling not only at the scenery but also the jaunty road signs. Here, we stayed in a traditional Tibetan house with beautifully carved wooden doors and delighted in the fare on offer - salt and yak-butter tea served in really pretty cups with lids; momos – ravioli-type parcels; and tongba-beer which is made by pouring warm water over fermented millet which you then sip through a bamboo straw out of wooden tankards. From Lachung we made our way to the Yumthang Valley – a truly spectacular area dominated by the Himalayas. There was talk of doing a small trek but at 4,000m I was feeling a bit breathless so Roshan, our guide, suggested that we could drive further on up to Point Zero where the road ends a few km from the Tibetan border. This required a small bribe for the police – it's a heavily restricted area not least because China nicked 2.52 km a few years back – but I love that kind of thing , we really were going to the end of the earth and I was in heaven as we nearly were – Point Zero is 4800m above sea level. The next morning we trekked up to Lachung Gompa – the monasteries all seems to be situated on the tops of hills and I often arrived thanking the gods I'd actually made it. Roshan and Sarah were much fitter than me so marched ahead whilst I slowly puffed my way up pretending the delay was due to stopping to take photographs. Raj, I noticed, always opted to stay behind to wash the car – he has a touch of OCD in this respect and Sarah and I would wince for him as the mud and the puddles splattered his recently polished car. Further south and down, we made our way to Tingvong, a Lepcha village situated a 15km drive deep into the forest. The Lepcha are the indigenous population of Sikkim and our stay with them highlighted the melding of traditional and modern culture. In the evening we sat in the family kitchen eating traditional Lepcha food and drinking more tongba whilst we watched "The Undertaker" and "Shawn Michaels" beat each other up in an American staged-wrestling fight on satellite TV. Next morning, after a trip up to the family gompa, we stood outside a small cave where Sitim, the son of our host, explained that his grandmother had emerged from it as a snake and founded the clan –he wasn't that sure of the details but was in no doubt about his origins. The rest of the trip was spent in the much warmer South and West Sikkim. Here we visited an array of spectacular gompas some of which you could, fortunately, drive up to; the castles and coronations thrones of the kings of Sikkim – the last of which was deposed in 1975 when India gained control; and we arrived at Kecheopalri Lake just in time to see and take part in the annual blessing of the holy books which included child monks playing a variety of instruments whilst ascending the inevitable mountain to the gompa. The only disappointment was that we didn't get to see the third tallest mountain in the world. Supposedly visible all over Sikkim and worshipped as a god, it was permanently covered in cloud when we were there - I suspect the god was angry that I had shortened his name to K3 rather honouring him in full as Khangchendzonga. All in all, Sikkim was a truly magical place – an assault on the senses - and definitely worth a return trip. Maybe K3 … sorry Khangchendzonga … will have calmed down a bit and will agree to reveal himself to me.  Click here to see photos. Click here to see trip movie.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Flame Trees of Thuamul Rampur

On Monday, I went up to Thuamul Rampur – the district where Antodaya works - to attend the opening ceremony of one of the Legal Resource Centres that I had helped to get funding for earlier this year. I'd started the day quite exhausted as I'd come off the overnight on the bus from Bhubaneswar. My usual bus has recently been upgraded and now sports swag and tail curtains and has air-conditioning but neither prevented me from spending the whole night awake - the air conditioning was so cold I spent the night shivering and A/C or no A/C you still get the endless bumps so I got off the bus prepared to swing for the person who invented road humps which have spread like the plague all over India and only add to the general discomfort of the endless potholes. Once showered, I set off up to the cool of the hills for another bumpy ride but at least the scenery was stunning. I haven't been up there for a while and spring/early summer is probably the best time; not only are the flame trees in flower but so is everything else. I went with Brooke, another VSO Volunteer from Delhi, who is spending the week here to help with Antodaya's fundraising efforts and as we wound our way up the temperature dropped noticeably. The opening ceremony started with the usual Hindu puja which involves lighting an oil lamp then igniting a clump of incense sticks from it and finishes with cracking a coconut on a stone. Sometimes this can go horribly wrong with the incense sticks catching fire and the complete failure of the coconut to crack but fortunately all went smoothly this time. We then sat through some speeches in Oriya and, as usual, I spent the time people watching and taking photos. Before you get any fancy ideas about the Centre, it's in the corner of a training room and comprises a tin trunk to store documents, a table and four chairs and is staffed by trained volunteers from the local community. There are no computers or internet access because the area doesn't have a power supply or even mobile phone coverage so the centres will provide the local community with easy access to information on their legal rights – food distribution, waged employment, land and forest rights, children's mid-day meals, pension etc as well as help on how to ensure they get them. On the return journey we went "on safari" as Brooke called it and stopped to admire and photograph the flame trees, spotted the apes and monkeys that inhabit the area, bought some forest fruits – heaven knows what they are but they taste nice - and admired the scenery in general. A good day out made all the better because I could call it work.  Click here to see more photos.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hindu high jinx

Having nearly perfected the art of sari-tying, Sarah and I dutifully made our way to the Bhubanaeswar Club for Poonam and Debabrata's wedding. Poonam is the daughter of the State Information Commissioner and it was, as expected, a rather flash do. We were told it wasn't an entirely traditional wedding and from what I can gather this meant it was shorter than usual and the main event took place at lunchtime rather than late in the evening. It was my first Hindu wedding and, traditional or not, it was very different from your average English affair. For starters, it's the bridegroom who arrives in a smart white car covered in flowers whilst the bride patiently waits out of sight. You couldn't miss Debabrata's arrival though - he was preceded by a group of conch-playing acrobats, a live band and most of his male friends and relatives. The first time we got to see Poonam was when the parents pledged themselves to each other in a joining of the families ceremony to compliment the joining of the happy couple … except the bride looked far from happy. On enquiry, I found out that unlike an English bride, who is encouraged to smile throughout the day however nervous or sick she feels, at Hindu weddings the bride is expected to look sad because she's about to leave her family and looking happy about it is definitely not the done thing. After the family-joining ceremony, we wandered across the lawn to the dais where the main event took place. Even though it was supposedly shorter, it did go on for quite a long time. Fortunately, you weren't expected to diligently sit through the whole thing and there was a kind of garden party feel to the proceedings. There were rows of chairs in front of the stage but they were also serving a buffet lunch – with the usual mountains of food - which you could eat at large round tables under a fancy awning or you could just stand around and chat whilst watching the conch-playing acrobats. There was the occasional flurry of activity when people thronged towards to the front but to be perfectly honest I had no idea why or what was going on and I certainly missed the "I do" bit if, in fact, there was one. Then, although the ceremony still seemed to be going on, we realised that people were starting to wander off so we went went back to Sarah's flat for the rest of the afternoon before donning our saris again to return for the evening party. Here the guests had quadrupled in number and there was another enormous buffet - more like a food fair to be honest. People seemed really pleased that Sarah and I were wearing saris and we were made to feel very welcome - in fact I was quite surprised at just how many of Bhubaneswar's great and good I actually knew. The only thing missing was the alcohol – it really did feel strange to be togged up in my finery at a really smart wedding but not to have that glass of champagne in my hand. It didn't in any way spoil the day though which was both fascinating and good fun and we managed to slip in a quick glass of wine back at Sarah's before retiring to bed.  To see more pictures click here

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sari struggles

I've always thought I would like to try wearing sari but the problem was finding the right occasion. However, I've been invited to a rather flash wedding in Bhubaneswar - so I'm on a roll. Hand-woven saris from Orissa are famous across India particularly Sambalpuri (a type of ikat weave) and Bomkai (that includes intricate embroidery) and after visiting numerous Orissa stalls at a textile fair, I eventually plumped for a dark red and gold Bomkai one. An essential part of the sari is the blouse (choli) that sits underneath it and you have this hand-made for you from a piece of fabric included with the sari you've bought. Unfortunately, the local tailor had a month-long waiting list and it took a lot of pleading using every word I know in Oriya before he agreed to make an exception for me and do it in five days. The major problem, however, was how on earth you put the thing on. Lesson 1: Dillip offered the services of his wife as a personal tutor. She speaks about as much English as I do Oriya but fortunately she turned out to be a really patient teacher. First she put one on herself – it took about 30 seconds. Next she put one on me – 45 seconds. I was then invited to try myself. Disaster! A sari is about 6 metres long and it's all too easy to get lost in amongst all that fabric – quite literally! To begin with you wrap it once around your waist and tuck it into the underskirt (saya). You then abandon yards of cloth on the floor and concentrate on the other end where you take over half your height in length and fold it into 3 or 4 even folds – try doing that with a metre wide strip of fabric that you're already half wearing. You then throw this over your shoulder to form the palu that trails down your back. Oh - and I forget this every time – you need to loosely wrap the sari round yourself again before you start folding or you have to abandon your carefully-crafted pleats and start again. You then tighten the loosely wrapped bit across you chest and under your arm before returning to the previously abandoned fabric. You fold this into 7 to 10 even pleats (depending on how fat you are) and tuck them into the saya and "hela" as you say in Oriya. Confused? I certainly was. After several attempts I thought I might have cracked it but practicing on my own left me randomly enveloped in fabric and looking more like a sack of potatoes than the elegant effigy I was hoping for. Lesson 2: Geeta offered her services but she tied it in a completely different way to Dillip's wife and brought the pleated palu from the back to the front rather than the front to the back. As I was discovering, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Lesson 3: Back chez-Dillip, I had another lesson this time with my own new sari when I was informed that it's always much easier – particularly with heavy saris such as mine - to rope in a friend to help with those pleats. Sarah, who's also coming to the wedding, doesn't know it yet but both my modesty and my glamour depend on her ability to fold yards of material into perfectly even folds. Roll on Saturday.  To see more pictures click here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Driving, dancing and discussion

Last weekend, I went with over 30 women from the communities we support to a tribal women’s empowerment workshop. At 7pm on Friday we all loaded into 3 jeeps - 13 people in each (excluding babes-in-arms) - for the 5 hour drive to Sonapur, a smallish town in Western Orissa. I always forget just how bumpy the roads are but on this occasion every bump landed me in the lap of my next-door neighbour so I spent the journey hanging onto the dashboard and gear-stick as we motored through the night. On arrival, supper was provided for the VIP guests – a delicious concoction of meat and veg as well as the ubiquitous rice and dhal -after which I was walked across the road to check into my hotel.It was a clean but simple affair although I was slightly disappointed to be separated from the rest of my group who were not deemed to be VIPs and were staying at a local school. Next morning, after tea and tiffin at a street stall, I arrived at the venue at 9am as requested to find the only people there were my travelling companions from the night before. Slowly, however, people began to arrive and plonk themselves cross-legged on the green matting under the stripy red and yellow awning and by about 11 there seemed to be enough people there for proceedings to begin. Whilst various, and I’m sure very rousing, speeches were given in Oriya, I spent my time looking at the audience. Tribal women from all over the state had come, accompanied by their small children, each wearing their traditional costumes and jewelery. Some were dressed in identical saris – they make their own using long-established patterns - and some wore saris that were tied more like a UK halter-neck dress and finished just above the knee but the highlight for me (and it appeared the organisers) was two girls from the remote and primitive Dongria Khond tribe who sport intricate hairstyles including numerous grips and a range of elaborate necklaces. Just as I was beginning to get bored, the entertainment arrived which included a five-piece band and a couple of entertainers. It took a double take to realise that both were men as one was dressed in a sari and a fetching plastic hair band. After a few quick twirls they were joined by everyone in the audience for a mass tribal dance accompanied by the drums and pipes of the band and then we retired for lunch. This was served in traditional Indian fashion – we all sat cross-legged on the floor and rice, dhal and subji (vegetable curry) was served from metal buckets which you ate with your hand off plates made from leaves. It’s an immensely efficient way to feed what must have been more than 500 people although I was less efficient at getting the rice into my mouth as opposed to all over my clothes. After more speeches in the afternoon, a cultural extravaganza was laid on in the evening with both traditional and tribal dancing and song and I retired to bed exhausted in preparation for that jolting journey back home the next day. Click here to see more photos. Click here to see where Sonapur is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bhawanipatna revisted

The longer you stay in a place the more it becomes normal and I sometimes struggle to think of things to write about my life in Bhawanipatna as opposed to my trips outside it. However, last week two people from the VSO office came down to take a look at what a rural placement in India is like in reality. Irene was from the VSO office in Kenya and Manish from the office in Delhi. In the same way as I used to look at London differently when I'd come back from a far-flung country, having someone visit me made me look at my life here from a different viewpoint. There are, of course, the constraints of living in a deeply conservative area - "Yes, I wear salwar kameez all the time because people seem to prefer it. In fact they've said they were relieved I didn't run around in tight, plunge neck T-shirts." I never did that in the UK - both the running and the tight T-shirts - but I'm a lazy dresser at the best of times and I really like wearing pyjamas every day. "No, I don't drink in Bhawanipatna. I know where to buy it but the people I know don't like it, so I give it a miss." I have to say, before I left I would have found it difficult to think of a day when I hadn't had a drink so one of the first things I discovered about myself, much to my relief, was that I wasn't a closet alcoholic and could go for weeks without a tipple. I've tried to be a little less assertive. Men, even older ones, visibly shrink if I suggest that maybe they haven't done or said what I might expect. They appear scared rather than angry and it does make you more inclined to fit in with their expectations of how women should behave. I haven't, however, given up my life-long hobby of assertively stating my dis-satisfaction to people in call centres which seems to generate a certain amount of awe amongst my colleagues who come in for the performance. "Well, I won't take No for an answer and I'll keep telling him until he gets the message. You should try it sometime." Living in a small town, people have more time and are more friendly and I realised, walking through town with Irene and Manish, just how many people knew my name. In the restaurant where we were having lunch, Irene seemed quite amused that two young women plonked themselves down in front of me and started chatting. "Are they friends of yours?" - "No, people here just do that – they seem to genuinely want to extend the hand of friendship." Occasionally I do get bored of telling people where I come from, that I eat rice and dhal just like them and that I'm not a missionary but on the whole I quite enjoy it and warm to their inquisitiveness. I'm off to the UK soon for a couple of weeks and, you know, I think I'm going to miss the place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Light and laughter

One of the Hindu festivals I didn't comment on last year was Divali which is one of the major festivals all over India. It celebrates the homecoming of Rama after a 14-year exile in the forest and his victory over Ravana. In the legend, Rama's subjects welcomed him home by lighting rows (avali) of lamps (dĭpa). Of course the 20th century has had an influence over the ceremony so, although you still get the traditional little terracotta pots filled with oil and to feed the burning wick, you also get a plethora of electric lights strewn all over the houses. Strangely, whilst I find this slightly tacky at Christmas in England, in India it seems sort of right and I was thrilled to see that my landlord, Surendra, had gone in for this with as much exuberance as he had last year. In the morning, piles of fireworks appeared on my roof-terrace and I was woken to bangs and laughter as the older children clearly thought they should practice lighting a few in advance. The main celebration started with the women of the household creating the rangoli. These intricate designs are made by pouring coloured powder to form the, usually floral, image and less detailed ones appear on the doorsteps of houses to celebrate almost any festival. For Divali, however, the all the stops are pulled out and they can take up to a couple of hours to create. Once the rangoli was completed, the family went into the back garden for a private puja (service) whilst I stood on the roof terrace and looked on. After dinner, the main fireworks display started. Health and safety officials have not reached Bhawanipatna (or I suspect any part of India) and the fireworks were let off in a completely haphazard manner both in the front yard and in the street with any child over the age of about 10 being deemed old enough to light them whilst the smaller ones peered in closely until they were whisked away just before the thing went off. Motorcyclists continued to career up and down the street and many only narrowly missed going up with the fireworks as they went off. All in all, it was an immense display of firecrackers (yards of which were laid up and down the street); small rockets; Catherine wheels (which were either laid on the ground or held in your hand); light fountains; bombs (which made a very loud noise but didn't' do much else); and hundreds of multi-coloured sparklers. In addition, similar displays were going on up and down the street and further away some households had gone for more aerial displays which you could also see. Yes, it was dangerous but it was also immense fun and I wonder if we've maybe sanitised the experience too much in the West with our stage-managed displays and if there mightn't be a middle way. Probably not, but I wouldn't have missed this experience for the world. Click here to see more pictures.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oh Calcutta!

I went to Calcutta earlier this week to take my Rural Development exam – the least said about that the better - but I also had time to explore the place and, although I didn't do much traditional sight seeing, I loved it mainly because it felt strangely familiar. The shops are on the streets, as opposed to concentrated in shopping malls, giving it a much more European feel and, like London, it has a metro system making it much easier to get around – the Oxford Book store's on Park Street – great that's two stops from where I'm staying; meet me at Blue and Beyond bar in Esplanade – three stops. OK, when you get there the tourist map proves pretty useless because none of the streets are named and asking for directions is a hit and miss affair – you're confidently pointed in a direction but it's rarely the direction you actually need to go. Calcutta also reminded of New York – a combination of the yellow taxis and the multi-lane one-way system with the movement of traffic and pedestrians dictated by the changing of the traffic lights - I found myself marching to it's rhythm in much the same way as I do when walking up, say, Madison Avenue. Despite the familiarity, Calcutta is still very definitely Indian. The streets are lined with chai-wallahs, fast-food stalls, beggars, saffron clad priests and the general chaos that you experience everywhere else in the country is exacerbated by the one-way system changing direction at 3pm so buses and cars, who have started out going the right way, suddenly find themselves driving against the prevailing traffic causing the inevitable bedlam … every day. Exotic, mad yet familiar – I revelled in it.

One of my jobs in Calcutta was to buy batik printing supplies for one of the projects Antodaya is running, so I found myself in a wonderfully, old-fashioned art shop - chaotically run by three elderly gentlemen, it contained all those pastels, easels, hand made paper etc that I still childishly crave despite knowing that my skills in the drawing department don't merit them. I had to wait a couple of hours for the order to be compiled so I continued my aimless wandering but on the way back I decided to take a hand-pulled rickshaw – Calcutta being one of the last places in India to have them. I did feel slightly uncomfortable about the experience but it was also lovely to sit above the crowd and move at a speed that allowed a leisurely look at the architecture. I'm not sure I'd do it again, however, not least because having paid him handsomely (partly to assuage my guilt), I found I had been deposited further from my destination than I'd started from. My final dabble with Indian service was engaging a couple of porters at Howrah Station to carry all the batik supplies to the train. Although I was massively fleeced … again! … I rather enjoyed trailing behind them - majestically clad in red and with my luggage precariously balanced on their heads - they expertly ploughed their way through the crowd to the exact spot on the platform where my carriage would stop and, after a quick cup of tea served in terracotta cups, they escorted me to my seat and stowed my luggage beneath it. After an exhausting two days and it was nice to have someone else to, quite literally, carry the load.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Puri Puja

The festival season has started in earnest in Orissa and last weekend was Dusheera or Durga Puja. To celebrate a group of us decided to go to Puri, a seaside town famous for it's Jagannath Temple and the nearby Sun Temple at Konark. I had been to both before but one of the great things about living in India is you can visit places more than once as well as go to those you didn't have time to see the first time round. We stayed in a fantastic hotel that offered just the right mixture of cleanliness, good food and affordability from where you could hear the sea if not actually see it. I gave the Jagannath Temple a miss this time – I'd been three times before and you can have too much of a good thing - but I did decide to re-visit Konark mainly because a lot of the group hadn't been before. The 13th Century temple was still impressive but the highlight of this trip turned out to be the sight of a monkey nursing a small kitten. Had he rescued it or stolen it? Was he nurturing it or saving it for supper? I kind of hoped the former in both cases. On the way back we visited a spectacular beach at Balighai. It was the kind of place you see in travel brochures – deserted apart from a few cows and a lone priest performing his evening rituals and was uncommonly clean for an Indian beach. To top it all, just as we were leaving at sunset, I saw a shooting star – a first for me. The on-and-off rain – it's still monsoon season – only made it more romantic. On another excursion we went to an artists' village called Raghurajpur – I suspect in high season it's extremely touristy but we were the only ones there and despite the constant requests to "Come my shop, just looking", it was a picture-postcard Indian village with thatched cottages, decorated with tribal art, interspersed with ponds and streams. The Durga Puja in Puri was less intimate than the one I attended in Bhawanipatna last year but good fun all the same with Durga – the goddess or power - paraded through the streets on hand pulled carts preceded by a live band and frenetic dancing. One of the most interesting places I visited, however, was the Burning Ghats. Hindus always burn their dead rather than burying them and, unlike crematoriums in the West, the cremations, called Antyesti, are carried out in public on open fires albeit in specifically designated areas. Seeing the smoke from the fires we went in very tentatively, unsure if we would be welcome, but the living participants seemed unperturbed by our presence and even tried to explain to us what was going on. It was slightly disconcerting to see the legs and heads poking out of the burning stacks but it also seemed a lot more honest than the more clinical way we Westerners have of disposing of the body and somehow seemed a fitting end to our otherwise jolly long weekend of sand, sea and sightseeing. Click here to see where Puri is. Click here to see more pictures.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Saying hello

I've given up cycling to and from work – first the heat of the summer and now the monsoon-season coupled with the frequent black-outs at night made cycling an exhausting and slightly precarious activity. Cows that bed down in the street at sunset are not visible in the pitch black until you've crashed into them and it seemed all too easy to accidentally cycle into the open drains. So, for the past few months I've been walking and as a result I've made numerous new friends. OK – the average age of my new friends is about 8 and our conversations are a bit limited but on an average morning I'll be greeted by up to 20 children at various points on the way – some are pushed forward by their mothers whilst others come racing up to me shouting "Hi Susie-Auntie", or Foreign-Auntie or Didi (sister). Each encounter begins with shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries in English– "How are you? I am fine" (all said in one breath) and, whilst I've taught them "Good Morning", they've picked up "I love you" from someone else. We then move onto Indian greetings "Namaska" said whilst putting your hands together and the smaller ones, chivvied into action by their grandmothers, bend down to touch my feet – a sign of respect in these parts. Finally, we get to the all important question, "Camera achho?" (Have you got your camera?) and when I say "Han, aji camera achhe" (Yes, I have the camera today), there's a flurry of activity as they round up everyone else and jostle for position in the line-up. They never seem to lose interest in seeing themselves on the digital camera and, as I squat down so they can all get a good view, they point out themselves to the rest of the crowd who will have seen an almost identical picture a couple of days before. The younger children's lack of reserve has also encouraged the older ones who now give a shy "Good morning sister" as they cycle past on their way to school before speeding off to have a quick giggle with their less courageous friends. Recently, I have also been accompanied for a few minutes by two old ladies who, clearly dying for a chin-wag, join me on their way to the water pump each morning and, with their large metal pots cradled on their hips, proceed to tell me … well I'm not entirely sure what they're telling me but I'm obviously saying yes and no in the appropriate places most of the time and we part with a couple of namaskas – they to collect their daily water and me into the next throng of children. There are some downsides to my morning ritual. A while back I developed a skin rash and noticed about the same time that a lot of my new friends were also sporting similar exzema-like rashes. Had I given it to them or they to me? The chemist seemed sure it was worms and, whilst I was a bit dubious about his diagnosis, I dutifully took the worming tablets he prescribed and it cleared up so I guess he must have been right. Skin infections are, however, only a minor irritation compared to the pleasure the morning greetings give both me and my new friends.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Karma sutra in Khajuraho

Before I came back to Bhawanipatna I went on a quick jolly to Khajuraho in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The town is considered to be one of the “seven wonders of India” as it has some of the best examples of medieval temples which are particularly famous for the erotic sculptures. It’s a difficult place to get to – one train a day leaves Khajuraho Station but there are no scheduled in-bound ones – how the outward one gets there in the first place is anyone’s guess. I went with another volunteer, Judith and, as with Varanasi, Jharkand and Rajasthan last year, it was nice to be a tourist again. We ambled round the beautifully tended grounds that the temples are located in and I was grateful to Judith for pointing out the famed sculptures of the various karma sutra positions – they look huge in the pictures but in reality they are nestled amongst a multitude of other intricately-carved figures. There are many stories of why such explicit representations were incorporated, including showing the population what they shouldn’t do, but the story I was given, by my self-appointed personal guide, was that the local kings felt it was important for the population to understand how they could achieve spiritual enlightenment by incorporating such activity into their daily lives. There are various levels of difficulty portrayed - each one designed to bring you and your partner closer to achieving the perfect state of mind and body. My guide was keen that I also experienced such enlightenment. Maybe he could give me a hands-on, practical demonstration? I declined - not least because he couldn’t have been more than 18 - and, having extricated myself from that little proposition, we cruised round the touristy shops – I bought another carpet that I don’t need – and then had supper over-looking the floodlit temples in the main site. It was well worth the journey and as I proceeded to Orchha for a conference, I felt relaxed and … well … enlightened if not spiritually then at least personally. Click here to see where Khajuraho is. Click here for more photos

Monday, August 10, 2009

Home and Away

I haven’t written my blog for a while. The main reason is I went back to the UK for three weeks but also I’m slightly out of practice. The trip back to the UK was great. I had a chance to see everyone and, despite some people saying they find it difficult to adjust, I slipped back in to my previous life with no effort at all. It was lovely to have a glass of wine with my meal, to sit and chat about nothing in particular, to know where to buy things etc. My first impression when I arrived was the quiet and the orderliness. My father picked me up from Heathrow Airport and, as we joined the M4, I felt as though I was in a 1970s sci-fi cartoon – everyone knew their place on the road and we travelled in complete silence. In India, the mirror, signal, manoever matra is replaced by horn, louder horn, even louder horn and without the noise it felt like travelling in a self-contained bubble. There was also a distinct lack of cows wandering all over the road which here are a major feature in even the largest cities. Whilst I was in India, I struggled to decide what I missed most – maybe I was just enjoying myself so much – but I discovered on my return that it was bread – the crusty, home-made type of bread. So I have returned with packets of yeast and a commitment to buy a counter-top oven. I haven’t made bread since cooking classes at school but once the oven arrives – it’s currently on order as they’re not in great demand here - I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into a slice of warm, freshly baked bread. In the meantime I’m searching for a shop that sells butter – anyone know how you make the stuff? Settling back into my life here, though, was as easy as my return to the UK. The gangs of pre-school children who I shake hands with every morning were genuinely thrilled to see me again – jumping up and down and screaming “Hi sister” - language barriers had made it difficult to explain to them that I was going away but I would be back. My colleagues and neighbours also seemed pleased at my return although they expressed it in a slightly less exuberant manner and, on a personal note, I felt as though I had come home – albeit to a slightly different life - but one that is now is comfortingly familiar.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tying the knot

One of the main thrills of coming to India was the opportunity to get close to and understand another culture and, as a result, the last couple of days have been a highlight, if not the highlight, of my time here so far. Two of the boys who live in my household were up for their Threading Ceremony – Upanayanam – the Hindu equivalent of Christian confirmation but just for boys and only for the Brahmin caste. The preparations had started days before with the construction of bamboo scaffolding on my roof terrace to support the awning over the "dining hall" and slowly the walls in the courtyard were painted with the names of the boys – Lokhi and Rinko; the stage was built, covered with red mud and decorated with floor paintings and people started to arrive from far and wide. Yesterday morning it all kicked off and I was woken at 7am by the loud clanging of pots – the cooking had begun - and on opening my windows, I discovered an army of cooks, six gas burners had appeared and were warming huge cauldrons of food and there were mountains of vegetables in the process of being chopped up – and this was only for the lunch on the first day. One of the great things about the whole occasion was that it was a truly family affair – with women playing as big a part as the men albeit at different times. Mothers, aunts and grandmas started off the proceedings with a puja and then, preceded by the band, they made their way to the local temple with their offerings – coconuts, bananas and the like. On their return, mother and son stepped onto the stage where they were both daubed in an orange paste made from turmeric by various female relatives amongst much teasing and hilarity. Meanwhile, up on the roof terrace the cooking continued apace – there were now around 100 people to serve for supper. Preparations were also being made for the next day and I went to bed last night accompanied by a 4-foot cauldron of fried fish heads which had been put inside for safe-keeping!

This morning, mother and father joined their respective sons for a service that preceded the head-shaving. This seemed to be an extremely laid back affair – they stopped for a banana milkshake mid-flow and the priest thought nothing of answering his mobile phone during the ritual – "Sorry dear can't talk – in the middle of performing a Threading Ceremony". At head-shaving time, however, the family disappeaed and left the boys to the mercy of the barber and the photographers. Rinko seemed to take the cut-throat razor in his stride but Lokhi looked far from thrilled about losing his hair despite the auspicious occasion. Suitably bald, the boys were now back on stage for the main event – this time only accompanied by their fathers. The sacred thread is folded three times – each strand representing the goddesses of mind, word and deed - and is worn for the rest of their life - replaced once a year in separate ceremony. There were a few more rituals that followed but by this time I'd lost the thread so to speak. The final ceremony, however, brought the women back onto centre stage with offerings to the newly formed "saints" who took on the role of beggars. Following this we, by now around 500 of us, retired upstairs for lunch. I think it was a rare privilege to be part of such an occasion which, despite the numbers, felt very private and intimate at times. To see more pictures click here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sand and seafood

Last weekend I fell in love … not, unfortunately, with a man but with a seaside town called Gopalpur. A three hour train ride from Bhubaneswar, it reminded me of a 1950s seaside town – Filey springs to mind – which in reality it is. A strategic port for the British from the mid-18th century, it was abandoned after the World War II when trade with Burma dried up and now depends on fishing and tourism. It’s long “pristine” beach has started to draw in the tourists but it remains a sleepy little place – well in low season at any rate. We stayed in a hotel that had balconies with a sea view – strangely the more modern and expensive Western hotels don't include a sea view - and in the evening we sat sipping beer bought from the bottle-shop next door and watching the spectacular electrical storm taking place out at sea. During the day we wandered up and down the beach, paddled in the sea and tried to catch the numerous little crabs scuttling in and out of their holes. We also climbed the lighthouse whose owners had clearly worked out that tourists equal money – Rs250 to get in, you have to go barefoot but there’s Rs4 charge to leave your shoes outside, Rs40 to take a picture etc but somehow all the niggles didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the place. Another big highlight was the food. At the Krisha Restaurant I had the best meal I’ve eaten in nearly a year – garlic prawns and chips with not a chilli or a grain of rice in sight - and in the evening I feasted on a delicious grilled fish in a small restaurant lit only by the flashes of lightening that had caused the inevitable power cut. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the fishermen pulling in their catches as there was a fisherman’s puja (festival) but, although it will take me 16 hours to get there from Bhawanipatna, I’ll definitely be going back and may even take my swimming costume next time so I can for a dip. Click here to see where Gopalpur is. Click here to see photos.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reasons to be cheerful

Sometimes life in India can be very frustrating particularly when it comes to shopping. I've written down the word in Oriya for what I want but I just get a blank look when I ask for it; although most groceries are priced, as a "foreign-madam", I'm seen as fair game and some shopkeepers think nothing of inspecting the price and then adding 10-15% - sometimes I point out their "mistake" but sometimes I'm just too hot and bothered to care; Omfed, the milk store, only sells milk, butter and cream but on asking for each individually and pointing to the helpful pictures you just get "Na'in" ("Not have") leaving you wondering why they bothered opening in the first place. However, sometimes things take you completely by surprise. I decided last week that I wanted to buy a charpoy bed – basically a wooden frame with webbing wound round it – so I would have something other than my bed to lounge on. First you have to buy the frame and these are only available at the Weekly Market - which in fact occurs twice a week. The frames are made by the local tribal communities and are carried (sometimes miles) down the mountain to be sold – each stall has about three or four on offer. They all looked the same to me so I pointed randomly at the first one I saw and we agreed on a price – hand signals were used in the negotiation – you can always find a common language when it comes to money! However, having found a cycle-rickshaw to take it home, I was called back to the stall. The one I had chosen had a crack on the underside and that clearly wouldn't do. Personally I wouldn't have noticed or though to look but I was grateful, if surprised, by her concern that I didn't get the faulty one - not sure who she planned to sell it to though. Was I ripped off – well the hand-made frame cost me less than £5 (US$7.50) so, if I was, it didn't feel like it.

Yesterday my air-cooler packed up – no, I don't think it had anything to do with my assembly skills – so I went heavy-hearted back to the shop. From my UK experience I imagined I would have to wait days or even weeks until someone was able to come and fix it. But no – someone would accompany me home there and then and have a look at it. Unfortunately, on arrival there was a power cut – some things never change – so he wandered off and I assumed I would have to spend another hot and sweaty night without it. Wrong again - I'm not sure where he went in the intervening two hours but within minutes of the power returning he was back, had found the problem, replaced the faulty part and it was blowing out cold air again. Service or what!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tiffin at the Falls

When a VSO colleague, Liam, came to stay with me, I decided it was an ideal opportunity to visit to our local picnic spot – the Phurli Jharan Falls. I still haven't mastered the art if Indian cooking, so I did a deal with Baijayant and Gita - we would pay for the car (about £7 for the day) and they would provide the picnic or, as it's called here, the tiffin. The car was due to turn up at 9am which I thought was a tad early for a Sunday but in the end Gaida, my maid, was so keen to view my houseguest she had turned up 7.30am which put paid to any thoughts of a lie-in. Round at Baijayant's house there was the usual chaos that precedes any such excursion. Soyem, B & G's three-year old son, was racing round the house shouting "Chello, chello!" (Let's go, let's go); the car had turned up but Gita was still making the roti – she had got up at 5am to prepare our feast; there was "crockery" to locate – they don't do plastic here, the plates and bowls made out of leaves; and shoes and shirts to find. Finally we piled into the car and glided out of Bhawanipatna with Soyem standing up in the front helping the driver to steer. I suppose when children ride on the front of motorbikes as a matter of course – strapping one into a car seat must seem a bit superfluous. The Falls, located in the Karlapat Sanctuary, aren't particularly high but are in an idyllic location. After a quick shower from the waterfall's spray we went a bit further down the hill to sit by the river. For men, a trip to the river includes a ritual bath and Baijayant had brought soap as well as lungis- a kind of skirt that a lot of men here wear - for himself and Liam. Whilst they had their bath, Gita and I sat on a rock and cooled our feet in the water. She was surprised to learn that I could swim - no-one she knows can, male or female, despite childhood visits to the seaside etc. "You're so lucky – you get an opportunity to try everything". I offered to teach Soyem but, on hearing his loud protests floating upstream as he was dunked head first in the water by his father, we decided he probably wasn't a natural water-babe. Suitably refreshed we sat down to lunch. Like all Indian meals they don't do anything by halves. We had roti, curry, a mango chutney you would die for, home-made sweets, fruit and tomato ketchup that you suck out of the sachet rather than putting on your food. Everything bio-degradable was then chucked into a ditch which made me feel a bit uncomfortable given the pristine surroundings but, whilst we were having a quick swing on the trailing branch of a banyan tree and a final paddle in the river, I noticed that the cows had moved in for their share of the picnic and were busy demolishing our rubbish. Click here to see more photos.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Indian Elections with Orissa focus

Tomorrow the largest democracy in the world starts voting. Parts of Orissa and some other states will go first and the rest will do so on six further days between now and 13 May. The count for all states takes place on 16 May. It has taken me quite a while to get my head round Indian politics but here goes (with apologies for anything I’ve inadvertently got wrong).
There are three levels of government – the Parliament, the State Assemblies and the Panchayat Raj –village level government. The Parliament comprises:

  • the President - currently Mrs Pratibha Devisingh Patil - who is head of state and is elected once every five years by both houses of parliament and the state assemblies
  • the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) – essentially the second house made up of members elected for a six-year term - a third of whom retire every two years. 233 Rajya Sabha members are elected by and from among the State Assembly members under a proportional representation system; and a further 12 are nominated by the President and are an eclectic mix of the great and the good
  • the Lok Sabha (House of the People) – for which the current election is being held - comprises up to 550 members elected directly by the public (based on a first-past the post system) plus, and I must say I was amazed when I found this out, 2 Anglo-Indian members who are nominated by the President of the Anglo-Indian Association. Currently, the Lok Sabha is a coalition government collectively called United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of which Indian National Congress (Congress) holds the leading majority but which also needs the support of non-coalition members for an overall majority. The main opposition party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. In addition, there is the emerging Third Front – locally focused parties who have come together to form a credible fighting force – but which is often dismissed by their more nationally focused opponents.

The State Assemblies – state governments – comprise members who are also elected directly by the people in separate elections at different times in a five-year cycle. Orissa is also voting for its State Assembly – so we have we have a double helping of electioneering.

In Orissa there are 21 constituencies (10 of which are voting tomorrow with the rest on 23rd April), 31,617 polling stations and 217,000 voters. 8 constituencies are reserved for candidates who are either scheduled caste or scheduled tribe although Kalahandi (where I am) is not one of them. There are 6 major parties standing in Orissa and a number of smaller ones. Three are national parties:

  • Congress – the dynastic Gandhi-led party of Indira, Ranjiv, Sonia and Rahul fame - a major liberal political party which led the Indian Independence Movement and has dominated Indian politics since. It is the largest democratic political party in the world. They are fighting on the platform of finding the middle-path to address the global recession; a balance between the public and the private sector; building a modern economy; promoting and protecting employment and livelihoods; and providing equilibrium between regulation and the creative spirit of entrepreneurs.
  • BJP – who claim to represent the country's majority community, are centre-right in nature and advocate conservative social policies, self reliance, robust economic growth, foreign policy driven by a nationalist agenda and strong national defence. They are standing on a platform of putting the poor first, economic growth, security, empowerment of women and the environment.
  • Communist Party of India (Marxist) aka CPIM (not to be confused with the CPI below). The CPIM held the balance of power for most of the tenure of the current UPA coalition but withdrew support in July 2008 over foreign policy issues. Their election manifesto puts forward pro-people economic policies; provision of social equity; consistent secularism; genuine federalism; a complete halt to the privatisation of profitable state firms; and an independent foreign policy.

The remaining three parties standing in Orissa are more regionally focused – their influence at national level resting on which coalition they decide to support.

  • Biju Janta Dal (BJD) - the party of Orissa’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik - currently rules Orissa in coalition with the BJP but has recently broken ties with them – a subject which has been much discussed in the local newspapers particularly whether they will join UPA or the Third Front. They are promising to create of 1.5 million jobs in industry, disburse agricultural loans at a 3% interest rate and the exemption of electricity duty on power used by farmers.
  • Communist Party of India (CPI) – has a strong presence in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. They state they will provide a non-Congress and non-BJP alternative to carry forward the glorious tradition of anti-imperialism, secular polity and independent economic development ensuring economic and social justice to all.
  • Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) – is based in Jharkand, Orissa and West Bengal and actively supports the UPA. In Orissa they say the environment will be their major focus and that they will oppose the state government's decision to allow mining activity to begin in two tribal dominated districts.

Across the country, there are numerous other regionally focused parties standing.

Not surprisingly, the main themes seem to be tackling the economic downturn, security and the poor. As well as discussions on policies, there has also been a lot of press coverage on the suitability of candidates including false statements on nomination papers, discoveries of previous criminal convictions and accusations of embezzlement. At a more personal level the 30,000 citizens of one town near Chennai (Madras) have said they will support any party that guarantees to stop the local crocodiles from eating them. Who will win? A lot seems to rest on who joins which coalition as no one party is predicted to gain sufficient support to govern independently. From the few people I have spoken to here, the feeling seems to be that there will no clear winner in Orissa (with BJD, BJP and Congress leading the pack) but that UPA/Congress will win nationally. Only time and the 714 million voters will tell.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Preparing for summer

For me preparing for summer used to involve fishing out my T-shirts, washing the windows so I could see out of them if the sun did actually come out and hoping it would get warmer. Well, the weather has certainly got warmer - it's currently about 90°F (32°C) – and it's still only spring. "This is cool compared to May", I keep being told. There are some nice things about the change in season though, you get more lassi (a yoghurt based drink) served in the office; mangos have come into season; and the quality and the variety of the vegetables in the market has improved significantly - I even found some spring onions last week. Despite the enhancements on the food front, I get the feeling that summer in Bhawanipatna is greeted with a sense of foreboding rather than relief or joy. The first thing you notice is that everyone is lining their windows with polystyrene sheets to prevent the heat of the sun coming through - I'm having some installed later this week. The other thing is the arrival of air-coolers for sale on every street corner. These are essentially boxes with leaves of straw inserted down three sides, a fan at the front and a tank of water. The idea is the water wets the straw which evaporates and then the fan forces out cold air which in turn expels the hot air out of the room. Having sweated my way through the last 10 nights – the ceiling fan just seemed to be blowing hot air at me – this evening I trotted down the road to buy one. Although they're clearly all the rage, they're not as simple as they're made out to be. The main problem is that Indians just don't seem go in for instructions. Having taken it out of the box (which was for something completely different so didn't even a sport a helpful picture), I spent most of this evening putting the thing together on the fly. First, I removed a random screw from the base – which I'll inevitably lose before I find out what it's for. I then poured a couple of buckets of water into the base - assuring myself there really wasn't anywhere else it could go - and in the process submerged something electrical that I think is the pump and sincerely hope is waterproof. Should I have removed the plastic strap that was holding it down? I didn't. Next I spent a good hour forcing an arbitrary array rubber tubes into the only places they seemed to fit and finally I switched on all the knobs – Pump, Main and Swing – heaven knows what Swing does - and ... well ... it hasn't blown up yet. It does, however, sound like a plane taking off so now I'm left with two options – hot or deaf. I have sneaking suspicion that I'll be choosing cool over quiet as we approach May unless of course it does blow up because that screw really was important or the plastic strap is to keep the electrical thing above the water not in it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Holi

One of the reasons I haven't written my blog recently is that I have been immersed in my Managing Rural Development course but I took the day off last week to celebrate Holi - one of the main Hindu festivals which honours Prahlad's miraculous escape from a fire due to his unshakable devotion to Lord Vishnu. The main event took place last Thursday when people come out onto the streets and daub each other with powdered paints which are traditionally made of medicinal herbs that are believed to chase away fevers and colds. Baijayant and his son, Soyem, arrived at my door at 8am armed with plastic bags of "colour" which they proceeded to daub all over my face and head - fortunately, I also had some so was able to return the favour. We then proceeded downstairs where my landlord, Surendra, was preparing a festival drink called thandai made from bananas, yoghurt and chopped nuts. I then "played holi" with the household children who definitely had one up on me as they also had water pistols filled with coloured water. Bizarrely, soon after breakfast most men decamp for the morning to have picnics with their male friends leaving their wives and other female relatives to celebrate on their own – and Baijayant was no exception - so I went across the road to his house where I took part in a more civilised paint daubing exercise with his wife, Geeta, his mother and his father. On my return home I walked into the exhuberant fray that had been taking place at my chez Surendra. Although in the more conservative places like Bhawanipatna, you rarely see women on the streets during the festival, it was clear that behind closed doors some women were determined not to miss out on the fun and all Surendra's female relatives were covered in paint of every colour under the sun although pink is the predominant holi colour. The proceedings end at mid-day on the dot – even though it's India, they're pretty punctual about this – and everyone wanders home to clean themselves up. It took about an hour to get the colour off my face and out of my hair and ears after I which I proceeded back to Geeta's for lunch. In Bhawanipatna, holi is the day you start eating pakhala bhaat, otherwise known as water rice, that is traditionally eaten in the summer months. To prepare the dish, water and yoghurt are added to cooked rice which makes it a much lighter affair than the boiled rice you normally get and I rather liked it. The meal ended with Orissa cakes which to be honest I could have lived without as they taste like fried stale pastry. Mid-afternoon, I wandered back home for a quick snooze – it's started to get quite hot and I can see myself becoming a fan of the afternoon nap in between the studying. Click here to see more pictures.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life in the raw

Although life may seem basic by Western standards, compared to most people I live a fairly privileged existence. When travelling by train I pick the top class, which costs over 6 times the bottom class, and I have running water. Last week, however, I had a brief taste of how the other half (or more accurately the other 80%) lives. Returning from a weekend jolly to Raipur, I had to travel General (or cattle) class because there were no seats available in any other. To say it was packed would be an understatement and one look at the carriage we'd crammed ourselves into told us we had no hope of ever getting a seat for the 4-hour journey. The picture doesn’t do the actual conditions justice – we had to wait until we stopped at a station and people had got off for a breather before we could attempt to get anywhere near the carriage to take a picture. Even if we had got a seat, it would have been a choice between a hard wooden bench or sitting cross-legged on the second-tier. Somehow, the hawkers force their way through the melee of people selling bracelets, tea, snacks, and even complete meals. We were also “treated” to a visit by some Hijra – men who dress as women who are considered the third sex in India. They make their living by begging and often attend weddings etc demanding money with menaces. They were quite fascinating with their deep voices and flowing saris but I decided to keep my observations low key as they can also be quite aggressive. The journey turned out to be 6 hours although, to be fair, there had been a major rail accident further down the line in which 15 people had died and I think it was a credit to the Indian rail system that only three or four trains had been cancelled and ours was only 2 hours late. On my return I discovered that there was a three-day scheduled power cut - so whilst everyone else knew and had filled buckets of water in preparation - water requires electricity to pump into the tanks that feed the taps - they had forgotten to tell me so on Monday morning I found myself at the local hand-operated water pump. I have, however, made several new friends amongst the local population who have to use it on a daily basis and who were highly amused that I was there and even more so that I was struggling - it's hard work I can tell you! With the electricity now back on, I have water flowing out of the taps again and, whilst I wouldn’t refuse to travel cattle class, I’ll certainly appreciate the soft, pre-reserved seats in the air-conditioned carriages of the upper classes the next time I travel by train.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bring on the bridegroom

According to Hindu astrology, now is an auspicious time to get married and as a result there are numerous weddings. Most people, of course, have their partners chosen for them by their parents although the happy couple do apparently get a chance to meet their intended and an opportunity, in theory, to say if they don't like the person chosen for them. As well as dictating the day you get married, astrology plays a big part in the selection of your wife or husband. Not only do you have a star sign based on the month you were born, you also have one based on the day you were born and both of yours have to match your future partner's for it be considered a good match. You also have to be from the same caste and your family has to be considered a "good" one - the family history is studied and discussed at length. Unfortunately I don't know anyone who is getting married so I haven't been invited to any weddings. However, India is a place where life is lived on the street so you don't actually have to be invited to enjoy the fun. I haven't seen a bride – I think they're kept under wraps at home - but the groom is paraded through the streets preceded by a live brass band (amplified by numerous speakers tied to a cycle-rickshaw) and a gang of his male friends and relatives carrying large electric lanterns. There are also numerous fireworks set off in amongst the procession and, from what I can work out, at the venue itself. If there are, say, three weddings going on the near vicinity as there are tonight, you really do feel as if you're in the middle of a party and as we're currently half way through a scheduled three-day power cut it provides ample entertainment to while away the dark evenings – the music does, however, go on until about 3am but, as I'm not going to work at the moment because there's no power, I can always sleep in tomorrow. Click here to see more photos.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Acquiring a drawer

It has taken me a long time to realise what exactly was missing in my flat but finally it dawned me – there are no drawers. For storage you get deep stone shelves but I had nowhere to put all those small things that you would normally shove in a drawer. I had wanted to buy a wooden dining table but this had proved impossible to procure in Bhawanipatna. To be fair tables aren't in great demand here as people eat their meals sitting on the floor. You do, however, see computer tables and as these sometimes come with a drawer I decided to resume my search. The first hurdle was finding a furniture shop. You can buy plastic chairs and mattresses on almost every street corner but, it appeared, nothing else in the way of furniture. As it turns out, the furniture shops are all located in the same street which is on the edge of town and, in Bhawanipatna, they are more akin to mini warehouses than shops. With tables, chairs, wardrobes etc all stacked higgledy piggledy floor to ceiling, you have to squeeze between the gaps and crane your neck until you spot something that might be what you want - only it's upside down and five feet above you. I finally found one that looked suitable and a boy was summoned to dismantle the "display" so I could look at it more closely. When it was finally laid down in front of me, I realised it didn't have a drawer – sh*t! This, however, didn't turn out to be a problem – one could be added and they would deliver it to my home at exactly 1 o'clock the next day. So today, I rushed home early to await its arrival. I've been here long enough and I really should have known better. One o'clock came and went, as did 2 o'clock and at 3 o'clock I made my way back to the shop to find my table sitting upside down in the street – the drawer had been added but they still had to re-attach the cupboard door and this would, apparently, take two hours to complete. I guess he didn't appreciate that I am an expert at building flat-pack furniture and could have constructed the whole ensemble in less than two hours. Back at the flat, I cleaned everything until it shone and then re-arranged all the cupboards - several times - but when at 6 o'clock the table still hadn't arrived I started to make my way back to the shop – more bored than frustrated to be honest. I hadn't gone very far, however, when I spotted a cycle-rickshaw approaching with a trailer tied precariously on the back on top of which was ... you guessed it ... the table complete with drawer. Whilst re-arranging my cupboards I have, of course, found far more small things than will actually fit in the drawer – but hey I also got a cupboard with a door that took over two hours to screw on.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Power and politics

Last week I went to the 30th Anniversary Party of Gram Vikas, an NGO we work alongside and I must say they certainly knew how to throw a party - it was 2-day affair which included speeches, stalls, competitions and cultural extravaganzas and was attended by over 1,000 people. Even Muralidhar Bhandare, the Governor of Orissa, pitched up and it was fascinating to watch the layers of security that preceded his arrival. Sniffer dogs ran under and over everything and everybody; no-one was allowed to go near the stage he was to use; the audience (apart from those of us in the VIP party) was made to sit cross-legged behind a double row of fencing; and, as the tension rose, ambulances, fire engines and dozens of armed police arrived. Finally, a stream of Ambassador cars screeched to a halt and, to the sound of drums and tribal wailing, the Governor emerged and made his way onto the stage. He can't speak Oriya and the majority of the audience couldn't understand the speech he made in English but he seemed a genuinely nice man - or maybe he was just a very good politician. Acknowledging that his position made things happen, he told us, with a wry grin, that roads to isolated villages are often built because, when he's told somewhere is inaccessible by car, he frightens the establishment by saying he will walk it. Either because he's important or because he is 80 years old, the requisite roads magically appear! He also has a great taste in shoes and was wearing exactly the same green Crocs as I had on.
As a VIP, I got to eat with the other "distinguished" guests and listen to them discussing Indian politics. One Communist Board Member was affectionately questioned on his party's contribution to India. "You were opposed independence in the first place and have voted against many ground-breaking pieces of legislation. What exactly have the Communists done for India?" By way of reply he pointed out that Kerala, India's only Communist state, is widely recognised as the best educated and least corrupt in the country. Whatever the politics, I realised that these people and their like had created the present day India. They weren't, however, entirely pleased with the result. A 75 year-old man lamented the demise of traditional clothing amongst metropolitan Indians which he put down to the onslaught of marketing by Western fashion houses. He went on to tell us that, although his family had been members for over 100 years, he had recently been refused entry to his club in Bangalore because it no longer admitted people wearing traditional Indian dress - a rule not even the British had thought necessary to impose. He wasn't anti-Western or even anti-British, just sad that India's ancient culture (including the way they dress) was being superseded by the homogenised global one and that no one in India seemed to be creative or interested enough to stop it.