Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
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
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
Friday, March 19, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Monday, December 21, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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
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
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
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
Friday, August 21, 2009
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
Thursday, June 25, 2009
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
Thursday, May 7, 2009
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
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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
Monday, March 16, 2009
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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.