Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happy Birthday Lord Krishna

Krishna is a re-incarnation of the protector god, Vishnu, and today is his birthday. On the way back from work this evening I bumped into my neighbour, Gita, who invited me to join her for the celebrations. First we went to our local temple which is dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman. It's a modest affair with just enough room for the priest to get in alongside the statue of Hanuman. We took off our shoes and joined the small congregation standing in the street outside. Everyone was dressed up in their best saris and, amongst the gold and silk, I felt quite conspicuous by my drabness. There seemed to be an order of service – bells were rung and the priest, dressed in a faded orange sarong, waved a small, round candelabra in front of Hanuman who was swathed in garlands of flowers for the occasion. The candelabra was then passed amongst us and you waved your hand through the flames and then over your head in what I assume was a blessing. We were then given slices of banana and cubes of coconut and, having eaten them, it was all over and we proceeded down the road to the Krishna temple. Here you passed your offering – a basket or plastic bag of coconuts, bananas and other fruit – through a hatch in the wall where it was blessed by the priests and handed back. To be honest it was a bit of a scrum and my experience of fighting my way onto a Northern Line tube at rush-hour certainly came in handy. After that we hung around on a street corner chatting with Gita's friends and trying to stop the kids from throwing stones at the cows who by now had bedded down in the street for the night. It was a great evening which has certainly made me feel, if not an integral part of the local community, at least accepted by them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My first week at work

To be honest I've spent a lot of time kitting out my flat and discovering what you can get here (coffee and cornflakes) and what you can't (dishcloths and deodorant). Everyone seems keen to accompany me on my shopping expeditions (more knuckle-whitening rides sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorbike) but with their help I seem to have found most of what I need.
Life at work is ... well ... slower than I'm used to. I get to work about 10am and switch on the computer - only to switch it off again shortly afterwards as the lights start to flicker and the fans grind to a halt. With nothing else to do, I sit and chat to the numerous people who just seem to drop by or I listen to their conversations – trying and failing to understand what they are saying. The electricity might then come back on - or there again it might not - so I fill my mornings chatting (or sometimes just sitting) and only occasionally am I interrupted by a bit of work. Lunch comprises an enormous quantity of rice and two or three portions of curry - fish, dhal, vegetables etc - served on a metal dish. Drubo, a14-year old boy who helps out, is an excellent cook so, by the time it arrives at 2 o'clock, I'm salivating at the thought of his next creation. The afternoon is much the same as the morning and about 6pm I stroll home wondering if I'll get an invitation to supper from either Surendra or Baiyajant tonight or whether I'll have to be really adventurous and cook for myself. Don't get me wrong, I like the slower pace of life but I think I'm going to have to think of something constructive to do when there's no electricity. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Home sweet home

I'm now installed in my flat and I think I've fallen on my feet as far as accommodation is concerned. I have a large bedsit, a kitchen you can fit a table in and a roof terrace that is bigger than my garden in London. It's all been freshly painted and it comes with a maid-servant who sweeps the floors and does my washing. I also get a TV with cable. The flat is on the first floor which means fewer cockroaches and mosquitoes who, apparently, prefer living close to the drains at street level. In addition, there's a private entrance from our courtyard into the local shop so I barely have to get dressed to get my morning milk and fags. The only downside is it only has a squat loo but I can live with that - I'd perfected the art of peeing standing up long before I came here.

Surendra, my landlord, speaks good English and is very concerned that I have everything I need and Baiyajant, who works for the same outfit as me, lives over the road. Both families have invited me their house for supper on more than one occasion and I'm slowly getting used to sitting on the floor and eating my food with my right hand. I have, however, bought knives and forks for my flat so I can keep my table manners in tip-top condition for mother. Click here for more pictures. Click here to see where I live on a satellite map of Bhawanipatna.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Registering with the police

This morning Torun, an artist friend of Dillip's, came by the office to help me register with the police. He is related to someone high up in the district police force which always helps to smooth the process. We went to the police station only to find that the District Commissioner wasn't there so we popped round to his house - a nice pad with more police wandering round it than in the station itself. I was taken to a small back office where two official-looking men told me they had no idea what to do, they only knew how to arrest people. Whilst I sat there smiling inanely at everyone who came in to gawp at "the foreigner", numerous phone calls were made interspersed with animated discussions – all in Oriya of course so I had no idea what was going on. A couple of hours and several cups of tea later, I was presented with a form to sign and informed I was officially registered. Heaven knows if I actually am but only time will tell.

I was then granted an audience with the District Commissioner himself who sat behind an enormous desk (devoid anything that looked like work) in front of which were five rows of rather elegant gilded dining chairs upholstered in red velvet. I seated myself centre front. Bibek was a formidable man with an immaculate handle-bar moustache but seemed quite human underneath all the pomp. After the usual pleasantries – "Where do you come from?", "Do you eat rice?", "Where is your husband?", he informed me that his men would keep me safe and proceeded to invite me to supper when my Oriya had improved. I'm not sure if this will prove to be an incentive but it's probably a good idea to keep on the right side of those in power.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I’ve arrived

It took 30 hours by train but the journey wasn't actually as bad as I'd first imagined. First you read, then you eat, then you sleep and then you start reading again. I travelled down with 2 other VSO volunteers for all but the last hour or so and we managed to sneak some G&Ts on board which jollied up the evening somewhat.

Dillip, my boss, is a really nice, switched-on guy and he invited me to his house last night for supper. I was introduced to his wife and and then to his children who proceeded to bend down and touch my feet which I found a tad disconcerting but hopefully they only do it the first time they meet you. Although Dillip speaks very good English, the rest of the family struggled to understand me so I think I'll have to perfect my Oriya pretty fast. The only problem is they speak a different type of Oriya from one we learnt in Delhi. From what I can gather it's a bit like learning BBC English and then finding yourself in the back streets of Glasgow. At the end of the evening I was offered a lift back to the hotel and found myself riding side-saddle on the back of a motorbike in true Indian style. It was my first ever time on a motorbike and, whilst it adds to the excitement (or terror), riding side-saddle isn't actually as difficult as it looks. Dillip might not agree however – I was holding on to him so tightly he was gasping for breath when we arrived.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The destitute of Delhi

You pass by people sleeping on the street without a second glance and studiously ignore the pleading eyes of children begging for money – after all it's part of being in a developing country – but, having been exposed to their worlds, I now feel quite embarrassed at my indifference.
On Wednesday night we visited a hostel for the homeless. Situated close to the main railway station, it has five large rooms - each with space for 100 men to sleep on the floor - and a small room at the end of the corridor for children – Oliver Twist sprung to mind. Homelessness in Delhi means just that – a bit of tarpaulin strung over a couple of poles constitutes a home here – these men had nothing. Despite the fact most of the 150,000 homeless do work rather than beg, the police regard them as thieves and vagabonds and frequently beat them up so the hostels sanctuary as well as shelter. Most are migrant workers forced from their villages through poverty and exploitation who, without the necessary paperwork, struggle to find jobs that will pay anything like the minimum wage - £1.25 a day. The night we visited, the hostel was full not least because they also provide a TV and there was a big cricket match on. Like most Indians, the men are besotted by the game – a small pleasure in their otherwise harsh world.
Last night we were invited to watch a documentary on street kids which had been made by the children themselves. On arrival we were greeted by some of the stars of the film who had come to tell us their personal stories. It was a humbling experience to say the least. When you know their names, have listened to the challenges of their daily life and, in particular, heard their aspirations – a meal a day, an education, a life without fear – you respond differently to the next little outstretched arm. A sweet or a banana has made me feel less hard-hearted and – no – you don't then find yourself besieged by a million other outstretched arms.
I hope my new found compassion doesn't leave me.