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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bhawanipatna Fair

After my rather short visit to the textile fair in Koraput, I had been really looking forward to the Bhawanipatna one and it was ... well ... fantastic. It was held in the Stadium which is a stone's throw from where I live – in fact so close I can hear the entertainment (rather monotonous speeches interspersed with Indian classical music) loud and clear as I type this. The official entrance was some distance away but, along with everyone else from our part of town, I squeezed through the gap in a loosely chained gate under the watchful eye of the priests in the temple opposite. Once inside, it was remarkably similar to an English agricultural show - maybe not quite the Great Yorkshire Show but certainly a large district one. You could buy anything from a tractor to a trinket and a lot else in between; they also had displays of the latest agricultural techniques and produce although there didn't appear to be any show jumping or livestock judging. It all had an Indian flavour of course. For starters it takes place at night. I think some things go on during the day but the fun doesn't start much before 6pm. On the stalls side, instead of laces and linens you could buy tribal textiles and saris; there was no WI stand but the local branch of the Lions were out in force; and instead of the hotdogs and burgers you could feast on samosas, dhosas, curry and rice all served on a leaf plate. There was even a Members Area which for some reason was called the Officers and Ladies Club. And of course, like any such event, you find things that you've never heard of or seen before but wonder how you ever managed to exist without. After two visits on successive evenings, I've come home with a jar of forest honey, a bottle of amla juice, two saris and a battery operated lamp. The pièce de résistance, however, is the portable giza boiler. The box – needless to say there are no instructions – says it will produce 3 litres of boiling water a minute and you've no idea how much I'm looking forward to being able to wash with hot rather than cold water. Unfortunately on my return home we had another power cut so, whilst the battery operated lamp came into its own immediately, I haven't been able to test out the boiler but as soon as the lights flicker back on I'll be producing hot water like it's going out of fashion – or in India coming into fashion far too slowly for my liking. Click here for more pictures.