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.