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.