Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fame before I leave

Passage to India - published in Telegraph. This will be my last blog entry before I leave Bhawanipatna and what better than to have the last two years of my life here summarised by The Telegraph Expat section. Follow the link above to view the article.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Insanity at Indane

Two years ago I purchased a commercial gas cylinder plus a regulator/tap for which I paid a deposit. However, domestic gas is much cheaper so I gave the gas to the Antodaya – they needed the larger canister not least because they cook my lunch every day – and I survived by using other people's domestic gas cylinders paying the cheaper price to fill them up. Now, I'm leaving I need to return the empty commercial bottle to get my Rs1650 (£23) deposit back. Talking to Baijayanta about how you did this, he seemed concerned that I hadn't actually used the regulator and that it was still in its packet. "If you haven't used the regulator, they will know it wasn't you that used the gas and you won't get your refund". "What difference does it make? How will they know?" Apparently it wasn't worth the risk so we swapped the new one for a used one on another bottle. "You'll also need your passbook and the voucher." Well I had the passbook but had no recollection of ever having received a voucher. Baijayanta started to look very worried. I suggested we just went to the office – I had the empty cylinder and a passbook to prove I had custody of one – what more did they need? So this morning with the cylinder and me loaded onto a cycle rickshaw and Baijayant riding his own bicycle, we proceeded to Indane, the gas office. The voucher, which turned out to be a receipt for the gas I had bought – the gas mind you not the bottle - turned out to be very important indeed. I stuck to my guns – if I had received a piece of paper like that I would have kept it – I can't have got one and, anyway, why do you need it? The man solemnly retrieved several books from a cupboard behind him and, starting with most recent, he inspected each and every receipt they had issued. I pointed out that it probably wasn't necessary to look at receipts issued 2010 or 2009 as the receipt, if in fact there was one, would be dated August 2008. He proceeded undeterred eventually producing a voucher bearing my name and signature. Oh well – I must have got one but problem solved as you have efficiently kept a copy. Absolutely not! Their copy was for their records, if I wanted a refund I would have to produce mine. Things then turned truly insane. If you lose your voucher, you have to produce an affidavit signed and stamped by a solicitor to confirm the fact – no affidavit, no refund. He produced the correct form – clearly I wasn't the only one to have been so careless – and after I had signed it, we all went to the Collector's Office. The Collector, however, has two offices so whilst Baijayanta peddled to one, the rickshaw driver and I ended up at the other. Several phone calls later, I was back at Indane whilst Baijayanta dealt with the lawyer – I obviously didn't need confirm my loss in person. The rickshaw driver was now getting restless and started making gestures that he was hungry and tired. I gave him a cigarette – I was already on my third – and he puffed away contentedly whilst I paced up and down trying to get my head round why I needed to have a legally endorsed affidavit to confirm I had lost a receipt of which Insane had a copy. Who, apart from the lawyer, actually benefits from the process? Couldn't I have just signed a form in the office? Why did they need the voucher in the first place? Well, I suppose this is India and wonders will never cease and, still confused, I eventually got back my deposit minus, of course, the Rs124 it cost for the lawyer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Binika bride

I would love to say I had a lovely time at the wedding I attended earlier this week in a small rural village called Binika but I have returned with very mixed feelings. The bride was a cousin of Geeta's, and it was fascinating to be part of the female side of a very traditional Indian marriage. On arrival Geeta, who had arrived several days earlier, looked happy and relaxed to be in the bosom of her family again and they were wonderful family – generous, warm, welcoming and all clearly revelling in the opportunity to be together again. Unlike a Western wedding, the party took place before the ceremony and was restricted to relatives and friends of the bride who, rather than joining in, sat in a side-room greeting and chatting with the random guests and presumably preparing herself for the ordeal ahead. Binika is situated on the banks of the River Mahanadi and after lunch we wandered down there and took a boat across to a temple on the other side. It was a precarious journey - with about 30 of us on board, the boat sat very low in the water and everyone perched on the rim as there were no seats. I was relieved I could swim – I was the only who could – but it was a very romantic side trip - full of rural Indian charm. On our return, we all changed into our finery and I donned my sari – with, I have to admit, a little help from my friends. Suitably togged up we waited for the groom to arrive … and we waited … and we slept … and supper was served … and we waited … and the bride was photographed for several hours … and we slept ... and we waited some more. Finally at 1am, to the sound of drums and fireworks, the groom finally pitched up and the proceedings began. Unfortunately, by this time I had taken so many random pictures to fill the time that the batteries on my camera had run out so I got none of the ceremony itself. It did, however, seem more organised than the wedding I had attended in Bhubaneswar. There was definitely a point which equated to the "I do" bit where a white sheet was placed over the groom's head which was then tied to the bride's veil following which the couple's hands are ritually strung together and then everyone queued up to pour water over them. The ceremony lasted about 3 hours but, at various times, the bride or groom retired to an ante-room whilst the other continued with the rituals on their own – the guests wandered in and out continually. Finally at about 4.30am, the service ended and the couple prepared to leave. Far from being a jolly send-off, their departure can only be as a traumatic affair. It made me realise just what a wrench marriage is for an Indian bride who leaves behind her family and friends – and the only life she has ever known – to join a family she's barely met who, to all intents and purposes, now have ultimate control over her. Geeta's cousin collapsed with grief on departure and had to be carried to the car by her weeping mother and aunts whilst her father looked on with tears straming down his cheeks. Exhausted and distressed I retired to bed which turned out to be a sheet folded in half and placed on a stone floor in amongst all the other guests  … but to be honest I was too tired to care. It's very difficult to say what I thought in retrospect – I was made to feel extremely welcome and they were a lovely and clearly a loving family but the sound of that wailing will haunt me for a long time to come. I sincerely hope her husband and new family are as kind as they looked to be and, if not immediately, she will have a happy marriage.  Click here to see where Binika is. Click here to see more photos.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mehndi moments

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

One billion … and one

I had read in the papers that India was starting its national census and had thought it must be a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge – by the time you have finished counting what is around 1 billion people you would have to start the process again - if not before. Do they count the seasonal migrants who are often taken illegally under duress to work in isolated brick factories hundreds of kilometres from where they live? What about the people Antodaya supports many of whom live in remote areas that are only accessible on foot and who, being illiterate, can hardly be sent a form to fill in? The homeless? The beggars who basically live on the trains? These vulnerable groups represent a sizeable proportion of India's total population - does this affect the amount of money allocated to them? The scale and complexities were mind boggling. It was only a passing thought, however, until this evening when Lara, my landlord's daughter, arrived at my door accompanied by a government official – they had started the counting in Bhawanipatna and, as a legal alien, I was to be included. The form was in Oriya and the official didn't speak that much English but with Lara acting as translator we muddled our way through. They wanted the normal stuff – name, occupation, date of birth etc but also my "village".  An important part of an Indian's identity, your village links you back to the place your family hails from even if you, yourself, have never lived there.  Should I put Skirpenbeck - where my parents now live, London - where I've spent the last 20+ years or West Byfleet where I was born?  I plumped for London - it was easier to spell. They also wanted to know my father's, mother's and husband's name – her pen hovered hesitantly over the appropriate box when Lara told her I didn't have a husband – "No, not even a dead one". Dad's name was underlined by way of compensation. Apparently my answers have to be transcribed into Oriya before I sign it. I'm mildly interested in what my name looks like in Oriya although I'll have no idea what I'm actually signing of course but, whatever it says, I'm now officially in the system – my name and details, as well as Mum and Dad's but minus hubby's, will be winging their way into the bowels of  the Indian bureaucratic system. At sometime in the distant future when they announce the final tally - it's expected to be over billion … plus me.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Return to sender

In preparation for my return in July, I thought I would start sending some stuff home.  I have a 20kg (44 lbs) luggage allowance and excess baggage is whopping Rs1300 (£19) per kg.  A quick look round my flat told me that this would be a very expensive option – there’s that marble box Dillip gave me for Christmas, the carpets I bought in Sikkim, saris, tiffin boxes … the list goes on.  It turned out I didn’t have enough stuff to send as cargo by ship – they were asking how many tea chests I needed – which meant it would have to go air-freight – an even more expensive option than excess baggage.  So I decided to try Indian Post and last week found me in the post office with my first parcel. To begin with you have to get the terminology right. "Is parcel?", "Er yes" it certainly looked like one to me.  "Rs1700."  Somehow I managed to explain I thought that was a tad expensive for a 2.75kg parcel. "Is small packet?", "Well it can be", "Rs1300". We were coming down but I still wasn’t that happy.  I was pretty sure I couldn't call it a letter so I started to enquire about transport methods.  "Is go by ship?"  -  sometimes I'm better understood if I speak English the way they do - but he looked a bit confused so I did a rather good impression of a plane flying and saying No followed by one of waves whilst saying Yes.  "SAL – Rs750."  About a tenner - that sounded, if not reasonable, at least better so the deal was done and back at home I started on my second parcel and duly took this down to the post office yesterday.  "Small packet" accompanied by a quick impersonation of the sea and the second one was on its way … or so I thought.  Today the postman arrived with a large parcel under his arm. Had Mother sent me some final emergency supplies?  How much would they cost to send back?  But no, it was Parcel Number 1 being returned to sender.  Back in the post office they had no idea what the problem was and even Arjun, a colleague who had come to help, seemed confused. "I know the label has come off, all the tape has been ripped and the contents are falling out but that was done by the PO. Why did they do that?", "Yes, I do want to send it again but why didn’t it go the first time?"  As with most things in India the solution is to write a letter of complaint i.e. make it someone else's problem.  Now I love writing complaint letters but somehow standing in the hot post office with a blank piece of paper, kindly provided by them, I wasn't quite sure what to say apart from "Why is my parcel sitting in front of me and not in the UK?"  So now I have my parcel, a copy of my complaint letter confirming receipt of it and am expecting Parcel Number 2 to wing its way back shortly but still no idea how I'm going to get all my stuff home without bankrupting myself.  Suggestions welcome.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mountains, monks and merriment

Sikkim is a land of soaring mountains, gompas (bhuddist temples), prayer flags and waterfalls that seem to fall out of the sky. As we started the 1,500m ascent from Siliguri to Gangtok the temperature started to drop considerably and Raj, our driver, looked rather anxiously at my thin shalwar kameez and Sarah's flip flops and asked if we had any warmer clothes with us. An hour later we were rummaging in our rucksacks for additional clothing to keep us warm for the rest of the journey – in fact for the rest of the holiday. As well as the Himalayas rising above us and the change in the faces of the people, we were thrilled to see that, unlike other parts of India, alcohol is freely available - in fact every shop seemed to have the stuff on open display. The following day, after spending the morning in Gangtok waiting for our permits to be processed, we started our journey up to North Sikkim. The scenery was fantastic and, with deep tree-lined gorges below and huge snow-capped mountains above, we wound our way up to the ever higher and ever colder Northern territories. The first stop was Lachen a UNESCO heritage town nestled on the mountain-side which had a very frontier feel to it despite being quite a distance from the heavily guarded Sikkim/Tibet border. The area is dominated by the Bhutia who are Tibetan in origin (having migrated in the 15th Century when the Tibetan Bhuddists split into two camps) and the bridges and houses were awash with prayer flags which added to the romanticism of the area. The next day we were supposed to go to even further North to a place called Thanggu and had got up at 5am for the trip. However about a km out of Lachen the road had, quite literally, slipped down the mountain-side so instead we made a leisurely drive to Lachung marvelling not only at the scenery but also the jaunty road signs. Here, we stayed in a traditional Tibetan house with beautifully carved wooden doors and delighted in the fare on offer - salt and yak-butter tea served in really pretty cups with lids; momos – ravioli-type parcels; and tongba-beer which is made by pouring warm water over fermented millet which you then sip through a bamboo straw out of wooden tankards. From Lachung we made our way to the Yumthang Valley – a truly spectacular area dominated by the Himalayas. There was talk of doing a small trek but at 4,000m I was feeling a bit breathless so Roshan, our guide, suggested that we could drive further on up to Point Zero where the road ends a few km from the Tibetan border. This required a small bribe for the police – it's a heavily restricted area not least because China nicked 2.52 km a few years back – but I love that kind of thing , we really were going to the end of the earth and I was in heaven as we nearly were – Point Zero is 4800m above sea level. The next morning we trekked up to Lachung Gompa – the monasteries all seems to be situated on the tops of hills and I often arrived thanking the gods I'd actually made it. Roshan and Sarah were much fitter than me so marched ahead whilst I slowly puffed my way up pretending the delay was due to stopping to take photographs. Raj, I noticed, always opted to stay behind to wash the car – he has a touch of OCD in this respect and Sarah and I would wince for him as the mud and the puddles splattered his recently polished car. Further south and down, we made our way to Tingvong, a Lepcha village situated a 15km drive deep into the forest. The Lepcha are the indigenous population of Sikkim and our stay with them highlighted the melding of traditional and modern culture. In the evening we sat in the family kitchen eating traditional Lepcha food and drinking more tongba whilst we watched "The Undertaker" and "Shawn Michaels" beat each other up in an American staged-wrestling fight on satellite TV. Next morning, after a trip up to the family gompa, we stood outside a small cave where Sitim, the son of our host, explained that his grandmother had emerged from it as a snake and founded the clan –he wasn't that sure of the details but was in no doubt about his origins. The rest of the trip was spent in the much warmer South and West Sikkim. Here we visited an array of spectacular gompas some of which you could, fortunately, drive up to; the castles and coronations thrones of the kings of Sikkim – the last of which was deposed in 1975 when India gained control; and we arrived at Kecheopalri Lake just in time to see and take part in the annual blessing of the holy books which included child monks playing a variety of instruments whilst ascending the inevitable mountain to the gompa. The only disappointment was that we didn't get to see the third tallest mountain in the world. Supposedly visible all over Sikkim and worshipped as a god, it was permanently covered in cloud when we were there - I suspect the god was angry that I had shortened his name to K3 rather honouring him in full as Khangchendzonga. All in all, Sikkim was a truly magical place – an assault on the senses - and definitely worth a return trip. Maybe K3 … sorry Khangchendzonga … will have calmed down a bit and will agree to reveal himself to me.  Click here to see photos. Click here to see trip movie.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Flame Trees of Thuamul Rampur

On Monday, I went up to Thuamul Rampur – the district where Antodaya works - to attend the opening ceremony of one of the Legal Resource Centres that I had helped to get funding for earlier this year. I'd started the day quite exhausted as I'd come off the overnight on the bus from Bhubaneswar. My usual bus has recently been upgraded and now sports swag and tail curtains and has air-conditioning but neither prevented me from spending the whole night awake - the air conditioning was so cold I spent the night shivering and A/C or no A/C you still get the endless bumps so I got off the bus prepared to swing for the person who invented road humps which have spread like the plague all over India and only add to the general discomfort of the endless potholes. Once showered, I set off up to the cool of the hills for another bumpy ride but at least the scenery was stunning. I haven't been up there for a while and spring/early summer is probably the best time; not only are the flame trees in flower but so is everything else. I went with Brooke, another VSO Volunteer from Delhi, who is spending the week here to help with Antodaya's fundraising efforts and as we wound our way up the temperature dropped noticeably. The opening ceremony started with the usual Hindu puja which involves lighting an oil lamp then igniting a clump of incense sticks from it and finishes with cracking a coconut on a stone. Sometimes this can go horribly wrong with the incense sticks catching fire and the complete failure of the coconut to crack but fortunately all went smoothly this time. We then sat through some speeches in Oriya and, as usual, I spent the time people watching and taking photos. Before you get any fancy ideas about the Centre, it's in the corner of a training room and comprises a tin trunk to store documents, a table and four chairs and is staffed by trained volunteers from the local community. There are no computers or internet access because the area doesn't have a power supply or even mobile phone coverage so the centres will provide the local community with easy access to information on their legal rights – food distribution, waged employment, land and forest rights, children's mid-day meals, pension etc as well as help on how to ensure they get them. On the return journey we went "on safari" as Brooke called it and stopped to admire and photograph the flame trees, spotted the apes and monkeys that inhabit the area, bought some forest fruits – heaven knows what they are but they taste nice - and admired the scenery in general. A good day out made all the better because I could call it work.  Click here to see more photos.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hindu high jinx

Having nearly perfected the art of sari-tying, Sarah and I dutifully made our way to the Bhubanaeswar Club for Poonam and Debabrata's wedding. Poonam is the daughter of the State Information Commissioner and it was, as expected, a rather flash do. We were told it wasn't an entirely traditional wedding and from what I can gather this meant it was shorter than usual and the main event took place at lunchtime rather than late in the evening. It was my first Hindu wedding and, traditional or not, it was very different from your average English affair. For starters, it's the bridegroom who arrives in a smart white car covered in flowers whilst the bride patiently waits out of sight. You couldn't miss Debabrata's arrival though - he was preceded by a group of conch-playing acrobats, a live band and most of his male friends and relatives. The first time we got to see Poonam was when the parents pledged themselves to each other in a joining of the families ceremony to compliment the joining of the happy couple … except the bride looked far from happy. On enquiry, I found out that unlike an English bride, who is encouraged to smile throughout the day however nervous or sick she feels, at Hindu weddings the bride is expected to look sad because she's about to leave her family and looking happy about it is definitely not the done thing. After the family-joining ceremony, we wandered across the lawn to the dais where the main event took place. Even though it was supposedly shorter, it did go on for quite a long time. Fortunately, you weren't expected to diligently sit through the whole thing and there was a kind of garden party feel to the proceedings. There were rows of chairs in front of the stage but they were also serving a buffet lunch – with the usual mountains of food - which you could eat at large round tables under a fancy awning or you could just stand around and chat whilst watching the conch-playing acrobats. There was the occasional flurry of activity when people thronged towards to the front but to be perfectly honest I had no idea why or what was going on and I certainly missed the "I do" bit if, in fact, there was one. Then, although the ceremony still seemed to be going on, we realised that people were starting to wander off so we went went back to Sarah's flat for the rest of the afternoon before donning our saris again to return for the evening party. Here the guests had quadrupled in number and there was another enormous buffet - more like a food fair to be honest. People seemed really pleased that Sarah and I were wearing saris and we were made to feel very welcome - in fact I was quite surprised at just how many of Bhubaneswar's great and good I actually knew. The only thing missing was the alcohol – it really did feel strange to be togged up in my finery at a really smart wedding but not to have that glass of champagne in my hand. It didn't in any way spoil the day though which was both fascinating and good fun and we managed to slip in a quick glass of wine back at Sarah's before retiring to bed.  To see more pictures click here

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sari struggles

I've always thought I would like to try wearing sari but the problem was finding the right occasion. However, I've been invited to a rather flash wedding in Bhubaneswar - so I'm on a roll. Hand-woven saris from Orissa are famous across India particularly Sambalpuri (a type of ikat weave) and Bomkai (that includes intricate embroidery) and after visiting numerous Orissa stalls at a textile fair, I eventually plumped for a dark red and gold Bomkai one. An essential part of the sari is the blouse (choli) that sits underneath it and you have this hand-made for you from a piece of fabric included with the sari you've bought. Unfortunately, the local tailor had a month-long waiting list and it took a lot of pleading using every word I know in Oriya before he agreed to make an exception for me and do it in five days. The major problem, however, was how on earth you put the thing on. Lesson 1: Dillip offered the services of his wife as a personal tutor. She speaks about as much English as I do Oriya but fortunately she turned out to be a really patient teacher. First she put one on herself – it took about 30 seconds. Next she put one on me – 45 seconds. I was then invited to try myself. Disaster! A sari is about 6 metres long and it's all too easy to get lost in amongst all that fabric – quite literally! To begin with you wrap it once around your waist and tuck it into the underskirt (saya). You then abandon yards of cloth on the floor and concentrate on the other end where you take over half your height in length and fold it into 3 or 4 even folds – try doing that with a metre wide strip of fabric that you're already half wearing. You then throw this over your shoulder to form the palu that trails down your back. Oh - and I forget this every time – you need to loosely wrap the sari round yourself again before you start folding or you have to abandon your carefully-crafted pleats and start again. You then tighten the loosely wrapped bit across you chest and under your arm before returning to the previously abandoned fabric. You fold this into 7 to 10 even pleats (depending on how fat you are) and tuck them into the saya and "hela" as you say in Oriya. Confused? I certainly was. After several attempts I thought I might have cracked it but practicing on my own left me randomly enveloped in fabric and looking more like a sack of potatoes than the elegant effigy I was hoping for. Lesson 2: Geeta offered her services but she tied it in a completely different way to Dillip's wife and brought the pleated palu from the back to the front rather than the front to the back. As I was discovering, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Lesson 3: Back chez-Dillip, I had another lesson this time with my own new sari when I was informed that it's always much easier – particularly with heavy saris such as mine - to rope in a friend to help with those pleats. Sarah, who's also coming to the wedding, doesn't know it yet but both my modesty and my glamour depend on her ability to fold yards of material into perfectly even folds. Roll on Saturday.  To see more pictures click here.