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Sounds of India

February 13, 2011

The sounds of India

Some of my most powerful memories of India will be the noises and sounds. Most experiences and sensations in India are dialled up by x 10 compared to life in Europe, and sound is no different.

The constant background sounds include the parakeets screeching and squabbling in the tree outside, the small squirrels making a sharp whirring and clicking noise when alarmed, “the noisiest birds in the world” as I call them, a gang of small doves with long tails making a hullabaloo that is absolutely staggering. Luckily they don’t stay long. The mynah birds call and whoop, and so does a bird I can’t identify whose song goes up the scale finishing with a long booming whoop at the top. The bats just make a rustling noise as they move in the trees, like a theatrical effect.

During the night the most persistent sound around here is of dogs barking. They sleep all day so at night they are on high alert. The one under my building has a ritual – he stands on the wall overlooking the waste ground (field is a bit flattering) and starts to howl into the night. I think he just likes the fact that if he does it long enough, other dogs join in around the neighbourhood and they love to get the barking echoing around.  It can be really frustrating if you are trying to get to sleep, but I’ve largely incorporated it into the file “acceptable noises” while trying to drop off.  What is worse is the people who start phoning others around midnight, hanging out their window and shouting loudly into their mobiles. Mercifully the blare of car horns on the main road is quite far from my building but all cars in India play a tune as they reverse, so it is very common to hear “Jingle Bells” at 3 in the morning as someone parks their car.

The morning sounds start around 5 with someone hitting a tin object loudly 10 times exactly. I don’t know where they are or why they do it, but I think it is some sort of alarm clock for a group of workers. Then the call to prayer from a local mosque starts at 6, echoing through the neighbourhood. It is followed around 7 by the recycling guy with his cart, he shouts out a word that end with a YA sound as he tries to recover bottles and newspaper that he can sell. It sounds like “nareem-YA”. Then the scooters and rickshaws start up, and the building site next door starts to come alive with the banging of hammers and cement mixer chugging and whining. The families who live on the site who are buildng the building start to make breakfast, the kids start yelling and the women yell back.

When it gets light at 8, the first cricket match starts in the “field”. This is sometimes a group of 6 -8 boys but at weekends, it is a big group of young men, say 20 of them and the noise is incredible. Each klonk as the ball is hit, each run is cheered and clapped. Cricket starts up again at 4 pm weekdays, but goes on all day at weekends. Later on in the day, some teenagers  in this building converse loudly with friends in the opposite building across the divide. “Sakshi! SAKSHI!” “Yah?” followed by a long dialogue about school usually.

So which ones will I miss? The birds and the squirrels – even the parakeets, although they make such a racket.  Which ones will I not miss? Most of the others – the cricket being number 1! But it all adds up to India – the sounds are part of the constant move flow and energy of the place. No wonder India invented yoga and meditation – to get some peace and quiet!



New Year

January 1, 2011

eCoexist is moving out of Manisha’s house and into a small bungalow near the airport. It’s great news as it will allow everyone to be under one roof, in a proper office and there is room for the cloth workshop where the bags are made with the sewing machines as well as a storage area. Today, New Year’s Day, a puja or religious service was held there to bless the building and to give offerings towards an auspicious start for the New Year. Manisha’s father, Ramesh conducted the puja in Hindi and the offerings included fruit, incense, ghee, and flowers. All these are blessed and then thrown into the fire that is the centre of the puja. All the team was there, and lots of friends and assorted eCoexist advisors. The new office administrator Sunita, whose job description I wrote, advertised and then interviewed,  has recently joined and starts on Monday, came with her daughter.

It is a lovely thing to do, get together and have the team bless the building and the future of the team and their work there.  The place itself is very nice, with four separate rooms and will be a good place for the company to work and expand to the next level of business. It feels like 2011 will be a really good year for them.

I’ve only 2 months left in India! It feels strange that it is almost over – in some ways a year is very fast – and sometimes very slow. I’m looking forwards now to getting back to my own life in London, with my friends and family and getting back into the world of my own work! The feeling of coming full circle is helped too in that I’ve planned a few holidays from next week on until the end of February when I get back on a plane to Heathrow.  Time to reflect on all the experiences, memories, people and places, my own understanding, learning and broadening of knowledge of this amazing culture and country.


Cultural differences

December 2, 2010

One of the big things here is to be “fair” not dark. The western norm of beauty is really gathering force and your skin has to be as fair as possible if you are to be seen  or want to be successful.

It is also probably a class and caste difference, as in general rural people and those who work outdoors tend to be darker.  There are hundreds of lightening creams on the market, Fair and Lovely, Natural White and other similar names. The number of ads on TV is shameful really, using Bollywood celebrities with a sort of light-o-meter miraculous skin tone change that happens on screen, promised in 2 -3 weeks. A speeded up  Michael Jackson-type conversion.  So while the foreigners are out to get a tan, while most Indian people, women especially, shun the sun.

Another example of cultural difference is around privacy, personal space, noise or having consideration of others. There is no privacy at all, people just ask you “What are you doing here? For how long? Why? How much does it pay? Why did you leave your country? How old are you? Are you married? Why not? What we would see as somewhat private matters are not here, they are in the public domain and a source of fascination and amazement.

For personal space and noise differences, here is a great example from the swimming pool at a hotel in Kerala. Two Scots that I had met at the hotel were lying on sunloungers beside the pool, trying to get a tan before going back to the frozen north. I was lying nearby on a lounger under a big parasol nearby. It is quite peaceful, only foreigners lying by the pool. So then arrives an Indian couple, young, affluent. He strips off to his swim gear and jumps into the pool, shouting and playing around. She does not swim. She is dressed in a salwar kameez, and shouting too, starts to take pictures of aqua boy, who is cavorting and snorting in the water, it’s a scene of merriment and yelling. Then she sits down, on the tiny stool meant for drinks, right next to the Scottish couple, who are in swimsuits. So the Scottish woman reading quietly in a bikini, now has the Indian woman about 2 inches away from her, plonked down in their space, fully dressed, all the while shouting and chatting with her boyfriend/husband in the water and taking photographs. Eventually, the Indian couple leave, leaving the Scots looking around in slight amazement at what just happened, and me giggling quietly into my bottle of water.

Change of scene

October 17, 2010

This year will have been split into 2 – the tough first 6 months and the more relaxed, much more liveable second 6 months. I’ve had a change of lifestyle now that I am in another flat and working for another NGO in the same area of town.  The drama of the expired visa took a few years off my life, with its accompanying Kafka-esque visits to various Indian bureaucratic offices, bribes and all. The side of India that almost does you in.  Having a valid visa is such a feeling of contentment. Not having a valid visa is your worst nightmare .

The new flat is in Kalyani Nagar, a small area north of the river, residential, and incredibly green. It’s more expensive so I am sharing a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom with Rozoo, a Tibetan mature student, who works in a lounge bar to finance his studies. His girlfriend from Kazakhstan, Diana, has gone home. I think she is coming back but who knows. It’s a little delicate so I don’t ask too many questions. Rozoo is very nice, cooks well and is usually cheerful. However today he has an ear infection and is like a bear with a sore head. Poor guy, he is very worried about money and doesn’t know if he can afford the x-ray the doctor says he needs.  You can forget how little security there is for people in other countries. His money from the bar just covers all his expenses, not much left over. He wants to open a bar in Goa one day, I’m sure he’d be great. He has a big smile and when he’s in the kitchen, there is a lot of banging and crashing then he produces really good simple dishes with next to nothing.

I can walk to work! My feeling about Pune has shifted as I’ve moved away from the pollution and noise of the city centre, and the intensity of Indian life has changed to a more comfortable rythmn. It’s certainly a relief not to have the screaming kids in the flat below and the horns blaring day and night. Now noisewise,  I’ve got a building site and dogs barking! India and noise go together, it’s part of the relentless, fascinating, irrepressible, frustrating,  impossible dynamism of the country.  I’ve also got a balcony with gorgeous trees outside, teeming with wildlife. There are small stripey squirrels, various beautiful colourful birds, all sizes from tiny to huge. One bird is very big, black tail and red wings, and it hops around the trees. At night there are huge bats that arrive, to drink the nectar of the red tree flowers. They pull themselves through the trees using their wingtip hooks, it was alarming at first, the trees swaying and rustling.  Now I’ve got used to them.

I’ve also met some more people and some Scots at that. Will, Rebecca and baby Jasmine are great and live in – wait for it, a proper house! Their lives as ex-pats are so different from mine, and it’s lovely to dip into a little luxury now and again. They have a driver and various people helping around the house. One of their friends, Paul who is from Detroit, and works for GM, says India is considered a hardship country posting at GM. He loves it here, but his parents came for a holiday and apparently after various stomach problems, left early, vowing to never return. Paul kindly lent me his car and driver to be taken home one night after a dinner at Will and Rebecca’s.  I felt I was in another world, gliding through Pune in a limousine with AC and leather seats.   I’m usually bouncing along in an old rickshaw with no suspension, trying to make sure my vital organs are still in their rightful place after rattling through potholes and swerving to avoid dogs. The contrasts of India indeed.

Why so much sugar? Everything here is loaded with sugar – chai, fruit juices, biscuits, puddings, cereals. Many affluent Indians are having problems with obesity and diabetes. If you buy a Tropicana juice here, it has about 3 times as much sugar as in the UK. A longtime national habit, surely.  Recently, in a hotel in Kerala, I watched a podgy toddler demolish a huge bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for breakfast. Father had an enormous belly and was on his mobile phone all the while, paying scant attention. It all seemed quite normal apparently. Roll on the epidemic…..

Dogs and Caste

October 3, 2010

Ah the dogs of India. The street dogs,  Pi dogs or Pariah dogs. Tough, resilient survivors, scrawny, ribs sticking out, some so full of scabies and mange that, as a dog lover you would wish for them a short life, and they are everywhere. Some with a broken leg, that has healed in its own way, sticking out at a strange angle.  They are largely well tolerated and not aggressive but when they get together in packs, it is a bit scary as they bark at and chase people, rickshaws and cars. There is one who lives under my building, who sleeps on top of a car to assert his top dog position, one eye always open. Sometimes they are treated badly, stones thrown at them, and abuse shouted at them. Kids run away, most people wouldn’t touch a dog in India. Pariah derives from a Tamil word to refer to the lowest level of the traditional Indian caste system; in English, it is used to mean a social outcast.

At the other end of the scale, the whole pampered pooch scene is starting here for the aspiring middle classes. Shops carry collars, leads and bags of Winalot, no doggie clothes though yet thankfully. The yellow Labrador is the dog of choice, followed closely by the pug, thanks to a cute Vodafone ad that propelled the pug straight into munchkin star status. There is nowhere to walk these dogs, so at sunset you often see a servant from a wealthy family, unhappily holding a lead and taking the dog round the block for a breath of fresh air. It’s an urban phenomenon.

Sometimes you see a Pi dog and a kept dog eyeing each other up. They are rarely allowed to meet and greet though, just look at each other from afar. I wonder if they recognize that they have the same origins, are from the same species. I saw a puppy dance playfully and invitingly near a Pi dog, I don’t think the street dog knew what to do or had ever seen such behavior.

The analogy with Indian life is hard to miss.

The Dalits are making some progress thanks to laws which have made it illegal to discriminate against someone on grounds of caste . It’s more the mindset of generations of rigid social stratification that makes change harder, especially in rural areas.

In what has been called India’s “hidden apartheid”, entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. Representing about 15 percent of India’s population—or some 160 million people—the widely scattered Dalits endure near complete social isolation, humiliation, and discrimination based exclusively on their birth status. Even a Dalit’s shadow is believed to pollute the upper classes. They may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes, drink water from public wells, or visit the same temples as the higher castes. Dalit children are still often made to sit in the back of classrooms.

A recent newspaper story that marries medieval and modern India,  told of a newly wealthy man who had acquired a yellow Labrador puppy. One night, as the servant was walking the dog, a Dalit woman threw the dog a roti or piece of bread to eat as they passed by. Hearing this, the owner was so furious that his dog had eaten something prepared and touched by a Dalit woman, that he threw the dog out onto the street, and abandoned it to its fate.  It had become untouchable.

Good news Bad news

August 16, 2010

A lot has happened in the last month – I have managed to change my placement  and NGO which is the big news. I was not able to be effective at NMP+,  as they themselves are in a semi-crisis mode, having quarrelled with the main network called INP+ and the politics of the situation had taken over from focus on work and projects. People lost motivation and the office environment was complex.

I am delighted now to be with a social enterprise called eCoexist.  They are concerned both with the environment and social causes and have a good team, and are enthusiastic and committed. It’s like being on another planet, and I feel much more involved and pleased to be there.  I met Manisha, the founder at a meeting and was immediately struck by her focus and clarity. (you may sense a slight wistfulness there after 6 months in India!) I had thought of returning to the UK when the situation at NMP+ became increasingly tough, and was so pleased to meet someone who I wanted to work with.

That is the good news. The bad news is my visa extension is not yet sorted out, and the current visa has expired.  I travelled to Delhi in July, and sat for 3 days in the Ministry of Home Affairs, not an experience I would recommend! However, it was all worth it as I emerged triumphant with a letter, saying my visa could be extended, as long as the Pune FRO (the Foreigners Registration Office in Pune) had no objections. So then started a series of events in Pune – a home visit by the police, a government bond typed and signed by a notary (see picture) which states that if I die, someone will be in charge of any financial responsibilities that are incurred in India, a visa extension fee and forms with the requisite 5 photos, and another 7 visits to the FRO for registration and scanning of documents.  All the paperwork is done and is right now in the bowels of the FRO.  The visa extension is meant to be issued soon – but who knows when it will be.   It is difficult not to feel helpless in the face of such overwhelming bureaucratic processes, lethargy and complexity.  I’m told my story is completely commonplace and not to worry as I have a “government order” the famous letter from Delhi. That is my piece de resistance, photocopied so many times I’ve lost count. Thanks to Girish, we now have the name of one of men at FRO, a Mr Shete. Girish can occasionally get through on the phone to him to ask about any progress.  All Indian people are used to this sclerotic procedure, and Sunil, a business  advisor at  eCoexist,  told me similar tales about renewing his passport. He has even visited the police station to check if the papers have left there, and are going through the correct process at the FRO. In India, also for all medical documents, it is up to the person (or patient) to keep all the records or documents. As most things are not computerised, you see everyone at doctors, hospitals or official offices with bags and bags of files and paper, all a bit crushed and creased, but essential to prove the trail of what has been done and what is still to be done.  I used to think service in the UK wasn’t great after living in the US.  Now I think I will find it all miraculously fast and efficient when I come back! Wish me luck for the visa extension….

Wedding Bells

July 6, 2010

Well, Girish is getting married! Apparently it all happened over the last 2 weekends, the introduction, comparing of families suitability, the decision and boom – there you go, let’s get married. I’m really pleased for him, he is clearly delighted. His fiancee is from a village outside Pune, and I’ve been getting the lowdown on the marital do’s and don’ts.

It’s a mixture of modern and traditional – Girish has not asked for a dowry, and the young woman has studied commerce and works in her father’s business at the moment, so he has chosen someone with an education. The in-laws own a few shops too, which means there is a bit of money. However, it is clear that Girish also wants someone who can look after his mother, who suffers from arthritis and can’t walk far. Father is either dead or disappeared.  I think that means that she will stay at home a lot and do housework and cooking for the three of them. I’m sure Girish will be a great husband, however it just reminds you of the family and levels of duty that Indian society exacts. They have met twice, and he bought her a mobile as she didn’t have one, and they have talked a few times on the phone. Mainly, she has called the house to speak to his mother, which is apparently the proper way to do things. He is getting all prepared for the wedding, had a fitting for his “dress” as he calls it, a handsome type of long coat with buttons down the front in red, worn with a wedding turban. She will wear a wedding sari, they are very beautiful. Stop press -The wedding took place today – so the happy couple are pictured above.

I have found a special  kurta to wear on a trip to FabIndia. Got my hands henna’ed and arms bangled with many bangles at the mehndi  – one of the family pre-wedding ceremonies. Once in a lifetime, have to do it in style!

I have recently had my application for a bank account turned down. The paperwork has taken 3 months – and now they are refusing it because my visa runs out in August, and they need a 3 month valid visa to open an account. Eh voila! You have to laugh, it’s the only way to deal with the craziness.

Some phrases that are more Indian-English than English-English are very memorable. They seem so apt and descriptive – “What to do?”  is a general question after explaining a problem to someone. “What is your good name?” always makes me smile (perhaps I also have a bad name) “Rightside” or “leftside” shouted at the rickshaw driver, followed by “Vas!” Stop!  One of the co-ordinators in VSO Delhi always says as she transfers you to another person “Be on the line, please!” I was recently asked by a colleague to help him with the updation of his resume. And upgradation seen in today’s Times of India,  is I presume a step further…

In Hindi, “yes”  is “ha”, so you either say one “HA” with real force or “ha ha ha”, (yes yes yes ok) with a nice head wobble for emphasis. My head wobble is getting better, it’s more natural now, because I think I mimic people without realizing it. HA!

Wear and tear

June 7, 2010

Clothes for women are something I study a lot here –because you want to fit in as much as possible, even though, of course, you stand out so much.  Teenagers are very westernized in Pune, some in jeans and T-shirts. After that, depending on age and tradition, there is a subtle variation of styles women wear that show a bit of western influence – for example  jeans worn under a traditional top or kurta. Or maybe a kurta with short sleeves in summer, as the heat increases. More traditional women wear the salwar kameez or the sari. The salwar kameez is a step too far for me, it is a long top and matching trousers. Most women wear it with a long scarf thrown over the shoulders. I usually wear a kurta with ¾ length sleeves ( a bit like a short kaftan) and some kind of trousers either light cotton from UK or Indian huge baggy drawstring cotton ones. The shape is amazing. Imagine buying trousers for a baby elephant with very thin legs that narrow to almost nothing.  The enormous top has a drawstring and you tie the drawstring waist to whatever size you want  – and the thin legs once you have wrestled them on over your heels, you sort of slide and drape round your ankles. I only have one pair, they are so hard to get off again.

Having felt slightly under the weather with some rather strange symptoms, I have been diagnosed with a vitamin B12 deficiency, not unusual for those eating a vegetarian diet apparently. So I have been introduced to Dr Rajore, this incredible doctor whose clinic is a few streets away. He is giving me B12 injections to boost the very low levels I have.  The lines to get into the clinic are out on the street and people take a number and wait their turn. I’m instructed to call before I go, then they try to whisk me in for the minute it takes to give me the shot.  Sometimes I wait 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. There is a lot of pushing and shoving. There are very disabled children, there are people who have had road traffic accidents. This man works from 9 – 1.30 then 5 – 9.30 pm weekdays, Saturdays 9-1.30 and Sundays 6 – 8am. According to Kanchan who introduced me, he is up at 5 am for a swim then sees house call patients between 7.30 – 9 am. Some kind of saint, and when I told him I had never seen a surgery so crowded or a doctor so popular, he told me there are sometimes fistfights in the waiting room which he has to break up! I feel a bit guilty about getting special treatment – I justify it by the amount of time I am actually in there, about a minute tops. When he sees me, he is usually on the phone while the nurse hands him the B12 phial and syringe. Dedication, you are Dr Rajore.

Society Living

May 16, 2010

I’ve found a flat! It is oldish and needs a lick of paint but the rooms are big and it has a kind of covered balcony.  It is in a Society – a sort of housing co-operative. There are 5 buildings covering almost a city block. I’m in building 2, on the 6th floor (with a lift) so shielded from traffic noise from each side.  It is 1BHK, that is a bedroom, hall and kitchen. (Hall is the sitting room) The owners live across the landing. Mrs Chabbria and her husband and daughter Preeti, who speaks great English. They have been very kind – getting a plumber when every tap I turned on refused to turn off again. Other good features of a society, because of their size and number of people living there, is that they have services that people offer to the tenants. There is a fruit and vegetable man with a cart that comes between 10-12 every morning. There is the ironing man who collects your washed but creased clothes on a Monday and returns them pressed on a Friday. That is quite a long time to wait for me, as I don’t have that many clothes. However, he also irons sheets which is a total luxury. For 5 rupees. There is the milkman and you can have the newspapers delivered. The kids who live here  treat the spaces between the buildings as a permanent playground full of joyous yelling and some games of cricket go on pretty late. The flat is a reasonable 15 Rs rickshaw ride from the office and most importantly, near the fancy grocery in Pune, Dorabjees, where you can find all kinds of food, Indian, European and American. It is the Pune equivalent of having Fortnum and Mason on your doorstep. You can spend a serious amount of money there but the pleasure of finding a bar of dark chocolate or some feta cheese are worth every penny. I spotted a packet of oatcakes the other day but it’s too hot at the moment.

Once I had moved into the flat, I had to REGISTER. I have put that in capitals because it is a word used a lot in India. One afternoon was spent registering the flat to me at the police department. We needed myself, the owner, the broker, Girish from the office, and a witness. You couldn’t make it up. Lots of shouting and moving round the office with endless papers, different officials, numerous signatures, thumb prints and money. The sound of official stamping of documents sounded more like those drummers from Japan, Kodo.  It was 2 1/2 hours of hilarity and exhaustion. One official kept moving his desk forward with a big push to get the crowd of people to move away, shouting loudly at the same time.

Girish has been a fantastic help to me. He is about 25 and in his first job at an NGO – he gets paid a complete pittance – even less than my VSO allowance. GIrish and I have woven in and out of Pune traffic on his motorbike going to see endless flats before finally the one in the Shastri society came through. Everyone here on a bike or scooter or even in a rickshaw looks like they are about to commit a bank robbery – a cotton hanky or scarf over your nose and mouth because of the pollution. Girish told me the other day he is getting married. Great, says I, tell me a bit about your girlfriend. Oh, I haven’t met anyone yet, he said. But my family is looking for someone. And I want to be married within six months. It’s time, I’m 25!

Office Life

May 5, 2010

The NGO where I am working, NMP+, supports people with HIV with a variety of services. They offer counselling and try to reduce the stigma and social intolerance of HIV that exists in India.  The people in the office are all very nice, and have been welcoming. Some speak better English than others. Luckily  the boss, Manoj, speaks very well and has been to France and the US. He is quite a character, headstrong, full of life and very authoritative with the staff, although extremely nice to me.  I kept wondering who this person Manoshsir they talked about was. It turns out it is Manoj, but said with Sir after his name and pronounced in fast Marathi. The up side for me is that I’m called Madam or Ma’am as a sign of respect (age really I think). I could get quite used to it. Although I think Manoj goes a little far – he has a bell on his desk which he pings when he wants something and someone runs to his office. Driiiing! Good sitcom material I think you might agree. The rest of us are crammed into quite small hot offices – 2 rooms with 9 of us and Manoj has a separate office. It is like being back in the 1960s. The fact that India has remained so bureaucratic and hierarchical is a revelation. I think there are so many people that jobs have to be found for them. So if all you do all day is open a door for people or like Shankar here, be general dogsbody with not much going on, so be it. It’s a salary and something to do.

Tiffin is ordered by Monali, the receptionist. Tiiffin generally arrives about 1.30 or 2pm by which time I am very ready for lunch. The round tiered silver boxes have 4 levels – rice, roti, beans or dal and a vegetable. As I was the only one eating on a plate, I have learned  how to eat with my right hand and not make too much of a mess. Manners are quite different. Someone will grab your rice and take some and usually not give it back to you. At first it takes you aback, your school lunch instincts come out and you want to say “That’s mine! Give it back!” It is tricky is pulling off a right-sized  piece of roti to use as a spoon, then not dropping the filling. If you are hungry, you get the hang of it quite fast. Tiffin is 30 Rupees or about 40p for a balanced meal. The amounts are not large just a good  amount when it is 40C outside.

I have lost some weight, in fact one day my Petit Bateau trousers nearly came off as I was getting off a motorbike during my flat hunting. My friend Steve, in West Bengal since January,  has lost a massive amount and is happy about it.  He’s from New York, was overweight and used to be a compulsive snacker apparently. I’ve told him he should write a diet  book for the US – I went to India and lost 40lbs in 4 months!!! Sure to be a bestseller….