Wednesday, April 01, 2009

India 2009 report V - Epilogue

I've never been a particularly good traveller. My favourite journey is almost invariably the one home, this one particularly so. It was a long journey, but it's so very, very good to be home.

Looking back over it, this trip had its ups and downs. It was certainly good to see my family again, and I really shouldn't leave it so long to see them again – although I suspect it'll always be a duty to visit India, not a pleasure. But also, the first week in particular, was very stressful. There was the inevitable adjusting period, which was bad enough, but combined with the stuff relating to girls, well, it didn't make for a pleasant atmosphere for me. Still, I'm home and still single, which has got to count for something, although oddly, the whole thing has left me less disinclined towards the whole situation than I've felt for a long time.

For now, I'm just going to enjoy being home – where traffic rules aren't just treated as guidelines and they've heard of this strange thing called "lane discipline" – and we'll see what happens.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

India 2009 Report IV - Dance the night away

India is a country of extremes: unspeakable wealth and intolerable poverty; searing heat and monsoon rains; terrible driving and, er, even worse driving. It comes as no surprise then that parties should follow the same pattern. The all-night event known as a Jagratha on Saturday night was to celebrate both the building of my uncle's new house and the birth of my cousin's firstborn son. I overheard someone saying that food for about three hundred people had been prepared and about four hundred turned up – and there were still tonnes of leftovers! The whole street was invited, as were many, many relatives and friends. The thing kicked off with dinner, which was held a little way down the street in my the house my uncle lived in while his was under construction. It was a buffet and the food was excellent, with several dishes and as many topups as you could stomach. People drifted in and out, so there were never too many people there at any one time.

The main event started at about 10pm with a religious ceremony for which not a huge number of people were present, although I was. This was all to be held on the upstairs veranda since this was the largest open space in the house. It was also covered over, just in case (which turned out to be wise – I was told the next day that it started to rain pretty heavily in the early hours). After the ceremony, I left to go and sit outside for a while since, with the coverings, it was quite stuffy on the veranda. I was also worried about the size of the sound system which seemed to have banks of speakers that wouldn't look out of place in King Tut's. I was right about that. As the band started tuning up, the level was still pretty loud outside. Like I said, a nation of extremes; they had the volume turned up to eleven.

This also shot down my plan to hide in my bedroom and slip on my headphones to try and cancel the noise – my bedroom was right next to the veranda, with one of the banks of speakers sitting outside! I stood at the edge with my finger in one ear and listened to one song before retiring to my room. It might not be much, but the solid brick wall at at least some dampening effect on the noise, but I put aside any notion of getting any sleep that night, and just lay down and closed my eyes.

You might say that since I had accepted that I wasn't going to get any sleep, I should have stayed up and experienced the whole thing. And I would have done, even though I dislike the music, finding it grating, had the volume not been so intolerably high. Obviously I had no way of measuring it, but it certainly felt louder than most gigs that I've been to – and with those you leave after, maybe, two hours. Here I had no choice but to listen. I couldn't help but remember an article I had read a couple of days earlier in a magazine that I had brought with me about the abuses of music. I had a solid brick wall between me and it, and I was still pretty wrecked after a few hours.

There was some stuff that I'm sorry that I missed though, such as near the end, small children were dressed up as some of the gods from the songs that they had been singing about which would have been nice to see. In the end, they finished at about 6am, after which I was able to get a couple of hours sleep but I was left tired and grumpy for the rest of the day, although, thank goodness, we weren't going anywhere that day and the most activity that I undertook was to try and help a friend with her laptop problems (something I failed in due to lack of a decent network connection and any driver discs).

My journey home begins tomorrow, with the long drive back to Delhi where I shall board a plane for home. As the philosopher says, if you want to come back, you've got to go away first, and I'm really, really looking forward to coming back.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

India 2009 Report III - Shave and a haircut

Well, haircut anyway. I know that they say that puberty is coming earlier and earlier, but six months would be ridiculous. On Sunday, we spent the day travelling between religious sites for my nephew's Mundan (pronounced moon-an). This is the baby's first haircut and is accompanied by a religious ceremony. Since this was a pretty big thing, a lot of people had been invited and at about 7am about thirty clanspeople and hangers on (and one rather grumpy Raj) boarded a privately hired bus and set off. It was pretty early, and the sun hadn't yet burned through the high cloud. As we left the town behind, a mist rose above the fields creating an eeriely beautiful scene. Or it would have been if it weren't for the more elderly ladies at the front of the bus starting the religious chanting that they would keep up until we reached our first destination, about two hours later.

The plan was to first visit the town of Chintpurni for a blessing before moving on to Jawala Ji where the Mundan itself would take place. The two towns are in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh and nestle in the foothills of the Himalayas, something that I didn't know and was delighted by. I could drown out the sound of the singing and that of people being sick out the window of the bus by staring out at the wonderful scenery as the bus navigated hairpin bend after hairpin bend as it worked its way up the mountains. The icing on the cake was the sight of the snow-capped Himalayas themselves rising up out of the mist, looming above the lower mountains. Quite stunning, and, so I thought, making the trip worthwhile.

Chintpurni is a small town with narrow, and very steep streets. Here, there was a decent amount of order: when entering the path that leads to the temple proper, you're given a ticket by an official, without which you won't be allowed in. Security guards also keep people in the queue and stop queue-jumping. It was slow going, but orderly. You have to take off your shoes before going into the temple, so when we judged that we were far enough along, we stopped in one of the many shops lining the route, removed our shoes and bought the appropriate offerings before rejoining our place. There were also a small number of people making the journey in a more remarkable fashion. Right from down by the street, they would lie down, at full stretch, someone with them would mark the extent of their outstretched hands, they would get up, move to the marked spot and lie down again, thus effectively prostrating themselves at each step. I never did entirely find out if these people were supplicants, wanting something, very religious or just plain nuts. The line wound its way on into the temple where before I could blink, my offering was taken and blessed, my donation shoved into the box and I was out the other side. Once we were all through, we sat for a couple of minutes and then started our way back down the other side. Rather than being by road, here we had to follow steps down, and then back up again to where it rejoined the path up. I was quickly outpaced by most of the family as I helped my elderly uncle over the steps, but found them again when I stopped to get my shoes and socks (and walking back without them was not fun – there was goat dirt strewn around, as well as litter and what I could only hope was water). We eventually made it back to the bus, marvelling at how long the queue for the temple had grown, and continued on our way.

I was assured that Jawala Ji would be easier and faster, since it was a smaller temple, but it proved to be anything but. At Chintpurni, there were security guards who ensured that there was some sort of order at all points. When we reached the temple (after taking off our shoes again, and climbing up to base of the temple itself) we found that the main staircase was closed, so we had to go round a back way. But we eventually discovered that this was closed as well! We had to wait in a growing press of bodies until they opened the gate at the front, upon which there was practically a stampede to try and get in before the gate was closed again. We all managed to make it in but it's a miracle that nobody was injured. The line for the main temple was now enormous, but thankfully we weren't going there (just yet). The mundan was done in a separate area but that too displayed the same lack of any sort of order that characterised this place. There didn't seem to be any queue, just two blokes shaving babies' hair with their families crowding round with cameras, mobile phones and camcorders. Our turn came quickly enough, but with the press of people, I couldn't actually see anything. I did stick my camera into the press though and think I got some shots of the baby, rather than random limbs. After this, the parents took the baby to be washed (possibly another ceremony, I'm not entirely sure) before he was brought to another priest to be ceremonially dressed. I got some good shots of this, although I don't actually understand what the ceremony itself was for, unless it was a general blessing.

I thought that we were done now and could go home, but apparently not. Not until we went through the main temple itself. Thankfully, the line was now much shorter than it was when we first went in, but there was nobody there to keep order, and as we approached the entrance, I could see people shoving and pushing to get through it. This didn't exactly inspire confidence and by the time I got there it was worse. There was a pit in the centre of the room, where two or three priests were taking offerings, blessing them and handing them back. The press was unbelievable, and without my dad providing a barrier behind us, both my mum and myself would probably have fallen, and goodness knows how we'd have been able to get up again. I don't like crowds, but this was worse than a normal crowd. There was a sense of manic urgency, of needing to get round to where the offerings would be blessed, and nothing would get in the way. It was all I could do to get round. I just threw my offering at the pit and shoved my way out, where I had to stand for two or three minutes before I could stop shaking. It was an experience I never want to repeat. And it was only later that I was told that a small, mostly ignored shrine at the side of the temple was the original holy site. It seems that the reason for the temple's existence has now been mostly forgotten.

I'm not religious, but I fail to see how anybody could get any sort of spiritual experience out of that at all. The queues are enormous, the order non-existent, and the blessing over in seconds. All in all, it was something that I'd never do again, although, to be fair, I was told that we had it bad both because it was a Sunday and it was the run-up to a religious festival (although with the number of those in India, the chances of not being on or near one seems slim).

Getting home was a real relief after such a long and arduous day, with the drive down from the mountains equally breathtaking, and terrifying, as Indian driving always is. The last straw of the day came after we got back on the bus after having stopped for dinner. In the morning, it had been the elders of the party singing religious songs, and now the youngsters decided to start on non-religious stuff. Right by my ear, so I got an earful for the next two hours.

Saturday night is a "jagratha", or night of religious music and dancing. It starts at about 10pm and ends at about 5am. I am looking forward to this exactly as much as you would expect.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

India 2009 Report II - Girls! Girls! Girls!

I've spent the past few days meeting several girls. This has been more than a little stressful and has left me physically and emotionally drained. Since this is a public forum, I'll say no more about it for now.


I've more or less settled into a routine here now. Indian households tend to rise early, and the noise inevitably wakes me earlier than I'd like to be up, so I rise with the best grace possible and go and get a cup of tea while reading the local English-language newspaper, The Tribune. There's a national election happening in India next month so that's getting a lot of coverage. Since I'm unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Indian politics, this often leaves me scrabbling for the one page of business and world news (I hear the iPhone is getting copy and paste!).

It's been good to see the family again too. My cousins arrived this evening with their various children in tow, most of whom were born after the last time I was here, and the rest were just babies and have grown into adolescents. In particular, my neice Kavita has grown from a well-spoken, shy little girl into a confident, young woman who has the ambition that sometimes seems to be so lacking in Punjab – a state that reminds me in more ways than one of Northern Ireland. It has the same dependence on agriculture and the same inward focus which seems somewhat misplaced.

On Thursday, I added another item to my decadance list. To add to having a bookcase custom-made, I can now add that I was fitted for a tailor-made suit which I'll pick up next week. This was dearer than I was expecting, but I suspect it'll be worth it in the long run, and it's almost certainly cheaper by a long way than getting it done at home! I was slightly startled to find the shop that we were going to was next to New Look, although that actually was a branch of the chain, unlike the signs that I saw for Walia-Mart or Vindsor Palace :-).

Despite this single instance of a global brand, the 'high street' in India remains incredibly diverse, with little shops smaller than a garage (my cousin's electrical shop wouldn't even fit a Flat Car) competing for custom with large air-conditioned emporia.

The Villages

Yesterday my parents and I went out to visit some relatives who lived in a couple of villages near Phagwara. As soon as you get off the sleek, and well-maintained Grand Trunk Road, you enter a world of small, potholed, single-track roads that meander amongst the fields of wheat and sugarcane, broken up only by the villages and occasional palatial house which really highlight the difference between rich and poor in this country. Amongst these are large, spindly trees that I didn't recognise (although with my low Knowlege (Nature) check, this doesn't necessarily mean anything). The occasional combine harvestor (in bits) and painted signs for Vodafone that compete side-by-side with ox- and horse-drawn carts serve as reminders that modern technology doesn't stop at the GT Road.

The village of Padi where my aunt and her family stay has always amused me because of the water tanks on the houses. All houses here have personal water tanks since the mains supply is somewhat unreliable, but Padi seems to take delight in having them in unusual forms. I've seen eagles, areoplanes, bucky-balls and even one in the shape of a weightlifter hoisting dumbells!

After that we went to see my other aunt in our family home in the village of Johal. Apart from my missing grandmother, who died last year, this hasn't changed in a decade. I recognised everything and what differences there were, were pretty small. We spent the rest of the afternoon there before returning to Phagwara to meet another girl.

Only just after we got back from that, the wind started to pick up. I didn't think anything of it until the lights went out. Apparently these storms can cause problems with the mains power lines, so they're shut down for the duration. I went up to the roof with my cousin for a bit to enjoy the cool wind and almost as soon as we went up I saw a heavily green-tinged shot of lightning. As we watched, these shots of sheet lightning became more and more frequent, but were entirely silent, creating a really eerie atmosphere. The first drops of rain sent us indoors where my mother and I watched the storm from the window until called down for dinner. The storm remained pretty quiet but there were occasional peals of thunder, which seemed to correspond to the fork lightning that struck very occasionally. It was a very pleasant evening, sitting in the dark by candle light, listening to my neice telling ghost stories!


Today, I went to city of Chandigarh to meet another girl. Regardless of that, I had been curious to see that city, ever since I had discovered that it had been designed by the French-Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier. While I was here, I also discovered that despite being the capital of both the states of Punjab and Haryana, it is part of neither, being administered directly by the national government. There was an interesting article in the Tribune yesterday though telling the story of how the two states continue to have a single High Court, based in Chandigarh.

It's a long drive to Chandigarh and as I was looking out the window I realised that the cars are predominantly white. I don't mean that if you counted them all, white would be the statistically higher colour, I mean that it's unusual to see a car which isn't white! And the ones which aren't tend to be 4x4/SUVs which are presumably climate-controlled.

The city did not disappoint. It is laid out in numbered sectors, with wide tree-lined avenues and large roundabouts with working ornamental fountains and decorative flowers that make it a joy to drive in, compared to the rest of the country. Unlike the rest of India that I've seen so far, including Delhi, there is almost something like a traffic code that is obeyed in Chandigarh. Despite being here now for almost a week and doing lots of travelling, being in a car still makes me fear for my life every time I step into it!

Besides this, there are also several tourist gardens in Chandigarh, of which we only had time to see the Rock Garden which was quite amazing. A very pleasant stroll amongst sculptures and designs made entirely of household and industrial waste, it was inspirational and worth the visit alone.

Tomorrow is my nephew's mundan for which we leave the house at stupid o'clock. I'll try and write about that in a couple of days.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

India 2009 Report 1

Since some people asked, and since my neice found me an internet cafe, I thought that I'd try and keep people up to date with me in India. I left home at 04:00 on Monday morning and didn't get a proper sleep until about 36 hours later! I was expecting that when I got into New Delhi at 23:30, we would spend the night with relatives there, but when my dad picked me up, he said that we would drive straight to Punjab – a trip of about eight hours. I got a little sleep in the car, but not much, and by the time we got there, at ~08:00 the next day I thought it better to try and stay awake until the following night – something I didn't entirely succeed in.

It was lovely to see various family members that I haven't seen in about a decade, even if it did take some time to place some of them! In particular, I got somewhat confused by my neice Kavita and thought that she was her younger sister since she looks much younger than her years.

I've seen one girl so far and there's a few more to go over the next few days. After that, there's a religious ceremony similar to a Christening (but involving shaving the baby's head) for my elder cousin's young boy. This involves trips to two different temples, and will take up most of the day. Then next week is an all-night musical religious festival at the house. This involves both religion and me not getting any sleep, make up your own mind what state I'll be in by the end.

India has both changed an awful lot and stayed the same from when I was last here. Walking off the plane I was met by the same burnt, dry smell in the air and, if anything, the traffic has got worse. My personal theory is that modern motering technology has made Indians worse drivers, since the better brakes, power steering and the rest mean that they can get away with more dangerous things. In the drive down, I eventually had to stop looking forward and just looked out the sides. I swear, my blood pressure must have jumped by several points during that journey! I didn't see much of Delhi, but Phagwara seems pretty unchanged from the outside. Maybe a few more signs of wealth – there seem to be a lot more 4x4s around – but there are so many familiar things – the people, the smells, the cycle-rickshaws, the litter, the complete lack of anything resembling a functional traffic code. I've been told, however, that the electricity supply is now stable and no longer cuts out for hours of the day as it did a decade ago. The water supply is also more regular, although we still drink bottled water to be on the safe side.

I've had an awful lot of experiences in the past few days and I'm still processing a lot of it. Hopefully, I'll be able to update again before going home.

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