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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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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