Sunday, 29 March 2009

Robbed in broad dark-night

In the morning, I speak to the police on the phone and they tell me it is easier for them to visit me at home than for me to report the crime at the police station. They arrive just as I am putting the finishing touches to a report of the event, complete with a map of the road where it happened. I present this to them and sit down. Two officers, my parents, me. The police decline a cup of tea. One officer tells me he will ask me some questions; the other officer sits and starts reading my report. As officer one asks his questions - where was it, what happened, what did the men look like - officer two looks up from the report and says to him "It's here, it's all written here."

Officer one is a little thrown by this. "We don't normally get this kind of thing," he says. "Normally people take a couple of days to get all the information to us. What do you do for a living?"

"He's a writer," my mum answers.

"He's an anthropologist," my dad says. "He studies people."

"Ok," says officer one, "so you're probably going to write something about us." He looks at my report. "This is pretty good."

"Yes, it's fairly objective," my mum adds, having looked through it before I printed it.

"I stopped short of adding sentences like 'My heart was pounding'," I say.

"You should have left them in," says officer one.

(It now transpires that two years of training as an anthropologist is perfect training for reporting an incident of mugging. The irony is, I went to India to study and write about social problems there, and never once felt myself to be in danger of this kind, despite more late night bus and train journeys than you can shake a stick at. Three weeks back in England and this happens.)

Officer two's mobile rings. He goes out of the room to answer it. It's the finger-printing squad, who are debating whether it is worth their while to visit me at home to fingerprint my mobile or wallet - both of which were given back to me by the muggers after they took my cash and cards. "Is it a leather wallet?" Officer two relays to me from the finger-printers. I nod. "Yes," he relays back. Next question: "What sort of leather is it?" I read the writing on the wallet. "Real Leather."

The questions are finished. Officer one wraps up. "I remember when I was mugged at the age of 16," he says. "The same thing: they said, 'Tell us your PIN number! And don't lie to me!' Like with you. That always amused me. I mean, what do they expect? I said, 'I won't lie to you, my PIN is 1234'. And off they go."

I, we, me and my brother
We got our Keffiyeh
to fit in with today's protest crowd
to slip in and out of their pockets;
onto a nightbus the two of us
See this boy talking loudly to the driver
was asleep, missed his stop; gets off to get on
the same bus, opposite direction
by an isolated industrial estate.
We wait one stop and get off
to get him, his wallet, his cards
with just a raised fist. So easy we laugh
a shaky nervous laugh. And tomorrow
he will feel the burden
the white man's burden of representation:
"They were black. They wore Keffiyehs"
The policeman will say "Could be gang colours, I'll research it"
(and will offer the other insight that inspired this poem:
"we get a lot of cases of muggers waiting for individuals to get off nightbuses at isolated spots")

and the boy will recall that in 20 months in India
he caught plenty of late night/early morning buses and trains
and never felt unsafe. As I say,
the burden of representations.
We have 35 pounds and 2 cancelled cards.
Our faces on CCTV.
Our shaky nervous laugh.
I, we.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Entry 12

11pm. A hot April night in Pune. My landlady helps me with translation, I help her with emptying the dirty water from the washing machine onto her plants. The cat follows her around and she snaps at it. All is right with the world.

Friday, 30 November 2007

I wake up in a strange place

It's been a long time since my last blogpost because it's been a long time since I had time to write one. I've been on the road and in places without much internet access for a long time now. I look at a map of India with some bemusement. I didn't intend to do this. I didn't intend to visit all these places. How did it happen? It happened because some nice people I met invited me to visit their native places, and I thought, ok. And then once I started, I perhaps found it hard to resist opportunities to continue, because there is something addictive about being the sweaty solo traveller in strange places, trying to communicate with Hindi, Marathi and now a little Bangla, none of which come out in an entirely usable form all the time. I have my suspicions about all these fat guidebooks you get which provide information about tourist attractions in every town in every state of India. I think maybe they're offtrack. You don't need such fat guidebooks, at least not for India. You only need four things: the ability to recognise touts and say nahi to them, a few words of the local language to back up your point, the willingness to ask every person on the street if they know the place you're going to and how to get there, and acceptance of the fact that you're going to be late. That's my theory anyway. And if you're going to ignore the local advice people repeatedly give about trains - which is "always book your seat a couple of weeks in advance" - then maybe you need one more thing: enough padding at the rear end to stand long bus journeys across hundreds of miles of potholes. My suspicion about these guidebooks is that they exist merely to enable a small number of travellers to continue travelling indefinitely - funded by the proceeds from the sales of the fat guidebooks they write.

It's been a lot of fun, these past weeks. But I'm now reaching a point where I'm tired of this way of being. I'm gathering no moss, and I miss the old mosses I've left behind. Maybe there's an irony in the fact that so many westerners come to India to lose their old moss, when the key lesson that Indian society might teach them is how important our moss is. I'm going back to find mine.

Saturday, 27 October 2007


I've been travelling northern Maharashtra and southern Madhya Pradesh (MP) by bus for the past couple of weeks. Very interesting, very productive, and very dusty. Everyone I met tried to convince me that a couple of months ago when the monsoon ended all these dustscapes were lush green. And a fellow bus passenger tried to convince me that normally the roads aren't as bad as this, that every year the government resurfaces them after the monsoon, but with poor quality materials that get washed away in the next monsoon. I guess the roads I was on were scheduled to be resurfaced sometime in the next few weeks. I don't know. How am I supposed to believe such statements when there is a city in northern Maharashtra called Dhule which, I am told, translates as 'Dust'? Presumably this city doesn't change its name during the monsoon.

A note on nomenclature. One of the things I discovered in my trip is what image should spring to mind when an Indian settlement is described as a) a village, b) a town, c) a city, and d) a metro. In England we don't use the term 'metro' very much, although London is one. The usage of the term in India is important, I think, because there's a lot of difference between Mumbai, with a population of 13 million (compare to Australia's population of 21 million), and a city I visited in MP with a population of 1 lakh (100 000), no functioning cybercafe, no rail links and no rickshaws in the morning. A town in India can be a crossroads with a few small shops (no Sainsbury's, Walmart or Reliance Fresh - at least not yet) and a market place. And a village is where people live. I'm not sure whether the small cluster of ten houses I sheltered in during the last, furious dying gasp of the monsoon rains counted as a village or a mere hamlet, as my Marathi wasn't up to framing such a tax collector question and my companion was a Keralan with less Marathi than me. At least travelling in MP forced me to revive the basics of my Hindi, which will be useful during the coming weeks when I'm once again out of Maharashtra (although having said that, half the people I spoke to in MP seemed to be Maharashtran).

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Learning Indian (3)

"You need to practice your pronunciation more," says he, "because when I said let's talk, you said ok, dog."

(Dog, in Marathi, is kutta. I meant to ask, Ok, where? (Thik ahai, kuthe?)).

"Thanks for not hitting me," says I.

"Just don't say you intended to say it," says he.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Ganpati Bappa Moraya

It's official: these people are mad. As I'm typing this I can hear the man who has been jamming on an organ for the past hour somewhere out in the street, and occasional explosions, near and far. It's 10.30pm. The processions of drummers, always accompanied by fire crackers being set off in the middle of the road, began where I'm staying at noon. My friends tell me there's another 10 days of this, and that I'd better not complain too much now or I'll have no words left by the end of it all.

Ganpati requires that every family buys a small Ganesh statue on the first day, keeps the statue in their house for ten days, and then puts the statue into the river as part of a big procession in the centre of Pune that goes on non-stop for 30 hours. The statues are made of soil and so disintegrate and get washed away. A new statue must be bought for each Ganpati festival. There is a small village on the Bombay-Pune road which is making a killing out of this, as the soil for the statues comes from there and the villagers are responsible for making the statues that are sold in Pune. Demand is so high that they spend the whole year making the statues, with a ceremony some time after each Ganpati marking the beginning of production for next year's festival. Or so I was told by a kind old kaka (uncle) who gave me a piece of apple while I took the photo below of a stall outside a department store on Tilak Road, which was doing good business at 11pm on the night before Ganpati.

That night I wandered the streets and my cynicism kept me company. For the past couple of weeks teams of men have been digging holes at the sides of the roads, sticking poles in them, and building structures along the sides and over the roads. Aha, I thought, these are for traditional decorations. That night, the night before the beginning of the 10 days of Ganpati, I observed that the structures had been covered with posters that admittedly had Ganpati themes, but were mainly advertising various luxury products. I recalled the comments of a jaded friend that Ganpati is no longer what it once was; it is no longer a festival of the community but of the corporation, one in which more money floats each year and what was once done within the community for Rs100 is now done for Rs10000 by the local department store. Or by the local politician, sometimes using money from the public services budget.
But there's more to it than that. For a start, Ganpati is not some quaint and innocent tradition of throwing a statue in the river that has only recently been distorted by business and political interests. From conversations with various Punyachas I have gleaned the following account of Ganpati's history. Long ago Ganpati was a festival conducted in private within the home, comprising offerings to placate elephant-headed Ganesh. Ganesh was a fat and lecherous god who represented the tribal 'Other' within the Hindu pantheon, demonstrating, through his debauchery (apparently he normally had "at least two wives"), the lack of civilisation among the tribal communities that existed outside caste society, and thus the necessity of the caste system. One of the stories explaining the origins of Ganesh involved Parvati, the second consort of the god Shiva, bathing in a river after a long time without washing and moulding a figure out of all the dirt she washed off herself; this became Ganesh when she breathed life into it. During the struggle against the colonial power, the nationalist Tilak (known to the British as "Father of the Indian unrest") completely changed the nature of the festival into a noisy community celebration of Ganesh as a 'good' God, in order to exploit a loophole in British laws that prohibited public gatherings. And then in more recent years, the emerging Maratha nation has emphasised the Maharashtran roots of Tilak's Ganpati (Tilak was a Punyacha) to assert their identity as something distinct from all the non-Maharashtrans migrating into the state.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, the very same progressives who gave me this account of Ganpati went on to surprise me when the processions returned to the street where we were. I made a face. "It's so loud," I said. One of the men grinned. "I know. And I love it." And as the fire crackers exploded in the street outside for the umpteenth time and the young men danced round, I figured that as I have no choice in the matter I might as well try to enjoy life at too many decibels.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Learning Indian (2)

Last night I ate out at a licensed restaurant. My experience of such places since I've been in India is that the title 'Restaurant & Bar' means that the clientele will consist of middle-aged men sitting alone, drinking spirits, eating snacks and engaging the waiters in lengthy conversations. I assume the occasional addition of 'Family' to the title is intended as a joke. Invariably the lights are low, the cigarette smoke thick. All such places that I have visited had an air of what can only be described as 'slight dodginess'. But I wanted a beer with my dinner so I went in. The middle-aged Indian man at the next table started a conversation with me in Hindi, I converted it to Marathi (Mi Marathi bolto thoda thoda. Mi Hindi bolt nahi), and we talked while he drank whiskey and ate parathas and I drank beer and ate chicken. One question he kept asking, and I kept misunderstanding, involved a word I couldn't decipher. I guessed the question was 'When did you come here from London?' This morning, as I opened my notebooks to begin Marathi shiktoy, I saw the word he'd used staring me in the face, and realised he was asking me when I'm going home.

However, this experience has been the exception rather than the rule in my Marathi conversations so far. I learnt early on that 'thoda thoda', meaning 'a little', is the most useful phrase for a foreigner to know in Maharashtra. Say anything in Marathi to someone and their surprised response will be to ask 'Tu Marathi boltos?' ('Do you speak Marathi?'). If you say 'Thoda thoda' to this they will be all smiles.

Various people in the areas of Pune I most frequently frequent recognise me now and greet me when they see me, the white man who tries to speak Marathi to everyone even when they speak English. My longest Marathi conversations have been with rickshaw wallas, for obvious reasons. One gave me his mobile number at the end of the journey, and stopped to say hello (and to ask where I was going) when he saw me out walking a week later.

I've also made friends with a group of boys who hang around on the street near my lodgings. On our first meeting their ringleader commanded me to stop (Bas!) and introduced himself as Sachin. I nicknamed him Tendulkar, whereupon he introduced two of his friends as Kemel (Lotus) and Kajul (the Indian equivalent of mascara). On our second meeting he approached me borne on the shoulders of Mascara (or was it Lotus?), asked my father's name, and told me he was off to visit his wife. Tendulkar can't be more than 10 years old. Even if I understand most of his Marathi (or at least the sentences he speaks to me, rather than about me), it's hard to know when he's being serious and when he's teasing the white man who keeps asking him to huloo huloo bol (speak slowly).

And the obligatory factoid: although recorded alcohol consumption per capita has fallen since 1980 in most developed countries, it has risen steadily in developing countries. In India consumption by 'adults' (15 years and above) increased by 106% between 1970-2 and 1994-6. In addition, during this period the international brands have claimed a large chunk of the market. In the places I've been to, the price of a bottle of beer is equal to, or greater than, the price of a meal. Cheers.