Friday, 24 September 2010

Famous Last Words

Two months ago I wrote that it would not be the end. It would appear that I was wrong.

Now, upon the eve of starting an MA in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester I feel that it may be time to, tentatively I might add, resurrect the blog. I still have stuff about India to write but the promised pictures of Cachu never arrived. Shame. It was going to be a funny post.

What I'll write about now that there is no India funny business to be had is another matter entirely. Musings perhaps would be a broad enough term to cover what eventually follows.

For now I think I'll follow up on the many, now apparent, fake promises that were made over recent months. Brace for a storm of moderately interesting information.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Home is where the heart is

So nine months, three new phones and 13 new books later I am back in the United Kingdom (and have been for a little over a week actually). It's been quite a trip and to sum it up in a few words would be a dis-service. It's not the end, however. Not only do I still have to finish the job I went out to do but there are plenty more amusing stories that I have saved up to be posted over the coming weeks. What happens after that though is yet to be decided. End the blog? Maybe, or change the focus, it's possible. Time will tell, but for now sit back and wait and some more tales should be appearing on a blog post soon...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Sorry, we're closed

India closed on Monday. Actually, that's a little unfair. Parts of India closed on Monday, and Bombay was one of those. Opposition parties across the country called for a Bharat Bandh ('Bharat' meaning India and 'bandh' essentially close, as in, 'Close the door please.'). As Bombay currently has a strong BJP coalition (and Shiv Sena influence), as opposed to the country as a whole, which is governed by the Congress Party, it meant that the city decided not to open.

The street was the quietest I've ever seen it (or should that be heard it?). Buses stopped and shops were closed. I was told that the trains were running but it was hard to verify as the nearest station is a half hour walk away. Apparently it was a general strike called in response to the governments decision not to subsidise petrol prices any more (BBC link). India has a forecasted budget deficit of 5.5% of GDP for the 2010-2011 financial year and has plans to bring this down further over the coming years.

It's a messy situation. Running a deficit is not sustainable in the long-term without running into the sorts of issues that many European countries are facing now but some say the strike is just a political manoeuvre by the opposition to cause havoc and spread discord.

All I know is that India closed for the day. I'm glad this wouldn't happen in the UK. It would be most inconvenient to arrive home in a little under two weeks time (yikes!) and be told at the airport, "Sorry, the UK's decided to close today. Please come back tomorrow."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Hari Potar Hai!

Harry Potter and Andrew Bailey, separated at birth?

Not everyone thinks about identity, but for some it is a major part of their being. I think this is especially true for minorities, as for those who are so visibly different, it is so much more obvious to those around you. You are then inevitably confronted with the question of your role in society. For instance one person I know was born and brought up in America, but is born to Indian parents. They talk like an American, look like an Indian, and culturally are somewhere between the two. For this individual the question of who they are is important and certainly not an easy one to answer.

For me it's simple. I'm Harry Potter. I know this because everyone I meet tells me so. Rarely a day goes by without someone calling out, in Hindi, हैरी पॉटर है (Hari Potar hai!). This essentially means, "Look! It's Harry Potter!"

At least it makes a change from the more common, though also more annoying, गोरा है (Gora hai!). This could be translated as, "Look, it's a white person!"

Ergo, for me identity is easy, I am Harry Potter and I'm white.

Or so I thought.

More recently I have been asked more and more if I am Indian. Whilst sitting at the Birla's Lakshmi Narayan Temple in Jaipur with my friends on holiday (all from the UK, though admittedly one has an Indian-born parent) one guy came up and asked if I was from Manipur.

Manipur is a state in the north-east of India. Some friends of mine from church are from there and in fact two feature in a picture in an earlier blog post. Quite how I was mistaken for hailing from that province I do not know.

It's not just Manipur though, I have been stopped several times and asked if I am from India in general or am Indian. I think I'm going to start having to reply with yes.

And why not? After all it turns out I may have a stronger claim than first thought. My manager professes that she is a Keralite, i.e. a native from the southern Indian state of Kerala. She was born and brought up in Bombay, in the state of Maharashtra, to parents who were also born and brought up in the city of Bombay. However, their parents, her grandparents, are native to Kerala. By that logic I can claim Bangalorean heritage. My parents were both born in the UK, as was I, but my maternal grandfather was born and brought up in Bangalore. Therefore I am indigenous to Karnataka. I am south Indian through and through!

So that may be slightly warped logic, and as much fun as it is to pretend to be south Indian, I'm not. But then neither is my manager. When she gets rid of her little white Maharashtrian cap and stops supporting Shiv Sena (or MNS, whoever is doing better at the time) I'll accept the argument that she's from Kerala. I find this unlikely though, she has a habit of beating up those north Indians who keep coming in and stealing all our jobs.

It's decided then. I am white, I'm Harry Potter and I go by the name of...

...bless his efforts but one staff member spelt my name (Andrew) as Endrow. Still, I prefer that to Anju or Andreen, especially as the former is the sort of name you might give a Muslim girl. Unless I'm a Muslim woman? Well that just throws everything into question. I am repeatedly told that I have a gentle, womanly spirit, and that some staff members even think of me as a woman!

Identity eh? It's a tricky one.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Hello Money!

I have recently returned from a brief but (largely) pleasant trip around what is known as the Golden Triangle. It's a popular tourist destination that involves seeing Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (conveniently arranged in a geographic triangle of sorts). I am planning on adding a few posts regarding this trip and will be inviting my fellow travellers to share their experiences too. First I'd like to start with one short story:

It's the middle of the day. The sun is at its zenith and, being mid June in north India (pre-monsoon), it's also the hottest part of the year. As you amble through the forest you realise that you're short of money. You'd quite like a drink of water. The sweat is pouring from your face. As you begin to consider returning home you suddenly spot a handy cash dispenser.

"Excellent", you think, "walking cash machines are rather hard to come by at this time of year."

So off you trot and, as you draw near, call out to the mobile ATMs, "Hello money!"

The foreign tourists don't look too impressed. In fact they're walking off. Why? Was it the fact you only put on half your clothes this morning? Were you meant to say 'please'? Maybe giving a figure will help.


It doesn't work. Could upping the amount will help.

"150! 200! 250!"

Alas, despite you best efforts the goras are walking quickly away, leaving you destitute and penniless until you stumble across the next group of Western tourists.

I should add that some of this story is fictional. The kids may not have been that thirsty and I don't recall that much sweat being present either. But the story is meant to lead into some thought about a subject that most people have to confront when coming to India: money.

At this moment in time I have yet to make a judgement on the situation. At times during the trip though it did seem that most of the people we came across saw us as little more than dispensers of cash from which you should try to make the largest withdrawal possible. In fact, during the entire ten days there were only three people we talked to that were not after our money.

An almost inevitable debate that occurs amongst foreign tourists visiting India will centre around the disparities in wealth that are visible, almost from arrival. This is especially in the case of the Golden Triangle circuit, which is a hotspot for people going on holiday, Indian and foreign alike. How we should react to such situations is a very individual matter and will be swayed by many factors but for now all I can say is that even after having stayed in the country for almost eight months I have yet to reach a consensus.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Swimming in the Rain

To keep in touch with multiple spectrums of political thought I have taken to reading the Daily Mail along with BBC online. A recent article on the completely impartial and balanced (if you're a fascist) Daily Mail website concerned the return of the Speedo, a rather revealing swimming garment.

What better time I thought than to recount my experience of swimming in India.

It is quite safe to say that India is a socially conservative country. Modern Western concepts such as casual dating or social drinking are experienced and embraced by only a small minority of the growing middle class. On the whole even a man wearing shorts is a fairly rare sight and a woman wearing a skirt that comes above the knees usually means that she's probably either a Westerner or a very, very liberal Indian.

So swimming was always going to be an interesting, and potentially hazardous, activity from a culturally sensitive point of view.

The first two occasions on which I went swimming were quite similar and the question of modesty was answered with a simple and obvious response: wear all your clothes.

Of course! It makes perfect sense does it not? Dressed in one's full regalia one can practically glide through the water, much like an agile otter or a fish.

For the women in particular this is the done thing. I was surrounded by women wearing full salwar kameezes to the water but I couldn't help but feel that it was just a little impractical. Not that it was a huge issue it turns out because most of them couldn't swim anyway. Having had lessons at school it had never really occurred to me but there's not an abundance of public pools around here. In fact the city has substantial issues of water shortage and pools seem to be the preserve of the wealthy or hotels.

One consequence of this that did prove a little frustrating was the insistence on wearing a life jacket. There was a chronic fear of what could happen and because a few people drowned in a lake some years ago we were all forced to don restrictive life jackets before entering the water, irrespective of an individuals swimming ability. Indeed in one pool that I visited the lifeguards reprimanded me for straying too deep, despite the fact that at its deepest the water didn't go above my chin.

I couldn't help but feel that their rebukes were a little absurd.

So having got into this swimming-fully-dressed lark, when some friends invited me to Water Kingdom in Gorai I naturally came armed with a full repertoire of clothing items with which to take a dip.

What a surprise I was in for.

Water Kingdom is rather strict on their dress codes. This is a place that is, after all, 'Not for swimming' (a sign claimed that there were no such facilities on site). Anything that had zips or was of a fabric other than nylon was simple not allowed. No worries though, you are able to hire a piece of swimwear.

Now, putting aside the uncomfortable thought of how many other men had worn the garment before me, I approached the hiring stand to assess the options. To say I was scandalised would be an understatement. For a country that has a strong aversion to nudity the three options available were quite surprising!

The first item was a Speedo type piece. I politely declined.

The second and third options were both quite similar. The choice was thus between the enticingly named, full- or half-tight (fortunately 'full' and 'half' corresponded to the length of the leg rather than closeness of the suit).

I opted for half-tight as shorts seemed a better option than wondering around in what looked like a goalkeeper's trousers from the 1920s, but oh my! I spent the rest of the day walking around feeling like I was creating scenes of gross indecency. For a conservative country it seemed very bizarre that we were forced into wearing shorts that left very little of the human anatomy to the imagination.

It transpired that I was in good company though. More or less everyone else turned out wearing uncomfortable little shorts that weren't exactly flattering. At least I could take away from the day the realisation that I am a socially active, gregarious, outgoing and open person, though alas not a student as that seems to be important and worthy of note.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The joys of market value exchange rates and purchasing power parity

Apologies all but this post is in a more serious vein than usual. I'm intending to get a bit of a mix going between humour/satire and some looks at other issues regarding development/economics and suchlike. So here goes:

There was a BBC on-line article on Sunday (link) regarding an area that Oasis India does a lot of work in, that namely of street children. Now whilst I haven't finished digesting the article fully yet and intend to return to it at a later date I did want to comment on one section as it concerns something that crops up with regularity, that of daily earnings.

For those who are keen economists this will probably be both an unnecessary and inadequate comment but I've been getting a bit frustrated with some of the figures that are bandied around. Now it may be done in some cases for simplicities sake but I think it can be quite misleading.

What I refer to in the aforementioned article is the reference to the children earning between $1 (60 pence) and $6 (£4.16) per day.

The World Bank stated that the international poverty line is to be measured at roughly $1 a day (although that was subsequently revised up in 2008 to $1.25 at 2005's purchasing power parity).

Most people in the West will hear the figure of $1 a day and be shocked, especially by the fact that there are millions who live below this line. This was also the line I used to take.

It's true and it is shocking that people are existing on so low a figure but it does lead to a slightly inaccurate view of the extent of the poverty. I finished the novel Shantaram in March and there were several statements that demonstrated the sort of thinking I mean. At one point, fairly early on in the book, the author gets on a train to go to a village in Maharashtra. His guide hires a man to help them board for the sum of 40 rupees. The effort of boarded involves a great amount of physical strain and the author (it is a partly autobiographical book) is in disbelief that the cost of this job was a mere $2.

Now technically that is true, at market exchange rates at least. Herein lies the issue. Market exchange rates give an inaccurate idea regarding the value of a currency (and is why the World Bank figure is given at PPP). As of this moment £1 will purchase 68 rupees, but £1 in terms of goods bought in the UK is not equivalent to 68 rupees of goods bought in India. For example £1 in the UK would probably buy you one bottle of water. In India a bottle of water will cost between 12 and 15 rupees. Therefore for one bottle of water in the UK you could purchase around five bottles in India.

This fact is largely overlooked by people. They will talk about how cheap it is in India but that is because they are experience the market exchange rate rather than PPP. Whilst teaching at Blue Edge many of the students will ask me how much various clothes or personal items cost. My shoes for instance cost about £25. In Indian rupees that's 1700 units of their currency. 1700 rupees is a hefty sum here. In theory the national average wage in Indian is about 3000 rupees per month. My shoes cost over half an average Indian's monthly salary! This contributes to us Westerners appearing ridiculously wealthy but it is a skewed conception. My average monthly wage post-tax in my previous job was £1100. That means my shoes cost 2.3% of my average monthly earnings. A far more manageable sum.

It goes a bit deeper than that though. Just because my shoes cost £25 here it doesn't mean that they will cost Rs 1700 in India. In fact a similar pair of shoes will cost around Rs 500 and that is inflated because of the branding and taxes. If I reply to one of the students with the figure of Rs 1700 I am misleading them because the shoes will only cost Rs 1700 if they come to the UK and buy them. Therefore it is actually more exact to give a figure that is revised down. I worked out that for the goods that I buy in India we are looking at roughly one fifth of the cost. So if someone asks the cost of my shoes for instance I divide 25 by five and then covert that number (£5) by the current exchange rate. In this case we have Rs 340.

The way I worked this out is fairly arbitrary but I find it roughly works out. To illustrate this further, each month I receive £280 to live on. If I was to receive £280 a month in the UK to live on, then, depending on my location, I would be living a very frugal existence. Even in a cheaper area such as Swansea it would only just cover rent. In Indian rupees that £280 amounts to 19,040. If I use the five-times rule it would mean the equivalent of living on £1400 post-tax in the UK. Which is more or less correct. It's a comfortable lifestyle and monetarily my standard of living here is higher than before I came out.

To go back to the poverty line of a dollar a day this means that you could be led to believe that people are even worse off than they really are. $1 at the moment will buy 47 rupees and 47 rupees will buy you a lot more in India than $1 in the USA. 47 rupees in fact could stretch to three meals a day. So rather than being able to buy absolutely nothing people can survive on this amount.

But that is the real issue: surviving. 47 rupees might buy you food for a day but that's it. It won't pay for accommodation, utilities, transport or entertainment. And what is also crucial is that the poverty line is described as people living on less than $1 a day. In Bombay you can buy a wadapow (a sort of fried potato burger) for six rupees. But living on a couple of these everyday would be neither a healthy or balanced diet.

I recently tried to live on 100 rupees a day to see how it would be like (ignoring things like rent as that is paid for in advance). It was definitely possible but it did mean having only one proper meal a day if I was to pay for transport to work (my bus ticket costs 20 rupees a day). What's more I had the option of going back home and relaxing to pass the time. For most of the poor the reality will be that if they live on 100 rupees a day it will be 100 rupees that they have spent the day earning and at the end of that day they will probably end up sleeping on the street.

Therefore when talking about the scale of poverty in somewhere like India then raising the living standard to $10 a day is actually a huge difference. A cursory glance could come to the conclusion that $300 a month to live on and pay for rent and utilities is still shockingly low, but in reality it would lead to quite a comfortable existence over here and those 14,100 rupees a month would mean an individual could lead a relatively affluent lifestyle.

So there we have it, a brief (though it may not feel like it!) overview of exchange-rate economics. It misses off things such as the factors behind the rates of exchange and differences between the currencies (the Indian rupee is restricted for example which means it cannot be bought or sold outside of the country unlike the pound sterling) but it hopefully highlights some of the reasons for why we are viewed as so wealthy and clears up any misunderstandings.

For more a in-depth look at some of the issues see the UN's Millennium Development Goals and the indicators of how they measure poverty.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Do you want salt with that?

"To all the flavours that the world said, 'No', to, India said, 'Yes please', and 'add salt'." (David Parr, late April 2010)

All countries and cultures have different cuisines, and obviously they all differ from each other. Some more so than others. In India I have noticed a particularly wide array of, shall we say, unusual flavours. Unusual to the British palate at any rate.

One of the ways that this manifests itself is through the liberal application of salt. I shall name a few examples that I have stumbled across over my time here.

My first experience of the salt obsession came through a drink called buttermilk. It was listed along with a number of other drinks that included fruit juice, milkshakes and yoghurt. I thus assumed that it would be a flavoured milk with a creamy taste.

In fact it was something akin to salty butter in a glass and was one of the most unpleasant things I have ever tasted. I didn't drink more than one sip.

A variation of this drink is called chaas. It's essentially salty yoghurt. I am trying my hardest to like it but I fear the best result I can hope for is indifference. Weirdly enough it is my manager's favourite drink.

In March the tea boy (chai walla) in the Chennai office came round with what was described as lime juice (nimbu pani). Excellent, I thought. It's a hot day and what could be more refreshing? I gulped it down only to realise that, of course, a liberal helping of salt had been added.

Again, this is taking some getting used to. I have arrived (or reached) a point where I don't hate it. Again I fear that this is the best that can be hoped for.

If I had found these drinks unusual it was nothing compared to the monstrosity that calls itself Jeera Masala. This abomination masquerading as a beverage is nothing short of the work of Beelzebub himself. The demon drink is something like Doctor Pepper in that it is a fruity carbonated drink, slightly fruitier than Doctor Pepper, but has cumin (jeera) added. And of course salt. But cumin! It is foul beyond description and was the progenitor of the quote at the beginning.

My latest experience of the salty obsession took place this Saturday at a water park called Water Kingdom. There was a stall selling fresh fruit. A plate of watermelon, pineapple and papaya was ordered and to my disbelief and dismay a liberal, some would say excessive, helping of salt was added. I struggled through and when we returned at a later time I requested my plate without salt. Not only did this cause great amusement and raised eyebrows but the fruit walla actually got in wrong the first time round, so ingrained was the habit of adding salt!

It's not all bad of course. I had some dal last week which was lacking salt, and therefore taste, and the same happened with a soup not so long ago. Salt is a useful ingredient and binds flavours together. In the heat of Bombay one also needs to replenish the salts lost through sweat.

With all this salt though I can't help but wonder if people are taking salt replenishment to the extreme.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


Across India (and much of Asia in general), rickshaws are a key mode of transport. Modern rickshaws are motor powered and are often referred to as 'autos', pronounced a bit like 'otto'. In Bombay they are largely confined to the north of the city - you won't find them south of Bandra, it's all taxis there. Different cities have different ways of functioning, in Chennai for example they don't use meters so all rickshaw drivers simply rip you off. In Bangalore they are starting to use the meter but that doesn't stop them from trying to rip you off. In Bombay the drivers are mostly fine, if you can procure one that is. A typical interaction with a rickshaw driver might go something like this:

Wave down rickshaw.

Lean in and say your hoped for destination, e.g. Andheri station

Driver looks at you like you've just asked to molest his children and drives off in disgust.


Thursday, 25 March 2010

Maybe I'm just misunderstood

Question: Why was Santa studying on top of the mountain?

Answer: He wanted to complete his higher education.

When you've recovered from laughing so hard at this hilarious joke I want to explain why I am sharing Santa jokes in late March.

There's a guy in our office called Raju who sends out SMS jokes at lunchtime to let us know that it's time to go and eat. For months I've been wondering why all the jokes have been about Santa, who I assumed to be Santa Claus. For one the timing is odd - it's almost three months since Christmas, and the other was that Santa seemed to be doing things that were in no way related to anything festive.

It turns out that Santa is a common term for a Sikh and that they are the focus of many jokes in India, a bit like the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman theme back home. After this revelation everyone laughed at me and I sat slightly disappointed as the jokes have gone from being mysteriously unfunny to just unfunny.

Cultural misunderstanding the first.

I was in Mysore at the weekend doing a little bit of sightseeing between work in Bangalore and Chennai. Outside the place we were staying in a guy was enthusiastically giving me what I assumed to be the 'okay' symbol (as in the picture). I thought he was asking me if I liked Mysore ("Mysore is okay, yes?"), so I responded with equal fervour. "Yes! Mysore's great!" And gave him the okay symbol back with a huge smile and nod.

We were getting in a car at the time and as we were driving off everyone asked me what I was doing. "He was trying to sell you drugs, you just agreed to buy them from him tonight!" Quite. So yes, he was not asking me what I thought of Mysore with a friendly okay sign, but he was asking me if I wanted to smoke some weed and was informing me to visit him later that evening to purchase said drugs. How entertaining.

Cultural misunderstanding the second.

I have however managed to convince most people that I know how a train works. Only the other day I got on a fast from Borivali to Andheri and no-one gave me a word of advice. All around I received admiring glances and you could see on the faces of my fellow travellers that they were all thinking the same thing: "Here is a man who knows how to get on a train. He's probably done it before. I have complete confidence in his ability to alight and embark, you can just see it in the way that he conducts himself." I smiled, got off at Andheri and probably made a fool of myself in some other way.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Is that Wedding Bells I hear?

Shortly after my previous post on marriage I read an article on the BBC about the rising role of the internet in relationship forming (link). Unlike the UK's dating websites however these ones are all about marriage!

There is a bit of an obsession with marriage over here. Every single conversation that I have includes marriage. Even with complete strangers. It is one of the first questions that you get asked. I can sort of get away with not being married, aged 22, but I am at the prime age for wedlock it seems.

The newspapers are full of matrimonial columns and often it's the parents who are trying to get their children hitched. Quite often the impression I get is that the parents haven't even told their children. I could imagine that being a somewhat awkward conversation to have with regards to an interested potential mate.

There is however a fairly sensible approach to the whole process here. One guy told me that he was going to wait until he was earning a stable income before considering taking on a wife so that he could provide for her. The idea of 'love marriages' are quite often talked of disparagingly as they don't last apparently and parents are much more clued up on who would be a good match. Like I mentioned before at churches the pastor can have the responsibility of searching out a suitable partner. The hopeful simply has to inform that he or she is ready to get hitched. Sometimes not even this is required. I have heard of a few relationships that were deemed to be taking a little too long to become permanent. Now I'm not saying they were coerced into getting wed but with all the eagerness surrounding it I wouldn't be too surprised.

So if I return with an Indian bride it might not be my fault. In fact I may have had very little say in the whole affair.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Good news!

There is no longer any need for me to worry! All concern has left me! My prayers have been answered! There is a church that understands my predicament and meets my needs. All is revealed on an Indian church-network's website that I was reading, and particularly in this statement:

While the universal and general purpose for all people would be to pursue a married life, in certain cases and under special conditions, God's purposes and values are also fulfilled in those who by the Spirit's gifting, live and serve God as single people.
God especially covers and supplies the widow and the orphan and places single people under the protection of house-holds within the local church.


This specific passage is titled the 'Value of Being Single'. Reading it I can't help but feel valued.

Of course should I not be feeling so valued as a single individual, that's also okay! They have handy forms that you can fill out for your pastor to circulate in the search for a suitable companion. After the first chaperoned date a marriage decision must be made within six months. No problem, after all the 'universal and general purpose for all people' is to pursue marriage so anything that helps the process along is a welcome relief.

Unfortunately the church I go to at the moment is not as accommodating. I've heard rumours of 'bio-forms' that can be filled out to find that perfect match but the initiative seems to rest more with the single seeker. Until I begin the pursuit then I must be content with staying in the youth group. It's only fitting, anyone who isn't married is not a complete human being and is therefore still a youth. Sure you may be fifty but you're not married and that's just a bit odd isn't it? Stay in the youth for now, child, and when you finally come to your sense you can join in with the adults. And don't have the audacity to complain, it's not our fault you're not normal.

So there's no pressure to get married at all. You'll just get asked in every single conversation, every day, by everyone you meet about whether you are married, and if not, why not? If it ever gets too much at least I've got my manager, Divya, on the case. She's quite the matchmaker.

Friday, 12 February 2010

A Word of Advice

"If you follow fun, misery follows you. If you follow knowledge, fun follows you."

Pause for a minute one and all. Think about that sentence and contemplate on it. Mull it over, swish it around in your head. Massage it into your consciousness and string it up in the répertoire of wisdom that you have accumulated. After some time pick it out from the library that is your brain and ponder on how it has impacted your life.

And we have McDonald's to thank for this tid-bit of advice. To be more precise it was the on the television in the McDonald's restaurant (I use the term loosely) near Thane station.

There's a lot of advice on offer around here. Every station in the city has little boards with gems along the lines of that demonstrated above. Some are well know, such as 'a stitch in time saves the nine', the one I come across most frequently as it graces platform 1 of Borivali station. They all seem to be funded by the Majithia Trust Foundation. I couldn't find them on a Google search just now and so they shall have remain but a mysterious and benevolent organisation that dispenses charitable advice free of charge. What a wonderful thing to do. Of course it could all transpire that they are, rather than a benevolent company, actually a malevolent company trying to influence gullible people and take over the world through a nefarious scheme that we will all be unaware of until we awake one day and realise it's 1984, but I doubt it somehow.

I think, rather, that it fits with the general culture of helpfulness that you find. Sometimes it can be a tad overbearing but it is certainly cheering to find people willing to help with things such as directions and train etiquette. I must admit that since seeing that original notice in McDonald's I have gleaned much enjoyment from additional education. I bought some of the works of Plato from a bookshop in a spur of enthusiasm and was enthralled by its content. I confess with some shame that despite studying ancient history for three years at university I had still not read anything from Plato's corpus of work.

What a revelation it was. Did you know for example that the popular remedies for curing hiccups such as holding your breath and gargling water are first espoused in the Symposium? And in relation to my previous post, in Plato's Republic Socrates talks of how if someone is unhappy with the laws of the state that they live in then they can just get up and move to another city. Alas, if only it were still the case today. The clamping down of national borders within the last century or so has hampered such notions. I may add a slight complaint, if I may though, I bought what was title as 'The Republic and Other Dialogues', with the cover claiming that the content was 'Complete and Unabridged'. The opening few sentences of the introduction then said that the 'selected passages from the Republic were chosen' - hang on. You mean to say that not only is this book incomplete, it is also abridged. Trade descriptions I ask you.

The dialogue was a little hard going as well. There were some sentences that I read multiple times and still hadn't the foggiest idea of what was being discussed. I guess that's the trouble with reading ancient Greek philosophy. I have since passed on what knowledge I gained, however. After all in this spirit of sharing advice I thought it only fair to grant the request of one of my students who had asked to borrow the book. We met at the Blue Edge project that Oasis India runs in Dnyaneshwar Nagar, a slum of about 50,000 people between Bandra and Kurla. It's financed by a courier company called Blue Dart (who are partnered with DHL) and provides a course that includes English, computer training and life skills (such as interview techniques). The age range of the students broadly falls between 18 and 21 and upon successful completion of the six month course they get a certificate and help in obtaining a job. Indeed one of the students from the previous batch, which finished in December, has recently become employed with Blue Dart itself.

It's quite an exciting project for me to be involved in as it means that I have direct contact with people who don't work for Oasis. Indeed the student I mentioned (who also admitted having trouble understanding Plato) has become quite a good friend and I have learnt a lot about Islam and Indian culture from him. He may have struggled with Plato but he's a sharp guy, only the other day he was explaining to me that the purchasing power of the pound is stronger than the rupee and how this affected buying consumables such as bicycles and cars. I merely nodded in agreement and later went to look up what purchasing power meant.

Maybe I'll explain it sometime - after I've actually understood it.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Neither Here Nor There

I am back in India after three weeks spent in the UK (7th January to the 27th), not, I stress, for a holiday or recreational purposes. The break was as a result of what I term 'visa issues'. In light of the international fear of terrorism it is perhaps no surprise that I might come a-cropper of immigration control (by which I mean in general rather than myself being particularly suspect to terror issues). I am hoping to use this post to explain what I think happened and also to state to those inquiring, I have a new visa and it is valid for six months. That's right, six! It expires on 19th July 2010.

Since 9/11 there's obviously been a lot of attention given to the movement of people internationally, but the Indian visa system has only started to get extra strict in the past few months. In December the Indian government announced that people on tourist visas would be barred from the country for two months after the visa expired. This caused some outrage in the US and UK who were targeted with this rule and was covered by The Guardian and BBC News.

Whilst the media understandably focused on the impact on tourists, given that most foreign visitors to India are people going on holiday (almost 800,000 Britons a year according to government figures), a business visa was actually a major cause behind the troubles.

The Mumbai terror attacks on 26th November 2008 killed some 174 people, the Indian government and people were understandably a little shaken, especially when evidence seemed to suggest that the terrorists were from Pakistan, a neighbour that India has a disputed border with and has gone to war with three times since independence in 1947.

Things took a new turn, however, when it transpired that a citizen of the US (although of Pakistani origin) may also have been implicated in the attacks. David Headley apparently travelled to India several times to scout out targets for the attack. He travelled on a multiple-entry business visa.

Thus, partly owing to their large South Asian communities, both the US and UK were especially targeted by the crackdown. As it happens, when I came to apply for a visa I requested a 12 month multiple-entry business visa. Brilliant. I ended up being given a mere three month single-entry business visa. As The Guardian's article notes, almost in passing, 'India has already cracked down on business visas this year, informing thousands of holders that they must return to their home countries and prove that they meet much stricter criteria before new visas will be issued.' That's more or less what I was told at the FRRO (Foreigner Regional Registration Office).

I did, however, apply for my visa in early October before this all kicked off big time. So it is possible that my situation was completely unrelated. I say this for several reasons. At the FRRO I was told that the reason they weren't going to extend my visa was actually because the Mumbai office did not have the power to extend short-term (i.e. three month) business visas, only long-term (year long) ones. They claimed that Delhi would probably have the power - though not necessarily the inclination. This occurred eight days before my visa's expiry on 7th January.

When I later went back to the visa office in London the woman who served me said that if I applied for a business visa I would only get three months again. The reason for was actually because of my stated occupation: researcher and writer (yes, I'm claiming to be a writer!). Because this isn't a 'practical' profession I would get less time. At this point I started to stress the teaching that I've been doing as well. The woman seemed quite nice and said that she'd try and get me six months, but recommended an entry visa instead, which is geared more towards volunteering. Indeed, when I came to collect said visa that was what I was given, a six month 'X' visa. Happy days.

A final possibility may be the simple fact that I'd never been to the country before. I've heard multiple stories of people going to countries such as India for the first time and being given shorter visas that desired. On the return, or renewal of the visa, a longer duration is often given, perhaps because you can now be trusted having not caused any trouble the first time round.

In any case, the fact of the matter is I had to go back home and get a new one. I was unexpectedly and suddenly expelled (to an extent) from the country but am now back, yay! As my visa ends in mid July and I was only likely to stay until August anyway I shouldn't have any more problems. This is fortunate as I've been hearing many stories regarding visa issues elsewhere. A friend back in Swansea has had to return to Zambia and an Indian who works for Oasis India was rejected twice by the UK in applying for a visa (a particular issue as he's just got engaged to a UK citizen). What's more is that a number of people visiting from the UK on tourist visas who work for charities have been having to prove that they aren't coming out to do sneaky work behind the governments back. It's all a far cry from the more or less free border movements of yesteryear, well, yester-century anyway.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

What a Treat

I realise that most of the posts have so far related to the traffic of Bombay. This is largely because almost all my observations have been based on the small part of the city through which I commute to work, day in and day out. It was, then, with great excitement that I left the busyness of the city for the first time at the start of December. Dave and I travelled to a small town called Igatpuri, some three hours outside of the city. It's most famous for its temple and the conversations on the train involve Indians who usually assume that, being white, I am off to learn the "ways of meditation". Refuting this is one thing. Trying to describe what I actually do is quite another. Communication is always something of an issue. My Hindi is far from good and the English I'm met with is rudimentary at best. Unfortunately my Hindi is not coming on quite as quickly as hoped so I usually resort to speaking English the foreign way (loudly and slowly, all the time getting louder and slower). It does not help when my role isn't that easy to describe so I usually fall back on 'teaching for an NGO'. That seems to work.

So, to Igatpuri. Oasis India runs a centre near the town called Purnata Bhavan, which means 'House of Wholeness'. It's usually referred to affectionately as PB. It was set up to care for HIV+ children in Oasis' early days as a lot of the street children they came across were suffering from the disease. It's the sort of place that is great to take visitors to, but a real handful for the staff. From the outsiders perspective you pop up for a day or two and get to interact with a load of cute children, who also being, mostly, sick and orphaned, adds to the good feelings factor. The staff obviously have to care for them 24/7 and so visitors get all the fun but none of the responsibility.

I'm a visitor.

You can definitely see why people like it too. The kids are great and there's never a dull moment. I have a friend, however, who is serving as a staff member there and so when Dave and I visited Dave decided to divulge the exciting things that the area has to offer in ones spare time.

They are a tree and a reservoir.

Yes, that's right. Hold onto your hats and don't get too excited. In your spare time you can choose either between the tree, or the reservoir. Try not to do both on the same day, it might be too much to bear.

There's also no issue under the trade descriptions act. They are what they claim to be. A reservoir and a tree.

The reservoir is much like how I imagined it. A large body of water. After exhausting ourselves throwing stones at sticks we left after about 15 minutes.

The tree, in fairness, has a certain something. It's burnt out. None of the other trees nearby are.


Oh, and there is a pretty good view of the valley from the tree, but that makes it sound better so I'll leave that out. Said tree is pictured above.

I've been to PB three times in all now. With two visits to the tree and one to the reservoir I do feel that the novelty is starting to wear off. I feel for the staff, I really do. Whilst I'm eating a subway and watching a film at the cinema I occasionally give thought to the staff at PB and all the exciting things they could be doing. Are they at the reservoir today? Maybe the tree? Maybe some went to the tree and others went to the reservoir? All followed by the daily bowlful of dal.

I think I'll stick to being a visitor.