Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Big Muslim festival over the weekend. Sunday night - lots of flagellation in the streets - people beating themselves with swords and stuff. Monday night equally mental. Teams of young Mulim lads had 15m high flags they were carrying round. Four or five lads would hold it by its mast with some more guys on guy ropes. They then ran around the centre of the city. As you can imagine these aren't the most stable structures in the world and I had one very narrow escape.
Okay. Sunday was Indian-dress night at the Modern Lodge. The lay-deez were all wrapped up in their saris and two of the lads were sporting lungis and wife beater vests. I opted to go for the dhoti. This is a single piece of material 5m long. It forms a garment somewhere between coulottes and a nappy.
This guy is wearing one but I looked much cooler. Oh yes.
Friday, March 22, 2002
This temperature developed into some really violent vomiting and diarrhoea so liquid I felt like a water pistol (a situation hastened by a massively unwise visit to one of the fanciest hotel bars in town). However, it could have been a lot worse. For in the room above me is an expert in shit. She works for TNTSRN but is also doing a PhD on diarrhoea among Western visitors in Kolkata. Hence she has access to a lab and all the medication and treatments you can imagine. Thanks to her help and that of others, I am now firmly on the mend.
Not only that, but I get Rs 500 for the stool sample I provided.
I was running a bit of fever a few days ago so I asked one of the nurses to take my temperature. She said she didn't have a thermometer but could take temperatures using her lips. Now, knowing where you usually put a thermometer, I was a bit bemused by this. But she gave me a peck on the forehead and said, "37.8". Which I assume was my temperature in centigrade.
The work I'm doing for this NGO is actually quite dull - database design, web page writing, a bit of training and job design. It's very much like my job back in the UK.
But this is a good thing. It reminds me why I left. And why I have to keep on going.
Following the loss of my passport I went on an interesting visit to the local police station with the young lad that had done the actual passport-losing (who to be fair was sick with worry) and the director of TNTSRN.
There was much moving from queue to queue and conversation in Bangla. What I didn't know at the time, but was told by the director later, was that if I had reported the passport missing it would have taken 7 days to process but because it was a local doing it, the police could deal with it instantly (well as close to instantly as Indian bureaucracy gets) - as a local would be less likely to do a runner than me.
On Monday, I went to the British High Commission with my police statement to sort out a replacement passport. I got as far as the gate. I told the guard I was a British citizen and I had a problem with my passport.
He looked at me funny and asked my name. On hearing my reply he handed me my passport back.
It had been handed it in. Somethings really restore your faith in human nature y'know?
Sunday, March 17, 2002
Good News / Bad News:
Good News: I will be spending three weeks in Kolkata doing some bits and pieces for The NGO That Shall Remain Nameless (TNTSRN).
Bad News: Within one hour of meeting them, they managed to lose my passport. Like the Lord Jehovah I am filled with Wrath. But also like the Lord Jehovah I am Merciful. And unlike the Lord Jehovah I am Rubbish At Smiting. So I'm keeping it cool.
At the very least, the ensuing adventures with International Bureaucracy should provide me with some more material. And quite possibly an ulcer.
Friday, March 15, 2002
I haven't read a newspaper for a month, so I'd heard there was unrest in Ayodhya concerning the temple and there had been rioting in Gujarat. It wasn't until breakfast this morning that I found out exactly how bad it had been. Today is the day when the shit hits the fan. There is some nervousness in the air but I think it's going to be okay.
A bit of sightseeing:
The Victoria Memorial is a massive building set in quite beautiful grounds. Inside is a surprising professional museum and access to a St. Pauls-type dome. The main exhibition concerns the history of Kolkata, Bengal and the British in India. It is a nice twist, they've turned a monument to British Imperialism into a celebration of Bengali culture and nationalism. And next door is a Cathedral actually called St. Pauls, which is altogether more gothic and crinkly than the UK version.
I am writing all this from the relative comfort of the British Council Library, an oasis of peace and tranquility. Ahhhh.
The Modern Lodge is on Sudder Street, the Westerner ghetto of Kolkata. It has its good and bad points. One good point is the relative proximity of the Indian Museum. There's all kinds of odds and ends hidden away there (it's like UCL near Euston in London), including the Bengal Fine Art College - who are holding their annual exhibition. There is an inexplicable fondness for watercolours, but the best work is an intriguing mixture of European and Indian techniques. n And it's all for sale so I might try and pick something up. Just walking around it, I got a brief pang cause I know some people who would love this (hello Mum, hello Abi). However, the college is not far from the Salvation Army Hostel:
Geezer3: Do you want a rickshaw?
Me: No, thank you.
Geezer3: How about a cubist-influenced oil painting utilising elements of Hindu iconography then?
Me: Er, no. Not right now.
Geezer3: It's on handmade Nepali paper.
Me: Um, goodbye.
There is probably an archetypal Indian safety manual somewhere. It is a weighty tome, written in ponderous English. It has never been opened. On the front cover, someone has scrawled in Hindi: "Don't worry, it'll be find. Fancy some chai?"
Also outside the Salvation Army Hostel:
Geezer2: Do you want a rickshaw?
Me: No, thank you.
Geezer2: How about a girl then?
Me: Er, no. Not right now.
Geezer2: The girls are very nice.
Me: Um, goodbye.
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Now in Kolkata.
I tried speaking to Mother Theresa's nuns (and I would like to assure readers that despite some foul slurs, I am not developing a nun-fixation) but the whole building was locked up.
I have a ridiculously small room - but which is also ridiculously cheap - at the Modern Lodge hostel.
The streets are full of human excrement and dead animals.
It's all just like being in London again.
A conversation five seconds ago:
Geezer: Do you want a rickshaw?
Me: No, thank you.
Geezer: How about some opium then?
Me: Er, no. Not right now.
Geezer: Hashish, manali*?
Me: Um, goodbye.
And this happened outside the Salvation Army Hostel. Standards have slipped in the Sally Ann since my day. But then who am I to talk? I only joined for the uniform.
*As well as being a potent form of cannabis resin, Manali is also a small town near the Himalayas - so it is possible he was offering me a trekking holiday.
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Last night was the festival of Shiva. He is the creator and destroyer of the universe, an ascetic and the Lord of the Dance (but don't tell Michael Flahtery). I don't know much about his followers but they are BLOODY NOISY.
Today I leave Bodh Gaya and head to Kolkata.
Sunday, March 10, 2002
Now Showing on True Facts:
You'll Be Sari - Death. Sex. Carrots.
The Development Tourism Manifesto - Getting Mouthy.
A massive shout out to Yves and Kundan. Two of the coolest people in Bodh Gaya.
Saturday, March 09, 2002
Everybody knows about Gandhi (or at least thinks he looked like Ben Kingsley). But he is actually part of the holy trinity of Indian social thinkers, the other two being Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Gandhi's writings feature the leading questions fot he advocate, Vinoba's are more rigorously academic and JP is something of a polemicist (sample title: Total Revolution). Broadly speaking, Gandhian thought is pastoral, utopian, ascetic, and small-scale.
My previous theory that Gandhi = James Brown has received a serious blow. Gandhiji exhibits a loathing of both sex and machines that The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would find intolerable.
Indian History for the Impatient (1):
Name? Harappa Civilization
When? 3000BC - 2000BC
Likes? Extremely neat cities, Indecipherable writing, Cosy houses, Models of animals, Mother Goddesses.
Dislikes? Mess, Making weapons to defend againmst technically superior invaders.
Summary? Nice but dull. The kind of civilization you could take home to meet your parents but never really go the distance with.
I had visited all the temples and monasteries in BG except the Vietnamese one. The others were situated around the town centre but this one was quite a way out and i had twice been led astray by a faulty LP map. My quest ended as the dirt track a high wall topped by razor wire. The little I knew about the rich and ancient culture of Vietnam had been gleaned from repeated watchings of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now. So in a strange way, the forbidding aspect was quite reassuring. The gate appeared locked but the driver lolling about in a flashy car outside pointed to a smaller, unsecured grill and suggested I walk in. Feeling like a soldier (non-speaking role) ordered to investgate a suspect hut by Tom Berenger, I did so. If this conformed to standard movie narrativethe I would either be confronted by a cat (cue nervous laughter and relief) or a bug-eyed grandma in a dynamite corset (cue smoke, flame and offal). I got the cat, which studiously ignored me as cats are wont to do. Apart from Tiddles the place seemed deserted. Building work, both ancient and recent, lay scattered around the compound. The temple itself was covered in scaffolding and stank of primer - or was it chemical weapons? I peeked in but Buddha was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had gone to a health farm to get in shape. I then turned my attention to a path leading into some trees. I followed it gingerly, checking for booby traps. Something stirred. I had disturbed someone. Not a Viet Cong dugout but a gang of Indian workman who cheerily waved hello. My fears completely evaporated when I saw the Viet monastery. It was 50ft high and painted bright yellow. A sign attached welcomed pilgrims if they refrained from 'sensual misconduct'. I have at least 5 senses and that's a lot of scope for misconduct. I saw the abbott and wondered if I should have a chat. The only Vietnamese words I know are 'me love you long time' (ah, hang on...). Then I remembered the sensual misconduct sign and beat a hasty retreat.
Friday, March 08, 2002
Spent this morning introducing Pramod to the ideas of project planning and marketing. It's a slow process but I think he's getting the idea. We had an 'American' breakfast. Now perhaps my memory's playing tricks but I don't recall eating curried potatoes in New York. May be it's a West Coast thing.
Most of the projects have detailed accounts. I was looking at a book of receipts one day and I saw there were very few signatures in them. Instead there was a mass of green thumbprints...
Bognor Regis vs. Bodh Gaya:
I have been trying to explain the familiarity I feel for Bodh Gaya. I think its to do with the following:
- Both are full of mildly thick locals amiably fleecing tourists.
- In both great men had key moments. BG: Buddha found enlightenment. BR: George V got his end away.
- Both are sites of pilgrimage. BG: The Tree of Enlightenment. BR: Butlins Holiday Camp.
I am reading the following:
The Wrong Way Home
And The Ass Saw the Angel
The Glory That Was India
What I find sad abou the last is the tense of its title.
Wednesday, March 06, 2002
More serious stuff:
Did a survey of kids at Pramod's school today. All aged 10-15. Three of the girls are already married - despite the legal marriage age for women being 18. The average family size is 8 (incl. parents) and the average family income is around 800 Rupees a month (that's about 10p per member per day). To give you some idea, a meal for two in restaurant or a cheap place to stay per night is Rs 100. There will be some more funny stuff soon I promise but I'm rather busy at the moment.
Tuesday, March 05, 2002
NoWayJose gets out its begging bowl
You get a lot of begging in India. Now its my turn. I'm doing some work with a guy called Pramod. He runs a school for disadvantaged kids in a disused factory. It costs about 80 pounds sterling a month in total - only he can't afford it any more. We're looking for a Western institution to fund it. Ideally another school and ideally for at least three years. Opportunities for cultural exchange and some do-gooding too. I've done some checking around and it all seems on the level. So if any of you know of any likely candidates, there's a proposal we've put together I can send you. Please drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, March 02, 2002
Nepal: Sadly, I will not be going to Nepal. What with the massacres, curfews and strikes - it just don't seem that much fun. Maybe next year...
Coming Soon to True Facts:
- Two follow-ups to Aloo. Love, Money, and Gents Outfitting are covered. No more toilet gags (well, may be just the one).
- A Development Tourism Manifesto.
- A monthly serial called Famous Last Words. It promises to answer questions such as:
a. What is the real shape of the universe?
b. How can you use the 4-4-2 formation to predict the future?
c. Who would win in a bar brawl between Flann O'Brien and Jean-Paul Satre?
Why am I telling you all this? The only reason I am in India is that I told so many people I was going, I could not get out of it. So, if I do the same with these, I will have to write them. Idle so-and-so that I am.
P.S. If you like this blog and its evil twin, then share it with your friends. There is a faint possibility someone, somewhere might actually pay me to do this. Or at least cover my dry cleaning bills.
How to do a helicopter swing:
1. Find a clear spot. There should be nothing to impede the child's angular momentum - e.g. walls, washing lines, OTHER CHILDREN.
2. Grab child firmly by wrists and spin round shot-put fashion.
3. DO NOT LET GO.
4. Decelerate genetly and set the child down.
5. Stagger around disorientated for a bit.
6. Groan inwardly a mob of kids surround you demanding more.
Helicopter swings are like kiddie crack cocaine. There is an instant high followed by an insane need to repeat the experience. Just Say No.
Gin Gan Gooly Gooly Gandhi (2): Most of the projects I've been to are run on Gandhian lines. The emphasis is on rural life, perserving Indian culture and small-scale change. Gandhi's ideas about India independence also had a personal and spiritual dimension - a kind of holstic 'self-rule'. Like the great man himself, most Gandhians are intelligent, articulate and driven. They can be right pains in the arse but are mostly worth the effort.
The origins of the word 'monsoon':
(Englishman emerges from torrential downpour)
Englishman: What the hell was that?
Indian: Oh, just weather, mausam.
Englishman: Monsoon eh? Too bloody right!
Gin Gan Gooly Gooly Gandhi (1): Gandhi - top bloke, social reformer, etc. A believer in 'soul force' - which kinda makes him like James Brown minus the angel dust and wife beating. Like all interesting men, G did have a few odd ideas. Gandhi quote of the day: "Hospitals are institutions for propogating sin". Oooohhhh matron.
Donuts with Buddha (4): Just spent the morning with some nuns. Practical, no-nonsense sorts more interested in starting women's self-help groups than preaching hellfire (which is kinda how I like my nuns). In a typically Indian gesture there is picture of Buddha next to a smiling Christ.
Lots of Indian tourists here as well as Japanese, Chinese, Thai etc. They're mostly Hindus but don't seem to mind worshipping Lord B as well. "Oi, mate. I'm a Hindu. I'm a bit om, a bit shakti. I'll worship anything me."
Donuts with Buddha (3): The ashram. It's a Gandhian institution (see above) run to educate the children of poor families. Basically I am surrounded by 30 kids from 4am (prayers) to 8pm (collapse from exhaustion). Don't tell the News of the World. They might think I'm paedatrician or something.So during the afternoon I give helicopter swings and in the morning I work with a nice chap called Pramod doing acupressure and reflexology*. he also wants me to help him raise some money for a school he runs. More on this later.
*This involves touching people's feet - but not in a bad way.
Donuts with Buddha (2): There is an enormous temple on the site of Buddha's tree, just opposite the ashram where I am staying. You can even sit under the tree if you like (altho don't expect Enlightenment - what worked for Buddha may not work for you). There's also a 30ft statue of Lord B a little further away. And the want to build a 100ft one. Size matters to Buddhists. Each Buddhist community has a monastery and a temple here. Kinda the religious equivalent of those Far Eastern food halls with a stall for each country. They range from the Art Deco austerity of the Myanmar to the breathtaking Bhutanese temple which is covered in 3D reliefs of Lord B's life. After so many images of B, the composite effect is tranquil, contented and perhaps a little smug.
Donuts with Buddha (1): Now in Bodh Gaya, a place in Bihar - the poorest state in India. BG is notable for one thing. About 2600 years ago, an Indian prince was sitting under a tree. And he had an idea. Like Newton but with less fruit. He became Buddha and the idea was Enlightenment. BG is the key place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and therefore a tourist centre. Most of the action is over now as the monks have gone back to the hills. There's a big field on the North side where the Dalai Lama performs his greatest hits. I cannot confirm is Radiohead were supporting.