Wednesday 30 June 2010

Goody boxes


Suddenly I am replete with goody boxes. After Eleanor's arrived 10 days or so ago, I feasted on Kit Kats, Oat biscuits and really very good Dorset Cereal muesli and read letters from the boys. Then a couple of days ago a packet came from Hilary, an ex vol. This was the one with the Jasmine tea and the hair treatments I am so in need of.  Then today, 2 parcels in one day - a second from Hilary with tins of fish and muesli bars, with another hand written letter and one from Ken delivering bodily goodies like deodorant, decent bug repellent, a cobber to replace my disintegrated one, and spectacles cleaner. He expertly used the innards of the toilet paper to house the bottles safely! Ace packing Ken! Clearly I am now benefiting from all the practice you got in the South Pacific sending packages home to Sally :)  I feel totally spoilt especially as I believe there are more packages en route - a classic case of glut and famine. Will it be possible to keep up this 100% delivery record? Remain tuned to find out.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Tea - definitely the best drink of the day

Delight of delights today I am sitting drinking - no that verb is not sufficiently descriptive for what I am doing - I am luxuriating in a cup of  jasmine tea. It is the best cuppa I have had since left the UK in early Nov 2009. First there was the delight of seeing the box of tea within my goody box that arrived this morning from ex vol H, not just tea, but jasmine tea. H knows I don't necessarily get milk every day, so great choice. Then there was the smell when I opened the packet of tea - ah, the aroma is as much a part of the delight of drinking this type of tea as the taste. In the case of jasmine tea this comes from the flowers of the jasmine being used in the tea, to give that extra punch to the aroma of the tea. Then there is the aroma released on pouring the boiling water - yes folks, tea can only seriously be made with freshly boiled water, unlike coffee which needs slightly cooler water to release the best flavours  of the beans. There is always a  comfort factor when you hold a cup of hot tea in your hands. Then finally there is the taste, in the mouth, as you swallow and finally the after swallowing taste.
Yes, you guessed it, tea is a passion of mine. I love it. I can easily drink 10 cups a day at home. With milk, without milk, usually without sugar but there are two exceptions to that - Tuareg style and Indian chai style teas.
Tea can be a drink to savour on your own, in our favourite armchair with a good book, in the company of friends with good conversation at the end of a meal, or telling stories round the campfire. Tea is never out of place - it is good in the most exquisite of china cups, a glass, or a billy can. Only once have I ever had the tea ceremony conducted for me, courtesy of N when we were in  Singapore. It was weird being "waited" on in that sort of way, but still an interesting experience.  My favourite teas are normally black teas, although I do drink green teas, white teas and herbal infusions. There are only two teas I have ever tasted that are really not to my taste buds preference - mint tea and roobois.
Unfortunately here in India the best teas clearly don't make it to Rayagada, they probably all go for export. Maybe you can get some in areas like Darjeeling, but the local shops here stock bog standard Tata tea - for those of you in the UK that's the equivalent of PG Tips, mass market, end of run dust. Before I left the UK my teas of choice was a Grand Keemum and a Ceylon Kenilworth which I used to import via Betjeman & Barton I don't consider myself a tea snob but I just know what like. And today I liked my cuppa :) 

The Clearances

Why do governments keep believing it is necessary to hide real life and sanitise people's experience of their city?  I was in Beijing a year before the Olympics when the authorities had already started to board up and hide away from view the so called 'undesirable' parts of the old city, much of which I understand was then bulldozed out of existence. Now a similar thing is happening in Delhi as the city prepares for the Commonwealth Games. My Delhi colleague's blog describes the way the authorities there are "managing" the run up to the Commonwealth Games.  Please take a few minutes to compare her current pictures to her video of the same area outside of where we all stayed  when in Delhi in November 2009 for our VSO in country training to see the real impact of their actions.

Monday 28 June 2010

Welcome, bienvenue, benvenidos, benvenuti, welkam, marhaban, huan ying, swagat

in other words welcome. My blog has recently attracted a few new readers. I'm so pleased. So I wanted to say a thank you for stopping by and I hope you will find enough of interest for you to stay and post some more comments. Of course I have not forgotten all my friends and colleagues who have been supporting me in reading this blog for the past year either directly here, via RSS fee or on facebook. It is great to know you are all interested in what I am up to and how I am experiencing my time in India.

Perhaps a reminder is timely about why this blog exists. This post tells you what it is all about, this post describes where it is happening and this post describes my rather eventful, first few days here in what is, for now, my home.

So why ashramblings? When trying to come up with a title for my blog I asked around, hoping for some inspirational suggestions - as it happened I only got one (thanks due to Dean) because basically everyone agreed it was such a good one and couldn't be bettered.  It is of course a play on words - my surname, Ash, the Indian word ashram and the fact that I would probably be rambling on about this, that and the other.

The blog is meant to be a personal reflection on the experience of living here in Rayagada, the good and the bad points of it, nit dressed up to look good. It is, as I knew it would be, a very isolated voluntary placement, with nothing much in the way of a social life as I would know it back home. It is a placement with challenges - linguistic , cultural, and personal. So on one level I hope the blog would be helpful to anyone else who ever was considering doing a similar thing, on the other I hoped my friends would be interested in what I was doing, and finally I wanted to have a focus and record my experiences and my feelings as and when, throughout my time here.

How well I am achieving any of these I can only guess, but suffice to say having comments posted quite makes my day. And finding I have new readers, however they managed to find me, is just amazing. Thank you, merci, muchas gracias,  grazie, ta tumas, shukran, xie xie, dhanyavad,  

Tuesday 22 June 2010

What's bugging me!


My camera, OK more probably my photographic skills, aren't really up to photographing the wildlife I see around me but I'm so intrigued by the various insects and other animals which I find in my house. Some are such fast movers  - like that rat, like the gecko or jitty pitty as it is locally called, which has just had several babies,  like the bearded lizard called a nduå,  which inhabits our forecourt area and merges its colour to the reds and browns of the iron struts waiting to be used in the next phase of building works to the house. It is currently about 15 inches long and still growing. Then there is the 5 inch long red tailed skink which I found on my doorstep one morning - I had to quickly check whether it was poisonous or not, but thankfully no, still I didn't fancy having that in the house - it has a face like a snake, with an elongated body on short legs like a lizard, and half its length is made up of its bright red tail. But it is impossible to snap any of these they are too fast and too camera shy! 

Of course I basically recognize some - I mean a frog is a frog after all, except in fairy tales - but what species of frog? a grasshopper is a grasshopper or gintika  in Oriya, but what is the correct name for the beautifully elegant one with the thin elongated 3 in body of deep forest green one that visited one evening?  What on earth is the 1-2 in long multicoloured hoppers, pictured above, that all over our exterior walls and are now venturing indoors,with their most marvelous green, yellow and black speckled bodies with red spots and stick like legs with sucker like feet pads which enable them to cling and climb up vertical painted metals railings? And when had I ever seen jumping spiders? P3260124-crop

In addition, there are the inevitable annoying profusion of beetles, large and small, flying ants, an insect a bit like a dragon fly but only 1 in long, whose wings are twice the size of its body and are an almost see through shade of bronze, but not that many true flies surprising.





P3010184Aside the unexpected, and as yet only one visit, by the rat, the biggest thing so far to even think about venturing in is the crow/Kau, who sits on the wall outside my door and looks intently at what ever it is I am doing, eyes following my round the room, until some sudden movement or sound makes him fly off.

Luckily there are some animals that I have yet to see - my landlady caught me coming back in a few days ago to warn me there was a snake / sapå  around and it hade been right up to  our gate - she'd put down bleach powder and salt to repel it - she described it as a large one several feet long and about 6 inches in diameter by all accounts, poisonous and it had slithered away under the walk way up to the house.

Try as I may my photos just don't do the smaller creatures justice but here are some.Insect-cropP6170001-cropP6200028-crop

Trawling the web trying to find out proper names I  tumbled across some sites that can help with identification, so if you are being invaded by a bug or just curious I recommend you take a look What's the bug? and  The Bug Guide   they are intriguingly hypnotic to browse

Sunday 20 June 2010

The lost art of letter writing

What a pleasure yesterday evening as I was sitting nursing an awful head cold to open a parcel delivered to my office and from there to my home by a colleague. It was a packet of printed materials from my friend E in Scotland. I opened it with curiosity, for its size it was quite heavy. A couple of UK newspapers Sunday supplements, some magazines and there in amidst these two absolute delights. E's two boys had hand written me letters! I am so glad to see the art of letter writing is still being fostered in some parts of the education system and in some homes.
The boys are 10 and 13 ( hope I got the ages right)  and they told me all about  their latest escapades. I had to  smile as C, the youngest, started his letter with a "On Sunday the sixth my mum made me write this to you" :)  but he soon get into the swing of it and told me all about his trip to Gardening Scotland to search for plants for the  dark part of their garden, complete with drawing of a bag of plants purchased and mouthwatering description of the goodies he'd tasted on route. B told me all about a boat trip he had been on along the estuary of the Firth of Forth, the river near where I grew up. His had more of the boyish teenager to it, confessing that the "thrills of seeing all the wildlife" had been "interrupted by a horde of screaming babies" and " a fat man breaking wind" ! Loved it!
But what complete blew me away were B's photos - water birds, sea lions, ruined castles, streams feeding the river  - but best of all the shots were two of the Forth Railway Bridge, a major engineering feet of its day, a cantilever construction of steel, famous for eternally being painted. One photo caught the intricacies of the red girder work, the crisscrossing of the smaller struts messing amidst the massive anchoring spans. The second a panorama from the south bank with the 3 lights of the old ferry pier aligned with the 3 diamonds of the bridge. Very nice framing, B! The third photo was very different, a close up of a bee sucking honey from a white flower - stunning contrasts of colour, pitch perfect focus on the bee and the innards of  the flower, fuzzing up the surrounding flower heads and stalks just enough, and setting it all off nicely against a blurry darker backdrop. He really has the eye! I hope my words do them justice as I can't reproduce the glossies B sent.
I became quite nostalgic (again) reading the letters, and recalling the last time I visited E and the boys when we went walking along the shoreline there. Seeing the Bridge pictures made me think again of where I grew up because the two Forth Bridges are still iconic symbols of home and my youth. I was present at the opening of the Forth Road Bridge and I suspect my love of them, but maybe the Rail Bridge in particular, from the many trips made with my parents to visit aunt and family in Edinburgh either by rail or by the pre road bridge ferry, has more than a passing causal effect on my love of metal artwork and sculpture in general. There is something inherently aesthetic, comforting, yet at the same time inspiring, about the shapes and forms of both bridges  - for me the Rail Bridge defines endurance,  its mechanical grandeur  screams the chug of the old steam trains at you, and transports you back to playing with Meccano sets. The Road Bridge also portrays strength but this time with balletic elegance of a grand jeté.
I can't actually recall the last time  I received a real hand written letter. There used to be that heart stopping moment when the door flap would open and the envelope fluttered downwards. The "You've got mail" bleep just doesn't do it! With email as the de rigueur, technology has all but eliminated real letters from our post: the postman at home reduced to delivering unwanted circulars and associated junk mail or the wanted parcels from online shopping. But that is not to say the letters of yesterday are forgotten. There are still some I recall with quite affection - the massive tomes from D when he was in Canada during our university days, describing his stay there and the mile by mile train journey cross country from Vancouver, through the Rockies, eastward  - those were the days of that thin blue airmail paper :) ; the almost daily love letters from my born again romantic Valentine boyfriend of early years;  and the letters I still have from L that were poems from a budding talent. None of these could ever have been quite the same as emails, the hand written, first time writes, complete with mistakes and changes en route, and the language - email transiency, terseness and SMS  like shortcuts are not in my opinion the medium for  the heartfelt renderings of young love.

Thursday 17 June 2010

The great game of coping, otherwise known as a spot of jingoistic vuvuzela blowing

We volunteers hear a lot about coping strategies, ie what we do to manage the cultural, linguistic and social differences and isolation we all encounter during our placements. Some folks bring hobbies out with them  - painting, photography, embroidery and the like. As readers of this blog will be aware I brought lots and lots of reading material. But now, the World Cup fever that has grabbed some of my fellow volunteers especially those who are in locations where they can get TV,  has me thinking about what I would be doing at home during this period - answer: I'd be glued to the TV screen. So this blog is indulging in a bit of jingoistic nostalgia.

I've never been in a country when the World Cup is being staged there, and it has been some years since my home country qualified, so for many years now I have had to make do with supporting my adopted country, England else I usually follow the typically Scottish trait of supporting the underdog!  But that's never quite the same as cheering on one's own side, no matter how bad they are playing and how slim there chances are. So in the absence of Scotland from these championships, I have to recall the highlight of Scotland's near misses when trying to qualify from the group phase and that of course means replaying what is arguably one of the best World Cup goals ever! and which reached a whole new generation of an audience in Danny Boyle's classic film of Irving  Welsh's book Trainspotting. I remember sitting in a flat in Liverpool in 1978 watching every game over the TV links from Argentina, oh the joys and the heartaches, so close yet so far. We remained the only team to beat The Netherlands, other than tournament winners and hosts Argentina, yet we still did not qualify for the second stages and never have. Sob, sob :( In more recent years we haven't even qualified for the finals.

Likewise this year. So again the question of who to support? In the past it has usually ended up being England by default. But this year's grouping have a hidden dimension for me. England's group for the first stage comprising The United States, Algeria and Slovenia - so my home is in England, I have lived in the US, and my heart resides in Algeria. Only Slovenia and I have no connection. In the country in which I am currently living, most folks don't even know what it is all about:  India being more noted for its cricket & hockey teams than its football one. So I can appear quite neutral until tomorrow night when England play Algeria - right, who am I kidding!  If I was in England, people will be watching the match either on TV in someone's home or on a sports pub's big screen and lots of beer will be drunk, win or loose. In Algeria, no alcohol but just as much football frenzy and there I'd also be watching it in someone's house and if Algeria win , probably the butt a lot of good humoured teasing.

But here in India I have neither TV nor big screen, so I am looking forward to tomorrow nights game in absentia. I did think about trying to get radio coverage online when I remembered sitting in a hotel in Morocco once when there was a match on TV and  the Arabic commentator kept saying what I heard as "flying" in amongst the to me unintelligble arabic gutterals. At first I thought "oh how strange he's using an English word" - I'm thinking along the lines of "he is flying down the wing", "the ball is flying to the players feet", "he sent that pass flying across the field" etc , only to suddenly comprehend it was Leeds United playing and they had a player called Brian Flynn! Unfortunately, some 30 odd years later, an Arabic news station will be just as unintelligible to me tomorrow night until someone scores

For now the news in the lead up to the game has been concentrating on the poor performances of each team in their first matches - both England and Algeria goal keepers have come in for a lot of stick. Now being from a country which has had more than its fair share of howlers in that department - Scotland had its Rough patches even in our memorable 1978  escapade - I do have some sympathy to extend here to  England's Robert Green, who came a cropper against USA  and who looks like having the dubious honour of now becoming part of the first footie viral video legend (did anyone else think of Bob the Builder when watching this lego brick like animation?), and to Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi who didn't fair much better in their first match against Slovenia. So who will pick their game up for Friday's match? I hope it is a game that is won rather than lost, that it is one of goal keeping saves from stunning shots, and goals that deserve to contribute to the score line. I suppose the intelligent money has to be on an England win, but don't write off the Desert Foxes just yet. Although they were thrashed 3-0 by both the Republic of Ireland and Serbia in lead up games, they can pull one out of the bag when it matters and a 1-0 defeat of African Cup holders Egypt to qualify shouldn't be scoffed at. So I shall be imagining me sitting in front of a TV deep in the Sahara with A and friends tartan scarf in one hand cheche in the other........Allez les fennecs!

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Une nouvelle tini pour moi

New suit 2-cropThese past few days have seen a major festival in Orissa. The 12th  was Sabitri Amabasya, then the 3 day festival of Raja Sankranti.  Sadly to say, I have seen nothing much in the way of celebratory activities here in Rayagada, other than my landlady telling me she wasn't eating and Mrs P telling me she had spent the weekend back with the women of her family back at her parents house making sweets!
The first festival is for married women to pray for the well being of their husbands and is based on the legend of Sabitri who rescued husband Satyavan from the clutches of the god of death. The whole legend can be read in the link above.
The second is again a festival for women, this time aimed at unmarried ones. Beginning on the 14th June, the first day is called Pahili Raja . Swings are erected, sweets are baked, new clothes are purchased. In the Indian calendar this date also heralds the start of the monsoon.  It is interesting to note that Indian months begin in the middle of our months and finish in the middle of our following month. This is because the calendar is based on the agricultural cycle and follows the waxing and waning of the moon. So with the monsoon comes the start of the agricultural year, and just as new crops are planted, so young woman are shown off! - the swings of time, of the seasons and of life!
So I am excused participation in the first festival as I am not married. I'm certainly not being shown of as an eligible woman - so no swing, and I don't like Indian sweets, but purely coincidently I had arranged to pick up a new Shalwar Kameez from the tailors on 15th. I'd spotted the fabric some weekends back when my landlady and I were shopping - she was looking at saris, and as she browsed my eyes just happened across this set on the side of the counter waiting to get shelved. I loved the red colouring and pattern of the shalwar in particular. It was reduced to all of 550 Rupees and tailoring cost me another 140, so for around £10 I now have a completed new suit or as A puts it "une nouvelle tini"

Food rambling ......Pasta Furious in a fruitless week

Going off gallivanting for the weekend is very nice but it was does have its disadvantages in Rayagada, namely no Sunday morning market trip, and therefore no fruit, no fish and with vegetables limited to those of the traveling sabzi-walla. So meals wise the weekend following a trip away tends to be a store cupboard week. I thought I would post some of my standby meals for these occasions which need very little in the way of ingredients but still sustain a body.

(1) Tomato pastaTomata pasta

I can't find decent pasta in Rayagada. But my local grocery store does sell "Maggi" noodles, a 2 min boil and they are done. I'm not quite sinking to the low of pot noodles here but not far of. However, the secret is not to fling out the ground spices that come in a sealed foil square. These make a quite passable stock for a number of dishes. For this one, it is so simple,

Ingredients for 1 portion

2 tomatoes
1 small onion
green chilli
a pinch of fennel seeds
salt and pepper
half teaspoonful sugar - all according too your own taste levels
1 cup of water along with one teaspoonful of the aforementioned silver foiled spices.

Put all these in a blender for a minute or so then transfer to a pan, add the noodles. I use one half of one cake of Maggi noodles for one person. As the sauce heats up, the noodles cook, and the sauce reduces. Result is one very tasty tomato pasta!

Variations on this theme

Well they are endless really...

other veg if you have them
if you are so lucky fresh herbs such as coriander leaves
a few nuts eg cashew, walnut or peanuts, pieces of cooked chicken, fish, flakes of tuna etc etc
Also, forget the noodles, use rice. Cook the rice in the sauce and it is almost a tomato risotto!

What I would do if the supply of tomatoes ever dried up here doesn't bear thinking about!

(2) Pumpkin risotto Pumpkin Risotto

I've never been a great eater of squashes at home except butternut, which is nice roasted or as soup - but no butternut squashes here. When I lived in the USA I was introduced to pumpkin, mainly as pumpkin pie, which I can easily leave. But here one can, in season, buy whole pumpkins. The advantage is that they keep well. I've been told 2-3 months, although I have not ever had one that long. The market traders usually sell them by the slice, but they will happily negotiate a price for a whole one, usually by weight, I've paid around 20 rupees a kilo here. A 3 kg one does 6 portions so best if you can freeze some, else you'll be eating pumpkin all week. Once open be wary of it drying out in the fridge. This is a really simple recipe.

Ingredients for 2 portions

1/4 of 3-4Kg pumpkin
1 onion finely chopped
salt and pepper
small amount of butter
1/2 cup of rice

Slice and dice the pumpkin. Boil the pumpkin until soft. Mash with a little butter, Add finely chopped onion, Season to taste. Don't over mash it, leave some texture. At the same time cook the rice. I add the spices from the noodles to the water to cook the rice in a stock. Drain any excess liquid from the rice and add the mashed pumpkin over a low heat until well mixed.

Now I know this isn't true risotto, no arborio rice, but it makes a passable attempt, especially if you are getting fed up with Indian spices and are curried out. Even the thought of parmesan cheese at this point makes me envious of those of you living in cities or with access to Delhi delis! Just add whatever cheese you have, grated or chopped, into the mix as you stir in the pumpkin mash.

(3) Tomato khajura

Basically a similar approach to the tomato sauce in (1) above but change the spices to cinnamon, ginger and garlic for the sauce and add chopped dates. This sauce needs to cook a bit longer until the dates are softened and their flavour imparted to the sauce. I make it quite a bit thicker than the tomato sauce and I like it with butter mashed potatoes - have you ever noticed just how nice Indian potatoes are? Very tasty. Don't just use them in curries or aloo ghobi like they do locally, boil and puree/mash with butter/milk or mayonaisse, if you have it,  or make stovies for a very satisfying meal. I usually serve this tomato khajura with mashed potatoes and chicken stew for a real feast.

And speaking of chicken......

 (4) Chicken soup Chicken Noodle Soup

Not really a store cupboard recipe but since I have recently found a good chicken seller only 15 minutes walk from my house I have been experimenting with chicken dishes.

First a bit about Indian butchers, their shops/ stalls don't look much at all. Usually a tin roof held up by wooden pole supports, and a corrugated iron wall to keep the wind out. There is a table/stall of metal and a old fashioned wooden butchers block. If there is no one there you'd never think it was a shop never mind a butchers. After weeks of looking I spotted a man locally walking with a large bag full of very fresh looking chicken carcasses. I tracked him to eventually find his shop of one of the side roads of the main road onto town.

Now typically Indian butchers chop up chicken into bite size pieces, innards and all. First I am glad to my chicken seller has already killed and plucked the chicken. So I don't have to do that:) Phew! Chicken currently costs 110 rupees per kilo. My chicken seller will also skin the chicken for the grand amount of 20 rupees more per kilo - fast money for him and cheap enough for me to pay up. Here at least the chicken is weighed almost whole, usually one bird is chopped in two then weighed - I'm normally buying about a kilo for me which means I get about a half a chicken or the breast and a bit of leg, all depending on how well fed the chicken was when alive. From this I can get 2 portions of soup and 2-3 portions of chicken stew depending on what you eat with it and how big your appetite is. Good value.

I hear lots of folk complain about the bite size pieces having bones in them, and that puts them off cooking or eating it. Well here is what I do. First, although I am happy my chicken seller is OK, and fingers crossed I've had no gastric upsets, I make sure I come straight home with my bag of chicken. I make time immediately to wash it and to separate out the truly bony bits from the unboned or not so bony bits. The not so bony bits I set aside for curries, stews etc. The bony bits I put into a pan with water, some onion and some seasoning and bring to the boil and simmer until all the meat has fallen of the bones. I then strain the bones away. What is left is a nice, strong chicken stock usually with quite a bit of chicken meat in it. Add the aforementioned Maggi noodles and reheat, et viola chicken noodle soup.


Instead of using noodles, thicken the soup up with potatoes or barley, varying the cooking time according to the ingredient used. The potatoes should be soft but not mushy, the barley should be full, bulbous grains.

With all of these dishes, if you have some fresh herbs these will transform the taste of every dish, but if not good old salt and freshly ground black peppercorns work wonders.

Friday 11 June 2010

Thursday 10 June 2010

Building a house, brick by brick, rupee by rupee

 P6090015-cropNew build

The area of the nagar where I live was fairly sparsely occupied when I first came to live here, but in the space of just seven months a great many new houses have been built. It shows no sign of stopping at least until the monsoon rains. I suspect our house will be in the midst of a full estate by the time my two years are over. The most recent is just between our house and the railway line on the other side of the dirt track through the nagar. The nagar is more or less marked out in blocks and indeed further over the plots are even marked off by markers pegs stuck into the ground. But not so just beside us. Building work is very labour intensive. The new build is at the laying foundations stage. No excavators digging away here, just men with pick axes and shovels, and one many walking back and forth all day with two buckets of water from the building site the other side of us, as this new built has neither well or connection to municipal supply as yet. 

I hadn't realized until I started to discuss this with my landlady, but almost every house here has a well, bored down to 150 ft, to the water table. Although there is a municipal supply into the nagar, and there are standpipes at regular points throughout the blocks, it is subject to frequent interruptions of service, with a guarantee of connection only for some hours in the morning and again in the evening. So most people fork out the money for their own, independent, but reliable water supply. The wells are sealed units so they require a pump, which is subject to the vagaries of the intermittent Orissan power supply. But it does mean that water flows regularly. It also means that barring any contamination of the ground water, and any damage to the bore well, the water should be pretty good quality. Which goes a long way to explain my lack of upset tummies even though I know I have drunk water in other houses where it won't have been religiously boiled and may not have been filtered like mine is.

All this aside, I was interested in finding out about the cost of building. Here's what I have managed to ascertain. My landlady's house is built on one level and comprises 2 bedrooms (1 double (~12ft x 12ft) + 1 single(~12ft x 6ft) ), 1 large rectangular reception(~12ft x 30ft), 1 bathroom, kitchen + puja room house, with my 1 bedroom (~12ft x 12ft), 1 kitchen/reception (~12ft x 12ft), 1 bathroom studio/granny flat attached. (These are guestimate sizes). About seven years ago, when they built this house, such a plot would have cost 50,000 rupees. Today the price for the same piece of land would be nearer 600,000 rupees. To build the bore well for the water would cost another 50,000 rupees, Then to build the actual house 1,500,000 Rupees. As is typical here, there is no garden, garage or anything in the way of outdoor space other than the roof space (which will be built on as and when the family has money, in my landlady's case that looks like it will be this year sometime)  and a small veranda entrance way at the front of the house. So today, to build this house would costs in the region of 2,150,000 Rupees. The current exchange rate is about 65 Rupees to the GBP, which makes this house cost about £33,000. 

New house

The second picture is of a recently finished house. Lengthwise it is about the same size as my landlady's but the building consists of two units, as you can see from the house front, so each house is much smaller. It belongs to 2 brothers who have built the house together, presumably to aid financing it.

Interest rates on house loans are around 11% pa and my boss tells me that in the  past 10-15 years there has been a significant change in the pattern of house ownership in the town. Whereas before people would save throughout their working life, then build their house after retirement, now youngsters are taking the bank loans and building their own houses early on in life. I'm not sure I am seeing that reflected in the nagar where many of the buildings are built for multiple occupancy, with two or several houses/apartments per building, but clearly selling land, and building houses is good business.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

And finally it rained...

  P6090020P6090018  P6090019


After much huffing and a puffing yesterday evening the man in the sky decided to give it another go tonight and just before 7PM the heavens opened. This is only the 4th time it has rained in the 7 months I have been here. It is not the monsoon yet, just a serious storm with thunder, lightning, wind and rain. All of which means a cool night and a good chance of sleep :)

Monday 7 June 2010

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's new life ...

Where I work there are not many people who are permanently  based in the office with me. One young junior staff member whose function is data entry and whose English is limited, one finance person who is also doing project work at one of out remote offices, S whose role is documentation but is only part time and has good English, and Mr P himself when he is not out at our field offices or meeting with donors and funders. Otherwise the office is very quiet. I share a room with S and with one other person, project manager H.
Until recently H has been essentially office based as the mother and child health project he had been working on was completing and he was busy writing reports . Then for the  past couple of months he has been in the office less as he took on a new project in Natural Resource Management in one of our remote locations. Last week I noticed H was looking particularly happy, but I didn't get a chance to ask him why. His happiness surprised me as I suspected he was not happy with his new project - although he is a good project manager, the subject area didn't sound to me like a good fit for the H I had got to know over the past 6 months. Then on Friday I was talking with S about the various staff changes which have happened recently and she tells me that H has a new job, and a good one for him. So this morning I congratulate him and get the whole story.
H's new job is as a project coordinator - project manager effectively - for a government run health project. His contract is for 3 years. The down side is that it is in a district some 200Kms away from here, so he will have a 6-8 hour commute each way at weekends back to his family here, until he can ascertain the standing of the local schools and make a decision about moving his wife and child with him. But the upside is that he goes from a salary of 8,000 rupees per month to 25,000 rupees per month. Now by anyone's reckoning tripling your salary is a great achievement! I double mine once and was ecstatic! But this is over 3 times his existing salary, plus vehicle. Well done H!
In his normal understated way, H tells me he is "very happy", that recently he has been finding it impossible for the family to survive on the 8,000 Rupees and he has been borrowing money each month just to get by. I didn't like to ask where he was borrowing money from - whether it was from within his extended family (which has pros and cons), the bank (which I doubt), some money lender (I hope not), or some credit union type facility (a better option). At least now he can see himself paying back his debts and saving some money. Whilst this is not an unimportant factor, he also added that his current project had not been giving him much personal satisfaction lately. This job will play more to his Masters in Social Work background and skill set and is clearly in a project in a field H enjoys working in, namely health. His delight at his good fortune is infectious when he talks about his new job, the new money and the new possibilities it opens up for him and his family. He proudly showed my his appointment letter.
So please where ever you are today, whether you are in a job you love or not, please raise a glass of your favourite tipple , even a cup of tea will do for this non alcohol imbiber, and toast H and his success . All the best H.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Should, ought to, must....

A moment of epiphany re linguistics differences to share....

Should, ought to ,must..these may well represent one of the most important aspects of communication in a language. Yet they are often aspects most prone to difficulties when the language is being learnt, and certainly liable to subtle misinterpretations of meaning. I have noticed that locals here who have reasonable English hardly ever use these constructions. Instead I hear "we are bound to..." " compulsory..."  I have been wondering recently if this has an impact on something that many of us volunteers have considered about the difficulties of getting Indian's to plan ahead, and the inevitable discussion when trying to set priorities of distinguishing the necessary from the desirable. So I thought I'd try to find out how these ideas are conveyed in people's first language.

In Oriya, there seems to be 2 constructions "-ra...-rå ...åchi" eg Tåmåra ei båhita pådhibarå åchi which translates as "you really ought to read this book" and the more urgent  "..ku...-ku...håbå" construction eg tåmåraku ei båhita pådhibaku håbå which translates "You must read this book". I haven't mastered these in practice yet as they are quite complex constructions so the subtleties of usage  are still beyond me.

In Hindi the "should" construction is done by using the verb "ko ...cāhie" with the infinitive verb it qualifies eg mujko ghar jānā cāhie which translates as "I should go home". This is an interesting construction as the construct "ko...cāhie" without an infinitive means "wanted/needed" eg mujhko āj kā akhbār cāhie which translates as "I want today's newspaper". Which brings up the question of how a Hindi speaker learning English is told to translate these - for me there is a subtle difference between "I want to go home" and "I should go home" but if a Hindi speaker learning English is told to translate cåhie as want, I'm thinking there could be confusion.

Then there is the  "ko....hai" construct, eg muhjko jānā hai which translates as a more forceful "I must go/ I am to go". here the "hai" comes from the verb "to be". A stronger sense of compulsion is achieved by using the construction "parnā" which translates as " to be compelled to"  eg mujhko jānā paregā which translates as "I'll have to go/ I am compelled to go". Then there is also the construction "ko zaroor ...hai" eg  muhjko ghar zaroor jānā hai which also translates as "I must go home".

The subtle differences in use between these is difficult for me to grasp. But these may explain the constant use of the word "compulsory" when locals speak English I am for ever hearing people say  "it is compulsory for us to do puja each day" or "we are bound to do puja each day" by which they really mean " we must do puja each day". 

Friday 4 June 2010

Jackfruit 2 - the sequel

So we are most certainly in a Jackfruit glut, they are everywhere. I wandered up to our roof space this evening to find my landlady, Sushila, and youngest daughter Rinky, tackling the dissection of one. What they really needed was a machete or at least a P6040054bigger knife than the one they had , but good kitchen knives are not easily found here - I was warned in advance to buy one in Delhi at European prices and am so glad I did. All you get here are small 4 inch blades, with a high propensity to bend and break, very flimsy. Anyway back to said Jackfruit. Gosh what a lot of work! First they cut it in half, then into quarters, taking care not to touch the inside of the skin, the pithy parts which are full of a gum and as Ken comment on my first Jackfruit post it smells and sticks to you. Fortunately for me I couldn't smell it, my sense of smell has gone again (the pollutants in the air do this - nothing a few days in the fresh air of Koraput next weekend won't cure).So having quartered the Jackfruit, they then have to dissect out the component parts, taking care to remove all the pith, to leave only the fleshy edible parts. It took so long the sun had gone down by the time the first edible bit was ready!

Sushila eating JackfruitI am told there are two types of Jackfruit. They are called khoja and kaduå in Oriya. The one I had yesterday being a kaduå . Seemingly you can tell the difference by the degree of separation of the armadillo scales - further apart on a khoja. So in my opinion, if you are buying a Jackfruit that's the one to get!

This one tasted much nicer than yesterdays! I polished of several sections this evening. Yum.  This one was drier, more solid, less bulky flesh, but the taste was much more pleasant. None of that taste note I didn't like. 

We saved the seeds and Sushila will make a curry of these and let me taste it later this weekend. Assuming that  happens, I'll report back on that tasting.

Jackfruit preparation 2

Thursday 3 June 2010


Here in Orissa, hot season is Jackfruit season. For my fellow gardeners  and botanists, JackfruitJackfruit are similar to Breadfruit from the South Pacific, both being members of the genus Artocarpus. I'd heard about this fruit elsewhere but of course I have never been around at the right time,  so now I am and I just had to try them.   The markets are full of the monsters - ugly looking things 1-2 foot long and around 10 inches wide,  looking like some giant green hedgehog or armadillo.  They are in fact the largest tree borne fruit in the world and can weigh 75 lbs. So no way was I carting one of those home  - I bet the driver would try to charge me double for the extra weight! I was also aware that I might not even like it  - I certainly am not that keen on Breadfruit when I tasted on board the Soren - and I do hate to waste good food. So I'd more or less consigned this potential eating experience to the back of my mind,  when in walks a colleague this morning with some for me. Some time ago she and I had visited her parents house and I had seen a jackfruit tree for the first time in their garden.

What she gave me were the fleshy parts found inside the "armadillo" - fantastic, no worries about how to cut into the fruit . Each of the fleshy parts is about the size of a plum , with a stones to match. 

Taste verdict

What can I say about the taste? I don't dislike it: I suspect it is an acquired taste, but then again I thought that about yogurt the very first time! Texture wise it is a bit like a cross between mango and lychee and to me it has the same taste note that a lychee has. I don't know what causes it, or how else to describe it, other than it is distinctive.

So far I have managed to eat one, and shared some with my landlady's daughter, but I have kept a few more to eat myself.  I am told that you can  also use the stones: boiled or roasted like chestnuts, they are used in curries. I'm told you can also  eat green i.e. unripe Jackfruit when it is used in savoury dishes in place of meats, but will leave trying that for another time.

PorridgeFor now I made sweet porridge ( yes, I found some Oats when visiting fellow volunteer Susie in Kalahandi ) for breakfast with cashews and raisins, and topped if off with jackfruit and mango slices and grapes. 

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Indian literature

India has a great history of storytelling. Back home we have probably read some of Salman Rushdie , winner of the Booker of Bookers, and remember the brouhaha over The Satanic Verses. Then there is Aravind Adiga with his Man Booker prize winning White Tiger , Vikas Swarup ( from the film Slum Dog Millionaire - but if you haven't read the book , I highly recommend it. Q&A is so much better than the movie), mother and daughter writers Anita and Kiran Desai (another Man Booker winner for The Inheritance of Loss), and India's 4th Man Booker winner for her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, and maybe we've even heard of or read some of Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry. These are only some of the current batch of contemporary Indian writers who write in English, there are many more.
In addition, each of the states of India has its own  language with its own oral and written tradition. For example, Bengal is famous for its Nobel Prize winning author, Rabindranath Tagore who also wrote India's National anthem. India also has a classic tradition of novels,  plays, poetry from the likes of  Kālidāsa a poet and playwright, often called the Indian Shakespeare,  and the great Sanskrit epics of the Mahabarata , which the BBC did a dramatization of some years back, and the Rāmāyaṇa
Orissa, the state where I am living, also has its great literature wallas. But I will admit to not having heard of any of them prior to coming here. Another VSO Volunteer alerted me to the website of Grassroots Books  which claims to be the worlds largest website of Oriyan literature in translation - a claim I think may be hard to dispute. So I am intending to read some of these works over the next few months and report to you on them.  But where to start? So for no other reason than that I was plagues by the insects of the tile earlier this month here is the first one. Please be aware that these reviews will contain spoilers.
Ants by Gopinath Mohanty 
Government man Ramesh, his side kick Binu and their Kondh tribe porters scurry like a line of ants up the Orissian hillside in an attempt to track and to catch rice smugglers. The pecking order of Ramesh (who at the start of the story sees himself as being successful, the only person from his village to have finished his education) down to Binu and down to the porters is established early in the story. They each give orders on down the line. Passing orders from one to the other just like ants pass on messages to their fellow ants. But the ants exchange messages in both directions. The Kondh people sing about their unfair treatment and the unjust ways of Ramesh, but he doesn't understand their language and Binu intentionally mistranslates their song as a love song. So unlike the line of ants messages are not understood between both parties.
During the  course of the story, they come to a village market. As the market day ends , he sits and watches the crowd disperse , as an endless line of people, who like the ants he'd seen early scurrying away with biscuit crumbs , these people stop and talk with each other before continuing on their way.  As he increasingly sees the real nature of these people's lives by witnessing a funeral march following a death from malaria, by seeing a family forced by hunger to walk 60 mils from home for food, Ramesh begins to recognise similarities between them and the folk from his own village. When the smugglers are caught and brought before him, he has changed his tune. he no longer sees smugglers who must be hunted down like wild game, but as frail men and women trying desperately to survive and keep the inevitability of death at bay for another day .
When I was reading this story,it reminded me in parts of Hemingway, especially in the parts where the tracking of the smugglers is described as if were a hunt for big game. This overtone serves to depersonalize the smugglers in Ramesh and Binu's minds, as he strives to continue to uphold the law and hand out justice ignoring emotional pleas for leniency, such as from the young wife of a man driven by hunger to steal, whose pleas for  mercy for her husband on the grounds that without a breadwinner she and their child would starve went unheard by Ramesh. Again there is the  contrast of the Ramesh at the start of the story who sees the potential of increased job status and recognition coming from a successful hunt and the Ramesh at the end of the story
The other contrast is between the present day Orissa and the Orissa of the past. The family have walked from Simhachalam Binu tells him. As Ramesh ponders this we understand that this place had  at one time been part of Orissa. presumably now it is not. It hints at a great Orissa, now  reduced to a starving, malarial ridded state in which its citizens have to smuggle rice to survive.  The penultimate paragraph of the story brings these strand all together in a summation of Orissian history and in a moment of epiphany for Ramesh - "Ramesh stood staring ahead. The history of Orissa had evaporated. There was no past — no Kapilendradev, no Purushottamadev, no Konark, no land, no country, no language, nothing. Only ants. Ants, ants and more ants. Ants everywhere. Hungry ants, hurrying, scurrying, carting away tiny morsels of food. An endless line of ants, crawling away, coming together, dispersing, gathering again, in an unceasing expedition — all they wanted was to survive." The moment of Ramesh's empathy with the people is submerged beneath the realization of their plight, of the plight  of all of Orissa, its people's fall from prosperity and grandeur to the "writhing grey mass of men and women, a luscious cheek lost to yaws, smiles, the flapping of wrinkled skin, feverish eyes burrowing into their sockets, funeral lamentations, cries of hunger and poverty, the fire and the fury raging in the recesses of sunken souls" that Ramesh sees before him.
Very sad . Mohanty lived between 1914 and 1991, and I am not sure exactly when this story was written, or even set, but major famines have been prevalent in Orissa on many occasions - with the great famine of 1866, and coincidently 100  years later in 1996 with the failure of the monsoon - even today in 2010 in Orissa there are deaths from starvation, and malaria, both fueled by poverty in what is one of the poorest states in India. Which makes the secure livelihoods work of NGOs like mine all the more important.
(Kapilendradev = first Orissan king from mid 15th century. Purushottamadev = his youngest son. Konark = the great sun temple built in the 13th century, one of the architectural wonders of the Indian subcontinent)