Friday 24 September 2010

My day, yesterday.

I was asked about what my typical day is like. So I decided for 1 day to keep a record - here is yesterday
8AM - I don't use an alarm so waking up can be anytime between 6:30 and 8:30 depending on the quality of the night's sleep, my tiredness and time at which I went to be the previous night, and recently the amount of early morning builder's noise from the work on the upper floor of our house. It was all quiet this morning and I slept through.
I shower, dress, comb hair, the usual. I pick up and dispose of the night's gecko droppings. I take down and store any clothes which have been drying overnight.
I prepare and eat breakfast.
I refill my overnight water bottle and place in fridge to chill. My water supply is well topped up, so today I don't have to boil and filter any water. Just now I do this about twice a week, at the height of the hot season I was doing this every other day. To boil and fill my filter full takes about 1 hour and having pans of water on a rolling boil generates a lot of steam.  This morning is already hot, so I also make sure my metal water bottle is filled to take to work. I've started to not need to carry water every day now it has got cooler, but the odd day catches one unawares and the temperature goes back up to 33 degree C.
I check my shopping list. This isn't a day for my sabzi walla to call, and I'd been to the grocers only yesterday so no trip there was required today. Otherwise a shopping trip would need to be fitted into either this time or on the way home from the office.
So instead I do some work. Check email . This morning I prepared for my later meeting with Mr P. Throughout my placement I have been keeping an achievements log but I had not updated this since I got back a month ago, so updating that served as a good check on what I have outstanding with Mr P, what I am waiting to receive back from him and what we need to discuss this morning. As with many volunteers, and most NGOs, there is a bottle neck at getting feedback back on work completed. My efficiency level is much lower here than at home - it just takes so much longer to achieve something, all things move more slowly, all things require constant nagging and reminders to get a job completed. Trying to address the root causes of this in one's organisation is a  real challenge.
9:20 AM Leave house and walk to office
9:30 AM Arrive at office
BA, who is coming in just over a week's time, has returned comments she has made on two NGO documents, so I read these and reply to her email.
Morning hellos as everyone starts to arrive in the office. I practice increasing my fluency with normal greetings, questions and answers.  My Oriya daily word from B today is sampurna = completed. We have discussion about whether there is a difference between sampurna and sarila, there doesn't appear to be.
A parcel has arrived from  the UK. I hadn't open the others in the office but decide to open this one as there is much interest in what exactly is in these. A packet of muesli serves to confirm my attempts at describing my typical breakfast. Tins of sardines and mackerel are met with bemused looks when I say you eat it straight from the tin, cold, there is much discussion of preservation methods and eat by dates - 2015, really! Stock cubes are initially thought to be soup, this leads to major discussion about spicy v unspicy foods, about what exactly is a stew, how I like to taste the ingredients and not have their natural flavour masked by to many added ones.
10:30 AM I help Mrs P with a problem in Word. She is trying to produce labels to be used on the spines of project photo books and shows me an example. She is having difficulty with how to get text into a box in Word. A real easy problem to resolve. I take the opportunity to reiterate what we had discussed previously about good v bad photographs. I show her the first draft of the Shakti at a Glance/ Shakti Profile which was revised yesterday, emphasizing the need to augment it with the best photos we have. I use the technique of 'tell Mr P, Mrs P, re tell Mr P' quite regularly, it works :)
Mrs P brings up the topic of the Annual Report. I begin to show her a number of these from other organizations. We have been working this week on her Excel data visualisation skills so I take the opportunity to point out some good use of graphs within a couple of the reports by way of reinforcement. And give her a gentle reminder that she promised another blog entry on our PRI training camps for which she was graphing up the data yesterday.
Mr P joins us and we review several annual reports from Indian and International NGOs. This generates a good discussion of the pros and cons of their approaches, of what is liked and not liked in each, about the type of information and the type of photographs required for the production of ours. Opportunistic, this discussion, but it is a highly pertinent topic.
12 noon Meeting with Mr P.  We discuss the current emergency situation and the lack of doctors. The funding promised for 10 health camps in the villages we currently work in is insufficient to fund visits by a doctor from Rayagada Town. We discuss just how much we can do for the 47 villages in the affected area and the calls Mr P will be making this afternoon using the funders & suppliers contacts list I have generated over the last few days.  We discuss important v urgent,  about pragmatically drawing a line under some pieces of work and getting them off the to do list, of perfection v acceptable. We review preparations for BA's arrival, and the status of our other Short Term Assistance (STA) requests with VSO.
It was a good meeting. We end up with a prioritized work list, an agreement as to what will get completed this week by Mr P and by me; we have looked at how priorities can be established between conflicting demands on Mr P's time. I make a mental note to write up some examples of the time management methods we used for Mr P to refer to in the future. In addition, we have addressed some important questions about the upcoming Annual Report, in the context of desired goal of Credibility Alliance certification.
2:15PM Leave office and walk home
2:30PM Arrive home.
I wash my hands, feet and face. Sometimes I will take a full shower, but today as it is so hot I just need liquid, so I raid the fridge for a long cold fruit juice. I prepare and eat lunch. I wash up, tidy kitchen and wipe cooker clean, place the kitchen towels in to soak.  I unpack and store goodies bag contents, take picture and write thank you email to sender
3:30PM I sit down with a cup of tea and attempt the quick crossword - my once a week indulgence when The Guardian Weekly arrives! The brain is not complying and it remains unfinished after 30 minutes, so I change tact and write up this day so far for blog.
4:15 PM Back to work. I complete the final design work on organisation's business cards, letterheads, produce Word templates for business letters and begin work on design examples for the Annual Report. No I am not a communications specialist - but these are one off jobs which will help create a more professional appearance to the work of the NGO and give all the staff a greater sense of identity and pride in their NGO and its work. A good  feeling having another job struck of the list of things to do.
5:45 PM My landlady's daughter calls round on route to the shops. I send her of on an errand to buy more mosquito coils.  I light my last two, on in each room.
6:15 PM I spend a bit of time catching up with email from VSO, blogs, email and facebook messages from home, check ConstantReader book club bulletin board and write the second part of this blog entry.
7:00 PM I decide the shower can't be put off any longer. It has been a hot day, and the evening humidity is high, over 85%.
There's not much in the way of household tasks today just putting my clothes from last two days into soak over night. This will become one of tomorrow's jobs. I used to do washing on a Sunday, but for now the best way to get things dry in the rainy season is to have them hanging inside with the fans on, so that means doing washing in smaller amounts, every other day. I also have to wash my mosquito next  which I do about every 3 months, this should probably get done more often but I am rationing my supply of anti mosquito repellent for re sealing it. The other big household task is washing the floors and cleaning the bathroom,  which get done once a week, or slightly more often when the soot and dust deposits coming in the open vents and windows from the coal and ore carrying railway wagons really get to me, but again probably not as often as they should be done!
8:30 PM I prepare and eat dinner and wash up. Tonight I catch up on the furore over the Commonwealth Games debaucle. Other nights it could be an attempt at the cryptic crossword, or the sudoku, and some language work or some reading.
10:30 PM I take another shower - at the peak of the hot season I was showering 4-5 times a day. I head to bed with my Sony ereader and a copy of C J Sansom's Dark Fire, the second in his medieval detective murder mystery series.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Nutty pumpkin stovies

Nutty pumpkin stovvies

Quite often the food choice in the nagar is limited. My sabzi walla carries perhaps 2-4 types of vegetables with her on a good day, on a bad day 1-2 types. I've tried most things she sells and some of them I've not returned to after first taste. Every so often she will bring a pumpkin. Normally folks will buy a slice from the seller but she has come to realise that I will buy a whole one, because the keep well and are so versatile. But what all this does mean is that I have to be quite inventive when it comes to food here, I have to try and create variety.

For example since my return the vegetable of the moment has been bhendi (Okra, ladies fingers) with some aubergine and that was about it. Now I rapidly get aubergined out. So after making a black eyed peas and bhendi stew, a tomato and bhendi soup, a bhendi and barley risotto, I needed a change - enter a tomato and pomegranate soup concoction, which turned out very nice. Soups are a great way to use veggies, because I can eat a portion, freeze a portion, make noodles using the soup as the cooking sauce, make a cheat's risotto using a portion. Very versatile.

So when I get a pumpkin that's what I do - it delivers up pumpkin curry, pumpkin chips, wafer thin ribbons deep fried as crisps, pumpkin soup with cinnamon, pumpkin risotto, you get the picture. So tonight, I am really hungry and I reckon I need something really filling but my taste buds are crying out for something different.  I check what is available - the last of my pumpkin, some potatoes, onions and that's about it, oh and I bought some badam, groundnuts. So I just let my taste buds do the walking and here is what happened - nutty pumpkin stovies.

For anyone who doesn't know stovies are a Scottish dish made from potatoes and onions, slow simmered till very soft. Usually made with beef dripping, (but of course not here). In its simplest form stovies is just that, but it can be "dressed" up with left over meats, lamb, beef etc


1 large teaspoon ghee for frying

I onion, chopped

6 or so cloves of garlic, squashed

1 inch piece of ginger, chopped

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

2 medium sized potatoes, chopped into 1/2 inch squares

about the same amount of pumpkin, chopped into 1/2inch squares

small handful of raisins

small handful of cashew nuts

small handful of badam

1 cup full of water

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Gently fry all onions with spices until the onions sweat.

2. Add potatoes, pumpkin, nuts and raisins, stir into mix

3. Add water

4. Gently simmer until soft.

The resultant texture should be such that the pumpkin has mushed down, the potatoes have started to but still have solidity.

Taste verdict

I can't believe how good this tasted! Stovies improve on the second day, so I have kept some back for lunch tomorrow. if I tell you this took will power you can judge either how hungry I was or how good this was, or more likely both!

Monday 20 September 2010

For how long should a bar of soap last?

This isn't an idle question!

Exclude detergent usage in the kitchen, the washing of  clothes, shampoo to wash your hair, and just concentrate on how much soap a person uses to wash themselves. Take me for example, at home I tend to buy in bulk, buying large bottles of body wash, value packs of several cakes of soap at a time. I usually have several different types of body wash on the go simultaneously.  Then there is the soap, hard or liquid,  located in the bathroom and in the kitchen for hand washing.   At home I shower once a day. If I am going out, have been to the gym or have been working in the garden or the like, then there would be a second, and rarely a third . Additionally, I would wash my hands after a toilet visit and probably several times more in the course of an average day. But all that said, I have never actually calculated how long one bar of soap lasts.

Here in India, it is different. The biggest I buy is one bar of soap, and that is a small size compared to the standard size in the UK. I don't have a spare one in the house  but  I checked on the side of the Lux body wash container - it is 125ml. Now I tend to keep the body wash for traveling, and as emergency supplies, so my normal daily washing tipple is my bar of soap.  I reckon, barring the odd one which has slipped out of my hands to go flying off down the squat toilet, that I get through one bar at least every two weeks, give or take. It was definitely more in the hot season when I was showering 4 times every day at least!

Anyways, after the last flying bar episode I had been thinking I was using a lot of soap. But was I really using a lot or just thinking I was? Was the soap remaining wet in the humid atmosphere making it not last as long? Was I using more soap to work up a lather here than at home?   That train of thought parked up until this week when I am doing some work to help with fund raising for an emergency response to the rising numbers of deaths from diarrhea and cholera that are being reported in the rural KBK region of southern Orissa. Fellow volunteer Nikki suggested approaching Hindustan Unilever re soap supplies. So we added this to our short but growing list of corporates to approach for emergency supplies as we try to get oral rehydration kits, water purification tablets etc into these very remote areas. 

When compiling a list of things we need to know when approaching these corporations for assistance, one thing is to have worked out just how many bars of soap we need.  I've read that a person infected with cholera produces about 15 litres of diarrheic fluid per day! Everything has to be washed. Every time a non infected person touches anything belonging to the infected person they should be washed. So there is quite a lot of washing. Hence the question how long does a bar of soap last?

Take the Kasipur block we are working  We know the number of villages. We know the number of households and people, adults and children, in each village. So if I using a bar every 2 weeks (14 days), then 4 people would use a bar in 14/4 = 3.5 days. Lets say 4. So lets say in an affected area, if a family of 4 uses 1 bar of soap every 2 days, that's 16 for the month. So for every 1000 people, we need 1000/4 * 16 = 4000 bars of soap! Retail, a bar costs 16 Rupees. That's 64,000 Rupees! Now I can see my financial acclimatization well nigh complete because that sounds a lot of money, and it is here in India. But a change of perspective later, with a cross check on the current exchange rate ( about 71 Rupees to the GBP, 45 Rupees to the US$) I remind myself that it is only just under 900GBP or $1400.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Monsoon rains

Head down, heading homeI thought it might be interesting to try and  capture on camera the monsoon for those who have never experienced it. These are just from a normal day at this time of year here, nothing special. rain2

Hopefully they convey some of the sense of what it is like - notice the outpouring from  the roof the building opposite the house, and the amount of runoff from the steps, even the poor  cow has her head down heading home :) That's a bit like how I felt and looked after yesterday's soaking! 

The nagar is a quagmire. The shots below taken at the rear of the house between me and the railway line show what  is normally a dry dusty lane has become a stream of muddy water, and lots of water standing around going nowhere.
    New river  new river 2
The upside is that temperatures are much cooler, very pleasant for a good night's sleep. The downside is everything takes a while to dry. I currently have 3 sets of clothes trying to dry in my rooms, after yesterday's and today's downpours. I recall only once before getting so near to having no dry clothes - Mrs T, do you remember? You, me and Tony getting drenched walking back from the ruins at Palenque? Well think that time and make the rains last all day!

Friday 17 September 2010

Today, more generosity of spirit and purse!

I am sitting writing this with some treats - a packet of American Style Cream & Onion crisps and a cup of Jasmine tea. The reason for the treats? It has been a long day, packed with typical Indian bureaucracy and typical Indian hospitality which has left me with a smile on my face and no need for dinner.
The day started with a beautifully cool morning, slight drizzle, and very hazy. Clearly it was going to rain today, so I left my camera at home - as it turns out a bad move :(  The first order of business was to present myself at the Superintendent of Police's Office at 10:00AM. My colleague Mr Padhi came with me, we arrived 5 minutes or so early. The security scanning people recognized me - inevitably - this is the second time I  have had to go through this foreigner's registration process. We sat in the foyer, chatted and waited. At about 10:30AM the inspector and constable who are dealing with my paperwork arrived. I have never seen the inspector do anything resembling work in all my visits to his office and that wasn't to change today. He went off somewhere and that was the last I saw of him.  We went with the constable to the Superintendent's Office. Empty. The constable checked with various people, came back and sat there with us, more waiting. This going, checking, and coming back lasted for over 2 hours. I'm getting to know this constable quite well - we bought groundnuts yesterday from the same place - Kal, tame badam kinuchi. tamaku badam bhala lage - ki? ha, bahut bhala lage - yesterday you are buying groundnuts, I say, you like them? yes, very much, he says.   Praise for my developing Oriya. I am given a pronunciation lesson from Mr Padhi,  tamaku v tamaakuh meaning "to you"  v "a cigarette"! Gradually though I am making conversation in Oriya.
At about 12:30 after another foray, the constable finally has found the Assistant Superintendent, who comes and reviews my paper work. Yes everything is almost good, I need to add one new sentence to the Sponsorship letter from my NGO, then we can go and pay the required fee, return with the payment receipt and he will stamp my Registration Certificate.  A long wait, but actually a positive result!  The Treasury office is now closed so payment will have to be made on another day. Getting this far has taken since I returned on 23rd August and I can see it taking another week. This has been a productive day, but you can see why things take so long to achieve what should be a 10 minute job.
On the way back to the office we stop at Mr Padhi's house. He, his wife Rasi and son Pratham have been to my house and I to theirs before. But when I was away they moved to be nearer to the boy's school. I also think that the first place they found when they moved into Rayagada town from villages was too expensive for them. Their house is in an area of Rayagada that I have driven through before and like - it is thriving nagar, full of little corner shops and businesses, tailors etc, is near the college, the streets are always buzzing with activity, with school children immaculately turned out in their uniforms - regulation brown and cream coloured shalwar kameez for the girls and trousers and shirt for the boys, blue for the younger school age group. It is not a well off area, but it is a long way from being a slum area.  I would have quite liked to have lived there except the journey to and from work would be horrid, mainly along a very bumpy, dusty, dangerously busy road with lots of truck traffic and at about 50 rupees each way, expensive.
Their house is one of 8 lining a rectangular courtyard, with one end exiting through a communal gate onto the road. On each long side of the rectangular yard are doorways, each leading to a house.  Their front door has to be seen. It reminds me of a ill fitting, barn door: two wooden planks, gnawed/decayed away at the base, held together by a piece of wire and a padlock. I think a strong pair of scissors would get through the wire! I didn't really know what to expect . This door opens onto a small vestibule, which in turn opens onto one room then another. Food is prepared in the second room and the rest of live takes place in the first. At the back there is what I take to be a outside area where I could  see their water container through the open doorway. The rooms are I guess about 10-12 feet square, not big. All their possessions are here, clothes and bags hang high up along a rope. A large tin box and two bigger luggage bags are piled at one side. The room shelves are stacked with dishes and jars of food staples, spices etc.
When we arrive Madury, the wife of another, now ex-colleague, Santosh, is there with their boy, Om. Rasi and her are always together. neither of the women are educated, in fact neither are literate, which surprised me when I first met them as both the men are graduates. All of them have been very welcoming to me, always, and this was no exception. Totally we arrived unannounced, but lunch is produced - rice, dal, popadoms, coconut chutney and green papaya curry. I remember Rasi's cooking from the first time I tasted it, she is an excellent cook. Her green papaya curry is delicate, aromatic and full of flavour. I can't praise her cooking enough. If I could communicate more with her I would get her to teach me how to make it! For now she can just about understand me when I ask her something - my accent is hard for folks who don't speak English and who don't hear it a lot. What Oriya with a Scottish accent sounds like I have no idea! I like her. They seem a happy couple, even though I know theirs is not a love marriage, it was arranged by their parents. I suspect it has its good points and its difficulties in practice given their different backgrounds. But I took an instant liking to her, and she has always made me feel really welcome in her company and her home.
So that was the first part of my day. The second half involved Mr P and I traveling to the other side of town to an unmarked CIB office to meet with the CIB Official assigned to investigate my application for extension to my visa. Of course, that visa has now been superceded by my new one. But still we had to attended when summoned. He had telephone several times when I was in the UK to get Mr P to present me for investigation. Not as ominous as it sounds, just to turn up in person, have my papers check, answer lots of questions about what I am doing and why, about what my NGO does etc. Everything seems to go well and I am asked to bring back a copy of my bio-data, as they call your CV here. This has taken another two hours! We begin to head back to the office.
We are only 5 minutes along the road when the rain starts, so heavy that we have to stop. We claim shelter under the canopy of a roadside stall, and partake of a mango juice. Next thing I know we have attracted a small crowd of young men, ranging in ages I discover for 12 to 36! It turns out the 36 year old is a teacher at the local government school, but many of the younger ones are still at school, but they all know Mr P. It turns out the boys used to attend our school and are now pleased to be informing us they are reading in 8th, 9th classes. Our school takes 50 children who have been working as child labour and puts them through 5 years of schooling in 3 years and then gets them into local government mainstream education. Those that have English want to try it out, those that don't still ask questions. My photo is taken. A hand is offered up to be shaken - that doesn't happen very much at all in India. We shelter for about 30 minutes then decide to venture forth. No sooner have we dried the bike seat and started it up than the rain worsens, we rush back into the shelter, and continue our conversations.
This is in the middle of the slum area of Rayagada. People here live illegally on the land, in constant fear of being moved on. The women work as maids in houses and hotels, their men as labourers, rickshaw wallas and the like. Everyone has migrated here from the countryside. Living conditions are not good. Just standing there watching the women across the road shows you something of their lives. The women are at a stand pump pumping water - that is better than some places - but the pump has been badly built and there is no surrounding drainage so spilt water runs off to the road, making the area around the pump very muddy, compound that with monsoon rains and everything is very messy. Barefoot women carry huge pots of water on their heads back their homes. I wonder how many times a day they do this.  Sanitation is non existent, stagnant water accumulates everywhere, even without the rains.  The houses occupy a strip of land between the road and the railway line. Some of the buildings are brick, others are not. I make lots of mental notes about things as I am currently writing a Water and Sanitation project proposal.
Meanwhile still sheltering from the downpour, I am humbled by one of the young men offering to buy Mr P and I a drink. He won't take our polite no for an answer and we are presented with small cartoons of Mango juice.  Such generosity!
Finally, we head off for another attempt to get back home to lots of cries of Bye, Asucha, come again. We end up making another stop , before finally arriving back at the office, soaked through. I wait for a little, dry my face, and head back out during a break in the clouds to get home. No hot shower, but certainly a thorough one, after wading through the mud of my nagar. Mud - I ponder  can be clean mud or dirty mud.  My clothes go into the wash as do I, thankful that my feet are covered in clean mud unlike may I have seen this afternoon.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

A very unusual thing happened on the way to the office.....

I am walking up through the nagar to the office in the morning when an auto  approaches from the side lane and turns into the way I am walking. Now you don't see many autos venturing into the potholed tracks of our nagar. But this is Govinda, our locally resident auto driver. He moved into one of the houses nearer to the railway line than mine a few months back, so of course I had started to use him when I wanted to go to the market, and he was great he would wait till the marketing was completed, he waited at the tailors when I waited on my shalwar kameez to be finished, he took a detour to the chicken seller on the way home.  I recall that he'd given me a welcome back shout and smile a few days ago when he noticed I had returned here. This time he shouts something I don't catch. I see he has a passenger so assuming it is some Good morning greeting I carry on walking. Then to my surprise he slows down and signals for me to get in. Are the heavens about to open up with another monsoon downpour I wonder?  Does he think I am going to the market?  Now I know from visiting Jen that auto shares are common in Bhubaneshwar, but here no, if you are to share there is a whole negotiation to go through between the sharing parties and with the driver.  It is not an everyday occurrence and something which does not happen quickly. It has only happened to me once when someone wanted to get to the railway station and I already had the auto. This is clearly not a share. My office is only a few minutes walk away but I get in and as best I can indicate that I want off at the corner leading to my office, that I am not going far. I get out, wondering if I should pay something and of course not actually having any change with me, except notes in my wallet in my back pack - damn these shalwar that don't have pockets. But he merrily goes on his way.  I smile. Wasn't that nice! He's definitely cultivating a customer relationship - but good on him! A bit  like my grocer who now gives me a free bag of water to drink when I visit his shop. I make a mental note to cultivate my auto driver relationship as well.

Monday 13 September 2010

Biri Daali


Biri Daali,  as it is called in Oriya is only one type of many dahls which are sold locally. It is a pulse of some sorts, and is called Urad Dalh in Hindi.  It is used to make igli, which folks here eat for breakfast. It is sometimes called Black gram in English, don't worry if it look like some of the "white"  grains are black ones covered in a whitish powder. This seems to be normal. It has a distinctive taste and when mixed with rice and ground, it does make a lovely pancake like mix. 


It takes a bit of advance preparation, but other than that it is so, so easy. My advice is begin the process early one day and everything is ready to cook any time on day 2.  The secret has been to find the right mix.  The proportions I settled on are 1 part biri to 3 parts rice.


First, soak both biri and rice till soft (this is why you start early). Grind both - don't be a perfectionist - the finer the grind the smoother the batter: myself, I prefer a slight bite and so grind less and get a bit of texture in the final result. Add a little water, salt and pepper to taste and mix to make a thickish batter.  Cover and set aside for 8 hours (ie overnight).  The result is a slightly frothy batter, smelling a little like it is fermenting. That's normal.  1 cup of rice to 1/3 cup of  biri makes 2 pancakes, depending on how thick you like the result and how big your pan is. I make mine about 1/4 inch think - thicker than a French crepe, more like the thickness of a Scotch Pancake. Moisten the pan with a little oil, ghee or butter, Place about a cup full of the batter in the middle and swirl round until it forms a wider circle. Turn over when underside is brown and top bubbly. Takes a couple of minutes.

A  welcome alternative to rice! Serve with  just about anything I think - any curry, or as shown here with my favourite lunch of tomatoes, cucumber,apples, raisins, and cashews in a lemon & back pepper olive oil dressing.

Taste verdict

A slightly nutty taste. 

Sunday 12 September 2010

Jhumpa Lahiri

Continuing the series of readings of Indian literature, I have just finished listening to an audio recording of  The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri  was born in the UK to Bengali parents but grew up in USA and just like the boy of the Bengali American family at the centre of this story, her name Jhumpa is a pet name not her proper or as Indian say, good, name / pura nam. Everyone here in India has nicknames and good names. For example, my landlady's name is Sushila , her nickname is Susy, her daughter is Debestray, but goes by the name of Rinky, When I grew up lots of kids had nicknames, given by other kids, not always flattering or ones you'd want to keep using for the rest of your  life, and usually used  only outside of the home whereas here it is the other way round, with the nicknames being used at home and the good names being used at school. 
The boy at the centre of her novel has the name Gogol, after he of The Overcoat, his father's favourite author,  as we continually hear throughout the book. After grandmother's letter suggesting the baby's name goes a missing, the family are forced to enter some name on the birth certificate in order to take the child home from hospital. And the name sticks. But he only much later discovers that this is only part of the reason why he was so named by his parents, the real reason has a deeper significance.  But that comes after he rebels against Gogol as his name and formally changes it to Nikhil.  However, he finds comes to realise that finding his own identity growing up in 80s America as the child of Indian immigrants is more than a question of a name. 
This is a story about an immigrant families assimilation with all its fun and failings. The book spans the time when Ashima first arrives in Boston after her arranged marriage to Ashok. We share with her  her disappointment at  their apartment compared to her family home, at affording only second hand clothes and toys for her children, compared to having servants, and to being without family for the first time in her life. The couple slowly adjust to life in the US, to its customs and ways, and raise their family, buy their house just the same as everyone else. Except that for so long the only people they know are fellow Bengalis, their children's substitute aunts and uncles.  Their trips home are big events, the big news events from home coming via letters and middle of the night phone calls. Ashima never seems to adjust, it is only after starting to work in the local Library does she make American, non Bengali friends.
As his parents try to take on board the culture of their adopted home for their children - Christmas, Thanksgiving, and then dating and boy/girlfriends for their daughter and son - so Gogol  struggles with the family trips back to India. When a friend remarks with surprise that he had never thought of Nikhil getting sick on these visits, he says they do, that they have to have so many shots and injections and travel with a whole medicine cabinet full of precautions. As Gogol grows up, he finds American girls friends, sex, drugs, but there is always this dichotomy between being born an American and seeing this as his home compared with his parents who still see India as home whilst at the same time feeling slightly offset from it all. He lives for a time with an American woman and her family, then marries an Indian woman. Neither work out. He is neither, he is both.  
This may have been an especially topical read for me, feeling as I do  like some sort of inside outsider here, not a tourist, yet not totally of here. So many of the customs and little things that Lahiri writes about ring true - Ashima's always wearing a sari at home and never having the courage to wear a Shalwar kameez in her father in laws house, the way shoes lay discarded in piles by the doorway.  Many of their customs - leaving shoes by the door, eating with their hands etc - now seem common place to me, but if I had read this earlier I would have felt them strange and foreign.  All children of immigrants must go through a similar search for identity, feeling neither one thing nor the other, belonging and yet different to each - Nikhil and his sister speak Bengali with an American accent, but cannot read nor write it.  Immigration inevitably means some loss and some gain. Only by living in another country can one truly begin to understand the problems, the heartaches, the fun, the losses and the achievement that immigrants make when deciding to live in another country, and marvel at their success and wonder how on earth refugees, forced to live so, rather than through choice can begin to manage.
I was introduced Lahiri's writing only recently when my book club read one of her short stories A Temporary Matter - just about the most perfect short story I have ever read - succinct, to the point, ever word required, every aspect sharp , the whole focused. I was so impressed I immediately went and got our The Namesake, so far her only novel. It has this short story crispness and clarity to it, her writing is straightforward, not at all over flowery, not unnecessarily complicated. Her accuracy and attentive to details in her choice of words and descriptions, from people's appearance eg  Nikhil's girl has a chignon not a bun, so 70s; his father is pulled from the wreckage of train bogeys as they are called in India, not carriages.  A worthy read even if you are not resident in India!

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Old aged home

My NGO runs an old aged persons home in Rayagada, only about 15 minutes walk from our office. I've met several of the residents before at various occasions like the Music festival, and some have been to my house helping Gunno and Pralad who run the home deliver my gas bottle and fit my fans. But I had never actually been to visit. I decided it was high time to rectify this and so today I took the afternoon off and went to call. I went with Mrs P as I needed to have someone with me who could help with the language. Mrs P tells me that Oct 1st is Elders Day and my NGO has a big celebration at the home on that day.
At first everyone is a bit wary as we arrive. Is it because of  me or is it because it is Mrs P?  Mrs P gives me a tour of the whole house. It is much smaller than I expected. From the front veranda where everyone is sitting there are two doorways, The one of the right leads into the men's dormitory and the one on the right into the women's. Beds line the two long walls of each room. There is not an inch of space between them. But each has their mattress, sheet, blanket and I am please to see, each has a mosquito net. It is extremely basic accommodation which I had expected, but much, much smaller. The dorms are tightly packed, although there are fewer beds in the women's one because there have been a number of deaths over the recent hot season.  At the other end of each dormitory a second doorway leads into another room at right angles to the dorms, running behind them. This is their dining area, it is completely bare. On the right hand wall are the toilets. I am told only the women use them - the men just go outside. On the left hand wall is another doorway into a kitchen area, where a wood fire is burning and a huge communal pot is already boiling up on the fire.
Only one of the men in the home speaks English, he tells me he was a government teacher for 36 years before coming to this home. I wonder just how he ended up here, but cannot ask. I praise his English. One of the men is blind. Slowly they start to feel comfortable enough to talk. I recognize some of the men and women from the Music evening that was held  a few months ago in the nagar. One of the women recognizes me also.  One lady is squatted down in a brilliant red sari. I don't see her picture, so I politely ask her name. I say it in my best Oriya and get a big smile but nothing is said. I try my best Hindi, still nothing. Then she says something which is clearly more than saying her name and which I cannot understand a single word of.  Then I hear one of the other women say Telugu. Of course, I have chosen to try my Language out on the one person in the whole 22 who cannot understand me, she only speaks Telugu - no Oriya, no Hindi, no English. There are smiles all round as I begin to understand. I can feel the atmosphere relaxing. One lady then shows me where their pictures hang on the veranda wall, each with their names, a roll call of residents. My lady in red is not on there either as she is relatively new to the home. But suddenly there is a lot of speaking, and I am having everyone pointed out to there pictures. I have no hope of catching everyone's names, but it feels good.
By now three of the women have started to sift through rice for their evening meal, tossing the rice in a wicker basket shaped like a dustpan, and picking out the little stones than could break your teeth. I think maybe next time I will sit down with them and help.  I am told everyone helps with chores, everyone has something they can do. One man has been pumping water and others are busy  filing up pail size buckets. I notice each has a number painted on its side, I think this is for washing prior to eating dinner.  Mrs P tells me they all help each other, if someone is not able to wash their clothes others will do it for them. They certainly all look clean, as do their saris and clothes.
Jaganath, one of the men who has been to my house, shows me their garden. My NGO has just bought a small piece of adjacent land which lies between the home and a plot of government owned land which the residents have vegetables growing in. A few very sorry looking plants are in this new patch. I am told it has only recently been cleared and planted with bringal (aubergine) but with the bad rains of last weekend the plants are suffering, from too much rain. I suspect they have planted too late and may not get a crop at all this year. The other patch is full of beans and bendi (ladies fingers/okra) This is actually the first time I have seen a ladies finger plant and am surprised to find the vegetables stand erect rather than hang down. I am not sure why I thought they would hang, but they don't. A nice crop of green papaya hangs from their two papaya trees. Ah something else I can say, Mote green papaya bhala lage - I like green papaya. I get Mrs P to add that I only recently tasted this for the first time. Amused, disbelieving looks at this, but I repeat that I like it and all seems well. In the front garden are medicinal plants, one which I am told is good for snake bites. Nods of appreciation as I understand  and repeat sapa - snake. There is also a Bitter Gourd plant - Mote bhala lageni I say with a disgusted look on my face. Smiles again, then Mrs P tells me no one here like it either.
So it is time to go. I see one of their pictures shows them playing a board game I am told is called Karrom. Now those of you who know me well know that I love to play cards, board games and the like, even winning a few  thousand Vatu ( all of £20!) in a nicely conducted "Sting" operation on 3 young  lads on the Soren Larsen who were playing poker :)  I love playing games, maybe this is the way to really break the ice. Mu asuchi, I say - I will come again if you teach me how to play Karrom.
I retrieve my shoes and struggle to get me feet in them - they are actually Mrs P's shoes because the toe strap broke on mine as I walked from home this afternoon and I have borrowed a pair to walk over to the home. My shoe struggle and my attempt at an explanation of why I am having to man handle my feet into my shoes, that they are Mrs P's shoes and I have too big feet   - bahut bura pada  - is met with laughter from the women. A good note on which to take our leave.
I make it home before the rains start, thinking about what life must be like for the residents. Better than many places, worse then many others. Certainly nothing like what I can expect in my old age. But for these ladies and gents, all of whom are into their 70s, it represents a safe place to stay, it is dry (although very hot indoors now never mind in the hot season), there is a hot meal to eat every day, regular medical checkups and the camaraderie of others. I will be visiting again, even if it is only to call in for 10 minutes to say hello and to ask them how they are. So be prepared anyone who is going to visit  because now you will also be visiting the old dears.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Birthday party Indian style

Last weekend I was told that Monday was Rinky's (my landlady's daughter) birthday. Would Auntie please come to her birthday at 6PM on Monday? Of course I said wondering what I would do in the company of a dozen or so 14 year olds and a couple of younger brothers and sisters and also wondering what on earth to give her as a present.
For the present, I decided on a British Pound coin. It was something she had asked about when I first came here but I did not have one to show her then. So my wallet was raided, a piece of bubble wrap taken from one of my Goodie Bags, and some cream coloured paper from a nice envelope, plus a piece of twine et voila I had a small gift wrapped up.
At about 5:30PM I suddenly have 3 girls standing at my door - Julie, Presanna, and Juanita -  whom I met before when Rinky and  I went splashing paint for Holi. They are the most local of the expected group and had come early, arriving even before Rinky had got back from her tuition class, in order to come and visit me. Quite the three little maids - all in their pretty party dresses, very girly in any culture, all lace, embroidery, frills and beads. A bit fu-fu for my taste but clearly everyone had been dressed up in their best for the occasion. Presanna's dress I am told was a Raki present  - Raki being a celebration a couple of weeks ago honouring brothers and sisters. Unfortunately my camera battery decided to pack up so I did not  managed to take any pictures, shame.
Eventually everyone else arrived and we joined the rest of the kids, mostly but not all girls. Two boys. It was nice to see that it was mixed. I had met a couple of Rinky's friends before on their cycles when I have been in the market with Rinky and her mother.  They too are all dressed up in their party clothes, even they boys in neatly pressed trousers and bright floral shirts. I can see a big effort has been made.
Then there was the usual birthday cake with candles and singing of Happy Birthday to You, albeit to a slightly different tune than I am used to and having two more verses than the one  sung at home.  In Delhi I was told that it is customary to put the cake in the face of the birthday person, but not here. Instead the birthday person has to feed all the guests. A mouthful of sickly sweet sponge and icing, full of colouring and sugar is pressed to my mouth. Next the presents are handed over, but not opened.
Then the mats come out, and everyone sits for food to be served in typical Orissan style on disposable leaf plates with their hands. It was nice to see that each of the children went and washed their hands before commencing eating.  Sushila served up a tasty Kabuli Chana aur aloo (chickpea and potato) curry with puri, followed by kheer, a raisin and cashew milky rice desert. What amazed me was the speed at which everyone ate, ney  devoured the food. They were clearly on a curfew as several kept asking about the time and checking the clock. The next thing I knew the plates were all empty, the dishes disposed of, hands rewashed and goodbyes were being made. Torches were found for someone whose battery had run out and cycles set off down the lane, quite happily in the pitch black dark of the night, up the unlit lane, and some out onto the main road with only small amount of torchlight to make their way home. Some of them way to the other side of town. It was nice to see that it was acceptable for them to be out, and to be out this late, on their own, and to have the responsibility to get home on time. But I have no doubt parents had given strict instruction that they had to be home by 7 or 7:30PM depending on how far way they lived and that many would be standing watching their lanes for their daughter's cycle arriving home.
Julie, Presanna and Jaunita were the only ones walking. Julie had told me they had to be very careful walking home because of snakes. Little Presanna tells me that there are big snakes and small snakes but the small ones are very dangerous and you must not get bitten by one. They come out when it is cooler and one had recently come into their house and she had been very frightened.
After they had gone, I sit for a time with Sushila and Rinky. They open the gifts. I am intrigued to see what they are. Mainly pens, about 6 pens I counted, a pencil case, a photo frame, a purse, some chocolate. Each costing somewhere between 20 and 60 rupees. Rinky is particularly please to be given the pens and the pencil case, and of course the chocolate as like all Indian she has a terrible sweet tooth. I am left wondering what the average 14 year old in the UK or US might have received for her birthday, and what she would make of these gifts and this party. Makeup, clothes, CDs, DVDs, even computers come to mind. I can imagine many turning their noses up at these gifts. Not Rinky. She was happy. She had had all her friends round. There was no music, no games, no jelly and ice cream, so not at all like the children's parties of my childhood and certainly none of the designer gift boxes that I hear are now given to guests at parties in the UK and US. But every single one of them had a smile on their face, they were all happy to be there, all wishing Rinky a Happy Birthday and joining in her celebration. As a group of good and happy friends were making their way home together, I am left pondering about play and fun, about the small things, about the  innocence of childhood, about the act of giving and about what money and a Mastercard cannot buy.
I was just about to post this today when I read a post of a blog I drop by to from time to time, it author, Sharrell is an Aussie, married to an Indian and living in Mumbai. Her experience recent post on Consumerism and Child Raising i san interesting contrast showing the different Indias. I can't imagine any of the kids yesterday demanding a 1300 Rupee Barbie doll!

Monday 6 September 2010

A brush with a tea caddy - or, there's no use crying over spilt tea.

I was running very low on tea at the weekend, having almost finished all my nice stuff - down to my last pot  of Jasmine and last couple of Earl Grey tea bags. So I thought I had better stock up with some of the local stuff. Being in India does not mean getting nice tea. I suppose it is all exported  to earn vital foreign exchange. So in practice tea means a choice between Dust Tea ( yes that's what it is called) and Leaf Tea, which in my opinion is still tea dust. And of course it is all loose, no tea bags. So I bought my packet of Taj Mahal Tea and duly opened and emptied it into the canister. That was yesterday.
Now comes lunch time today and I go to make tea. I lift the tea caddy from the shelf and away it flies, I am left holding the lid in my hand with tea all over the kitchen floor. No big deal I hear you say, it is dry, the floor is marble, all is well just get the dust pan and brush and sweep it all up and into the waste bin.  Well yes it is dry, but wrong on all  other counts. Ok you know already there is no such thing as waste bins and waste disposal here. It is over the wall onto the pile for the  cows and goats to rummage through. But how to get it there? Therein lies the difficulty. P9060007
When I first moved in I bought a dustpan along with a pile of other household items. Upon unpacking at home I discovered it is missing its brush. No I am told by the shopkeeper, there is no brush. I need a brush I say, he duly obliges and a brush is produced. No I have one of those , I want a small brush. No, no small brush. That was now several months ago and I am still looking for a small brush. Since then I have actually seen a woman sweeping up something into a dustpan with one of these grass or stick brushes that every respecting Indian housewife has. Here's mine, a grass one, about 3 feet in length , complete with Barbie Pink DayGlow Handle - makes you think about dressing up on a long cloak and flying off. And I have just about as much chance of doing that as of using it to usher dust and debris into the dustpan. There is no directional control. Dust redistribution, yes: dust collection, no way! 
So as regards the spilt tea, I manage to get much of the tea dust into the pan and then it is down on hands and knees, wet cloth in hand in an attempt to wipe the rest of it up.  I then start the whole tea making process  over again, half a packet of tea lost to the field mice. Thank goodness it was only dust tea and not my beloved Jasmine. I'll be trampling on tea particles now for days each time thinking what I wouldn't give for a decent brush and a decent cuppa!

Friday 3 September 2010

Acceptance means telling a joke

When do you know that you have been accepted by the people around you?
Is it when you are invited to a family occasion? Not in my opinion. In India it can be that you are being shown off as the "foreigner" friend. Just how prestigious can having a foreigner friend be?  Answer is it can, big time. Take Gauri, a local 9 year old, who when she saw me at a local festivity and called out to me to let me now she was there. I could see her friends looks and questions as she inadvertently became the envy of them all. But with adults one does sometime get the feeling that you are  intentionally "on show", although at other times there has been a genuine desire to expose me to their culture eg when I was invited to my work colleague's nephew's Sacred Thread Ceremony.
Is it when you are invited round to their house for a meal? Well it just doesn't happen here. No one goes out to eat or invites people over to eat as a social occasion. Eating is for calorific intake alone. Orissa  is a state where people still die of hunger. I've been to eat with project teams when they are in town. Being invited to join them is thoughtful and full of common sense when the meeting finishes at 9PM. But in the dhaba, there's little social chit chat, and it is not because I can't speak enough of the language, it is just not seen as a social occasion, and certainly only takes as long as it takes to eat your meal - no good conversations over dinner lasting well into the night here.
On occasion I called round at a neighbour's house with my landlady. We are given tea, one is often given tea, given the only chair to sit on. You just get used to it and you initial embarrassment disappears. But again I would hardly go as far as to say that I felt truly accepted.
But a couple of days ago just before the Janmashtami holiday I really felt I was. We were talking about the holiday and my colleague told me a joke. Before I reproduce this joke I will tell you that she is Hindu.
Three mountaineers were in a death fall of a mountain. The Christian prayed to God to save him and he was saved. The Muslim mountaineer prayed to Allah to be saved from falling to his death and he was saved. The Hindu mountaineer could not decide which God to pray to and was killed.
Now we all know how precarious humour is at crossing  linguistic and cultural boundaries, so when someone feels confident enough in your company that they are willing to tell you a joke, and moreover a joke about religion, surely this is the landmark of acceptance.