Wednesday, 22 September 2010

United Angry Eejits

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan
[Photograph: Antônio Milena/ABr]

    I told you we'd get some adventure stories from the country I have affectionately dubbed with the title moniker. Now, I have been to the Emirates a number of times previously so this post has been informed collectively over a few years, though it is the first time I've really sat down to think about this slightly mad country. For the past few years it has been to visit my dad and family who are out here working. Working on their tans. They live in a little backwater called Al Ain which, unlike its money crazed older brothers Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a small leafy oasis town, with a high Emirati population and is full of roundabouts and shopping malls. Ok, so maybe it's still a little like its larger brothers. Desertification seems to have set in on Milton Keynes, and everyone has started to eat dates and wear those funky white robes. And they ride camels to Ikea or something. No building is higher than 5 stories, by decree of THE SHEIKH, so everyone can have a good view of the 'mountain' Jebel Hafeet. The all powerful Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who founded the UAE, was born in this little town, and was a very interesting guy. This is a country which was founded and governed by this one man from 1971 through to his death in 2004, who had more than 20 children from his polygamous marriages, but is known for being a wise diplomat, politician and a moderate Muslim who had, for his religion and culture, enlightened views on women's equality.

  This is a country of contradictions, wealth, almost-invisible poverty and sand. Men walk around in traditional Arabian garb, yet have Blackberry's and iPhones constantly wired into their ears on the ubiquitous hands-free-kits whose only purpose seems to be showing you have the latest phone fashion accessory. Water, you would think, would be precious in a country that is almost entirely desert, but its sprayed liberally across the grassy verges planted along roads and in roundabouts. It's generally a very confusing place. Oil gave the Sheikh's the opportunity to turn a nation of nomadic Bedouins and pearl-divers into one of the most developed nations in Asia, with very high GDP and astronomical carbon footprints for its inhabitants. It also gave them the buying power to attract the big Western multinationals and inward investment, making it feel like peculiar clash of East and West (well, Mid-East). Food giants like McDonalds and Subway are here in abundance, and the country now has a serious obesity and diabetes problem, with over 60% of Emirati nationals overweight. Yet the country is trying desperately to get in touch with its history and culture, something one could argue was lost just 30 years ago to rapid economic growth, the aforementioned Western investment and the highway and skyscraper construction bonanza of the last two decades. Exhibitions, calls for UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Oasis and desert-fort here in Al Ain, daily articles detailing Emirati life, history and art are all admirable attempts to promote national unity, identity and pride, but one can't help but feel it's all a little desperate, and perhaps too late to be heard from beneath the roaring of Hummer engines and the thundering of construction jackhammers.

    But they have certainly got one unassailable cultural icon still shining; their food. Dining out at the local 'Heritage Village' was my first really Emirati experience, filled with silly late-night karaoke, clouds of fragrant shisha and stunning Arabic food. Hummus and pine nuts, deep-fried lamb meatballs, lamb chops, butterfly prawns, breads to die for and wonderful shish kebabs, all washed down with wonderful fresh lemon and mint juice and Moroccan tea. And did I mention the karaoke? I'm not 100% sure it is karaoke, rather than just an over-enthusiastic waiter, but it has the messy, slightly-drunken (without a sniff of alcohol) but hugely earnest feel of a good go at singing the hits while a happy keyboard player fills the huge open-air room with gloriously cheesy midi sounds. A great night out by anyone's standards. And it's a rare opportunity to see Emirati families letting their hair down; kids dancing on tables, women chugging happily on shisha pipes, families enjoying a meal together at 11.30pm. The place is open 24hrs, and when you sit down at the reasonable time of 8 o'clock for dinner, you almost have the place to yourself. The place really only gets going after 10 o'clock, and is definitely worth sticking around for.

    To finish off with, I'll go with another brief bit of music jiggery-pokery, and recommend some of the brand new stuff I've been letting past my ears, which had previously been almost exclusively trained to listen to fogey music. The new album from The Besnard Lakes is entitled The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, a decidedly twisted album title which does some justice to the evocative noisescapes which flow across its 10 tracks. Fans of Arcade Fire may have heard of the band, with the Lakes often compared unfairly to their other Canadian neighbours, but where AF specialise in big-sounding, rabble-rousing numbers to get the blood pumping, Besnard Lakes, with Jace Lasek's falsetto vocals and guitars which scream silently from the darkness, offer something more chilling and hard to grasp securely between your hands and your ears, but the album really rewards you if you try. The track Albatross has accompanied the long, hot afternoons here in the Al Ain just right, allowing me to close my eyes and find myself somewhere colder, wilder, and perhaps a little more reassuring, just for a few glorious minutes.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

[Originally written on 09/09/2010]

    Sitting in the 'Slow Motion' bar in the Beachside hotel, it dawns on me that coming to the beach may not always mean sea, sun and sand. It may also mean sackfuls of rain, refreshing bottles of Kingfisher beer and loud local construction workers drinking cheap rum from plastic bottles and debating loudly in Malayalam. Well, I'm sure that for most people a visit to the beach stick with the SSS option, but today, at Varkala beach an hour North of Kerala's capital city Trivandrum (see how quickly I gave up on learning to say its full name?), I don't have much choice in the matter. I could, I suppose, spend the afternoon in a nice air conditioned internet café, or in one of the beach bars popular with the Western tourists. But that wouldn't be fun. I can do that in Blackpool, albeit with a few less coconut palms dotting the horizon.

    Truth be told, I had no idea how local and lively the Slow Motion would be. From the outside it looked like any other hotel bar, one I expected to be either empty or full of drunken gap year students out to 'find themselves' in the wilds of India. I suppose I just got lucky, depending on whose perspective you're looking from. But the sight of the raucous and shoeless construction workers is surely a good thing, at least when it comes to beer prices. I'll let you know after a few more…

    The bars tinted windows make the sea outside look perpetually gloomy; overcast at best (when its a scorchingly beautiful day outside) to a raging galestorm at worst (when its drizzling a bit). I'd hate to actually see it when there's a gale blowing angrily across the beach outside, plucking parasols and dogs up into the air, and depositing them with abandon all along the stunning coastline which stretches out before me. I'd think I'd accidentally fallen into Milton's Paradise Lost, or into a Radiohead album. The train up to Varkala was long and languorous, its casual winding along the trainline through sleepy Keralan villages lulled me into a false sense of security, as did the weather, which maintained its sunny disposition all the way to Varkala train station, only revealing its true, callous nature upon my arrival to the beach in an outrageously overpriced autorickshaw. I should have smelled a rat, or some other Indian-related creature. Actually, a rat will do fine for that analogy when I bear in mind the number of rats I saw scuttling under one section of a stopped train while waiting for mine at Trivandrum Central Railway Station.

However, I will never let something as fickle and overly-emotional as the weather to get in the way of enjoying what is my final day in the Indian Subcontinent. A sad day, to greatly understate my feelings, but one that is also full of happy memories. Memories of sipping milky tea and eating ginger biscuits in Mumbai's 'British footprint' Café Kyani; of trudging through the mess and rain through the Dharavi slum and encountering friendly smiling people going about their everyday lives; of pretending to be a Kulta-kung-fu master. Mumbai was madness and passion and joy and daily sadness; Kerala is a riot of greens, quiet, warming, home to friends and happy evenings. My Indian adventures are over, but only for the moment.

So, as I sit here reading the wonderful Stuart Maconie's 'Pies and Prejudice' and drinking beer at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, I realise this may not be everyone's idea of a great day out at the beach, but it certainly makes me happy. I might even be tempted to go feel the sand under my toes if the rain stops. But probably not.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Terracotta and Butterflies

Monday 6th September, Thiruvananthapuram,

    Well, my trip to Mumbai finally ended, and though it was certainly sad to say goodbyes to all the great people I'd met along the way, especially my excellent roommates R. K. 'n T. S., I was really excited to be leaving the teeming metropolis behind me; I was tired of the constant avoidance of hawkers and scammers, tired of the never-ending noise, tired of the packs of filthy flea-bitten dogs roaming the streets, and perhaps even just a little bit tired as well. Perhaps I was also hugely excited about where I was moving on to; the wonderful South Indian State of Kerala, and its capital city Thiruvananthapuram. Quite a mouthful I hear you mumble through cheeks stuffed with jumbled letters. Luckily, I hear the locals still call it by its Anglicised name Trivandrum, which, while much easier to say, lacks a certain charm. Thusly, I endeavour to learn how to pronounce it properly before I depart in 4 days. And I want to learn how to pronounce it while drunk on 'naughty orange' Punjabi vodka. What lofty dreams and ambitions I hold for myself.

    Also, I know 4 days is a rubbishly short time, but I have been here for two days already, making it almost up to a week! And I unfortunately have to move on to pastures anew following this, so look forward to hearing about my adventures in the UAE – the United Angry Eejits, as I have now decided to call it. Despite the short amount of time I have here in Triv (it's easier to type – I never said anything about learning to type it out every time), also dubbed the 'Evergreen City of India' by none other than Mohandas 'Mahatma' Karamchand Ghandi, I will certainly make the most of it, if my lovely mates Mithun and Prithvi have any say in the matter.

    I'm staying in an absolutely stunning traditional Keralan-style apartment-room, with a high ceiling crowned with beautiful terracotta tiles and the deep red and brown mahogany beams and walls. Please note that I have no idea what kind of wood they actually are, and that mahogany was pretty much plucked out of the air because it sounds nice, ok? Finishing off my wonderful stay is the apartment's wonderful owners, close friends of P 'n M's, and delightful hosts. Mugs of steaming hot surrchai (to steal a word from my wonderful author companion Tejpal), dosa and bananas help start the day off, as does a vigourous wash in the marvellously Indian washing arrangements – a shower head and bucket, a bar of soap and lots of cold water. It's actually an amazing way to start the day, despite the coldness of the water (it's not that cold) and I thoroughly recommend it. Get yourself a big blue bucket, a smaller cup, a bar of good soap that won't dry your skin out, and a flexible shower head. Set the water to just under tolerably cold (it'd be no fun if the coldness was bearable!) and get a scrubbing. Try and make sure that lots of the water your using ends up in the big blue bucket, as having it a third full by the time you're finished means you can have great fun tipping the whole thing over your head and really giving yourself a good-morning jolt!

    So far the trip has involved wandering along beautiful black sandy (explosive Thorium) beaches, drinks in licence-less seafront bars, silly photo adventures at the base of a huge red-and-white lighthouse, all day-biryani-and-the-aforementioned-Punjabi-vodka sessions, washed down by discovering the Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters and discussing the stupidity of much of old-traditional India, with its ridiculous and archaic arranged marriages, downright awful caste system (which still very much exists despite everyone in Mumbai's best efforts to ensure we thought that wonderful Modern India had done away with it once and for all) and religious differences. Oh, and I watched and waited with the largest child-like grin on my face as a huge and semi-divine butterfly landed on my hand, all to the tune of Monsieur Hancock's 'Headhunters'. I think I love Kerala.

    Just a brief music update now (which is absent from the Mumbai posts, as they were originally destined for the Study India 2010 blog) as, basically, I think I have better things to be doing while in Kerala. For interesting listening while swanning around India, I would heartily recommend an eclectic mix of David Bowie, especially Life on Mars?, followed by the fanbloodytastic Blackalicious album 'Blazing Arrow', and then washed down with liberal helpings of The Avalanches superb mashup album 'Since I Left You'. Got that? Good. Now go forth and live!

We Salute Bombay!

[Originally posted on Study India 2010 blog, 02/09/2010]

The NGO placements for the Study India Programme afforded us the opportunity to briefly peer deeper into the darker pages of Mumbai's convoluted story, revealing a world we had only previously glimpsed on the sides of the road, at a distance, and viewed through the twin filters of expectation and preconception. Initially these scenes, which can be encountered just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, had the capacity to shock and sadden, if only for the sheer scale of the street-side poverty on show. But I found myself quickly numbed to the sight of the blue tent hovels being overcome by monsoon groundwater, to the sight of filthy children defecating on the street amid piles of festering waste, to the sight of painfully twisted-limbed homeless men sitting quietly on corners and under the reaching fingers of Mumbai's signature Banyan trees. I expected that these sights would be repeated when I first arrived at Salaam Baalak's Umerkhadi drop-in children's centre, and that my experiences of walking down a street in South Mumbai would have prepared me for the poverty and misery I was undoubtedly about to see. What I found at Salaam Baalak could not have been further from either assumption, and I was amazed at how such a short amount of time could be so eye-opening and uplifting.

We arrived on Monday 23rd August and found the centre closed, as it was the day they had the teacher and trustee meeting. We then learned that the national holiday 'Raksha Bandhan' meant that the centre was also to be closed on Tuesday, leaving us with only three days with the children at the centre. This was somewhat aggravating, leaving us with the feeling that we'd never be able to make any impact or be of much use over only three days. However, we had to make the best of it, so when we arrived to the centre on Wednesday, we were really hoping that we would be able to make the best use of our range of skills and help the children in whatever way we could. Going back to what I mentioned above, I was expecting rowdy, dirty children not used to the discipline or routine of school. But when we arrived, the children were beginning their morning with one of the non-denominational prayers that give the all the children, from any of India's myriad religious and social doctrines, something solid and regular to start their day with. There was also nothing of the rowdiness and bad behaviour I was expecting; I don't want to reiterate the cliché so often used - that the children 'back home' would never be this well behaved or polite, which I don't believe is the case - but I was certainly taken aback by the friendly, playful and hard-working attitudes of children who, without Salaam Baalak, would undoubtedly not be making it to school at all regularly, and are used to running the streets and dealing with the daily hardships, dangers and worries that would accompany a life of sleeping rough.

Most of the children are from families whose parents work for much of the day, so are not around to take care of the children when they are not at school. A large number of them are often required to help work on parents business, day or night, or they have to take care of younger siblings while their parents work. They miss out on the fundamental freedoms and security that come with a safe childhood that we take for granted back home, and that are hugely important in the early development of a healthy child. So Salaam Baalak provides a hugely vital service, in that it provides this safe, regular and structured place for a child to come and be a child. They do home work, have a healthy daily meal and structured play. Younger children are cared for as well, in the crèche, leaving older siblings to get on with exam revision or just reading the newspaper. Though we were only there for a very brief period, it was a hugely rewarding week, and one that lifted the veil on homelessness in Mumbai, its realities and dispelling the preconceptions I had carried with me when moving through Mumbai's crowded streets. There are wonderful, hard working, happy and intelligent children in many of the tarpaulin tents you pass, and sparing them a thought would do no harm.

Laurence Conneely

Where have all the idiots gone?

[Originally posted on Study India 2010 blog, 23/08/2010]

When in India, do as the Indians do. We were told this with vigour in one of our first-week lectures at HR College, by the earnest media don Aditya Bhat. So we took his advice and settled in to watch a Bollywood film, an experience that was probably new for the vast majority of us, myself included. Now, I had been led to believe a number of common traits about the kind of films churned out by the world's largest film industry, none of them positive. Number One: they are chock full of song and dance. The prospect of this fills your author with an acute sense of dread, what with one being a curmudgeonly sort of fellow turned off by impromptu forays into ill-advised and overly emotional displays of love, happiness and/or sadness. No, this would not do at all. Number Two: that Bollywood films generally consist of sloppy romance, slapstick comedy and schlocky, overblown action pieces. Now, I can take all three of these in measured doses, and individually, but all together they sound suspiciously like a recipe for a serious headache. Hmm. And Number Three: that they are bum-numbingly long. I personally prefer taught, precise film making and it is the rare exception that a film longer than two and a half hours holds my interest. So, for better or worse, I went into the screening of the 2009 film '3 Idiots' with decidedly low expectations.

Starring the legendary Aamir Khan alongside Kareena Kapoor as the token love interest, and Boman Irani as the wonderfully twisted and slightly mad Viru 'Virus' Sahastrabudhhe, 3 Idiots was perhaps the perfect way to be introduced to the world of Bollywood cinema. It tells the story of three friends going through the pressures of student life, life in modern India, the expectations of Indian parents and the journey along the way. First things first: the cast. All the lead performances were strong, but Irani stands out among them. Despite the clichéd and oddly-camp nature of the character, from the frizzy grey head of hair to the pervasive and annoying lisp which dominates his character, he managed to bring a performance of humour and humanity to a film which occasionally descended too much into farce for my tastes. And I haven't even mentioned how terrifying he makes this Engineering School dean; who often goes out of his way to be cruel to the students, occasionally with genuinely shocking and upsetting results. These are the parts of 3 Idiots which are the most satisfying and rewarding; when the sentimentality and silliness are cut through with an unusual emotional intensity which takes you by surprise and draws you in far more than the film would have achieved otherwise.

The film proved to be rather long, and I did feel that it sagged under its own length at points, but this is a minor criticism and the length generally failed to bother me. What did bother me however was the script, and the often juvenile nature of the proceedings. There were the occasional funny moments which rose above the generally low brow fart-joke nonsense, but I found it didn't tug on my funny bone as much as I'd hoped. I'm sure that many others will find it amusing however, and that the comedy was not quite to my tastes, leaving open the question of whether a film review is a rather useless endeavour when so much of the enjoyment of a film is based on personal preference. However, I will ignore your raucous cries of disapproval for my blatantly opinionated film review and persevere regardless. Another sore point for me was the film's liberal use of the emotional baseball-bat-to-the-face approach, eschewing subtlety for a more straightforward, and some would argue less effective, attempt to yank on your heartstrings. But, despite the often absent sense of pace, there were some real moments of warmth, sadness and love which used all the actors well, with Khan standing up well with Imani.

Overall, 3 Idiots is a hugely enjoyable few hours, packed with colourful characters, even more colourful settings and scenes, and both great laugh-out-loud moments, and ones where you might need a box of tissues handy. There are some not inconsiderable problems to do with lowbrow humour and a lack of emotional subtlety, but I think many will find these minor quibbles which avoid detracting from the experience too much. 3 Idiots is definitely a great way to be introduced to Bollywood, and I'm now eagerly looking forward to watching a 4-hour romantic musical extravaganza for my next one!


Laurence Conneely

First Impressions of Mumbai

[Originally posted on the Study India 2010 Blog on 16/08/2010]

Flying in over Mumbai is interesting, to say the least. At first, it looks like a swamp, with pylons and craggy buildings looming out of it at random intervals. But then the plane banks around, and you get a sweeping view of this enormous, heaving city; greener than any you have seen before, but filled with filthy old buildings, its arteries clogged with traffic, and the unmistakeable blue plastic-roofed slums. But this is just a plane eye-view, skewed by its remoteness and with as many layers of preconception as there is glass in the little plane portholes. This perspective does little justice to the people of this city, their situations or their aspirations. Just talking to an ageing beverage stall worker reveals that he regularly travels to London to help work in his relative’s business; at least four times a year! He certainly has one up on me in terms of international travel. And he’s not just helping any old relation – a sir! Sir Gulam Noon MBE. I get a card as he is appalled that I have never heard of the business (the Noon Group) and now it’s my turn to feel judged. This wonderfully friendly ageing gentleman has more things going on than I ever would have imagined, thought possible or probable. But that seems to be Mumbai all over, and I’m sure it will prove this right many times over during the coming weeks. I look forward to it.

Our first full day turns out to be Indian Independence day, which is a stroke of luck, as we get the opportunity to see Mumbai and its inhabitants letting their hair down, celebrating their history and what it means to be a sovereign nation. At the flag raising celebrations at the H.R. College Mumbai, our host university for the Study India Programme, words such as ‘superpower’ are mentioned; India in the modern world is no wall flower. This is a rapidly growing, self-assured nation which can throw its economic weight around, especially now the rest of the world is floundering in the face of unstable financial systems and crippling state deficits. And Mumbai certainly seems to be at the centre of powerhouse India – commerce brings prosperity is the motto of H.R. College, and this strength of conviction will see Indian charging ahead in the decades to come. This attitude is also embraced by the amazingly persistent street vendors along Colaba Causeway, some of whom will not give up in their efforts hours after first talking to you! Despite my unwillingness to part with even rps.100 for a drum I had no room or desire for, one particular seller approached me no less than four times offering it for rps.500, and would not take no for an answer. Annoying, but certainly a commendable spirit towards salesmanship. This entrepreneurial attitude, from the poorest street salesman to the Chairman of the Tata Group, will surely see India well in the difficult years to come.

These first couple of days in Mumbai have opened my eyes to the diversity, spirit and friendliness of its inhabitants; the madness that are its packed streets and the ramshackle but beautiful nature of its buildings. These streets lined with crumbling but regal Colonial buildings also give a glimpse into Mumbai’s past and the legacy this history has left. Both the foundations for the prosperity of the city, including things such as the railway network and its education system, were laid under British Colonial rule, but these buildings also serve as reminders of the often brutal and exploitative nature of Colonial rule, which ended on 15 August 1947, allowing India, and Mumbai, the freedom to forge its own path for the future, which I will hopefully get an insight into on the Study India Programme 2010.

Laurence Conneely