Tuesday, 27 January 2009


I'm not worried that I've made the wrong decision but I am rethinking the events of the last couple of months and wondering at my own weirdness.

A couple of months ago, I was fed up with an almost impossible work situation and the confinement of village life. The consultant who hired me for this job was offering better paid work in the more sane surroundings of Nashik, several hours from Mumbai.

At first, I was ecstatic. It was a way out of this job without having to leave India. The climate down there is much better, Nashik is beautiful and relatively cosmopolitan and the job was to start with a training course in Beijing.

I'm not sure exactly how, but before I was to go and visit the school my feelings completely changed. The new job didn't look quite so great under close scrutiny. More than that, though, I just couldn't leave my desert village. Along with astonishing frustrations, there are some aspects of life I love here.

Actually, the frustrations and the joys often go hand in hand. The meat ban is a pain but I love the fellowship of being invited for secret chicken. The landscape is harsh and bleak but also enchanting. The sun is scorching but the sunrises and sunsets are magical. The small town mindset is infuriating but I love the gossip as much as anyone else.

And I'm way too attached to my students, who have worked really hard and improved amazingly. They're smart and lovely people and need help to catch up with the rest of India.

So it seems that I'm here for a while more and I'm determined to make the most of it. I'm accepting more invitations, doing more socialising and starting some side projects. I've grown a moustache and I'm contemplating gold earrings.

But let me show off and list what I turned down: double salary, a brand new 2-bedroom flat, the trip to Beijing, a location in India's wine region, Mumbai only 4 hours train ride away (instead of Delhi 11 hours on a bumpy bus) and the hint of an introduction to a Bollywood star who recently looked very impressive in a swimming costume. And this view:

I've taken the crazy option and I'm happy with it. I'm learning enough about myself to realise that whatever I do after this, it's going to be have to be equally, if not more insane.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A guru is born

There's a week long religious function going on in the house across the road. I know about it because the speaker on their roof points directly at my bedroom window. I've requested them to turn it around in the direction of the bazaar and bus stand where the idlers are obviously in greater need of instruction.

'Who've they got speaking?' I asked Shankar, my cook, as an off key hymn disturbed my lunch of aloo gobi. 'It's Raju' he said and I was surprised. Raju lives in the house across the road and is a 20 year old sometimes painter, sometimes magician, sometimes acrobat, seen below practising a balancing trick with a long pole.

'He's a guru?' I asked and Shankar replied 'Ban raha hai' which I shall translate as 'He's on the make'. Sure enough, I saw him in the street outside later with very fresh looking robes and a funky new hairdo and beard.

So there you go wannabe gurus. All you need to start is a set of speakers on your own roof and a captive audience of neighbours. I'm sure he's already claiming to have a foreign devotee.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

'Why aren't you married?'

It's a question I'm asked at least once a day, often many times more. Over time I'm getting better at answering without getting annoyed. I'm not apologetic any longer and I even manage to have a little fun shocking people with the explanation that marriage is optional in my culture and can be done at any age.

My colleagues ask. My students ask. My hairdresser asks. The local police ask when I go ask for permission to leave the village. My cook is most concerned and would ask more often but he's smart enough to know not to. And last night the elderly owner of a hotel I stayed at in Jaipur asked. He took my hand and stared at my palm as if he was going to give a reading.

'Good news or bad?' I asked.
He said nothing for half a minute and then 'Twenty nine.'.
'Your age in your passport. Are you married?'
'Your youth is going to waste.'
'It's not. I'm making the most of it.'
'Ah, yes. Frittering your life away with no responsibilities.'
'I have plenty of responsibilities! Just no marriage ones.'
Do your parents feel upset that you aren't married? Don't they want to have grandchildren?'
'I have a lot of brothers and sisters. My parents are glad that we're independent and responsible.'
'Are they married?'
'My sister is.'
'Ah, but that is different. Girls join the husbands family. They do not carry on the family line.'
'Our culture is different. My sister and her husband live in the same street as my parents.'

Thankfully we shifted topic to my work. The respite didn't last long, however, as my cook was hinting as soon as I got home today. I'd been over to his house for dinner on Christmas day and after seeing me with his kids he decided I'm more than ready.

I guess I'm lucky that he's illiterate or he would notice my fixation with the matrimonials section of the newspaper. Since I discovered the fun columns like 'divorced' and 'cosmopolitan', I've been totally hooked.

Today I saw the ad below, a disappointment from an agency that usually prints ads suggesting (slightly radically) that it's more important to find someone with similar interests rather than someone with the same caste or even religion.

'Firangi Mem' means 'white woman' (the allusion is a haughty Raj era madam) and 'Bahu' means 'daughter in law'.

On an equally sinister note, I saw this sign in Delhi a couple of days ago. They've obviously got ways of making sure the slogan stays true.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Spitting for good

I'm getting a lot of questions at the moment about what I'm doing for Christmas, not just from friends and family but also from fellow village dwellers. I get the sense that they'll be quite disappointed if they don't witness something impressive. Since I bought a set of speakers last week, I'll at least be able to share Mariah's 'Merry Christmas' album at full volume.

I'm thinking it might be best to go away for a night to mark the occasion. My bosses are in town for a family gathering and whenever they're around they don't mind dropping in to my house any time for a work discussion. Whatever happens, it's probably going to be a very reflective Christmas, different to my last few, which were great fun but mostly about cooking.

I've had a bit of a religious resurgence since I came to India. Partly it's been prompted by the isolation and increased thinking time. It's also because I'm enjoying being able to partake in other religious traditions, something that I didn't feel I could do when I had much more conservative Christian views. The more I learn, the more it becomes obvious that every religion has a good side and bad.

There's no shortage of places of worship in my area; Jain, Hindu or Muslim. After a lot of visiting, my place of preference by far is a Sufi shrine in the next village. Though everything I hear about Sufism is good, I go there mainly because I've found it very friendly, peaceful and spiritual. Plus, I see a wide cross section of society visiting so it passes my discrimination test.

I went this morning and wasn't allowed through the door until I'd drunk tea with the old men who sit around all day. The actual shrine is usually empty inside and that suits me. I have a preference for religious experiences where I'm not dependent on someone else to do something for me. Just occasionally, one of the old men will come and wave a cloth from the saint's tomb over my head.

Today, however, was quite different in a strange but lovely way. When I knelt down in the shrine there was an old man chanting. I recognised the Arabic expressions as ones that my Moroccan students in London used to say. He then took the cloth and waved it over my head. Next he blew in each of my ears and spat on me very lightly. After that, he fed me two rose petals and showed me how to kiss the tomb.

It didn't feel right to ask at the time but I suppose that the blowing and spitting was a purifying ritual. I was so touched. Never in my life did I imagine that being spat on could be a spiritual experience.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Attaching the heart

There is a phrase that kind people here ask me which basically translates as 'Have you settled in?'. The barber asks it. Old men ask it in the street. Students' mothers ask it when I am invited over for dinner. It's usually asked very sincerely and accompanied by direct eye contact. I find that very touching.

After almost 5 months in Rajasthan, I guess I've settled in. I recognise most of the people on the street. I go to a regular mobile phone shop, barber and tailor. I get a cup of tea whenever I visit the bank. The sweet shop likes me to take things on credit. I know what to expect and how to behave when I'm invited for dinner.

After 5 months, the novelty of living in Rajasthani village is also starting to wear off. However long I stay here, I'm always going to be an object of curiousity. People will never stop asking why, at the overripe age of 29, I'm not married. Nor will they stop talking about my salary, unable to believe that I haven't come here to profit at their expense.

And I've become much more cynical about my job. It's turned out to be a less charitable venture than I was made to understand at first. Apart from free classes for teachers at the school I'm in, the courses all charge substantial fees. This makes them affordable only for the most well off people in a village which is wealthy by Indian standards

The school I'm in is run by a fundamentalist religious organisation that has been widely criticised for cooking the history books. Students start the school day with an hour of prayer and, very unusually for India, no singing of the national anthem which mentions India's religious diversity. I've learnt to hate Hindu fundamentalism just as much as Christian or Muslim.

The colleagues I'm supposed to be working with closest look at me as a bad influence that needs to be contained. I come from the land of short skirts, divorce, sex outside of marriage, alcohol and meat eating. The project I'm working on is probably destined to fail and they're hoping it's sooner rather than later so that life can go on as before.

So it's a funny time for me to put a first entry on this blog. But here goes anyway.