Sunday, 27 June 2010

Teaching, cheese and massage

For every evil in India, whether it be in education, corruption or the greed for power and money, there is a good. Maybe it's not a full counter-balance but it's there.

On Friday, my flatmate Stephen invited me to run an afternoon workshop on developing partnerships for a course he's running for marketing in NGOs. The students are postgrads, all of whom want to work in NGOs. The nine students, seven women and two men are bright, articulate, keen to learn and above all committed to working for the good of their communities.

I started by getting them to discuss the nature of partnerships, why NGOs needed them, who with and the actions needed to ensure they could run smoothly and meet agreed aims. I then split them into three groups of three, each group being responsible for developing an outline plan for attracting and developing relevant partnerships for an NGO working with the environment, another with children and the third with animals.

Their presentations were thoughtful and clear but what intrigued me was that each of them concentrated on partnerships they would NOT have; government because it was corrupt, corporates because the were corrupt and wealthy individuals because they were mostly corrupt. One of the students in the discussion that followed, said that his charity would have to pay bribes because their money would not otherwise come through or at best be very slow if they were funded by government. I challenged him on this. Wasn't he part of the corrupt system himself? Wasn't his NGO part of the problem? He looked startled and shrugged. 'It's what happens.'

It made me angry and I laid into him. As a future leader of NGOs, he should be working to ensure that every NGO has written into its constitution that they would NOT pay bribes. If he and others stood together and kicked and screamed and shouted publicly, getting local and national publicity, reporting the bribe takers, surely he and they could help to rid India of this cancer. Someone, somewhere has to stand against it and a lot of people are. Many of the newspapers and magazines carry highly critical articles on politicians and business people. Surely it is this generation that needs to develop that fight. We had a meeting of minds. They knew they needed to take action. Let's hope that they do.

Earlier in the week, I met Sham Sundar who was working at the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore, heading up the Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies. His passion for his subject was palpable and he introduced me to Chida Shivanna a Mysorian who had set up a successful IT software business in Mysore and Seattle. Chida was passionate about cheese and India has practically no cheese other than paneer.
Using much of Sham's technologies, especially in building, he has set up an organic dairy farm a few miles outside Mysore on which he is creating a cheese making plant where visitors will be able to watch the processes and learn about different cheeses.

He is trying to persuade his neighbouring farmers to become organic but they are frightened that their yields will drop even though their soil is now dead and they are having to pay more and more for even more chemicals. The grass yields Chida is getting through organic methods may yet persuade them. In time.

Yesterday I had lunch with two friends, Payal and Sanjay. Payal runs Go Wild, a small NGO working with children in schools to help them to learn about the wildlife around them and the importance of biodiversity and the environment. Sanjay is an environmentalist, the Deputy Director of Zoo Outreach Organisation ( and Founder Editor of The Journal of Threatened Taxa ( They had just returned from Nagaland, a state in north-east India where they had been working with villagers to help them understand why they should stop the killing of all their wildlife for meat. They have beautiful forests but there are no birds in them. They have all been killed.

After our lunch, I decided to treat myself to a massage. Ayurvedic massage is a Mysore speciality. I had been recommended a place to go to. The building was somewhat run-down but that's ok....small cubicles for consultations, plastic chairs, rather dirty looking sliding doors. I paid my 500 rupees for an all-over body massage and steam bath and followed the masseur up three flights of stairs to a small room with a well-oiled massage table and a box into which I was supposed to squeeze myself for the steam bath. I got undressed, no modesty towels here. For those of you, dear readers, with a squeamish mind, look away now.

Ayurvedic massage is done with special oils....lots and lots and lots of oil. I was pummelled and pushed and rubbed back and front for 45 minutes, feeling like a slippery eel. Every time he pummelled me, I slid up and down the table. Let's just say that it was somewhat stimulating and move on to the steam bath.

The steamer is a box which you sit in with your head sticking out of the top. The steam for this box is provided by a plastic pipe connected to a pressure cooker on a one-ring gas burner. No sophisticated technology here. It was scary but efficient and I was duly steamed alive. For fifteen minutes. Never was a cold shower so welcome.

I have booked my flight to Uganda for July 8th.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Education, corruption and money

One of the great joys of experiencing a new culture, a new place, is that practically every conversation I have is with a new, different person who brings their own perspective to the views and opinions I have formed myself and gleaned from others.

Three things seem to dominate conversations. That may be of course because I ask about them, but many thoughts and opinions are volunteered.

The first is education in India. Practically everyone I talk to is in despair at the standard of state run schools, especially in the North and East. I heard horror stories when I was in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. The standard of teachers is low and all of them are terrified that the children will not pass their exams. If this doesn't happen they are sacked and sent to another school in the back of beyond. So they show the answers to the children before they sit the exams and even then if they don't reach the pass mark of 30%(!), they give the children a certificate to say they have passed. The children therefore leave school with certificates but little or no real knowledge and think that the way to succeed in life is to cheat. They apply for jobs and are amazed that employers don't take them on when it's discovered they can't read, write or do basic maths.

The second is corruption. Everyone says that corruption is endemic here from the little favours that are asked for to do a small job or provide a certificate to the very top of Government. Even if all this isn't true, there's a belief that it is and therefore it might as well be true. It's a cancer that is preventing a properly functioning society and despite India being the largest democracy in the world, whichever political party comes to power, it makes little difference to the levels of corruption. It's like the education. Cheating and buying favours is what people have been taught to do.

The third is money. The last two generations since Gandhi's death have set money as the goal, the be all and end all, the one thing to strive for in life. As in practically every country, this is fuelled by television which shows the latest gadgetry and instant comfort available if only this or that product is bought. It's short term gain of money that matters. And if you can get it without working and by cheating then that's the way to do it.

There are of course those who fight against this and there are many of them. But there is a sense of despair that it is too late, that the cancer has caught hold and all that can be done is to await the inevitable end.

What comes after the fire has burnt out is the critical thing. Thankfully there are many people here and around the world innovatively developing different ways of living with values that are based on long-term, sustainable, holistic growth, where the short-term fix is anathema. It's difficult to know whether to hope that the fire starts soon and we can go through the crisis and move on or we live with what we have as well and for as long as we can, getting whatever comfort is available.

I want to correct one thing from a previous post. The Indian government has now repealed the old British law making homosexuality illegal. However, individual States can still have their own banning regulations.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Racing from Mysore

Mysore has a racecourse on its outskirts which couples up with the golf club but today it was all horses and jockeys and thousands of people intent, not on watching the horses on the track but on the television screens that filled the central area and where the bookies make their money.

There is no alcohol on sale, just snacks and chai but it is the betting that dominates and seems to be all the race-goers are interested in. Opposite the finishing post there are two stands, one for members and one for trainers and owners.

I've paid to be a member for the day.

It is only here that the races are actually watched but even so there is little cheering or people jumping up and down in excitement. It's a muted affair. The going is good and the oval racecourse too. There are eight races on the card, each race with eight or nine horses and riders. The first race starts promptly at 2pm with music announcing the start of the race more suitable to the Raj.

Horses and riders are urged and pushed and pulled into the stalls and they're off!! The race commentator keeps us all up to date and the television screens show the horses coming closer and closer. The favourite is fourth but with a burst of speed takes the lead and wins the race by a nose. Right in front of my nose. From my horse.

I get my revenge. A beautiful, sleek filly with a long mane of hair and fire and life in her eyes called Feel My Heart is in the next race. I watch her as she parades around the ring and she fixes me with her eyes. That's where my money is going. Everything I've brought. I know we'll win together. She canters past the stand I'm watching from on the way to the start and I'm sure she winks. We're ok. We'll do it.

The race starts far away. The commentator makes no mention of her. What has happened? Did she fail to start? She's there. Tucked in on the rails lying fifth. She's moving easily, confidently. Three furlongs to go. Still no move. I yell. FEEL MY HEART!! She responds and surges towards me waiting for her at the winning post. She's ahead, free of the pack, in my arms....oops ok...that last bit wasn't true. But the rest was and the bookie gives me a knowing grin as I take his money.

I'd take her out to dinner tonight with the winnings if only I could.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Jazz on a Monsoon Eve

Last night I went with my flatmate Stephen to see a live jazz band, the Maarten Visser Trio. Saxophone, drums and an electric stringed something that transformed itself from a violin to double bass and all points in between.

The venue was a second floor night club, reminiscent of the 70's with rock icons in big montages round the walls. The event had been sponsored by Alliance Francais and it had a strangely Parisian feel, like a smokey, dark, intimate club on the Left Bank. The clientel here however were mainly Mysore's young media set, all western clothes and strappy bare shoulders, definitely not what you see on the streets. A group of gay men were letting whatever hair they had down. Sadly homosexuality is still officially illegal in India.

The music was modern, sultry, moving from long, lingering longing to fast intricate, surprises carefully and freely improvised by the saxophonist who switched easily from tenor to soprano sax, the audience very appreciative and involved.

The band played for about two hours and left. On came the video rock bands on big screens, loud and head banging, Guns 'n' Roses, Jethro Tull and the one and only amazing AC/DC with Highway to Hell.

Outside, the moonsoon was building as the auto rickshaw staggered us home through Mysore's deserted late night streets.

In a few days it will be here full on.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


I've already written about the vagaries of travel in India so I won't add more to what is already a full picture. I will merely say that the twin-prop plane was cancelled, I bribed my way onto a train to Delhi which took 10 hours, my flight the next day to Bangalore was delayed by three hours and I finally got back to Mysore at 11.30 pm after setting over the previous day at 9am. Enough already.

I will stay here in Mysore for another month and I hope get to know the city better. I'll also begin to plan the Africa leg of this journey which will start in July.

There are moments when doubt creeps in. Doubt as to quite what I'm doing here; self-doubt too. But this is a journey designed to have no specific outcome, a journey for me, a journey to discover what is happening in the world outside the tiny island I was born in. It's not a journey of self-discovery as such. I think I have a pretty good idea of what I'm about, what I can do and what I can't do. What I do hope is that I will have a stronger sense of what is REALLY important to me, a greater sense of what it is that I can still contribute and where my roots should start to grow deeper. I want that to happen and from a place of strength and belonging and loving, focus on what it is I can do effectively and realistically.

Maybe I need to go and buy some rooting powder from the market. But where to plant?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

I'm leaving on a twin-prop little plane

..don't know when I'll be back again.

I'm really sorry to be leaving here in the morning and flying to Delhi and the heat. Then on to Bangalore and Mysore the next day. I've heard the monsoon has arrived in Mysore so I'll be moving from a delicious warm climate in the mountains to the heat and humidity of the plains.

I've met some lovely people here and am started to be recognised. I'm greeted in the street and three people yesterday asked if I was Simon. Word spreads when a stranger's in town.

I finished my last day with a wonderful tiring slow walk up into the hills and along forest tracks with Alok and Isabelle and their 8 year old son Mridula. They know the tracks so well and we found percupine quills, leopard droppings and other signs of invisible life. Our picnic was in a glade with just the wind and he pines that swayed to its bidding.

I'm beginning to feel that I don't want to keep on leaving...done too much of it in my life.

My three hour taxi ride to a little airport with the little plane starts at 9 in the morning...but that's for tomorrow. Now it's a last walk round the Ghandi Chowk and back to the cottage.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Sacred Hearts and Jam-making

My friend David who I met at the Chamba wedding, teaches music at Sacred Heart school in Dalhousie. The school was started in the early 1900s by Belgian nuns, no doubt in an attempt to convert the heathen Hindu. That attempt seems to have met with singular failure because now the school has a few boys and 600 girls from eight to eighteen and only a handful are Christian, It's a boarding school, and a calm discipline hangs in the air.

David showed me around. He's only been there a month but his passion for music has obviously been picked up by staff and pupils alike and he's fondly greeted. We go into some of the classes. They're all quite big with 50 or so pupils. They stand up immediately and chant 'Good Morning Sir'. I'm sure that's aimed at David but I'll take it too. In one class the teacher asks me to say a few words. What to say? I ask them if they have any questions about England. 'Is Queen Elizabeth still alive Sir?' Very much so I say. Old but hanging on. 'Have you ever met Queen Elizabeth Sir?' As it happens I have and I say yes. It doesn't seem to impress much. 'Sir, do all people who speak English look like you?' What a thought. An English speaking world of cloned Simons. 'Absolutely not.' The teacher thankfully brings the interrogation to a halt and we move to another class where Macbeth is being studied. I tell them I've been to Dunsinane but they're not impressed. The teacher asks them to recite some of the play and witches stir their pots. I reply with 'Out, out damn spot' but the teacher says they haven't got that far.

The older girls sleep in a dormitory with their own curtained-off three-sided rooms facing on to a central corridor. The young ones sleep in two huge rooms with cots head to toe in rows, each with an enormous teddy bear on the pillow. It feels a comforting place.

I've been told about a couple called Alok and Isabelle who set up the Himalayan Village Education Trust. He's Indian, she's French and they have set up two small projects providing training in dress

and jam-making for girls and women in a village 5 kilometres outside Dalhousie. Alok picks me up with his young son and the three of us perch on his scooter and scoot off to the project. The fruits used for jam are picked in the wild by village women, rhododendrons, sedar, raspberry and orange. Apricots and plums are bought at wholesale rates from local farmers.

It's now financially self-sufficient and the women are running most of the micro jamming. They sell this niche product to a few shops in Dalhousie and Daramsala and it has provided a good income and some independence for the women.

Alok tells me that there is a continual run of trucks from Dalhousie coming into the hills to collect water from the local streams for the hotels. Each truck holds 5000 litres and he's calculated that getting on for 1,000,000 litres a day are taken to the town to meet the tourist demand for water. This results in the local villages having their supply reduced or stopped. He's a passionate ecologist and environmentalist and a thorn in the side of the Dalhousie power-brokers. But money talks strongly here and the whiff of corruption is never far away. His protests lead to threats of being closed down but he has strong local village support and the more he and Isabelle empower the local women, the stronger the village communities become.

I admire people like Isabelle and Alok. They put their passions into practice and live them. I wish I too could have that strength and ability to focus small and tight on an issue and empower others too. But my leanings are to the bigger picture, being able to bring people like Alok and Isabelle together with others who are fighting similar causes, to share successes and failures, to learn and inspire each other. They have the knowledge and skills, not me. Maybe I can find a way to enable that sharing.

I walked back to Dalhousie. A beautiful stroll along the side of the mountain with views down into the valley and across to mountain ranges miles away.

For those of you who thought I might bury myself way in a Buddhist monastery deep in the Himalayas, dwelling on the impermanence of life, fear not. I love this world with all its joy and love and pain and suffering and feel very much part of it. But I will never stop learning and exploring the many ways to be in this world.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Wedding

I'm back from a wedding in Chamba, a town about 50 kms from Dalhousie. The bride was the niece of Premila, the housekeeper of Dakshinamurti cottage where I'm staying.

To get there and back, I take a local bus. Local buses are basic. Very basic. There are seats for about 45 people and standing capacity for as many as can get on. Not only are there seats in the places you'd expect, there are bench seats beside the driver which seem to be filled by his friends. The journey to Chamba climbs high along mountain roads and then descends, dropping quickly into the town. Driving needs total concentration. The roads are narrow, very windy with precipitous drops. The bus is big for the road, and so are the lorries coming the other way. The bus fills. There must be 70 or 80 people packed on board. The bus is remarkably fast and gets faster as it descends. The driver is in animated conversation with his friends and as each bend approaches, his hand sits hard on the horn warning the approaching traffic that he's coming. The trucks coming the other way do the same and there's a crescendo of sound as both somehow slip by each other. The driver's conversation continues. The journey takes three long hours. Those who do this daily are totally unaffected. I'm shaking.

I was told that the bride would arrive about 6.30 but could be later. Guests are arriving and having a self service lunch of rice and dahl. The wedding is taking place in what looks like the shell of a half built hotel. I assume it will be a hotel sometime because it's called Nayar Palace. A palace it isn't. But inside, the brick and concrete walls are being covered with blue and silver wall hangings, a dais is in place with two red and silver thrones side by side and on the open roof, folding tables and chairs are being laid out. There seems an awful lot to do in just a few hours. People are sitting around, the women dressed in beautiful coloured kurtas and shalwa kameez and an occasional sari, the men in jeans, slacks and shirts. 6.30 approaches. No one seems unduly interested but all the wall hangings are up, chairs set out and the place looks good and ready....maybe it is a palace after all.

7.30.....8.30....I ask if there's a problem. Maybe the bride has decided it's not for her after all. And the groom's nowhere to be seen either. Perhaps they've eloped and the romantic me sort of hopes they have.

9.30....10.30....this is serious. But I'm the only person who seems to care. This is India after all. There's a bit of movement. The young girls are getting excited and start to drift downstairs to the entrance.

11....a faint sound of brass instruments and drums. I go down and the girls have lined up across the entrance in a line. No one shall pass, especially the groom. I get out onto the road and coming up the hill is the groom sitting uncomforably on a white pony, surrounded by his cortege of friends and musicians. He's dressed from head to toe in a red and silver outfit with a headdress with flashing lights that defies description. Sewn into his clothes are 50 rupee notes, lots of them. Women and girls start to dance in the road and the music gets louder. Garlands and gifts are exchanged between families. No one seems to be smiling let alone the grim groom who gets off the horse and what looks like a wooden saddle. Maybe that's why he's so sullen. He and his male friends approach the line of girls and negotiations begin. He has to pay to come in, has to persuade the girls that he is wealthy enough for this bride. Just as well he has all those notes up his sleeve. The deal is done. The line breaks. The girls laugh and giggle. All very symbolic. But where is the bride? She's been smuggled in. I missed her. She's in a room having final words of advice about men from her family. Everyone slowly moves up the stairs. The mothers-in-law are waiting, facing each other. No handbags. Gifts to exchange. They smile. The families are happy. The groom is still grim. Is this a love marriage? Oh yes. The groom and his friends move to the dais and occupy the two thrones.

Under a canopy, the bride and her female helpers lowly approach the dais. She looks magnificent in a costume matching her husband to be. Her face is partly hidden, eyes down, not looking at dais or him. This time it's the groom's friends who block the way. More negotiations and at last bride and groom are side by side. No glances at each other, no smiles. They stand and face each other. The bride, eyes still down, puts a garland around her husband's neck. He places one round hers. That's it. Done. The take their thrones again and two by two, family and friends take their turn to stand being the couple, blessing them with rupee notes of differing denominations. The pile of notes in their laps is growing.

It's 12.30 in the morning. Husband and wife go to a small room, hopefully at least to smile at each other and count their blessings. The buffet is served. Water or Fanta to accompany it.

It's three in the morning, the end of May. I find a mat in the corner of the room and sleep. I'm not alone. I wake at six. The ceremony is continuing around me, the Hindu priest incanting blessings round a flame. There's been no sleep for the couple and family. This is a ceremony that befits the vows. A lifetime's commitment. Unable to be broken. Problems to be shared and worked through. No running away.

David, a 22 year-old musician has befriended me and over breakfast we discuss the merits of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Denver, AC/DC, the blues, country music and jazz. He teaches at a school in Dalhousie. Sacred Heart. He will show me around when we get back.

But first we have to face the return bus journey. We follow the Ravi river, one of the five rivers that flow from the mountains, meeting in the Punjab to create the Ganges. The bus climbs out of Chamba and way down in the valley, the terraced farms look rich and fecund. Huge light green lakes fill the valley. A land of milk and honey.

The bus is not alone. There are two others following, not far behind, The driver needs to get ahead to be sure of picking up as many passengers as possible. So do the buses behind. It becomes a race. A race along the precipice, round-hairpin bends, halting only to pick up or put down. I look at David. Even I haven't been so fast he says. But no-one seems to care. It's fate.

I hope the newly-weds are enjoying their fate at last.

ps...for those of you with Facebook, I'm posting a lot more photos there.