Social distancing

Social and physical distancing, our new normal, in this time of virus has different cultural implications here in India. For more, check this article

Manjula has helped illuminate, for me, something of the prejudice arising in society related to religion, caste, class, race, gender and colour. Aspects of this will feature in our story.

The virus and society’s response highlights those inequalities. This isn’t solely about two distinct groupings of the untouchables and the non- untouchables (savarnas) It’s far more complex and relates to a finely layered strata that’s not confined to Hindus and India.

The right wing shift experienced in most of our societies, does by its very nature exaggerate these differences for political advantage. The social, economic, political distancing is therefore a tool which we’re now reinforcing.

So here’s the next giant leap. This prejudice, elitism, separation of the haves and have-nots, call it what you will, is nothing new, fact is it’s obvious and everywhere and been here for aeons. It’s fundamental to all our societies but it doesn’t have to be.

The factor that connects all these seemingly dispirate disconnects is the way we organise ourselves, our hierarchy, dog eat dog mentality. It might have served us in the past (that’s debatable) but it (yes including brutal free market ways of organising focussing on growth regardless of consequences) is NOT fit for purpose.

It doesn’t serve our needs.

By ‘our’ I mean everyone and not just the self appointed master class or the people in the ‘developed’ countries and not just humans. Another interesting article in two parts here and here covers this.

It’s no accident that the poor in the UK have been demonised in recent decades to support and reinforce a range of political policies including ‘austerity.’

We’re in a sorry state, in so many ways which are clearly interrelated and need to realise it and act. We have opportunities now.

.

Says he, sitting on a balcony in south India who can’t even activate himself to do yoga.

Our separateness politically, economically, socially, spiritually is not sustainable. Rant over…..

And I’ve just found a New Yorker article helps illustrate aspects of what I’ve tried to cover.

Another article here helps illustrate how extreme this was traditionally in India and how a new ‘other’ forms

Storytime four and three quarters

There’s two stories today, well one is a sad story ‘The Memory Tree’ so check it out before you show it to a little one. It’s a lovely story in its own right and really useful in a context of a wider conversation about death. Here is a link to how I explained to my granddaughter Poppy what happens when someone dies. This was after Manjula slipped through my fingers.

The next is a rhyme by Roald Dahl, a different take on Cinderella.

I’ve had a technical question from my granddaughter about my filming set up. I expect that behind this question is an ulterior motive. That I need to up my game and improve the quality of the video. So I’m trying a different Heath Robinson set-up. It’s a bit out of focus, for that I blame my age.

Here’s the photographic evidence of my studio.

I know with all this effort, you’d expect the quality to be better. Well I blame my parents.

New beginnings are disguised as painful ends

It’s late at night and the page is blank so I turn to Laozi and Pooh bear.

Actually that’s not true. I turn to you…… to help me get the ball rolling, to create and share my and Manjula’s story. It’s the age old writer’s conundrum. As you see I have a pile of full notebooks but how to get the blank page filled to begin to start the actual story. Can you help?

If you know Manjula and I or even if you don’t 🙃 what’s the key ingredients of our story that might interest you or a wider audience. What are the main themes that will interest people?

Games people play.

Annoying things in India

I often explain on a cycle tour how much I love India, at something like eighty percent. I have after all chosen to adopt India as my home and married a beautiful Indian woman. However there is fifteen percent I can take or leave and maybe five percent that’s ugly that, I hate. That last bit includes the violence and aggression but also milder forms of behaviour. Examples of this might be Babu’s giving you the run-a-round or businesses not understanding customer care.

In my view this results from the extreme hierarchy and the deference expected of people. It’s reinforced in the home, at school or college and at work. Do what you’re told and don’t question things. Know your place and don’t challenge the way things are, seems to relate to caste.

Even in the simplest of situations it feels like your treated like a child.

Today was a case in point. It might seem a simple thing, and insignificant but I think its part of that overall problem. I’ve investigated this and now realise all the mobile phone companies are the same.

I’m at the Airtel shop, I’ve gone as my phone is not working, I’m told that the SIM card was faulty and needed replacing. For them to issue me with a replacement I need ID. I have a copy of my passport on the iPhone and after some kerfuffle get a print out. Sorry sir we need to see the original hard copy.

I’ve been a customer for maybe over 7 years. It was the number used by Manjula so is very significant and sentimental. I’ve provided my ID to set up my account, it’s on their system THEY KNOW WHO I AM but still they require an established customer to prove who they are but it MUST be the actual document. Just to get a replacement SIM card for the faulty one. This will be my fourth trip to the Airtel shop. Inconvenience sir, no problem.

I object to the employees but they treat us as children because that’s how they’re treated by their managers. Who can blame them? Employees are expected do as they’re told and not question things. Treat people like children, they’ll behave like children and not take responsibility.

For years I’ve delivered workshops in London and a roadshow for TATA that’s about empowering employees to make decisions to be able to innovate, be creative and focus on creating a quality customer experience.

That’s not valued here and is nigh on impossible to create in a system that prioritises deference, doing as you’re told and not in any way thinking for yourself.

Sad.

My tolerance levels are diminished since Manjula died. She’d just laugh at me.

 

UPDATE

I went back to the Airtel shop with my ID card, fully annoyed but relatively calm. The new SIM was issued and installed by me later that day. Just don’t ask about the need to install it in a simple-smart phone before finally installing it in a smart-smart phone. BUT it still didn’t work so on my 5th trip back to the Airtel shop they’ve admitted that the SIM card and the rigmarole in visits 3 and 4 we’re unnecessary. I’m told it will be working by tonight. What lessons I can take from all this, I’ve no idea and I’ve lost the will to live.

The eleventh day

Fresh from the Pooja

We travelled to the 11th day pooja. Held by Manjula’s brother in the village maybe four hours drive away

I’ve already relayed some of the sensitivities when we met to plan this Pooja. Here. They’ve shifted the day so our closest Indian friends Tanuja, Satish and Vasanth aren’t able to come, bugger. To support me I do however have Tom and Amy, and two other friends Steven (thanks for the photos) from Australia and Imran, who was going to prove to be a godsend, as he’s the only one to really understand and be able to interpret!

The Pooja or ritualistic prayer is mostly a request. The 11th day Pooja is part of the process of helping Manjula’s spirit be released from her body and the here and now. This helps her break away and start her new life in a new form or maybe hang around a bit!

As we arrive the cooking of curries (plenty of meat) and rolling of the Ragi balls is being completed.

We’re ready to rebuff any attempt to try hang on to her jewellery. Within minutes they’re asking for it to be left here until the morning. As agreed I’ll be taking it with me immediately after the Pooja.

Raju, Manjula’s brother is having his head shaved. I’d floated the idea of me being shaved but this was dismissed out of hand by my Hindu advisors Tanu, Satish and Vasanth.

Together with anyone else wishing to express an opinion, there was a clear consensus. It would be toooo complicated. A sort of Indian open house has spoken. (Everyone has an opinion about everything, of course)

Manjula’s photo was the centrepiece she was garlanded and then surrounded by offerings. Of things she liked, maybe.

I placed my garland, her Mangal

Sutra and ankle chains on her photo.

We took it in turns to do twirls with the incense and fire.

It’s obviously an important ritual for a Hindu. It’s also an essential part of bringing communities together.

As one of our party said. There were two people there with tearful red eyes. Manjulas cousin also called Manjula who you can see in a couple of photos here and her brother, Raju. Otherwise it seemed like Manjula was just a quiet voice almost incidental to the whole thing.

On reflection

We now have a clear view of what would have been Manjula’s life if we hadn’t met and fell in love.

She was brought up in the Bamboo bazar slum in Mysore so not a village but most definitely this level of poverty

But it’s not the living conditions or the poverty that seems the greatest challenge but the harshness of some of the people. the sister-in-laws branch of the family are astonishingly direct and focussed on money, Manjula doesn’t really seem to figure

It was time to go

Relatives were asking for Imran’s cell no in case they needed help ie money and so they could make a call if anyone was in hospital or otherwise needed help.

We’ve done our bit and it’s time to go and now realise how hard it was for Manjula and how she’d escaped this life and blossomed in her new one from nine years ago.

Swop?

I can understand how some people might wish to swop places with their loved one who has died or been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I could do that, no doubt.

But it misses one of the many points.

There would still be the grief, the loneliness, confusion of being only one part of the whole.

And how would it work? I would take on Manjula’s illness she would have all our money, material goods (she’d definitely demand the washing machine) the house, Lucy. No sweat. But it’s no solution. We’d still be apart. Maybe we could go for a hybrid two halves as one.

No I’m not going bonkers this is how my mind ordinarily ‘works’.

If it was just a case of a straight swop. I’d worry that even though Manjula can be strong as a rock, gentle as the waves, she actually comes from a very poor background and in this extremely layered patriarchal society it will always be a challenge for a woman on her own.

Until of course it really changes.

Getting out

I need to get out more.

Sunday was the second Mysore literary festival. Great to get out, meet old and make new friends.

Discussions about wildlife and how we can promote conservation, Roy’s films, presentations on Mysore Palaces and our wood inlay traditions, all great stuff.

Maybe the best of all for me was hearing from a young woman from a very poor background who at age four had been given a new opportunity in life. A philanthropic organisation sponsored her residential education through to her 20s. Not straightforward. An amazing life opportunity but controversially perhaps takes her completely away from her family. I’ve ordered her autobiography. More later.

A great new slogan 🙃

A different segment and layer of society in Mysore. Mostly women, middle class and of an uncertain age.

Great people watching and meeting. I only knew a handful of the maybe 150-200 people..

I do realise from this, that with the challenges at home and the build up to busy-time I do need to get out for a bit of newness now and again.

Coconut palms

The two lovely palms in our drive whose tops form a backdrop for our rooftop garden have been removed by the owner of our house. I’ve managed to hold off the inevitable for a year or two. I’ve used every argument you might imagine, to no avail.

THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED FOR THEM TO GO.

So is this…. Idiocy? Stupidity? No it’s probably not those things.

You might see this as a gross over-reaction on my part and maybe it is. It does in my view reflect something that diminishes all our societies. There are at least two key issues. The first is about the ‘trees’ themselves.

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Looking around our area, where beautiful trees are regularly chopped (I’m the one that will go out and challenge, when I see it happening, credibility gone there then) where people dump rubbish (another key question for our guests will be covered on the blog) on the road verges, its a mess, one eyesore after another. You’d think it’s lack of awareness of environmental issues or appreciating what is beautiful. It is those things and it’s depressing.

Its also impractical. Trees are useful they provide amenity. They help freshen our air, create oxygen and now we’ve realised, a week after the carnage we’ve experienced here it provides well needed shade to reduce the temperature and make life bearable in the heat of the summer.

Yes the giving has gone.

it had to happen

 

so in planning for this project aka getting married, I didn’t use a broker, check her horoscopes, or caste, ask her mum (Dad’s dead), expect her to pay for the happening, confirm her status and job, check the flatness of her foot, ponder on her mum’s occupation, I did find out a lot about her, was impressed with her surviving a difficult childhood, her fortitude and stamina throughout life, her flexibility and adaptability in managing and thriving through uncertain and unexpected situations, her compassion and care after such an astonishing series of difficulties throughout her life, things that I couldn’t have even begun to guess about… I did fall in love with her as a person, her humour, her compassion, her beauty both inside an out, her thought for others. her active seeking to help others out, her tolerance of the stupidity of some around her, i hesitated for years as I was concerned that she was in a vulnerable position as employee, an ethical challenge of the first order, but eventually we did come together and i wonder now what did she check out about me…

 

its been a bit weird as we’re open about our situation with all our guests at Mysore bed and breakfast, many of whom have now become good friends, our establised friends here and abroad knew of our relationship but we have chosen to be discreet here in our own immediate locality and have kept our relationship a secret from her family. Not because of the cross cultural India/British aspects, they’re more easily overcome but because the neighbours, well they might frown upon it because our different societal positions (she’s from a poor background) and because if her family knew we’d never hear the end of it not least, with the constant requests for handouts.

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so this was back home immediately after the ‘registry’ office. A few days later a wonderful team came together to create a most memorable event most unlike anything that the majority of indians would accept as a wedding, but for us it was perfect.

Maid in India 1

Quotes taken from ‘Maid in India’ by Tripti Lahiri :

 

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an image from a postcard that we publish

 

“We eat first, they later, often out of food portioned out for them; we live in the front, they in the back; we sit on chairs and they on the floor; we drink from glasses and ceramic plates and they from ones made of steel set aside for them; we call them by their names, and they address us by titles: sir/ma’am, sahib/memsahib”

 

Think that’s in the past?

Well, think again.

“In today’s India its not unusual to see, often in largely empty restaurants, a couple seated with their child at a table for four, while the help is despatched to sit not one but two tables away….. or a nanny dandling a child on her lap at a nightclub while her employers and their friends drink cocktails as it creeps towards midnight, her hours of sleep dwindling since she is no doubt expected to be up and ready for another day at sunrise…. or for example children playing in a neighbourhood park, seeing a plump, light-skinned boy on a swing crook his finger at the petite darker woman standing nearby and utter a single word: Push”

Womens’ life experience is an incredible indicator of how a particular society works, from top to bottom.

In India the situation of women and particualrly those who are most socially and economically excluded, in this case, the ones that serve others, shines a spotlight on the social mores, the rules by which we operate, the structures and belief systems that helps maintain the status quo.

It also shows something else.

That is, how these women in often extraordinarily challenging circumstances not only manage but can thrive, can flourish and through that, show their astonishing abilities. In a sense, the influence they subtly exert and how they deal with the changes facing them can also demonstrate to us, on a macro level, how to deal with some of the challenges and opportunities facing contemporary India.

Let’s take a look.