My blog about India that I wrote last year was so bad I never published it. Here goes round two. I have just written a couple of amusing observations and anecdotes. Nothing more nothing less.
Every fortnight I travel into Mandla, our local town to pay our bills, buy supplies, withdraw our monthly budget in cash and generally escape camp. Living at work and working 18 hour days is exhausting and my wee escapdes are a great way to get away; however, within half an hour the incessant horn blowing, cow shit and dusty streets have me craving jungle again. Country bumpkin.
It is a great snapshat into Indian town life and I do actually love it. I love bartering over mutton prices and I love the fact that I know the fish, chicken, mutton and fruit wallahs by name. I love that I’m recognised.
As I walk into the bank there are 8 desks all with huge queues. People spend days queuing. The Indian people are so polite and kind though, that immediately the foreigner is taken to the front with no protests from the long-suffering queuers. I then have to convince the clerk that I actually work in India and that yes, I really do want 2 Lakhs (£2000) in cash. Passports, signed forms, telephone calls to head office, plenty of staring and many more opinions and the money is mine. That was over a year ago. Now I swoop in, greet the security guards and skip the queues without being invited. I suppose you have to make the most of being a foreigner sometimes. No one seems to mind....
Last month I sat down at the front of the queue to the kiosk waiting for the bureaucratic cogs of India to get into motion. Beside me sat a totally disinterested whale of a man. He looks around the room like he hates it, meanwhile breathing very heavily in my face. It’s amazing, whereas in the UK I would look to the floor awkward, here I meet everyone’s eye. His heavy breathing and hostile glare, I know is a show. He burps. He stinks and he grunts. I burp back, liberated by his lack of manners. He looks at me shocked, I laugh. He doesn’t. I start shaking with giggles, all the other people around us start laughing, whether or not this is because of our burps or just the fact that I am crying I don’t know. But soon enough, my 20 minute wait for cash is over and I have made 20 new friends (and one enemy).
I have gotten to know the whole bank team quite well, the gravelly voiced clerk who ignores me, the whole team who laugh and friendlily mock me, the babe – who after a year and a half still won’t catch my eye; we have the same conversation every week. Limited language = limited chat. She asks me in limited English “How are you?” “theak hai” “How is Kanha?” “acha” “Kipling Camp?” “ha” “Hmm.”I answer in limited Hindi. Done. Repeat.
Don’t generalise. The many different types of men around me.
I met Mr Pandey a month ago, the new branch manager. He sits opposite me, ignoring me totally. There are just 2 of us in his office. Once I have grovelled and told him how honoured I am to have been given a meeting, and told him how amazing India is, and how I wish I understood more about numbers and banking. He has loosened up. “Why not more Hindi?!”, he shouts. “I am so sorry, I haven’t had enough time – only foreign guests in my hotel!”. We chat some more, and, by the end of our chat he has minions filling out our credit card application forms and he is giving me his whatsapp number (45 year old rural bank manager – India the land of tech). This is a typical encounter with a semi important man. The men here like to be important, me being a foreigner, must appear like it means nothing to them. Only once you have relinquished all knowledge and power will they be kind to you, and ironically then they will go above and beyond. Because you are a foreigner. The same is with Mr Josi the vet, or the local policeman (who will speak no English), foreigner snobbery to this demographic is a ticket to a bureaucratic wall of stubbornness. They can and will, ruin you.
The City clickers I
My least favourite people. These are the rich, young, inheritee Indians who come to the national park. They come in their imported new cars and with aviator sunglasses on their faces, even if it is long past dark. They want ‘one quick pic’ or a quick selfie with the gora (mzungu), always with our sunglasses on. They ask only what type of ‘smokes’ I smoke and what my salary is. They are, I believe, the embodiment of westernisation. The reason I don’t like them is they come to see Tigers in the national park and have little appreciation for the surrounding wildlife and culture. They litter, make noise, and bully the guides if they don’t see a tiger. Generally pretty unpleasant.
The City Clickers II
The young professionals who are educated trying to make a living and are like the rest of Indians, lovely. They haven’t been given money and haven’t been spoiled but have had the massive privilege of an education. This group make up my local pals. Kamleish, works for WPSI, Mohan – a naturalist at another resort, MJ – started a resort with his brother.
WPSI (Wildlife Protection Society of India) is the wildlife society that my Boss Belinda Wright started. It focuses on wildlife crime, minimising human wildlife conflict and a huge range of other methods to protect India’s wildlife especially the Tiger. This is Belinda’s main part of her life, whilst Kipling is her Fathers legacy it is now run as a not for profit sanctuary for wildlife and tourists. One of the WPSI projects is a van that lives at Kipling and goes out to all the hundreds of rural villages with information and to show a movie via projector screen onto the whitest mud hut. The movie is on the villager’s rights to compensation if a cow is taken by a leopard or if a crop is trampled by deer. The program also aims to gather information on poachers.
The ‘field officer’ is my best and only friend in India - Kamleish, we are about the same age and he is not a member of Kipling staff which allows us to be pals. He is a great man, just doesn’t speak that much/any English.
I have been on two trips out to the villages with Kamleish – driving through the paddies and the jungle I feel completely euphoric, a little holiday from work and the reason I went to India in the first place, beautiful scenery, rural life, buffaloes pulling carts and beautiful villagers.
The first time I went out with Kamleish we took along his friend Kamleish the 2nd (SO many shared names out here) who spoke English having worked in a call centre in the past and he acted as translator. The only problem with Kamleish the 2nd was that he either thought I was a complete idiot or felt like the fact I didn’t speak Hindi meant that I had absolutely no knowledge of anything. I felt very like the visitor to the countryside shown around by William Brown. “That’s grass.” “That’s a cow.” Really, how amazing. “That’s Motorbike” Wow! So it is.
Working town men
Firoz Khan I, the mutton wallah and Firoz Khan II, the taxi man. These guys are the core of India, they work like dogs and show the true entrepreneurial spirit that drives India. These are the men, and there are literally millions and millions of them, that are digging their families’ futures and building their children homes, one brick at a time. I love them totally. Firoz hugs me and gives me a discount, he doesn’t get bribes because he doesn’t work for government. They work for their money. As do the people who work for them – the village men.
The village man
My staff are the best people in the world. They work hard and they provide what they can for the people they support, there is such a huge difference between here and Africa, the people constantly struggle in both, but many more here struggle through work. They struggle to improve. Sure, a lot of my men are lazy and may well be waiters for the rest of time. But they are working none the less, they are not playing dominoes. The shortcuts and the tricks are deployed with love and humour. It is exhausting and saddening because I have been lied to and deceived but the men are very easy to forgive, because for a few of them it is just the way things are – they are not doing such a bad thing, but just life.
It can be disheartening; last year I took all the staff, the guest, the gappys, everyone apart from 3 of the Muslim stuff to a huge Hindu festival down on the river. It was an awesome event. Beautiful India. Essentially, every household in the surrounding villages were there with their families washing in the river and having picnics. We had a big biryani like a big family and our guest Lawrence seemed very happy. It wasn’t until we were all getting back in the jeeps to head home that I realised most of the guys had been on the sauce. Like any decent housemaster I had known something was going down but had chosen to ignore it. I ended up driving and Shukkla Ji (assistant manager) the other jeep, as the two drivers (both Muslim) were pissed along with half the other guys. Very embarrassing and my ‘non-strictness’ clearly being taken advantage of.
The following day I gathered everyone together and laid it down, desperately holding back my tears of betrayal – it would have been a disaster if I had cried! I explained that they had taken advantage of me and I would have to be more strict etc. and that I would fine the drunkest two men Chotelal and Babulal and the drivers Rehmat and Mutsu 3 days salary and all other drinkers 2 days salary. I then went off and hid in the jungle because I knew if they came and saw me to apologise I would start crying – pathetic. When I came back from my chain smoking hiding session, they were all waiting outside the office and all apologised very sincerely. I held it together. I accepted the apology and we all moved forward happily. When it came to pay day 2 weeks later, I still had those fines in place. The difference was the fact that the staff truly believed that them saying sorry meant that they would be excused the salary fine. They were pissed (off). I heard through their arguments and reports from Shukkla Ji that they were annoyed because they would never have apologised if they thought it meant they would be fined regardless. An interesting insight into Indian mind-set and example of the fact that sorry is overused in our society and in India it is really meant. In all other circumstances I would have been part of the drinking party, I hate punishing people for things that I know I would do if I was on that side of the wall. They promised me never again, sadly that hasn’t been kept to by everyone.
People like the headmaster in the local school, technically ahs a good education but doesn’t speak English. Treats me with such crippling respect that it is embarrassing. Such a sweet man and so proud of his English, could have taken a govt. job but when for a local school. He’s actually really annoying but India needs him.
And of course the 1.25bn people who don’t fit this stereotyping. And the ladies, they are for a future blog. Men work jobs, ladies work fields and homes. Although gender roles, at least both genders work. It is changing, the closer to towns/further south you get.
In December I went on a 3 day walk through the jungle with WWF India, raising awareness for the jungle corridors that need protection between national parks, otherwise the parks become islands and gene pools get smaller and smaller. A stunning route through dense bamboo forest, meeting lots of friendly people. As usual I was the only foreigner, not that it made a difference, everyone curious but not shocked. We camped beside and in schools in little villages along the way, trying to engage the locals about how important their forest was, some beautiful rivers to wash in. All round very idyllic and interesting.
The reason I bring it up is that on the final night, outside a school in possibly the most remote part of central India everyone (about 30 Indian men, 2 Indian women and 1 foreigner, yours truly) was sitting around the big campfire. Everyone was singing Hindi songs one after the other. Surreal and amazing to say the least. Suddenly “my friend from Scotland!! Sing! Sing” the main man pointed at me and everyone smiled expectantly in the darkness. Heart pounding I sang the only song I can ever actually remember all the words to, Rolf Harris Two Little Boys. Luckily no one knew it or understood it and everyone loved it, mentally I was crying with laughter on my friends’ behalf imagining a hidden camera. But liberated by the fact there could and would be no judgement from the others. 30 songs later and another lap of the fire, it was my turn again. Well into it by now I sang Long Black Veil (Jaggar/Chieftains version) my only other song. Went down a treat.
These are the moments that I went to India looking for, the unique experiences that I will never get to do again.
Indians doing it for themselves
People here do things for themselves, take Mr Chai Shop owner for example. I passed his shop one morning, and he tells me “no chai - water broken”. Shame, no chai I think. The following morning I return to the village, the entire main road outside his shop is destroyed, safari jeeps are detouring through Mr Chicken Shops yard. He doesn’t seem to mind. Mr Chai’s entire family have spades and pick axes and have dug up the road. They have now mended the water system and have left a pile of rubble, with a sprinkle of cement. No one minds. The whole country is patched up like this.
There is no hanging around, I was driving back (I was actually driving, not being driven) from Mandla once last year when the skys opened and I was alone in a lightening storm. Nervous, as driving here is dangerous enough, I was happy in the fact that I wasn’t Mutsu travelling behind me in our open top safari gypsy.
After the rain cleared, I drove on to find a huge huge tree fallen across my way home. No way round, unless of course you were brave enough to drive through Mr Rice Field’s field. He didn’t seem to mind. There were 4 stuck cars in his field. No one ever seems to mind. The 2 wheelers went along the train track.
Panicking about waiting guests I wander up to the front of the huge queue of cars. 5 minutes passed, and the crowd gets bigger (no one looking at me, no one ever cares about me! It’s amazing!). Shit. I’m never getting home tonight. Then a swing of an axe, A topless man in a loin cloth is hacking at this gigantic tree. Good luck mate. I blink, and there are two more men. I blink again and this time there are 6 axes falling in tandem at different parts of the tree, within 10 minutes there is a beautifully coordinated symphony of over 20 swinging axes all hacking away the upper branches. Three members of the crowd have become project managers. Where these men came from I still don’t know, all I knew at the time though was how foolish it was of them to be going for the upper branches, at least 4 hours to go to chop through the main trunk enough times to make a gap wide enough for us to pass round, I reckoned.
After only 20 minutes the men stopped, I thought, far from finished. They all bent down and cleared the upper baranches. Idiots I thought, the huge trunk still across the road. “Hallay, chup, jaldi auray!!” One of the new managers barked. The crowd of drivers and passangers from the queue on the other side of the tree (oncoming traffic) all surged forward and together they rolled the HUGE trunk off the road. A mad scramble and a monumental traffic jam. We were through. Thirty minutes work. Astounding.
People don’t beg from me here. Beggars beg from everyone, not just foreigners; the hardest part about Africa for me was that I turned normal people into beggars. Here the scammers scam everyone, the beggars beg from everyone, the nasty folk are nasty to everyone. They don’t change who they are for me. It is why I love it here so much.
People are just so familiar with each other. There is no small talk, conversation just - begins. On the train or plane, anyone with a smattering of English will just start chatting to you (this is irritating), they’ll borrow your flip flops whilst you’re asleep (this is very annoying), they’ll kick your feet out of their way like your brother would (this is also very annoying). Unfamiliarity doesn’t exist. Often this can be very annoying, really? Whilst queuing to buy a safari ticket I had taken my book, my neighbours in the ‘queue’/melee would stare at me until I started reading when immediately they would ask me a question, I would try and patiently answer it then wait 2 or 3 minutes to see if they had any more questions. At the silence I take it I am allowed to start reading again, as soon as the book is opened the next question comes. Repeat x 8. No concept of privacy.
I have a dog! Unfortunately he has been sick and is now a little spoilt, the training starts now… At his expense, trips to the vet have been fascinating and he helps me find leopard tracks each morning. He is a great man. There are moments when I walk him that are so surreal I can barely think. It makes me wonder how I ended up in central India living with an Elephant. I walk him at night and hear a leopard rasp and listen to Tara fart and snore (Our elephant not my lover), I may be stressed and tired at work, but at least I live in paradise.
Some of the greatest pleasure though that Akela has brought me is coaxing out a few more hilarious Indian accented words. Viren our night watchman walks him in the middle of the night, and when he brings him back in to my little sitting room he sleeps in Viren asks him to shit. S often comes out as sh here. God I laugh. Along with all the staff telling Akela to shit everywhere, swallows are called Shvallows, and on the way back from Mandla I must always watch out for ‘tugs’ There are so many other phrases that I love and strange idiosyncrasies of Indian English; V’s are b’s - Viren is called Biren. Getting pissed is being ‘fully’ drunk, ‘chances are there’ has replaced ‘chances are’, J replaces Z, Firoz=Firoj, Zone = Jone, we keep our rooms ‘neat and clean’ and eat ‘rumble tumble’ not scrabbled eggs. Everything is found on side, Ivan is kitchen side or room side, maybe car side, and even India side.