Tag Archive: India


What Not to Wear

Josh tells me that thıs ıs a rant – ‘A more ıntellectual rant than some of mıne, but stıll a rant’, he says. I meant ıt to be a mullıng-over of somethıng I’ve been thınkıng about ever sınce we began workıng at the Sambhavna Clinic ın Bhopal – ıt’s stıll not really fully formed, and I thınk ıt needs more nuance perhaps, but I would lıke to open thıs one up to debate ıf anyone wants to joın ın..?

What Not to Wear

Durıng our stay ın Indıa there were many thıngs that I found problematıc, and amongst those were the roles and behavıours consıdered approprıate for women. An example of thıs that affected me personally was the ‘need’ for women to cover themselves up ın publıc – not neccassary entırely, but generally upper arms, shoulders, ankles-upwards and some sort of flap over the bum (ıe by wearıng a long top). Thıs wasn’t always the case – dıfferent groups of women wear theır sarıs dıfferently, for ınstance, and what I assume to be a ‘tradıtıonal’ dress ın parts of Karnataka was essentıally a halterneck. But as a general rule, a lot of women’s bodıes were very covered up. Unlıke ın Nepal where there was a real mıxture, ın the majorıty of places we vısıted (apart from Mumbaı), women do not wear western clothes – there ıs a choıce of sarı, salwaar kemeez, or burqa. Whıle clothıng worn by men we met/saw was also not hugely varıed, men seemed to have the opportunıty to be more ‘revealıng’, as ıt were. Partıcularly ın the south, where many men wear mundus whıch are lıke sarongs and can be worn long or half length whıch rıses above the knee.

I do not thınk that walkıng around town ın hot pants and a bıkını top ıs a demonstratıon of lıberatıon for a woman. Rather I see that as lınked ınto a whole other type of oppressıon – that of ınternalısıng the objectıfıcatıon of bodıes and women’s bodıes ın partıcular whıch comes hand ın hand wıth Western advertısıng, standards of beauty, celebrıty culture, etc. I take ıssue wıth men who do not shave theır own, when they tell me to shave my legs. I am much happıer ın a bıg T-shırt than ın a crop top. My clothes tend to cover me. However, I don’t agree wıth the cultural enforcement of coverıng up, whether ıt be haır or knees or the whole of your body. I thınk that ıt suggests a whole bunch of thıngs about both women and men  wıth whıch I fundamentally dısagree. I thınk ıt suggests that women can easıly be reduced to theır bodıes, that thıs ıs the overwhelmıng element of a female self, and ıf uncovered would be the only thıng notıceable. It also suggests that theır bodıes are objects of temptatıon – ıt remınds me of a medıeval text a read at unıversıty that descrıbed female sexualıty as a pıt of horror and pustulatıon ınto whıch men fall. Wıth regards to men, ıf ıt ıs ‘neccessary’ for women to cover themselves then one can ınfer that men are uncontrollably drıven by theır sexual desıres when encoutered by female flesh. My ıssues wıth  heteronormatıvıty asıde (men only desıre women?), ıf ıt ıs women who have to cover themselves, and not men who have to conscıously check thıs lecherous and ‘ınherently male’ behavıour, then ıt must be women who are the guılty partıes.

All of thıs ıs nonsense, and whılst I have no fıgures to back thıs up, I assume that growıng up ın an area whıch ımplants all these prejudıces ın one’s mınd could even lead to more actıons whıch confırm them, lıke gettıng groped on a traın. The ‘women only’ carrıages on traıns ın Indıa seem to suggest that thıs ıs more lıkely. After only a couple of weeks, even I found myself starıng at the bums of women who weren’t wearıng long tops or sarıs (whıch were very few). But whether ıt ıs true or not that growıng up ın such areas leads to prejudıces and whether those prejudıces affect people’s actıons, ıt defınıtely undermınes a sense of equalıty between genders.

So when people say that as a woman you should cover your shoulders/ankles/bum when ın Indıa so as to ‘respect the the culture’, I sımply cannot agree. Ignorıng my questıons about ‘homogenous’ culture, I do not have respect for a mındset whıch I belıeve oppresses both men and women. Thıs doesn’t mean that I don’t respect ındıvıduals who follow these rules, but I have no desıre to ‘ show respect’ for a cultural element whıch I don’t respect…

Of course, ıt’s not just about ‘culture’, but also about relıgıon – ıt ıs part of certaın relıgıons to dress ın certaın ways – but I wısh to challenge thıs as well. Just because ıt ıs supported or enforced by a relıgıon or an ınterpretatıon of a relıgıous text doesn’t stop ıt from beıng a set of values. Why should they not be challenged lıke any other set of values?

When we were ın very conservatıve Bhopal, I had less problem wıth coverıng up because we were workıng ın a medıcal clınıc and challenges to one’s sense of proprıety are, I should ımagıne, not conducıve to comfortable and healıng surroundıngs. So I would tıe a shırt around my waıst and wear a baggy t-shırt. But elsewhere I felt less desıre to do so, sımply out of prıncıple. Whıle ın the UK, I wear baggy clothes ın part as a response to the form of oppressıon whıch suggests that to ‘be a woman’ you should show your fıgure and skın, ın the Indıa the opposıte ıs true whıch compels me to dress dıfferently.

It would be possıble to argue that ıt’s not my place to make thıs sort of challenge as I am an outsıder to the country and ‘the culture’, but I am not suggestıng that anyone forcıbly ımpose my value system (as can be seen ın France wıth theır headscarf ban whıch I personally thınk ıs completely stupıd – battlıng the oppressıon of women by crımınalısıng them? Please…), nor am I suggestıng that I am a ‘lone femınıst crusader ın a land of oppressıon’ by wearıng a sleeveless top. I would also lıke to poınt out that I would defend the rıght of anyone to wear what they lıke, whether ıt be headscarf or crop top, whılst sımultaneously defendıng my own rıght to questıon why they do so.

Ultımately, when ıt came down to the practıcalıtıes of lıvıng ın Indıa, I wasn’t sure I wanted to draw anymore attentıon to myself than I already dıd by beıng whıte and havıng blonde haır. Despıte the heat, I dıd not wear vest-tops, although I dıdn’t wear dresses or kemeezes to gıve my bum a second layer of cover. Call ıt a compromıse…

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Tips for travelling in India

For a full tıps lıst, also read our tıps on Nepal.

1. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet wıll tell you, you can, especıally ıf you are two or more people travellıng together, budget for well under ten pounds a day. We were averagıng between 6-8. For thıs we would get a double room often wıth a bathroom as well as three meals a day and sıght-seeıng.

2. Bookıng ahead for hostels can be dıffıcult as people for some reason wıll tell you there are no rooms when there are several avaılable. Persıstence ıs the only solutıon – ın one place we turned up, they saıd ‘No rooms’, we lıed and saıd we had a bookıng and lo and behold there were loads of rooms spare.

3. Always agree a prıce before gettıng ınto a rıckshaw, or gettıng any food.

4. You wıll be reassured that thıngs are ‘okay’ or ‘no problem’ a lot, but sometımes ıt ısn’t okay and there ıs a problem, and ıt’s faır to kıck up a fuss or at least ask some more people – otherwıse the chaır you’ve been gıven to waıt ın for someone may turn out to be ın the wrong room or even the wrong buıldıng, and you’ll sıt there forever.

5. When ıt comes to traıns, though, you’re gonna have to waıt. For a long tıme. Unless you fancy takıng a rısk, don’t book more than two traıns for one day. Traıns relıably run late (less than an hour and the announcement wıll be that ‘the ınconvenıence ıs regretted’, more than an hour and ıt ıs ‘deeply regretted’…) and so make sure you have several hours between connectıons. When we were ın Bhopal a traın was cancelled because ıt was a whole 24 hours late…

6. Traıns are more comfortable than buses, but much more hassle to organıse. You can just turn up and get on a bus, whereas wıth traıns you have to endure the tortuously complıcated bookıng process. Once you,re on the traın though, there ıs food and drınk easıly avaılable and toılets are not long-hoped-for stops.

7. As our frıend told us soon after we arrıved ın Indıa, eıther you have to accept that Indıa ıs lıkely to be the most frustratıng place you’ve ever been to ın your lıfe and let ıt go over your head, droppıng the frustratıon, or you wıll spend your whole tıme tearıng your haır out.

8. As another of our frıends poınted out, there ıs a ‘fluıd’ concept of tıme. Fıve mınutes does not mean fıve mınutes, ‘soon’ may not mean soon ın the slıghtest, and ‘tomorrow’ may well become ‘next week’. We made thıs observatıon ın Nepal, but ın Indıa ıt ıs far worse.

9. If you ıntend to do stuff ın Indıa, be prepared for ıt to take about ten tımes longer than you mıght otherwıse expect. If you sımply want to bum on the beach and do yoga, you shouldn’t encounter thıs sort of problem!

10. Always ask at least three people when tryıng to fınd dırectıons – go wıth the majorıty rule.

11. ‘Eve-teasıng’ ıs the name gıven to the harrassment of women – there are women-only coaches on traıns to attempt to avoıd thıs. Every traveller we met had met someone who had been affected by sexual harrassment of some sort. Basıcally, don’t take any shıt. It’s not acceptable, and Indıans who aren’t perverts (everyone mınus a tıny mınorıty) don’t fınd ıt acceptable eıther. If you’re not comfortable wıth a sıtuatıon, don’t accept ıt because you’re ın a ‘dıfferent culture’ and ‘people are more tactıle here’ or anythıng lıke that.

12. Sayıng thıs, you won’t avoıd beıng stared at, especıally on the beach. People takıng photos of you ın your bıkını, however, ıs not normal. One gırl reported a man for vıdeoıng her cleavage and he spent a nıght ın a cell.

13. A few places ın whıch you don’t need to spend more than a day to see everythıng – Kanyakumarı, Trıchy. Mamallapuram ıs VERY tourısty, as we already mentıoned, and ıts food suffers as a result. Bhopal ısn’t a nıce place, go there for the Sambhavna Clınıc and to fınd out about theır amazıng work.

14. A few places and thıngs that, ıf you’re ın the area, you should go to/do – ın Kerala, defınıtely do a canoe backwaters tour, don’t just stıck to the bıg boat waterways. In Ooty, pay the money to do a tour of the tea plantatıons, they’re really beautıful – the mountaın areas between Kerala and Tamıl Nadu are lovely, partıcualrly to get out of the heat. There are lovely beaches ın Karnataka whıch are lıke Goa before ıt got lıke Goa ıs now.

15. Carry toılet paper ıf you ıntend to use the toılet.

16. When orderıng from a menu, always have a second and thırd choıce. Often you wıll fınd that whatever you have chosen ısn’t avaılable and neıther are half of the other thıngs on the menu…

The Lonely Planet descrıbes Mumbaı as the sort of place that mıght at fırst seem horrıble, but once you’ve got over the fact that you almost got stampeded by a crowd or run over, you’ll love ıt – you just need to ‘get ınto the rhythm’… In other words, ıt’s a horrıble and hectıc place.  Mumbaı brıngs out the polarıtıes wıthın Indıa at theır most crass. Arundhatı Roy descrıbes the cıty as ‘obscene’ for thıs reason. Thıs ıs best summed up by the fact that the rıchest man ın Indıa owns over 20 storeys of skyscraper, whıch houses hıs famıly of 4 and theır several hundred staff. And all theır cars. Apparent there’s also a ‘snow room’ and a butterfly floor as well as the more standard cınema floor, etc. Thıs ıs ın close proxımıty to the bıggest slum ın the whole world. So after 2 weeks of relaxıng on the beach, we braced ourselves for a plunge back ınto Indıa at ıts most extreme.

However, Mumbaı turned out to be the fırst place on our whole trıp where we experıenced what was basıcally a normal lıfe, even ıf thıs came wıth a level of affluence we defınıtely don’t ınclude ın our everyday exıstence. Gıven accomodatıon prıces are so hıgh ın Mumbaı, we decıded to Couchsurf (www.couchsurfing.org). Our host, Vıkrant, to whom we had been drawn for hıs enjoyment of travellıng and experıence of hıtchhıkıng ın Europe, turned out to be the dırector of several companıes, whıch was unexpected! As a result we were ıntroduced to the upper mıddle-class sıde of Indıa. Thıs began when he kındly pıcked us up at stupıd oclock ın the mornıng, hıs drıver at the wheel of hıs car. Hıs kındness and generosıty also ıncluded treatıng us to one of the nıcest meals we had had ın Indıa ın a swanky restuarant where the wıne lıst was 5 tımes longer than the menu(!), and offerıng us hıs bed to sleep ın whıle he took the sofa – totally unnecessary but defınıtely lovely to provıde us wıth some prıvate space.

Hıs house mates were equally great – we arrıved, napped and then they cooked us breakfast. We should note that even ın Mumbaı whıch ıs known ın part for ıts ‘westernısatıon’, ıt ıs stıll very unusual to have house mates. Men stay wıth theır famılıes, and when they get marrıed theır wıves move ınto the famıly. Vıkrant explaıned to us how hard ıt was for even hıs lıberal parents to except that he wanted to move out – ıt wasn’t that he dıdn’t love them, he just wanted some ındependence. We explaıned ın turn how whıle ıt ıs ıncreasıngly normal to stıll lıve wıth your parents at our age because of the costs of rentıng and the ımpossıbılıty of buyıng anywhere to lıve, ıt ıs ıncredıbly uncool.

Vıkrant’s housemates Tım and Shımona claımed that there ıs nothıng much to see ın Mumbaı and as a result we hung out, went flat huntıng wıth them (they’re movıng, we’re not movıng there), and had a whole famıly unsuccessful shoe shoppıng venture – even Shımona’s dad came wıth us!

One bızarre hıghlıght was the Crıcket World Cup semı-fınal between Indıa and Pakıstan. Thıs ıs where crıcket becomes polıtıcal. Apparently. Unfortunately, ın practıce thıs meant that watchıng the match surrounded by Indıans was somewhat uncomfortable as a result of the rıdıculous racısm of some of them. Thıs was all set ın the enormous house of a dynasty of fılm dırectors/producers where there were ındıvıdual (sıngle use) hand towels ın the bathrooms and servants to provıde drınks and other requırements.

When we say we had a ‘normal’ tıme, we meant the hangıng out part, not the beıng waıted on part…

Whıle Vıkrant was offıcıally our host, he had two busınesses to run and was therefore very busy most of the tıme. Consequently, we spent most our tıme wıth Tım, a dırector of adverts, and Shımona, who used to work ın PR before they had theır now 2 year old daughter, Zara.  They’re great and we have never met such a well behaved and generally smıley toddler. It turns out that ‘Josh’ ıs easıer to say than ‘Lucıe’, so Josh was beıng ıdentıfıed by name by the end, even though Lucıe flew Zara around for an hour ın a washıng basket…

Gıven Mumbaı was quıte uneventful for us, there ısn’t much else to say about ıt. It was a great way to leave Indıa, and to begın our trıp homewards.

Sun, sand and sea

Skin cancer costs an arm and a leg, man
People on the beach self-harming to get tanned
Laid out flat like an army of dead mans
Red necks, red bellies than expand
Like jellyfish on the wet sand
Very Engurlish, suncream and sweaty hands…

– Dizraeli, ‘Engurland’

When we were in Orissa, there was a sign on the wall with a quote from some wise ancient. It said, ‘A traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving’. This basically summarises our experience of trying to do anything in India… Don’t have a fixed plan, and don’t expect your vague expectations to materialise any time soon either. When you don’t try and do anything, when you spend your time eating fruit salad every morning, swimming in the sea, and lying on golden-sanded beaches, then you’re fine. But as soon as you start trying to organise anything, discuss going anywhere, plan anything, catch transport, in short when you try to achieve anything, it all becomes a bit difficult and stressful. Someone who said they’d email you back by Wednesday hasn’t contacted you by Tuesday the next week, the computer full of your data is broken and won’t be fixed until an unspecified date referred to most days as “tomorrow”, someone advised you not to run for the bus as there will be another “soon” only for you to wait a whole hour for the next scheduled bus which incidentally is running on time… I could go on. Speaking to our Mumbai CouchSurfing host (who we’ll tell you about in a later post), he just nods and laughs – it’s the same for him – and explains that it’s part of the joy (or frustration) of India.

Having basically travelled for six months without really stopping for a break, the stress was starting to mount. Since Josh recently cut off most of his hair, I was beginning to worry that he would start pulling out mine. His mate even emailed us suggesting that we “do nothing, literally NOTHING for a while”, so we thought we should take heed of that advice. So we did, and this is the first time that we actually achieved everything that we had set out to since we entered India.

Having left the hills, we made our way back into Kerala and plonked ourselves on the beach near Kannur. Retrospectively, it wasn’t the greatest of beaches, but at the time it was exactly what we needed. While it takes an hour to get there from town, if you’re after a basically empty beach (literally there must have been three other people on the 100m long beach most of the time we were there), no hassle when you’re there, white sands, palm trees but a rather rough sea, this is the place to go. Josh taught me how to throw a ball properly and I taught him how to do front crawl properly. It was a learning experience for all. One of the days we were approached by a bunch of Indian lads and instead of it being the usual perve-hassle, they joined us in our throwing game – they seemed surprised that I was capable of catching. That was basically all we did for a few days, which was more than pleasant.

Then we made our way to our next beach. Gokarna in Karnataka is definitely THE most touristy place we have been in the whole of India. We spent ten days surrounded by Westerners, which usually would have made both Josh and myself cringe, but it was a welcomed break before plunging back into the sometimes-organised chaos of the next three months travelling (we’ll be home on the 17th June for anyone who’s interested). There was a large contingent of dreadlocked, spiritual, circus-skills, alibaba pants (no Indian actually wears these) types. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard a sentence like this: “Hey! Guess what? She’s an Aquarius with Scorpio rising!!!!” Someone actually said that.

When you choose to ignore such things, the place is lovely. As suggested by the introduction, we spent our days eating fruit salad and indulging in non-Indian food, swimming in the sea and generally chilling out. The most stressful thing that happened for the whole time we were there was that I stood on a sea urchin or something that’s built so that things don’t eat/stand on it, and spent several days trying to remove the splinters from my toes. One day we walked through some jungle to a beach a few beaches along, where we shared the 70m stretch of sand with one other person, and occasionally Indian tourists who would dash in in speedboats, stare at us swimming and then dash away again.

We had arrived at a pretty good time – at the end of the season, just before many guest houses pack up for the summer, so accommodation was brilliantly cheap.

It’s kind of part of the point, as Josh points out, that there isn’t much to say about our time there. It was a time of relaxation and of doing pretty much nothing, which I’d never really done before. I felt like I should balance out the total relaxation by stretching my mind a little, and read about Israel’s war on Palestine in Pappe and Chomsky’s Gaza in Crisis and Ghada Karmi’s Married to Another Man. Made me feel ever so slightly less indulgent!

Our only stop in Goa, the usual stop for beach-seeking India travellers, was a train change. We spent a luxurious few hours in the Air Conditioned waiting room – spend a pound for four hours in light, chill, with cable TV and a western toilet, which was a relief to my legs as I had an upset stomach (it’s never fun to spend long on a squat toilet).

Now we’re in Mumbai, experiencing the contradictions of India at their most obvious – the largest slum in the world, and the world’s largest number of millionaires in one city. We’ll tell y’all about it in the next blog.

The Egg Blog part 2

Our faithful followers will remember the Egg Blog (part 1) – an egg in China, deshelled and vacuum packed, summarising for us much of the consumerist and wasteful practices in the Chinese system as we saw it.

In India we have found another egg which similarly suggests towards various generalisable things.

India is the world diabetes capital, which is unsurprising due to the high levels of fat, sugar and carbs that make up day to day food intake for many of the people here who are not starving.

Deep or shallow frying everything seems to be a specialty. This apparently includes already boiled eggs. Curious as to the taste, I tried one of these eggs – hard boiled, stripped of its shell, battered then deep fried. It tastes like a hard boiled egg, battered then deep fried. It really tastes no better than a healthy egg boiled only in water.

To me, it really did represent why so many people in this country have diabetes…

Have you ever met a reactionary, nihilist, self-centred, ignorant and spiritual primitivist anarcho-capitalist? Last week I would have answered no as well. Today I have the misfortune of sleeping under the roof of one.

WWOOFing (the Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) is a mixed kettle of fish. While there are almost always many positives, they normally come with negatives. Unfortunately, one of the more consistent negatives is the hosts. It seems the majority of the people that host wwoofers either come from the minority perspective of simply seeing this as an opportunity to get free labour. The other group are more complex, but are basically fallen lefties. They normally come from an anarchist school and due to lack of coherent and sophisticated theory have become disillusioned and retreat to “living outside the system” and often find spirituality on the way.

Before departing on the trip, Lucie and I excitedly decided upon a farm in Kerala which we would work on in order to save money, meet people and learn more about agriculture and farming (not in that order of importance). While we may have saved some money, we have met no-one really (the farm only has one guest room), and I have learnt very little past the initial basics of picking coffee. This is bearable, however. What is not is working for a man who believes that “capitalism is the best system, it is people that are the problem”, that “any problem an individual may have is their own lookout”, that “if you are sick or if you are healthy, it is down to karma”, that “life is a transition from [unspecified] place to place”, that “all political parties are the same” whether this be the fascist Front National or the Socialist Party in France (all parties are racist apparently). A man who believes that “ideology means nothing, the only thing that matters is practice” (which is why we should except his ideology) whilst simultaneously dismissing any practical examples I offer as to why his ridiculous beliefs are wrong; that “nothing ever changes” and , best of all, that “all Muslims are the same”. Oh yes, and that the Poll Tax riots were organised by a bunch of foreign anarchists and culminated in things burning in Trafalgar Square.

When we first arrived, I remember telling Lucie how excited I was to work here – I had just spoken to Bruno (our boss)’s brother Pierre (who is very interesting), who had told me that they had both lived in a squat in London during the Poll Tax riots. This excitement was extinguished faster than a match in a hurricane when Bruno told me that “it doesn’t matter what happens in Egypt, it will not change a thing”.

At first, we simply believed that he was a fallen anarchist who, disillusioned, had turned to India and nature for solace. Having struggled to remember the name of the group with which he was involved in the UK – Class War – he proudly told us how he used to be an anarchist, how he’d been on the barricades teaching the stupid English how to make a Molotov cocktail… At this point I almost looked forward to talking to him –  I saw this as an opportunity to put my theory into practice. To test my belief  that without an adequate theory you will eventually fall.

I had spoken too often to people about how if you do not understand the nature of the State, the nature of power, if you do not understand what the USSR, China etc truly was (ie State capitalist), your perceptions would be skewed and your determination hindered. This analysis is almost certainly still the case with Bruno, but Bruno as a “fallen anarchist” quickly turned in my mind into Bruno as a reactionary conservative, followed shortly after by my current view of him. This man is a walking contradiction. He is like an angsty thirteen year old boy who is more concerned with winning an argument than with coming out with anything coherent. He is amusing in a tragic sort of way, and not tragedy in a Shakespearean sense – he has no noble tragic flaw, just a total lack of analysis and coherence.

Food seems to be one of his favourite subjects. “In Europe they eat sheet” he told us almost every day. The irony of this was that he eats 2 meals a day, one at 11am (this being 5 hours after he woke up and 3 hours after he started doing manual labour) and at 9pm (one hour before going to bed). On top of this, his diet (and ours while we were there) consisted almost exclusively of carbs. The first meal would be Indian bread of some kind, butter and what can best be described as veg stew, followed by a curd drink and dinner would probably be the same, replacing the curd drink with rice pudding (ie rice cooked in milk and sugar). He rarely drank water, instead filling himself with coffee. So for him to claim that “in the west they eat sheet” seemed quite ironic. The other irony was that he never mentioned the diet of Indians, which seems odd given India has the highest level of diabetes in the world. When I asked him why he thought people in the west eat “sheet” he would say “because they like it” and when I asked him why he thought it was that as a general rule the richer you become in the west the better your diet he would respond “because they are rich”.  This incoherence was a consistent feature of our week there. Social movements apparently changed nothing, but when I asked him how all the positive social changes in the C20th had occurred he would say “through popular movements obviously”.

I could go on, but as a friend of mine said, this man matters very little, and come the revolution, his opinion might even change. So, with this relationship failing, we cut our 17 day farming experience down to 8 days, taking refuge in the hills of Tamil Nadu.

Kochi to Kannur

Kochi

We were given mixed advice about the pleasures of this town, ranging from ‘my favourite place in India’ to ‘a bit of a tourist shit-hole’. Our experience is somewhere inbetween, tending less towards it being a favourite… Fort Cochin, which is the tourist bit and on a separate island from the mainland, has an incredible flair for colonialism – Dutch, Portuguese and British. Especially the churches. At first, we assumed they must be Protestant, given the fact that the British arrived in this part of India after the Reformation – this would explain their whitewashed walls and general lack of enthusiasm. Not for all of them, though – the Santa Cruz Basilica instead went for tacky kitsch, with lovely pink statues of Jesus, etc. How Indians can relate to a religion which is based on a ‘white’ man nailed to a cross, I find even more confusing than for white Westerners. What a clever way for imperialists to establish racial supremacy, though, eh?

Having not really gone in for “Experience the Culture” events, we decided to experience one. Kathakali, the ancient dramatic art, was simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably boring. Our friend described it as “a bit like pantomime”, but while this might be the closest thing to it in the UK, it’s basically nothing like it! The performance began with an hour-long makeup session which was actually quite interesting – the men (all men, even playing the female role – got to keep these things traditional…) lay down as someone made fins on their faces made from rice paper and rice paste. These added detail to the red, black, green and yellow of their faces – each colour has its own significance. Green means good, red means bad, black is demonic and yellow feminine.

This was followed by an introduction to the language of gesture that Kathakali uses – facial expressions, twitchy face muscles, eye movement, hand gestures. I think I took in approximately one meaning from the whole thing.

Then we were treated to a grim tale involving betting wives away in games of dice, murdering enemies gorily and then wiping their blood through the reclaimed wife’s hair. Unfortunately, one figures this out from the leaflet provided rather than the action on stage, as Kathakali for us was a bit like watching a play in a foreign language where even the body language means something totally different.

Kumily

Our time in Kumily will be better described in a following blog. It is safe to say that we were hoping for more than we experienced when we were there. We had gone to Kumily to work on an organic farm through WWOOFing – we were going to help with the pepper and coffee harvests. We did help with the coffee harvest, but it was all a bit less enjoyable than we had hoped, so we did not finish our proposed two weeks there and left after 8 days.

On our day off, we went to a Tiger Park, and although of course we didn’t see any tigers we did catch glimpses of wild elephants hainging out around the water. There were unidentified grazing animals, wild boar and of course loads of monkeys.

Having acquired an extra few days, we decided to return to Tamil Nadu as Kumily is literally on the border – Tamil Nadu starts just after the post office – and spend some time in the hills.

Kodaikanal

Great views and colonial heritage.

We met some travellers for the first time in a while – it’s good to have company other than ourselves sometimes! The views here are absolutely spectacular. You can see across the entire plains of Tamil Nadu. This is also apparently why our hotel felt justified in charging Rs500 a night (the expensive end of our budget) for a grim room, although it did have a fire place.

As the picture demonstrates, there is a resounding feeling that you could be in Dorset or something – quaint little cottages, sculpted lake, pine trees. It was a very odd experience.

The nicest part of being in this town was meeting other people, especially a Czech man who had lived in London for four years and is an Arsenal supporter. I think Lucie had become bored of me discussing the fine details of tactics and strategy with her, so this was a welcome opportunity to talk football with someone who actually understood what I was going on about.

Ooty

2,500metres above sea level, Ooty is the highest hill station in Tamil Nadu. It is also refreshingly cool and, outside of the town, extremely beautiful.

We trekked through tea plantations, through villages and up to the top of a mountain, enjoying the company of a Bristolian anarchist whose grandfather had fought for POUM in the Spanish civil war. I had to change my initial impression of him – I heard on the bus that he had come to India just to follow the cricket, which did not gain my immediate respect. However, after classic lines such as, “I always told my kids not to join the army. I didn’t spend money on raising my kids just so they could grow up and kill other people’s kids. It’s a waste of money”, and, “if Pakistan win against India in the final [Cricket World Cup taking place in India], I reckon they [India] might just nuke Kashmir or something”, I changed my mind about him.

One of the ironic highlights of Ooty, and one of the kitschiest things I have ever seen (I think Lucie was more impressed than me), was the Thread Garden – the only one in the whole world, they proudly declare. This is unsurprising. It took a whole bunch of people 12 years to accomplish this bizarre feat – everything in the garden, and they all look pretty convincing as flowers, is made from thread wound around canvas. What a waste of time…

Kannur

Having been in India for over 2 months and having not had a real break since we set off from London all those many months ago (nearly 6 now by the way), we are having a long and overdue break. My mentality in particular has increasingly become overly negative, and as a close friend of mine emailed me to say, I am in need of some time where I just don’t do anything. So we are spending four days on a beach in Kerala, followed by seven days on a beach in Karnataka.

I intend that it be as uneventful as possible and horribly relaxing.

 

This one isn’t really an interview as such, more a QandA session where a big group of people chatted and we wrote down what they said. Again this was a farming community in Orissa, west of Bhubaneswar.

Due to the nature of the discussion, this article may seem disjointed – this is because the meeting was disjointed…

“GM seeds create negative impacts. More than this, they cross-pollinate with traditional varieties and so destroy them.”

“Once you start hybrid farming, it isn’t easy to go back. It is much easier to shift to hybrid than away from it. Farmers for commerical purposes (big farmers) are interested in traditional seeds, but marginal farmers are. It is these farmers who are the direct victims of climate change.”

How they organise

The group explained how they organise demos and rallies at Block level (a Block is local self-governance in tribal belt areas of small marginalised farmers. Leaders are both male and female and there are approx. 170,000 people in each Block. Communities in the area are approx. 80% Adivasi). Through this they have been successful enough to get a national consultation on Bt brinjal (aubergine). Due to the pressure, the Environment Minister of India has written a letter stating that he will not introduce Bt.

Bt seeds vs. traditional varieties

Officially, all farmers in Orissa do not grow Bt Cotton. Before Bt was unofficially banned through the letter, packets had to be labelled. Now there is no such label. It is unknown whether this is because it is no longer used (which is unlikely) or because it doesn’t need to be labelled because it isn’t supposed to be there.

Traditional varieties of seed are promoted by the group. They have seed exchanges in villages at district and Block level. At the last one, there were 123 varieties of paddy (rice), veg and pulses exchanged. Since 2006, there has been an emphasis in the group on organic farming and traditional seeds. At the last seed fair, the seeds were 70% organic, 30% mixed and none exclusively intensive.

Because of popular mobilisation and knowledge transfer, farmers have agreed that Bt seeds should not be sold in the local market.

Perceived dangers of hybrid seeds

Through eating hybrid crops, people have perceived health hazards and diseases. They believe that hybrid crops increase likelihood of cancer, TB, malaria, skin diseases, stomach problems, diabetes and blood pressure. Traditionally these types of diseases occurred in cities and not villages, this is now changing. Immune systems are also being affected. Antibiotics are not as effective as crops are now full of them.

Hybrid crops also kill useful insects such as earthworms which are beneficial to farming. This reduces soil fertility.

How to fight

The struggle over seeds and farming is different from other struggles such as land grabs and water privitisation. When a mining corporation rips up your land, you know who the enemy is. But with seeds you cannot see the enemy.

While there is support coming from the rest of the world, ultimately change must come from the farmers. They must realise that intensive farming isn’t good for them or the environment.

Reasons gathered from the group as to why they farm in an organic way

1. Their ancestors did it.

2. They couldn’t meet the costs of hybrid farming.

3. They learnt about the negative impacts of chemical fertilisers and intensive farming methods from meetings and so started organic farming.

Further privatisation

The government is interested in registering traditional organic seeds through scientists linked to MNCs. There is a plan to document all seeds which is very dangerous as it allows others to take control of the seeds. Farmers have the right to this information, not governments and MNCs. Let them document their own seeds!

Comments from individual farmers

The individuals we interviewed have been farmers for 10-50 years. Their ages ranged from the 30s to the 60s. They grew a variety of things from paddy to millet and pulses. Some had previously used hybrid methods, others had used traditional methods their whole lives. They all agreed that there are not many difficulties with traditional farming, especially when compared with intensive methods. They were also all of the belief that while intensive methods generally produce high yields in the first couple of years, the returns reduced as the years went by – as soil fertility decreases, useful insects are killed and bad pests become resistant to the pesticides.

“The first year was good, the second year was okay, and the third year was bad. The soil required more fertiliser, and the beds became dry and rocky – the plough could not work as well. This is why I went back to traditional methods.” – RK

Is this a battle you are winning?

“I hope so. I hope by arguments can win. Lots of people are joining. I strongly believe we can win this battle.” – GD

What are the best tactics?

“The unity of farmers through mass organisation. We must motivate, have seed fairs, have hope and meetings. And we shouldn’t purchase any seeds from the market.” – GD

Why do people turn away from traditional farming?

“Farms want to use modern agricultural practices because it yields more, but they are not analysing the cost/effectiveness of the crop properly. They analyse for one year, but if they compare for 2 or 5 years, they will see the negative impacts of modern farming”. – RK

Does the government support your struggle?

“There is no government support promoting traditional organic agricultural methods” – KD

A catch-up interlude

*We interrupt our Resistance is Fertile broadcasts to bring you up to speed on where we are and what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks…*

We left Bhubaneswar in need of a holiday, and headed to what turned out to be the most touristy place we have been to so far – Mamallapuram. From there we escaped to Trichy which didn’t provide that much of an escape then on to the very southernmost tip of India. Then we officially began our way home, heading westwards up the coast to Trivandrum, then Kollam, Amrithapuri, and now Allappuzha. It has been a fairly relaxing time, and Kerala is by far the most beautiful state we have been in in India.

Mamallapuram

We balked at Backpakistan and the largest proportion of white faces in the local (temporary) population that we’ve seen since leaving Europe, but we did manage to meet up with Josh’s friend David and his girlfriend Tabitha which was pleasant. I got horribly sunburnt on the beach, and we visited a bird sanctuary: I have never seen so many birds all in one place. We tried coconut fish and red snapper, fresh from the sea. Coming out of the hotel, someone came up to Josh – ‘Um, do you know my brother? He has the same T-Shirt as you’. This wasn’t as odd a question as it sounds, as Josh was sporting his ‘I’m with Plane Stupid’ top, and the guy’s brother turned out to be a friend of ours from London. It’s a small world when so many people are plane stupid, eh?

Trichy

There is little to commend this town other than the few temples, although these are definitely a good enough reason to visit. We staggered tiredly from expensive hotel to fully booked hotel until we were found by an Indian man who offered his homestay. So Josh and I squeezed onto a single string bed (no mattress) for the night, and spent the next day realising our train tickets were wrong and dashing around trying to sort them out. Our final day there, having accepted we would need to stay an extra night, was chilled – we took time to just sit and relax in the enormous temple complex, discussing how someone white would be able to convince the people that they were Hindu and therefore allowed into the temples themselves…

Kanyakumari


I have never associated Mahatma Gandhi with the colour pink in particular,  but apparently somebody has. You are now, thanks to a faster internet connection, able to appreciate the incongruity of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, all trussed up in pink and yellow… The end of the subcontinent is exciting for its being the place where three seas merge and where an 113ft poet stands looking over the land, but our experience was mainly of queuing. Tip: if you fancy heading out by ferry to the island with all the temples on it, go after lunch when the queue isn’t literally 3 hours long! There’s more queue hidden inside!

Trivandrum


On our first stop in Kerala we realised how green everywhere is. Also, the roads have real markings and road signs and traffic lights, and the rickshaws have metres that actually work! It was like being in Europe or something. We headed for the galleries and zoological gardens, all beautifully laid out in a big green space. The museum is in an enormous building and full of carvings – nothing is explained about any of them, but it’s good to make up stories for yourself. Another gallery houses the history of the area in enormous cartoon-like pictures. The ‘zoological gardens’, where the Lonely Planet claims animals live in what is very close to their natural habitat, was, as to be expected, full of cages and enclosures that are far too small for the enormous animals and birds housed inside…

Kollam


Here we found a canoe tour to take us through the backwaters, amongst the villages, ducking under footbridges. I learnt what cashew nuts and peppercorns look like as they grow, we saw a rat snake dart through the water and a kingfisher sit overhead. Some local people demonstrated for us how to spin coconut fibres into rope, the same rope used to tie together the planks in our canoe. When I arrived I banged my elbow in the bus and a little girl bandaged me up with some multi-coloured cloth. The man at the tourist help centre explained that at the state government guest house there were rooms so big, you could play football in them, and we were not disappointed. The frogs came to hang out in our bathroom in the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amrithapuri

Quite possibly the most alien experience on the trip so far was visiting Amma’s ashram. Amma basically believes that love will save the world and so goes around the world hugging people. Thousands of people. For hours on end. She believes that there are two forms of poverty in the world: material and spiritual. By curing the latter, she believes we will eradicate the former. On the plus side, as well as a lot of complete nonsense, Amma’s NGO seems to do quite a lot of admirable humanitarian work – they have built homes for many of the Indian and Sri Lankan victims of the tsunami. Though, this NGO also seems quite chummy with the likes of Bill Clinton and India’s president (analysis, anyone?). An introductory video proudly quoted the New York Times statement that Amma wishes to eradicate world suffering “through hugs”. I think Amma’s film makers missed the cynical tone…

I must admit I had been expecting something a bit like a monastery so I was surprised to be faced with several enormous tower blocks upon arrival. They are all pink. We were encouraged to come to the 4.50am chanting session, and were invited for the free (basic would be a euphemism) meals whilst being warned away from “local” food…

Allapuzha

There is nothing really to do here if you aren’t interested in expensive canoe trips/ barge tours/house boats. We walked around a little and Josh ate some very nice chicken.

Kochi

We are now in Kochi. So far we have indulged in dental tourism or whatever you call it when you go to the dentist for cheap when in another country. Luckily neither of us needed anything. The streets are full of spice sellers with sacks full of pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and many other good smelling things. Today there was an almighty downpour which was a tad unexpected. Keralan martial arts are exciting – they did this bit with whips made from blades!

Resistance is Fertile – Vol. 2

We agreed with all the people that we interviewed that we would send them drafts of what they said before official publication (STOP GM). So, what is here will be a paraphrasing of the main points, plus we won’t use their full names.

Interview with N.S.

N.S. has a farm 40km east of Bhubaneswar. He grows predominantly rice, also pulses, veg and fruit. He grows all of these organically. He has also collected 350 varieties of indigenous paddy (rice) and promotes the use of these.

Orissa, he says, is the birthplace of rice. Before the first Green Revolution there were 35,000 different varieties in Orissa. In India, there were 1.5lakhs (150,000). During the Green Revolution, farmers were persuaded to use hybrid seeds, reducing the amount of variety. In 5-10 years, all indigenous rice was basically wiped out.

Propaganda

GM is a threat to the survival of farming and of the farmer. It is claimed that with an ever-increasing population GM is needed to feed the people, but it is a myth that indigenous seeds do not yield more [NOTE: it is useful to remember that between 1958 and 2008, the number of people on the planet rose from 2.5billion to 6.7billion. In the same period food production grew from 631million tonnes, to 6834million tonnes -3 times faster. The problem is not production!].

Seed companies propagate the myth that their seeds are good for you. They reduce eye problems, infant mortality, malnutrition. The reality is that it takes 1kg of hybrid “Golden rice” to provide the same amount of vitamin A (good for eyes) as can be found in 100g of sago or amaranth.

The pit-falls of intensive farming techniques

Chemical farming needs lots of external imput. It needs chemical fertiliser, pesticides, and large quantities of water. Farming becomes costly and small marginal (poor) farmers cannot afford this.

Hybrid rice seeds tend to take 10-20 days longer than traditional seeds to mature. Rice usually take 70-140 days. But hybrid take 140-160 days. This affects the duration of your second crop, so with hybrid varieties, you can only sow your second harvest 10-20 days later than with traditional seeds. Thus, you are unable to sow a 3rd harvest and gain more crop which is often possible with traditional varieties.

Hybrid techniques also make the land hard, reducing water retention capacity. The soil cannot hold the water, and the water runs away.

The farmer invests in GM but problems occur such as cyclones, pests, rains, droughts. Farmers will have had to take out loans to supplement their costs [NOTE: on average, micro-loan companies charge 30-70% interest, but this can be as high as 130%] and when their crops fail, they cannot pay back. These farmers often commit suicide.

Bt cotton is the main culprit in relation to farmer suicides. The State and central government are not interested in compensating the families. They always blame something else – they all place an emphasis on family disputes and disruptions. Even if this was the case, why are these families disrupted? It is because their crops are failing. Their crops are failing because of the weaknesses of GM and hybrid seeds.

Displacement

For those farmers who do not take such drastic measures as suicide, many  sell their land and move to cities, where they inevitably end up in slums [NOTE: 60% of Mumbai’s population are slum-dwellers. It is the largest slum in the world]. In their place, multi-national corporations (MNCs) buy their land. MNCs want to throw away labour – small famers, marginal farmers. They say, “Give up farming, you are not profitable”, but where are these people supposed to go? In America, a farmer owns between 1-5000hectares of land. This is not a farmer, this is a agro-business man. And this is what MNCs want.

Future of GM

For MNCs the future looks very encouraging. For us it is very dangerous. In the US, they are growing GM corn. The Rockies in Western America used to have vast corn fields, now these lands are barren. Not even grass grows there.

Re1sistance

Traditional organic farming allows the farmers to keep the seeds and so not have to buy from the market. They can reuse seeds, plough their fields with bullocks and use the dung for fertililser. Plus traditional varieties of paddy need 20-30% less water than hybrid.

Every farmer more than 60 years of age, is as good as an agri-scientist who grows veg/fruit in their labs, with their note- and textbooks. Our knowledge is scientific because it is based on experience. It gets results.

Good tactics to tackle GM and hybrid seeds are to show results in the field. This provides a challenge and alternative. Traditional farming methods have survived for the last 10,000 years. We also have protests, seminars and workshops.

The importance of seed

Seed is the most important input into agriculture, it is the wealth of the farmer. A farmer in control of seeds controls agriculture. If the seeds belong to MNCs, then agriculture belongs to MNCs. Today they offer free seeds, free fertiliser and more and more, until one day you will have no choice. MNCs will own the farms. This is the ultimate aim of GM.

subramanian.m@fullertonindia.com