Posts in "India"

Turtle Beach

Regular readers to my blog will know that Saturday evenings have turned in to my day of discovery as I stumble across various cultural and exotic goings on. A few weeks back I found myself in an art gallery watching a famous artist draw a picture of a cat (and buying art, who knew?), then it was the youth cultural exchange program that was taking place outside a big temple by the sea.

This Saturday just gone was no different. Myself and my friends had actually planned to go to a place called the Theosophical Society, not that we were particularly interested in Theosophy but they have some really nice gardens (God, yes I’m getting old) and when you live in a dusty, polluted city like Chennai you start to yearn for a bit of greenery and fresh air.

The Theosophical Society in Chennai occupies a large area near to a moving pile of ooze, sometimes referred to as the Adyar river and is the nearest greenest space to where I live.

Since the mercury is steadily rising and we’re starting to hit 34-35 degrees we tend to wait until gone 4pm until we venture out, our pale white skin being fried to a crisp otherwise. We arrived at the main gates at 4:30pm and were promptly denied entry since they only open the place between 2 and 4 – conveniently at the time when it’s hottest and no one wants to come. OK, we thought, this is India, lets try the side entrance and go in looking confident and aloof and make out as if we were meant to be there.

Yeah, that didn’t work either and we were stopped shortly after parking the car.

Cue the scene from Disney’s Jungle Book with the vultures sitting on a tree.

“So, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t mind, what ever you want to do is fine.”

“Eee, now don’t start that again”

(apologies if you had a terrible childhood and never watched Disney movies)

In the absence of anyone making an executive decision, I said let’s go down to the beach since it was just around the corner and we were close to a place called Broken Bridge which I’ve heard about in the folklore of Chennai, so named because there is a bridge. And it’s broken. An unimaginative folklore you could say.

With the car parked and a payment of 10 rupees (about 16p) given to a guy who promised to tell us upon our return if our car had been stolen we made our way through a fishing township towards broken bridge. I’d have loved to get some pictures of the fishing village but I feel like the intruding foreigner if I get my camera out to take pictures of people, I feel like they think I’m judging them some how because I want to take pictures of the way they live. The other reason was that the smell was so bad with the open sewers, I didn’t particularly want to stop!

As we walked towards the broken bridge, we came across a fenced off enclosure and the curiosity got the better of us so we went over and found a guy sitting inside surrounded by upside down wicker baskets. Fortunately we were with a guy who could speak Tamil (obviously I can speak Tamil as well, but only to tell people that I’m hungry or that I can only say a very small amount of Tamil!) and we found out that the enclosure was to protect the eggs of sea turtles.

Basically volunteers stay on the beach over night and wait for the turtles to lay their eggs, then the eggs are relocated to within the fenced off enclosure otherwise the feral dogs that populate the city and beaches will come along and dig them up for dinner. Even if the dogs didn’t manage to find all the eggs, the crows would eat the baby turtles shortly after hatching, and if the crows didn’t get them the line of crabs waiting in the surf would have a go. Even if the new born turtles managed to negotiate all of that, a million and one dangers still lie within the sea.

It must suck to be a turtle.

Anyway, we were allowed to come in to the enclosure, a real lucky experience because my friend went back the following evening and there were more people and no one was allowed inside.

Once in the enclosure we were able to watch newly hatched turtles make their way to the surface (with a little help from a human hand) and then attempt to make their way towards the sea. However, since there were crows and dogs stalking around the fence the turtles were kept under the upside down wicker baskets we’d seen earlier, then around dusk time they are all transported down to the sea where they had to make the final 10 metre perilous journey by themselves.

Even as we watched, swarms of crabs were stalking the baby turtles, but they didn’t seem to do too much other than getting close, poking them and then running off.

As I mentioned above, my friend went the following evening as well where there were not only more people, but maybe one hundred plus turtles being released, the beach was literally full of them, she said. However, the people watching didn’t get to go in to the enclosure and handle them, so I count myself very lucky that I got this pretty rare opportunity!

Baby Sea Turtles

Baby Sea Turtles

Baby Sea Turtles

Hand included for scale reference!

Baby Sea Turtles

Two of the turtles try to make a bid for freedom when they think no one is looking!

Baby Sea Turtles

Freshly hatched turtles making their way to the surface

Baby Sea Turtles

The baby turtles got a helping hand to get closer to the sea!

Baby Sea Turtles

And off one of them goes to freedom, or maybe the jaws of death

Baby Sea Turtles

The crabs gang up on one of the turtles, but they didn't seem to do much harm

Baby Sea Turtles

I really wasn't sure what the crabs were doing, it's not like they actually attacked any of the turtles, just got very close before scampering off

Baby Sea Turtles

I stole this photo from a friend because it's so awesome!

Hope you enjoyed the pictures and video! It was a really unique experience, you see this kind of thing in nature documentaries, but to see it up close and actually touch the turtles (even though you really shouldn’t, but we were being supervised!) is just amazing.

I thought I’d wrap up this post with a news report I came across where a Sea Turtle is accused of abandoning her eggs, the report comes from The Onion πŸ˜‰

Probably The Best Housemates In The World

Sunday morning, 8:17am. I have been asleep for approximately 5 hours. There is a knock at my door. I ignore it, what sort of cretin knocks on the door this early on a Sunday? The door bell goes again. I continue to ignore.

It can’t be the maid because she has come to learn that no recognizably human life can be found before 10am, so it can’t be her coming to clean.

It rings again. I turn over and cover my head with my blanket. People need to learn that the person who lives in this house doesn’t rise till midday. However something gets lost in the translation as they decide to really try and get my attention. The bell rings and rings and rings.

OK, fine, I admit defeat. I crawl out of bed, check my modesty, open the door a few inches and attempt to focus on the person on the other side.

It’s my landlords. And they’ve come with backup.

Apparently they have become convinced that I am sharing my apartment with others, which was news to me because I’m sure I’d have noticed something like that in a small two bedroom apartment.

But no, they are absolutely determined to evict these lodgers and the backup comes in the form of an elderly priest, here to help remove evil spirits that have been getting a free ride at my expense.

Yes. You read right. I apparently had evil spirits in my apartment.

I tried to explain to them that I really didn’t mind these extra lodgers as if they were here, that they have been quiet, didn’t steal my food from the fridge and generally kept the house tidy, what more could you possibly ask for? But no, it was time for them to move on.

The Hindu ceremony that was conducted in my front room is called a Pooja, and I guess you could say it’s similar to an exorcism in Catholicism, except the spirits are being evicted from a building rather than a person.

It involves a lot of prayer and chanting from the priest to bless the house and politely, but firmly, tell the evil spirits to move on. Oh, it also involves making a fire in your house and ensuring that by the end of the ceremony your eyes are streaming and absolutely everything smells of smoke and ash. Frankly I don’t blame the evil spirits for wanting to leave after the Pooja!

After about an hour of chanting and once the significant fire hazard had been put out, I was left with a great deal of mess in my living room and an apartment that smelt like a bonfire, however, the landlords were sufficiently satisfied that any evil spirits had packed their bags and moved out. I did try to explain that they could probably have had the same affect by allowing a couple of students to move in for a few weeks and not had to run the risk of burning down the house, but I don’t think they understood.

So this being India, who had to clean up all the mess that was left on the floor? The landlord? The priest? Me? No, none of the above of course. The maid was summoned by a phone call at 9:30am on a Sunday to come immediately and clean everything up.

To give the Pooja ceremony some context on why it’s conducted, it’s usually done when you have a streak of bad luck, it is said that evil spirits are not allowing good things to happen. This is actually very welcome news to me and I feel vindicated because it means that it’s not my own stupidity for constantly losing mobile phones and wallets or breaking numerous gadgets and gizmos; infact, I’m blameless in the matter because my house has been occupied by evil spirits and they were causing this to happen.

This is a really awesome piece of Indian culture to know about, it means that while in India, I no longer have to take responsibility when I next do something ridiculously stupid!

Fire, in my house!

Fire, in my house!

He seemed to quite like having his photo taken!

He seemed to quite like having his photo taken!

Lots of chanting and doing things with rice

Lots of chanting and doing things with rice

With the thing in the centre lit, the ceremony is well under way

With the thing in the centre lit, the ceremony is well under way

Yes, it really was this smokey in the house!

Yes, it really was this smokey in the house!

Even my bedroom didn't escape and made everything smell of smoke

Even my bedroom didn't escape and everything ended up smelling of smoke

With the ceremony over, all that's left is to burn the house down with an unattended fire

With the ceremony over, all that's left is to burn the house down with an unattended fire

Ceremony over, all that's left is for the maid to be summoned to clean up the mess

Ceremony over, the maid has to be summoned to clean up the mess

**
Note: The Pooja ceremony forms a very important part of South Indian culture and is practiced even by those who don’t follow the Hindu faith. This version of events which happened to me is in no way meant to belittle or mock the ceremony which I’m sure would have been very interesting to observe. If held in the afternoon. In someone else’s house. This entry is simply my take on what happened to me on this particular Sunday morning.

A Patron of the Arts?!

In keeping with the Saturday evenings of culture and learning (like the traditional Indian dances I saw the other week when we came across the cultural exchange show), and in a rather depressing sign that my youth and partying days are drawing to a close, I got invited to an art exhibition inauguration event by my friend who had some of her pieces featured.

The exhibition showcased work from the final year fine arts students from the Stella Maris College for Girls – and before you jump to any conclusions I would like to lay to rest any vicious rumours that the only reason I went was to mingle with exceptionally pretty young 20-something girls…that was just an added bonus πŸ˜€ (note to mother: I really AM trying!).

Indian art gallery

Indian art gallery

Art...really!

Art...really!

Now this is art that even I can appreciate!

Now this is art that even I can appreciate!

Now first and foremost I should say that I am by no means an art critic (ha! Imagine!) and I think a lot of the art scene is so far up its own arse they’ve lost touch with reality.

With that said and out of the way, I was really taken aback by just how good exceptional a lot of the work was. I don’t know my Classic from Renaissance (private ‘in’ joke there, wonder if they’ll get it), but I do know what I like when I see it. To me, what I like is waaaaay more important than what some pompous art/design critic says.

Infact, I liked what I saw so much, I’ve decided to actually go ahead and buy some (yeah, it came as a complete surprise to me too!), the problem is, I can’t decide which pieces to buy because I’d happily take them all, so I’m going the ask the audience and see what you think. Take a look at the photos, and let me know if you have any opinions!

I really like this one

I really like this one

I love the green and black on this one

I love the green and black on this one

I have no idea why, but it's great!

I have no idea why, but it's great!

This is actually my personal favourite...but I couldn't tell you why

This is actually my personal favourite...but I couldn't tell you why

i love the colours and the style of hair

i love the colours and the style of hair

It's quite an ethnic feel to it

It's quite an ethnic feel to it

I want to be very clear on this, I don’t want to be mistaken! I’m not turning arty farty, I’m not buying them as an investment, I just genuinely like them, and at the price they are being sold at, they are a bargain!

I’m usually very harsh about the creativity of Indians because in my line of work it’s incredibly hard to find good graphic designers (my old work colleague, Vel might be an exception here), but these pieces show me that there are very talented artists…if only I could convince them to come and try their hand at web design!

The highlight of the inauguration was a live painting by an artist called R.B. Bhaskaran who regularly sells his art work across the globe for thousands of pounds. He literally stood there in the gallery while everyone was watching and painted this – although on a personal note, in this case I prefer the students work to the one he knocked up in 30 minutes.

R.B. Bhaskaran painted this in 30 minutes!

R.B. Bhaskaran painted this in 30 minutes!

No Room At The Inn!

The population of London is thought to be hovering around the 7m mark, although obviously if all the Aussie contingent suddenly got bored of rain, cold and snow, this would take a drastic dip to 6.5m and Walkabout bars across the city would go out of business.

By comparison Chennai is thought to have a population of around 8.2m, but like London, this figure varies widely depending on how you define the city limits and even who you talk to.

According to Wikipedia, London has a greater metropolitan area of 659 sq mi whereas Chennai has an area of 459 sq mi, this is quite difficult to imagine, so using the power of Photoshop and Google Maps you can see visually how the two cities stack up against each other.

Comparison of London and Chennai

Update: So I got around to making this map and this just blurs the lines even more, because looking at this comparison map (and I took care to line up the scales) Chennai looks about 1/5th (sorry Tom!) the size of London…so what boundaries are they using for London to say it covers 659 square miles?!

So how is Chennai able to fit so many more people in to a space that is roughly 2/3rds the size of London?

Well, for one, unless you are in the upper echelons of the super wealthy (and I’m talking multi-millionaires in dollars and pounds) there is simply no way to afford a house on your own plot of land in Chennai. Ten years ago it might have been possible on the outskirts of the city, but not today unless you can afford to spend millions of pounds on a patch of land.

Where London is made up of low density terrace houses which are two or three stories, Chennai is made up of thousands of individual apartment blocks, 4 stories or more tall with two or more apartments per floor. This is the kind of place most of the middle classes live in in the city.

As fast as property developers can build these apartments, they are being snapped up by a desperate crowd, which is remarkable given that we’ve come off the back of the worst recession in living memory, mortgage rates are 9% and up and even getting a mortgage in the first place is hard enough thanks to the prudent nature of the banks here – something maybe the west would do well to remember next time!

Property prices here in Chennai go beyond the ridiculous, sail past the insane and end in the ether somewhere along with British ‘low’ budget airlines. If you compare property prices with the UK, then yes, it’s much cheaper, you can buy an apartment in Chennai for Γƒβ€šΓ‚Β£100,000 which is cheaper than anywhere in London, however if we use my company for comparison you’ll understand how crazy it is.

The company I work for is your standard Indian outsourcing company, the stuff the Indian dream and western corporate downsizing is made of. We’re about 200 strong and considered a decent medium sized company. Since it’s IT we pay well above the average salary compared to other industries.

The average employee earns around Rs 300,000 per year (Rs = Rupees), which is about Β£4,230. And that’s before tax and deductions of course.

The small 2 bedroom apartment I’m living in at the moment cost Rs 6,000,000 (Β£84,700) when it was purchased brand new two years ago, in other words, it’s 20x the average salary of an IT worker. After two years, the property prices have gone up so much they reckon this place is now worth Rs 10,000,000 (Β£141,200)! Wow!

Now back to the population thing. I consider this apartment that I live in large enough for myself. If I was married it might just be big enough for two people. But incredibly there are entire families living in the other apartments; literally it’s Mum, Dad, the kids, granny and granddad. I have no idea how they manage it, there’s only two bedrooms! But you understand why they have no option when you see how stupid the property prices are here, the average person will find it very difficult to buy a place of their own – and we (that is England as a society) think we have problems with the younger generation getting on the property ladder!

Ah yes, now I remember what the point of this entry was. The family that lives opposite to me were renting the apartment from a landlord, because that’s the only thing they can afford to do. However, even the rental prices are prohibitively expensive in Chennai. The family opposite were paying around Rs 200,000 (Β£2,800) per year, which is 2/3rds of the average IT salary! So even to rent a small apartment it takes an entire family to live there and contribute to the rent costs.

Oh, and on top of this, where it’s custom to give a one month deposit in England for renting, in Chennai the deposit is a minimum of 10 months up front! How people actually manage to put a roof over their head I don’t know!

The family opposite have just moved out, and when I was talking to my friend they said it was because landlords here don’t like people staying in their place for too long, otherwise the tenants might start to think they own it and have more rights than they actually do. Since it’s so difficult to find reasonable cost housing here, moving is something people only choose to do as a last resort, and once you’ve found somewhere, unless you can afford to upgrade, there’s no way you want to move.

So the landlords will give the tenants one years notice because a) it takes the occupiers so long to find an alternative place and b) it’s seen as a reasonable amount of time to give some one. My friend said that even if the landlord tried to evict the tenants, they would have to deal with a lot of angry people who will take the occupiers side and the whole thing could get very messy.

Sorry, keep going off at tangents. The family opposite me, despite living there for just 1 year got their 1 year eviction notice 12 months ago, and the time just came for them to move out yesterday. According to my maid, they still haven’t been able to find anywhere to live after a year of looking (even during the recession when things should be slow!). Apparently the mother of the family got so desperate she asked my maid for the number of the person who owns my apartment to see if they would be willing to accept a higher price than what I am paying!

Yesterday morning the old family moved out – for no other reason than the landlord didn’t want them staying there too long – and by the evening a new family had moved in. That’s how much in demand residential space is. As far as I know, and according to the maid (she’s better than a secretary for the amount of gossip she gets!), the family moving out don’t have a place to call home now, staying at friends and relatives instead.

Although there is a big push from the Indian Government to try and build ‘affordable’ housing from what I can see and what the local papers are saying, it’s mostly been all words so far. Developers can earn huge mark-ups on grander projects than they can from affordable housing, so from a business point of view there is no logical reason or incentive to build cheap housing when they’ve got plenty of demand from people who are prepared to pay high prices and then cram every member of the family in to the apartment.

The scary part is that it’s just going to get worse and worse as the Indian economy grows at 8% year on year.

Culture Vulturing In Chennai

One of my friends here in Chennai is a classical Tamil singer. The guy is as American as a Ford pickup truck, but he’s discovered a talent for the ancient and somewhat obscure art of warbling (which I’m reliably informed is actually singing). If you want to hear what it sounds like point your cursor over this link and press the left mouse button.

We are always being invited to hear him sing, and despite having not a single clue on what he’s singing about, people often go along to support him and attempt understand what’s going on. I’ve only been to see him sing once and I was completely confused, however when he invited us to listen to him sing on Saturday evening I decided, since I had bugger all else to do, to go along.

Now, this being India when you get given an address you should always head over to Google maps and try and ascertain exactly where the place is because in Chennai they have the most archaic address system known to man. Take my address for example. I live on 3rd Cross Street and the house number is 20. Except it’s also on 2nd Main Road and the house number is 26. To further complicate matters there are no less than four 3rd Cross Streets in my local area and this causes no end of fun when trying to get a home delivery or explain to a taxi driver where you live so he can pick you up. The zip/postal code system still eludes India. Oh. Wait. Not fun. Trauma.

In this instance we were told that the concert was being performed at a place called Spaces, #1 Elliots Beach Road. A quick lookup on Google Maps identifies the location and we were good to go.

When we arrived we looked up and down the road. There was no place called “Spaces”. We asked in a few shops. There was still no place called “Spaces”. We found a building that claimed to be #4 Elliots Beach Road, but unless our friend was performing in one of the houses next door we decided to discount it as pure conjecture. That coupled with the fact that the building was on a different road to what Google claimed to be Elliots Beach Road.

So after a bit of wandering we ended up walking down a little side street that we would never have gone down. It was packed with tiny little one room houses which doubled up as a shop front, the merchandise spilling out in to the street and selling everything from sea shells to mobile phones.

As we continued down this street we heard the sound of drums being played and suddenly the cramped lane opened out in to a big square overlooked by one of the biggest temples I’ve seen in Chennai.

Up on stage were a group of dancers playing the drums and putting on a bit of a performance. We stayed and watched by the sidelines, not meaning to stay very long when the friend I was with suddenly became mobbed by a load of Indians – she’s well over 6ft tall, female and white and hence is a giant magnet for young inquisitive Indian males πŸ˜€

Before we knew it we were chatting away to these university students from Pune (pronounced “pooh-nay” for the ignorant westerners reading my blog). It’s all the usual questions that I’ve mentioned in a previous and somewhat controversial blog post.

The thing that strikes me is just how friendly, inquisitive and innocent people are here. If this had been England, or most other western countries for that matter, and a couple of tourists rocked up to watch a cultural performance they wouldn’t get a second glance, but in India you get mobbed by people asking a million questions and wanting to know all about you, all about England, what you think of India – everything.

So we weren’t planning on sticking around but before we knew it they were making space for us, finding and offering us chairs to sit down, explaining what was going on, explaining about the dancers and singers, telling us about themselves and generally being extremely friendly.

My mum asked if we felt a little bit overwhelmed or out of our depth or concerned out our safety because you can literally be surrounded by dozens of people asking questions, wanting photos, trying to get you to go somewhere, but in Chennai I’ve never considered personal safety to be an issue, even late at night walking down deserted roads I’ve never felt unsafe, so speaking, interacting and joining with a big group of locals is perfectly ok. Even walking down the little sidestreet is fine because people will treat you with curiosity rather than any malice. It might be different in other parts of India, but definitely not in Chennai.

Back to the show…just like in Ooty, we quickly became a bigger attraction than the show itself as more people gathered round.

What was happening was that this show was a kind of internal, inter-state cultural exchange, designed to get people to understand more about other states’ cultures…err, through the medium of dance. They were all young people showcasing singing and dancing from the state they were from.

It actually turned out to be a really good show, and it just typifies India in that we were made to feel very welcome and everyone is so interested in you and were all so keen to tell us what’s going on. It’s just not something you’d ever find in the west.

It also sums up a lot about India that’s very hard to put your finger on, but it’s something along the lines of “things always tend to work out in the end”. We had originalyl gone to see our friend sing, we got stumped by TII (this is India) but ended up landing on our feet by having a great evening and chatting to loads of people. It’s difficult to put in to words just how differently guests are treated

Once the show finished, they even took my friend in to the massive temple that was next door to show her around. They even wanted us to join them for dinner but we were being picked up by another friend so had to say our goodbyes, however, not before all the photos were taken and they even asked us to give them our signature and write a little bit about India! No idea where they got the pen and paper from but once we had finished it was passed around so everyone could read it.

This is what I wrote…

India has a wonderfully diverse culture with some of the most friendly, welcoming and accommodating people in the world. It’s well known for the incredible food and the passion that people have for it. India is like no where else on Earth which is why so many tourists come to experience it. Jai Ho!

Haha, they loved the “Jai Ho” bit!

And now for some photos…


The sun sets over my apartment on 13th February

The sun sets over my apartment on 13th February

These guys were from Uttar Pradesh (I think)

These guys were from Uttar Pradesh (I think)

They were pretty energetic dancing around the stage

They were pretty energetic dancing around the stage

Wonder what the Health & Safety Executive would have to say about this!

Wonder what the Health & Safety Executive would have to say about this!

Massive temple right on the beach

Massive temple right on the beach

My friend was mobbed by people from Pune

My friend was mobbed by people from Pune

Soon more people came over and took photos

Soon more people came over and took photos

Even I couldn't escape as they lined up to have their photo taken with me

Even I couldn't escape as they lined up to have their photo taken with me

These people were from Kerala and the girl had an incredible voice!

These people were from Kerala and the girl had an incredible voice!

...She was also quite pretty :)

...She was also quite pretty πŸ™‚

These guys were from...India. It was basically like Morris dancing with bells and sticks

These guys were from...India. It was basically like Morris dancing with bells and sticks

This girl from Pune did a very sensual dance - lots of wiggling!

This girl from Pune did a very sensual dance - lots of wiggling!

Another guy asks my friend for her "good name"
We were quite the tourist attraction!

We were quite the tourist attraction!

These guys...not too sure what they were doing!

These guys...not too sure what they were doing!

Huge crowds of people were there

Huge crowds of people were there

My new friend from North East India working in a shop here in Chennai

My new friend from North East India working in a shop here in Chennai


Give a Little Respect

Something you will discover about India is that there is a huge patriotic streak that runs through every citizen, but it only surfaces when they feel threatened, or as I believe, insecure about something – I have sat through frequent rants about how India is so much more enlightened and a better country than the West will ever be, usually after having made an innocuous statement like “India has poor people”. There is an inbuilt resistance to not wanting to hear anything bad about the country and in some ways I guess that is quite patriotic.

Oh yes, if you are Indian and you are reading this then I should forewarn you that you might get a little bit upset because I’m about to insult your country and your litter culture. While I welcome your comments and thoughts about the Indian attitude to littering there is no need to vent about something unrelated like the “western superiority complex”. The issue at hand is litter. Stick to it πŸ™‚

The modus operandi for Indian citizens is to have a mutual dislike with neighbouring states, much like the rivalry between England and Scotland. The dislike intensifies when talking about North India and South India. The South believes the North are all stupid (and given the latest case of student visa fraud in the UK, they may have a point) and the North generally regards the South as prudish and socially repressed (which again, is a fair point!).

But that all changes the moment someone insults or makes fun of India and you suddenly find that you have 1.2 billion very angry citizens to contend with.

Jai Hind. (roughly translates to “Victory to India”).

Take for example the racist attacks in Australia. The whole of India is currently united in their hatred of Australia with the forums and blogs full of tirades denouncing Australians as fundamentally racist.

(This of course coming from a country with a thousand years of the Caste system and where low caste communities have barriers and walls built around them to stop them coming near areas of high caste community, or where low caste people have to be buried in separate cemeteries to high caste people, or can’t even enter a temple of their faith)

Anyway, for a country that can be so patriotic and united, they appear to have very little respect for the land in which they live. It’s perfectly normal to be driving along, drinking a bottle of Coke and when you are finished with it, wind down the window and chuck it out, no matter where you are, or who it might hit.

Car interiors are kept spotlessly clean because whenever you are finished eating or drinking anything the packaging goes straight out the window. It doesn’t matter if it’s paper, plastic, metal, with not a thought for the environment (or who it might hit as it’s launched from the car) it gets unceremoniously dumped.

Thinking of taking the family out (and this is India, the immediate family will consist of 40 people) for a picnic on a Sunday afternoon? They will certainly come back with less than they took because all the food packaging, wrappers, containers etc. will be left behind, not even placed in to a bin, joining the rest of the litter from other family picnics.

When my company had a sports day, catering was laid on, plastic cups and plates were provided along with water bottles. At the end of the day when people were leaving what happened to all that rubbish? It was left behind, strewn across the playing fields, a job for someone else to pick up.

The point I’m trying to make here is that having a disregard for the environment and others around you isn’t a problem of the minority of people or even a majority of people. This is EVERYBODY. It cuts through age, gender and socio-economic boundaries.

I was on a very scenic railway while in Ooty – it’s actually a UNESCO world heritage site. I was sat in the first class carriage and a very wealthy middle class man in his early thirties was with his family. He was giving drinks and snacks to his young daughter and as she finished them he simply threw the packaging out the window, despite signs all over the place pleading people not to throw their litter.

I’ve challenged a few people on why they just throw their rubbish in the street instead of waiting to find a rubbish bin or taking it home and putting it in a bin there. The answers range from “why should we make our car get dirty” to “I feel tired carrying it around” to the ever arrogant “poor people can pick it up and sell it as scrap“. Yet bizarrely the same people will also agree that dumping rubbish is a big problem and people shouldn’t do it but without acknowledging that they are responsible for it.

Just why people drop their rubbish without a thought could take a deeper understanding of Indian culture than I’ve got in the last two years, but my own theories extend from the fact that middle and upper class people are so used to having other people do their dirty work (even I have a maid who cleans my apartment each day) that they are able to drop things in their own home and the maid will clean it up instantly. Whether it’s food packaging or spilt drink, the culprit rarely has to clean it up themselves.

Even in the office, an office boy will hand out small paper cups of tea and coffee and then has to go around clearing them all up as the office staff will not put them in the bin, or worse, simply drop them on the floor.

Another classic example of this just happened tonight at the restaurant where a portly middle aged gentleman knocked his glass off the table shattering it and spilling water everywhere but made no attempt to help out or even acknowledge the fact, he was more concerned about getting another glass of water. Even as the water and glass sat on the floor the waiters continued as if nothing had happened. Eventually a small boy came along with a dustpan and brush and cleaned up the mess – the gentleman in question didn’t even apologise or thank the person for cleaning it up.

I think it’s this “I’m too good to clean up any mess” attitude that they take with them when they go out of the house, to them dropping their litter and trash is as normal as breathing, they’ve always done it, everyone else does it, so what’s the problem? As I said, there just isn’t any thought about how it might affect others or the environment, as long as the used packaging is no longer in your life, who cares what happens to it.

This uncivilized and thoughtless attitude is carried over to the incredible beauty spots all over India. Despite a million signs and rubbish bins, Indians continue to drop their litter as if they are too good or too worthy to be carrying rubbish and somehow it’s the responsibility of the poor and low caste to clean it all up for them.

Now, I’m writing this blog post in Ooty, one of the most beautiful places in all of Tamil Nadu with breath taking scenery everywhere you look, and yet despite the awe inspiring views around me, I found that I was becoming increasingly annoyed with the middle class Indian for the complete and utter disrespect they have for their country, other people and ultimately, themselves.

What should have been an entry of stunning scenery instead turned in to a rant about disrespectful Indians with no civic sense whatsoever. It’s not even as if they can claim there is no where to put their rubbish as there are bins literally everywhere.

I’ve included photos in the hope that it shames at least some people to think twice before throwing the empty water bottle, cigarette packet, tissue, crisp packet or coke can out the car window when they are finished with it.

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Now, cue angry responses from Indians who claim they don’t drop any litter at all!

The Two Indias and Generalizations

I’ve been accused on more than a few occasions (well, OK, on every blog post I make that mentions India) of over generalizing (yes, weirdly, my English has be Americanized since being in India and I now spell stuff with zee’s insteaded of esses) with my sweeping statements about the country, population and culture.

To some extent this is very true, but if I noted the exceptions to my generalizations they’d be longer than the blog post itself and then it would be, well, frankly boring. Even more boring infact.

However, I thought I’d talk some more about these generalizations, and then add a few more micro-generalizations in to the mix to annoy my Indian friends even more πŸ™‚

The first generalization that I make is that I often allude to the fact that I’m talking about all of India, when infact what I may have observed or seen was just in Chennai, a city in the state of Tamil Nadu. To put this in perspective, imagine if I said everyone in Europe eats big sausages called frankfurters because I went to Munich and saw people eating them there. Get the picture?

The second generalization that I make is that I assume that what happens in the cities is the same as what happens in the rural countryside. Again, to give this some perspective, imagine if I said all teenagers in England wear their trousers below their arse and have big hoodie tops because I’d been to Brixton in London and seen this.

India should probably be called the United States of India because each state has its own language, culture and customs. They even have state laws, so some states are dry (like Gujurat) while others are fairly liberal with alcohol laws (like Goa). I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again, but you have to imagine Europe being one country and then you can understand how varied the India is and how difficult it must be to manage.

What’s more is that North India is different to South India. South India is generally (there goes those generalizations again!) considered to be more conservative than the North, so anytime I mention something being ridiculously conservative or prudish, it may not apply to North India.

Similarly the metros (that’s major cities to you and I) are a much different kettle of fish to the rural areas. It’s fairly safe to say that the metro cities are less conservative and traditional than the rural counter parts. Infact, someone told me that marriage within the family almost never happens within the city now πŸ™‚ awesome progress!

So when reading my blog and I use the stock phrase “in India”, consider the fact that I might be talking about something I saw down a side street in a slummy part of Chennai πŸ™‚

As one of my friends said: Everything you’ve heard or read about India is true. But then, the opposite is also true.

If You Go Down To The Beach Today

Given the utter lack of things to do in Chennai (ie. the pub) on Sunday evenings, Chennai, as a whole, converges en-masse to a place known as Marina beach. I often forget that Chennai is a coastal city but it’s just a short 10 minute train ride to get to the beach.

Marina beach is the place to go, it’s like Blackpool but not as bad. Families play with their kids, newly weds and secret couples sit slightly closer to one another trying to look nonchalant (but no touching!) and groups of lads do whatever it is young men do and talk about in India. Talk about cricket I guess. Amazingly you’ll also find small groups of young lady’s on the beach – quite what they are doing out of their hostels and on their own I don’t know! :p

When I went to the beach this weekend I did notice a large mixed group of young twenty somethings – presumably MBA students – sitting in a circle and chatting away to one another, however, true to the norms of the society in this part of the country, dignity was maintained by having all the girls on one half of the circle and all the guys on the other.

The beach is like India everywhere, the rich rub shoulders with the poor. If you sit or remain stationary for more than a few minutes, hawkers converge on you like the plague, peddling everything from food of a dubious quality to palm reading and even parakeets that can foretell your future by selecting cards from a pile. You’ll even get the unfortunately disformed beggars trying to touch you and ask you for money and as a foreigner you are definitely seen as a walking ATM!

Oh yes, and as a foreigner if the hawkers don’t get to you first then it’s because some locals have come over to speak to you. Some of my friends can find this quite tiring but I personally love the attention and curious nature of the people here! However, the questions are always the same…

  • “You are from?”
  • “How you like India?”
  • “You like our food?”
  • “How you find our climate?”
  • “This is your wife?” (pointing to my friend)
  • “You have been in India how long?”

Then when they learn that you’ve been living and working in India for the last two years the focus of the questions change…

  • “You have a smart salary?”
  • “How much you earn?”

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And then, after chatting for you for 5 minutes, during which time you grow more conscious of the fact that you have not asked them a single question they ask for “your good name” and ask if they can exchange contact details with you – as a result my phoneboook is stuffed full of numbers for young and middle aged Indian men who I’ve met for all of 5 minutes, answered the same questions and never spoken to again in my life…if only it was this easy to get women’s numbers!

Back to the beach.

While the Indian middle classes are still learning about recreation, downtime and life beyond the office / shop / factory, the deep rooted traditional values of the south remain intact. Women do venture in to the sea but this being India they keep themselves covered from head to toe – yep, they go in to the sea fully dressed, it’s quite bizarre!

Unfortunately, from a personal point of view, no where sells buckets and spades for creating massive sand castles, so one of my few talents is completely wasted on the beaches of Chennai πŸ™

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Who Cares What Your Dreams Are

I asked my friend a question the other day, I don’t think they got why I was asking it though. The question I asked was: At what point is a country sufficiently developed enough that the people are able to pursue a career in a field that actually interests them instead of doing what pays the best.

Yes, it was an uncharacteristically deep and loaded question for someone of my nature. But it was after several bottles of super-strength (not below 6%) Kingfisher and in these circumstances such musings are often liable to surface from hidden depths.

You see, in India, for most of the lower-middle classes (and particularly in the rural areas, the middle classes) it’s the parents who decide what degree the child should pursue. It doesn’t matter if the child has aspirations of being a nurse, an accountant, a fireman, an electrician, a designer or a retail manager; the parents will tell them what degree to do.

For the most part the parents will choose an Engineering based degree because this gives them a greater chance of earning more money. One of the most popular courses is called Bachelor of Computer Applications (BCA), which is basically a programming degree because until recently, there has been a strong demand for programmers as the IT outsourcing boom continued.

Parents will put their children on these courses (and in cases where the students can choose, they will put themselves on the course) because IT pays so well compared to all other industries and is also accessible to the less wealthy – unlike a career in banking, law or medicine which is still the preserve of the wealthy kids who have had a very good private education.

It doesn’t matter if the student is particularly interested in IT, programming or computers. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have any aptitude towards the subject. All that matters is that it can potentially give a high paying job. Interests and ultimately job satisfaction considered optional, or maybe even a bonus.

Actually, a job as a career adviser in India is probably the easiest job in the world. “Programmer. Next!” “Call centre. Next!” “Programmer. Next!” “Call centre. Next!”. I might make enquiries!

To further their chances of employment based on academics, the vast majority of students will do two degrees, usually 3 years of Bachelors of Computer Applications and then another 1 year to do their Masters of Computing Applications.

So now we have the case where a company takes on trainee programmers, fresh out of college and holding high academic marks with their multiple degrees, yet because they have no passion or enthusiasm for the subject they are hopeless as a software developer. I’ve seen a number of freshers who’ve been so spectacularly bad you wonder how on Earth they got through university (or even managed to get dressed in the morning).

(On a separate note, I would love to know how job worthy kids in England and America are when they come out of university)

The tragic part of this is that often families will take out large loans to send their kids through university, doing courses the child has no interest in but in the hope (and sometimes expectation) that they will get a well paid job based on the degree. When this doesn’t work out and the developer has no aptitude towards software development, sometimes through no fault of their own, they have basically wasted three to five years of their life and the family may have put themselves in to huge amounts of debt.

In the company I work for, if a developer fails to make the grade we try and accommodate them by training them to become a software tester, but you can’t force someone to be good at something if they’ve got no passion or interest. In our most recent programming recruitment drive of 15 freshers, who were highly qualified on paper, after 5 months only one remains as a software tester. We had to let the others go because they failed to make the grade.

Often I will interview an SEO analyst or a designer and when I ask them why they are doing this as a career the reply is “I wasn’t good enough to be a developer”. I know of people who might have three degrees in computing but since their aptitude is zero they are employed to press CTRL-C / CTRL-V (that’s shorthand for copying and pasting for you non-nerds out there!) all day. As a ‘career’. I’m certain they have great talents, but it’s not in IT and it probably wouldn’t pay them as much.

I do think that India might be shooting itself in the foot for the future development of the country. Too many students are following computer and programming related degrees and will fail to make the grade in the business world. Their skills and talents lie in other areas – area’s which India will undoubtedly need over the coming decades, but right here, right now, software development pays many, many more times than anything else (a Policeman with six years of service would earn less than a trainee programmer fresh out of college), and I think that’s going to be a problem in the long run.

Essentially I believe that the IT industry is sucking India dry because it’s not producing a wide enough variety of talented students in different fields, it’s producing millions of mediocre programmers.

Taking another example to illustrate this, I’m desperately looking for a content writer who has English as good as mine (and it should be noted that my English is pretty terrible so it shouldn’t be too difficult!). Since most universities teach in English and English is a second or even first language for most people you’d have thought this would be quite easy but even if a student had an aptitude for the English language, they’d have gone to study programming because English as a skill isn’t seen as being as ‘valuable’ as programming, so due to the laws of supply and demand, I will pay a good content writer more money than a programmer because they are a rarity and hence more valuable!

So this takes me back to my original question and the blog title. Who cares what your dreams are in India, become a programmer and earn more money. Or that’s the plan for now anyway.

It’s Actually Kind of Endearing

The other Saturday a friend came over for a few beers (ok, I had a few beers, she had a fruit juice) and to watch a couple of movies. Since I subscribe to the can’t cook, won’t cook school of thought I informed her before hand that while I can lay on the entertainment, catering will not be provided.

Not a problem, she announced, she’d just order a takeaway when she got to my place.

Now my apartment isn’t particularly difficult to find, you simply go along the main road and hang a right at the supermarket, go down that road for 500m and my apartment is on the left. Easy huh?

Well there are two hurdles, no, wait, three hurdles. First off, the road that I live on is called 3rd Cross Street and the wisdom that is Indian urban planning decided that it would be a wonderfully efficient idea to name several streets in the local vicinity 3rd Cross Street.

None of this really matters anyway because, in my experience, the ability to read a map is not something that’s taught in Indian schools. Hence, any delivery driver wouldn’t be able to find 3rd Cross Street anyway, let alone navigate to it on a map.

And finally, even if by chance we got someone who could read a map, there are no street signs telling you what road you are on anyway!

Navigation in India works on the basis of landmarks, even in official docs there is space to enter a landmark when you enter your address. It’s not uncommon to see a company address say something like “nr Passport Office”.

Getting back to the takeaway order, I advised my friend to do some food before she came over, ordering food would simply be too stressful, as I have previously discussed in another blog post about how poor tandoori wala is.

The single biggest problem is that my nearest ‘landmark’ is several streets away and the person would need to understand where to turn left or right or what to look out for. This even causes problems when I get an auto home, if I were to say RK Nagar, I get a blank look, if I say Mandavelli Railway Station (in a very weird accent, mind you) then they understand. The problem is my apartment is about 3 minutes from the station and you’ve barely passed it before the driver will start complaining “long distance boss, 20 rupees more”.

So my friend was explaining my address and getting more and more frustrated by the second, but eventually after 10 minutes there seemed to be some understanding. No doubt there would be phone calls later saying the delivery boy was now in Mumbai but couldn’t find our street.

Next she had to actually order some food which is where I had to leave the room because she stared at me with murder in her eyes!

She was trying to order some tomato soup. Now although people like auto drivers and delivery boys in Chennai do speak English to a certain degree, you have to say things with the right accent to be understood, still, when a restaurant has a choice of just 5 different soups, one of them being tomato, you wouldn’t have thought there’d be too much of a problem!

But no, try as she might, they couldn’t understand tomato.

‘to-ma-to’ she tried
‘to-may-toe’ was next
‘to-mae-too’ came another attempt. Thinking on her feet, she decided to spell it out…

‘t-yo-yem-yay-tee-yo’ (which is how letters are pronounced here) still nothing. There was a pause on the other end of the phone, and a hopeful response came back, ‘mushroom?’, at this point she gave up, ‘fine, mushroom’.

She proceeded to place the rest of her order with very few problems. They totted up the bill and told her the final price, less than 200 rupees, about Β£2.60 and enough food to feed two people.

Then came the final bombshell, ‘romba (means ‘very’ in Tamil) busy madam, 2 hours minimum delivery’. My friend couldn’t believe it, she’d spent close to 25 minutes placing the order and it was going to be gone 11pm before they could deliver it! So she did the only thing she could which was to cancel the order and wish she could have the last 25 minutes of her life back.

We carried on watching the film and she left when it finished. I continued with another film, when at 11.30 there was a ring at my door.

‘hello sir, sangeethas delivery’

It was at this point I decided that actually India is quite endearing. Not only had they found my place without assistance, they had even got the order right which included tomato (or is it tomayto?) soup! Despite the fact that my friend cancelled the order, they’d pushed ahead and delivered it anyway.

So if you know anyone who wants some tandoori paneer, sambar rice and tomato soup, I have some in my fridge πŸ™‚