Posts in "India"

Absolutely Fabulous, Darling

Me? At a fashion show? Has the world gone stark raving mad? I’m a computers and football man upon whom fashion gave up a long ago as a lost cause. I would wear sweat pants to work if my boss would let me, so what business, you may wonder, do I have being at a swanky fashion show at Chennai’s most expensive 5 star hotel?

Well. It went a little something like this…

Girlfriend: Hey, you wanna come to a fashion show next weekend?
Me: *Makes a screwed up face*
GF: What?! You’ll like it, lots of pretty ladies on the catwalk for you to look at.

Ha, I didn’t get to the ripe old age of 28 without learning at least something about girls, no matter what my mum thinks. For any young male readers, you are about to be schooled…

Me: But you’re the prettiest girl I know, why would I want to look at any other girl?

And that, kids, is how it’s done 😉

GF: Aww, that’s so sweet, but you should come, there will be free food.

Now, at this point I should mention that if you want people, or anyone, to come to your event in India, you have to lay on free food. The most successful stall at a recent “food security” expo wasn’t the one that had the traditional folk dance, it wasn’t the cute puppet show and nor was it the one where they sang a humourous song about fruit complete with banana actions, it was the one which gave away free food.

Me: Meh, you’re speaking to the wrong person, food is nothing but fuel for the body
GF: Hmph! Well there will be a free bar there too.

So I rocked up to the hotel all suited and booted at 7pm, the show was due to start at 8pm but I wanted to make sure I got a good seat at the bar by the catwalk.

Now, I should probably reiterate here that this hotel is proper swanky like and it isn’t for regular folk, it’s for the people who can swan up in top of the range BMW’s, Mercedes, Jags, Porsches, Audi’s and Bentley’s. Obviously it was impossible for me to show up without a set of wheels and since my peers had chosen some of the finest names in European automotive manufacturing, I too needed something to prove that I was their equal.

After some thought on the matter I decided to opt for an Italian thoroughbred, a name synonymous with prestige and known throughout the world: The Piaggio 2 Stroke 50cc Apé City, colloquially referred to as the tuk-tuk. Yeah, I know I had envious eyes on me as I stepped out this finely crafted beast and deftly slipped my driver a 100 rupee note, “Keep the change” I said, nonchalantly, and the driver roared off saying something about “vela kaka’s”.

italian thoroughbred automobile

I certainly turned a few heads when I turned up in this Italian designed beauty

Unfortunately for me, the organizers of the event had realized long ago that if you offer a free bar it’s best to open it after the event so as to keep people’s minds focused on the show at hand. And so it was that I walked in to an alien world of high class sophistication and took my seat next to the catwalk.

The fashion show was to launch the 2012 saree collection of a fashion designer here in Chennai. I’m not totally familiar with the intricacies of saree design, but apparently I saw corporate wear, casual wear, concept wear and bridal wear although not necessarily in that order. I think that as with all things fashionable that walk down the catwalk, it’s very hard to see how the clothes would translate in to real life for the real person. For example the casual wear sarees revealed more flesh than the average Geordie lass on a night out on the ‘toon and the corporate sarees would have everyone asking what the special occasion is.

The intermission between each set had performances by a urban dance act calling themselves Fictitious Group, they were actually finalists on the Indian version of the Got Talent franchise. They danced to a mashup of music and movie sound clips and it worked pretty well, although it was totally out of place for the fashion show, see for yourself in the video below…

And if you want to see pretty girls in sarees (don’t forget that some of these are branded as corporate and casual wear) checkout the slideshow below. I don’t know why it right aligns the portrait photos though and the image quality is appalling, but we’ll just have to live with it for now.

The Name Is Pizza

One of my ongoing sources of torment, and virtually the only thing the sales team in my office can tease me about now that England have confirmed themselves as the number one cricketing nation in the world, is the English pronunciation of various Tamil names and phrases.

The trouble stems from the fact that English, being a sensible language, has just 26 characters in its alphabet and has approximately 42 phonemes (the way things are pronounced). Tamil, by contrast, being the 2,500 year old language that it is, has 247 characters in the alphabet and a mind boggling number of phonemes – for example they have 17 ways just to pronounce the letter ‘L’, 8 ways to pronounce the letter ‘N’ and exactly zero ways to pronounce the letter ‘W’.

All this presents a bit of a problem, particularly when trying to transliterate from a Tamil word or phrase to the English equivalent because there just aren’t enough characters or phonemes to get the pronunciation accurate. One constant source of amusement for everyone who knows me is that my office is in an area of Chennai called Valluvar Kottam. Now being the person I am and refusing to take in to account that it’s just the best spelling match you can get with such a rudimentary language like English, I read this word (as all other English speaking people would) as: val-loo-vaar cot-tam. Which isn’t even close to being right. Infact it couldn’t be more wrong. You go up to anyone in Chennai and ask how to get to val-loo-vaar cot-tam and they will look at you like you’ve just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.

My pronunciation disability can have some bizarre outcomes as with what happened this evening. I got back to my apartment after a hard day at work and the watchman (all apartments have watchmen, but that’s a story for another day) motioned for me to come and speak to him. He wanted the maintenance money which every apartment needs to pay each month, it’s 900 rupees (about 14 pounds) so I fished around in my wallet and handed him a wad of notes and the watchman pulled out a tatty old notebook and a stub of a pencil. The conversation went a little something like this…

Watchman: வாட் இஸ் யுவர் நேம? (Transliterates to: Un peru enna? and translates to: What is your name?)
Me: Peter
Watchman: Picture?
Me: நோ, Peter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peter).
Watchman: Pitza?
Me: நோ, Pee-ter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peeter).
Watchman: *confused* …Petcha?
Me: Grr, no! It’s P-E-T-E-R, Peter.
Watchman: …Pitza?
Me: *sigh*. Yes, fine, pizza.

And that is why, if you were to look in the watchman’s tatty old notebook, under August 2011 Maintenance you would find an entry that says Mr. Pitza paid 900 rupees for maintenance.

Note: If you just see silly square boxes in the conversation above, it means you have an old computer that doesn’t support the Tamil fonts.

No Photoshop, Just Pollution

This was the sunset over Chennai on Sunday evening, taken from my balcony. There was no post-production work done on this photo, it was just snapped with a simple compact digital camera. According to scientists, the reds, oranges and purples are caused by light being scattered by particles in the upper atmosphere, the more particles the more it gets scattered and the ‘blue’ lightwave is lost, leaving the reds and oranges. If there is a lot of pollution like aerosols and all the other crap that us humans produce we’re rewarded with some pretty spectacular sunsets. I’m willing to hear a more accurate and scientific answer though, (Tom, I’m looking at you here!).

Stupidity Or Talented

Some sections of society here in India seem to have a rather cavalier attitude towards life, bordering on a reckless disregard for their own lives. More often than not it tends to be young men from the poorer communities, but I’ve also seen young men on motorbikes weaving dangerously through traffic, skipping stop signs, playing chicken with buses and trucks – the list goes on.

Whether it’s misplaced bravery or a complete lack of imagination of the consequences of their actions I don’t know. I guess parallels could be drawn with some adrenaline sports like bungie jumping or skydiving, but at least there is an element of safety with these sports although maybe there is no excuse for the absurdity of tombstoning which involves throwing oneself off a very high cliff in to water which could be deep or could have rocks below the surface, let’s just jump on in and find out, eh?!

Anyway, in the same vein of the asininity of tombstoning, a video has recently surfaced in India which shows a bunch of young lads performing death defying stunts on a commuter train in Mumbai in what has been referred to as free style train surfing. Rather alarmingly, while the media here along with the vast majority of people who watch it condemn the stupidity of youths, there is a minority that actually praise and comment how talented and skillful you must be to perform such stunts…

this guy deserve AWARD!!! we all every stunt is risky but riding on wall with urs legs with matching urs walk speed with train speed was simply OUTSTANDING THANKS for sharing video link god bless you stuntboy 🙂 james bond sucks urs d**k!!!

These guys are very daring, pick them up, give trainning, give them job in police or defence. We must utilize such talent and use them for our country

I’ve never seen anyone doing anything as insane as the train surfing stunt below, but I have seen school kids who stand on the station platform and run alongside the train and jump on at the last minute, or who do a similar thing with the buses and hang precariously on to the sides just feet from certain death if they fall. And to think my mother used to get worried when I climbed trees when I was a kid!

In actual fact, one American blog has a whole different angle on the video: India is the new king of viral videos.

The Hindu Gods

Took this snap in T-Nagar (an area within Chennai, just like Clapham is an area within London) on Friday evening. T-Nagar is actually quite commercial and there are several 4 and 5 star business hotels close by, but like so much of Chennai the residents who have lived here for generations, when T-Nagar was a small village outside the city, fiercely retain their tradition and culture. In this case the entire street was closed off and decked out with lights, light sculptures, a huge stage and devotional music blasting out the PA speakers. My poor friend has her apartment right in the middle of all of this!

Girl On Wire

When you never went to school or have got no place to call home, you’ve got to make money anyway you can and in India one of the ways families make money is by putting their daughter up on a tightrope and asking her to balance precariously 2 metres above ground with only the concrete below to cushion her impact should she fall.

One of the travelling tightrope families stopped outside my apartment in July 2011, they set up their show by knocking two bloody great big nails in to the road (there are so many potholes any way, two more don’t matter) and then securing a rope to them. As you will see, it’s quite the attraction with everyone stopping to watch for a few minutes before the mother goes around with a dish to collect some money. By my calculations they collect Rs 100 – 150 (about $2.25 – $2.50) each time.

Is it exploitative for the young girl? I don’t know, probably, but she almost certainly doesn’t go to school or get any kind of education and her parents probably can’t get jobs but you’ve still got to survive right? And it certainly beats begging at the traffic lights!

A Ramadan Feast

On 31st August it was Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s referred to here in India) when Muslims celebrate the ending of the month of fasting. Normally it’s not an an event of note for me except that this time I was lucky enough to be invited in to the home of a Muslim family and eat with them.

The traditional Muslim food is mutton biryani and they cook it by the bucket load. I was advised to wear special stretchy pants before I came because I was expected to eat a LOT and yeah, they weren’t kidding. The food was served on a banana leaf because that was traditionally used for serving food (in actual fact the entire banana tree is used for some purpose or another, not just for the fruit it produces) and it sure beats paper plates in terms of the environment.

On the banana leaf in the picture below there is mutton biryani, chicken 65 (so called because it’s supposedly 65 days old), brinjal and raita. The absence of cutlery means one thing: you eat with your hands. In actual fact there was cutlery available but the family thought it would be far more hilarious to watch this foreigner try and use his hands to eat rice, something which I not only failed miserably at but also completely failed to keep any ounce of dignity while trying to do it.

Not content with the huge amounts of food that had been placed on my plate, I was given a massive bag which contained enough food to feed the entire Indian army for a month and was affectionately referred to as a “midnight snack” incase I got hungry later! I’ve taken a quick photo of all the food given to me for the ‘snack’, but actually better served me as lunch and dinner the following day. And the day after. And the day after that.

In the photo below we have a whole load of yummy stuff. Starting from the top left and working clockwise we have a dessert called gulab jamum, which is definitely not made from cottage cheese (sorry readers, a little inside joke there), then there are two boiled eggs in a tangy paste, then some more fried chicken 65, then another dessert which I don’t remember the name of, then 45kg of mutton biryani, then another dessert called payasam and finally a bowl of raita. Oh, and you’ll probably recognize the Cadbury’s chocolate bars so no need to explain them!

Wow, so much food and so much hospitality. You’ve never known true hospitality until you’ve visited an Indian family home. In this case I was taken in and made to feel like part of the family, fed until I could eat no more and then given even more food to take back with me. I lost two kilos in August from going to the gym consistently, looks like I’ll need to do it all again in September to shed the 2kg I put on from all this food!

Thanks to my adopted Indian family for taking care of me on Ramadan, making me feel so welcome and making sure I wouldn’t go hungry for a week!

New Chennai Airport

Check out the new Chennai airport that is being developed at the moment. Looks like it will be a huge improvement on the current building which is looking a bit old and crusty now – it was built over 20 years ago way before air travel exploded and businesses started invading India. The bit about the ‘green airport’ made me smile though, apparently a few plants makes the airport ‘green’. I wonder if Greenpeace would agree!

If You Thought The West Had Banking Troubles…

There are so many things that defy logic and explanation in India that I’ve virtually given up writing about them on this blog but I feel motivated enough to write about yet another absurd Indian practice that angers me while at the same time amuses me. It’s labeled as being more efficient and yet you end up with multiple dormant bank accounts that never get used again.

When I arrived in India in January 2008 I had to open a bank account to receive my salary. Nothing unusual about that, the company brought in the representative from Standard Chartered (a British bank which rather oddly doesn’t operate in Britain), I filled out some documents, gave 10 million forms of ID along with a blood sample, and then, just to make sure I really was who I said I was, they made me copy out my signature 10 times to ensure it matched EXACTLY each time.

Apparently in India no one can forge a signature and it’s the most secure method against someone stealing your identity – according to my boss, anyway.

So I got a Standard Chartered account and I was happy, they even upgraded me to a Priority Customer because they reckoned they could make some cash out of me. As far as I could tell, being a Priority Customer meant you could flash a little black credit card around and pay 2,000 rupees (about 26 pounds) a year for the privilege of proving to the lowly shop assistant that you were far superior to them. (or in the immortal words of Harry Enfield: “I’m considerably richer, than yowse“)

But then disaster struck. My company decided that Standard Chartered was the most evil, money grabbing, greedy bank in existence (and since it’s British, they are almost correct in that allegation, but I think surely RBS must take that crown) and effective immediately, no further dealings would be done with them.

So how does that affect me?

Well, *deep breath* in India (the country that basically developed the software that powers the modern global financial system and built all the websites what we use for our online banking to send payments at a click of a button and who provides all the telephone banking support to the westerners), all businesses, big and small, are unable to process staff salaries to different bank accounts because I suspect they lack the technological means to do so. I mean, entering an account number and sort code for each employee is pretty high tech, right?

The inability to enter an account number and sort code in to the salary processing software means that a company will do a tie up with a bank and make all their employees open a salary account with that one bank and only pay salary to accounts with that bank – banks here apparently DO have the ability to send payments to their own customers.

It doesn’t matter if you’re currently paying your mortgage or loan with another bank, if you switch jobs or your company decides to use another bank for salary processing you are forced to have the additional headache of making sure there are always enough funds in the old account to meet the monthly repayments.

I had my Standard Chartered account, I was expected to feel special with my little black card, and to all extents and purposes, I was quite happy to bank with an English bank.

But the relationship didn’t last, the company decided that all 200+ employees must open new accounts with a bank called Axis Bank who promised lower fees, better service and the deal clincher: a free pen worth 500 rupees. They do love their freebies in India.

For an entire week the representative was in the office assisting the staff fill out the reams of paperwork and helpfully pointing out that their signatures were out by as much as 3 mm and it absolutely had to be exactly the same otherwise they might not be who they said they were.

Filling Out Paperwork Becomes Part Of Your Life In India

Filling Out Paperwork Becomes Part Of Your Life In India

Being a foreigner in a country that prides itself on inefficient bureaucracy I obviously had even more paperwork than everyone else because I could easily be here on false pretenses and actually trying to subvert this glorious country back to the dark colonial times. This meant I needed passport copies, residential agreements, visa documents, tax documents and loads of passport photos which had to each be attested by two different people that it was a good likeness of me.

Two weeks later I got all the paperwork back because the signatures on two of the documents didn’t match exactly and they were worried that I might not be who I said I was – I sometimes do the ‘g’ part of Claridge a bit different and that was the problem here, a quick glance and you couldn’t tell the difference, but closer inspection would reveal that the loop on the g wasn’t as big as on the other signatures. This Is India where your identity is determined by a signature 🙂

The fact that the account representative sat there and watched as I duly signed each document infront of him was apparently meaningless – “but sir, if your signatures don’t match exactly, you could be anyone!” “yes, this is true, when I put my new glasses on, some people do mistake me for Gandhi” – but he didn’t get the joke “no sir, Gandhi is Indian only”.

Eventually, after much practice, and with the account representative getting more and more agitated that this stupid foreigner couldn’t even make his signature match up, I managed to get 10 signatures to match so perfectly even the eagle eyed desk wallas couldn’t notice any difference.

Yay! I now had a new, entirely pointless, bank account with Axis Bank. No more money went in to Standard Chartered, but Axis Bank decided that I could continue feeling superior and gave me a new platinum card (which was actually black) for a better price of 1,500 rupees a year and came with numerous advantages and benefits such as being able to use it in any ATM in India* (*you may be charged for withdrawals from non-Axis Bank ATMs) and swipe it to pay for my shopping in at least 10 stores all over India. What’s more is that it comes with built in anti-fraud measures such as having your signature on the back which is totally unique to only you. Oh yeah. Living the dream!

Quite soon, with my new ultra cool, signature-secure Axis Bank account I forgot all about Standard Chartered and started making fixed deposits and building a nice little nest egg, but it wasn’t to last. This is India. And in India expect not just the unexpected but something to blow you away so completely that defies all logic and reasoning in the real world.

My company decided that Axis Bank were greedy, money grabbing, thieving robbing bastards[1] and they’d rather rot in hell than have anything else to do with them. Turns out that the low-rollers, those that didn’t get signature-secure little black credit cards, were not treated in the same way that ‘privileged’ customers such as myself were dealt with. Because many people earn such small amounts, Axis Bank decided that they needed to be charged a monthly ‘low usage fee’ so that the bank could make more money out of them and ensure that the poor and downtrodden stay poor and downtrodden. Whatever next? Signature-secure debit cards for the housekeeping staff? Perish the thought!

Anyway, can you see what’s coming?

I have to open another new bank account because Indian companies are unable to pay salary to people who have accounts with different banks. Emerging super-power indeed!

The hunt for a new bank began, the management looked at HDFC, SBI, Barclays (yay! British!), Citibank and more. Then along came a Standard Chartered rep who asked if the company would be interested in switching to them, “Hah! No way!” was the company reply “but we’ll give you a free pen worth 1,000 rupees for switching to us” “Ooo, where do we sign?”.

Back full circle, the company is again signing up 200+ employees to get Standard Chartered accounts so that they can be paid their salary.

Me: Ah hah! I already have a Standard Chartered account, here are my details.
Them: Ah hah! Your signatures don’t match, you could be ANYONE! You must go to your local branch 15km away and prove that you are Peter Claridge and then they will make a final decision on whether you are actually Peter Claridge or not. And oh, because you haven’t used your account in over 12 months you have incurred a banking fee of Rs 2,500, would you like to write us a cheque or would you like us to deduct it from your next salary credit?
Me: You still use cheques here?
Them: Yes, it’s very secure because it has your signature on it

The Red Tape And Bureaucracy Is Incredible

The Red Tape And Bureaucracy Is Incredible

We’ve now reached a bit of an impasse because the finance director is screaming at me to get my Standard Chartered account sorted so the company can pay me, I’m saying hell no, pay me to my Axis account here is my account number and sort code and the Standard Chartered account rep is begging me to make my signatures match.

I asked why on Earth companies in India are unable to pay people to the bank account of their choice and I got a tirade of abuse back from my boss on how I think the West does everything so much better and that it is easier and more efficient for companies to pay everyone in the same bank.

Easier for companies maybe, but at the current rate if I stay in India for another 3 years I’ll end up with 6 different bank accounts – and according to my boss that’s far more efficient! TII 😀

1 Phrase borrowed with permission from my father

Well Done, India!

I thought I would hold off making any public comments about the Commonwealth Games until after the actual event, mostly because being a British expat in India if you criticise anything about India the general population will jump on you and accuse you of being a bloody westerner who is always trying to put India down.

Another, albeit smaller, reason was that I had this sneaky suspicion at the back of my mind that actually everything might work out in the end. It’s just the way things are in India; everything just has a magical, borderline spooky, way of working out – I can see why India is so spiritual and the home of Yoga and other meditation practices.

I don’t really know how to tackle the Commonwealth Games, so I think I’m just going to have to split it up in to sections…err and hope that it some how turns out alright in the end.

The Indian Athletes

Just one word: unbelievable. India has always been a nation that has underachieved in world sports. Their Olympic medal tally to date stands at 20 medals in the last 108 years and by contrast Jamaica have won 55 medals in the last 60 years.

There are too many reasons why this is the case, but if I had to put my finger on it, I would start by looking at the fact that 42% of people live on less than $1.25 a day, the immense pressure on young middle class adults to get a job in a multi-national company and study rather than playing sports and the total domination of cricket in the local sporting scene at the expense of other sports.

But wow. How these games have changed all that. The hosting nation always gets a medal boost as they invest more in to the sports to raise the profile of the games within the country, but India managed to exceed even the wildest expectations of sports commentators around the world – although inside the country they were open about the fact that they wanted to come second before the games even started, but I’m sure even they felt that they had gone above and beyond what they thought possible.

It seems that India concentrated on a few areas, there was the total domination in the shooting, archery and wrestling, but they also had individual stars in other events like tennis and badminton. On the track and field side of things there is still a lot of work to do, however the women won gold in the 4×400 relay and the men took bronze in the 4×100 event.

I think to put it simply: the performance of the Indian athletes eclipsed all the negativity in the build up to the event and you can’t take anything away from them.

Some critics might point that over 25 top athletes pulled out of the events which surely made an impact on the quality of the competition. However, over 100 Commonwealth Games records were set in Delhi, compared to just 33 in Melbourne 2006 – not exactly an indication of weakened competition!

Part of the reason for the excellent performances of so many athletes could be attributed to the $100,000 that India gave to all countries (which was fully disclosed in 2003 and definitely NOT a bribe in the under-the-table-brown-envelope sense) to help fund training, transport and lodging costs – something that enabled every country to compete, like the 4 man team from St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic so remote that Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled there by the British!

OK, I think that’s enough to write about for now, I still want to look at the corruption and building controversy that surrounded the build up to event in another blog post.

I Still Find Stuff Like This Funny

You know, after two and a half years (flipping heck!) in India, I really shouldn’t be finding the hodgepodge approach to the English language funny anymore, but every now and then I feel compelled to photo and share some of the unique ways English is being used here in India.

The photo below was taken from a nice little vegetarian restaurant around the corner from my apartment that I went to last night. I can’t believe I’ve not been before because it was really cheap and the food was good. My whole meal, which included a dessert and coffee (I know, I really went crazy) came to Rs 155 – about £2.20.

thank-you-come-agin

As a sidenote, I’ve been here so long and seen first hand just how expensive things can come when you have double digit inflation. Two years ago the meal would have probably cost about £1.80 – so nearly a 25% increase. You know things are getting bad when the middle classes start to complain about how expensive things are getting.