A Year in Rajasthan

November 4, 2009

ElephantandGirl

Yes, it its true, I have been deserting my much-loved blog. I am so sorry!

The reason is, I simply don’t have time. I am overworked, and although being busy with work is an exhilarating feeling, I do miss my daily blogging break. 

But today is a special day: exactly a year ago I wrote my first post.

I remember it so well.

I had just been kicked out of my flat, lost my job and was going through a bitter and painful breakup. My ex-boss was refusing to pay my severance fee, I was broke, and sleeping on a mattress on the floor of my new flat, I went paler and paler wondering what I was going to do with my life, my heart and the 35 cardboard boxes scattered around the flat. I remember it so well.

That’s when I started this blog. 

It gave my days a structure – I would write first thing in the morning. And it made me happy. The amazing feedback I got was unexpected and wonderful.

Now it’s been a year and how things have changed. After months of fighting, I finally got my severance fee. I designed, sold, produced and exported my first line of jewellery. I have my own company in India, complete with hundreds of codes, numbers, certificates and bill books. I don’t date Indian men anymore. And my flat might not be spectacular, but it’s pretty, cosy and colorful. And it has beds.

Dear reader, my apologies for this display of self-satisfaction, believe me I am not fishing for compliments here. I am just truly, genuinely, completely amazed. It is incredible what can happen, in only a year, if you fight for it. 

Oh, and since November 4th 2008, this blog has registered 32,854 hits. That’s 1,314 times more than what I would have ever dreamt of.

Thank you!

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AA Gill and India

December 16, 2008

AA Gill ? On India ? This sounds too good to be true. And it is here.

The article is supposed to be about a vintage car rally but it is, really, about Bombay – and I am glad to see that he too sticks to the city’s old name: “Don’t call it Mumbai. Only CNN weather forecasters call it Mumbai“. I am with you, AA.

To say that I wasn’t disappointed by the article would be a wild understatement. I was bowled over right from the opening line about street-sellers in Bombay:

How often have you been stopped at a traffic light and thought, Damn, what I could really do with right now, this very minute, is a pink Barbie hairbrush and some skin-lightening ointment, or a plastic toy helicopter; a wrench set would be nice, or a yellow nylon teady bear.

Let’s not elaborate on his extraordinary command of the English language – I am merely grateful to be able to enjoy it.

To tell you the truth, I am actually tempted to shut this blog down and go build an AA Gill ashram somewhere around Matheran, with people chanting his articles and adorning his marble statue with strands of Golconda diamonds.

AA Gill is one of the very, very rare people whom I have had the urge to kiss and marry on the spot. Sadly, he is spoken for – he was married twice and now lives with Nicola Formby, Tatler’s society columnist, with whom he has twins. I was quite startled to find out that his cruelly witty restaurants reviews haven’t earned him only praise. He even got into some racism-related trouble because he said Welsh people were “pugnacious little trolls” or something like that. Which I must say quite sums up the only Welsh person I know. Now, I don’t want to keep digressing.

AA Gill, the Internet tells me, is a malicious Scottish star-columnist who jets around the world terrifying the likes of Gordon Ramsay ( thank God for AA Gill the world felt a little too safe lately). The man drives a bicycle and a Bentley and uses his pen like the Mughal soldiers their katar daggers.

Only, AA Gill doesn’t use a pen. He is severely dyslexic and has to dictate his articles to copytakers. Well, I am sorry to say but someone who managed to be a contributor to the Sunday Times, the Guardian and Vanity Fair despite not being able to handwrite a decipherable sentence will get my total and unconditional admiration, no matter how malicious he might be.

And it’s only getting better. He is a reformed alcoholic, and after a few phone calls to former and current alcoholics his age and nationality (yes, I have all kind of friends), mark my words: he was a hardcore alcoholic. The man comes from far. I don’t really feel like elaborating on the family scene (father died of Alzheimer, brother disappeared ten years ago) but let’s just say that there is some excess luggage there that makes the man highly likable to me.

Any. Way. You probably know all of this if English is your mothertongue, I only didn’t, being born and bred in the wuthering hills of Lorraine, France.

Sadly, the most interesting thing I read about AA Gill wasn’t elaborated on. He apparently claims to be of Indian descent. I searched that but didn’t find anything more than one laconic sentence at the end of a wikipedia article. Damnit.

Whatever he is, Scot or of Indian descent or both, Gill (a fairly common family name in India by the way) writes about India beautifully. There is the trademark wit, exquisitely brutal. He writes with the unimitable spice of someone who has seen beyond the curtain of knowledge and is telling us to laugh, because, well, because that’s the only way.

And indeed, sorry for all those who think about India with stricken, tragic faces, but a pretty good way to cope with India is to laugh. Because there is too much to take in and too little to rejoice on. Because wherever it is going, it is leaving millions and millions behind, stranded in their mudhuts or, for that matters, in their nothing. Because interreligious marriages might be the toast of Bollywood but they still mean, all over India, torture and murder. Because governments we support as the new India – India freaking Shining, they said – support the killing of 2,000 Muslims, no child spared, no pregnant woman left unopened, in the year 2002.

So yes, I am very seriously claiming laughter as the only way to get India. To get to enjoy it without letting it crawl under your skin.

AA Gill does this, and he does it brilliantly, because even though he is mercilessly funny, you can still see he cares. At least I do. I think he cares for this damn crazy country and wherever this thing comes from, it’s gotten him. He cares, and he understands what’s going on.

I can’t resist quoting him on the Indian middle-class:

” […] you know them when you see them. They have the worried and harassed, over-nourished look of the rest of us, and they suffer from all our acquisitive ambitions. They want stuff. Their wives want more stuff. Their kids feel entitled to stuff. Their aunts and their cousins, whom they count by the dozens, demand stuff. Then there’s the neighbor’s stuff to be kept up with. And stuff doesn’t just happen. They’re in debt, right up to the little red dots between their eyes. India’s emergent middle class is learning the first lesson of the international credit caste: that you will be held hostage by the very consumer economy you create, and the bigger it gets, the harder you work, the higher the ransom.

AA Gill, malicious writer? I am not sure. But maybe that’s because I am French. In my language, malice is not a vice. It is the breezy wit you only find in children. And in the Übermensch, says our friend Nietzsche.

 

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Arranged marriages, even though they seem to us like a concept from the Dark Age, are very much in. But of course, there are different types of arranged marriages.

The hardcore ones happen in rural areas. The older women on the boy’s side send the word that they are looking for a bride. Send the word is too strong an expression: they whisper about it in their closed quarters, and it spreads like wildfire. Within 12 minutes, all the villages in the district know. When the women hear about a suitable girl, the first thing they do (after checking her family’s assets and the dowry they can expect, let’s not forget we are talking business here) is matching the horoscopes. If the horoscopes match, then they’ll go check her out themselves. The bride-viewing trip to the girl’s village usually involves two dozen people squeezed in an old jeep, a round of tea, biscuits offered by the girl at whom the boy will try not to stare. However, since she’ll be around for about 14 seconds, he’d better try and get a glimpse. Not that anyone will ask his opinion. The families will talk, they will agree on a dowry (usually, in villages, a gold necklace and some cash) and next time the girl will see the boy will be on their wedding day. Sometimes there is no bride-viewing for the boy, just a picture.

In the cities, it is slightly more relaxed. The women organize for the girl to come over for tea with her family. The boy and the girl meet, they are told to go for coffee together and to come back in an hour. The boy takes the girl to an expensive place he will never take her again once they are married, they have coffee, they talk about movies. They come back, they’re smitten. The families agree on a “gesture” (a fridge, a scooter, a car, some cash, depending on the income bracket), a date is set by the astrologer. There are different versions of the urban arranged wedding: sometimes the boy and the girl go for coffee two or three times before giving an answer. But never more than three times, this would damage the girl’s reputation.

It’s all fun and I often tease my friends who got an arranged marriage. But it can be an excruciating process. A friend of mine got rejected three times by guys she went for coffee with. She was crushed and she told her parents that that was it. She’d find her husband herself, but there was no more “going for coffee”. She did find an amazing guy and they are now blissfully married.

Love marriages are just as many as arranged marriages. Sometimes they go smoothly, both families being relaxed and not minding inter-casting. A friend of mine from Pondicherry fell in love with a guy from Jaipur. They dated and when they decided to get married, the boy’s family asked about her background. “So, she told me, I went to my father and I asked him: Papa, by the way, what caste are we? He had no idea. So he asked his mother, who figured out something. It seemed to please the family alright, and we got married.”

Another friend of mine had a thougher experience. He is a Brahmin boy from Uttar Pradesh (which would make his parents very strict on caste). While he was in college in Pune, he fell in love with a nice Maharashtrian girl. They dated, and when it became obvious they were going to spend their lives together, they told their parents. Her parents were cool, his went totally frantic. For three years they wouldn’t even consider it. He was adamant he wasn’t marrying anyone else. But is was a tiring and hurtful fight, and he got scared she would just give up and leave. He decided to elope with her. But his father got wind of it and, somehow, finally gave in. They got married, and they are just the most adorable couple!

I really think there is no rule about marriages in India. Arranged marriages do work, because they look at marriage as what is has been for centuries: a practical venture. We started putting feelings in the marriage concept in the fifties and we now cry in dismay at the divorce rates. I also think that parents often know what is best for their children.

So, to finish this horribly long post, let’s say there is no rule. India is a country where shaadi.com and speed-dating, bride-viewing and teen sex all coexist.

For the better and the worse.

 

 

Ring my Bell

December 2, 2008

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Last night as I was fighting the cold cosily wrapped in half a dozen layers of various sweaters/cardigans/shawls, my doorbell rang. Strange. Who would show up unannounced at 8pm ?

I opened the door and I saw a short, plump, Buddha-looking man in his thirties. He was dressed in flashy white-washed jeans and a bright polyester shirt. He was out of breath from climbing the four floors. I had never ever met him in my life. He was smiling from ear to ear.

“Yes?” I said.

“Hello. Ahem. Hello ! I have a fabric shop in the Raja Park. And so, ha ha, you live here only?”

I was ice cold.

“What do you want?”

What he probably wanted, I thought, was for me to let him in, exclaiming what a wonderful thing it must be to own a fabric shop in Raja Park, and let’s have a beer and cheer to that. Isn’t it how it happens in our movies? Some guy rings some girl’s bell because he is short of sugar and they end up making out on the sofa. Faced with weird male behaviour in India, try and look at it through the movie lense, you often get your answer.

I should probably have offered him a glass of water but as far as I knew, he was a random guy ringing my bell at night.

“So, ha ha, I hear, you have the job.”

“What job?”

“I don’t know, no no, I don’t know. Some job. With a hotel only.”

Maybe he didn’t want to be my pal after all, maybe he just thought I could get him a hotel contract.

“No.”

“Ah, ok. You see, I have the shop in the Raja Park.”

By then I was no longer amused. This guy did look sweet and harmless, but what the hell did he want?

“Listen, I said, how did you get my address?”

“Oh, ha, it’s because only, I live in the next street, you know, number C-299, it is my house.”

“But how do you know I live here ?”

I live in an apartment building, so it is one thing to know in which house I live, but it is another thing to know on which floor, and at which door.

“It’s because I see you before.”

“You see me?”

I wasn’t making it easy for him, but he was just taking the mickey: so he saw me in the street and then what? Followed me here?

“Yes. So where are you from?”

Here we were. Getting cosy. Honestly, I thought it was hilarious. I felt sorry I was so mean to him but at the end of the day I was a single girl living alone in this city and I wasn’t going to get friendly with random guys ringing my bell at night.

“I’m from Zimbabwe.”

Yes I know, it is a pretty silly one, but I never tire of it.

But our little Buddha wasn’t going to be stopped so easily.

“And so you are studying here only?”

“No.”

“Ah. Oh, so you are working?”

“Yes.”

“What work?”

“I research and translate into html language the various occurrrences of moral harassment towards women in North India”.

And on his stunned silence I shut the door.

Am I horrible ?

My hands are shaking while I hit the keyboard: I woke up to countless text messages about Bombay: mother, sisters, friends… I turned the TV on and stared, aghast. I just can’t believe it. Colaba is in flames, nearly a hundred people have died, and there are still hostages. The very places I visited on monday: the Taj, the Oberoi, Leopold Cafe, plus a train station, a hospital and markets. Ten sites in total. What the hell?

Since I arrived in India, there have been bombs nearly every month. I had just left Jaipur when the blasts happened, in May. I was in Delhi when bombs exploded in September, not so far away from the markets where it happened, but thankfully, safe. And now Bombay is hit. I was there yesterday, at these very spots.

What does it feel like to live in a country where such things happen?

It feels like a weird mix of hope and anger. Hope: I wish I had faith. Anger: who did it? Why? How can a police be so absolutely useless? As usual in India, people are left to fend for themselves. They are scared, and they are angry. No wonder then, religions are so easily instrumentalized.

To finish with, I just wanted to point at the numbers: blasts in India kill hundreds of people. They happen nearly every month. A month afterwards, not one single newspaper mentions it. We in the West mourn or victims for years: think London, Madrid, even Paris. The last blast that happened in Paris was in 1982, if I am not mistaken, and we still commemorate it. Maybe this is why foreigners are being targetted now: it is the only way for the terrorists to ensure they get an international coverage.

EDIT: The last bomb blasts in Paris happened in 1996, and not 1982… Thank you Esther!

Rickshaw Drivers

November 19, 2008

Like most foreigners in India, I have a love-hate relationship with rickshaw drivers.

And like with most things in India, time mollifies anger into impatience. How could I be angry at these poor guys? I used to really hate them, but with the years passing I started to see things in the bigger Indian picture. What chance did they have in life to make it? Some of them are really thick, but wouldn’t we all be if we had never been to school?

School hasn’t taught us lucky Westerners only dates and facts: it has switched our brains on and taught us to remember, analyze and infer. Without this early intellectual workout routine, we’d be just as daft as they are.

Then of course, as usual, there is the One. The exception. In my last flat, when I lived in a haveli, there were three bothers operating the local rickshaw stand. They were amazing, helpful, soft-spoken, and one day one of them was even heroic. Soon, I’ll tell you that story.

A Material Education

November 18, 2008

What struck me when I first moved here is that what I found cool was usually considered cheap. Take these blouses we all bought by dozens on our first trip to India. Or these printed silk tops, and the little plaster earrings we all went crazy about. Well, that’s a big non non now. India has taught me, among many other (and deeper ) things, to value good craftsmanship.

This country loves its craftsmen. Each part of India has its craft of choice and I won’t surprise you if I tell you that Jaipur is known for its fabulous embroideries, especially gota, a magical applique technique that turns any piece of fabric into a fairytale delight. Indian women know their chikan from their mukesh, and their georgette from their chiffon. Textile and embroidery are treated at par with sculpture and miniature painting: as a full-fledged part of Indian culture. Saris and lehengas are handed down generations of women. I have friends who wore their grandmother’s outfits at their own wedding and they looked absolutely striking and not a bit outdated.

Oh I know, it’s not rocket science to tell malmal from poplin but it’s part of an heritage and a knowledge that we in the West lost in the hurricane of mass-consumerism.

Strangely enough, in a country known for the cheapness of its products, I have learnt to detest cheap stuff.