Monthly Archives: January 2015

A weekend of customs and rituals. Part 2: Dance,Music and Saris

Toyboy material??? He's the one who wanted the photograph taken, not me...

Toyboy material??? He’s the one who wanted the photograph taken, not me…

No visit to India is complete with at least some experience of Indian heritage, so  I went the whole hog with immersing myself in traditional music, dance and a Hindu wedding all in one weekend.

Saturday I attended the Nishagandhi Festival of Dance and Music in Trivandum, with another volunteer who was killing time in her last few hours before setting off back home.   Not having anything else to do on a Saturday night, I was lured by the prospect of free entertainment in the greeneries of the park and someone to talk to in English without having to speak very slowly and cringing at the many occasions I have to ask for things to be repeated or even written down.


Although the Festival is described as a highlight on the Trivandrum calendar and classical Indian music may be very soothing and melodious to the Indian ear, it had a rather soporific effect on me.  Well, I did work Saturday morning, at least in some fashion, as I was bodily present at the school to ensure my little crowd of farm animals for the performance of Old MacDonald would know where to stand on the stage and I spent the rest of the time chatting to other teachers to while away the time whilst the children sat in silence on their benches until home time – it’s called ‘discipline’.   Back at the concert, songs seemed to merge into one another and the start of a new piece of music was only audible to the inexperienced ear by the little break and applause of the audience in between.  The music was followed by the supposedly spellbinding dance performance of a faded Bollywood dancer, who was still milking his one-off accomplishment as an extra in a film that certainly never made it beyond Mumbai (or was it made in the days it was still called Bombay..?)  I have to say ‘supposedly spellbinding’ because I certainly seem to have some lapses in my memory and know my eyes closed at least on a few occasions.   So my taste of cultural India was not entirely what I had hoped for, and I was pleased to find that a fellow member of the audience was equally underwhelmed and had also expected a much more lively event.  Still, it was cultural!!

Who's who???  Two guesses...

Who’s who??? Two guesses…

More culture was to follow on Monday, Republic and Annual Day merged in one.  India is a proud country and whereas in the Western world a national holiday would find everyone gardening, playing football or rugby, or relaxing in front of the television with family and friends, in India many people flock to schools to celebrate the day.  And to be fully part of the event, I was gently persuaded to wear the teachers’  sari uniform.   I had resisted and declined to buy one, not seeing the point in spending money on a sari I will only wear once, but as the management kindly offered to pay, I could not refuse.  Some minor adjustments were necessary on the day, such as extra padding for the blouse, which had been fashioned in my absence on a very loose churidar. It had certainly been made with someone more voluptuous in mind, but then again, once all the layers of material had been wrapped around me and millions of pins were used to keep it all in place, who would notice what was hidden behind the front panel disguising a female’s most prominent attributes.  And all seemed well, until I was confronted with a photograph of me!  Although I had given very strict instructions about the not showing of white flesh, there it was in full view!!!  I will have to be more vigilant next time – yes there will be a next time when I will be wearing a different coloured sari – and check for white flesh before the final pins are attached…  I am not averse to showing a little leg, shoulder or a bit of neckline after exposure to the sun, but some parts of my anatomy are best left to the imagination.

drummers 1

So Monday started as usual: chaos galore with no one having a clue as to the order of events of the day…  The practice on Saturday did not stretch to sorting out a plan of action as everyone was too busy taming the little children and making them sit still for hours on end…  But once the event got off to a start with hoisting the flag and the national anthem and rolling drums, things ran smoothly.  I suppose when you expect the unexpected, you have less difficulty with adapting; maybe life in the Western world is just too organised and going with the flow has become less of a habit than a nuisance.  The morning’s programmes focussed on the youngest ones who, covered in mask-resembling make-up, entertained the crowds of parents, teachers and siblings for a full three hours with songs and dance and indeed, my little band of farm animals did their best.  It was just  unfortunate that not everyone had turned up on the day and at the last minute a practised sheep had a rebirth as a cow who on his first solo line in the song got confused and burst out in a ‘quack, quack here and and a quack, quack there’ which sent the ducks into a giggle – I would say it went well considering and as no one in the audience knew the song, they may not have noticed… (this is me being hopeful…).

animal group

Indian masked girls

The afternoon consisted of a multitude of speeches: the Principal, Academic Director, Manager, Trustees, head of another school, random person linked to a local hospital etc all had a word to say.  And in all honesty, they were restrained in their addresses as they managed to keep the talking down to a mere two hours.  The rest of the afternoon and evening was reserved for performances by the older students who brought Indian traditional dancing and singing to life.  A veritable spectacle which to some extent explains why some Indian people manage to stay fit in the absence of good gyms and exercise; although the arm movements are slow and graceful, the footwork is fast and pacy.

traditional dance

Indians may well be professing how much they cherish their traditional dances and music, but the auditorium certainly came to life when the older male  students put together a much livelier and energetic performance with the kind of dancing that would put many Bollywood actors through their paces.  A splendid performance greeted with rapturous applause and I know it was good as by then I had taken my rightful place on the front row amidst all the young children and one other teacher and was in a prime spot to savour it.

A weekend of customs and rituals. Part 1: Hindu wedding.

A Hindu wedding as glimpsed through a horde photographers and other relatives.

A Hindu wedding as glimpsed through a horde photographers and other relatives.

Sunday saw me at a Hindu wedding as a niece of one of the teachers was getting married.  Having been to an after-wedding party before where the reason for my presence was even more tenuous, I suppose I felt a little less out of place.  And it was indeed a worthwhile and interesting experience!!

The actual wedding ceremony was not until 12.30 but guests arrived well beforehand to greet and ogle the bride and catch up with relatives and friends.  After a little circulating, I was chaperoned outside to the food hall where I joined the throng of pushing and shoving women and children and the odd man in the crowd.  We were all aiming for an iron gate, which remained firmly locked.  I did wonder where all the men were and on asking a fellow teacher, got a very vague answer: ‘Well, they’re somewhere.’   Now, that did not come as a surprise!  As I was not expecting the men to have left a party in full swing before the main event had taken place, nor have dropped from the earth, this was rather stating the obvious.  Whilst women were vying for prime positions to begin the assault on the food hall once the gate opened, men were milling about, to-ing and fro-ing and wandering unimpeded through an open side door, none of them in a hurry to join the ever-growing horde of women.  When eventually the gate was unbarred, a stampede of biblical proportions ensued… Not an inch around me unoccupied by female flesh, I was pushed and cajoled to make my way up the stairs and this time my white face did not have the effect of Moses on the Red Sea; we were in battle, every man – or woman to be more precise – for himself.  The concept of queueing in an orderly fashion?  A relic only the British take seriously…

Waiting patiently for the doors to open...

Waiting patiently for the doors to open…

And when I finally made it through the door, all became clear.  Men had already taken their seats and it was just the women who had been left standing outside at the gate and only those at the front of the queue or those with the biggest elbows were guaranteed a place at the feast; the unlucky ones needed to wait for the next sitting and would then miss out on a seat to watch the marriage ceremony…   But I was lucky and found myself a seat for the first round.

banana leaf feast

However, I was unprepared for what was to follow.  I am by no means a slow eater, but no way could I keep up with the swift dishing out of rice and various curries.  Before my fellow teacher had been able to explain the delicacies on the banana leaf before me and too slow to move my papadum out of harm’s way, a huge dollop of rice landed in front of me followed by a ladle full of one or other curry.  I started eating, savouring every mouthful, but this was WRONG.  The only way to keep up was to stuff food in your mouth as quickly as possible, gulping it down without chewing, ready for the next splodge to arrive which culminated with a liquidy Payasam – or rice pudding – in two varieties eaten by hand by mixing it with squashed bananas – a child’s dream to be playing with food…  And when finished eating, there was no washing up: any leftovers were wrapped up in the banana leaf and swiftly rolled up with the paper table cloth to make room for another set of banana leaves for the next guests…  The whole feast over in the blink of an eye: starter, main and pudding included!

Maybe in the days  before photographers, it would have been possible to witness the ceremony...

Maybe in the days before photographers, it would have been possible to witness the ceremony…

Duly fed, we entered the hall to witness the wedding ceremony.  Being the one white face in the room, and therefore a special guest, entitled me to a seat on the stage, in the perfect spot for taking photographs.  I so have to learn to accept such invitations, but no, I turned it down, not relishing the thought of upstaging the bride nor sitting next to all the female elders of the bride’s family, thinking I would be able to take perfectly acceptable photographs over the heads of all those gathered.  Although it is possible my camera’s zoom lens would have coped with the distance, I had not counted on the multitude of other photographers snapping away to make lasting mementoes of the event.  Through a throng of arms and legs, I glimpsed the entrance of the groom being led around the wedding platform a few times before showing his respect to all the elders by touching their feet.  Bodies of relatives obscured the exchange of presents between the families and the bride receiving her wedding sari and making a similar journey around the platform.  But  just at the crucial moment of the groom placing the all important necklace over his bride’s head, the photographers dispersed to give the rest of the assembled on-lookers a brief peek and I took my one and only fairly acceptable  shot of the proceedings…

I must learn to take the opportunities granted and if that includes making the most of being the only white person in the room, then I should take it with both hands, so next time I shall not turn down any prime spots for taking photographs…  Why should I?  The Indians shamelessly exploit my white face when it suits them…

Just a little relaxation.

Sunset in Varkala

Sunset in Varkala

I went to Varkala at the weekend,  the haven for virgin backpackers and seasoned travellers alike.  Varkala is the new Kovalam: the place to convene for a spot of yoga on the beach, the place to be submerged in the merits of meditation, to bum around with no place to go and no purpose but indulging in the now, the very essence of a visit to India (see photographs below).  Although the beach huts and non-commercialism have long since disappeared, Varkala has not yet attracted the spoils of the 5* hotels and home-stays mingle with small hotels where cookery classes, massages, yoga and lessons in meditation are the order of the day.

Having learnt the basics of Indian cooking in Cochin and having had a further cooking initiation last weekend, I finally succumbed to the call of the Ayurvedic massage.  The temptation of an ancient lifestyle practice which aims to create harmony within the body sounded like something not to be missed, because I can certainly use some harmony in my life!!  I was offered different types of massage:  I turned down the ‘rejuvenating massage’ as I thought it might be a little late for that and I was not particularly keen on those that involved pouring copious amounts of oil on my head, so I settled for the ‘Ayurvedic General Body Massage’ which seemed to be a rather sedate and intermediate affair, neither too greasy nor too intensive; after all it was promoted as the ‘relaxation massage’.  And in anticipation of a busy week ahead at school (no sarcasm intended!), I believed relaxation to be a good choice, although in fairness, sitting in the evening cool being mesmerised by the whispers of the swaying palm trees and drinking in the last dregs of the dying sunrays has an equally calming effect.   I booked my appointment for Sunday lunchtime to allow some sun worshipping in the morning and time for lunch after the pummelling before catching a late afternoon train home.

So on Sunday, after breakfast and checking out of my Home Stay, I spent a nice hour on the beach, immersing myself in the breaking waves and leaving the gently warming sun to deal with the salty water on my body.  I only had to shake off the sand and brush down my clothes, and hey presto, I was ready for my massage.  Not quite buying into the Ayurvedic lifestyle I had already dispensed with the talk to the ‘doctor’ which should have preceded the massage, probably to determine which oils would be most effective in tackling the woes in my life – if only things were that simple, I would by now have happily drowned in the fragrance of all-absolving oils.

As I do not normally indulge in the luxuries of massages, I cannot honestly say how the Ayurvedic massage differs from any other massage, but I am sure the dress code was certainly unusual.  Thank the Lord for female masseuses, because being dressed as a Sumo Wrestler with only a string and small strip of cloth to cover your modesty, is certainly not the most alluring of sights – well maybe in my younger days it would have been a different story…   So I submitted to the process and was lying face down to undergo the onslaught.  Unfortunately, there was a massive flaw in my plan: coming straight from the beach to be smothered in oil meant that the gentle and not so gentle rubbing was accompanied by a fairly intensive exfoliating due to the multitude of salt and sand grains which were stubbornly clinging to my skin…  And the amount of oil kneaded in my hair, skin and muscles would have made a fine marinade for a whole suckling pig waiting to be roasted.  I somehow had not factored in the urgent desire of washing it all off as soon as possible after the massage and was envisaging myself all smelly and covered in oil squeezed in my churidar perfuming the train and bus.  But luckily, the establishment I chose for my massage offered a refreshing shower at the end and it was bliss to rinse the oil out of my hair and of my skin with lots of bubbling shampoo and foaming soap.  What a treat to feel clean again and when I turned off the taps, I did not even have to bother with towelling myself dry as the female masseuse was immediately on hand to assist me with this onerous task…  Just a bit unnerving!

The burning question: did I feel any more relaxed after the experience?  Not really, the pulling on limbs, the pushing of muscles and use of finger nails to increase blood flow does not exactly send you to the land of Morpheus.  However, just for a day or two, my skin has felt soft and smooth and maybe I look just that little bit on the younger side..  Or has this more to do with my recent haircut????

Sunday morning on Varkala Beach:

A spot of meditation before the crowds arrive on the beach

A spot of meditation before the crowds arrive on the beach

Catching the early morning surf.Catching the early morning surf.

Never too early to try out interesting Yoga poses

Never too early to try out interesting Yoga poses

And then there are those who are at sea and on the beach to earn a living...

And then there are those who are at sea and on the beach to earn a living…

And devout Hindus make offerings to the Gods to ease the passage of the recently deceased.

And devout Hindus make offerings to the Gods to ease the passage of the recently deceased.

The sweet smell of victory.

A little rebellion has never done any harm, and even in India where women are meek, sometimes it pays off!!  Although I cannot be entirely sure that my standing up to the management in support of the female teachers was indeed the deciding factor in the manager’s change of heart about Annual Day, I cannot help but feel a tad smug today.  We shall be free on Sunday 25th to do whatever we had planned and Annual Day is back on for Monday 26th, the day it was intended to be! It could always be coincidence that the ‘speaker’ who earlier on this week was not available on 26th January suddenly found a gap in his busy schedule to do his little performance at the school on that day, but somehow I think the manager may have been persuaded to at least put a bit of pressure on the speaker…

So what’s on the agenda for 25th January?? I am going to a wedding, I believe.  I have also suddenly realised, with time marching on, I still have to fit in the Ayurvedic massage as promised… Maybe this weekend I can treat myself to a little relaxation to celebrate the teachers’ victory.

Adam and Eve, a story of institutionalised inequality.

I always believed that man is equal in the eyes of God and expected the Bible of all books to be testament to that.  But maybe I was just under the misconception that ‘man’ was meant to imply mankind, not merely members of the male gender.  Does the fact that Eve was created from Adam’s rib to keep  him company make her a subordinate condemned to a life of servitude and submission? Are Eve’s curiosity and misadventure with the apple sufficient reason to  mistrust female judgement and curb women’s freedom so that man can rule unimpeded??  How potent a story that it ratifies the division of  humankind into men as masters and women as servants! It certainly seems so in India, at least from a Western point of view…

So today, I refused to keep quiet and spoke my mind, which as a Western woman in the school I can get away with, but would undoubtedly not be tolerated from my Indian colleagues. Well, I never say no to an opportunity to put the cat amongst the pigeons, and as the Management are desperately trying to entice me back in June, my indiscretions are easily forgiven.  I should have made a banner and splattered in red ink that teachers are humans with rights too, even though they are mostly female, and are entitled to be consulted in matters that affect them.  In a society where the respect of teachers and women for their superiors mutes their words and protests, I felt I had to speak up for those who daren’t say the things I can say as a Westerner.  Teachers fall silent and quietly accept whatever the ‘management’ put their way.  And by management, I do not mean the female Principal, or the female Vice Principal as they receive their orders and commands from the Administrator and the Manager, men who are presiding over the running of the school.

So let me put you in the picture:  Annual Day is looming, a bright spot on the school’s calendar and I have been informed, primed and cajoled at length about its importance.  I am duly teaching younger children the jolly song of Old McDonald to entertain the masses when the day finally arrives and I will, as I am clearly expected to, wear a sari – mainly because they have bought one for me and therefore it would be difficult not to follow suit and toe the line…  Every year each school in India invites parents and neighbours to come and enjoy performances by the children; a festive occasion for parents to be proud of their children’s talents.  And as every year, the school has pencilled this in to coincide with India’s Republic Day on 26th January which is a national holiday so parents will have time to come to watch.  Interestingly, although I have been told about Annual Day ever since I set foot in the school, way back at the end of October, it has just come to the management’s attention that the main speaker at the event has got more important things to do on that day.  Sounds to me like someone did not do their job and left contacting the speaker till the eleventh hour…  So instead of ditching the speaker – surely the day is about the children’s performances rather than some random man talking for hours – and engaging someone else, with just under two weeks’ notice, Management has decreed that Annual Day will be now held on Sunday 25th January.  If teachers happened to have plans for that day, well that’s tough luck!!

So I tried to appeal to the manager’s better nature, but his only reply was that ‘teachers in the school were very accommodating and did not mind…’.  Maybe if he had taken the time to ask the teachers’ opinions and had been privy to the conversations in the staffroom, he might have found out the truth and heard the notes of dissent.  And although I was very outspoken, I was careful not to mention about leaving organising things a little too late as I was not sure who might have been the culprit, but I have my suspicions… I must admit I was shocked at the disrespect shown to staff at the school. But even in the Principal’s office , neither the Principal nor the Vice Principal uttered a word and just sat there swallowing the preaching and condescending monologue from the powers that be, probably thinking in the back of their minds about all the plans for Sunday 25th January they needed to change…

Clearly Woman’s Lib has not yet reached the shores of India, but I am sure it is on its way and eventually Adam will be shown his rightful place as an equal to Eve, not her master.  However, in India, this may still be another generation away.

A battle of wills.

coconut 6

‘This is one I made earlier…’, the ever-present phrase uttered on many cookery programmes.  We are spared the numerous  unsuccessful attempts and are left with an impression of simplicity and culinary skill we can only hope to match…

So when I bought my first coconut the other day, I was not too worried.  Having the internet as my bible,  I source solutions to small, big, irritating, annoying and everyday challenges.  So how difficult could it be to open a coconut, with unlimited access to boundless variations on the theme.

A quick scouring of my kitchen cupboards quickly revealed the lack of a machete, hammer and chisel or any other useful tool that would make quick work of getting to the juicy flesh and refreshing coconut liquid.  This called for plan B, or different search terms into Google:  how to open a coconut without any tools.  I was greeted with a wealth of choice: websites covering all continents and palm-growing countries where everyone offered their own adaptation.  On studying the methods suggested, they all broadly fell into the same category: giving the thing an almighty whack.  Sexy hunk under palm tree – an American on a backpacker’s tour? – made use of the palm tree itself and with just one expert knock opened the coconut, spilling the juice but revealing the delicious flesh..  However, he did not mention at the beginning this would only work for young coconuts, green and still in their protective husk… Well, my coconut looked like it had been round the block a few times, plus  I preferred to salvage the juice.  So back to the drawing board and further research!

The idea of cracking a coconut without any utensils soon appeared a figment of the imagination or maybe it just depends upon the definition of ‘tools’.  Surely, a kitchen knife, a pair of scissors and a screw driver are just as much a means to an end as a hammer and chisel.  If only I could use a kitchen cleaver or heavy duty knife instead of the poor palm tree itself, the insides of my coconut would be accessible, although I might still find it difficult to hold on to the liquid…  But the only biggish knife in my kitchen has the blade attached to its handle with tape, which may pose some considerable problems when trying to use it to open a resisting coconut.

coconut 2In the end it all came down to anatomy, the anatomy of a coconut to be precise.  Some enlightened soul showed how to identify the face of the coconut, with eyes and nose.  And when carefully pressing all three dots, one feels slightly softer – not sure whether this was one of the eyes, or the nose – and that is the one to poke!  The sharp point of a pair of scissors was just about long enough to pierce through the skin and fleshy part of the coconut.  I drained off the liquid and had successfully completed part A.

But how to open the damn thing…. In the absence of machete, hammer and chisel or a sturdy knife, I opted for the doorstep – the most solid thing around and I could be sure it would not move whilst trying to bang the coconut against it.  I identified the equator of the coconut coconut 3and started the process of hitting the coconut with all my might.   I carried on and on and on, turning the coconut carefully  until, many minutes later, the smallest crack appeared.  Hooray, there was method in the madness and even more minutes and more bashes later, the crack became longer and eventually after continued perseverance and probably significant damage to the doorstep, the crack was big enough for me to prise the two halves open using a knife.  I succeeded!!!  What a triumph:  I had coconut on my fruit salad and chopped coconut in my chicken curry and ate coconut for breakfast, lunch and with afternoon tea.

So when  last weekend I found a coconut still in its husk in my garden, freshly fallen from the palm tree, I felt rather smug.  Free food, and surely, I would find a way to open it!  With considerable effort, I eventually managed to wrench out a small piece of the defying coconut husk, but I was no match for the tough strands of fibre and the coconut husk refused to yield.  So I left the coconut at the backdoor awaiting some miracle, which duly came in the form of Anandu, who was having some serious difficulties interpreting my sending him packing (it’s amazing how his grasp of English suddenly let him down…).  Anyway, he had access to tools and with a machete set to work to release the coconut from its husk-prison and after a good twenty minutes, success: I have another coconut.  And, although this may have been his peace offering, I did not relent and Anandu did not get his job back.

cocnut 4

coconut 5

The end of the love affair.

Naan to die for .....

Naan to die for …..

Figuratively speaking!!  For those who got all excited and were hoping for juicy snippets, I best explain from the outset I was merely courting India and the life of sun, sea and friendliness.   Alas, the veneer has come off to expose the naked truth, which reveals human nature as it exists everywhere…  And clearly Indians are just as adept at cutting corners, taking the easy option and trying to get away with doing as little as possible as the next person.

So it was that on New Year’s Eve, I finally exploded…  and poor Anandu lost his job.  He had been skating on thin ice and trying my patience for a little while.  When Anandu came to ask for his just rewards for burning rubbish and sweeping up some leaves in the courtyard mid-November, I was a little taken aback – he had hardly moved a leaf but he had disposed of some rubbish and been helpful in finding me a reliable tuk-tuk driver.  Although I had not yet been paid and funds were low, I relented and we settled on a truce: he would get half his wages in the middle of the month (apparently his college fees were due…) and the rest would be paid at the end of the month. November passed quite amicably and we moved into the season of Goodwill for all.  So when Anandu had an unexpected expense in early December – a hospital visit which necessitated some stitches at the cost of 500 rupees – I agreed on paying him his dues a little earlier.  Then came Christmas, and in all honesty, it was only a week before the end of the month, so I saw no harm in paying the remainder – how could I begrudge him a little bit of Christmas cheer.  In the meantime, leaves were growing thicker on the courtyard and my rubbish seemed to multiply rather than disappear and food remnants provided an abundant feast for the local wildlife…

Just as I was getting ready to go out to celebrate the end of yet another year in The Life Of…, the doorbell rang with no other than Anandu at the other side.  Was I busy, he enquired.  He might have guessed from my appearance that something was going on – the glam shoes with the smart churidar and even a  splash of make-up might have given him a clue.  But apparently, it was urgent and could not wait, so I duly invited him in thinking some or other disaster might have befallen him.  However, when all he wanted was an advance on January’s pay because ‘his college fees were due’, when we were still breathing the 2014 air and he had not moved a single leaf yet in January, I lost my rag and relieved him from his duties  Don’t get me wrong, I do not mind paying a little extra for a job well done, but draw the line at paying for a job NOT DONE and NOT EVEN STARTED.

So, this morning I burnt the rubbish myself and swept up the leaves to provide the necessary kindling.  And Anandu’s loss will be some cleaner’s gain, because I can now justify putting this money towards someone to help me with my pet hate: cleaning…

As far as celebrating New Year’s Eve was concerned, I’ve had better and I’ve had worse… sitting outside in a 5*hotel watching Bollywood-type dancing, eating amazing food (the naan freshly made in the tandoor was to die for…), getting doused twice by passing showers and being the recipient of many New Year wishes from random strangers  (not sure why I was singled out…), and of course having a flutter on the dance floor: an interesting end to 2014 and a promising start for 2015, especially with the prospect of a cleaner to make my life easier!!