Poetry with a hint of Eastern promise

"It's certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization" Philip Larkin - On Books

“It’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization”
Philip Larkin – On Books

I have just returned from the far east. You need to understand, that in making this statement I am not referring to an exotic far away location such as Myanmar or Indonesia, countries often referred to as eastern lands. No, the place to which I refer is still within the bounds of the UK, though the convoluted route to attain this far flung destination makes one feel that it could be far removed from here.

Having thought about this recent journey I realised that the time taken to travel from my Northamptonshire home by train to Hull, on the eastern coast of England, was marginally longer than a recent flight I made to Istanbul. It is hard to find similarities between the magnificent former stronghold of Constantinople that so elegantly forms a link between Europe and Asia, and a far flung English city which takes its name from the river upon which it is located near the mouth of the river Humber. Nevertheless, Hull was my destination and one of the great advantages of spending several hours on a train is the time that can be devoted to working and reading.

Hull and back in a day would normally be a prospect that would fall some way short of filling me with joy. As it happens, on this occasion I was delighted to make the journey to examine a PhD written by an enthusiastic, articulate and interesting young lady from Saudi Arabia, who had conducted an interesting piece of research. The satisfaction of seeing her leave the viva voce examination with a beaming smile and dashing off to telephone her husband and children ensured that I began my return journey in good humour.

I do, however, have to make one small confession about my visit to the University of Hull. This is not an institution with which I am particularly familiar, and one that I am not likely to visit on a regular basis, but having been invited to undertake this particular task, I was eager to arrive early. Thus it was that for a 12.00 pre viva meeting, I arrived at 11.00am in order to fulfil a particular mission.

My interest was not specific to the university building, though if ever the term red brick could be applied to a university, Hull would certainly provide the finest example. I was in fact drawn to the university campus inspired by probably its most celebrated previous member of staff. I refer here not to an eminent researcher or academic, but rather its famous longstanding librarian. Philip Larkin, one of the most respected English poets of the twentieth century was appointed librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and remained in the city until his death in 1985. Whilst the library at Hull is named after a former Vice Chancellor of the university, there is now a Larkin building on the campus.

So it was that on reaching the university my innate curiosity led me straight to the library where Larkin worked for so many years. In all honesty it does not differ greatly from university libraries elsewhere around the world, but there is something about writers and their locations that I cannot resist. This after all is a place where Larkin looked for and found so much inspiration. He was reputedly a somewhat curmudgeonly man, but surely anyone who loved words and books must also have had a gentler side to his soul. Whilst much of his slightly irreverent poetry captures images of people and events, I could not avoid thinking about his Whitsun Weddings collection and the journey that he commenced and describes so vividly from Hull railway station. It is then fitting that on this station today thirty one years after his death, there is a statue (shown at the head of this posting) of Larkin which sees passengers away from Hull just as he departed from that platform so many years ago.

It may be a pointless and rather trivial occupation, visiting places associated with writers, but perhaps there is something in all of us who love words that inspires a nugatory hope that such time frittered away may result in a modicum of talent rubbing off on ourselves. The Indian writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna in his amusing book Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life, describes how a “desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation” has driven him to search for the grave of Boris Pasternak, drink in a favoured haunt of Dylan Thomas, seek out a café in which Naguib Mafhouz regularly passed his mornings and see the words from Ruskin Bond’s Landour Days etched in the landscape of Musoorie

I now discover that a much earlier poet, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) also lived and spent his school years in Hull. Perhaps there is more of the exotic about this far flung corner of the land than I had previously realised.

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Click on the link to hear Philip Larkin Reading The Whitsun Weddings

 

I Could easily have lost an ear!

These btave women certainly hoped for a better response!

These brave women certainly hoped for a better response!

I usually quite enjoy having my hair cut. It’s true to say that I no longer have the flowing locks of my youth which, though it may be hard for those who have known me only a few years to believe, once tumbled about my shoulders. Indeed I am always pleasantly surprised when visiting the hairdresser’s these days to find that I am not being charged a search fee in order to locate the few wispy strands that remain. None- the –less, the experience of sitting quietly in a chair whilst a proficient lady armed with clippers and scissors does her best to make me look respectable is one that I find satisfyingly soporific.

I am now of an age where my pepper and salt beard (more of the latter than the former these days) requires considerably more taming than the thinning patch atop my head. To put it bluntly, there is no longer any danger of my fringe impeding my vision, and I most certainly need a hat should I ever venture out into bright sunshine, (an event that seems increasingly unlikely as we enter June with temperatures in single degree temperatures).

Sometimes a little frivolous conversation with the lady wielding the scissors is welcome. A chance to view the world through the hairdresser’s eyes, to catch up on the local small town gossip, or to marvel at the latest news of television celebrities whose lives seem miraculously to be passing me by, presents an amusing diversion from the isolated bubble in which I appear to exist. But during my latest visit to the hairdresser’s chair the conversation took a turn which, far from lulling me towards somnambulant reverie almost placed me in mortal danger. (That last sentence is  I’m afraid a shameless example of hyperbole!)

Let me explain. Just in case it may have escaped your attention, which possibly means that you are currently emerging from a coma or have possibly only recently returned from Mars, we in the UK are currently in the ugly grip of referendum fever. Later this month we will be asked to indicate with the simple placing of a cross on a piece of paper, whether we wish to remain within the European Union, or sever our ties with our EU partners. In many ways this is the most important vote that we have been asked to cast in our recent history. Imagine then my horrified reaction on hearing the conversation between the lady who was so carefully attending to my coiffure and a similarly deployed young woman, cutting the hair of a gentleman seated in a chair just a few feet to my right. The dialogue that so violently assaulted my credulity was as follows.

Lady cutting my hair: “Have you decided how you will vote in the referendum?”

Young hairdresser at the next chair: “No, I haven’t given it any thought.”

First lady: “But it‘s very important, you really should think about what you are going to do.”

Young lady: “Oh, I suppose so, but it’s all too complicated. Anyway, I always ask my Dad. Every time I have to vote I ask my Dad. He always tells me who to vote for, and he tells my brother and sister too. He knows about these things, so he tells us and that’s what we do. That way we don’t have to think about these things.”

At this point I could easily have lost an ear! Had my instinct, which at that moment was to leap from the chair, taken over, the scissors that were at that point flying about my head could have inflicted serious harm. Somehow, by sheer willpower I managed to restrain myself from launching from beneath the hairdresser’s gown to cry:

“don’t you know that women lost their lives during their struggle to ensure that you have the right to vote? Have you not heard that Emmeline Pankhurst and her noble army of suffragettes spent time in dank prison cells fighting on your behalf? Are you not aware that Emily Widing Davison threw herself beneath the King’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 and died in pursuit of women’s rights?”

Perhaps this is the action I should have taken, but I didn’t. Sadly, had I done so I suspect that I would simply have become the subject of the latest town gossip to entertain the next customers to the the hairdresser’s domain.

I left the hairdresser’s emporium looking tidier than on my entry. But I also departed in a mood of despondency. Could the future of the country really be determined at the whim of a hairdresser’s father?” Mary Wollstencraft may well be turning in her grave.

I despair!

Courage and bigotry captured on camera

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

There are some photographic images that appear to remain embedded in my mind for a very long time. Sometimes these are retained simply because of a personal interest in the subject, such as the stark but beautiful portrait of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown, or the 1946 image of Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel in close conversation by Kulwant Roy. Others impose themselves because of the sheer horror of the stories they represent, as is the case with many of the works of Don McCullin taken in Vietnam or the image of a drowned Syrian child who was simply looking for a safe and better life when he was washed up on the shore in Turkey.

A couple of days ago my mind was taken back to a chilling image from 1989. A solitary man stands before a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; he holds a bag in his left hand, as if he has come straight from shopping at the local market. We cannot see his face, but instinctively we know that if we could we would recognise fear, but also bold defiance as he makes his protest and expresses his disgust at the oppression of a brutal political regime. In her excellent and horrifying book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” Louisa Lim visits survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the parents and friends of those killed by the Chinese regime, many of whom had never previously seen this famous image of the anonymous individual who has simply become known as “Tank Man.” Even today she found many who would not talk about the photograph or did so only in circumstances where they were sure they would not be seen or overheard.

The reason that my memory brought back this powerful picture so recently was the publication of a similar image of a young black woman named Tess Asplund that was published in the Guardian newspaper on May 5th, and no doubt in thousands of other newspapers around the world. In this picture an individual lady, once again with a bag at her left side, stands defiantly before a hostile crowd of racist neo-nazi marchers on the streets of Borlänge in Sweden. The self-styled Nordic Resistance Movement has gained momentum in Sweden despite the numerous racist and anti-semitic outpourings of its shadowy leadership. The photographer David Lagerlöf has captured the bravery and defiance of his extraordinary subject as she stands in the middle of a road silently but powerfully confronting those who hate her because of her colour, her culture and her opposition to their narrow view of the world.

Such acts of non-violent protest require tremendous courage on the part of the individual, but it is highly perceptive of this single determined lady as she states:-

“I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”

I am not convinced that she is correct when she says that anyone can take such a courageous stand. Hers was an act of bravery which should be seen as a motivation for all who oppose racism or other acts of collective violence, but I wonder if I would have the courage to behave as she did?

The action taken by Tess Asplund gives a powerful message. But let’s imagine that the photographer David Lagerlöf had not been present at the moment. How many of us would have heard of this solitary act of defiance? Photo-journalism, as with other forms of reporting can play an important role in communicating not only the news, but also the best and worst aspects of humanity. This is why the image of Tess Asplund, along with that of Tank Man, and many others which depict the human spirit at its strongest will leave an indelible mark on many of our minds.

Indian colleagues, leading the research agenda

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

 

In recent months an exciting new venture for our work in promoting inclusive education in Bangalore, has been the development of a small cohort of research students who are registered to study for a PhD with the University of Northampton. These are, for the most part, students who have completed their MA programme with us in Bangalore and have already produced work of exceptional quality for their postgraduate dissertations. Indeed, some of their work has been published in reputable research journals and their investigations have attracted interest beyond India. These enthusiastic investigators have been busy of late generating formal research proposals and submitting these for the scrutiny of university committees that oversee research quality and ensure ethical practice.

For those of us involved in supervising the work of these students and providing an appropriate training programme, both during our visits to Bangalore and at a distance, this development brings new opportunities and challenges. It has always been our intention to support colleagues in the promotion of a new generation of skilled researchers who can assist in moving inclusive education forward in this part of India and we are delighted to have recruited colleagues of such outstanding quality. However, we are also aware of the currently limited opportunities that exist for these colleagues to become fully immersed in an education research culture such as that which exists in the UK and much of Europe. We are though, fully committed to the process of assisting our students to change this situation, and have every confidence in their abilities to play a leadership role in the near future.

I have been thinking about these challenges over the past couple of days, my attention having been drawn to an article written in an Indian financial magazine called Mint, by Anurag Behar who is from the Azim Premji Foundation. Under the headline Researching Education, Behar argues that there should be both an increase in educational research in India, and a realignment of focus to ensure that we can gain greater insights into both the role and effectiveness of the teacher, and a deeper understanding of education in a social context. The article is clearly written for a lay audience, but makes a number of astute observations about the current lack of understanding of education provision in the country and the ways in which it may promote positive social and economic change.

A number of expressions in this interesting piece of journalism provide evidence of the thoughtful approach adopted by Anurag Behar. At one point he suggests a specific role for educational research when he states that:-

“with experience and rigorous reflection, one can arrive at relevant (let’s call them) operating principles that can help in flexibly responding to multiple contexts and situations. Given our dynamic social reality, even these need constant critical interrogation”.

He then goes on to suggest some quite specific questions, listing some of what he sees as being current priorities:-

“how can the capacity of our 8.5 million teachers, who have a full-time job, be improved within the constraints and diversity of our education system and social reality? How does community engagement with schools become effective? How can schools foster constitutional values? How should schools be governed, recognizing fully that simplistic, industrial-mindset governance mechanisms are not only ineffective but also harmful to good education? How do we deal with the rot in the pre-service teacher education system?”

As I read Behar’s short article, I wondered how many colleagues working within schools and universities in India would agree with the arguments he puts forward. Those of us who endeavour to keep abreast of educational research in India, are often frustrated by the apparent belief that large scale surveys are the only means of providing useful data. Such work requires significant funding which is not available to either the practitioner researcher, or to many who would wish to engage with the kinds of questions that Anurag Behar would have prioritised. The value of smaller scale studies focused upon the specifics of pedagogy and classroom management is largely denied by those in positions of authority and power in the Indian education system. In concluding his article he suggests that:-

“Research in education must focus on the real and important issues within education. This requires educators themselves to become adept at asking and answering research questions, rigorously and systematically. If educators take responsibility for research, it will definitely cause a quiet revolution in education research and education itself”.

I find myself totally in agreement with this last statement, and hope that Behar’s views may be heeded by those who oversee educational research in India. Our young enthusiastic researchers in Bangalore have already proven themselves, along with many of their peers who have completed small scale research for a post graduate qualification. They have developed research skills and utilised these as they have investigated the realities of classroom life, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and families. Their commitment to the promotion of change and the development of a more equitable society is one of the most important stimuli that encourages myself and my colleagues in our work in Bangalore. In reading the article from Anurag Behar I am heartened to see that others are recognising the importance of fostering a research culture that is clearly focused upon schools, teachers, children and families. Such arguments further justify the work being undertaken by our excellent students and will, I hope encourage them towards ever greater achievements.

A Bard for Every Nation

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

I had anticipated that being in India on Saturday 23rd April this year would mean that I would miss all of the events and interest surrounding the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. I would however, imagine that  if anyone from outside of the UK was asked to name the most significant literary figure from our country, Shakespeare would, quite rightly, appear at the top of the list. As someone who loves theatre, literature and language I would most certainly concur with this judgement. However, in believing that this most quintessentially English of playwrights might have been pushed to the sidelines in India, a country that is the birthplace of more than a few excellent dramatist; Ramavriksha Benipuri , Rabindranath Tagore and M.Gopala Krishna Iyer  to name but three,  I was most definitely underestimating the reverence afforded to Shakespeare in this country that has such a fine literary heritage.

Unlike my previous trips to India, I can honestly say that to my surprise, Shakespeare has featured significantly during much of this most recent journey. This immersion in the works of the great bard began even before my arrival in the country. To my delight, on perusing the entertainment system on board the flight from Birmingham, I discovered a number of recordings of Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London and available to help with overcoming the tedium associated with a long haul flight. Between Birmingham and Bangalore, and then again on the return flight I was able to enjoy performances of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and even Henry VIII, this latter being a play I had never previously seen performed.

Once in Bangalore the Shakespeare theme continued as I noted that there have been several performances of the great man’s work in Indian cities to mark this anniversary of his demise. On the actual day of celebrations, the Hindu newspaper carried a number of articles about Shakespeare, including reports of events planned to be held in London, Stratford-upon-Avon and in various parts of India. There was also an article about an Emeritus Professor in Mysore who has a great passion for the Elizabethan dramatist and a huge collection of books and other artefacts associated with the great man and his story. During the evening of the 23rd April, a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was broadcast on an Indian television channel, and international celebrations were reported on the television news. The respect in which Shakespeare is clearly held in India was fascinating to see and is perhaps one of the most positive aspects of English influence upon the country.

I suppose I should not have been so surprised to find this important Shakespearian anniversary being acknowledged here in Bangalore, having once seen an entertaining production of Macbeth at the Valley School near here, and also in company with my young friend Varsha having attended a somewhat surreal and satirical one man show called “Nothing Like Lear” performed in a Bangalore theatre.

Having noted that the Shakespeare commemorations would coincide with my April visit this year, I had planned a small celebration of my own to enjoy with students on our MA course. Thus it was that on this most auspicious occasion, after my far from professional efforts at reciting what is probably Shakespeare’s most celebrated sonnet (number 18), which begins with the oft quoted line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  we all indulged ourselves by consuming a magnificent chocolate cake. My audience were evenly divided between those who loved Shakespeare when encountered in their school years, and those who found the archaic English language impenetrable.  I am far from convinced that my own inadequate rendition of a Shakespeare sonnet will have done much to change the minds of the detractors, but I do know that the provision of chocolate cake was popular with all in attendance.

And should you think that Shakespeare and a chocolate cake are too much of a distraction from the serious business of study for a higher degree, I will call up the great bard in my defence:

                                                     “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sir Toby Belch. Twelfth Night. Act 2, Scene 3.

 

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

 

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR HOW SHAKESPEARE’S SONNET XVIII SHOULD BE RECITED, DO CLICK ON THE VIDEO CLIP BELOW

 

Heat, humidity and virtuosity

 

An evening with some of India's finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

An evening with some of India’s finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

It felt like standing before an open over door. That is my recollection of first arrival in Chennai in the year 2000. Though we soon came to realise that it was probably the humidity more than the heat that quickly became oppressive. I have returned to the eastern coastal city several times since then, and still I find the sticky atmosphere to be at times uncomfortable. So with Bangalore in the grip of a heatwave, I had anticipated my brief visit to Chennai with mixed emotions. Excited by the opportunity to work with new colleagues and students, I was none the less, not looking forward to a climate that is challenging to those of us from northern climes.

In reality the day was well planned to avoid the worst of the oppressive heat and humidity. Picked up by the driver of an air conditioned car very early in the morning and deposited at the door of an equally comfortable airport, I boarded my flight for the short journey across the country. It was not until my arrival in the city that fronts the Bay of Bengal that I was in a position of having to confront the heat. A short walk across the airport car park confirmed what I had known all along and within a minute I was drenched in sweat.

Fortunately, much of the ensuing day was spent in doors in meetings with colleagues from Tamil Nadu Open University and the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD), and later in the day teaching a group of undergraduate students. Apart from a brief period of planting a palm sapling in the coastal grounds of the NIEPMD, the day was largely spent under cover.

A feature of the day was the time spent with teachers and therapeutic professionals who were working with children with a range of complex needs and disabilities. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the children and their eagerness to discuss the work that they were doing, reinforced my long held belief that India has many consummate professionals dedicated to ensuring that children, often from the poorest communities, receive a good education. Sadly, there are still many young people here, and particularly those with disabilities, that continue to be denied access to such facilities. However, time spent with colleagues today was affirming in providing an opportunity to see their determination to change this situation.

Arriving towards midnight back in Bangalore, the air was still balmy, though nowhere near as steamy as that in the city left behind. Teaching here is always tiring because of the heat and noise that are an ever present feature, but even in a heatwave, the high thirtys of Bangalore are easier to manage than the furnace of Chennai.

After seven days of teaching and with only one remaining before we return to England, it was good last night to attend a concert which forms part of the 78th Ramanavami Music Festival that runs throughout April in Bangalore. Pravin Godkhindi who plays bansuri flute and Kumaresh Rajagopalan on violin are two of India’s most accomplished classical musicians, and were here accompanied by outstanding percussionists and a tanpura player. The virtuosity of the musicians and their skills of improvisation made for a memorable occasion. Equally impressive was the obvious joy that they gained from their interactions with each other and the audience. At the end of another hectic day, it was a great pleasure to be able to relax and absorb the atmosphere that pervaded an auditorium filled with enthusiastic music lovers of all ages.

Whilst the conditions here can often make teaching difficult, the fact that we work with such excellent students and colleagues and have the opportunity to engage with local culture is a privilege that we should never underestimate.

Floral artistry of the highest quality

DSC00742

 

Until this morning I was totally in ignorance of the Bengaluru Karaga festival that takes place here in Bangalore. Yet another indication of how little I really understand about this city, but also another one of those delightful discoveries that seem so frequently to occur during these visits.

Early morning is most certainly the only time to walk the streets of Jayanagar during this period of excessive and oppressive heat. As has often been the way during my stay in fourth block, this morning I crossed the road and made my way through the lanes that form the hinterland around the hotel where I am staying. These have become familiar over the years, and I now recognise the faces of regular walkers and inhabitants of these streets, yet they can still serve up an occasional surprise.

Walking along a familiar lane, which I know to lead past an often colourful temple, I could see, well before reaching this shrine, that the road appeared much narrower and even more colourful than usual. The closer I got to the temple, the more apparent it became that something extraordinary was under way. To my delight, on arrival I found a collection of the most beautifully adorned trailers with floral displays and decorated idols all being prepared for a parade around the district.

DSC00749

I have written before on this blog about the craftsmanship that is evident in the use of flowers in this city, but today’s exhibition truly excelled. Floral sculptures of this quality are not easily achieved, and one can only wonder at the dedication of those who have created these amazing labours of love. Sadly, I will not be able to see the kaleidoscopic parading of these floats. I can well imagine the accompanying music and the flash of fireworks that will be an essential part of this traditional and long standing celebration. Rather than expect you to imagine the beauty and creativity that I enjoyed this morning, I will let you judge for yourself the quality and skill of the craftsmen who created these wonderful artefacts.

CLICK ON ANY OF THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE

Balmy Nights and Dosa Delights

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

In all the years that I have been visiting Bangalore I have never experienced heat such as that which is singeing the city at present. I associate a hot sticky atmosphere with some of the times I have spent in Chennai, where the humidity means that it is normal to be drenched in sweat, but the Bangalore climate is generally less oppressive.

This week, by mid-morning the temperatures are usually in the high thirty’s and I find myself grateful for the air conditioning in the room where we teach. It is noticeable that some students have taken a strategic view of the situation and locate themselves where the full blast of cold air can be encouraged to sweep across them. I usually find air conditioning somewhat oppressive as it dries the atmosphere causing my throat to tighten after a long period of teaching, but during this visit I have come to see it as a blessing. However, with the entire city seeking solace from the AC machines, the Bangalore power suppliers are unable to cope with demand. The resulting power cuts, which have been frequent in recent days shut down the cooling systems, meaning that once again we swelter in the heavy atmosphere.

Night time is a challenge. I cannot sleep with the air conditioning blasting in the room. It is noisy and the constant drying of the air leaves me dehydrated. Switch it off and the heat takes over. Most nights I lie on top of the bed, waking several times to drink water and seek the comforts of a rub down with a towel. Such mild discomforts are, of course, a minor price to play when measured against the work with which it is a privilege to engage here in India.

My good friend Sumathi tells me that when the climate becomes so oppressive in her house, she takes a sheet, soaks it in water, wrings it out, and hangs it across an open window. This has a significant impact in cooling the room. It sounds like a positive intervention, but I suspect that if I try it here, the hotel management may well be less than pleased.

It was in the company of Sumathi and her husband Ravi, along with Pooja and Darshan that we ate last night at one of the four MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) that grace this city, MTR 1924. These simple, but delightful emporia, which as the date suggests, have operated for the best part of a century, serve some of the finest dosa to be found anywhere. I had previously eaten at MTR near the Lal Bagh, and it was a great experience to be taken to this different outlet in Jayanagar. It was clearly Sumathi and Ravi’s intention that we should try as much of the menu, which offers a vast range of South Indian cuisine, as we could possibly manage. As a consequence the table was soon adorned with masala dosa, rava dosa, neer dosa, bhath, plain dosa and assorted chutneys. A feast for the eyes, the stomach and the soul. Good company, good food, good conversation, and all under the breeze of efficient roof fans – what more could one wish from an evening after a busy day of teaching. Indian hospitality is always warm and welcome, the weather here is hot, but something that simply has to be accepted.

Riding shotgun on an auto-rickshaw

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!

 

There have been many volumes written about the epic voyages of lone sailors such as Francis Chichester and Helen MacArthur, countless books about the great polar explorers like Wally Herbert and Roald Amundsen. It is even possible to buy accounts of far less substantial journeys such as a ramble along the Pennine Way, or cyclists riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Why then are there no best sellers describing the adventures of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore?

Yesterday, I learned (alas too late) a most useful expression in Hinglish, that redoubtable hybrid comprising the butchered use of a combination of any Indian language and English. You can find Manglish spoken in Kerala, Tamlish in Chennai and Teleglish in Hyderabad, but Hinglish seems to be a collective term used to describe any linguistic marriage of the Indian vernacular and the old colonial tongue. “I should, ” I was informed use the expression “wrong roado;” definitely not “wrong roada?” which apparently is  a question directed only towards the most proficient auto rickshaw navigator, but specifically “wrong roado,” an assertive statement which translates roughly as “you are travelling in the wrong direction, you are clearly lost, where on earth are you going?”

Over the years I have experienced many adventures in these essentially Asian vehicles. I recall for example, my good friend and colleague Johnson advising me that an auto-rickshaw was undoubtedly the only advisable  mode of transport in which we should travel to a “local”special school in Kerala.  One and a half hours later, prising my battered form out of the cramped vehicle, having negotiated a thousand potholes, many muddy tracks and not a few hair raising manouvres in and out of traffic, I found myself wondering why a taxi would have proven a less efficient means of travel to this destination. By the time my body had re-established some form of equilibrium, several hours later, it was time to repeat the odyssey  in the other direction, an experience that I hardly relished throughout my visit to the school.

On another occasion, late at night, once again with Johnson (is there a pattern emerging here I wonder?), the auto in which we were travelling collided with a rather large dog. Sadly, the dog came out of this experience somewhat worse than ourselves and our driver appeared more concerned that we should recognise his skill in keeping the vehicle upright on the road than he was for the welfare of the poor beast. I could go on regaling you with tales of drivers who seemed to be auditioning for a stunt role in the latest Bond movie, or others who appeared to be a pale imitation of the racing driver Fangio. I could further bore you with recollections of vehicles that have broken down and others that have made stately progress whilst emitting a cloud of thick black oily smoke. But let me instead bring you up to date and explain why the expression “wrong roado” could have been particularly useful had I known it yesterday morning.

The journey from the hotel where we stay to the venue in which we teach is, theoretically straight forward. I have walked the route on numerous occasions and can usually complete my perambulation in less than half an hour. However, some mornings, with heavily loaded bags weighing us down, we choose to travel by auto-rickshaw. Yesterday was such a day, and having successfully hailed a passing pilot (not always as easy as it may sound) David and I climbed aboard bound for a day’s teaching. At first all was well, but then the driver took a turn down one of the narrow streets with which I am familiar  from my morning walks. In my naivety I assumed that perhaps road works or traffic difficulties had warranted a diversion. However, within moments it became clear that this was yet another example of a driver whose inbuilt satellite navigation system was dysfunctional. Very gently (at first) I suggested to him that we were not en-route for our desired destination. My lack of Kannada (or at this point, even the appropriate Hinglish) did not assist the situation. With an all too familiar head shake the driver ignored my comments and proceeded quite happily in what I knew to be totally the wrong direction. “Madhaven Park,” I politely suggested. “Madhaven Park,” the driver replied, this time nodding in affirmation, but still progressing away from the requested terminus.

Eventually we arrived at the gate of the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, a venue that under normal circumstances I would be delighted to visit, but on this occasion,  being  some considerable distance from our intended destination I was less than joyful. The time had come for affirmative action. Locating myself on the narrow front seat beside the driver I decided that sign language, and indeed using the boldest of gestures, was clearly justified. Thus it was that having gently pointed the driver in the right direction and indicating with a frantic waving of arms at each junction we finally arrived at the teaching venue. On arrival the  driver  appeared  even more relieved than ourselves. This may have been something to do with ridding himself of the Englishman who had elected to ride shotgun, though personally I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t offer me a more permanent position riding as navigator to prevent other similar situations arising.

In truth, I am a great admirer of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore. They have a refined spatial awareness, generally display a cheery countenance, and are paid very little for offering an essential service. Incidentally my latest excursion was with a driver who knew exactly which route to take, avoided many of the potholes and all of the dogs and delivered us promptly and efficiently to the door. Polar explorers, lone sailors, mountaineers, intrepid all – but let’s not forget these warriors of the roads of Bangalore.

 

Smile, you’re on camera!

New found friends on the streets of Jayanagar

New found friends on the streets of Jayanagar

 

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog. Sometimes other writing commitments have to be prioritised and of late I have been running to catch up. But being back in Bangalore working with students and colleagues inevitably prompts new thoughts and offers rich experiences.

First impressions of India tend to remain embedded in the mind. When here, I often recall the searing blast of heat, the chaos of traffic and the brightness of colour that hit my senses on first arriving in Chennai in 2000. This was a real shock to the senses, and one that repeats itself daily whilst in this country. On this current visit I have a colleague with me who is making his first visit to India, and I am sure that in years to come he will be recounting the similar sensory assault that greeted him yesterday.

In order to assist his acclimatisation, soon after arriving in Jayanagar I took David for a short walk (it would have been even shorter had I not become lost in the backstreets!) around the winding lanes of the district. Pointing out familiar landmarks and introducing him to the rich tapestry of the street vendors and their multi-coloured palette of assorted goods, I soon found him indulged in one of his favourite passtimes of taking copious photographs. As I observed David happily clicking at his shutter and making subtle adjustments to the camera lens in order to frame the right image, I knew that before long the inevitable crowd of photogenic enthusiasts would  gather.

Whether it is something to do with our current egocentric era of superficial celebrity; one which  has given birth to that most ubiquitous utensil of self egrandisement – the “selfie stick”, or simply a generous attempt to to give the tourists a warm welcome, I’m not sure. But exactly as I would have predicted, within minutes we were surrounded by a group of young men and boys, all eager to be part of the scene and a central feature of at least one, and preferably multiple photographs. Looking slightly bemused David found himself required to frame photographs of the “other foreigner” in the company of these local celebrities who clearly relished the thought that they may now feature amongst the many pictures that comprise David’s family album back home in England.

Such trivial incidents amuse me, not because of any great significance, but more because of the simple humanity displayed by local people who feel the need to engage with visitors to their community. The desire to communicate and to relate to other human beings is a natural instinct, but one which is often ignored or even suppressed. As we rush about our busy lives we pass thousands of individuals on the street who can easily become a nameless blur of humanity. Taking a little time to stop and share a moment with a stranger, or simply saying hello with a smile can go some way to restoring the sociability that has traditionally formed a bond within and between communities. Five minutes pause for an unplanned photograph can be time well invested if it sends a message that, though our lives and experiences are vastly different, we share many of the social characteristics that have informed all of our communities. Hearing the laughter of the gathered crowd, and trying to interpret the content of their conversations which I am sure involved a number of harmless jokes at our expense, I was particularly impressed by the ease with which these youngsters felt able to make friendly contact with  strangers who had chanced upon their street.

Once again over the coming days I will try and fail to understand many of the features of people’s lives here on the streets of Jayanagar. It may be impossible for me to gain a true picture of the experiences of those I meet, but in my failed attempts I can at least ensure that my efforts are accompanied by a smile.