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.

Good intentions have little real impact


These able bodied pedestrians can make progress. But sadly, many others cannot.

These able bodied pedestrians can make progress. But sadly, many others cannot.

A few days ago I wrote about the challenges of being a wheelchair user, a parent with a pushchair, or a person with limited mobility on the streets of Bangalore (Reclaiming the Streets, November 26th). I recalled my feelings of horror when watching a lady pushing an elderly gentleman along the centre of the road amongst typical traffic chaos, having clearly decided that this was her only option. The pavements of Bangalore, where they exist, are a minefield of obstacles, holes, hanging wires and piles of refuse, thus rendering them inaccessible to any but the most determined explorer.

My brief article prompted an email from a friend in Chennai this morning, which gave me both hope for optimism and cause to question whether there is truly a will to address this situation. He reports that yesterday, members of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA), who describe themselves as “a collective of independent, community based organisations, individuals and peer groups- all passionate about disability,” took to the streets and went from door to door to raise awareness about this very issue.

Apparently, the authorities in Chennai have taken some initiative in attempting to improve the access and mobility situation in the city, and have recently invested money to widen the pavements in certain areas of the city. There is a plan to extend this programme further in an effort to make the city more user friendly for everyone. The Disability Rights Alliance have conducted their own audit of these areas and confirm that this action has been taken, and a number of ramps to make life easier for wheelchair users  and others with mobility difficulties have been installed. However, far from improving the situation for those for whom this initiative was intended, the difficulties they face have taken a new twist.

The newly installed ramps have been seized upon by motorists as providing a far better means by which they can mount the pavements and park their cars or motorcycles. One of the campaigners provides an example from KB Dasan Road in the Teynampet district, where local restaurant owners and even a hospital have been encouraging drivers to use the newly accessible pavements for parking in order to visit their facilities. The members of the Disability Rights Alliance in calling from door to door   to increase awareness of the legitimate reasons why the pavements have been improved, have apparently been receiving a mixed reception. Whilst some sympathise and recognise the problems of their disabled neighbours, others appear quite indifferent to their plight.

Reporting this situation to me in his email this morning, my friend suggested that this is a battle that cannot be won. The difficulties, he suggests are largely centred on a reluctance of officials, including the police, to monitor the system and take action. When discussing the situation with a neighbour he was told that if motorists are prevented from parking on the pavements this will greatly inconvenience them, and by leaving their cars on the roadside they would significantly impede the flow of traffic.

It would appear that even when the authorities respond to the campaigns of groups such as the Disability Rights Alliance, this has minimal impact upon the accessibility of the streets. My friend in Chennai is a man in his late eighties who is not very stable on his feet, and one of the most telling paragraphs in his email reads as follows.

“Having heard about the initiative to widen pavements and improve their condition I had raised my hopes that I might once again be able to get out on my own. For what seems like many years now, though in reality it is only about eighteen months, I have been a prisoner in my own home. Unless the authorities here have the conviction to enforce the law and keep the pavements for pedestrians, myself and many others will continue to live within a restricted environment.”

Progress for discriminated people invariably comes in small increments. We should always applaud the work of officials and those in positions of influence who support policies aimed at making the lives of others easier. However, I suspect that there will be many more initiatives such as this in Chennai, and elsewhere in India, that will flounder until such time as those with the power to manage these situations demonstrate the courage to see them through.

Death of an Ambassador

For how much longer will our friendly Delhi taxi driver be at the wheel of an Ambassador I wonder?

For how much longer will our friendly Delhi taxi driver be at the wheel of an Ambassador I wonder?

In common with probably tens of thousands of other visitors to India, my first encounter with the chaos of Indian traffic was made from the back seat of an Ambassador. These icons of the Indian roads, the first cars made in India and modelled on the British Morris Oxford have been rolling off the production line since 1957, but a recent announcement suggests that this is likely to be the final year of production of this unique car by the Hindustan Motor Company.

For many years the Ambassador was the vehicle of choice for leading Indian politicians and diplomats, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to national industry, and these rumbling masters of the tarmac (those small areas that can occasionally be found between potholes!) were often fitted with “luxury” items such as interior fans and curtains. Sadly those days have gone and it was noticeable that in the recent election campaign the leaders of all political parties, including the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chose to parade around the country in flash air conditioned SUVs.

I remember with great affection the arrival of myself and Sara in India in the summer of 2000. Leaving the airport to be slapped around the face by a blast of heat, we were affectionately greeted by Sudha, who was to steer us through our first uncertain days in Chennai. Following her across the airport carpark, through a maze of sleeping bodies, roguish looking dogs and vendors squatting on their haunches selling a range of wares we eventually met a driver, who having deposited our luggage in the boot urged us into the rear seat of his car. From the front bench seat Sudha assured us that at this early hour of the morning the traffic would be light and we would soon reach our destination in Greenways Road.

With a slight judder and a cloud of black acrid fumes we were soon under way and making ponderous progress into the streets of Chennai, driven by our bare footed chauffeur who appeared at times to be wrestling with an oversized steering wheel. Meandering around a hundred obstacles, including cattle, goats and tight muscled, sinuous  men pushing handcarts, surely loaded way beyond their safe capacity, we settled back on the leather seat for what we were soon to learn was a typical Indian city journey. Skilfully our driver eased the vehicle through gaps that appeared to miraculously part before him as with great nonchalance he negotiated the route into Chennai city. Before long we came to realise that in India when they build a car they must follow a particular order. The importance of the horn is such that I am convinced that this is the very first component to be made, around which all others are gradually constructed. The continuous cacophony of blarting horns is a sound for ever associated with the roads of India and to this day provides a grating, discordant symphony that is the background to urban Indian life.

During that first journey our curiosity was immediately aroused and questions to Sudha caused her some amusement. “On what side of the road is the driver supposed to drive?” we enquired “Well, really on the left, but basically this is not always possible, so wherever there is a space.” “How many lanes are there on this road?” not too unreasonable a question I thought. “Well officially two, but the road is plenty wide enough for more,” we were informed as the traffic inched forward, vehicles often six or more abreast, through the heaving procession of cars, colourful painted lorries, smoke belching buses, auto-ricksahaws, handcarts, wagons pulled by cattle, cycles and motorcycles, often bearing entire families . “Are the roads always this busy?” “This is the quiet part of the day, later the traffic will increase greatly.” So continued our incredulous conversation until we reached the quiet of Vasanta Vihar our destination amongst the relative tranquillity of trees and lawns in the heart of Chennai.

Gradually after the initial shock  and a few days of finding our way around the streets in an auto-rickshaw we became inured to the chaos of Indian roads and now, fourteen years later, when incidentally the traffic is far worse, I have become, in common with most of the locals, a genuine fatalist, taking to the roads in cars and auto rickshaws with the naïve nonchalance of a traveller who has become complacent in the face of ever impending danger. Though I cannot say that I am ever totally relaxed!

These days when climbing aboard a taxi in India it is more likely to be of modern European, Korean or Japanese manufacture, fitted with the latest sound system, air-conditioning, power steering, seat belts and a reliable set of brakes. Ambassadors are still seen, and it is noticeable that in some instances these are treasured by their owners, immaculately maintained and driven with pride. An ever dwindling number of Ambassador taxis are in operation, I have used them over the past couple of years from Trivandrum airport and in Panaji, but it seems that most taxi drivers and probably their passengers too, aspire to something more plush and modern.

Last year in New Delhi with my good Indian friends, Jayashree, Johnson and Lisba we were faced with a considerable choice of vehicles on the taxi stands in the city. Perhaps it was just nostalgia that enabled me to persuade my patient colleagues that a rotund and shiny, black and yellow Ambassador was a better choice than one of the slick modern cars that also occupied the row of awaiting taxis. The choice as it happened was a good one, for this car was piloted by an excellent Sikh driver who clearly new the streets of Delhi well, we took his cell phone number and kept him busy for much of the week. Bouncing around the worn springs of the bench seats we experienced a ride similar to that which I imagine many of India’s great names from the past, Jawahrala Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi amongst them must have endured over many years in order to demonstrate their patriotic commitment. I am glad to have had this opportunity to experience a genuine piece of Indian history, and even now I hope that the affection that many have for this most recognisable symbol of the roads of India may enable it to be saved from oblivion. However, I fear that the continued rush towards modernisation may mean that in a few years we will be mourning the death of the Ambassador.